May 19, 2022
Amanda Parker, President and Owner, Collective Alternative (Indianapolis, IN)
Amanda Parker is President and Owner at Collective Alternative, a full-service agency that focuses on growing small, mostly local businesses. She started her agency 14 years ago to bring together her background in strategy and development, experience as the Vice President of Marketing for a homebuilder, and passion for Mom-and-Pops, new home construction, and small, home-service businesses. Typical agency clients might include a local plumber trying to compete with bigger plumbing competition.
In this interview, Amanda explains there are a number of differences for successfully working with small businesses as opposed to mega-brand clients. Marketers typically work fast. With small businesses, she has found that it is important to slow down, communicate with the client, and let them know what the agency is trying to accomplish, the end goal/objective, and the benefit of the end goal. They require a lot more “hand-holding” through the process, she explains, and they can’t “afford to waste a single dollar.”
Amanda feels it is also critical to “protect” these smaller clients, to watch both the market and the economy. She also believes an “it’s just business” approach does not work. Larger companies have the resources and resilience to “experiment” with marketing strategies. With smaller companies, errors bleed through to the bottom line and can affect an organization’s survival. With smaller companies,
It is so personal. It doesn’t get any more personal for a small business owner. They have sunk everything into it. They’re working 12-16 hour days. All they want to do is provide for their family, send their daughter to dance class, send their kid to college, whatever it is. It’s personal.
Amanda says she is quite cognizant of her personal weaknesses. In building her agency, she focuses on hiring people who can bring complementary strengths, identifies potential areas of growth, supports continuing education efforts, and brings in experts to help her team “accelerate” their careers.
Some of the agency’s local clients go national. One client they are currently working with provides rehabilitative and mental health care for first responders (fire and police). The client will soon launch a national first responder mental health platform called Shield, which excites Amanda because it facilitates open discussions of mental health.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Amanda Parker, President and Owner at Collective Alternative based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast, Amanda.
AMANDA: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Very excited to be here.
ROB: Absolutely. Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Collective Alternative, and what distinguishes the firm? What is your superpower?
AMANDA: Oh, our superpower. Our firm is unique in we focus on small business. My background with agencies and things like that, I was on the larger accounts, but I really fell in love with the mom n’ pops, the small businesses of the country, and wanted to give them an opportunity to compete and gain some market share. So, we really focus on those mom n’ pop businesses.
I love home services. When I did work on the client-side, I was the Vice President of Marketing for a homebuilder, and I fell in love with it. It got in my blood. So, we love home services and new home construction and all of that. But I just love my small business clients and to see their growth. It’s just amazing.
ROB: That’s excellent. Those businesses, you say small; are they largely local? Are some of them national in scope? Is it heavy into services? Are you helping the local plumber go up against the big guys, or what are the industry specialties?
AMANDA: The majority of our clients are local. We are definitely helping that local plumber go up against the big guys. Even the bigger guy in the area, right? Which I just love. But we do have some clients that are national, or they’ve started local and they’ve grown nationally. We have one client that started here in Indiana, and they provide rehabilitative care, mental health care, all of that kind of thing for first responders – for fire and police. And they are growing on a national scale, especially with a new product they’re taking to market this month. So, it’s really cool to see that growth and be a part of it.
ROB: That’s really exciting to be able to help with that. What is it that you think changed as the firm grows that makes it maybe a different firm specialty? How do you define small as in small business, and what is it that really makes the scope of what they need a great fit for you?
AMANDA: My background is strategy and development, so I really focused on when you’re a small business, you cannot afford to waste a single dollar. I really focus on the strategy behind everything that we do. We don’t throw things at the wall to see what sticks. We are very focused, hone in on – we may do some A/B testing, but for the most part it’s planned out. We know what the payoff is going to be. We know we’re going to deliver the right ROI for our clients, and we really focus in on that strategy to make sure that every dollar they give to us is working for them and paying off.
ROB: There’s definitely a certain pressure. They don’t have a lot of extra dollars for experimental budgets when you’re talking about a small business. And I can imagine there’s probably a range of services you can engage in. How far across the range are you going? You can do anything from SEO, you can do SEM, you can do paid organic social, you can do media, TV, billboards, out-of-home. How far does the rabbit hole go with these clients?
AMANDA: We’re actually a full-service firm, so we do everything that they need. One issue that I always heard from my small business clients was they felt like they had to repeat their initiatives over and over again to a number of different marketing partners. At one point they’re talking to a PR person; then they’re talking to a digital firm; then they’re talking to an SEO firm. It was just all over the place, and they never felt like they had the unity, so they couldn’t tell if their dollars were really working for them or not.
I brought all of those different expertises in-house with different people leading those different areas, and now everything is under one roof and we all collaborate and talk together. So, they don’t have to repeat and they can really see the benefit of it.
