As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Brill.
Robert is the CEO of BrillMedia.co, a digital advertising firm built to grow companies with precision marketing and advertising. In 2020 the company is ranked California’s 7th fastest-growing private company by Inc. Magazine, and in 2019 was listed on the Inc. 500. Robert hosts the LA Business Podcast, writes in Inc. and Forbes, and has spent 17 years in advertising.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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’ve always been fascinated with the way people communicate, so when I got a computer at 15 I was enamored with the opportunities it created. While I can’t say I had the vision to see all of the possibilities that would be come, I knew there were ways for people to connect, share, and push commerce forward. A pivotal moment was in college when I got an unpaid internship at Universal Music. I made dear friends there, and that experience led me to Universal McCann, where I started as an assistant digital media planner on the Sony Pictures business. I had great mentorship in the Elias Plishner, and the really talented team working there, all who have gone on to have big careers in entertainment and technology. I was privileged to be accepted into what I described as the varsity team. My experiences on the Sony Pictures team were formative, and led to my love of digital advertising.
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?
I wish it was funny, but it was more jarring. In my very first job at Universal McCann I compiled some campaign data and after we presented it to our client I realized I made a mistake in the data. I got a stern talking to by my supervisor, and I learned a very important lesson. I need to double and triple check my work. It’s ok for mistakes to be made, but it’s not ok for those errors not to be caught. That lesson was so important because it underscores how important redundancies are within organizations.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
In 2007 I was listening to podcasts from Joseph Jaffe with Jaffe Juice, Shel Holtz with For Immediate Release, Mitch Joel with Six Pixels of Separation, and CC Chapman with Managing The Grey. I liked these podcasts because I saw how leaders in marketing and communications created and expanded their own networks. They showed me that people in our business can create community and conversation around niche marketing topics. And, I found inspiration as I understood that podcasting was a publications medium that created a personal brand. At the time it wasn’t called a personal brand, but I realized that if I could command attention like they were, that it would be good for my career.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I knew that I had an advantage of knowing how the mechanics advertising was being used to build the largest brands in the world, and I wanted to use that knowledge to help small and midsize businesses grow. In 2013 the core thesis was that large brands have these really sophisticated advertising tools with lots of invaluable consumer data, algorithms, and optimization techniques that I knew smaller businesses would benefit from. So, our mission was to create opportunities for smaller companies to grow. The equation remains simple and straight forward. Take the best tools and the best data, deploy them with my team’s expert knowledge, and activate advertising and marketing campaigns that get strong results for our clients.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Both in life, and in advertising campaigns, testing and iterative learnings are keys to success. BrillMedia.co deploys an iterative testing framework to get fantastic results for our clients. Advertising in 2020 functions as a real time focus group. Results by creative, platform, ad size, and placement develop into insights about our customers, and the ways for us to drive campaign performance. By unleashing a testing framework we give consumers the opportunity to tell us what they like.
I run my business that way too. The market changes. Our operational practices are refined. Our team, and our team structure changes to suit our needs, and we remain nimble. We setup tests, see if they work, discard what doesn’t, and move forward with the learnings, and make our organization better.
One, more concrete, example of this is iterative testing framework is how we’ve refined our operations. I tried to set it up. I hired people who I thought were the right people. They were talented, hard working, smart, and really great at what they did. The only problem was I misaligned what I thought needed to happen in our business. So, we changed our expectations of our talent, and finally landed on our Chief Operating Officer, Tony Price, but that happened after months of trying different paths to finally ascertain the right method.
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 our readers 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?
We’re very fortunate in this situation. Our family has benefitted from physical safety, and our business is setup as work from home, so my work environment has been setup to fit my needs for years now.
What has changed is that we aren’t going outside, and my wife is taking full-time care of our beautiful 16-month-old baby boy Henry. Our family is missing seeing us, but really mostly Henry, and for the safety of our family we’ve hunkered down. There’s definitely an emotional toll since we aren’t getting enough time with our extended family. We’ve done some Zoom calls to bridge the gap. I think the most chilling moments come occasionally late at night when we see there is no end in sight for the level of health safety that we’d like to have, and in those moments we sit and comfort each other.
Finally, I’ve seen a change in myself and our family outlook. Things that were small in the “old world” are now big. We’re cooking at home much more, household expenses have lowered, sunsets are sweeter, and family dinner time is more important than ever.
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?
A quarter in advertising feels like a year. So, it’s been a long few months. We changed our messaging early on to communicate opportunities about how to thrive in a down economy.
