Does ‘flying under the radar’ benefit you more than good publicity?
BBJ Photo/MARK MALIJAN
|Tim Cathersal, creative services director with ioCreative in Ferndale, said flying under the publicity radar is a good thing for his company. While many companies benefit from public exposure — and, in turn, increased customer traffic — companies such as Cathersal’s prefer to systematically target potential clients whom they know would be a good fit, rather than accepting all inquiries.|
Before Tim Cathersal starts chatting about the topic at hand, he has a few things to say about another local company. For the first few minutes of the interview, Cathersal — the fast-talking and energetic creative services director with ioCreative in Ferndale — would rather discuss one of his company’s clients.
With little or no prompting, he is making a presentation: Samples of the client’s products are shown, and information about what they do is disseminated. As a representative of a marketing communications company, he is simply doing his job.
Media exposure for his clients is one thing. Publicity for his own company is another thing all together, he said. The company — which Cathersal formed in January 2000 with partner Seth Murphy — is in a different place now from when it started. It is more established, and therefore more in a position to be choosy when it comes to selecting clients. Too much public exposure, whether through news coverage or advertising, can actually have a detrimental effect on the bottom line, Cathersal said.
“Media coverage generates interest, which can be a good thing for the right clients,” he said. “It can generate a lot of phone calls for people who are interested (in our business), and they may find what we offer to be intriguing, which is good. But then we spend a lot of time fielding those phone calls and having those meetings when actually we’d rather be choosing and gathering clients through word-of-mouth and our own very targeted advertising. So it opens the door to perhaps a bit too much time wasting and education dealing with the public when we just can’t afford to do that. We have to be careful there.”
This hush-hush approach seems to fly in the face of conventional business wisdom that says heavier customer traffic is the name of the game.
“If you’re McDonald’s, you are always going to benefit from traffic because everything you do is according to a formula,” Cathersal said. “When you assemble a hamburger, it’s bun and meat and whatever else they put in there, and it’s done on an assembly line.”
Companies such as ioCreative, on the other hand, target and cater to specific client needs — meaning an increased customer base can actually be detrimental. Long story short: Not all publicity is good publicity for some companies. While many businesses — especially those that depend on heavy traffic — are often well-served by public awareness, others may find it more prudent to fly under the media radar.
If you walk up to the front entrance of ioCreative’s headquarters on Main Street in Ferndale, the door is probably going to be locked, said Cathersal.
“We often keep it locked, because we’re not making money if we are not at our desks,” he said. “The very nature of our work is that it takes time, and we need privacy to get work done. We want to be available to talk to potential clients, but we can’t have a lot of people — and we have in the past — walking in off the streets, wanting to chat with us for a while and hear all about what we do.”
He said the business has to balance availability with efficiency, which can be challenging. Since the firm started seven years ago, ioCreative has steadily blossomed from a business standpoint, Cathersal said. However, the company has reached a comfortable plateau — a level they are not looking to surpass at the time being.
“We reached a point where we realized that for us to grow anymore, we would really have to be very aggressive in landing clients outside of Whatcom County,” he said. “And we don’t want to be aggressive in that way right now. So we’ve decided to stabilize at this size.”
That is not to say the company — which has a mixture of full-time and part-time staff ranging from seven to nine people — is not looking to add clients, he said. Rather, the firm wants to work with clients who come to the table with an understanding of what ioCreative does — which translates to a better fit for both client and business. When ioCreative first started, it was in the growth mode, so publicity and customer traffic was a good thing, Cathersal said.
“During the first couple of years, we wanted to grow our business, and we were not afraid to have additional client contact (because we) needed it,” Cathersal said.
Chris Clark, owner of Clark Construction — a general contracting company in Bellingham — said he understands that bringing on more customers with increased publicity isn’t always the smartest move.
“We’re so locked in with the clients that we have. It’s one of those referral-only type things now,” he said. “We’re not actually needing the phonebook ad or any advertisements basically, besides business cards. It’s literally word-of-mouth. And Whatcom County alone goes so far.”
He doesn’t see this trend changing any time soon.
“The demand is very high right now in my field in construction,” Clark said. “It’s very easy to get overextended, especially when you have so many people beating down your door for work.”
Anything but a targeted approach to finding customers — such as a shotgun advertising method of taking all comers — would prove too costly for his company, Cathersal said.
“We can’t afford to be doing as many bids and proposals that may not turn out to be fruitful. We just don’t have enough staff,” he said. “We just have to be very balanced and talk to the right people and be smart about who we are talking to so we are not losing hours each day educating people about what we do.”
Keeping the competition guessing
Aside from avoiding an overextension of services, Cathersal said staying out of the media light might also help to get ahead of the competition.
“Part of it may have to do with competition, and some of it has to do with our brand, and some of it has to do with us just wanting to remain under the radar — and enjoying the benefits of-word-of mouth and our own targeted advertising without having too much scrutiny by the public, which could work against us,” he said.
When Ryan Mitchell — co-owner of ACE/E-Manifest Solutions, a trucking manifest company in Bellingham — started his business last year, competition was on his mind.
“In my case, it was a choice of not letting out too much to my competitors of who I was and what I was doing simply because I was brand new in the U.S. to this industry and to everybody else,” Mitchell said. “If I came out saying, ‘Hey, I got the best idea.’ I don’t want other people to pick up on it because I’d already started hearing (that other competitors were interested in the same concept).”
He said he balanced drumming up business and keeping his idea under the radar with a simple formula.
“I went about a lot of it with a lot of straight-up honesty,” he said. “When I called (my potential competitors), I just said, ‘Hey, this is who I am. I am aware of you starting up something similar. Can we talk and discuss and be on the same page?’”
A key to starting his business was that his customer base was slightly different from the customers his competitors were serving. In fact, because of his good relations with competitors, several have actually ended up sending business his way.
Now that his business is off and running, media exposure is a good thing.
“It definitely would be a beneficial thing,” Mitchell said.
Cathersal, who has been involved with advertising, graphic design and marketing for nearly two decades in various capacities, said he realizes the impact media can have on the bottom line, both positive and negative.
“We don’t want to snub the media because we want to remain on good terms with them because it’s important to us — not only for the sake of our clients but for ourselves,” he said. “We do occasionally submit press releases on changes in our staff to keep a general presence out there, but we are not pursuing at this time anything that is going to be a big announcement or something that is going to try to garner a whole lot of media attention for our business because there is little benefit there and potential risk.”
For ioCreative, the best way to get the word out involves getting back to basics, Cathersal said.
“For our businesses, we focus on very simple techniques involving direct mail, phone call follow-ups, occasionally cold-calling and certainly targeted Internet and e-mail campaigns as well,” he said.
Regarding his company’s plans for the future, Cathersal said ioCreative was looking at making some changes, but discussion of the details wouldn’t be wise at the current time.
“Media attention would not benefit us initially,” he said. “If you are looking for a humorous ending for your story, you could go, ‘Tim made a face (when asked a question), and zipped his lips.’”