Aug 5, 2021
Scott Couvillon is CEO and Executive Strategy Director at Trumpet Advertising, an agency that strives to create purpose-aligned, believable ads. Scott says that companies succeed with their advertising, not only because their creative product promotion is compelling, but more so when the ads “compel an honest connection between a person and a brand.” Scott says there is a lot of talk in the advertising industry about purpose. What is more important is “What do you do with it once you’ve got it.”
Scott holds that advertising needs to be aligned with a company’s core beliefs. Organizations need to think holistically and ask, “If you put purpose in the center, how do you:
Advertising agencies typically work on communications – but may neglect a company’s culture and customer experience components. Focus on product characteristics does not build relationships with customers, instill customer loyalty, or keep a company’s product from becoming a commodity. Trumpet clients have a common understanding – “They will sell more product by selling that product within the context of what they stand for.” Scott explains, “Brand connection is an invitation to participate in a culture that is very intentional.”
Holistic alignment is what sells premium brands like Apple phones and BMW SUVs. If you don’t have holistic alignment, Scott says, the best you can hope for is that people will not dread the absence of holistic alignment. The product is okay . . . and the customer only hopes the experience won’t be bad.
Because transformational organizational alignment involves a deeper client-agency relationship beyond mere “communications management,” Trumpet typically engages with organizations in one of two ways:
Scott presents the example of one client, a “very profitable credit union” that Trumpet turned into “a very meaningful credit union.” “Meaning” made the credit union “even more profitable.” Although increased profit wasn’t the first goal, it was the result of the client’s focus on purpose. He refers to Raj’s Conscious Capitalism, and these “firms of endearment,” as “the companies that we don’t dread.”
Communications should be locked in with company culture and customer experience, all three driven by clairvoyance and purpose. Scott asks key questions. “What is the core belief?” “What would the world lose if this company went out of business?” and then delivers an indicting punchline to the last query: “If the answer is a product, then you’re a commodity and somebody else can do what you do. He warns that commoditization often happens when companies internalize the advertising function, communicate on self-serve platforms, and focus more on selling product than on “what they stand for.”
Scott can be found on his
agency’s website at: https://trumpetadvertising.com/.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Scott Couvillon, CEO and Executive Strategy Director at Trumpet Advertising based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Welcome to the podcast, Scott.
SCOTT: Nice to meet you, finally.
ROB: Yeah, awesome to have you on here. Sometimes these things can take a little bit to schedule, but this is the moment. Why don’t you start off by giving us the rundown on Trumpet Advertising and what your superpower is?
SCOTT: I guess the thing about a superpower is normally the world can either see you running really fast or a human flying, and ours is maybe a little more backstage than that. But it’s nonetheless clear to us and to the clients we’re working with. It’s pretty simple. It’s the focus on believability and being purposeful as an organization as an underpinning for the things that we actually do every day, which for us is being an advertising agency. For them, it’s running operations and trying to grow their organization.
We just try to do that a little bit more meaningfully than I would say agencies that we’ve all worked for, and even in some cases the agency that we were 10 or 12 years ago. The idea that agencies are responsible for compelling creative is a prerequisite, and let’s just assume that all good agencies can buy media and do the analysis and reporting and optimize and come up with great ideas for that engaged attention. But there’s a difference between compelling creative and trying to compel an honest connection between a person and a brand. The most successful companies right now are doing a better job of that.
Advertising works. We know that. Analytics tell us. America being overweight and in debt, advertising is alive and well. But not every business is able to truly create the connection that allows month over month growth to be sustained in the long term. That requires a more fundamental relationship than just window to window promotion success.
ROB: That sort of strategy, to really execute it, it seems like that would require necessarily partnership from the client as well. How do you think about that and that initial client-agency dance of figuring out if they’re really interested in that level of connection and genuineness in what they’re doing?
SCOTT: There’s a lot in that. How do we proactively go after business? What is our posture or the conversation when we’re, for example, answering an RFP or an open call for agencies? The reality is that if we are dealing exclusively with marketing communications, it would be very difficult to think so holistically about the spirituality of an organization in order to bring some level of alignment between what we’re saying externally through communications and what the experience with the company is ultimately going to be if our only connection to the organization is marcom.
