From left to right: FUSE President Stephen Brown, CEO Garo Keresteci and Chair Mike Preston.

From left to right: FUSE President Stephen Brown, CEO Garo Keresteci and Chair Mike Preston.

FUSE is not the agency we were when we started out 13 years ago. Today we’re all about data and insights that drive both conversation and conversion for top Canadian brands. And while we work in any medium; our love of technology and innovations leads us to focus in digital, content, social, XM and CRM.

Yet this isn’t how we got started. When we opened our doors, if we’d had the time in that crazy first month to mount a sign on our temporary office door, the descriptor under FUSE would have read “Direct Marketing (DM), Promotion and Interactive”… but the “Interactive” would have been more of a stretch versus a reality as we weren’t very strong in that discipline at that time. Fortunately we had the foresight to invest in digital early on in our evolution as a brand. Not that this foresight was a special gift… the fact that the industry was digitizing was written everywhere. Thankfully we did evolve as it’s a key reason we’re a strong force today (one of the larger independents left in Canada).

Becoming digital required us to pivot, retool and invest in the spaces of current marketing demand—not just once, but a few times as the digital world has evolved. If we had remained only in direct marketing and promo, today we’d be either a small boutique or dead (I know this from what happened to my peers and competitors from back then).

No pain, no gain

However smart these decisions have been in hindsight, they came at a cost: Remaining current and relevant required a) a lot of planning, b) new people with new skills, c) frayed nerves due to cultural shifts, d) accepting significant mistakes along the way, and e) technology investments. You can’t retool in midstream after you’ve won the “it” account, we had to build it first to change our brand perception and attract new clients in the digital and then later XM spaces.

The planning phase required us to look at both ourselves and our industry while dissecting our progress as a business. As a perfectly demented mix of agency people and entrepreneurs (a rough mix), my partners and I had frank planning sessions where you look at your baby’s development and say “we’re not going to get bigger and better in our current form” (not an easy path to navigate). Our first few years were so profitable that it was difficult to shift our spending patterns into investment mode in order to alter the company. Hiring a VP of digital, a director of technology and project managers (PMs) was both expensive as well as unsettling as they questioned most of the things we had been doing since our inception (just like our more recent hires of digital strategist, community managers and creative technologists do today). The unique ways of thinking and processes of digital people caused us internal strife—Why did we now have two processes for managing a project? Why are PMs so anal retentive? Why are they taking the budget and timeline role away from me?  It’s this retooling that allowed us to build one of the most trafficked websites in recent Canadian history—the site for the Pan Am Games—a three-year build, full digital ecosystem planning, UX design, the list goes on.

Our first mistake

There were mistakes made along the way. The two biggest would be around a) the concept of integrating skillsets and b) the technology and development. Let me explain. Regarding integrating skillsets, and this is my mistake, I believed that a direct mail production manager could become digital and reversely a digital PM could produce print. In my thinking, while the mediums are different, the actual process and marketing goals are similar enough that people should be able to do both. This was naive of me. Ten years ago, the mental and emotional divide between the two mediums was vast. Many print people didn’t want to admit print was starting to take a back seat to digital and digital purists wanted nothing to do with the old world (and made this pretty clear). And let’s be realistic—the knowledge required to merge massive amounts of customer data into a direct mail project is distinctly different from building a user-generated content site. Yes, both manage databases, but not at all in a similar fashion.

From an agency management perspective, if I could have merged two groups I would have been running a much leaner and more efficient shop. Yeah, that didn’t happen

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. Surprisingly this is actually happening more and more now (thanks Katherine Frech). While not fully integrated, many of the new entrants into the PM/production world today focus more on the PMP approach to project management and just think of the project more than the medium.

