About Mike Sullivan
He is the President and CEO of LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more than 30 years, he’s helped some of the country’s most successful companies build their brands.
He is co-author of: The Voice of the Underdog: How Challenger Brands Create Distinction by Thinking Culture First (BizComPress, Aug. 10, 2020). Learn more at theloomisagency.com
In this episode Steve, Jason, and Mike discuss:
- A brand is only as strong as its culture
- Template of an employee
- Creating a good place to work
- Aligning your values as a leader with the organization
- A brand is only as strong as its culture. It would be more effective for recruiters to prioritize hiring people aligned with the company’s values rather than hire anyone they could find and train them to practice the organization’s values.
- Create a template of an employee, an ideal that every member of the organization should strive towards. Having clarity on what kind of people you’d like to have in your company will perpetuate your success.
- Establish the foundation of your company, determine what your purpose is, and figure out if you’ve got the heart for that. Once you get those two basic things down, you’ll be in a position to build out the kind of culture that you want.
- Get clear on what your values are as a leader and figure out what your organization’s values are. Make sure that they are aligned and congruent.
“A brand is only as strong as its culture.” - Mike Sullivan
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Show notes by Podcastologist: Justine Talla
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Mike Sullivan - Do You Live the Brand?
In this episode, I got a special guest from Dallas, Texas, none other than Mike Sullivan. Welcome to the show.
Thank you, Jason. Thanks for the invitation. I'm looking forward to our chat here.
You are the head of an agency. You have written books. You got a very cool and long background. We are going to get to all of that, I promise you. One question that we start with all of our guests facing in a particular direction is the direction of gratitude. Mike, I would ask you, as you and I engage one another, we are having this conversation at the beginning of 2023, what are you grateful for?
First of all, I appreciate that question. I didn't know that was where you were going to start but I'm grateful for so much, Jason. First and foremost, I'm grateful to my team. They did carry us through the pandemic. They show up every day. I'm most grateful for the fact that they allow me to lead this organization. It is a real privilege and honor. I couldn't be more grateful for the folks that I get the opportunity to work with every single day.
I have asked that question a couple of hundred times in the scope of the show. It always gets me giddy when I hear people's responses. Around Thanksgiving, we do a whole episode where we repackage our guest responses. I have come to hear a lot of them. When somebody answers with the energy, fervor and zero hesitation that you answered with, I get it. I almost want to come work for you based on that answer. Thank you for that.
Now that we are facing that direction, one of the things that our readers say to us is they do appreciate the level of guests we bring to the table. In other words, they got something to say. They have done and got things in their background that give them some street cred. It was like, “Thanks for bringing that person to the table.” There are some cool backgrounds. I would love for you to tell people a little bit about yourself and who you are. You talked about leading a team. I like to know a little bit about the team you lead and I will ask a little bit about Loomis. Who is Mike Sullivan? Why are you even a guy that is on a show?
I'm a father and a husband. Those are my two most important roles. I'm also the leader of the Loomis Agency. We built this thing from the ground up, embracing challenger brand thinking. I started in advertising way back when I graduated from college. I joke about that. I graduated from college in the year of our Lord, 1987. I always knew I wanted to be in this business and I always have been.
I have been doing it for many years. A few years ago, my love for advertising was superseded by my love for building a special place to work. My mission shifted from being a great ad guy to being a great leader. I invested a great deal in my leadership development and the leadership development of some of my executives. It took us on a rocket ride from awfully humbled beginnings to a solid position in the marketplace. I'm proud of that. It is a quick synopsis of the journey.
I'm always interested and our readers are too. There are a lot of business owners, founders and executives that are reading this. There was a point in time when you weren't a founder and then you became one. What would you have to say about that decision and transition? What happened that you went from not being a business owner and a founder to being able to have that in your background?
This is something a lot of your audience will be able to relate to, especially those with an entrepreneurial mindset, which is something I have always had. I started with an entrepreneurial mindset. The best advertising people have that because they are trying to help build their clients' businesses.