So yeah, frankly, it requires involvement and buy-in from the leadership team. The relationship’s got to go a couple of ways. Either we have a very legacy-oriented, thoughtful, and extremely intentional CEO that brings us in and forces us upon marcom, or we’ll work within the marketing communications sphere for a while, really prove our practical worth, that we have good ideas and good tactical execution that shows that we know what we’re doing, and then we almost use analytical performance with the leadership team to start having conversations about more of a holistic brand alignment at the organizational level, not just within communications on its own. And again, it clicks for some organizations and definitely not others.
ROB: If we can, let’s get a little bit more concrete with an example. Is there a particular client you can talk about that typifies what the engagement looks like, what the structure is, as well as the go-to-market message? What’s that look like?
SCOTT: We are not category specialists. This is a methodology and a perspective that is applicable to a very specific mindset of an organization. What our clients have in common is that they believe they will sell more product by selling that product within the context of what they stand for. They’re not constantly just putting something to buy out there; they’re being clairvoyant on what people are buying into via that purchase.
Structurally, from a relationship standpoint, we have a big financial institution in Texas and expanding out into more and more markets every year, it seems like; we work in healthcare, we work in tourism and destination management, hospitality, but what they all have in common and the structure that’s the same is by identifying the purpose of the organization – what is truly the core belief? Our industry has beaten the tar out of “figure out your why and your core motivation” and all that stuff, but what our industry has done a very poor job with is getting beyond the cosmetic application of that “why.” It’s easy to turn why we exist into beautiful brand creative, but if the brand, if the company, isn’t living that in any real way, it’s disingenuous at best and a lie at worst.
Our scopes are focused on articulating what that belief is, getting that right and bought into by every level of the organization. When we were working with that financial institution, it was very much led by really, truly an unbelievable CEO who pulled his executive team along with him and really got them all bought in. There were years of internal transformation about “Look, this is the organization that we were, and this is the organization that we are going to be. We’re going to move from a very profitable credit union into a very meaningful credit union, and that meaning is going to make us even more profitable.” The profit didn’t come first. It got relegated to a result.
That became really, really clear, because there became a spirituality at that organization that employees, stakeholders, customers, everybody was truly able to validate and then buy into. They were more than just checking account for a free toaster.
The way that process went was getting very clear on that narrative, figuring out what the utilitarian expressions of that narrative were going to be – what products were they going to stop offering? What were the kinds of products they were going to develop? Because their product offering was going to be truly a manifestation of what they stood for, not just different ways for them to make money for shareholders and stakeholders. That kind of internal, truly product holistic thinking first prior to a total renaming and a new identity, new uniforms for employees – how are we going to retrain those employees in the new spirituality of the company while we’re handing them a new shirt, as opposed to just handing them a new shirt?
That’s really how these things, in a perfect sense, go when people are buying into it wholly. There’s been plenty of clients that we’ve talked about this upfront, we’ve gone through the purpose identification in each standpoint, and it inflects in some of the product expressions and some of the customer experience in a retail sense – certainly we’re talking to it from a content standpoint in advertising, marketing, and social media stuff – but never really get invited into the inner sanctum of operations and HR practices, orientation and internal transmission to every employee at the organization.
As an egomaniac, those aren’t my favorite scopes because we’re not able to do the true holistic alignment with every element of the business with a core belief. But it’s better than just offering free shipping and extra cheese and hoping for month over month improvements.
ROB: Right. It’s necessary for you to have the conversation at a higher level in the organization, which is usually where you want to engage. Maybe not sometimes; sometimes the CMO has tons of power and big org. But when you’re talking about essentially a credit union, a bank, it’s a commodity to people, just like an airline can mostly be a commodity to people unless you are let’s say Southwest and you do the work over time to sustain a differentiator. Even when everyone else is charging you for a checked bag.
SCOTT: I think you look at the companies that get put into a very specific cohort that we pay a lot of attention to. It’s really these believable, more purposeful companies. Raj Sisodia, great TED Talk, talks about conscious capitalism, talks about these firms of endearment. It’s the ones that always get talked about at ANA and every conference in our industry. It’s the Caterpillars and the Starbucks and the Disneys and of course the Apples and Intuit. It’s that category. It doesn’t have to be consumer.
