Christian Anthony, The Fighter Pilot.
When Top Gun was released in 1985, it created a sensation unlike any other Brat Pack film. The next generation had grown up. We are now at the stage in the new media business where the air and space on Madison Avenue is filled with i-media mavericks who have a bounce in their jet and a twinkle in their eye!
Digital media pilots are growing at an aeronautical pace, yet are still young enough to chance making fly bys! The adrenaline to score points through smarter flight navigation to win new business is breaking the sound barrier.
In some ways, that's the only way you survive, by being focused on victoriously navigating your client's i-jet-propelled marketing campaign, yet to not be so automated by the technology that you can't enjoy the experience of the ride!
Christian and Jason Klein are co-CEOs of Special Ops and together have built a new media organization that has brought their company to new heights. Wendy McHale volunteered for this mission. Here's what she learned from talking to Christian, which she said was as fascinating as being at the United States Navy's Fighter Weapons School.
Wendy: First of all congratulations for Special Ops being named one of the industry's rising stars of digital media. Everyone in the company must be really excited!
Christian: Thank you. We are. Everyone who works at the company really takes ownership of what they do. This is truly a shared award for the excellence of our people.
Wendy: How did you end up in the digital advertising space?
Christian: For as long as I remember, I had always thought about starting my own company. Coming out of college in 1996 was a very favorable environment for young people with not much experience to raise money and start companies. At the time of graduation I didn't have a clear idea for my own business and didn't feel I was ready, so I started out on Wall Street at JP Morgan.
Wendy: Where did you graduate from college?
Wendy: What was your major?
Christian: Classics and political science. I'm a huge fan of majors that have nothing to do with what you end up doing.
Wendy: I guess it's because you're probably going to do many things in your life and change direction in terms of your career. Certainly in today’s workplace. At the end of the day college is really about expanding your knowledge base in many different areas including gaining insight into who you are and what you want.
Christian: I think a school like Brown gives you comfort with ambiguity. I think that life in many ways is ambiguous in a very positive way. I think Brown was fundamental for my being comfortable at 23 years old to walk away and feel confident to take a different path. I think that any college experience should encourage people to see there is more than one way to doing things. It should give them comfort that they are going to take control of their own life journey. After graduating, I worked at Morgan for 2 years in investment banking. It was a phenomenal first job.
Christian: I was around great people and learned how to service clients. I learned how to manage multiple bosses with different personalities and different priorities. I learned how to be a person that just gets it done. That experience was fundamental to shaping my working and management style.
Wendy: I was in sales for most of my career and it was a deliberate choice because selling media is very autonomous. You have to be a self-starter. I didn't want anyone micromanaging me. I think being overly managed that is an "old" style of management. If you have to spoon feed someone, they're probably not the right person for the job. The corporate life and that of an entrepreneur are quite different.
Christian: I think it's easy for people to say, "oh it must be great that you're in control, you can do whatever you want". Obviously there's an element of autonomy, but you're always reacting to things outside of your control. You're responsible for clients and employees. I think most people who are not entrepreneurs don't take those factors into account.
Wendy: Are you a creative person in the traditional sense of the title? I ask this because an ad agency is supposed to provide a very creative environment. Did your experience at Morgan feel more linear, if you will? Did you want to do something where you could tap into your own creative juices?
Christian: Banking does not value creativity at the junior level, but my reasons for leaving were not about that. I think this brings up a good point about Special Ops. We're not like traditional agency people.
Wendy: How so?
Christian: Our management is made up of entrepreneurs and marketers. Our clients value our strategic thinking. There is an entirely new platform of digital media. Our clients want us to harness that power for them in a smart way.
Wendy: Clients definitely need advice trying to navigate the new platforms and technology. But let's get back to how you became an entrepreneur after leaving JP Morgan.
Christian: It was 1998 and I was talking to my room mate and I said, "I want to make my mark doing something else. I want to be the one who hires the investment bankers". So we decided to start an online music retail company that evolved into a record label and distribution and niche marketing company. He still runs it.
Wendy: I checked out your website and was really amazed at the number of new media services you offer. It runs the gamut of new digital ad platforms from WOM to Wireless.
Christian: It's surprising to me that more agencies don't offer the services we do because they're just so complimentary. We grew our company organically in 2002; a period when companies who were focusing in the online space weren't relevant. In some cases it was a website, in some cases it was an e-card.
