May 20, 2021
Steve Connelly started Connelly Partners (the defiantly human agency) in 1999 after he, as President of another agency, decided that the next time he got shot in the head, it would be by his own hand. For the first 6 months, his startup operated out of loaned office space in the backroom of another agency, Partners & Simons, Connelly Partners grew to cover all disciplines through acquisitions and organic divisional spinoffs. Today, the agency has a 42,000 square foot office in South Boston, and satellite offices in Dublin, Ireland and Vancouver. The broad, international range of the agency’s B2B and B2C clients range in size from very small to large. The agency even supports low-cost or pro bono services for creative opportunities.
The core values of the agency include all things anthropology, with subsets of empathy, studying human behavior, observing people and being able to “figure out what they’re thinking, even if they don’t know that’s what they are thinking.” Steve refers to his team as “master translators of human behavior” . . . with the ability to “read minds.” He thinks the best way to understand how to sell a product to a customer is to understand the challenges of that customer’s life. His priority is not to “get noticed.” He says, “Everyone notices a streaker, but no one wants to shake his hand” and then clarifies the thought by saying, “I’d rather understand a person, have them look at our work and say, “You know what? They get me.”
In this interview, Steve talks about people’s responses to market cycles and how, often, when things bottom out, people sit and wait for things to turn around.
He says, for him, that “the bottom” is the point:
When you attack, when you invest, when you try to grow new practices, you try to bring new assets into your company, you take a really good look at your company as it sits, identify all your flaws . . . and try to fix them. I think the bottom of the market is when you get aggressive. But to do that . . . you have to have a lot of money saved.
That funding is accrued when times are good.
In this interview, Steve talks about the post-Covid business environment. As the world “opens up,” he expects to see a surge of “revenge tourism,” with people trying to “catch up” on experiences with their families after so many months in lockdown. He says, “Everyone is pissed off about everything right now” and acknowledges that, in the not-too-distant-future the “rules are going to be applied differently,” people will “choose to live differently, work differently, open . . . businesses differently going forward.”. He concludes, “Maybe we all just need to take a breath.”
Steve believes that the next year is going to be a time of discovery. Management during Covid revealed a lot of good things about people as they worked from home, but everyone was operating by the same rules. Once restrictions are lifted, things will change. Steve believes that a unilateral “everyone will work from home” is an unrealistic money grab and notes that the office environment fosters a higher level and quality of spontaneity and organic exchange. He expects to develop a “hybrid” model to keep the best of both.
Steve can be reached by email
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Steve Connelly, Founder of Connelly Partners, based in Boston, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Steve.
STEVE: Great to be here, buddy.
ROB: It is excellent to have you here. I think you’ve got a great story with your firm, so why don’t you start off by telling us about Connelly Partners and the firm’s superpowers?
STEVE: Connelly Partners was founded in 1999. The way most great agencies were founded, I was shot in the head by the previous agency I was president of, and came to a moment of realization that, “Okay, well, I’m not going to get shot in the head again unless it’s . . .”
ROB: Self-inflicted. [laughs]
STEVE: Yeah, self-inflicted. So, we started the company. I had some amazingly gracious help from people inside the industry where I got space loaned to me. I had opportunities. The thing started organically in the backroom of another agency at the time called Partners & Simons. The nicest guy in the world, one of the smartest as well. Started organically. Moved to the south end in Boston about 6 months later.
Now we have 42,000 square feet of space here. We have an operation in Dublin, Ireland. We have an operation new in Vancouver. We’re in all disciplines. We’ve either acquired firms or organically started divisions to make sure that we have all skillsets represented.
And as it relates to our superpower, I think everybody probably wishes for powers other than they have. We’re certainly very fast, but I would say our superpower is the ability to read minds, which is creepy, but I do think our focus on empathy, our focus on really observing people, the love of anthropology, the study of human behavior – I think we can look at people and spend enough time and we can figure out what they’re thinking even if they don’t know that’s what they’re thinking.
I’d love to say we have super strength. I’d love to say I’m invisible. I’d love to say all these other cool, sexier powers that you see on The Boys or in The Avengers and stuff like that. But I think at the end of the day, because we’re an empathy-based company, reading minds is something we are actually really, really good at.
ROB: That’s a good talent. And you can read the minds of the people with the other superpowers, so it works out all right.
If we zoom out a little bit, give us a picture of, if there is such a thing, a typical client, a typical engagement, or maybe an example client or engagement that helps us understand how you engage and what it looks like.
STEVE: The reality is – and you know this and everyone listening knows this – there’s nothing typical anymore. We have projects, we have AOR, we have big, we have small. We have people that have creative opportunities and we do it for nothing or low bono. We have some really big clients, great clients. We have some really small clients.
