Apr 8, 2021
John Limotte, Founder and CEO of Mustache Agency, started his career as a film producer making indie and arthouse films. When that business became more difficult (impacted by, among other things, the rise of the internet), John looked for a way to use his skills doing something that looked more like a real business. He saw potential in the field of marketing for “more cinematic . . . epic . . . more longform storytelling.” So, he started a very small video production agency and took jobs one by one to see where things would go.
Ten years later, Mustache is a creative content agency with client services spread across three lines: integrated campaigns, video production and post-production, and social. The core of the agency’s work is content and digital content, with a focus on storytelling and creating epic, engaging video content . . . doing high-quality, cost-effective work. Even from the early days, the agency produced hundreds of videos a month. The client “playlist” includes such “big names” as Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon, a lot of tech disruptors, Instacart, Grammarly, and YouTube.
When Mustache works with Facebook and Instagram, the agency gets the “inside scoop” on their best practices, new products, what’s working on the platform, and how to tailor content for the platform. John says the agency is learning from the platforms “how to hack them,” but then admits that the only real hack is creating “really good, sticky content.” Working on those platforms has increased the agency’s effectiveness and provided the opportunity to work with the digital disruptor brands that heavily advertise on those platforms.
John says the key to his agency’s success is “hiring good people who are passionate, have expertise, and know what they’re doing; keeping the focus on high level storytelling; and demanding that whatever content goes out still moves the needle.” He says, “There is no hack. There is no foolproof system.”
You need to think about who your audience is, you need to think about who you are, and you have to think about what you want them to do and the best way to get them there, and you need to do that . . . through content and storytelling. You still need a hook. You still need to make people laugh. You still need to tell a story, have a journey. Even as the formats and the aspect ratios change, those things remain the same.
Mustache has never focused on a single vertical. John sees a lot of upside for his business across a wide variety of verticals. Why? John says industries today are evolving in the direction of increased video content . . . especially since COVID. He sees another upcycle and no end in the demand for and consumption of content.
John is best reached on his agency’s website at: mustacheagency.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by John Limotte, Founder and CEO of Mustache Agency based in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to the podcast, John.
JOHN: Thank you, Rob. Nice to be here.
ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. Would rather be up in New York, but we can talk about that. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Mustache and where the firm excels?
JOHN: Sure. Mustache is a creative content agency based in Brooklyn. We essentially offer three lines of services: integrated campaigns, video production and post-production, and social. Our clients are pretty evenly spread across those buckets.
But at the core of everything we do is content, video content. We came up as a video production company focused on storytelling and creating epic, engaging video content. Eight or ten years later, depending on when you count the start date, our focus remains the same and it continues to be what we do best.
ROB: It seems like you’ve really had the privilege to work with some clients that others would dream of. How do you make that jump from starting with – I don’t know if it’s you and a camera or what it looks like, but how do you start punching so heavyweight to work with some of these big names? You can run off whoever you’re comfortable talking about.
JOHN: Our first client was a plaintiff’s law firm in the Bronx, and we were doing some pretty tactical digital marketing and $1,000 videos for him. We dubbed him “the King of the Bronx” and did a lot of man on the street videos of him because he was a true man of the people. From there, it’s evolved greatly.
These days we’re working with everyone from Facebook, Google . . . Netflix is a big client of ours, Amazon, a lot of tech disruptors, Instacart, Grammarly . . . we do a lot of work with YouTube. How we got there is a great question. I wouldn’t say that it was any sort of thought-out path. Some of it is just, I think, good fortune. But from the beginning we were focused on content and digital content, storytelling, video storytelling, and just doing that really, really well and cost effectively in a model that was outside the traditional agency model back in say 2012.
With that focus, a lot of these companies just found us. We did some viral video campaigns, some YouTube campaign. We were doing some episodic web content that got some attention. In a lot of cases, being in the content business led to the work proliferating because we were creating, even from the early days, hundreds of videos a month. From there, word got out and eventually we found ourselves working with some of these bigger companies.