But these are organizations that are truly aligned, inside and outside, with an idea, not aligned more practically with an IP or a product or a manufacturing process. You bring up Southwest; identical equipment, flying from the exact same building as other companies. It’s as commoditized as rice. But there is an affinity and a preference for airlines that we all have and that we use for specific purposes. Yes, there are times that we pinch the nose and it’s the cheapest or it’s the only one going where I need to be, but we’re dreading that experience.
And when we go in as a consumer with dread, the best you can have is the absence of dread. I defy you to find a leadership team whose mission statement is “Let’s provide an absence of dread to the world.” That’s not going to make our stock price soar. But that’s where they’re landing, whereas Southwest, as you bring up – JetBlue I’d say is another one. They’ve got a commodity product, and they’ve really focused on the only thing that there is to focus on, which is the morality and the spirituality of the organization and allowing people to really buy into it. Their turnover is lower. Vendor relationships are better. It is an easier company to run because there is alignment beyond the practical. Don’t be late and don’t lose bags.
ROB: How disruptive – you talk about that feeling of dread. Names pop to my mind. Airline names pop into my mind when you say “dread.” What a heck of a brand. You’re the airline of last resort and of dread, but hey, it’s cheap.
But let me digress a little bit from there. Walk me through the origin story of Trumpet. How did Trumpet start and get to be where it is now? What’s that journey look like?
SCOTT: Trumpet was founded in ’97. It fell out of another agency. Just three guys took the phones and ran and opened up a new agency. That’s kind of the late ’90s agency founding story. It was a designer and a writer and an account guy, and they started with some real clients, and despite being in a Tier 3 city like New Orleans, over the years they’ve done some great work for clients like Gatorade. Not nobodies. Launched FreshDirect in New York. It wasn’t just car dealerships and plaintiffs attorneys. In fact, those are the two categories we won’t work in.
They really grew into a creative powerhouse when I was exposed to them in the late ’90s and met the founders. At the time, I was in San Francisco. I’m from New Orleans, but I was working out there for years and was loving that, and every day being the dumbest guy in the room and just trying to stay on my toes and not get discovered. But then when I came back to New Orleans, I got reintroduced to Trumpet. The idea at the time was they had amazing creative, but really not a strong, or as strong as it could’ve been, strategic underpinning. So I joined, maybe narcissistically, thinking that there was an opportunity to bring some strategic scaffolding together with the creative superiority they were wielding.
It took a while to be heard and understand it and figure out how our personalities were going to coalesce, but getting into about the last four or five years here, we were on a clip, winning advertising agency accounts like an advertising agency does, talking about case studies and making result promises and case studies that are completely non-verifiable. But we didn’t really have a perspective that made us different. We were frankly commoditizing ourselves with all of the other agencies that are able to execute, come up with ideas and get them into the market.
But the development of this perspective – and not only adding the brand consulting mindset, if not the brand consulting scope to our scopes of work with clients, but that shift of perspective to, how do we stop lying? How do we stop running ads that test well and analytically prove in the near term that they work better than the old stuff? How do we let advertising be not a short-term tool, but really have a long-term impact? And how do we stop talking about things like brand ads as unmeasurable? How do we start talking about brand ads as being really the only promise we’re making?
Advertising, when it’s seen as a trigger or stimulus for sales, if that’s how you see it, that’s what it’s going to be. That has become the most ignorable stuff in a consumer’s day to day, when they’re seeing on average 3,600 ads a day in different format. And we’re calling three from the day prior. There’s a ton of waste. Advertising agencies say, “Yeah, but the waste is so cheap, you can afford it.”
But when you look at advertising as truly an invitation to participate in a culture of a company – even when you’re promoting, even when you’re doing something of a more retail nature, but definitely when you’re doing it in a brand sense – you have to be making plain and clear what experience you’re going to have if you were to engage with this company via a product or social media visit or whatever those things may be, so that that experience can actually validate the promise we made in advertising, because that’s when you get the connection that Raj is talking about in Conscious Capitalism. Those are the companies that we don’t dread.
In fact, those are the companies that we re-purchase from. The Apple phone that costs twice as much as a Samsung is not twice as good. It just costs twice as much, but we don’t think twice about it because we have an affinity. We have a preference for that company, and if they tell us we need a watch – I didn’t, but many people did go and get one. People don’t want an SUV from BMW. They want the ultimate driving machine. They want the connection with BMW, and they just had too many kids.
