Masi Brothers Guide Creative Agency Torque Digital to 25th Anniversary

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

What’s stronger than one outstanding creative communications professional? Well, how about two?

That’s the case at Torque Digital, a Chicago-based integrated marketing agency that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a summertime-themed party at the company’s way-cool loft style offices in Chicago’s rapidly evolving West Loop Fulton Market neighborhood.

Torque was founded by brothers Eric Masi and Kevin Masi, creative guys steeped in the fine arts and balanced by strong business skills and dedication to their wide roster of clients.

This Q&A conversation, edited slightly, was conducted earlier this month. A short disclaimer: While managing marketing and communications for a Chicago-based association, I worked with the Torque team and was very pleased with the quality and caliber of the work produced, as well as the dedication of the account staff.

So, let’s get started.

Here are thoughts from Co-Founder and President Eric, and Co-Founder and CMO Kevin.

1. What was the impetus behind the formation of Torque?

Eric: Kevin and I went through the same fine arts training at the University of Illinois; we’ve been artists since we were toddlers. After we graduated, Kevin went into real estate and I ended up at an agency. But we are artists at heart. That was the catalyst. We are visual artists, marketing thinkers and designers. This compelled us to start an agency that embraced all three disciplines.

Kevin: Eric and I started Torque when we were young enough to still be casting about to decide what direction to take in life, in terms of profession and gainful pursuit. We were inspired by the vastness of the marketing and advertising world and the access to business in general. We were inspired by the chance to build our creative skills, critical thinking and craftsmanship. Knowing as little as we did back then, we were industrious and undaunted enough to plunge in and work diligently.

2. After 25 years, what is the most significant change in the marketing industry?  (Besides the rise of digital, of course.)

Torque Co-Founder and President Eric Masi

Eric: Digital is an easy thing to point to in terms of change in the marketplace. The outcome that is more interesting is the decentralization of small agencies, these micro agencies of two and three people. These firms are able to manage large accounts by putting together virtual teams. Another change that we’re seeing now: Digital and the web has democratized creative and facilitated a lot of services. You can buy a logo by posting a request and ask designers to bid on the project. You can hire a photographer anywhere in the world.  This is really changing delivery and capacity costs. And now, Google is digitizing its algorithm and programs, so you can almost remove the strategist.

Kevin: So much has changed in the way we all live. We started the business on the basis of being able to buy a Macintosh computer and learn “desktop publishing” as a lightweight way to start a business in an otherwise more capital and material intensive industry. The biggest thing to change is the increase of complexity. You can see this in three big areas: 1) Mature business and product categories need to work much harder to compete and grow. This is both an opportunity as companies need more help and also a challenge as the problems also increase exponentially. 2) The second consequence of complexity is the opposite, in the form of an exploding niche marketplace. We are constantly taking a deep dive into some subtle, detailed business model that must be decoded for the world to understand. It’s often hard to tell if they are brilliant or wacky. 3) Lastly, complexity has driven us to diversify our offerings and to be constantly learning about new aspects of technology, marking channels and more. And of course hiring a wider array of people and skills to do the work. And with talent has come a steady rise in labor cost as well as honing of skills to manage and lead Millennials.

3. Torque has a specialty in real estate marketing. And, you’re located in the on-fire Fulton Market District. What strategies and tactics are real estate companies employing to remain competitive in today’s rapidly evolving market?

Eric: It’s almost more fun to talk about what’s not working. In many cases, real estate is 10 to 15 years behind the curve in terms of marketing, and the industry is now starting to wake up. Developers are now renovating old warehouse spaces.  And, with all the space available, the big difference in marketing is how well it connects to the brokerage world. The point of difference often is the marketing. With all this massive renovation, the developer wants to appeal to Millennials and convey a lifestyle. This has to be communicated in a compelling way. It’s not enough to say, “Our property has a tenant lounge and a rooftop deck.” There’s all kinds of shades of grey in this type of promotion. It clutters the experience. We’re in the middle and help articulate what’s unique about the property. One way we do this is through a process called Brand Bedrock®, which allows us to help build a brand around a property. It’s a fairly involved process, but it’s at the core of what we do.

Torque Co-Founder and CMO Kevin Masi

Kevin: We love real estate! Yes, we live in an exploding market which doesn’t seem to need much help to lease, sell or otherwise deploy and stabilize assets. However, in mature markets, the ones being bled dry by new exciting developments, companies are working hard to remain competitive first through the usual means of making capital improvements to their properties and of course taking marketing more seriously. For new and exiting properties we know its an amenity war. The developers and owners who are succeeding are doing so by dialing into the building experience and needs of potential leasing companies (for commercial properties). This comes down to digging deep to understand what users want and showing companies how they can attract and retain talent as well as support their productivity within the given property. This happens when owners can bring to life the right qualities of a property experience: Health, transit, education, collaboration, aesthetic, entertainment, discovery, status. And so on. Another emerging approach is to develop brand meaning and purpose for the company, as well as for their individual properties. It’s an exciting time for marketing to be able to develop strategy and insight for companies going through this process.

