For this edition of Marketing 101 I sat down with Molly McKinley. Before serving as the VP of Marketing at First she was the VP of Marketing at Adwerx. I spoke with her on her last day at First as she was leaving to launch an entrepreneurial venture, Intentionaliteas. Our conversation covered a number of topics but I think you will especially enjoy her perspective on building a brand at a high growth technology company.
Frank: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became a marketer.
Molly: Sure. So I actually became a marketer by chance. I used to run an art gallery in San Francisco. I was an art history and fine arts major in my undergrad studies, so I always consider myself a creative first.
I was having dinner in San Francisco and there was a group of people who were dining to my left. There were about 10 people and I could tell they weren’t friends, but they were friendly, so I didn’t know what their connection was. This was in the ’90s in Silicon Valley, so we were discussing an IPO celebration. Turns out that it was an up-and-coming high-tech PR firm called A&R Partners. A gentleman came to our table and apologized for being rowdy, so I asked him to sit with us and tell us what they were celebrating. He did, and it turned out to be Bob Angus from A&R Partners. Two weeks later I was working for them. I started at the bottom and I worked myself up to the top of the accounts.
Frank: So what was that like, starting at the bottom?
Molly: Well, I had to check my ego a bit because I had been running an entire gallery. Running galleries requires you to do lots of events, lots of sales, a lot of PR. But I didn’t realize what it was, I didn’t have a name for it. This was just how we promoted the art talent.
I learned the craft from the foundation, from the root up. And I really do believe that that has made all the difference in my career path because I have a solid foundation for public relations. Basically, people and the power of third parties informs almost every marketing strategy that I develop now.
Frank: That’s a powerful statement. Tell me a little more about that. “It informs all the marketing strategies?”
Molly: Back in the day with PR we leveraged third parties to help tell a story, because the power of social proof or third-party validation is more important than just about any other form of communication. A friend, neighbor or someone else validating you is much more emotionally impactful than the individual tooting their own horn, right? That’s just how we’re wired as humans because we tend to be risk-averse. So someone else doing something first matters and is the reason we “like” things on social media. There’s a Wall Street Journal article that basically says that third-party social proof is more important than price and quality, which is huge.
When I started in PR, third parties who had platforms or access to audiences were radio, newspapers, TV and magazines—you know, the media outlets. Because of the noise, and all the editors and the journalists getting bombarded with so much, you really learned how to do your homework and craft a pitch that was really relevant and right for them, and not just this spray and pray approach. I took a lot of care in anticipating needs, understanding their voice, finding that shared value, that mutual alignment, all of those things that we talk about in marketing, but back in the day you had to do that well or you would never break through an editor’s inbox.
So I believe in the power of people. I believe in the power of people to open up new audiences. That’s kind of where all of that stems from, because as marketers that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to reach and have a conversation with our customers and find our next customers who care about the same things.
Frank: How did you make your way from the Bay Area to North Carolina?
Molly: My ex-husband got his PhD at Duke, and he invented a new machine for 3-D breast cancer imaging in biomedical engineering while he was there. During that time, I still worked with A&R, which was the agency that had Adobe clients, and I was commuting between Durham and San Francisco. The commute was tough and I decided to stop working so I could focus on my family. After a few years, I was ready to get back in the game so I reached out to my network and Margaret McNab, who’s a local marketer, introduced me to Jed Carlson (the CEO of Adwerx). I initially pitched Red-Tail Creative, my marketing consulting company, and after some back and forth, I joined the team as VP of Corporate Marketing.
Frank: How’d you come up with the name RedTail?
Molly: A red-tail hawk is an animal that flies and can see the entire scene above and knows where to strike. That’s my skill as a marketer. Developing a clear vision of the entire picture and then knowing where the true opportunity is because I’m a jill-of-all-trades. My marketing skills are coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, which is helpful.
Adwerx was a fun place. I started there right when Adwerx was spinning out of ReverbNation. The idea was proven, the concept was proven, and we were focused on how to build a brand and truly understand the real estate world. I’m really proud of the work that we did there.
