2012 Columbus Smart Leaders: Chris Shirer, President, Madison & Fifth

Chris Shirer, President, Madison & Fifth

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

The recession was particularly harsh in our sector as people cut marketing budgets and delayed or eliminated major projects. These major projects fund our growth so losing that momentum and revenue from April 1, 2009 to April 1, 2010 was incredibly tough.

Our client list is predominantly commercial real estate, retail and restaurant — thankfully all strong operators who made it through with us — certainly sectors most hard hit by the economic upheaval. We had to creatively replace lost major project work and ease cash flow issues.

An added pressure came from firms larger than ours being willing to reduce fee structures to capture work they would normally have passed up as too small. It was a game of survival we were all playing and the rules of engagement kept changing as things became worse. And worse. And worse. Everyone was squeezed, trying to adapt to a vise that seemed to have no end point.

The cash flow pain of my clients equaled mine. The solution: revamp project billing.

We switched to an amortized fee structure, allowing payments over several months (even up to a year) rather than billing in two or three large increments tied to a schedule of deliverables. The amortized payments were more manageable for clients and provided more reliable, predictable cash flow for us. This method proved so popular with clients and beneficial to us that we now universally offer it as a payment option (and prefer it).

We also went back to our existing clients who were trying to find ways to stay visible and competitive but whose budgets were frozen or greatly diminished. We offered smaller digital marketing programs (incremental site enhancements, promotional websites of a smaller scale) versus full website redesigns. This allowed them to spend less while maintaining market presence, kept some level of new cash flowing into the business, and kept my team’s morale up (or at least hopeful) as we stayed busy.

Overall, we adopted a “we’re in this together” stance with our clients and took some work at lesser compensation. Our clients feel very much like partners — we’re often referred to as an ‘extension’ of their marketing teams — so this felt like a very natural extension of the relationship. For all the angst of the recession, the gratifying payback was our joint survival of the chaos and the thriving that has since taken place.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Our category of business forces us to be evolutionary and innovative thinkers every day. We can’t escape the pace and unpredictability of the digital marketing landscape. As the leader of the business, it’s my responsibility to keep an eye on the next event horizon to assure we’re delivering the right advice and solutions to support our clients and provide return on investment. And timing is everything in the digital arena.

In our space, it’s important not to mistake “new” for “innovative.” There’s a lot of retread in some of the digital marketing tools most aggressively pushed. It’s important to strip away the marketing-speak and evaluate the business purpose and return of programs or channels we advise clients to engage. Every client has a different level of tolerance for soft versus hard returns. Evaluation and education is a big piece of my responsibility.

Because we’re not a company that writes the software we use, our innovation is defined by proactively identifying new channels and methods for our clients to gain market advantage. We then customize, implement, measure and adjust these programs to achieve meaningful returns. Within the course of delivering these programs, we do work collaboratively with developers and service vendors to push the delicate edge of what’s new and what will actually delight and deliver.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We’re a very small company but our clients — more than 60 amazing, high-profile brands including Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Easton Town Center, Nationwide Realty Investors, The Daimler Group, The New Albany Company, Steiner + Associates, The Kokosing Group and Piada Italian Street Food — collectively employ thousands of people and have daily impact on regional economic growth and the people who live here.

We help these talented companies communicate their stories and connect with people through the programs and websites we build and manage. Their risk-taking and creativity is inspiring. It’s a privilege to support their efforts and the experiences they make possible.

Chris Shirer is the president of Madison & Fifth