One thing, Jason, I recognized early in my career as a 22-year-old is the advertising industry and this was true then and it is true now, is a young person's game. What I noticed when I got to a great advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, I looked around and there weren't a whole lot of folks over the age of 40. I thought, “This is something I want to build a career around but I don't want to have a big career transition at 40. What do I need to do? I need to figure out how to get to the top of an organization like this, which is difficult in the big multinationals or I need to start something.”
What I realized early on was the guys who can help bring in the business development are worth their weight and gold. Those guys create their paths. I'm using guys euphemistically, men and women. As a 24-year-old, I started working hard on business development. I joined a small firm. We were six people at the time. I was a sixth employee. Within 2 years, we were 125 folks and ad weeks how to shop 2 years in a row.
That was largely a function of pouring my heart and soul into BD and figuring out how to do it and do it well. That was my rocket fuel early in my career. It was like, “I want to be a great advertising person and I want to learn how to contribute to the business by developing business for the company.” It is a skill that served me my entire career. It is still what I consider to be the second most important thing that I contribute to the agency. The first thing is building the culture and we can talk about that separately.
Mike, you talk about culture a lot in your book. Now that we know a little bit about you, I would love to know about Loomis. What exactly does the Loomis Agency do for clients?
What we do is help create business success and business impact for our clients through advertising and marketing. Your readers will regard us as an advertising agency and that is what we are. We are positioned as what we call a challenger brand advertising agency. What that means is that the practices we bring to bear and the way we practice our craft is better suited for category followers and not category leaders. In other words, Coca-Cola, General Motors and Toyota are not going to come calling but all sorts of clients who are trying to beat those companies do come calling.
We got a roster full of restaurants, retail and healthcare organizations that are trying to carve out their unique position in the marketplace, deal with category giants and succeed in their right. That is what this entire agency has been built around. From a cultural standpoint, I have been focused on developing that from the day I started with Loomis years ago. My orientation there was simply to build a great place to work. I felt like if I could do that, I could attract talent that maybe punches above our category way and bring that talent to bear on behalf of these clients. That success begets more success.
That is the formula. Carve out a unique positioning for the agency, which many agencies don't do. We are terrible about taking our medicine. We always tell our clients to create that category distinction and make themselves easy to tell from another and we don't do that. We have done that and then staff and team this place with the folks who have the energy for it.
Even in your answer, you mentioned culture a few different times. From reading through your book, that word comes up a lot. You got a line in the book about HR and marketing should share office the same office or next door. That has a lot to do with culture. What do you mean by that?
What I mean by that is that a brand is only as strong as its culture is. If you look at a company like Chick-fil-A, for example, the way they recruit and train their employees and the way their employees show up creates an outsize distinction for that brand. Chick-fil-A is only open six days a week but they outsell every other quick service restaurant in the industry, including McDonald's. There are unit volumes of something like 5 million a year and McDonald's is something like 3.5 million. How do they do that? They staff themselves properly.
I was listening to a radio show by Truett Cathy, who is the Founder of Chick-fil-A. This was years ago. As I was examining, I was like, “What is it that Chick-fil-A does?” The interviewer asked Truett, “How do you train all your employees to say please and thank you?” He said, “We don't train people to say please and thank you. We hire people who say please and thank you.”
This is where culture comes in. Once you have a roadmap for the employees that you want in your organization, you can go used that as a template, hire more and invite more in to perpetuate and create success. Other brands like REI or Red Bull got a template for the employee, the person they want inside their organization to help perpetuate their version of success. Getting clear on that from a cultural standpoint is important.
Once you have a roadmap for the employees that you want in your organization, use that as a template. Hire more and invite more in to perpetuate and create success.
As an ad agency, we know what person is going to be a Loomie. It is what we call them. It is who fits this culture well. When we get that right, magic happens. When you get it wrong, people glow in the dark and they self-select out. It takes patience, work patience and work to get that down. Once you get that tuned in, many things flow from culture. It is hard to narrow it down. If you get the culture right, all things take care of themselves.
