Jun 10, 2021
Bant Breen is Founder and Chairman at Qnary, an agency that focuses on optimizing and growing the executive online presence because, as Bant explains in this interview, “Every executive has an online footprint and that footprint matters,” especially for large organizations. Bant believes it takes more than telling a brand’s story through advertising or brand messaging to effectively market a brand. “People don’t want to talk to companies,” he says. “They want to talk to people.” The reputation of an individual executive and what he or she stands for and says impact people’s perception of that executive’s company/cause/enterprise, the professional and personal opportunities the executive will get, and the opportunities the organization will receive. When executives “tell the story,” that story becomes dimensionally deeper, richer, and more complex.
Qnary’s platform allows customers “to hear the voices that make up” a company/brand and to get a more dimensional view. The company connects better with both its clients and employees . . . and the story and the company become more dynamic. The agency relies heavily on technology and has created a formula that:
Bant has deep history in advertising. Over his career, he set up a number of technology-based units for other organizations, from Ansible (an early mobile marketing agency to the IPG Media Lab (an emerging technologies thinktank for Reprise – an early leader in search marketing). In 2010, he was inducted into the American Advertising Hall of Achievement. He launched Qnary when he decided it was time to start his own technology company.
Qnary has modules that enable executives to develop and “own” their personal webpages, an important part of “executive presence.” A client’s answers to a long list of questions enable the agency to draft and structure content and to optimize web pages to meet target objectives. The pages are structured around content pillars, a limited number of selected core topics. An example of these pillars might be
Bant is working hard to automate the day-to-day marketing stuff to enable companies to scale more easily and free up individuals to pursue “great solutions and great ideas.” As have many agencies since the start of Covid, Qnary has gone “digital/virtual.” Although the “spine” of his organization is digital, Bant emphasizes the importance of taking “real estate savings” and reinvesting the money to strengthen an organization’s digital culture.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Bant Breen, Founder and Chairman at Qnary, based in New York, New York, with offices in Spain and Australia as well. Welcome to the podcast, Bant.
BANT: It’s great to be here.
ROB: It’s great to have you here. I think I want your office configuration just for vacations, so I’m jealous of those office locations.
BANT: I have to say that when we opened up a European office, I think strategically we probably should’ve placed it in what used to be part of Europe, which would’ve been London. But I am married to a Spaniard, and if I had thought of putting the European office anywhere else than Spain, I don’t think I would be married. [laughs]
ROB: Depending on the relevance of your firm, you can argue that you really want to go to Mobile World Congress or something like that.
ROB: There are reasons to be there. Bant, why don’t you start off by telling us about Qnary and what the firm’s superpowers and specializations are?
BANT: Sure. Qnary is a company that focuses on optimizing and growing the online presence for executives. We’ve built out a technology that does a couple of different things. It optimizes the findability and the connection that an executive would have with specific topics via their social media channels; it generates thought leadership content for them, whether that be short form content like a LinkedIn post or a tweet or a longform piece of content like a blog or a video. It then grows and engages the audience that will see that content based on the specific topic that the executive wants to be a thought leader in.
We started the business and I think when we started it, people didn’t really know that they even had an online footprint. Now it’s very commonplace, and as you can imagine, in a world with COVID, an executive’s online presence seems to matter more than ever.
ROB: That makes perfect sense. I see you have your own personal website at bantbreen.com. Is it safe to assume that this has some connection to the firm and your technology?
BANT: Yeah, one of the development modules that we have develops personal webpages. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to help executives own their online footprint as much as possible, and one of the ways that you can do that is obviously via a personal webpage. We think it’s important for executives to develop that.
ROB: It certainly looks great. I think someone would wonder, knowing that your firm is of a decent size, how do you connect a sizable opportunity to – I think a personal website can sound small, but build the bigger picture here. What’s at stake, and how do you have such a healthy team and technology platform? Is it that executive audience where at a certain size, the executive presence has material value? Have you scaled more laterally across lots of executives?
BANT: You can visit our website, qnary.com. That’s our corporate website for sure. But I would actually say that philosophically, what we believe, and what drove the creation of Qnary, is that every executive has an online footprint, and that footprint matters. It matters in terms of the reputation of the individual executive, the reputation of the company or the cause or the enterprise that that individual is associated with, the opportunities that that executive will receive personally and professionally, as well as the opportunities the company that’s associated will receive.
