There’s no way around this.
To see ad man Pip Pullen in a room with new business partner Lesa Seibert is a bit disconcerting.
Pullen just joined XstremeMedia as an equity partner, and the move unites two personalities and philosophies that at first blush, seem wildly unmergable.
Seibert is tall, blonde and willowy. Pullen is not.
Seibert is a matter-of-fact entrepreneur, an MBA with a serious accounting background running a digital firm.
The famously extroverted Pullen has been on the creative side his entire career.
Originally from London (not the one in Kentucky), Pullen has worked his way through most of the creative agencies in Louisville, including Mo’ Better Marketing and Vimarc. Most recently, he was director of account planning at Red7e until he wasn’t.
After a few days of hanging around Please & Thank You in NuLu, he jumped to XstremeMedia with an idea to convert it to something Pullen says doesn’t exist in Louisville … an online advertising agency that starts with creative and wraps it around the appropriate media rather than the other way ’round.
I had five possible directions (after leaving Red7e) … including starting my own company. What I wanted to was take everything I’d learned at Red7e, which is an incredible amount of knowledge, and take that to an environment where it didn’t exist and basically be the Red7e of online.
Bringing in branding guru Pullen made sense, Seibert said. “Digital is the core of where we’ve been for 13 years. The piece that was really missing was the strategy piece really tying the brand to the message we were building for people.”
There’s a lot of demand for what he does – strategy and creative – but almost no supply, Pullen says. “Doe (Anderson) is trying to do it again. They’re rebuilding. Oohology is looking for a creative director. Power (Creative) is going through a lot of changes. It think they’re starting to realize that’s the way to do it.”
In his subtle, always diplomatic Pip style, Pullen says XstremeMedia will being doing branded websites, “and I don’t think these other website companies start with branding other than in a very graphic, superficial way.”
The brand, in the world according to Pip, is the unique essence of a company or product that can be communicated. “That’s sort of my boilerplate answer.”
It takes a lot of up-front work with clients to discover and unearth the brand, then communicate that brand, he said.
Pullen and Seibert say they believe they’re suddenly positioned to go after Louisville companies that tend to give their creative accounts to New York or London firms.
“I would like to work with better clients, because then you can work harder on getting it right and you can have better leadership,” Pullen said. “For example, Brown-Forman has really smart brand directors.
“Red7e was really good about, ‘We’ve got a finite number of people. We don’t want to grow. We charge everyone the same amount of money, so what does it matter who the client is as long as you do the very best work and you’re proud of it,’ ” he said.
“I think that will be our principle.”
XstremeMedia clients have always come from referrals or from networking, Seibert said, with her company among the first of Louisville’s website companies.
Seibert taught herself programming. Her husband, Gregg Seibert, is chief of mainframe systems for Cincinnati-based supermarket giant Kroger Co. At the time, Lesa Seibert was a corporate accountant for Kroger. Both Seiberts are musicians, and their bandmates asked her to build them a website back in the digital dawn of 1999.
“They said, ‘We’ll be one of the only local bands that can afford a website,” Seibert said. “(Gregg) comes home with this software, and he says, ‘Okay, we’re going to build a website for the band.’ And I said, ‘Okay, this should be interesting, because I can draw stick people.’
“But I’ve always loved technology … so I said, ‘Why not …’ ”
After Lesa Seibert took classes in hypertext transfer markup language and cascading style sheets, the basics of Website design, she started getting freelance work designing websites for companies. She stayed with Kroger until October 2000 when she started XstremeMedia, “and here I am.”
Most of the Louisville advertising, marketing and branding agencies have “failed consistently” at integrating creative and web development, Pullen said. Power Creative “has done a muddling job of it, and they’ve done it better than anyone. All the other companies have dropped it or dropped and started it, dropped it and started it. It’s been really unsuccessful.”
The digital agencies that are successfully integrating creative and digital have a good financial person, a good programming person and a competent code person, he said. “But they always seem to be run by accountants and code people. Which is why Lesa is so important,” Pullen added.
He added that Seibert is that rare person comfortable in the binary culture of coding as well as in the nuanced, subjective world of marketing and management.
“I’m kind of (an exception) in that I’m a musician in the right brain and an accountant in the left brain …..” Seibert said. With Seibert’s talent duality, “there was a great match from that perspective,” Pullen said. “There is a way to do both of those things together.”
