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.
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.)
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.
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.