Wendy: I remember that only too well!
Christian: We were one of the first agencies to buy MySpace for an entertainment company and the only reason we did it was because Friendster wouldn't work with us! We only had $5,000 but MySpace was willing to build all of these neat profiles and have a scavenger hunt. At the time, they were 6 people strong! We intended to be one of the companies to advise companies what to do online. That evolved.
Wendy: Then what happened?
Christian: We started doing publicity, editorial features and viral marketing. All the sudden a client came to us and said, Hey I've got $10,000, let's buy some media". So we brought together a media team. Then all of a sudden, search started to become a major factor and behavior and contextual marketing. Companies began coming to us and saying, "We need you to conceive a campaign for us. We’re launching a product. How are we going to position the product? How are we going to identify our audience? How are we going to engage that audience?".
Wendy: That's interesting.
Christian: Very early on we developed expertise in viral marketing, Blog marketing, social network marketing, paid media and earned media,
Wendy: You were definitely on track.
Christian: We were developing creative strategies for brands using these new platforms. We added the pieces that went along with where the client side was going. I think what's very different with Special Ops is how the pieces came to fit together.
Wendy: How so?
Christian: Let's say you're a global brand and you want to build a community on line. Or, say you want to build a website that has viral components and is supported by media; and it needs to integrate with social networks and Second Life. If so, you need an agency that has used these platforms in creative and innovative ways. Special Ops has the capabilities to conceive the idea build the creative place, the media and the drive to create awareness by sing all of the new digital platforms.
Wendy: I looked at your website and so many of the companies you service are entertainment companies. In your opinion, what other verticals do you think will explode in the digital space that hasn't yet? Like let's say fashion or pharma? Are you getting calls from companies in other categories that haven’t used new media before?
Christian: First let me say that we are really fortunate to work with so many entertainment companies because, especially in the early days, those were the clients that were taking risks. Working in the entertainment space allowed us to be at the forefront of interactive marketing.
Wendy: For sure.
Christian: We've come a long way. Now, when you look at vertical marketing categories I think the pharma sector will begin to use online in innovative ways. That will occur once the regulatory guidelines are figured out.
Wendy: But how about in the immediate future?
Christian: At this point in time, I think to some degree, every major brand knows it needs to do something online in some way. I think there are different points in the evolutionary process. We see companies managing well-established brands are open to the new media available.
Wendy: For example?
Christian: Let me explain it this way. I spend much time these days talking about the idea of giving up a brand's control. I think one of the things very difficult for certain sectors is giving up control. For me, giving up control should be something you embrace. What's a more effective marketing tool than your users talking about your product and turning other people onto it? I think those brands that embrace and empower the consumer are recognizing that consumers' think of themselves as a voice. They view themselves as having an audience. Take the UGC space. I think those brands that embrace it are going to fare very well. I think brands that are not transparent will not.
Wendy: How are you managing the speed of change?
Christian: I think every agency is struggling with the pace of change. YouTube didn’t exist 2 years ago. There continues to be new ways that consumers use the internet. It requires being constantly evolving.
Wendy: Continuing on down this road, what are the hottest platforms coming up next? What are you advising your clients to look at now?
Christian: This is going to sound like a boring answer, but I think there used to be more of a tolerance for new platforms because companies wanted to be seen as being innovative. There was a premium placed on innovation. I would say in some cases it was placed at a higher premium than results. I think part of that was for good reason.
Wendy: What was that?
Christian: It was recognition among clients internally that while you didn't know how effective they were going to be, you have to be willing to try them. In that sense I think it was very positive. Now I think you’re seeing clients move away from that a little bit, but in a positive way.
Wendy: On all fronts?
Christian: No. I think what's happening with Rich Media and some of the video enabled ads are revolutionary. That goes for the behavioral and contextual side as well. That's not to say there are not exciting things happening on mobile or user generated content. I do. But UGC is only in the beginning of that what is going to be a big part of the digital space. One still has to consider that interactive is still only getting 5% of the marketing dollars.
Wendy: It's growing quicker than other media but still on a small base. I think it was really exciting to see Q1 results approaching $5 billion. No doubt that the actual dollars being spent don’t come close to television yet, but the fact that buyers were demanding an interactive component in the network packages during upfront negotiations this year was a real departure from years past.