4. Other brothers have been successful in the advertising/marketing industry. Saatchi and Saatchi come to mind. What are the benefits and challenges of working with a sibling?

Eric: It works both ways. There’s lots of challenges, and a lot that we’re not entirely conscious of. The classic model of good business partners for entrepreneurs is that one has the vision and is the creative person, while the other manages implementation and logistics and is grounded in the reality side of the business. Kevin and I are both visionaries. But when it gets down to it, he is more of the implementer than I am. Recently, we brought my wife, Jennifer into the business and the three of us are partners, and the three of us implement our visions.

Kevin: The biggest benefit we’ve enjoyed is the ability to exchange and build ideas quickly because we have such a long shared past and a way of communicating. Trust has been an enormous benefit as well. The challenge with both of these is to translate our qualities to a broader team so they can participate as well. Intuitive and innate skills are hard to pinpoint and teach.

5. Torque is know for outstanding strategic communications campaigns. But it’s also known for  hosting outstanding themed holiday parties. Who handles the creative side, and who handles the logistics?

Eric:  Our staff actually does most of the work. They just tackle the planning and joke and aspire to host the craziest parties. We’ve hosted tropical goth, medieval Christmas, white trash on the farm — all kinds of parties. If the theme is politically incorrect and crosses the line, we’ll say no to a concept. Otherwise, we give them a budget and we let them make it happen. For us, it’s great to watch them enjoy themselves. It’s as much for them as it is for us.

Kevin: Well we used to say that I lead strategy and Eric lead creative. We definitely both delegate logistics! But really it doesn’t separate that cleanly as we see a great deal of creative thinking in our strategic process so really we are always applying creativity and strategic rigor. For sure the era of arbitrary creative ideas is gone and the creative must service the business in specific ways…while also entertaining or creating sensation and engagement.

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Thanks, But I’m Not Giving Into the Holiday Shopping Madness

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Let’s start this post off with a little contest: Analyze this image and guess the number of stand-alone promotional print fliers included in the home delivery edition of today’s Chicago Tribune.

Hey, don’t cheat: Make your guess now, then continue reading.

The results are below, but please keep reading.  (After all, what else do you have to do today but cook and eat, watch parades and football on TV, and fall asleep on the couch.)

Of course, these print advertising vehicles are among the many ways retailers enlist shoppers to patronize their establishments in the countdown to Christmas.  The headlines proclaim “Blowout! Doorbusters” and “Huge Deals” and “Black Friday Sales,” although some stores are open later this afternoon.

Switch on the TV news after the turkey and trimmings have been crammed into the already jammed refrigerator, and I’ll guarantee local network owned and operated stations will broadcast reports of shoppers camped outside stores anxious to take advantage of that great 70 percent off deal on a flat screen TV.

Ah, the American consumer! The driving force behind our economy and free enterprise system.

Want proof? Visit this page from Trending Economics to get a perspective on U.S. consumer spending, which reached an all time high in 3Q 2017.

Well, in case you’re wondering, I do not plan to join the mad rush and grapple among the hoards of shoppers jockeying for a holiday deal this Thanksgiving Day, tomorrow on Black Friday or any other day this holiday season. (On second thought, I might visit a liquor store during the days ahead, because the holiday is always a little merrier with a great beer or glass of wine in hand.)

Honestly, I don’t need much in terms of material goods these days; would rather focus energies (and dollars) on the non-tangible stuff, like family and friends, learning and growing, peace and quiet.  That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving Day.

However, consumer spending keeps the U.S. economic engine running, so charge forward shoppers! I’ll be glad to share any or all of the promotional fliers that arrived on our doorstep this morning.

Now for the answer: Total of 40, however we received a duplicate copy of a very well-designed flier from a major retailer.  Still not enough to make me want to shop there this season.

 

The Outlook of Hyperlocal News After the Demise of DNA Info

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

The digital dust, so to say, has settled on the abrupt closing earlier this month of a no-cost online news source that provided subscribers with the little stories often not covered by the more established print and broadcast outlets, as well as many of the big stories.

The question now is: “What, if any, media source will fill the void created?”

Of course, I’m referring to DNA Info and Gothamist, the so-called hyperlocal news organizations covering Chicago and New York.

As a subscriber the Chicago edition, I often enjoyed reading the content researched and written by the current breed of  journalists.  Although, at times I passed over reading stories about the new watering hole in Logan Square featuring an acclaimed mixologist or the hip deli offering house made pickles. Also, the comments section that accompanied reports often was populated by real trolls who thrived on posting unsavory thoughts that prompted distasteful back-and-forth comments rather than adding to a rational discourse.