The difference really is that I spent a good chunk of my career working in branding and advertising, and I think that for big corporations, I would say that one of the things that has fundamentally changed is that the idea that the brand’s story can just be told through advertising or through brand messaging is completely false. The importance of the executives telling the story, dimensionalizing that story, is of more importance today than ever before. That’s really where Qnary comes in. Qnary comes in as a tool that allows companies to do that effectively and manage the dimensionality and complexity that comes with that.
ROB: That certainly makes sense. The companies that I see that seem to do this the best figure out not only how to elevate the CEO, but how to continue elevating the next generations and next layers of leaders. Do you find that corporate clients are interested in that multilayered executive presence?
BANT: I think that if you were to go into traditional communications, you would see that a lot of comms directors really hate when any executive talks because they’re worried that the executive’s going to say the wrong thing. [laughs] But over the last I’d say decade, there’s been an aggressive push. You have CEOs for sure speaking more and sharing more. There’s a variety of reasons why that’s important, from literally just connection with employees as well as clients, but also from a technical perspective.
But other companies have looked at it from a variety of perspectives. I think the first thing we saw companies do was what got known as employee advocacy. Employee advocacy was basically the comms team drafting a tweet and then asking the bottom two-thirds of the organization to share that out with their friends and family. So it’d be like, “We have a sweeter sun-kissed orange. Tell all your friends and family about that.”
At Qnary we really feel that that kind of blatant shilling on behalf of your company will only go so far with your friends and family. It’s a great way to lose friends quickly. [laughs] But certainly what has become clear to me is that the culture and the dynamism of companies today is driven by their teams. You need to hear the voices that make up your company and make up your brand, and if you utilize technology like our platform and allow that dimensionality to happen, you really have a much more dynamic company. You have a way of telling a story that will resonate in a much more potent way.
ROB: Got it. One thing that’s a little bit curious to me that you mentioned, I believe, is there’s this element of this platform generating content underneath around these personal brands. How do you think about that intersection between the voice of the individual, and then how do you get content out that matches well with that?
BANT: One of the things that happens is that if you work with Qnary, you go through an onboarding process, which is a set of questions – literally quite a long list of questions – the answers of which are utilized to tweeze through how we develop your optimizations for your pages, but also go into allowing us to draft and structure your content.
We aim to structure our content around what we call your content pillars. One of the challenges that every person has – certainly I would say senior leaders have this more than anybody – is the talk about fewer topics, not more topics. So what we really want to do is find what your pillars should be, your core topics that you should be focused on as an individual. Then once we’ve done that and once we have the point of view of the individual around that, we set it up in our system and content starts to be developed and created.
ROB: So there’s a level where your team at a macro level has a view of the entire network of your clients, what they’re trying to represent, what the dimensions of that are. There’s probably some interaction of content creation, of curation. I would imagine it’s pretty robust.
BANT: Yeah. I think it really depends on the client. One of the pillars we could imagine will be very related to let’s say the corporate philosophy or culture of a company or the purpose, the goals that the brand will have. But then the other content pillars that we might develop for an individual focus around themselves as well as maybe their professional role and what their take is on how those areas may evolve. All three really matter.
What now seems so obvious to me, but when I started the company probably wasn’t that obvious, is that people really don’t love hearing from companies. They love hearing from people. People like talking to people. I love my Frosted Flakes, but I’m not going to spend an hour on the phone talking to Kellogg’s. But I might want to talk to some of their executives and I might want to understand how they’re thinking about their solutions and developing it going forward.
ROB: You mentioned some things weren’t obvious at first. Let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of Qnary. It looks like you had a background with a significant amount of holding company agency experience. You could’ve probably ridden that train your entire career. What led you to take it down to zero and start something new, and what did that look like?
BANT: I do have a deep background in advertising. I started my career at WPP and have been at various times part of Publicis and IPG. I really loved my time working in large marketing organizations, and I really, really love the solutions and the creative messaging that I developed.
That being said, one of the areas that I found myself focusing more and more on was the relationship between great marketing and creative and technology. In my career, I’ve been very involved with setting up technology-based units, whether it be Ansible, which was one of the early mobile marketing agencies, or the IPG Media Lab, which was a thinktank for all emerging technologies for Reprise, which was one of the leading players in the search marketing space as that was emerging.