That brand connection being meaningful isn’t throwaway, unmeasurable stuff. It’s frankly the most important stuff, especially when the organization sees it as an invitation to participate in a culture that is very intentional, because the leadership that’s approving the ads is also using the same idea that’s easy to capture in ad creative and doing the harder work of trying to figure out how to keep that alive or to program that into the organization itself and into the customer experience itself.
ROB: That’s definitely a very compelling challenge. I think one part of the journey that’s worth underscoring for you is – we’re always talking to the challenger, the independent agencies, not the holding companies. But you’ve got even a different perspective. Those are quite often typically operated by somebody who was there on Day 1. Talk about your own transformation from joining the agency to being the CEO now.
SCOTT: There’s been a lot of leadership and structural capitulations over the years. Let me start by saying, too, that while we were a small agency in New Orleans – at our biggest, we were under 50. We really enjoy remaining at about that 20-to-25-person range, because we focus primarily on creative and strategy and project management. We do not have PR and social media and media planning and buying under roof. Now, we have media planners, but they’re working with external groups in our network to plan and buy media and reconcile and optimize and all that stuff.
The reason for that is because every place that we’ve ever worked, when you have a media department, that media department’s mentality is kind of what every client that we win gets. And while it might be appropriate for consumer packaged goods, it might not be right for pharma or a healthcare system. But tough; that’s our media director and that’s your plan. Not all flowcharts look the same, but they could. That’s the risk. We don’t think downstream execution is unimportant; we just don’t want to subject a client we haven’t met yet to a downstream execution philosophy. That’s how you wind up becoming a categorical agency, and we’re trying to avoid that in order to fully administer the perspective regardless of category.
That said, when you see the agency that way, it’s not like you have a CEO sitting atop all these profit silos, because the only silos that are at Trumpet are really creative and strategy, and then the execution that comes from our client services division, which is split between project management and relationship management. But regardless, it’s not a very complicated business to run.
That said, the leaders of these disciplines are really empowered. The distance between CEO and the leaders of the silos is not very distant. But in order for the vision to not be lost in day to day execution, that’s really where my focus remains. Right now we’re in the process of trying to extract ourselves to the degree that we can from the day to day so that we can focus on the collective vision of the day to day. I say, how do we think a little less about the busyness of the agency and think more about the business of the agency?
Not to be cavalier, but clients come and go, but the agency is either going to be defined by our relationships and whether we’re right about to get fired or our clients love us, or we’re going to have an idea as an agency that clients are going to find valuable or they won’t. That’s really what we’re shifting to: trying to make it very, very clear, inside and out – just like we profess to our clients – let’s make Trumpet a place very clearly inside and out that our employees and our clients are all clairvoyant on our value. Because if they want it, we’ll be around for a while, and our retention increases and our connection with our employees increases the more transparent and clear we are about what’s different about working here and working someplace else. There’s no greater commodity than an advertising agency.
ROB: It doesn’t take a lot of capital to stand up something.
SCOTT: Yeah. It takes three people and a client, and sometimes not a client. And sometimes not three people. [laughs] But there’s a lot of talk in our industry right now about purpose. This should not be the 75000th purpose podcast because there’s plenty of that. What this should be is one of the few that says, what do you do with it once you’ve got it? If you take it and run it into brand ads that are beautiful but aren’t what the company is really rallying around, I think you’re frankly doing a disservice. You’re probably better off sticking in promotion land. That’s been around since the ’50s.
ROB: Oh yeah, that’s a well-trod lane as well. I think what’s interesting maybe also is stepping into that CEO role, what are some things you might wish you had done sooner stepping into that seat?
SCOTT: Actually, I’ve thought a lot about this. I mentioned this to you, but there’s a difference between showing up to work every day as an account person or a team member or director of a discipline and trying to do the whole. But I think what has happened successfully here, in my personal path and matriculation, is we didn’t miss the opportunity to shift from being in the mailroom to being an account guy to being a strategist to now being CEO.
It’s not like strategy is king now, like the ops guy takes over the CEO role and now ops is king, or the marketing guy takes over the CEO role and marketing is king. We are being disciplined enough to have Trumpet become associated operationally with an idea. There is very intentional alignment between Trumpet as an organization and the products and services that we provide. So those products and services being rendered on behalf of this portfolio of clients does not wholly define Trumpet. There’s an idea of Trumpet: how do we make companies more believable?