But, as a former newsman who began his career when Chicago still had three daily papers, I was saddened that dozens of staff reporters and freelance contributors are out of work.

Many have commented on the shutdown of the news site, including former columnist Mark Konkol, who wrote a compelling opinion piece about the big impact little stories can have in a city of neighborhoods like Chicago.

Clearly the business model behind the organizations — totally supported by advertising — didn’t work in this era of seemingly unlimited free online content, images and video. (After all, there’s no charge to read The PRDude, but I would accept a beer as an honorarium should you find value or enjoyment in reading this blog.)

But from another perspective, DNA Info really was not delivering a novel product. Community newspapers, which still exist in print and online formats, cover the small stories — the community meetings, the business openings, the stories of human interest.

So where will former DNA Info readers go for hyperlocal news?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But one option is to seek out relevant and accurate information disseminated through online sites maintained by established neighborhood associations or organizations, elected officials and local chambers of commerce.

Another is to reach out to neighbors and share news. The concept actually is ancient and known as vox populi, or voice of the people.

In theory, it means the people always are correct. But then again, theories need to be proven.

 

What Happens When You Put 24 PR Agency Leaders Together in One Room?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Well, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, let me provide some background.

Yesterday, long before Halloween trick or treating started for most, I and some 100 other public relations professionals attended the 6th Annual Agency Leaders Breakfast Roundtable hosted by the Chicago Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

This popular fall gathering allowed participants and senior members of many of Chicago’s foremost global and local PR shops an opportunity to launch conversations in a round robin format.

I’m sure many at the Agency Leaders Roundtable were mesmerized by the view.

The event was sponsored by Find Your Influence, an influencer marketing technology platform, and held in a glorious old cathedral-like room at the University Club of Chicago. The views overlooking Millennium Park and Chicago’s lakefront were sublime, the trees alive with fall colors; but the overall focus was on all things public relations related.

As a member of the PRSA Chicago Board, I was charged with helping to stimulate conversation at table #9. Like most in attendance, I was fueled by coffee and the desire to engage with the many industry colleagues assembled.

Here are abbreviated and paraphrased take aways from the six agency representatives who conversed with myself and two other attendees. Three dominant topics surfaced: The growth of employing influencers, the expansion of multiculturalism, and the resounding need to support ethical public relations practices.

Amy Littleton, Senior Vice President, KemperLesnik: People are getting smarter about recognizing fake news, and people eventually will return to traditional news. Young people digest lots of content on multiple platforms, and they might not be concerned about accuracy. So, we may someday see legislation related to fake news. The public may be making decisions regarding fake news at the ballot box.

Aaron Schoenherr, Founding Partner, Greentarget Global Group: Before the emergence of influencer marketing, public relations campaigns would piggy back on the built-in reputation of the endorser. We’ve determined that some B2B clients are not interested in influencer marketing.  But there is without question a rise in digital: Subscriptions to the New York Times digital edition are up, and Reuters has found that digital use is up. Plus, there’s not as much trust in traditional outlets today.

Stimulating conversation flowed during the 90-minute morning event.

Amy Kennedy, Executive Director, Golin: The question is: Who will own the relationship with influencers today?  PR firms? If so, public relations practices have to be ethical and must include multiculturalism. At Golin, we support multiculturalism and determine ways to find inclusion.  We determine, “How should we talk about that product or service?” It’s the personal responsibility of the influencer to be inclusive.

Christina Steed, Executive Vice President, Flowers Communications Group: Flowers has practiced multicultural communications before it was a well-used term. We would reach out to pastors at local churches to convey messages related to the community, or reach out to the Chicago Urban League regarding economic development. They would help us get the message out.  Some large clients, like McDonald’s, have been slow to catch on with influencers. Current influencers need to put trust in the trust bank.

Maxine Winer, Senior Partner and General Manager, FleishmanHillard: FleishmanHillard has always provided ethics training for our staff. Our policy is, “If you see something that appears to be unethical, say something, even if you’re not sure why it may be unethical.”  We rely on colleagues to be ethical, and we want them to feel comfortable raising any issue.  Multiculturalism is part and parcel in everything we do.

Daniel Pooley, Managing Partner, Finn Partners: Influencer marketing is a craft that has its own heritage. Public relations always has had influencer marketing because it’s another way to create brand connections. There’s a shifting DNA on influencer marketing that demands it to be more scientific with scalable results that are better measured. Bold, smart strategies are needed.

A side note: I have met and worked with some of the leaders on the agenda, but was thrilled to meet new fellow professionals committed to ethical public relations.

Looking forward to next year’s Roundtable. And, if it happens to fall again on Halloween, perhaps costumes should be required.