We sat down with Greg Kerns, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fulton-Mecklenburg to pick his brain and learned a lot in the process.
How important are the Arts to society?
The Arts are very important to society. As human beings, we need art, music, dance and drama to help us better understand ourselves in ways science, technology, engineering and math can’t teach us. Through the Arts, we experience stories about our culture; past, present and future. In fact, a lot of schools are converting their STEM programs to STEAM. Educators are learning that the A (for Arts) is essential in developing well rounded individuals. On a personal note, I was a drama major in college. I entered the ad world after a career of writing for theater and television. I’ve earned a decent living as a New York playwright and as Hollywood TV writer. Recently a few college friends questioned my career shift. My response was, “Both advertising and entertainment are driven by the need to tell compelling stories to audiences.”
How does the Arts impact your business?
In our business, the first thing we have to do is attract audience attention with something appealing. Then, we have to effectively deliver an experience. At Fulton Mecklenburg, we do this by leveraging the fundamentals derived from the Arts, like design and storytelling. The writers and designers we employ have rich backgrounds in the creative arts. In fact, most clients come to us because they want a creative solution to a business problem. It doesn’t matter the channel or format; the Arts will have a positive impact on the experiences we create.
Ever since the iPhone arrived, the Arts have impacted our industry as a whole. The lines between art and advertising have blurred and three shifts have occurred: 1) People no longer want to be advertised to. Ad blocking is at an all-time high so brands have to create content that’s engaging and branded without being salesy, 2) Social media and smartphones have launched millions of everyday content creators so agencies have to be more creative to keep pace with the common man, and 3) The general public has a voice. If brands are not authentic, audiences will express their opinion. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial backlash is a perfect example.
One of the things I learned from my studies at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is to establish a way of working. It doesn’t matter if I’m building a website or preparing for a big client presentation, I have a system in place for tackling any creative challenge.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
My entrepreneurial spirit began long before that term was even fashionable. As the youngest of four children, I always knew how to work independently. At age 10, I could ideate, plan, execute and present my own projects. I transferred those creative development skills into theater, film and now advertising. After successfully rising up the corporate ranks, I realized it was time to venture out on my own. It was time to get closer to the work again. I was ready to start delegating less and doing more hands-on work. My breaking point was when I realized I was spending more time in administrative meetings than creating something meaningful.
What was your process in becoming business partners?
Shortly after I left Moxie, I reconnected with my partner David Muhammad. David and I first met at Moxie working on the Verizon account. He was a lead digital strategist while I was a lead creative. We had long conversations about our frustration with the state of advertising and our passion for classic hip-hop. We talked at length about our approach to leadership. We both believed success comes when you hire smart people and give them the autonomy to do what they do best. With all those things in common, we decided to go in to business together. And that’s how Fulton-Mecklenburg was born.
What is your process in creating campaigns for your clients?
Before we begin any campaign, we listen to the needs of our clients. Then we apply a process that works best for the organization and the timeline. While we believe a design-thinking, human centered approach will create the best experience, we also know how to tailor it so that it works for each individual client. David and I both know the value of a well-defined process. However, we won’t force clients to follow a rigid process filled with red-tape and bureaucracy. A small business client may only need one thing form us and we can design a process that works best for that size client. For larger clients, a growing number of marketing directors are frustrated by the bloated agency process. At Fulton Mecklenburg, we use an iterative, collaborative and open communications approach. We believe in demystifying the big reveal. The days of keeping an assignment under wraps for several weeks and then springing on the client are behind us.
How do you stay motivated in such a competitive industry?
The best way to stay motivated is don’t try to be all things to all people. I’ve seen this scenario play out several times in my career. Agency X tries to compete at every level in every vertical by chasing every new business pitch that comes along. Each pitch loss creates a downward spiral that tanks morale. For us, we’ve always had a clear vision of where we fit in and who we are. We stay motivated by setting realistic goals, adhering to those goals and enjoying the success when we achieve said goals.
Who would be the client of your dreams and why?