I’d say the typical engagement, though, is somebody would come to us and they’d say, in so many words, “Help us understand our customers a little bit better and more their lives.” I think so many times people in marketing jump right to trying to understand how your product can be sold, and really the best way to understand that is to understand the person’s life that you’re trying to sell to and their stresses, their ups, their downs. What are the holes they have in their life that you might be able to fill or retrofit your product’s benefit or services to meet a need?
I think we would be looked at as master translators of human behavior and where we can identify what we would call defiantly human insights that most clients can take advantage of – things that are true about humans in general that we can help our clients use to maybe better get a conversation going with a prospect.
I have a saying I’ve used all the time in this business, which is everyone notices a streaker, but no one wants to shake his hand. Our business is filled with a lot of people that believe our job is to be streaking and to get noticed and for people to see us, and I don’t have time to do juggling llamas or flame-throwing fish. I’d rather understand a person, have them look at our work and say, “You know what? They get me.”
ROB: Sure. Are we able to talk about some of the brands that might’ve been mentioned in the booking notes? I think it’s illustrative, potentially. And I do notice the list was largely consumer. Are you largely in the consumer space? Is there some B2B in your game as well?
STEVE: Yeah, we have lots of B2B. It’s just those aren’t names people have heard of. Everybody’s heard of Titleist. Certainly, on some level, most people have heard of Gorton’s and the Gorton fisherman. I think those are both great client examples. With Titleist, there’s the fact they’re the number one ball in golf. More players who are not paid to play a ball play Titleist, and I think that says a lot about – and of course, some of the greatest golfers in the world play it.
Gorton Seafood, which is traditionally thought of as a fish stick-only company, but they’re actually much more of a seafood company. With deep respect and understanding for people’s love of the sea, we’ve been able to use anthropology; that’s dictated a couple paths for us to connect Gorton’s to the sea rather than lift them out of maybe how they were seen in the past, which is more of a convenience seafood.
We work with Williamsburg Tourism, which is actually one of the biggest tourism DMAs in the country, with Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. I was just down there a week and a half ago. Good to report to everybody, tourism is coming back. People may be wearing masks, but they’re being active and they’re outside again, and hotel occupancy was at a nice level. There were a lot of people enjoying the outside. So that’s another client.
We work for Audi in Ireland. Just finished a piece for them, or we’re just going to production there. We’re going to prepare for the reopening of the country and get people to rally around that, which is a cool assignment. We work for a big insurance company in Ireland as well. We work for Pizzeria Uno, which is a recent client here. Those are all consumer brands.
On the B2B side, we work for a company called Quiet Logistics. We have a fair amount of B2B clients, including a couple I can’t mention yet because we’re still finishing up some contract negotiations. But I think one of our biggest wins in the last year is actually a B2B medical category company that has been totally embracing our love of anthropology.
One of the things that happens in B2B, Rob, and you know this, is that people begin to try to categorize B2B as a different animal, and it’s not. You’re still marketing to a person; it’s just that person is in a work stage, work life, different stresses, and we try to figure out what’s going on in their life from the “9-to-5.” B2B is still B2P. And we get hired a fair amount for clients in that space to help figure out how to sell to people in the 9-to-5 mentality.
ROB: It’s consistent when we hear a little bit about how you think about consumer, because those brands that you mentioned – the Gorton’s world – you think about food, and there’s the lane of the flashy new product, and then there’s the very – I think you mentioned where they came from, kind of this utilitarian mode. But there’s something deeper you’ve gone to with the ocean, and Boston is certainly a good place to do that. When you mentioned that, I want to go eat some seafood in Boston right now.
There’s sort of a steadiness to how you come at those consumer brands that seems necessary. You seem to handle consumer more in the way people handle B2B than how people think about consumer. It’s so flashy.
STEVE: I think one of the things you have to do if you’re going to be marketing – actually, B2C certainly, but B2B as well – is you can’t be stuck. Everything changes every 6 months. If you’re not self-aware enough to constantly be looking at the way life shifts – I mean, we have a rather robust strategic practice here. I don’t know the number, but our strategist per employee number is I would guess much higher than most other agencies’ numbers. We have two other open to hires, so if anybody wants to passively send me some anthropology resumes, I’d love to look at them.
But I think you’ve got to be invested in the world and seeing how things have shifted. We just finished, and we’re in the process of presenting to all clients now, 9 core insights that have changed and evolved or elevated in importance over the last 6 months as you come out of COVID. Now, those are different than they were 6 months ago when we were in COVID. It’s knowing where the mind is going.