I should say those are not retainer clients; we would be at an entirely different scale. These are all giant organizations that work with tons of companies in different niches and different capacities. So, it’s the biggest companies in the world, but sometimes they’re just small little campaigns that they hire us for, and we’ve been really fortunate that they do.
One thing I’ll add about that, too, is that for us it’s created a kind of virtuous cycle. When we’re working with Facebook and Instagram and we’re talking about best practices, new products, what’s working on the platform, and how to tailor content for the platform, we’re learning from the platforms themselves how to hack them, really – although the truth is, there’s not a lot of hacks except creating really good sticky content. But there are a lot of things you can do that we learn from them, and those make us more effective. I think that led to more work with the digital disruptor brands that are doing most of their advertising on those platforms.
ROB: It’s interesting because Instagram really has the visibility to look at every video that’s made, just about, and decide who they want to work with. It’s a pretty high compliment.
One thing I want to pull on a little bit is that you mentioned even early on having hundreds of videos in flight at a time. That sounds overwhelming to me. I wonder how you’re able to keep track of all of that. I know a bunch of people who have started video agencies, and not many of them that I know have crested that 10-20 person range. So, I wonder if there’s some key in how you manage that scale and beyond that has helped you make it over the hump.
JOHN: I will say that scaling great creative at good pricing is the bane of our existence. It’s a challenge that you never win, in a way. It’s never over. There’s always the quest to do more and to do it better and to do it more cost effectively. I’ve never had that feeling of like “Oh, we cracked it. We’re good.” It’s just something that you have to continually be working at. We have a lot of smart people who spend a lot of time thinking on this problem and what kind of systems, what kind of processes.
But again, one of my themes is that there’s no hack. There’s no foolproof system. There’s not some proprietary technology that we’ve developed. At the end, at the core of it is hiring good people who are passionate and have expertise and know what they’re doing, keeping the focus on high level storytelling, and demanding that whatever content goes out still moves the needle.
People often ask me why we never focus on a particular vertical because we’ve always moved across verticals. I think for us, the question is easy because our focus has always been content, storytelling – just focused on that. We’ve built up a lot of expertise around that capability. At the same time, as I said, we’re always working on the best workflow, the best system, the best structure. We’ve done a couple of reorgs over time as we gain new insight.
We’ve also benefited from the fact that it’s been organic. It’s not like we started Day 1 making 100 videos per client per activation. I think much like the industry itself, it started with a TV 30 and then a couple of cutdowns, and the business has grown from there in terms of iteration and scale. We’ve had the good fortune of growing – from there it was 10 deliverables and then it was 100. Every client is different. Every circumstance is different. It’s not like you need 100 videos or you need 10. But generally speaking, the numbers have gone up, and they’ve gone up steadily so that we’ve been able to adapt and adjust as the volume and the needs increase.
ROB: I think I have an idea, but for all of us, including me, what is a cutdown?
JOHN: Basically just taking a 30-second spot or a 60-second spot, whatever the longer form of the content might be, and cutting it into smaller pieces – 15s, 6s, and so on.
ROB: Got it. I think we’ve all seen that and now we know what to call it. It seems like one key may also be your involvement on the social side. With that as a line of service, it seems like that would give you insights into not just the overall raw performance of the content, but more specifically, you can get into the metrics and look at the performance of the content with the audience it was intended for as well as uncovering unexpected audiences. It seems like that would feed back into strategy. Are the platforms giving you the metrics you need to draw that sort of insight?
JOHN: The clients are mostly pretty proprietary in terms of the platforms themselves, but you’re able to track in social and digital performance yourself and see how things are working. When we’re working with brand clients, often they’ll share with us the data and the results, so we’re also able to see from that.
So yeah, it’s been a tremendous feedback loop. In some ways we came into this with a very non-data, very intuitive approach, like “What is an insight that feels resonant? Let’s tell a story about that in a way that to us feels compelling and impactful.” You never lose that eye towards the content, but then once you start working in social and you start getting more digital execution and getting that information about what’s working and what isn’t and you start being able to test different things and different hypotheses about content, then you’re approaching it from both sides. You’re using both your intuitive instincts around content and storytelling and you’re able to look at the data. I think that’s a pretty powerful one-two punch.