ROB: Some services, it’s pretty straightforward; you can show somebody “You’re a plumber, we ran this ad, we tracked the phone numbers, here’s your calls.” Maybe if they’re really detailed, they can see what they got from that. How do you look at something that can be a little bit of a longer term investment?
Let’s say you’re looking at – whether it’s an awareness campaign on a digital billboard, whether it’s maybe something where the outcome – sometimes it’s not 100% certain how well you can do in SEO and what keywords you can optimize for. How do you think about helping them through that process of investing over time? The outcome is a little bit unknown, but directionally, you know because it rhymes with plenty of other clients that you’ve seen.
AMANDA: I think it’s more a matter of educating them and almost holding their hand through the process so they understand what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, they know what the end goal or objective is, and they know what the benefit of that end goal is. A lot of times as marketers, I feel like we go so fast – and we know it, and we know the acronyms and everything else, so we just keep going and going and going, and we don’t slow down enough to communicate to the client and let them know, “Okay, here’s what this means for you, and here’s why I’m doing it, and here’s what I’m hoping to see out of it or I expect to see out of it, and here’s what that means.” So just really overcommunicating that.
ROB: Got it. I can certainly see that. And then there’s I think also a challenge, then, of equipping more and more of your team to walk clients on that journey. How do you help give your team the playbook that is needed so that – you can’t hold everybody’s hand anymore, right?
AMANDA: I can’t. But I want to. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] All these nice little small businesses. They need somebody to hang out with them and help them and hug them, yes.
AMANDA: Yes. I so want to, but I can’t. So, it’s really making sure that my team understands our culture, understands our mission. And if they do and they believe in it and they buy into it, then I know that they will continue to communicate that and advocate for the client. And that’s what I’ve seen. It really comes down to educating the team on what our mission is and then making sure that they believe it in their soul and then get out there and do it.
ROB: Excellent. You mentioned a little bit of your past life and some of the work you’d done for clients before, but that’s still a long distance from actually starting your own agency. So, what was it that pushed you across that boundary and led you to start your own firm?
AMANDA: I constantly heard that I was too vested in my clients and that “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” That kept me up at night. I struggled with that so much because, for a small business, you’d better believe it’s personal. It is so personal. It doesn’t get any more personal for a small business owner. They have sunk everything into it. They’re working 12-16 hour days. All they want to do is provide for their family, send their daughter to dance class, send their kid to college, whatever it is. It’s personal.
I could not get that to settle with my soul, so I remember coming home one day and I told my husband, “Yeah, I’m done. I’m going to do this on my own and I’m going to make it personal.” And our tagline is “Making business personal.” He was like, “Okay, girl, go for it.” And that was 14 years ago.
ROB: Wow, so 14 years. What have been some of the step functions, the inflection points on the journey? Whether it’s key hires, whether it’s service areas, whether it’s a certain degree of scale or things that you don’t do anymore that you used to, what have been some of those key points in the business?
AMANDA: I feel like I have had this rollercoaster journey as a business owner. I’m sure a lot of business owners feel that way, but I have made some doozy mistakes where you hire the wrong person and they don’t buy into the mission, but you just liked them so much, or you felt they had such potential but they don’t want to realize it. I don't know. So, some bad hires along the way. But I’ve had some really great hires.
I created a leadership team around me of some magnificent, magnificently talented people, and they are just incredible. I am so blessed to have them. As you know, this industry changes on a dime. Today it’s one thing, tomorrow it’s another. You have to stay up on that. So, making sure that we hire people who want to change with that and want to realize what’s new – I mean, five years ago what was TikTok? Come on. It’s just really making sure that we’re staying on top of things, that we know what’s coming, that we’re watching the market, we’re watching the economy. We have to protect our clients in ways that other firms don’t.
ROB: Have you found some local business clients for whom TikTok makes good sense and resonates well? What have you seen there?
AMANDA: It’s funny; because they’re home services – and I will say, in Indiana compared to maybe where you are or California, we seem to be a little bit behind some of the coasts. Several of my clients, their big thing this year was getting on Instagram. It is what it is. And now I’m trying to talk to them about influencers and “let’s get in with an influencer, let’s do an influencer campaign.” It’s harder for them to understand what that is or see the benefit of that, but they’re coming around.
We’re doing some cool experimental things for them to see what that looks like. I know it’s their trust in me that’s pushing that, which I appreciate beyond words. But they’re getting there. [laughs] That’s all I can say.
ROB: Sure. And I wonder also, not so much even for anything to reflect on you or your clients, but also as I think about the intersection of the businesses that you work with, simply put, the TikTok feed is not really optimized for local. That’s not an axis that it tends to revolve around, so I could see it being a tricky investment just from that part alone. The dynamic isn’t getting followed. The dynamic is showing up in the algorithmic feed and blowing up there. And TikTok would rather have somebody telling a joke or doing a dance or falling on their face or cute animals than “Here’s how you prepare for freezing your pipes in the winter, and here’s my dance for doing that.” It’s a different thing.