Advertising has a role in that, but advertising is a very narrow solution to that. Brand consulting or internal operational consulting has a role in that, but operational consulting is a narrow solution to the complex problem of how you get the customer experience, separate and apart from the company culture, separate and apart from the communications from that company, aligned with not a product, but a belief. Product innovation: awesome, you need it. But it’s a very narrow solution to the satisfaction of that complex problem. There’s three legs to that stool.
If you put purpose in the center, how do you get the company culture aligned with that purpose? How do you get the advertising and communications pieces aligned with that purpose, and how do you get the customer experience aligned with that purpose? That requires very intentional, top-down commitment from the organization, and in our case it requires us challenging those organizations to think that holistically. Advertising agencies typically just exist in that communications third.
I think we have a responsibility not to take over the whole, but to understand or to be able to provide a perspective that not only should communications be tied, locked in with the company culture and the customer experience, but all three should really be driven by clairvoyance and purpose. What is the core belief? What would the world lose if this company went out of business? If the answer is a product, then you’re a commodity and somebody else can do what you do.
But how you bring that product to market and what you stand for more spiritually than practically – you get that right and you will be more successful. Ironically, you will sell more product by talking about what that product is a means to what end.
Becoming the CEO of the organization of Trumpet has been a challenge to not just let this be, “Oh my gosh, what clients are we about to lose or which ones do we really want to get?” and more, how do we keep this idea clear and alive internally and externally so that everybody, from our employees to our partners, in whatever executional hallway we partner with networks, and our clients – that idea of Trumpet is alive in all of those conversations? So that you don’t get lost in the execution and confuse successful execution and analytical awesomeness with the idea of the company. Because that’s not the idea of a company. That’s the commodity part of advertising agencies. None of us should be bad at creative, buying and measuring and optimizing media and reporting on results. We should all be good at that. But that’s all short term. What’s the long term? Long term comes from brand, and not the unmeasurable ads.
ROB: Right, and it’s at a fractal level. Most individuals don’t want to just buy and sell ads and measure them, and most organizations would be better not to. There’s an alignment from client to organization to person that is going to put off some people who want to go in a different vision, but at least you’re not adrift without direction and just commodity all the way down.
SCOTT: And look at what the industry has done relative to that mentality. It’s why agencies have been complaining for years that they’re being marginalized. I don’t lament marginalization. I think frankly, our industry deserved it. We allowed ourselves to be commoditized. The media commission structure lived on way too long and was disproportionately beneficial to agencies a long time ago, and has just been eroding and eroding and eroding over time.
Now bring in the democratization of media buying and content development and clients can internalize a lot of this stuff. That democratization of the ability to execute elements of communications through self-serve platforms, and you don’t need IPG anymore to run national broadcasts. Ironically, the democratization of the ability to participate in advertising, from a local one-off car dealership to a global superpower, is moving businesses farther away from a focus on purpose. They’re like, “Man, this advertising thing is something we can just do. Let’s internalize it. Let’s run this with greater control.”
What winds up happening is that the distance, the separation, the space between consumers and companies is widening because there’s just less and less focus on companies being clear about what they stand for. They’re providing consumers fewer and fewer opportunities to have a referendum on whether or not they like them, so products get commoditized. You’d better lower your expenses if you hope for net profit.
ROB: Thank you for all that, Scott. When people want to find you and connect with you and with Trumpet, where should they go to find you?
SCOTT: The internet is an awesome place, so you can google Trumpet. If you just scroll past the instruments for sale, you’ll find us. But we’re not hard to find. We’re in downtown New Orleans now. We love our hometown, but we just as much love airports. We do not restrict our client base to here or really even the region. Have perspective, will travel. We’re really just looking for those types of companies that are interested in holistic alignment, if not holistic transformation from where they were to a much more intentional place of where they want to be headed, and then right size our relationship to what makes sense for the individual company.
ROB: That is excellent. Scott Couvillon from Trumpet Advertising, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing the transformation of your firm and thoughts on how we can all be transformational individually, organizationally, and brand-wise. Thank you so much.
SCOTT: Thanks for the time. Love what you’re doing.
ROB: Be well. Thank you. Bye.
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