I had not built out a platform on my own. I actually turned 40 and I had just been inducted into the American Advertising Hall of Achievement, and my dad took me out to dinner and he said, “So, now what?” I said, “What do you mean? I’m going to go back to work on Monday.” He said, “When you get put into something like the Hall of Achievement, you’ve got to go do something else.” [laughs] So I took that as, okay, I’d better action this other thing. If I was going to try to create a technology business, I’d better do it now, before it’s too late.
I’ve got to tell you, there’s a reason why these types of businesses are set up by twenty-somethings. It requires a tremendous amount of dedication, and I would say probably naivete, that you lose as you get older. [laughs]
ROB: Nothing like you’re 40 years old and having Dad push on you career-wise still, as though the Hall of Fame career wasn’t quite enough.
BANT: [laughs] Yeah. It is what it is. I love the services sector. I would say probably one of my passions right now is to find ways to allow a lot of the pedantic stuff that we all had to do to learn the trades of marketing, to automate that and to help companies scale and to allow individuals to spend a bit more time coming up with great solutions and great ideas.
ROB: I wonder a little bit, with that services background that you have, as you’re looking at product, how much do you think about allowing services to enable technology, and how do you think about when to resist that temptation and say, “No, the technology has to do the heavy lifting” or “The human factor is okay here”? It’s kind of a bionic product, to an extent.
BANT: I would say that the human side matters tremendously. But it really comes in in different points. We definitely have, I’d say, a human-enabled technology. Certainly, individuals will connect with our clients, but what we want to make sure is that they’re supported by an immense amount of technology to deliver a very robust solution. There’s no reason that we want this to be cold, faceless technology. We’re talking to people about themselves and their voice and their thought leadership, and therefore there is a level of human understanding and I would say human illogical thinking that’s required to succeed in this area.
ROB: There’s an extent, I think, to which many agency owners, many folks in the services world, have these dreams of building a product. What were some of the keys to success and things you had to maybe learn or re-learn to drive a product forward versus throwing people at the wall?
BANT: In a previous period of my life, I’d actually built my own agency and sold it, so I had built services businesses, and certainly I had built services businesses as part of larger organizations as well. The idea of building a product company and product business is different. There are commonalities, but I would say some of the big things that really hit you are the complexity of the development process and the reliability of that team and the reliability of that code.
In the early years of Qnary, we certainly made a tremendous amount of mistakes on the tech side in terms of getting the right teams in place, getting a code base that could easily be developed on top of by others. There was a lot of work that had to be done there. And then just working and building a company that operates more on a sprint-based mentality is quite different than the way you operate an agency.
I think the other side of it is that when I speak to my agency friends, it’s amazing how many people, the first question they ask is, “How many employees do you have?” Because that, in some kind of bizarre agency mindset, is the idea of success. Whereas any tech person will tell you, if you have a lot of employees, you’re probably not that good of a technology. You see companies like Instagram; I think they had a billion users and they only had 18 employees or something like that, a crazy number like that.
ROB: Sounds about right.
BANT: It’s the same kind of mentality on the tech side. You really want to make sure you’re building a business that is not person-heavy.
ROB: Understood. You’re at this intersection of you’ve got some creative, you’ve got some measurement, you’ve got some technology, and you’re in New York City as your starting point. I feel like there are different industries pulling on each of those pillars of talent that would try to convince those folks that there’s more prestige in what they’re doing. Yet there is this solid core of New York tech companies that I think doesn’t get as much credit just because there’s so much going on. There are so many high points that it’s not this singular technology, as it might be in San Francisco, this singular industry. How do you think about pulling talent in a city with so much going on?
BANT: I guess probably a couple of years ago, that would’ve been more of a real question mark that we thought about a lot. But now, especially after the last year, our team is all over the place at this point. Whilst our offices in New York have been open again since last summer, I’d say maybe 10% of the people go in. Many of them have moved back home or are working remotely. We’ve actually essentially ended up restructuring the whole business to be a remote work company.
The spine of the business, the culture of the business is now all digital. All of the events, all of the meetings, everything is all based digitally. So I worry less about the New York, the geography, now than I used to.