ROB: For sure. John, if we rewind a little bit, go back in time even before that plaintiff attorney client, what was it that led you to take this jump and start the firm in the first place? Where did Mustache come from?
JOHN: It was born somewhat of desperation, to be honest. I was a film producer back in another life and I was making indie films and arthouse films, the type of things that would go to Sundance and South by Southwest and hopefully find a distributor for it. I loved the business, but it was changing and becoming more difficult. Actually, with the rise of the web, that began to threaten that business in some respects, or at least in the form that I knew it.
So, I started thinking about where else I could apply my skills. Is there something that more resembles an actual business? Film has this magical fantasy element to it where you’re inspired by a story and you make it and hope that the world loves it. I was certainly drawn to the fact that there is a business that rewards creative and content and needs good stories. Especially at the time, in 2010, it felt like there was a real opportunity for more cinematic and epic storytelling, more longform storytelling. There was some minor identification of an opportunity and a shift.
I think it was that combination of me looking for something new, seeing that there might be a place where this thinking might resonate, and then just starting in a very small and taking it job by job way and seeing where it went.
ROB: It seems like very good timing. All of these video platforms emerged, and coming from a different perspective, you kind of got to take on being a video agency digital-first, where people probably had more TV experience. It’s really interesting timing there, especially as all these video platforms have come around.
I think we all know the key video platforms that we talked about and how Twitter has become, to an extent, a video platform, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc., and then TikTok is in that conversation as well. Is there anything emerging that maybe is not quite in the mainstream conversation that we need to think about?
JOHN: I’ll say this. As I think about where the business is going, I feel somewhat stunned by the level of change that I think is upon us and the level of acceleration in technology and platform adaption and adoption.
Every industry is moving towards, and evolving very quickly, especially since COVID, in a way that supports and needs more video content. If you think about obviously e-comm and omnichannel thinking around e-comm, if you think about the medical business, healthcare, it’s becoming online and more digital. Work from home, IoT, driverless cars are going to need content inside them.
I don’t have my eye on anything new so much as trends that we’ve been tracking for a while just exploding, an inflection point on those trends, and the need for content. I think a lot of people think content’s had a great run. People have been saying content is king for 15 years now, it’s a cliché. But the truth is, I feel like we’re ready for another upcycle in the demand for and consumption of content. I just see no end there.
So that’s our focus. Does that answer the question? It’s not exactly something new, but it’s what I’m thinking about.
ROB: I think so. One thing that strikes me as you get into it is the absolute explosion of different formats and lengths. When you talked about the cutdowns earlier, it used to be a 30-second ad was normal and you knew the aspect ratio. But now you have square, portrait, landscape. Do you want 5, 10, 30 seconds? Are you injecting this ad in the middle of somebody playing a game? Where is this thing going? It seems like that continues to shift. You don’t have to worry about Quibi, but you might have had to on ads that had to be able to be rotated to different aspect ratios.
JOHN: We had to. Quibi was a big client of ours. [laughs] So yeah, we were very much up in their business and we did social for them. We’ve been thinking about these things for a while, and I think you’re right; it’s sometimes overwhelming to think about the proliferation of formats and lengths.
Two things I’ll say about that. One is that the core of what we do remains unchanged. You need to think about who your audience is, you need to think about who you are, and you have to think about what you want them to do and the best way to get them there, and you need to do that, at least for us, through content and storytelling. You still need a hook. You still need to make people laugh. You still need to tell a story, have a journey. Even as the formats and the aspect ratios change, those things remain the same. At a certain point you realize that it’s helpful in some ways because you’re like, okay, it hasn’t changed that much. We’re still doing essentially the same thing; we just need to make sure we have the expertise we need across these platforms, whether it’s Twitter or Amazon, so that we know how they speak on those platforms.
It also brings me to one other thing I like to talk about. A lot of times you’ll hear people say with the amount of content becoming so overwhelming, people’s attention spans have shrunk and people don’t have time or interest in anything longer form. What you used to have to tell in 60 seconds and then 30 and then 15 and then 6, now you have to tell in 3 or the blink of an eye.