Christian: It's such a monumental shift but it's also at an early stage. No matter how much the interactive space grows, whether its 20, 30%, it's growing. At some point, that growth going to slow. I'm not saying TV is dead but if you're a client, you are have to ask yourself, "Are the dollars that come to interactive going to be siphoned from television and print"? Absolutely! For the foreseeable future TV is going to be a huge part of the spend, but right now there's a disconnect between where the dollars are going and where the audience is.
Wendy: There are so many issues with TV. A big difference right now is that there is not a way right now to serve viewers a contextually relevant ad which you can do online. There are many studies out there that show that consumers are open to seeing ads as long as it is something they have an interest in learning about.
Christian: It makes sense to me.
Wendy: Let's change gears. What do you enjoy most, what get's you started on Monday morning?
Christian: That's a question friends who have more traditional jobs or have different career paths think about. For me it's, "What's happening Sunday night".
Wendy: I know what you mean!
Christian: Ever since I've had my own company I've never thought, "Gee, it's Monday morning, I don't want to go to work"! For the last 8 years I get up excited to go do what I do. I speak at a lot of entrepreneur panels and CEO events. When you talk to people about being an entrepreneur, they all want to know, "How did you do it"? A lot of times on the panels, the people speaking are always talking about the good stuff, but I think people in the audience want to hear as much about the struggles, because with all the happy talk, they think to themselves "Gee, if it was so easy for this guy, is it going to easy for me? I don't think so. I can't relate to him".
Wendy: I understand.
Christian: Every entrepreneur has had doubts and has struggled. I don't think the reality of the situation comes across in forums like that. Being an entrepreneur is quite a challenge. We have to fire people sometimes. We have people who get poached. We have very serious client issues, we have vendors that aren't delivering. In some cases, people who go out of business that don't pay you. Those are things you face when running a business, but they don't take away from the joy of it.
Wendy: Why is that?
Christian: I have the opportunity to help shape a company culture. To help move people along in their careers, to help them get exposure for their personal and professional talent. We happen to be in one of the most dynamic spaces in the last century. I couldn't ask for anything more.
Wendy: What's the most exciting?
Christian: I love winning a new piece of business. I love going up against 5 agencies and then realizing that we got it. I love the challenges of growing a company, building infrastructure, deciding if you’re growing too fast of too slow.
Wendy: I know what that feels like.
Christian: I love the element of risk. I love sitting in the drivers' seat and deciding whether we should take a risk and deal with all of the knowns and unknowns and being comfortable with that. I am comfortable with pulling the trigger without all of the information. That's because you recognize that you're not ever going to have perfect information.
Christian: Sometimes the best thing you can do is go down that path and see what the opportunity is. When we started Special Ops I didn't know we would be in the businesses we're in now. I never would have known about that if I didn't have the platform I did with the company. So I just love being in the seat where opportunities flow across your desk and you have to decide which ones to take.
Wendy: If you don't have the stomach for risk tolerance you really shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. When you give up your steady paycheck you have to be really clear that you have to hustle for business all the time. There's a cycle of winning business and losing business. To your point, sometimes you just don't have all of the information you would like to have to make a decision but you have to be confident enough to know when to go long or to "punt" as I like to say. You're constantly reassessing as variables change.
Christian: You know this from being in sales. I say this to a lot of people when we hire them. "This is the kind of company where you will walk out of here at the end of the day know that something happened because you made it happen". Everyone in this company can say, "I made something happen. It wouldn’t have happened without me". It's so satisfying to walk out at the end of the day and have that feeling.
Wendy: You went out on your own when you were relatively young. My next question is, do you hire a lot of people right out of college?
Christian: Yes, but it's changing. In the beginning we hired many people out of college. We were a young company and that's who we could afford. That was who we needed. Five years ago there were not a lot of people out there with digital advertising experience. We were going to have to train them anyway.
Wendy: How about a person with traditional media experience?
Christian: Given a choice, we would definitely take someone who had grown up on the internet than someone who spent 10 years at a traditional agency. One of the advantages is that it's not really relevant. In those days the kinds of people who were at Special Ops were just like the first ones using on MySpace and Second Life.
