Sit Down with Success: Ellen Didier – ‘Love, Love, Love What You Do’

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Ellen Didier, President & Creative Director of Red Sage Communications. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.

What about your company, Red Sage Communications, are you most proud?

I think our ability to survive in the midst of such disruptive change in the advertising and marketing industry since I started Red Sage in 2006 is what makes me most proud.

Ellen Didier: You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding. (Photo/Steve Babin)

I’m completely self-taught. When I started Red Sage, we didn’t have smartphones or social media. I didn’t know how to use Photoshop, InDesign or Quark. We had websites, but WordPress and open source software wasn’t around; content management systems were just starting to come out, but they were still evolving. My biggest startup-cost was a $28,000 piece of software I had to throw away three years later.

Just look at how much marketing has changed, and it is a huge change. In that conversation you have social media. I started using social media in 2008-09 and I was on the earlier end of adoption. I had both a MySpace and Facebook account, but at the time, there was no way of determining which one would win out. It wound up being Facebook.

It took me forever to figure out how to monetize social media and make it an additional revenue stream. It kept getting more complex and for a long time, we just trained clients how to use it. Because it changes all the time – Linked-In for instance just completely revamped all their tools – it’s really crazy.

Also, in that conversation are online rankings and customer reviews. People are able to post and say things about your brand. That means marketing is no longer a push, but a two-way conversation.

When you’re trying to manage in the face of that much change you must watch what’s going on all the time and really balance how much time are you spending in training and learning. You’re putting in three or four hours a week just learning and keeping up with what’s going on. It was hard to figure out how to be profitable.

We got through it and I think we’ve found a good balance of not necessarily staying on the bleeding edge, but of at least knowing what’s coming and being able to help our clients understand it.

There are a lot more marketing “tools” out there now, aren’t there?

If you look at the marketing toolbox when I started, it was traditional advertising: printed materials, a billboard, radio or TV and that was about it.

Now, we’re running campaigns for people that include media relations, social media, digital marketing, traditional marketing, print campaigns, direct mail – huge toolboxes – the traditional stuff plus the new stuff.

You still find a place for traditional marketing?

Yes, because there is so much saturation online that sometimes traditional works. I think a lot of the newer, all-digital agencies miss the idea that there’s still some traditional tools that are very appropriate in some cases and do better than digital, depending on who you’re trying to reach.

It’s just really been fascinating the amount of change that we’ve navigated through and most importantly, stayed profitable while continuing to grow.

Why did you start an ad agency?

I love, love, love marketing! The challenge of understanding who you are and establishing your brand; exhibiting how you’re different from the competition; telling your story so it aligns with your business needs – I like everything I do, but there are some parts of business that will do a lot better if I focus on the parts that are easier to sell or that generate the most revenue.

I was with another marketing company when I made my first pitch. It was to a hospital and we went in and talked about ways they could promote their services both in traditional media and in cross-marketing within the facility. It was the first time I was able to bring ideas to a client using a multi-pronged strategy that would help them tell their story in a variety of ways. We came away with just about everything we pitched and that was exciting.

You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding to convey different messages and to align those different messages to different audiences. You have to understand the business and set goals and objectives, and then integrate your overall marketing strategy to reach those goals and objectives.

You have this super big toolbox that is much bigger and more complex than it has been in the past and I love that complexity. I love being able to look at all of that.

I’m also a process fanatic so I can go back and forth from 30,000 feet to minute details and not a lot of people can do that. It’s worked for my business because I can dream the big dreams but then also build the infrastructure to take me where I want to go.

Do you specialize in certain types of clients?

We do a lot of business-to-business marketing in North Alabama. We have some nonprofit clients like Cyber Huntsville, the National Cyber Summit and SMD (Space and Missile Defense Symposium), so we help with some corporate marketing events. We have a client in Fort Payne who has a radiation shielding technology business built on nanotechnology and not lead. They are a very innovative product poised for a lot of national growth. It’s going to be fun building lead generation and tracking and how much of that converts to actual business.

We look at it as, how can we help you grow your business, and how to be smart about it in the face of the many challenges.

What are your biggest challenges, overall?

Our biggest challenge is the pace of change always, and like everyone else, growth and workforce.

How do we find the right people?

It’s painful to have business knocking on your door and having to turn some of it away because I don’t have the staff to deal with it. I need three people right now and it’s hard to find them, plus it is time-consuming when you’re busy to do the hiring, so right now staffing is my biggest challenge and finding the right fit. This is a difficult industry in that I need people who are good critical thinkers and used to a fast pace.

What do you think is the answer to that?

Short term, we’re looking at how we can extend our team with contractors, and how we can build and grow our team in very specific places. My current employees have been with me a while and they are very good. If I can take some of the work off them that can be outsourced, they can manage a contractor to do that part of the job.

What would you tell somebody who wants to start an ad agency today?

It will be the most challenging and the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. What’s amazing about the advertising and marketing agency business is you can be working with a company that retrofits Blackhawk helicopters with Garmin electronics one day and figure out how to sell eye care products and services the next.

You will build relationships with your clients because you grow to understand their business and their challenges, and that requires communication that often leads to good friendships too. That’s where the reward is.

The challenge is that it is extremely hard to grow. The first couple of years is always fairly easy because people are excited about a new strategy, but scaling this business is really hard.

The first hard jump is when you start adding employees. With that comes health care and employment taxes and other things; and there are also a lot of freelancers and small specialty agencies that don’t offer employee benefits, so we have to justify charging more for our services.