As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Ehlers.
Kelly has always had a talent for pursuing opportunities when others see hardship. After being laid off at the height of the 2009 recession, Kelly recognized the potential of an entirely new frontier and bet on herself to found The Evoke Agency (then Ideas That Evoke).
Her innovative spirit and personable nature allowed Kelly to focus on the people behind the brands — an element key to her success. With service and human connection as pillars of her approach, she built a company with astronomical growth throughout the Madison, Chicago and Los Angeles markets.
Her clients run the gamut from Fortune 500 brands to small start-ups. With the opening of the agency’s Advocacy Division in 2019, Evoke extended its services to additional local nonprofit and political organizations.
Even amid the pandemic, Kelly has utilized her gifts to lead Evoke and its clients toward a silver lining. The company has helped clients in all industries navigate the landscape of digital public health and safety communications. Kelly has helped steer companies away from the fear of layoffs and furloughs toward concrete solutions for moving into the future. Time and time again, Kelly has shown what it means to innovate as a small agency: to look past the limitations and create unforeseen opportunities.
In 2011, Ehlers was honored by the Phoenix Business Journal as one of the Top 25 Women in Business. She was also a semi-finalist for Entrepreneur Magazine’s 2014 Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year and a Stevie Award finalist for Female Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2015, Ehlers was named Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women Magazine.
Beyond her achievements, The Evoke Agency has earned national recognition, including rankings on both the Inc. 500 and Inc. 5000 lists — naming Evoke the #23 Fastest-Growing Marketing Agency in the Country and the #4 Fastest-Growing Private Company in WI in 2016. The company has also had multiple listings among Entrepreneur Magazine’s 360 Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America.
Thank you for joining us Kelly. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My background is in traditional agency work, evolving into the nontraditional. My career began at a small start-up agency in Phoenix, AZ. While working with only the founders and one other employee, I had learned all facets of the business within a handful of years. I can recall that at the ripe age of 22, I was swiftly nudged into roles that were completely foreign to me. From new business pitches to interviewing business owners, I quickly learned what it meant to be scrappy yet detailed.
That experience formed my dream of opening The Evoke Agency. I knew from the ground floor what it would take to do so. In 2009, during the heart of the recession and at five months pregnant, I left my corporate role to embark on the unknown at the time: social media marketing.
Then, companies didn’t have a budget (let alone know what “The Facebook” was) to spend on social media. I pioneered the category, diving in and learning how each platform worked, what content was performing and, most importantly, how to use this new medium to drive business results.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’ you learned from that?
Oh, I’ve made so many mistakes, all of which I cherish today. Without them, I would not be where I am.
Is there a particular book that you read or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
What’s helped me in my career is the Harvard Business Review and the HBR IdeaCast podcast. I love hearing from leaders in all areas of business. I’m also a big fan of MasterClass’ online teaching and learning. From a peek inside Anna Wintour’s editorial process to Chris Voss’ insight on negotiation, it’s fascinating to see world leaders break down their areas of expertise and how it can apply to both your personal and professional life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision and purpose was then — and remains today — to always be at the forefront of innovation. By starting a social media agency when the type of business was virtually unknown, I had no doubt I could bring these new communication mediums to the forefront for brands and companies. Being agile, scrappy and leading with thoughtfulness remains at our core today.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes, 100%. My guiding mantra has always been that the “nice girl DOES win.” Over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed innovative businesses come and go because they don’t subscribe to the golden rule. The small, human touches go a long way.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a female business owner and mother, I’ve had to balance the needs of my company with the needs of my family — both of which have been heightened during COVID. My children are out of school, and my community is dealing with an unprecedented level of stress about the unknown. I do what I can to listen, care and support however I can.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I believe our biggest work-related challenge is ensuring our teams are safe, secure and in a place of comfort to execute their daily work. The pandemic has many professional and personal layers that affect everyone’s day-to-day. Luckily, pre-COVID, we had a lot of remote communication tools in place, which made our transition easier and allowed us to be candid, open and collective to make sure everyone felt heard and was clear about our business operations.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I encourage my teams to be very open and honest in their communication. If they are personally struggling, I ask that they share that in a way that our leadership can offer support to ease the pressure from a business standpoint. For a majority of my teams, this is likely the most unrest they have seen in their lifetime. I try to reassure them that this will pass and look at the silver linings when possible.
Personally, my children are young enough to ask me questions like “Mom, were you quarantined when you were little?” which is heartbreaking in itself. My husband and I want to inform them of what is happening with grace and support, knowing this is hard on them too.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
COVID has changed consumer behavior as the online world has expanded. The opportunity for brands now lies in meeting consumers on their communication platform of choice. For example, if you don’t have e-commerce, it’s time. If you haven’t put a vast amount of your marketing dollars into paid and organic social media, it’s time. Ensuring you have the right tools, like the ones I mentioned, in place to communicate with your followers and potential followers will elevate your brand. If not, there’s a chance the brand could be forgotten. Opening channels of communication online is a great way to stay relevant, express your brand’s values and connect with your customers and followers.
I’ve seen many service businesses (even ours) innovate through this pandemic with success. By opening up new markets or lines of service the opportunity to innovate and recreate always exists.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
From a business standpoint, I think we need to get comfortable with the fact that there will be no return to the “normal” way we conducted business pre-COVID. In considering a public health perspective, there’s a need to pivot on our operations. The systems we had in place at Evoke pre-COVID allowed us to move to a remote workforce swiftly, ensuring all of our teams were safe and secure. I believe that working from “wherever” will permeate industries that can take advantage of that opportunity. There will be challenges, but ensuring teams are operating with honesty and transparency will be critical to our future workplace.
From a personal standpoint, I hope the pace at which we were all previously declaring our state of “busy” changes. I’m enjoying the more calculated, focused time working with a dose of increased family time. The “busy” mentality was getting to be too much. At some point, it’s nice to take deeper joy in the little things, the smaller moments and the need to “have” less.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Within the first week of COVID, I intentionally started to shift my focus from a business development standpoint, looking for markets and areas of opportunity to assist essential businesses and advocacy organizations. I believe a smart leader finds ways to adapt, change and modify their structure and process quickly. As such, I have uncovered numerous opportunities during COVID, which will continue to sustain our company and allow significant growth.
Additionally, from an employer standpoint, there will be increased opportunities to secure talent from a larger pool, which allows our business to hire for specialty roles that produce the best ROI tactically.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
My mantra has always remained. Starting The Evoke Agency in the heart of the recession (at five months pregnant) to now: Operating with agility and gusto are core. Great, unexpected things come from the hustle in the hardest of times. Look at this time as an opportunity to dive deep into what your company has been doing — and what needs to be changed or reimagined. Consumers will operate differently post-COVID. Use that to your advantage to get creative and solve for those challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My guiding life lesson or mantra has always been that the “nice girl DOES finish first.” Over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed innovative business come and go because they don’t subscribe to the golden rule. Eventually, poor business practices catch up to you, whether it’s not operating with integrity or taking care of your teams.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find more from me on the Forbes Agency Council; Ad Age Council; and on The Evoke Agency website.