One of the things I learned from working on Madison Avenue is that not all dream brands turnout to be dream clients. That’s why we’re interested in working with clients who are adaptive, diverse and forward thinking. Our dream client understands our business model. We’re a little different from the average agency and we want clients who value our thinking. Above all, our dream client knows that you can’t solve modern day problems with antiquated solutions. For example, the way a client responds in the post covid-19, social distancing era will speak volumes. We exist to help clients move forward. That’s one of the reasons why we chose the tagline ‘move the crowd’.
What other entrepreneurs have you admired and why?
There are several entrepreneurs that I admire. One is Gary Vaynerchuk. Why Gary? Because he’s a straight shooter who speaks with little or no filter. He’s not for everyone but if you’re a fledgling entrepreneur, I highly recommend his advice. He’s a master of social media. I’ve always admired the late great Steve Jobs. Sure, he created some amazing products in his brief life time. The thing that I admired most about him is that he cared as much about the experience as he did the technology. He inspired me to live by the quote, “Technology is only as good as the human experience.” You’ll hear us talk a lot about our empathetic design approach. It’s because we want to always design experiences that work for humans. Lastly, I’ve always admired George Beil, the owner and CEO of Houston’s Restaurants. I learned a lot from him while working at Houston’s to pay for college. His tenacity and clear vision helped him build a multimillion-dollar restaurant chain on his own terms. No advertising or promotions. Just word of mouth. No business loan or shareholders. Just growth by profit. No nonsense from vendors or real estate developers. He’d rather close a restaurant than be overcharged for anything. He believed in high standards for consistently good food and good service in a clean restaurant. He knew the value of creating a great customer experience long before anyone else did.
Where would you like to see your business in the next five years?
In terms of numbers it would be nice to reach 25x25x2025. That’s billing about $25 million with a staff of about 25 people by the year 2025. The main thing is we want to have a flexible business that can exceed the needs of our clients without squashing the lives of our people. David and I are highly involved family guys. Our kids mean the world to us. We’re not just in this to make a buck. We’re also setting a great example for the next generation. There’s one lesson that the covid-19 has taught us already: We can still get things done from remote places. We don’t all have to drive half way across town every day to sit in a cubicle behind a computer to service clients. There’s a new wave upon us and Fulton Mecklenburg is at the forefront.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing a creative career in advertising?
The advice I would give to a young person is be curious. Be a student of the world but study three things intensely. Art, life and business. Notice I didn’t mention advertising? If you have a degree in advertising, great. Now study the craft of creative writing, visual design, filmmaking or even music composition. Build your creative chops in other areas so that when you sit down to make an ad, you’ll have a full toolbox. The most unexpected ideas come from people who don’t think like advertising people. Number two, study life. Observe what makes people tick. A large percentage of award-winning creative work is based off human behavior derived from a well-known insight. Don’t wait for your planner to hand it to you. Seek insights for yourself. Do it when you’re eating lunch, commuting to work, hanging out on the weekend. Another important thing to study in life is empathy. Notice it in yourself and in others. Notice when it’s absent, too. Empathy, insights and human behavior are rich sources when you need to communicate a key message about a product or service in an interesting way. Lastly, you must study business – not just advertising. There are many verticals and industries but every client I’ve worked on over the past 20 years has had the same basic needs. Sure, technology has impacted the business world. Yet, from now until the end of time, every business has to figure out how to: find customers (awareness), hook them (acquisition), convert them (conversion) and keep them (retention). Of course, there are a lot of nuances in between but if you understand those basic tenants, it’ll make your creative work much more powerful. Lastly, do not fall into the trap of creating art for art sake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always passionate about my work. I’ll fight to the bitter end for great creative work. But at the end of the day – or the end of the meeting – I never forget who’s paying for the art supplies. So how do you retain artistic integrity in a client-driven industry? Side projects. That’s my go to move. In my spare time I like to paint with acrylics, write novels and make videos. It keeps my skills sharp and my brain sane. I’ve had long stretches in my career where I sold everything I presented. But for those times when I can’t sell a creative idea to a client, my life doesn’t end. Side projects give me new energy. Most of them will never see the light of day, but that’s okay, too. The point is to keep grinding. Pick yourself up and move on to the next big idea. So, if you’re just starting out, study the world around you for ideas. Be a creative craftsman first and foremost. Always deliver thoughtful human-centered creative ideas and you’ll never be out of work. Agencies and clients will beat a path to your door.