Summer is officially over, so it’s time to get back to meeting interesting people in Kingston. Rob Howard is a senior strategist at Cult, Canada’s first marketing engagement agency. He joins us to talk about marketing, Kingston, and life in general.
Sam: What brought you to Kingston?
Rob: Well, I’ll give you the short version. I grew up on the fringe of Toronto, in a village called Streetsville. From there, I could always see the CN tower, and it was like a beacon calling for me. I moved downtown, and stayed there for years due to the lifestyle. I traded in my car for a bus pass, and there would be months at a time when I wouldn’t go North of Bloor or Eglington. While I was there, I met my wife, Lisa. Her company sent her to Calgary, and we decided to move there, as nothing was really tying us to Toronto.
Living in Calgary was great. We were both workaholics in a way, but we liked it. However, we had no family out there, and when Lisa got pregnant, we had to decide if we wanted to stay. It was not a matter of where we wanted to live, but a question of where we wanted to raise a family and continue our careers on a path we wanted. We’d both always liked Kingston, and ended up exploring the city and some neighbourhoods while in town for a wedding, which pretty much sealed the deal for us. We made an offer on a house, and when we got off the plane in Calgary, we found out the offer was accepted! Fortunately, the leadership at Cult wanted to grow and explore new, potential avenues, and were supportive of the move.
Tell me about Cult… pretending I don’t know much about marketing!
Cult is a marketing agency. It was birthed from a marriage between Suitcase Interactive, one of Canada’s top digital marketing agencies, and Watermark Advertising, Calgary’s oldest traditional advertising agency. Watermark didn’t know digital advertising very well, so outsourced most of it to Suitcase. Once the founder of Watermark retired, the incoming CEO identified a need to shore up their digital marketing, and decided to tighten up the relationship. He set up a cohabiting relationship, moving Suitcase into the office, and after living in sin for a few years we completed the merger.
This created a fairly new type of marketing agency. We call it an integrated marketing agency. Traditional and digital marketing are two very different disciplines, with very different cultures, which don’t generally mix well. On one hand you have guys in suits buying space on billboards and making flyers, and on the other hand you have programmers developing mobile apps and social media campaigns. We seem to be able to make it work, however. Cult is, as far as I can tell, the only company to do this.
What type of companies do you work with?
We work with companies that see band affinity as their competitive advantage. What I mean by brand affinity is fanatical loyalty and word of mouth advocacy for brands. Most companies are addicted to traditional sales models, like a junky to heroin. We are all inundated with advertising, loyalty programs, and limited time sales. What companies are doing with this behaviour is, essentially, buying customers. They are paying money to influence a certain behaviour, but it’s not even good behaviour! They are sending signals to consumers to act when they see certain cues, such as coupons, sales, and loyalty point bonuses. They aren’t buying true loyalty.
True customer brand engagement is key to forming deep emotional bonds with customers. This will cause them to shop the brand more often, pay more for products and services, forgive you when you screw up, and tell family and friends. What more could you want? When you buy customers, on the other hand, you erode both profit margins and brand equity. Apple is a great example. Have you ever seen a sale on Apple products? Almost never! Yet their products are often two or three times the price of their competitors. They sell laptops, phones and tablets… just like a plethora of other companies. So why are they the most valuable company in the world? It is their brand, and their brand affinity.
How is working in Kingston?
Kingston is amazing. Overhead is so low, and having an office is so cheap compared to a city like Calgary. Despite this, Kingston is strategically located right between Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. It has a good sized population, and an incredibly creative population. In Calgary, we were fighting with dozens of competitors for talent, in addition to corporate Calgary. Here, there are tons of people floating about that know more about how marketing really works than the “big city” professionals. I don’t know if it’s because of the schools in town, or because they don’t want the Toronto or Calgary lifestyle, but it’s great for us.
I like how I can live and work in Kingston, and still compete on a global scale. It used to be that the agencies in San Francisco, New York, and Toronto got the press and the clients, but we’re seeing secondary markets emerge, like Denver, winning awards for their work. I see Kingston doing the same. We have a great vibe to the city, and a strong creative class. It’s a great place to do business.
Thank you for your time, Rob.