That was my first foray into real estate, so we had a lot of research to do to understand the customer. What do they care about? What are their needs? Who matters in real estate? Who does everybody listen to and emulate? We really had to really dig into uncovering the nuances of the industry. It was really fun work.
Frank: I interviewed Dave Marcello, VP of Marketing, at Reverb for this column. Part of our conversation was about Reverb’s product focus. How did you help them more effectively talk about benefits and start to build the overarching messaging themes?
Molly: This is where Jed and I were a great match. He joked that he’s all head and I’m all heart. Every marketing approach that I lean in to is based on how we are going to connect with our customer. I don’t care if we convert them immediately. I want to earn their trust and eventually love us because it’s all about a long-term strategy.
The brands that are really winning aren’t winning because they’re touting product features and they’re talking about themselves. They’re winning because they stand for something that connects with their people, and solving something for them. It’s rarely about us; it’s about them. And that, to me, is what it’s all about.
Frank: You’re not worried about the conversion; you’re worried about the relationship first. Second, it’s not about communicating product benefits; it’s about the feeling and the emotion behind it. So, that’s how you developed the brand conversation for Adwerx? What was the brand essence? How did you position it? What were the platforms and tools you used in the communication?
Molly: Early on in our internal conversations, when I was trying to understand who Adwerx was and how they were going to fit into this market, Jed said something that really struck me about who he was as a leader. He wanted to level the playing field for the very small business. That is the heart and the essence of what Adwerx is all about. It’s not just an advertising platform. We’re actually giving the small guy a chance to do what the big guys are doing online.
And to me that was it. We have a mission now. We’re leveling the playing field for that very small business, that micro business. And that’s really what a real estate agent is, right? They’re a business of one, wearing 40 different hats and trying to compete online. They’re likely never going to be advertising experts. So this notion of coming with a very simple tool so that they can actually have a chance to show up online with the same advertising inventory as Ford. I mean, it’s the same exact inventory. That, to me, was the spark that I really, truly believed in.
The idea that, “We’ve got your back. We see you. We know that you are wearing 40 hats. We know that you’re confused. We know that you’re overwhelmed, and so this is just one thing that we can take off your plate,” that was the root of the campaigns, of seeing an agent for who they were and honoring that very small business and that risk-taker in them, and making it really, really simple, the one thing that they just didn’t have to worry about anymore.
When you take that approach and when you see somebody, then it’s like, “Okay, now let’s teach them at a high level about advertising and marketing and all of the pieces that they don’t really understand so they better get how our product works,” and so we did webinars, and lots of public speaking and training. That was the heart of the campaign, but we also leveraged the people and voices that they already knew and trusted, which are the influencers in the industry.
The process of interviewing all the influencers, and asking questions about how are they were winning and then sharing those stories with the real estate world did two things. One, we aligned ourselves with the important players and we lifted them up by shining a spotlight on their good deeds. But we also then gave back to the industry by telling these stories that other people weren’t telling, and we taught. Now a lot of people are doing that work, but at the time, this was an innovative approach.
Frank: So you left Adwerx and you worked for a company in the Bay Area before joining the team at First. Tell me about your work at First.
Molly: First is tapping a niche in the real estate industry. That’s what drew me to the company. The notion that real estate agents spend so much of their energy meeting new people and and trying to connect to the outer edges of their network when the real core and value are the people who are in the middle of their network–their bullseye people. A lot of agents spend a lot of excess energy spinning on the outsides, when a more focused, intentional effort on the inside, to truly love and nurture their sphere, would yield better business results.
I had interviewed literally hundreds of the top agents through my work at Adwerx and there were a couple of things that kept coming up. Almost all of these really successful people had this universal thread of having a servant’s heart. These agents did not see themselves as salespeople. They saw themselves as providing a true service to their clients, and they were helping to navigate this process of finding their people’s place to lay roots. It wasn’t just going above and beyond, but they genuinely cared about their clients and enjoyed taking care of them.
Frank: How did you approach their marketing?
Molly: I focused on refining the brand, the brand story and helped to create a brokerage funnel. The core of any great strategy, once there is a working product, is to get it in the hands of the right people, so that they can create ripples outward to their network.
Frank: If I understand you, you start an arc as the base of the story, and part of the story is the interaction that the product has with each of the influencers. That creates the awareness at the top of the funnel.