AMANDA: [laughs] Yep, exactly.
ROB: You mentioned, and I’ll pull on it a little bit – we don’t always get a chance to talk through the thinking that goes into exec team, who’s on that boat, what roles, what structure. How have you evolved and emerged and thought about this executive team around you and who’s on it?
AMANDA: I think pretty uniquely in the fact that I have tried to be very self-aware of my weaknesses. My skillset does not include design. It does not include website creation or even brand management, for that matter. So, I knew early on I need very strong people with me on that side that can see the strategy in that and really support me there.
So having a creative director, a VP of Creative, was really important. She was my first hire, and she is still with me today. I have a designer that has been with me for 12 years. It’s treating them like family, but filling in where I know that I am weak and I need to surround myself with strong talent. I think that has been so beneficial for me because then we’ve grown together. We can collaborate together, and together we do some really amazing things.
ROB: It’s interesting when you have someone involved who excels in an area that you need them. You need them to be stronger there. How do you think about continuing to develop those team members in areas where you’re not more of an expert? There are places where you have your expertise and it’s your job to equip and cast vision, and then there’s stuff that you don’t know how to do, and that’s why people are there. How do you help your team grow with the firm?
AMANDA: They still want to grow. They want to accelerate their career, they want to learn other things. We do a lot of training. We do a lot of bringing experts in. If they want to go to a conference or something like that, all of that is on the table. We do a lot of sharing newsletters, articles, videos. We do a lot of that back and forth so we all have that knowledge base, but they’re still learning. And then it’s constantly giving them a challenge. “Here’s an area of growth that I see,” and getting them to realize that, see that, and then jump in and participate in it.
ROB: It’s always an interesting challenge, especially when you get outside of your wheelhouse a little bit, so I do appreciate that thinking.
As you reflect on the journey of the firm, Amanda, what are some things you think about? What have you learned along the way? What would you go back and tell yourself “Don’t do that, do it this way” if you could? Reflect on those things you might’ve done differently if you were starting from zero.
AMANDA: Oh, my goodness, that list is lengthy. There have been a couple times that we were primed to grow, we knew we needed help – this is where I learned this lesson – and instead of hiring for culture or fit that way, we hired doers that could just support the work and do the work. It just didn’t work out. It was a huge influx of people all of a sudden that we weren’t ready for. We didn’t train them appropriately. We did not set them up for success. That was a big lesson for me to learn, that I had hired the wrong way.
I always try to leave people better than I found them, and I know those people I did not set up for success, and that was really tough for me. It was tough for me to get over that and move on to, “Okay, I had perhaps a negative impact on their life. I still need to take care of my clients and continue to build, so I need to reset. What does that look like so I don’t do that again?” That’s tough. It’s tough as a business owner to know that you have that kind of impact.
ROB: Yeah. But it’s personal. You said it from the start. That part of the business is personal for you as well, so it’s consistent. It pulls through. Even the wrong decisions aren’t just like, “Oh, forget that person, they should’ve known better.” You see that in business, and some people operate that way, and that’s personal. That gets taken very differently, personally. It’s a different lane.
AMANDA: It really does. It’s kept me up at night. And then there’s those things that if I could go back and tell this person “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what I should have known” or “I hadn’t learned that lesson” – you want to, and then at the same time, you’re the boss, so you’re always going to be the bad guy. [laughs] I mean, where’s the line, right?
ROB: Yep. We’re in an interesting spot, an interesting turning point. We’re coming into the summer of 2022. Everybody’s done their different versions of office and no office, “how is my team structured, where is my team?” How are you thinking about the location and gathering of your team in-person as we’re going through 2022?
AMANDA: That’s funny. When COVID came – and that was another lesson in and of itself – but when COVID came on, I was watching the news. I sent all my team home early. Before the mandate even rolled out, I had sent them to work from home.
In the middle of May, my leadership team called me and said, “We’re going back to the office with or without you.” And that was May of 2020. I was like, “Um, there’s still a mandate.” I’m trying to talk through it, and they’re like, “No. We need to collaborate. This is what we do for our clients. We’re going back to the office June 1. You do whatever you need to do to make sure that happens, but we’re going back to the office.”
It just so happened to roll with the timeline; they had lifted some restrictions at that point, so we could. And we’ve been in the office since June 1st of 2020. We’ve been very fortunate with – we try to stay healthy. If somebody’s sick, stay home, that kind of thing. But yeah, they want to be here. They want to collaborate. So that’s where we are.
ROB: It sounds like you didn’t have to pull them into it. Did you have anybody who tried to move somewhere or tried to go remote first? Or that just wasn’t your lane?