I would say New York is a great place. I know people get fearful about what’s going to happen in New York after COVID or whether people will come back. I’m absolutely sure people will come back because, as I’ve learned with Qnary, people actually like people. People want to be with people. And there’s really no city in the world you can do that with that’s better than New York City.
ROB: I’m certainly ready to pay a visit again when I can. With that decision to go distributed, when did you reach that decision within the past year or so?
BANT: On March 13th of last year, we went virtual. The offices shut down; everybody headed home or headed wherever they were going to be. As the pandemic continued to develop over those early months, we just basically said, “Look, we’re going to be virtual.” What happened was we internally spent a lot of time on thinking about how that would impact the culture of the business and reinvested a lot of the money that we would’ve spent on things like real estate into culture and building a digital culture.
I think if you talk to bean counter-driven companies, they loved COVID in a way because they have used it to rationalize the reduction of real estate costs for their businesses. But what I’ve found is that if you want to make this work, you have to reinvest quite a bit back into culture and building a digital culture.
What I mean by that is we have things like a meeting called Bird Food, where instead of catering it in to the offices, we actually now make lunch available to people wherever they are. They receive whatever the “bird food” of the day is going to be for the meeting we have. There’s a water cooler meeting every morning; it’s a 15-minute meeting for anybody in the company that wants to attend and just talk about anything they want to talk about, really. The topics can be anywhere from “What do you think of the new show?” to “What do you think of that shot that was made last night in the final four?” or whatever. Very water cooler talk.
Our thought is that as more and more people do return to the office, we’re going to keep the spine of the business digital. We’re going to continue to keep these meetings digital and people that are in the office can just join in digitally. They can be together, but it will be connected digitally. No one wins if they force their employees back to an office. Nobody wins. The company doesn’t win, the people that are forced back have tremendous anxiety, and thirdly, I think we all have to realize that a year has passed. People’s lives move on. You have to be aware of the fact that with that evolution, you have to try to make the business and the culture of the business incorporate with the lives of the individual. Take more of a holistic view of the human.
ROB: Do you have any view of a grand gathering of your global Qnaries? Or do you think that it may be that everybody’s never quite in the same place again? You may have already had some gatherings and some habits around that with your global footprint.
BANT: We have what we call a “Qnniversary.” It’s kind of the official start date of the business. That operates as like an annual coming together of the business. That’s in November of every year. We’ve talked about expanding that as COVID permits, and probably doing a larger event in the summertime as well, but knowing exactly when that will be really depends on what happens with COVID.
ROB: I hope we’ll all be sharing what we learn about this. I think there are a lot of newly distributed companies, including – we certainly are. Bant, when you think about what’s coming up for Qnary and this personal executive marketing, what are you excited about?
BANT: I’m very excited about a couple of things. Some of the things that we’ve rolled out, actually, in Q1 include a real heavy push into video for our clients. We’ve built out a way to deliver video solutions for our clients in a cost-effective manner. That’s been the challenge. There’s been tons of people trying to do video, but the costs have been astronomical for individuals and for executives. We rolled that out in the first quarter, which is great. You talked about the personal websites; that whole development module was rolled out in Q1 as well.
In Q2, what you’re going to see is a second iteration of the machine learning that sits behind the scenes in our solution. I’m really excited about that. I’ve spent the last 4 years of my life researching the latest, greatest, coolest in the world of AI in terms of marketing, and I’m really excited to apply some of the things that we’ve learned in terms of content creation, measurement, growth and analytics, things like that.
ROB: We’ll have to look forward and see what that looks like. I’m looking forward to seeing it. We can see it probably many places, including on your own site. Again, it’s always great to be able to eat your own dog food.
BANT: Absolutely. [laughs]
ROB: Bant, when our audience wants to connect with you and with Qnary, where should they go to find you?
BANT: You can find me in all the places we’ve talked about. Certainly you can also reach out to me on LinkedIn. But you can go to qnary.com. That’s our corporate website. And then obviously, bantbreen.com. But you can also just write me at email@example.com and I’m sure to get back to you.
ROB: Very solid. Bant, congratulations on thriving through the pandemic. We will all look forward to helping jumpstart the New York City economy as we get back on planes.
ROB: And we will look for big things in video and beyond from Qnary and the global team.
BANT: Absolutely. Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Thanks so much, Bant. Be well.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.