I don’t think that’s true. I think there is an element of having to use the right format and length, the right platform, but you just need to think harder about how to make your content break through, about a hook, about something to get people’s attention. Sometimes and in some ways the answer might be longer form content. I certainly reject the notion of a race to the briefest, shortest form content possible.
ROB: Certainly understood on that. I’ve heard some conversations on how quickly you have to hook someone. Maybe they’ll stick around, but do you have to set the hook sooner to earn the rest of their attention?
JOHN: Well, that’s true. It’s true because people’s thumbs are moving. Attention spans have changed. I do think that notion is very true. You do have to hook them because otherwise you’ll lose them.
ROB: I appreciate that I think you’re holding strong to the value of, as you mentioned, storytelling, of creativity. It reminds me a little bit of these rules in the world of standup comedy. I think you’re supposed to make them laugh every 6 seconds, and if you don’t, then they’ll not like you, and if you do, then they probably will like you. But then you have Dave Chapelle. Dave Chapelle gets to be himself, and he’s not going to make you laugh every 6 seconds, but he has his own style that is nonetheless extremely popular.
JOHN: I think that’s a great point. The rules may be true and relevant, but the real artists break free of them and are able to operate outside them. Some things can be true and not true at the same time, and I think it’s true whether it’s the comedy rules or the rules of advertising.
ROB: Indeed. John, looking at your background, looking at how you built up on the film side, I think that’s interesting. This is not your first rodeo, starting a business.
JOHN: That’s right.
ROB: You did that, you started over with Mustache; if you’re looking back at what you’ve done, what have you learned that you might do differently if you were starting clean?
JOHN: It’s a really interesting question. I often think about myself say 10 years ago, and I often come to the conclusion, “What a dumbass you were 10 years ago. You really didn’t know anything. If I had just had all the knowledge and experience then that I have now, I could’ve done so much more.” I think that’s true now, but at the same time, all the experiences, all the choices, they were all made in a way that I’m happy with the way they played out. So, there’s no one thing that stands out.
I will say, though, one thing does stand out and that’s diversity and inclusion. I think we’ve all come to understand the importance of that, and it’s something that’s been on my radar from the beginning of Mustache, but I didn’t give it the attention that I should have in the early days. What I would say is it was very existential. You’re young and you’re hungry and you’re small and you’re desperate for any work. If someone wants to work with you, you’re like, “Yeah, that’s great. Let’s go.” So you’re less discerning. I had less time to think about it and really plan and do the work.
I feel like maybe that is one thing that if I could go back and talk to myself 10 years earlier, I would’ve given myself that one bit of advice. I’ve found once we’ve done that, as we’ve done that over the years and gotten better at it over the course of the last 10 years, how beneficial it’s been for the work and for the clients and for the culture. So that’s something.
ROB: What did the steps look like to start to turn that corner? I think we all understand the tyranny of the urgent, the “I have to solve this problem now. I need to hire this creative by next week or next month” or whatever it is. What did you put in place to get more intentional there and maybe recruit some people you might’ve otherwise overlooked?
JOHN: That’s really interesting because it never ends, especially in our business, which tends to be really fast and furious. A good chunk of our business is project-based. So, in some ways it’s the realization that the perfect moment never comes. People talk about wanting to have kids but they’re too busy, and they keep telling themselves they’re too busy. People will say to them, “It’ll never be the right time if that’s how you think about it.”
That’s how I think about this. There’s never a moment where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve checked off everything on my list. I’ve got it completely under control. Now I can sit back and do it right.” It just doesn’t happen. You have to prioritize things and move things around. You have to do the things that you have to do, that feel like imperatives.
I think for me, that was the shift. It was like, we’re never not facing a client rush/crisis/huge opportunity that I have to focus on because we need to get it. What I had to do was figure out within that context how to move forward anyway with the things that matter. I think once that switch flipped and we were like, we’re going to start building that into every choice and everything we do, then we started getting the results that that kind of work suggests.
