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Three Years Ago

Three years ago this week, Brian Cross, Dan Callahan and I founded Elasticity.

A St. Louis Business Journal photo of us after launching Elasticity

Screen-shot-2012-01-04-at-4.04.24-AMWe had all been at Fleishman-Hillard, one of the largest PR firms in the world, where Brian had built the digital group and Dan and I were senior public relations counselors in the corporate issues practice.

Brian was living digital media in his daily efforts, working on the cutting edge of online and social tools and strategies as they were unfolding, grinding his teeth trying to integrate what he was doing with the traditional PR efforts.

When Dan and I weren’t counseling the likes of UPS, AT&T Enterprise Rent-A-Car, or Emerson Electric on media relations matters, we were spending our downtime learning digital on the fly by creating the seemingly ridiculous American Mustache Institute, which became a viral and ESPN sensation. More important, it served as a virtual Petri dish for us in terms of understanding social media, online content management, community engagement, and the interconnection between traditional PR, social, blogs and search engine optimization (SEO).

In November of 2007, Brian left FH. One week later, the three of us got together at the Tin Can Tavern over really cheap beer and pretty bad food.

We laid out a vision — there was an ongoing sea change in our industry and media overall. I had recently told a client’s global senior management team they wouldn’t be reading hard copies of newspapers within a year and instead using their phones. They scoffed at me.

But the reality was that as a result of consumer information consumption habits, there existed a need for deep integration between digital and traditional strategies, as well as a greater need for advertising-like creative in the PR space to break through clutter. At the time, the integration model really wasn’t being that broadly applied (and ironically, marketing integration still isn’t occurring that commonly today).

Integration, creative thinking, new tools, a fresh approach.

After 13 months of planning, lining up funding and creating a business plan — largely while eating overwhelming volumes of fried chicken at Pat’s Bar in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood — we launched Elasticity on Jan. 1, 2009. We hung our collective hats on a triangulated approach to marketing communications and reputation management, leveraging PR, SEO, and social media in an integrated manner.

It’s only natural, but I think we each had different expectations and hopes going in. I can’t speak for Brian and Dan as I know they each had their unique reasons for going into business. Admirably, Brian wants to set the world on fire and drag St. Louis along with him kicking and screaming. Dan, in his professorial way, wants, “to figure out where this thing is going.”

My interests were in:

  • Culture: Over 15 years or so I had seen good cultures and toxic ones and was very focused on creating an environment where people really enjoyed coming to work. It wasn’t a question of whether you wore a three-piece suit, jeans or a Panda suit to work. It didn’t matter if you were 23 or 53. It was all about ideas, enjoying the environment you spend more waking hours in than you do your own home, and feeling collectively satisfied at the end of the day. That’s why the first thing I wrote for our website was our People Principles.
  • Creativity: To this day the PR space remains very focused on block and tackle tactics and we don’t look deeper at a challenge, thinking how we can craft it from the beginning in a manner that’s creative, and in and of itself, buzzworthy. I approach every campaign I work on hoping it will be worthy of a national marketing story about its unique approach. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the ideal.
  • Integration: I had seen it time and again — companies silo their marketing communications efforts largely due to political wrangling between the direct reports to the CMO. For some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to matter if a campaign would be 100 times more effective if properly integrated and the budget was shared amongst all the marketing channels. It’s all about turf. I wanted to change this and I still do.

Looking back, it’s been an immensely satisfying three years. We started a digital marketing and public relations concern, which largely relies on what’s perceived to be non-revenue producing income (which couldn’t be more wrong headed), at the depth of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Yikes!

Certainly, there have been immense challenges, both interpersonal and business frustrations, as well as many Andre The Giant-sized bumps in the road. There always are. But overall it’s been a pretty good ride.

I’m fairly certain that we’ve created an environment where people do, in fact, enjoy coming to work. It’s a place where our entire team — we’ve added seven new people in the past year — feel like their opinions matter and are respected. And maybe it’s because we don’t have an in-house counsel — or just because we’re not a bunch of assholes — but when people choose to move on, there’s no ugliness, no one thrown out the door with a box. We’ve enjoyed the ride while we were on it together.

Creatively, it’s been tremendous. While we don’t necessarily get to implement every idea, we try to at the very least deliver them. There’s no leaving a progressive strategy on the cutting room floor for fear a client won’t understand it. We put our best on the table and that’s all I can ask. It’s been remarkably satisfying to see it happen.

And from an integration standpoint, it’s a work in progress. At big companies, we can’t control turf wars between the heads of corporate communications and branding, but we continue to beat the drum. And the nice thing about being small is we can still afford to work with small companies that allow us to create more integrated approaches.

As far as profitability, as the St. Louis Business Journal wrote upon our launch, “They project 12-month billings of $700,000 or more, but expect it may take 18 months to become profitable.” That was pretty close. Each year we’ve had steady growth. In year three we became a million dollar shop as well as being profitable despite still operating in recession times.

Three years ago this week we founded Elasticity and I’d like to thank everyone who helped to make that possible along the way.

There’s been great clients like Charter Communications, Monsanto, Anheuser-Busch/InBev, Stout Industries, Geostellar, Biffle, Toro, Kennelwood Pet Resorts, Expert House Movers, and many others.

But we wouldn’t have those clients — and the great work we are doing on their behalf — without great people including (in order of hiring, even ones who have left): Angela Cross, Ken Hieronymous, Jessi Stafford, Andy Barnett (now a partner), Christine Ryder, Emma Klues, Courtney Rothman, Mark Florida, Ryan McMullen, Colby Gergen, and Aaron Jacobs.

Three years ago we started this thing. Let’s continue the ride. Thank you.

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