As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Ballatori.
At just 30 years old, Rachel Ballatori is the disruptive founder and CEO of the Boston-based marketing collective, Mill + Co. Named one of Baltimore’s Finest 35 under 35, Ballatori has more than established her worth in the advertising space over the past three years, heading a team of over 150 industry professionals. Although Mill + Co. is her first major entrepreneurial project, the woman-owned collective is already set on changing the face of modern media in their approach to brand storytelling.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
I was with two fairly traditional agencies before I started Mill + Co. One was an advertising agency and the other was a digital media publisher. Both of them followed the very antiquated structure of separate account managers, strategists, and creative teams. Traditional agencies try to put square pegs in round holes. They say they can do everything because they are competitively trying to win over new accounts. The problem is that agencies tend to be more expensive; they have more overhead, they have more people working for them, they have these big, beautiful, renovated spaces, when in reality, it’s not your client’s responsibility to pay for your overhead. Your clients should pay for the work. So I saw a need and a gap in the industry. Modern brands need scalable partners that can handpick and curate teams based on their individual budget and needs. Not every brand can afford a minimum budget of twenty-five thousand to spend with a traditional agency.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
That’s a great question. My very first new business call was with a dog-rescue. I went into the call feeling very confident and ready to walk the owner through my whole business pitch. I think I made her feel really comfortable and soon enough we got caught up in a tangent, chatting about anything and everything, just like old friends. Two hours went by before she finally told me they weren’t really looking for anything. So the take away from that story is that it is always better to let the client talk first. My job is to listen. If the client opens up about themself, then they clearly need something from me. So my new business calls last thirty minutes now. I set it at that and keep it brief.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had a lot of really unique women supporting me and they’ve all been so instrumental to my success. I will say, though, that before I launched Mill + Co. I was in a Facebook networking group for women and I posted a message saying: “I don’t have a professional headshot. I’m 27, starting a business and have little budget. Can someone help me?”. There was this one woman who commented on my post and said she was going to email me. So I got an email from this photographer, who lived in Inwood, New York. She wrote to me: “I remember what it was like to be 27 living in New York City starting your own thing. If you can come up to my apartment in Inwood, I will do your headshots for free.” And at the time, I remember thinking to myself: Is this how I die? So I took a 45-minute subway ride up to Inwood from the West Village to meet this woman at her apartment. The second I walked in there, I felt like I had known her my whole life. She did all of my headshots and gave me about two-hundred images for free. Her name is Ahna Tessler and her business is Ahna Tessler Photography. Before I left that day, I vowed to her that I would pay her back ten-fold for her kindness. And I am happy to say that now, three years later, Ahna and I have worked on multiple photo productions together. She sits on my advisory board for Mill + Co. and she will forever be someone who’s been very instrumental in my life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I thought of the model for Mill + Co., it was a no brainer. I needed to create a curated collective accessible to any client at any scale whether they need a quick logo done in a week or a massive ecommerce site done in six months and everything else in between. I also saw a need for having all of the work done under one roof. And so by operating through one partner, you get strategy (brand, business, and marketing), and you get creative execution and activation, all through the same partner — whether it is SEO, video production, a nutritionist, a PR specialist, or someone who knows social media strategy and marketing — we have all of that on our roster of 150 people, so really we’re striving to be the best scalable partner for any business.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
All of the work that I do draws on my personal expertise as a strategist in terms of brand, business, and marketing. I think it’s rare to find a strategist that has experience in all three areas — whether it is internal processes, working with HR people, creating onboarding documents for new hires or thinking about internal efficiencies from a business perspective — and that also understands brands and marketing. So I help my clients by taking a good, hard look under the hood of any business and understanding what are their goals, what are their challenges, and what are some insights I can infer from data — whether I’m looking at consumer data, social media data, google analytics — and pulling together insights that are very much data-driven to lead to an informed creative strategy. I think that’s where my strengths really lie with my clients.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
This is a really recent one but there have been some new privacy changes in IOS that are making it really difficult to effectively target people through paid social media. Basically, the update is allowing users to restrict who follows them on social platforms. The problem is that paid media is all about targeting consumers and tracking their data. That has definitely been a really disruptive change. On the one hand, it’s good for the consumer because they feel they have more privacy. But it’s really tough for advertisers. We rely on tracking and following.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
