I started The Creative Company in 1989 when I was a senior in college. While doing a little research on my longevity and wanting to make sure we continue for at least another 20 years, I contacted the National Business Women’s Council to see how I rank. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, I had a 1 in 6 chance of making it this far. Given that I had no connections, I was 21 years old and no money, I doubt anyone would have chosen me for the “most likely to succeed” award. But here we are - 25 years later - with many awards and accolades including Southwest Wisconsin’s Business Women of the Year, Several Best Place to Work Awards, Recognized as one of the Best Ad Agencies in Wisconsin (Gold) by Readers of Corporate Report Wisconsin and many other industry awards and accolades for our work (Addy’s and Alchemy Awards). I’ve also served on a national board for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation (2+ Terms). Fun fact: Fewer than 16.6% of women are ever invited to serve on a national board.
But to be frank, I was conflicted about some of the statistics I found. It turns out that women tend to be far more under capitalized than men which is one of the reasons the average women owned business does $130,000 a year. This naturally leads to fewer employees and as it turns out, less than 10% of women owned businesses have employees. Most experience faltering growth as they reach 5 to 9 employees or earn $250,000 a year. (Source: AmEx Open). In other words, there is a glass ceiling of sorts for women although it doesn’t appear that experts know exactly what that ceiling is all about.
My first decade was a struggle. Although I had employees, they were young like me which meant that we were all learning as we worked to some extent. But we had many wins during those years as we represented clients in the hospitality industry and a telephone company at a time of rapid change. I also began working with the Small Business Development Center at the UW which was of great help. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s though that the company took off. We benefitted from a robust economy which was a relief after two Gulf wars and 9/11. In addition to media buying and strong creative, we also created a management consulting division to help brands grow from the inside. We hit over a million a year in 2003 and enjoyed growth and success along with our clients. This also put us in an elite class of business owners as fewer than 6% of male owned businesses and 2% of female owned businesses hit these numbers.
I turned 40 the same year as the recession. The recession had a profound affect on Creative Company as retailers cut budgets in droves. People weren’t buying cars and jewelry and so the agency that supports them needed to make a change. As it turns out, it was a change for the better.
I rewrote the business plan in July of 07 creating a future for Creative Company that focused more on showing, not telling. Stronger design. Better stories. And online integration of everything - from email marketing to social media and websites, this was our space to thrive in. Branding stories that mattered to the hearts and minds of customers was a winning strategy as well as showing not telling and using new technology worked for us and our clients.
Seven years later, it was a good decision although admittedly, it felt in many ways like starting over. Sales were a decade low point when we made the change though so there was no where to go but up. Yes, there were clients who changed with us and many new ones that came along, but the skill set it required also brought new staffing needs and in an industry where change is ever present and the channels themselves are ever changing, the pace is different, the challenges are real and the competition is tough and yet we’ve experienced double digit growth every year with respectable margins for our industry. We’ve also given well over $100,000 to non-profits in the community (over the last 5 years alone) helping to build lives of young people, feed the hungry and making a positive impact on the lives of many here in Dane County.
Years ago, I heard a management consultant speak about lessons learned on the turnaround trail. I still remember the title because it resonated with me and my own story. There are continuous set backs and wins in business. Your ability to remain flexible, work towards tomorrow and be open to new ideas and new possibilities is essential for your success. To some extent, you also have to be what the market needs you to be and like them, you must be willing to change. Last but not least, you absolutely must be resilient.
Today, women-owned firms represent one of the fastest growing segments of the economy, experiencing growth at 44%, twice as fast as men. (Source: Economic and Studies Administration). I am encouraged about this data for other women because of my own successes professionally and personally as a business owner but how many will make it to the top is anyone’s guess. There are gender barriers that still exist as the COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandburg clearly points out in her book, Lean In.
But there are countless rewards for those who dare to lean in. Through the agency, I’ve been able to shape Madison in many ways as we’ve worked tirelessly behind the scenes on the PR front and we’ve helped countless businesses achieve real growth through better advertising and marketing both online and off. I’ve also personally had a chance to work alongside and become friends with many leaders both here and across the country and together, we’ve created career opportunities for many people over the years mentoring some and learning from others but always collaborating for the greater good. 25 years and thousands of connections later with a thriving team in an incredible community, I’m glad I made the decision to go into business.
I often say, I’ve never had a Dilbert day. I’ve been many things as the CEO of The Creative Company - challenged, frustrated, exhausted, excited, courageous, bold and even fearless but I have never, not for one second, been bored. Every day, I’m given a blank sheet of paper, a spreadsheet with goals that must be met, clients to serve and a community with great needs. On my best days, I’m a passionate creator with great vision. On my worst days, I am, if nothing else, tenacious. And I think that’s the secret - I never ever give up - not on this business, not on Madison, not on my team and not on myself.
Founder and President
The Creative Company, Inc.