I got about 38 questions based on what you said. There is so much that was packed in there. Glow in the dark and self-select your out. I'm not a big tweeter person but that is tweetable right there. I got such an image in my mind of that. A lot of our readers fall in the category of people like you, Mike. They run a small to mid-size organization and have heard culture is important. A lot of our readers have enjoyed the good culture within their organization.
You said, “As long as you build a roadmap and know what you want.” I want to go a couple of levels deep on that since culture is important. If somebody is reading this and going, “In my heart of hearts, I know I got to work harder on our organization's culture,” what types of activities are they engaging in to scale up their culture or even if they are building it from the ground up? When you say, “Have a roadmap of whom they want to hire,” get into the trenches with those details a little bit.
The first thing you got to do is to get clear on what your values are as a leader and what you want your values to be organizationally. Hopefully, those two things are congruent and consistent. My values as a leader are one thing. If they are different from what I want organizationally, there is going to be some tension there.
If you can develop values and you should develop them with your team to guide the organization, that is a good important foundational start and you use that to build out your mission. What is it that we are here to do? Are we trying to put a man on the moon and help challengers succeed? Do we have a heart for that? Once you got those two basic things down, you are in a position to begin to build out the culture that you want. It starts with creating a good place to work.
I'm a big fan of the practices that get you on lists like the best places to work. We have been on the Dallas Morning News, Best Places to Work Less, for consecutive years. If you look at challenger brands in particular that win in the marketplace, like Southwest Airlines, which is traditionally one, they have been in the news for not great things but they are a perennial winner with respect to the airline industry. Chick-fil-A, you look at companies like the Container Store or REI. They are all over the best places to work lists. That is a great proxy for all of the activities that it takes to begin to build a robust and hardy culture. That is where I would start. If you get those things right, a lot of other things fall into place.
Culture is a dynamic fluid thing. It is not static. It does require the engagement of leadership. I like to say, “It is an inside job and it starts at the top.” If the CEO, founder and executive team are not bought in and aligned on culture and they don't share the same values, that tension is going to show up throughout the organization. It is going to cause a lot of anxiety and dysfunction. On the other side of that and when the leadership team is aligned, we are all pulling in the same direction and saying the same things, that harmony creates wonderful things inside of a company.
We all know intuitively when our culture is in tune and out of tune. It takes constant attention from leadership. We have all practices in our organization that are right for us. They won't be right for another organization necessarily. There might be things that another company might borrow but you got to tune that specifically for your environment.
It is a very creative and iterative process. It is a job that is never done. Every time you bring somebody new into the organization, that culture morphs a little bit. You want it to morph in the right direction. If it shifts and goes off course, you got to adjust that. I don't know if that answers the question but there is a lot to say about culture.
Workplace Culture: Workplace culture is a creative and iterative process. It is a job never done. Every time you bring a new person into your organization, the culture morphs a little bit.
There are books, TED Talks and shows like this. The topic is never-ending. You are striving for a better culture. You said that with the fluidity of culture, you can't understate that. When you talk about the alignment of leadership to the culture they are espousing to live out and possess, there’s one of the litmus tests that we use at Rewire when an organization approaches us for coaching.
We hear the executives talk about they need coaching. The troops need coaching. Our salespeople have a bad attitude. If they are not asking for coaching themselves, that is a red flag for us. When we see an organization going, “We all could benefit from some outside, unbiased help and some good questions. We want to go first and bring it to our people. We like our chops.” We were like, “This is going to be a successful engagement because the leaders are aligned with what they want to do and what they want for their people. They are willing to try it first.” I hear you there.
I will confess here. It took us a while to learn that as opposed to like, “People want to do business with us. We want to do that.” As opposed to, “No, we want to make sure we are setting ourselves and a client up for success.” When we hear leaders that are aligned with not only the values that they espouse but they want to dig in and model like they want their people to. That is where we go, “We can do some real work with these people.” It sounds like what you are saying is when an organization comes to you, that is what you are looking for before you dig in with somebody who wants to contract with you and write you a check.
