According to Toby Purdy, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer at Freeman, every best-in-class brand has good people, excellent listenting skills and a commitment to innovation.
By Stephanie Harris
Avoiding complacency is key to success, whether for an individual’s career or the longevity of a business. But how does a company with a more than 86-year history and a solid team of talented professionals such as Freeman—a leading provider of integrated solutions for live events, such as expositions and conventions—continue to push the envelope?
“By always listening to the voice of the customer,” said Toby Purdy, Freeman Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. “If you listen to their voice, you will always be challenged to find a fresh approach to connect people in meaningful ways. This approach mitigates complacency.”
Since Purdy joined Freeman six years ago, he has continually built upon the already solid foundation by carefully and methodically strategizing how to build the Freeman brand over the next 86 years. Purdy loves to use sports analogies to drive home a point, and has on occasion used the wise words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
In any strong brand, no matter whether it is business-to-business or business-to-consumer, there are three ingredients: finding the strongest people you can, listening to the voice of the customer and using that to drive product innovation.
With nearly 20 years of marketing experience, having worked for such companies as Frito Lay, Dean Foods and Greyhound, Purdy joined Freeman at a time when the marketing function was made up of a small team that focused on traditional work. Purdy’s aim was to change that—to rebuild the marketing team to innovatively engage customers all while keeping the company’s vision forefront.
“We knew we had to get the voice of the customer front and center, as well as understand how we were positioned, how customers viewed us and where the opportunities were to continue to move our brand forward,” he said.
So Purdy and his team began doing their research and listening to customers to get an idea of what was needed to drive the business. But then the economic downturn hit and created a new normal for everyone.
“The nice-to-haves went away, the must-haves were scrutinized more and we had to take a hard look at what Freeman could offer, how we could continue to position ourselves as a key marketing partner,” Purdy explained. “That’s where the innovation came from.”
Technology, for instance, was no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have that Purdy and his team now had to incorporate into the customer experience. “We had to always be thinking about how we could create thought leadership to not only move ourselves forward but to help our customers move themselves forward,” he said.
To drive ahead in what was the new norm, Purdy created a strong team that works collaboratively to build out, expand and enhance the Freeman brand. “From innovation, traditional branding, communication and storytelling—whatever it might be—we built up that team and it’s exciting to see what they have been able to accomplish.”
With a winning team in place, they collected (and read!) 53,000 customer surveys, building that feedback into their marketing strategy. In addition, the marketing team annually partakes in an annual activity called “Brand Planning,” where all staffers are brought together for three to four days to ensure their thinking is kept fresh.
“We put out a plan and strategy for the upcoming year based on our strategic platforms,” Purdy explained. “We work hard to make sure we have a framework to grow and expand, understand what is working and not working, and face the metrics.”
Purdy stresses the importance of recognizing that not everything you try is going to be a success. “The worst thing we can do is not admit to the things that don’t work,” he said. “Innovation means trying things that are new, and sometimes they do not work. For those things that do, you need to understand why they work.”
The Team Comes First
To ensure his team is constantly driving for innovation, Purdy keeps his employees interested and involved in the marketing process.
“One of the most effective ways to help with complacency is to challenge, grow, push, motivate and reward your team,” he said. “I look at our turnover rate, which is very low, if any, in marketing. I look at the investment we make on every individual’s training and development. We spend a lot of money and time on our individuals to grow them because if we are growing them, we are growing the business.”
Just as he surveys his customers, Purdy is always surveying his team members. He does so in order to better understand what he is doing right and wrong, so they all can be better partners.
“One of the things we heard was flawless communication—making sure people are in the know in real time,” Purdy said.
In addition to the company’s intranet site, which includes a marketing page with up-to-date information, Purdy sends out a monthly “Marketing Minute” newsletter to the entire marketing team, focusing on business successes and things to think about.
“We also have an ‘Ask Toby’ box where people can anonymously ask me anything about anybody or any situation within the company, and if I am in the position where I can answer that (some things are confidential), then I will include that in the Marketing Minute or send a note out to the whole team, or whatever is appropriate, to make sure that information is getting out.”
Purdy also holds marketing group quarterly meetings that include teambuilding activities to ensure that all individuals are collaborating and having fun. In addition, each team member is required to have face-to-face meetings with their direct reports, and one out of every three has to be solely about them—nothing about their work.
Once every two months or so, Purdy holds a 30-minute coffee chat with every single marketing person to see how they are doing, what they are doing and where their concerns are. Any topics he needs to follow up on, he does so judiciously.
“That is one way we get in touch with people so they know their management team is listening,” Purdy explained. “We are also very honest, and we challenge them. We believe in real-time feedback, not just during a review; there should be no surprises. We think that helps us with our retention. It helps us motivate people when they are in the know, and then they are accountable to do something with that information.”
By keeping his employees connected with and actively a part of the firm’s strategic marketing plan, Purdy has created an engaged team dedicated to their customers, to each other and to moving Freeman’s mission forward.
“Our brand purpose is connecting people in meaningful ways,” Purdy said. “If we follow that, we cannot be complacent. If we challenge ourselves and look at the data, if we are not afraid to ask the hard questions and we create an environment that is open, then we have success.”
Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
Toby's Key Partners:Credera (Management & Technology Consulting) | Schaefer Advertising Co. (Agency partner) | Counterpart Communication Design (content partner) | Edelman (Public Relations) | Slingshot (Media Planning/Buying)
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