Molly: They’re the seeds, yeah.
Frank: Then a growth person comes in and he has all the right tools in his marketing technology stack to move people down that funnel till they’re ready to talk to a salesperson.
Molly: It’s like planting a garden. I’m the one tilling the garden, softening the ground, figuring out what’s going to be planted and where. The other marketing efforts reinforce all of this work to grow. It connects and adds to and builds momentum. It’s like dropping a rock and creating ripples.
We must tell the stories with people who are already seen as thought leaders, decision-makers and case makers. The story needs to be told in a way that is connective and validating, and make sure that that story reaches the new audiences that care about that person. You use the growth tools like advertising and email to put this story in front of the potential people who would also care about the story. It’s a “yes, and” approach.
But the work that I love to do is the strategic: who are these people, why are they successful, what do our customers care about, where are they emotionally and how do we serve them in a way that is going to make sense and be mutually beneficial?
Everything has to be “this is the story.” It has to be beautiful, it has to be impactful, and it needs to be able to break through the noise in the millisecond or whatever we actually have to get someone’s attention. Then, supplement this with a hands-on, personal approach that demonstrates the humanness of the company. We see you. We actually care.
Frank: I’m hearing a couple of other things. One is about the influencer, and one is a carefully crafted persona. Listening to the description you have of the audience that you’re engaging with, it sounds like you would have a very carefully crafted persona that represents that audience.
Molly: I like to say “person,” not persona, because any time we dehumanize we remove ourselves from a true conversation that we’re having with another person. I envision a real person, because when you lose that connection, you’re done. Archetypes, personas, all of those things are tools of the craft, but when you just remove that “A” and it’s a person, it holds you more accountable. Would Laurie really respond to this email? Would I actually send this email to Laurie? What am I asking her to do? No,this doesn’t make sense, I wouldn’t. Then why do we as marketers send this stuff? Because somebody somewhere in our head is saying that we have to send this email to grow. Now, I just ask “If my name were on this, would I be proud to send this?” Business gives us all kinds of excuses to be bad to each other. So it’s important to create gates and reality checks to maintain standards of excellence.
Frank: Tell me about your new company.
Molly: Intentionaliteas was a dream. Literally, it was a sleeping dream.
So I’m at the stage of my life where I’m trying to pull everything together. I want to be passion-driven, purpose-driven, and I was just starting to feel discontent creeping in. One morning I woke up and had this incredible dream where I could see this business clearly, everything from the logo, to the name, to the product, to 10 years out. I went online and Intentionaliteas.com was available. I trademarked the name, snagged the URL and started executing on the vision. If I can see something clearly, I can build it.
Frank: So tell me about your product.
Molly: I launched with the idea that tea is the perfect vehicle to pause. What do I mean by that? We are so wired to hustle and jump from one thing to the next without honoring the quiet moments. This company is all about reminding us to live with purpose and to help create meaningful moments for others. Each tea, and corresponding gift box, is based on an intention such as gratitude, love, wellness, home, or peace.
Right now, I’m focused on building an intentional gifting platform for relationship-driven businesses such as real estate professionals, mortgage lenders, interior designers and others who need to thoughtfully stay connected with their people–the inner rings of their network. I know how hard it is to maintain meaningful connections so I’m building the solution that I wish existed. And, when we are intentional and create moments of quiet reflection, great things happen.
Whether that comes in the morning or whether that comes in the afternoon, during afternoon tea, creating a moment to pause and to quiet your mind, is one of the most important life-changing things that you can implement into your day. Part of what I’m doing is teaching how to meditate, teaching how to set an intention and to share the power of ritual. We bring that all together in one place, through the experience of tea.
I’m interested in participating in and building communities of people who are committed to living more intentionally. So there’s nothing short-term about that. When you get those people who are opting into that and saying yes, then you have a customer for life. They’re not just going to dip in and try. So even though I may be growing more slowly, I have a 41% repeat customer rate. And the people who are receiving my product are then buying it. It’s a lovely loop.
Frank: That’s really cool stuff! Thanks for taking the time to share your insights into marketing and best of luck with your new company.