What you are talking about is knowing whom you stand for and whom you don't stand for. No brand or company like you guys or us. We aren't for everybody. Being clear on who you are for and why you are for that constituency is important. You understand that it is the tuned-in leaders who recognize, “I need the training first.” I will get to the balance of the organization. That is whom we serve. It fundamentally aligns with what your offering is. You are going to be more successful in that respect.
Workplace Culture: We are not for everybody. Be clear on who you are for and why you are for.
I couldn't agree with that whole sentiment more. My early trajectory was radically improved with the Loomis Agency when I took the time to develop my leadership capacity. I worked on it. I applaud anybody who does that. It wasn't something that I willingly went to. I had a couple of buddies who were CEOs. They had told me what a game changer was from them but I thought I was a great leader. People are showing up to work. They are not quitting. It is not that simple.
If the bar is low, it is easy to jump over. It sounds like you wanted to challenge yourself and continue to get better.
Where do leaders learn about leadership? They don't teach us in college. Your MBA curriculums don't include leadership courses. We advance through the ranks and it is assumed we understand how to lead people well. That is different from managing people. The work you are doing is important.
One of the leadership programs that we do was developed because of exactly what you said. Good individual contributors get promoted to positions of leadership. A good individual contributor may or may not be a good leader because those are different tools you need for leadership. We find a lot of people in all kinds of different industries and I know your industry well suffers from this, like many. There are people in leadership who, if they were to be honest with themselves and others, don't have the proper tools to lead. That is where organizations like ours come into play.
When I was in the mortgage industry, I was one of those people. I was a high individual contributor and got promoted to leadership. I looked around and was like, “I don't know how to best deal with these people's questions and problems that are coming to me.” You seek out help. I appreciate hearing you say, “No, I took a close look at myself and I want to get better. What do I need to do to improve myself there?”
We have used the word challenge a couple of times during our conversation, Mike. The name of your book is The Voice of the Underdog. I have some questions about that. You used the word a few times, challenger brand. What do you mean by that? You touched on it a little earlier but go a little deeper on that if you don't mind.
A challenger brand is traditionally defined. Every brand that is not the market leader is a challenger brand. There is Koch and everyone else. There is Toyota and all the other car makers. They are all the challengers. That is not a creative way to think about a challenger brand. Challenger branding is taking it a step further. When we talk about challenger brands, they are the state of the market, state of mind and state of readiness.
What we mean by that is, in the state of the market, we are not the leading brand. We are number two. We are like Avis. More than that, the state of mind is we are trying to be the best at something or we already are the best at something. That is important for leadership and organization to be focused on trying to be the best at something. As a challenger brand agency, we are trying to be every day the best challenger brand agency we can be.
The third thing is the state of readiness. What that speaks to is the willingness of leadership to embrace new thinking and break conventional modes of thinking. That is a lot harder to do than people think it is. It is easy to move along with the category convention. It is difficult to be disruptive. You don't want to be recklessly disruptive but there is power and disruption. Those three things, the state of the market, state of mind and state of readiness, are what we talk about when we talk about challenger brands and what they are all about.
As you and I talked about before we hit record, we engage in a type of coaching called Mindset Coaching. When you say that is 1 of the 3 things that defined a challenger brand, I'm looking at my chops like, “These guys get it.” This makes sense. The title of the book is The Voice of the Underdog. The book is written for the challenger brand as defined by those three definitions. That is who the book is for.
What we like to think about is, “How does everything in your organization support or not what you are trying to accomplish as a brand?” We talked about Chick-Fil-A. How does the hiring, in that case, support what they are trying to accomplish in the marketplace as a brand or not? A lot of companies don't give this enough thought but brand and culture are first cousins.