AMANDA: We did lose two people. One person had to move to Texas to take care of her family, and then another person was just not comfortable coming into the office and she actually quit. That was unfortunate, because we liked both of them, but this is where we do our best work, and we have to perform for those clients.
ROB: I’m sure you’ve had to, whether it was those folks and you had to backfill them or new roles you’ve had to hire – have you found that there are people who are ready to be in an office? That’s a lane you’ve chosen and they’re like, “These are my people, I want to be in an office too”? How are you seeing this from a recruiting advantage perspective?
AMANDA: That’s funny; I was just on an interview yesterday and she said she’s worked from home since 2018, and she wants back in an office so bad that she’s changed her career path and is moving over to marketing so she can go back in an office. It’s out there. People want to be back to work. They want to be back in an office. I think you have a mix. There are still some people that are enjoying the work remote. But for the most part, I’ve seen, and we’ve heard in our interviews, people are ready. They are ready to come back in.
ROB: I think a lot of people really want clarity, too. They want to know what the plan is instead of being in permanent limbo. You see some of the tech companies are back and forth, and people don’t quite know. There’s people who moved to Idaho from Silicon Valley. They’re building a house there. They’re not going back.
AMANDA: Yeah, exactly.
ROB: But where you’re in limbo or it’s like now you’re going back – infamously, this past week, a VP of I think machine learning at Apple just said, “No, I’m not coming back to the office. I don’t want to do that. I will take a job somewhere else.” Now, them announcing that loudly is probably a good way to get some recruiting calls as well. But I think people want to know, and when it shifts, I think that’s when the moment of truth happens.
We have hired all over the place, so we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We did most of our growth during COVID. We’ve found ourselves in making a different choice. But our choice is still that we’re going to get together several times a year in a different place, and we’re still going to get on planes and spend time with sufficiently large clients. I think people still kind of know that. They want to be in a lane where they value getting together sometimes, but they want to be at home.
I think the clarity of letting people know, as well as the proof – people can see the proof. They can see the proof on your LinkedIn. Where are your people? If all of your people are in one place, they’re going to take that message. If people are all over the place, they’re going to feel safe being somewhere else. We just hired somebody in Canada, which is a whole other interesting thing. We’ll enjoy getting to know her.
AMANDA: I love the fact that remote opens up so much opportunity for people, and they can change to a different company or they can change to a different career path or whatever. I think that is perfect. But my team loves being together, loves to collaborate together. It’s the culture we’ve built, so we’re all here in Indiana and going to stay put.
ROB: I’m glad it’s working for you. As you’re looking forward to the future of marketing, the future of services you provide, the future of your clients, what’s coming up for Collective Alternative that you’re excited about, for clients, for the overall trends in marketing in general?
AMANDA: That’s a great question. We have right now – and I mentioned it a little bit earlier – one client that is launching a new platform. It’s called Shield, and it is a mental health platform for first responders, police and fire. I love the fact that we get to be very real and talk about how challenging their job is and how they do have those same needs that other people do. We get to talk about mental health openly.
It’s so taboo, especially in that field, so if we can start to penetrate that and really start to show that even anonymously, they can take these assessments and see where they’re at, gauge what is going on, and they can self-assess – then maybe that helps them, or maybe that tells them, “Oh, I do drink a little bit too much. Maybe I should reach out and get some help with that.” Or “Maybe I should cut that.” Whatever it is so that they can be healthier, be better, and be better representatives of the community. So, it still has that community tie, but it’s on a national scale. I’m really excited about that.
As far as trends, like I mentioned, the influencer thing. We’ve got a couple influencer campaigns going on, one with a remodeling client of ours. He’s all for it, so we’re talking about lifestyle and remodeling trends, and it’s been a lot of fun. Just doing some of those things to really set our clients apart and speak more to who they are and showcase that – I love it. I love it every day.
ROB: That’s exciting. There’s a lot of good things coming up. I think it’s a really opportune time to engage people in some change that they’re seeking in their lives. I think people have realized – kind of like where they choose to work. They’re in whatever rut they’ve been in, but there’s some energy to do something different as other parts of their lives change. That’s very exciting and very timely.
Amanda, when people want to find and connect with you, with Collective Alternative, where should they go to track you down?
AMANDA: They can visit our website, collectivealternative.com, or thecaway.com, or they can reach out by email, email@example.com. Give me a call, you name it. There’s a number of ways; you can find me all over the web.
ROB: There it is. Excellent. And you can find you in your office as well.
ROB: [laughs] Thank you so much, Amanda. It’s been good to learn about you, to learn about Collective Alternative. Thank you for sharing your story and your journey with the audience. Really appreciate it.
AMANDA: Thank you for having me. It was so fun.
ROB: Thank you. Take care.
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