On April 2nd we published our Recession Marketing Guide, which the definitive research-backed look at businesses that have succeeded in economic downturns since the 1921 recession, through the Great Recession. This guide answers a critical question that I had, which was, what should we be advising our clients to do? We’re an advertising and marketing firm. Are we even relevant right now? The research shows that companies that push forward with marketing expenditure when the economy slows are positioned to see outsized returns when the economy rebounds.
Following that playbook we have increased our marketing expenditure. We launched an initiative to help the small business community by investing $500 in free ad spend per month through our Spot on Social Marketing framework. It’s a proven package that we’ve developed to power growth of small business with a marketing strategy, customized landing pages, custom social media advertising creative, monthly social posts, a powerful email drip campaign, and we’ll invest the advertising dollars to grow the business.
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?
There is a lot of troubling news right now, but there is even more good news. Far more people are not infected with Coronavirus, than are, which gives me hope. There are signs of daily decelerations in the number of new cases, which is promising. Countries are starting to open back up, which is good. We’re coming together to make sacrifices for the health of our communities, which are all acts of love.
The way I’m handling this is by staying proactive and busy. The proactivity is about changing my expectations of the present and the future, and focusing on the good. I also limit the amount of news I watch, since news focuses on the bad. We’re in a period of massive change, and it’s hard to know what’s coming. I focus on controlling what I can, which is how I spend my time, and what I allow myself to think about. Since our business is doing well I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, and I noticed that most days I’m upbeat because I have games and puzzles to solve around my business, our clients, and our marketing. So, even small achievements in our business feel great because my mind is busy and I’m getting some positive enforcement. When I feel down I talk it through with my wife, try to bounce back, and if it’s really tough take the evening off and watch some TV.
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?
- There are too many to mention. Out of this time we’re going to see new tech, new millionaires, and new ways of working.
- Cannabis has been deemed essential. That’s a big, and reluctant, stamp of approval from governments.
- Online education will get bigger, and the big brands in the space — Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — will all be competing with upstarts and smaller education providers.
- Now would be a great time to start up as a work from home transformational consulting firm. I think we’ll see a massive shift to work from home. I don’t think office spaces will go away, but I do expect there to be significantly lower demand for office space coming out of this. I think we’ll see some commercial spaces turned into housing over the next decade.
- Investments will mint some new riches for people who bet on the future, including crypto-currencies, work from home technologies, low cost and in home entertainment, and gaming.
- I think there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs of all types to bring in home outside experiences, such as VIP Zoom parties, which are already happening.
- Ghost kitchens are turning into a real opportunity, and will continue to grow. Any mom and pop household with a recipe will be able to use a ghost kitchen to create food, list their menu on a delivery app, and have it delivered.
- New personalities will develop on YouTube and Tik Tok, and they will use this moment to find a rhythm that works for them. They’ll hit on something important, and in 2025 we’ll hear about people who took this very moment to re-evaluate their lives, focus on their passions, and turn them into something we we’ll need in the future.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think like much of Asia, we’ll be seeing masks in public a lot. Travel interest will wane for years. Public gatherings will come back, but not as strong as before. There will be an explosion of voice-based sensors in public areas. Working from home will be normalized, and going into the office will be minimally necessary, or completely unnecessary for most businesses. We’ll see more people hosting their own version of QVC on Facebook live. I ordered really beautiful hand painted coasters from a friend on Facebook last week, after catching her Facebook Live stream.
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?
Our job is to advocate for entrepreneurs and executives who are building big businesses. We’ll continue to help them build community, gain attention, and drive profits with the best marketing and advertising practices available. Our marketing is more effective today than it ever has been. We’re getting 10–20 new leads a day with our marketing efforts, which is to say we’re starting relationships with businesses owners so that we can help them come of out this period better than they started. Two tactical actions that I’m taking are related to content. Five days per week I’m sharing marketing and advertising tips in The Great Reset on YouTube. Weekly, through the LA Business Podcast, I’m interview business leaders so they can share their stories of growth. I want people to hear the different ways businesses grow and scale.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Assess what you want the rest of your life to be like, who you want to be, and what you want to spend your time doing. Then, work towards that. Chronicle your journey of becoming an expert, and share on YouTube. If you are already an expert help others become smarter than you. Create a podcast, write a blog, or do what ever feels right to you to gain attention. Post on LinkedIn, create on Tik Tok, and just get out there. You’ll be surprised at how much can happen when you create.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is more of a philosophy, and it’s that it’s we need to take time to celebrate the wins, even if they are small wins. Celebration punctuates the hard work we do, and gives us great memories when times are tough.
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