Look at somebody at a company like REI, for example. I don't know if you are into outdoor sports. You go into an REI. Those folks know everything there is to know about gear and more than that, they are fired up about it. You are in there talking to people who get you excited about whether it is going mountain biking, rock climbing or camping. You are in there with experts who are fired up about it.
REI does all things as an organization to promote those activities among its employees. They give them recreational days and all kinds of love around that. That gets reflected from the team member to the customer. It creates a different experience than going into academy sports, where it is more of a traditional retailer. I'm not bagging on them but you are not going to have an REI experience in the Academy of Sports up where you are but it is your run-of-the-mill sporting expert.
In living the brand, you got to have the right folks who are embracing, living and wanting to be a part of that brand. You know this as a consumer when you see it. We all got favorite brands. I know you got some favorite brands. I can almost guarantee that as much about the experience of dealing with that brand. I speak a lot of service brands and retail brands where we have some exchange.
Workplace Culture: In living your brand, you need the right folks who are embracing, living, and wanting to be part of it.
It is the way they make you feel. I like to say, “A brand is what people think it is like to do business with you.” There are all sorts of clunky, odd explanations of what our brand is but at the end of the day, a brand is what people think it is like to do business with you. You can go up and down in all categories and tease that out through the behavior expressed by the employees.
I want to underline that point, “A brand is an experience of doing business with you.”
A brand is what people think it is like to do business with you. We all have brands. You got a brand, Jason. I got a brand. I don't think of that personally but from a company standpoint, what is it like to do business with the Loomis Agency, Chick-fil-A or some of the other folks we have been talking about? They make you feel a certain way. That is what the best brands do. It is in a way that you remember and wants to come back for.
A brand is what people think it is like to do business with you.
As I'm asking myself that, I would encourage our readers to ask themselves that question, “What is it like doing business with me, my team and my organization?” If someone asks themselves that question as brutally honest with the answer, that is such an opportunity to level up. All team leaders, organization leaders, founders, startups and owners of companies, if you ask yourself that question and think about the answer, you will know the answer.
You take the phone calls of customers that are happy and who aren't happy. You see survey results. You hear from your team. You know your gut. You know what that answer is. If there are opportunities to level up, align with your values or whatever the case may be, that is a question that can help you get closer to that.
Jason, in the digital age here, it is super easy. Dive into your ratings and reviews. All the feedback you need is out there if you want to open your eyes and look at it.
Mike, as we round third here towards the end of our conversation, are there questions or topics that I have not asked you about that you like to make sure that we hit on?
We have had a complete conversation. I will tell you that the whole idea of challenger brands and underdogs fires a lot of folks up and me. A lot of your readers would consider themselves to be challengers and underdogs. They are not the category of leaders. We all love a good story, upset and surprise. That is what challengers have in them. All of these entrepreneurs have that in them as well. The story is universal. We all feel like challengers at a time.
I would love to see people try and harness that energy and improve that. Anything is possible. In the book, we got all cool examples from the world of sports and entertainment, religion, politics and society. I love the energy of challengers. I love the way it makes me feel and we all love the upset. I'm pulling for all your readers to pull the upset.
I'm smiling as you say that. I appreciate that encouragement and you are right. We all can think of different movies songs or sporting events we were at where the underdog won in the end. Does that feel good? It is exciting. That is why they made thirteen Rocky movies.
You can't get enough.
Thanks for that encouragement. That is a great note to end on. Mike, I'm going to assume that as a result of this conversation, people are going to want to find out more about you, engage you or reach out to you. What is the best way for our readers to do that?
They can jump onto our website. It is TheLoomisAgency.com. They can hit me by email. They can get me from the website there but it is Mike.Sullivan@TheLoomisAgency.com. Those are two great ways to get ahold of us.
Mike, thank you so much for your time, being gracious with that and the nuggets that you gave us. I do appreciate your time and hope our paths cross again soon.
This has been fun. Thanks, Jason.
- Mike Sullivan
- The Voice of the Underdog
- Mindset Coaching