Our second mistake

Second mistake (or lesson learned): Technology and development. Again, I think I should have done better here. This was a huge fractious point for FUSE. We started with the team in-house and they were great, but their skills were limited to the abilities of two to three people when the needs of our clients were vast, especially as our digital business started to grow. To broaden this skillset out, we then invested in a separate development company. Our abilities and skills went through the roof—we literally could build anything at any scale, but the cultural divide between a creative agency and pure dev shop was terrible. There was constant fighting and I don’t like fighting (call it my WASP-y hangover). We eventually took a lesson from how we ran the “build” portion in our print projects to find a harmonious solution—we outsourced it. Yes, we lost the revenue (just like we do every time we hire a printing and data company) but we gained the power, brains and skills of the entire vendor tech/dev community and this has allowed us to build better, keep our clients happier and truly calmed the nerves of everyone internally (thanks for the push Lane Buie).

Getting the culture right

When looking back, I’d have to say the biggest underestimation in shifting our agency from a classic direct marketing/promo agency to a digital and now XM integrated shop was the time for us to shift culturally. It doesn’t happen overnight… or in one year. It happened only when all people embraced the power of why we were shifting… and why it was important for both FUSE and each staff member’s individual career advancement. To help push this shift along, we had to keep spending (maybe spending is the theme of this article). Hiring leading digital people (like a creative technologist and VP digital strategy) helped push us further into the mindset. Sending people to key conferences was required. Retooling our people with iPads, iPhones, etc. was needed to play the part. And finally prodding, literally prodding, some of the senior team to become vocal and competent in social media and, unfortunately, removing those who weren’t ready to make this transition was the final frontier of shifting our culture.

This all happened a while ago for FUSE. We don’t have conversations today about “are we digital enough” or “how do we become more digital”—those questions left us a time back. Now the cultural shift is around remaining current in the always changing landscape of digital and this is just as tough. But our lessons from this shift have helped us as we’ve been growing and investing in XM over the past couple of years. Learning from our digital mistakes (not to mention listening to the guidance of Nicole Gallucci and Aleena Mazhar) has allowed us to open our minds to how we structure, invest and shift perceptions about XM within our company… making this transition much quicker.

The digital shift was a strong functional plan… and it worked. What’s interesting is what had equal impact on our brand’s success were the three old-school ingredients of running a great agency: finding the right people, strong account service and amazing creative [thanks Bernadette Lonergan (HR), Brie Taylor (accounts) and Pat Weir (creative), respectively]. Without providing solid strategic guidance and building strong trust among our client base, our clients probably would not have ventured along for the ride with us as we transformed. And creatively, our challenges are greater today than ever—clients expect the fundamentals (of course), but also the unimaginable and unexpected. This is what makes agency life amazing, but also pretty nerve wracking when you realize you’re always on the lookout for the new and never-been-done innovations. We aren’t just marketers today… now we have to be makers too. Fortunately for FUSE, our investments in the functional additions of digital, social and XM haven’t detracted from also investing in our client managers and creative thinkers.

Our direct marketing and promo roots haven’t been thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. Instead, they’ve simply been fused into FUSE. We still have a solid direct mail and CRM business, and more importantly, hold true to our test, learn and modify approach to all marketing programs regardless of the channel. And promotion has simply become a key element to many of our programs as a strong consumer engagement device. Today, the power of our brand and business success lies a ton in strategy, creativity and technology. This is where we focus our energy to develop memorable connected experiences that brands can share with consumers. It seems to be working really well as we’re enjoying some really exciting business successes. The path to get here wasn’t seamless and easy but the war stories, shared laughter and excitement of trying new and unique things has made the journey as much fun as the destination.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown is president and partner, FUSE Marketing Group. With extensive experience in all marketing channels, Stephen has the learning needed to create, strengthen and grow brands across a wide range of categories (including CIBC, Canadian Tire, Cashmere and TO 2015 Pan Am Games). Stephen's leadership, vision and forward thinking have proven to be key to pushing FUSE to new, innovative heights. Stephen was recently Board Chair of the Canadian Marketing Association.

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