Written by Stephen Boehler
Dooley Tombras is a lot of things: third generation agency leader; a magnetic personality; passionate marketer; and boundlessly energetic. Recently, we spoke with Dooley about the path that took him and his agency to a very distinctive, successful positioning. The Tombras agency has been one of the fastest growing agencies in the US over the past decade. It is also an AdAge A List firm.
Why was it so important to come up with a differentiated positioning for Tombras?
We had a necessity to differentiate, because everybody in the industry looks at agencies the same way.
How did you get started?
It started in about 2010 for us. I got the feeling that everything had changed. The industry was not recognizing it yet, but digital actually went from being secondary to arguably being primary, because of share of eyeballs. The eyeballs were on mobile and social. I saw it as a huge opportunity as an independent agency in the middle of the country, not in a major ad market, to differentiate and go all in on digital. Primarily we were not competing against small digital agencies. We were competing against bigger brand creative agencies. And CMOs didn’t view us, quite often, as being differentiated enough to stick their neck out on the chopping block and take a risk to hire an independent in Tennessee. We’d get into pitches, but we just couldn’t quite win.
We wanted to go all in on digital, and the beauty of digital was it was measurable. I was also detecting a trend where CMOs were under a lot of pressure in 2010 to start to show ROI. CEOs were starting to hold them accountable. CEOs were going to conferences and reading articles about how digital marketing was measurable. They were wanting to hold their CMOs accountable to attribution and measurability. Marketing had not been nearly as measured up to that point. It had been a lot of softer KPIs and softer metrics about brand tracking studies and brand affinity and lift in aided and unaided awareness. But marketing had not been as accountable to sales as it probably should have been up to that point.
What was the new positioning and how did it work?
We decided to reposition the agency around Connecting Data and Creativity for Business Results.
To do that we made a big investment. We put in a lot of poker chips as an independent family-owned company to invest in data, analytics and data analysts. And we put that at the core of the agency and really became a modern agency. We wanted to stay really strong in strategic planning and creative, but we wanted to be both traditional and digital. We did it because we just thought it was the right thing to do; to help clients to get better business results.
We were a little bit ahead of the industry, and our rapid growth did not start right away. Even though we built all that and repositioned the agency in 2010, we didn’t really start growing like crazy until about 2013. We had to get a couple of new case studies where we really could prove out that we did it. And then the industry had to catch up to where we were.
Then we were in an incredible spot. By the time you get to 2013, 2014, 2015, which is when we really started to grow, that’s when I think the industry caught up to us and CMOs realized, “Okay, digital is now the primary thing. Oh, my gosh, my traditional legacy-brand creative holding company shop is woefully inadequate in digital. But I don’t want to work with an only-digital shop. They don’t have the strength in strategic planning and account service that we’ll need. Who can we look to?” Then we started to pop up on the radar a little bit, and then we had the integrated case studies.
A really interesting thing happened too, in that CMOs were coming to visit us. They were utterly shocked at the data that we were getting and the business data that we were getting when they were looking at our dashboards and our analytics programs. They’d ask, “How can you get this data from your clients? We would never share this kind of sales data and business-sensitive data with our current partners.”
Our team sort of lucked into it, because at that time we weren’t fully national. We probably had half national clients and half regional clients. Regional clients typically don’t have a roster of four or five agencies. Quite often they’ll have everything with one agency. So we had a lot of regional clients where we were doing the creative, the media, the digital, the website, and the CRM. We had all of the data. And we talked a couple of those regional clients into sharing their sales and business data with us. We had some really great case studies where we were able to do omnichannel attribution and tie everything back to business results. Back in 2014 or 2015, that was revolutionary and eye-opening for CMOs. I think that set us off on the trajectory that we’re on now.
Of course, there’s a flywheel effect. If you win some bigger clients, you get a little bit better revenue. Then you’re able to attract a little bit better talent to Knoxville. As a result of the fact that we can pay better salaries and we’ve got better brands for people to work on. Then with that better talent, you’re able to win more clients. That flywheel effect has kept going, and here we are today.
How does the positioning impact your own agency team?
Our positioning of Connecting Data and Creativity for Business Results is incredibly powerful not just in new business but also from a culture perspective internally. When you’ve got a simple, short, powerful positioning that’s true and really means something, we really try to do that for all our clients; it tells everybody at the agency how to behave. Subconsciously, account people and strategists and media people and creatives know, “Hey, we need to optimize. We need to try new ideas. What does the data say? We need to go pull levers.” Because the words business results are in there, people are trained and it’s part of the culture that it’s not enough for a brand tracking study to be up.
It’s not enough for organic traffic to be up. It’s not enough for CPMs to be down and impressions to be up or clicks on the media side. At the end of the day, what really matters is the business outcome. That’s why clients hire agencies in the first place.
How does “Data + Creativity for Business Results” stand up today?
It’s not easy to bolt together data plus creativity. We’re still differentiated because we didn’t bolt it together. We built it from the ground up and now we have scale.
What does this positioning mean to your clients?
It’s a huge responsibility when a client entrusts their business with me and my agency. They’re hiring us to deliver a business outcome. We realize that their jobs are on the line, the people in their marketing departments’ jobs are on the line. I want my clients to succeed and make bigger bonuses and raises. I want to help them get case studies to go get their next jobs. I’m passionate about this and I know how it works. I’m passionate about the results, and you’ve got to be relentless in modern marketing to get good business results. You can’t be casually interested in the data and the metrics and achieve superior business results.
Dooley Tombras is the President of Tombras, a 330+ employee, full-service agency in North America. Under Dooley’s leadership, Tombras has been named a Fast Company Most Innovative Company in the World and an Ad Age A-List agency. Dooley is a thought leader and sought-after speaker. He has been featured in the NY Times, Forbes, USA Today and Digiday along with being named one of the 100 most creative people in the marketing industry by ADWEEK. Dooley drives the Tombras culture of Connecting Data and Creativity for Business Results. This has resulted in numerous client EFFIE wins for marketing creativity and effectiveness. He has experience creating culture and driving growth for Orangetheory Fitness, MoonPie, BUSH’s Beans, Coca-Cola, Pernod Ricard, Harry’s Razors, LYFT, McDonald’s, Walmart and ESPN.
Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Nokia, HP, Microsoft, Sprint, Nintendo, Abbott Laboratories and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles and Jif.