As for a pivot, I’ve had to think more creatively about how to reach the same demographic, but without violating certain privacy restrictions. Sometimes that means working with a known influencer that our target audience is already following out of their own free will versus sending them an ad that they are blocking. That’s just one of the many ways we are combating this right now, but it has definitely been disruptive to the industry as a whole. Yet, at the same time, it’s not like those media dollars are going to waste. It’s not that the individuals aren’t seeing the ad, but rather we can’t tell whether they’ve seen the ad. They’ve blocked us from tracking their behavior.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There was actually. I remember the day I decided to start my own business. I was living in West Village, Manhattan at the time and I remember walking up to 6th Ave to go to the gym. This was in February of 2017. It was lightly snowing and I had just walked to the gym, which was 20 blocks away. But I didn’t even realize that I had done it. I felt like I had blinked and opened my eyes and I was suddenly there. I remember thinking to myself: Life is just passing me by. I’m doing the same shit with people that I don’t agree with in terms of strategy and approach to advertising. I know that I can do this better. I know that there is a way to achieve all the goals I want to achieve and not just let life pass me by. So really it was just during that walk to the gym when it hit me that I’ve spent too much time going through the motions when it doesn’t make me happy and I don’t believe in it. I knew there was a better way and I was going to go out and create it. Four months later I launched Mill + Co.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Mill + Co. has continued to grow year after year. We just surpassed our 3-year anniversary in May 2021. As of today, we already have exceeded what we earned in 2020 during a global pandemic, which is huge. It is a testament to myself. It is a testament to my team. It is a testament to people understanding our model and truly appreciating it. I’m looking forward to seeing where this direction leads us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I was working on a production for a national non-profit animal rescue, Best Friends Animal Society, who we’ve collaborated with since launch. This was maybe two years ago. We had planned this huge photo production featuring six different animals and we shot this in a four-hundred square foot Manhattan apartment. It was the coolest, most challenging, sweatiest production I have been involved in my whole life. That campaign was incredibly successful for them — they received millions of impressions — but I just remember, at one point, I was on my hands and knees holding a toy, trying to lure a cat out from under a bed and thinking to myself: “I’m a CEO here.” Sometimes change looks different than you would have thought of.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
I think it’s really important to pay attention to disruption and chaos, but to also try your best to stay grounded in who you are. Businesses like ours should definitely pivot but by no means should we be trendy. Our approach to strategy is not going to change because of it. Some of the strategy we do might change — for instance, we might shift from broadcast TV to digital advertising — but the true role of a leader is to stay true to yourself and not go in the direction of the wind. In times of hardship, you need to stand firmly in your beliefs while also being incredibly aware of what is going on around you so you don’t say anything tone deaf.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Show empathy. We know we are working fast and that we have deliverables. We also know that people make mistakes. What has served me the best as a CEO is to approach every situation with empathy and not making assumptions. Me leading by example in that way creates a really wonderful culture for everyone on the team — whether they are with us for a project here and there or they are one of the three amazing interns we have taken on for the summer or one of the people we have hired to support the business. I believe that company culture comes from the top and that has been my approach so far. I make sure that anyone who works at Mill + Co. knows our model and understands the importance of being a good partner, which means standing shoulder to shoulder instead of standing behind a timesheet. It is a culture of people who work hard, who are open and transparent, and who are in your corner.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Partnership. Staying close to those who genuinely want me to succeed is the number one principle that has gotten me through the ups and downs of the past three years running Mill + Co. Those people keep me grounded and remind me why I chose to join this business in the first place. As far as being a CEO, I find that I am on my own most of the time. So even though I have a few people that work for me part-time and a big roster of freelancers, I don’t talk to those people every day. It’s helpful to surround myself with a very tight-knit group of colleagues and advisors that I can lean on to get through some turbulent times, both personally and professionally.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I think that there is disruption and then there are passing fads or trends. I’ve been very fortunate to have people around me who share that very similar mindset of resisting the urge to jump on the bandwagon just for the sake of being on it, which would be a cardinal mistake. We’re not going to be swayed by incredibly disruptive technology or recent trends because that destroys our business identity and credibility in the long-run. However, I think that there’s also another way to look at this in the sense that disruptive technologies can be a positive force. You need to understand why this disruption is taking place from a societal standpoint. Is this new technology here to stay? Can I take advantage of it? Can my competitors take advantage of it? What can I gain and what can I lose? Sometimes being afraid to change can be just as big of a mistake as blindly jumping on a new trend to stay relevant. Knowing when to adapt to disruption can really make or break a business venture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from my mom, which also ended up being my high school yearbook quote. She’s always said to me: “If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.” What she meant was that life is short and you need to take risks. I like to call myself a calculated risk taker because everytime I have taken a leap it has always worked out in my favor, granted that there have been ups and downs along the way. But I’m always going to be living on the edge, pushing myself further out on that ledge. So it doesn’t become a ledge, but a huge space that you’ve now created for yourself — uncharted territory — that you never would have discovered had you not pushed yourself to the limit.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We have a podcast called The Mill where we interview industry leaders to talk about changes in media and technology, as well as other relevant topics in the advertising industry. That’s on our website: www.millandco.net. We also share all of our podcast videos on our LinkedIn page. You can also check us out on Instagram (@millandcompany) and Facebook. Feel free to reach out to my email if you have any questions: [email protected]