Wendy: Makes sense.
Christian: There was a natural flow because the people working at the company were the audience most of our clients were marketing to. It's changed. Right now we have positions that are for people right out of college. Others require experience. That said, we're not the kind of company where you spend 3 years as a junior before you move up. As we grow, it requires having some structure.
Wendy: Growing and nurturing a team is not as easy at it looks. Often it doesn't look pretty either.
Christian: One of the things that is very challenging is that as you grow, you have to keep the values that got you to that point. And a lot of those values were about being flexible and not being hierarchical. Making sure you recognize talent. It means giving people responsibility and letting them stretch. That's the core value of ours. We were able to give people exposure and experience right out of college that in other companies they would have waited 5 years to get.
Wendy: Like at a traditionally run agency.
Christian: I think one of the challenge you face hiring someone out of school is that they don't have anything to compare it to. You're their first experience, good or bad. I can't tell you have often I say to people, "Go out and have one or two other jobs. Then come back and tell me what you liked and didn't like because it's very hard for people to appreciate how good they have it when they don't have anything to compare it to.
Wendy: Do you have a strong retention rate?
Christian: We do. And I think that to me it is a key indication of what kind of place it is. One of the things in our space is that there still is a shortage of talent, so we are all hiring each other's people! I think there are instances where we've lost people to other agencies. Mostly much bigger ones. But we have had a lot of success hiring people away from those big companies. That's because they've wanted to get into an environment like ours, which is more entrepreneurial and dynamic. A lot of people will say they want that, but at our company you really do have control over your situation.
Wendy: Talk is cheap.
Christian: I have a good friend who I spent 3 years trying to hire. We finally got him, a great guy Harvard Business School, Citicorp, Bank One. A strong corporate background. He's been a great mentor for a lot of people who have come from bigger companies.
Christian: We were talking one day about 6 months into the job when he said, "I've never been in an environment where success or failure is so clear on an individual level. You cannot hide". To me it was like, "Yeah you can't". To him, that was a very exciting, but scary thing. He was saying, "You’re going to know if you're succeeding or failing easily. It's just obvious". I think for people who are coming from big companies, who do not have that pure of a relationship between success and failure, it can be a tough adjustment.
Wendy: When you're in sales, it's real easy. You're either making your number or you're not. There are certainly other variables, but first and foremost you are evaluated by your ability to forecast and meet your financial goals.
Christian: It takes a certain kind of person that derives satisfaction on making things happen. That's not true for all people. I've been in meetings with people in the company and asked them, "What do you think"? And they look at me like, "Why does it matter what I think"? And I think, "Because it’s your call". To me that's fundamental to why you hire smart people, and why you let them do what they're good at.
Wendy: It must be very gratifying to be recognized by your peers.
Christian: It's nice to be recognized for what we've done for 5 years. We're not a firm that toots our own horn very well. We didn't have a website for 2 years, which is sort of ironic. But our attitude was you're too busy winning business and servicing clients, which is really what matters. Being an entrepreneur is complicated because on the one hand it's a great validation to get it, but on the other side you have to being willing to operate without it. If you're looking for recognition, being an entrepreneur is a painful business!
Wendy: I never thought of it that way.
Christian: We knew we were doing good things. Is it frustrating when you're pitching a new piece of business and somebody gets it that doesn’t have an innovative view? Absolutely. Is it validating when someone goes with you because you're recognized as innovators in the space? Sure. Our clients knew it. Recognition is great but I think what really matters is the substance of whether or not you're really doing it. That's ultimately the most important.
Wendy: I was on the launch team of InStyle which is arguably one of the most successful magazine launches in the history. Yet early on, Advertisers were very risk averse. When we made it onto the Adweek Hot List for the first time, it was only then that advertisers sat up and took notice like never before.
Christian: It's a 3rd party validation of us. When we're in front of a client and we're saying that we're innovators in the space we can say that all we want. This is a great validation of that position. It puts us on the map. It puts us in front of clients who may not have known about us. It gives clients comfort working with us knowing that we're recognized in that leadership role. And at the end of the day it provides us with new pressures once again!
Wendy: Terrific. I'm so pleased we had this chance to chat! Continued success with the business, I'm sure we'll continue to hear great things in the industry about Special Ops.
Christian: You're welcome, Wendy.