The following are Q&As synthesized from several interviews, and edited for length and continuity:
Insider Louisville: XtsremeMedia was a back end firm for 14 years. Now, with Pip, you’re something different.
Lesa Seibert: No, it’s not like that. It’s more of an evolution. It’s a change. It’s where we’ve been headed all along. It’s just taking the step … evolving to what we’ve been working toward.
What’s the goal? You had to have done the calculus and said, “With Pip, we bring him in. Maybe we get this client …. we get that client.”
Pip Pullen: Actually, I approached Lesa, because she’s so respected in the community. I had my eye on a couple of other places. I was coming to her for counsel. We just started clicking.
When was this?
Lesa Seibert: About three weeks ago.
How do you know when this is a total success, or a complete failure?
Lesa Seibert: The bringing in Pip thing? When we’re working less and making more money. Bad way to put it (laughing.).
You must have some goal.
Lesa Seibert: Not really a goal … just the strategy piece of being able to offer clients more to help them expand our business.
They’re asking for more?
Lesa Seibert: Some are. Probably our largest client is Trilogy Health Services. Not that they’re asking for more. But being able to now (with Pullen) go back to them and say, “We’d love to have a conversation about your brand and your strategy and … really help you take it to the next level.”
I think a lot of people are in that position right now. They were status quo-ing it through the downturn and they’ve come out the other side and survived. Now, they’re like we are: “What does our company look like, and what does it need to be successful over the next five or 10 years?”
Pip Pullen on branding and the Internet: (This is optional reading, but it’s pretty interesting, especially the part where he dogs IL.)
When I was at Red7e, there is no doubt they were the dominant force for branding in Louisville. And the region. And I learned an awful lot there. But what I found was, even at Red7e, when it came to websites and online forms of communication, there was a lot of pressure to begin with all the rules of programming.
How to build a site. Architecture of the site. Site maps. User experience … it’s all important and it’s all relevant. But even at Red7e – and definitely at every other agency I’d encountered – that’s where they start: Give us your content and we’ll tell you how to lay it out and communicate it on line.
IL: Well, I can see that. It’s called practicality.
From a strictly practical perspective, yes. However, as you know, if you do research and you do nothing but put key points in an ad with no picture and no headline, no one is going to be interested in that ad. Building things just based on facts … isn’t enough.
Let’s take Insider Louisville. The site works great. But what’s its brand? I still don’t know. It doesn’t communicate a brand. It’s, “Here’s some stuff.” But there’s no real “what do they stand for” thing. And that’s how most people do advertising and marketing in Louisville. That’s the model.
The most successful news website is Drudge Report, in terms of traffic, believe it or not.
Well, it has a brand. Drudge is a person. He has an attitude. He has a personality. He talks about certain stories with certain angles.
So, you’re saying the fact he’s heavily Right Wing defines his brand. We don’t have a political orientation. We’re all over the place.
We’ll, you’re finding your brand, right? Defining it. But you didn’t start with it. You didn’t say, “We’re going to be an online only group of people, dedicated to rooting out a certain type of story and expressing them in a certain kind of way.” You just sort of discovered it.
A brand is intrinsic to what you do. You don’t create a brand. So, when I say you stumble on it, you discover it. It’s there. You just have to unearth it. Ideally, when you have a client, you do a lot of work upfront to unearth that brand …. that has a style and form of its own.
That’s why Red7e is good at it. Because they understand the best way to communicate a brand, and other firms don’t.
So, what’s your point?
My point is, when (Xstreme Media) … when we build our website – and they do this in plenty of other big cities, just not Louisville – we will start by understanding what that brand is, then we’ll create a strategy best to communicate that online. It might not be a website. It might be a series of apps. You don’t have to have website. You could go to Facebook.
The appropriate medium in the appropriate way.
Take your website. I told you you shouldn’t lead with an ad, right. You’re supposed to be this grassroots group that’s not a sellout, and the first thing someone sees is an ad!
We’ve probably raced ahead faster on revenue than any (local news) website in history!
There’s nothing wrong with being supported by advertising. But you’re not the paid toady of all these firms. So if Humana gave you a lot of money to cover them, you wouldn’t do it.
Of course not.
The first thing I see is a big ad! That’s not your brand. Have the ad on the page, but don’t let that be the first thing I see.
Well, we’ll think about that ….