ROB: When you’re on that topic, it makes me think back – we had an agency we talked to on this podcast at South by Southwest a couple of years ago. They’re a neighbor of yours, but that doesn’t mean you’ve heard of them just because you’re in New York. The Soze Agency. Are you familiar with them?
JOHN: Yeah, yeah. Isn’t it a freelance style, like a loose affiliation or collection of creators or something like that?
ROB: I believe they call it a co-op. When I first heard it, it rang as a very Brooklyn thing to say that you were a collective and whatever else.
JOHN: I love the Keyser Söze reference.
ROB: They’re super, super intentional in this area, and I really have appreciated following them since they were on the podcast. But they have an equity model that is interesting. I think they’re going to opensource – I don’t know if they will or not. I don’t mean to speak for them. Everyone vests in ownership, but then they don’t take it with them when they leave, so it goes back into the pool and everybody gets to share.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I’ve thought about that over the years and struggled with how to pair that with the imperatives of running a small business in an epically fast-changing landscape. But I think it’s really interesting, and I’ve certainly spent time thinking about if it could work, how it could work, what the problems are. In some ways, Mustache was a dictatorship in the sense that if I saw an opportunity or wanted to make a change, I just did it, and there’s nothing faster than one person deciding to do something. And that speed was critical at times.
But on the other hand, there’s things that might’ve been lost, good choices and good opportunities that might have been missed because we didn’t have a more collective style. So, it’s a real head-scratcher in some ways. I see the upside; I get stuck on some of the downside. But I think there’s something there and I think there’s a future there. I just don’t think I’ve figured out how to crack it exactly.
ROB: Someone’s going to have to pay some lawyers some money to figure it out, and that’s a trick too. I think what’s interesting is I have been previously very much in tech startup land, and there’s a model there that’s predicated around growth and around increasing valuations and giving equity. It just doesn’t apply in a services firm. You can’t hire somebody and give them 1% and then have them walk out the door a few years later. Then your cap table is just a mess. You can’t keep giving people this promise of the unlimited upside. When a company goes from a $10 million valuation to a $100 million valuation, they can get away with giving away smaller and smaller chunks in a way that would seem silly in a services firm.
JOHN: It’s interesting you say that, Rob, because as you were saying, it also occurred to me that the valuations matter. If you have a billion dollar pie, it’s a lot easier to split up.
The other thing has to do with margins. We’re in content/creative. It tends to be a very low margin, tight business. If you’re not in the tech valuations, you at least need to have a business model that’s geared towards really high margins, really fat profits, because that gives you a little more leeway to do things. And maybe that’s self-serving in some way, like if you implement the model, you’ll move towards a space that is more profitable. But I think you need one or the other. Those valuations or you need to be in a business that’s not razor-thin margins, I think, to make it work.
ROB: It’s good to have the conversation. I hear from some people who say a services firm, you want 20-30% margins. I don’t know how that holds up, but I think what you’re saying about setting the sights high – it just gives you more freedom to execute. I think that’s what you’re hinting it. We went all virtual, and if your margins are good, when you have people coming from six different cities, you can talk about flying somewhere and meeting up.
JOHN: That’s right.
ROB: If you don’t have good margins, then you say “We’re all going to hide in our caves and never meet each other.”
JOHN: [laughs] That’s right. So true. My reality.
ROB: [laughs] John, when people want to get in touch with you and with Mustache Agency, how should they connect with you?
JOHN: Our website is the best place to start, mustacheagency.com. There’s plenty of different ways you can contact us from there.
ROB: And people should go to that website. It’s very visually stimulating. I think it puts your work in a very good light.
JOHN: Thank you.
ROB: I’m glad the work has gone into the front door there as well. Sometimes it’s hard to spend the energy on yourself.
JOHN: So true.
ROB: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, John. I think it’s been helpful to learn from your journey and helpful to think about the areas of business, the lines of business you’ve chosen and how they synthesize together and where all this video, and particularly advertising, is going in the digital land. I really appreciate it.
JOHN: Yeah, thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
ROB: All right. Be well, John. Bye.
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