You think about the imagery of the ocean, the power and the attraction of the sea, how we are all hardwired to yearn for it – I mean, everybody wants to put their toes in the ocean, for whatever crazy reason that may be that’s anthropologically validated. I don’t know why, but everyone wants to put their feet in the ocean. Using that attraction right now, if you think about it, we’ve been locked up inside for so long, the imagery of the ocean, the imagery of the outdoors, the imagery of the air – and also, the need to protect the oceans. The oceans are under incredible assault right now. Our reverence for the ocean and respecting the attraction of the ocean, we can use all that stuff to sell seafood. There’s a goodness to the food that comes from the sea that people inherently believe. I don’t have to convince them. I just have to connect them to that part of themselves that acknowledges it. Everyone likes fish.
ROB: Right. Steve, you mentioned starting the firm in 1999, which may have looked like a good idea for about a year or so, and then maybe seemed like kind of a bad idea from the dot-com bust and the echo of that. You’ve been through the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and this COVID thing as well. As you’re looking at coming out, how does this situation rhyme with the past couple of times of duress, and how did you handle it differently coming from that lens?
STEVE: There’s a certain consistency that I have had in terms of dealing with any time you reach a market dip, a market bump, when the rollercoaster is at the bottom. Some people handle it and they sit on their hands and they wait for it to pass. They become exceptionally conservative. They become almost passive, and you’re kind of waiting for things to open back up, and you just want to weather the storm.
I would be in the opposite category, which is I think that’s the point when you attack, when you invest, when you try to grow new practices, you try to bring new assets into your company you take a really good look at your company as it sits, identify all your flaws – because lord knows we all have tons of them – and try to fix them. I think the bottom of the market is when you get aggressive, but to do that, you have to be really conservative financially. You have to have a lot of money saved. You have to be very careful that when you’re at the top of the rollercoaster, you don’t go out and spend all your money on flashy cars and nice clothes. You’ve got to remember this is a long-term thing.
Because we have been very well-managed financially, we’re able to attack at the bottom when other people might not. Now, the difference here in this particular next 6 months is that the rules have been unilaterally applied to everybody. Everybody has had to wear a mask, stay inside, work from home. We’ve all been forced to compete by rules that are consistently applied. That wasn’t the case in the previous blips. Certainly, the dot-com blip – I can go back and talk about what happened then.
But the difference now is we all have to ask ourselves: What happens when we’re all not playing by the same rules again in 4 months? When some people are going to work and some people aren’t? When hybrid is becoming the reality and other people are going to want to stay home? When there’s different requirements of people as they pursue revenge tourism, as they try to find different ways to have more experiences with their family because they feel like they have to make up for lost time? The rules are going to be – we’re all competing and stuck in the same “COVID prison” right now.
I’ll say one other thing. I had a really good conversation with an employee here a couple of days ago. In an agency meeting, he asked me when I’m going to stop being so angry at COVID. I really didn’t even know I was projecting that anger. I found that to be a really therapeutic, really good slap in the face of reality that I got, because I think we’re all angry about it. But we can do nothing about it.
I really took those words to heart. I think in the early parts of this, I thought the role of an agency leader or business leader, head of a household, head of any group, manager, coach, your job is to be positive and to get people to focus on the positivity in the long term. I think I and all of us have been beaten down to the point where we’re angry and negative. [laughs] I found that to be a really good comment. As the rules are going to be applied differently and we choose to live differently, work differently, open our businesses differently going forward, I think positivity is something I’m going to try to amplify and get people to be a little less angry. Everyone is pissed off about everything right now, and maybe we all just need to take a breath.
ROB: I think it will be good to have – you mentioned revenge tourism, and I hadn’t heard that phrase. It’s hilarious, but it’s intuitive. I understand what you’re getting at. Maybe that will be a bit cathartic. Everybody has 10 opinions about what to do each day, but some folks seem to be saying they’re going to stay locked down, and maybe that’s the hardest part. How do you get those people out and un-angry? We all need to see some people and do some things, I think.
STEVE: Yeah, I don’t know how we’re going to – I think one of the things we have to do is acknowledge that we can only try so hard. Because of the way news is distributed, because of the way people are consuming news and they’re gathering information, they are led down certain paths. For us, I think we’ll go back to basic human instinct, which is the majority of people are going to want to get out.
Here’s an example. In Ireland they’re still completely locked down. If I go to Ireland right now, I have to sit in an airport hotel for 2 weeks before I can get out, and then when I get out, everything’s closed. The challenge as it relates to tourism in Ireland is that most people, when they take their holiday, go to Spain or to France or to Europe, other countries, and they explore the way we would explore other states here. They can’t leave.
So they are now making holiday plans to travel within Ireland, and if you think about it for context, that would be like me in Massachusetts – I can’t go to Florida, as I would go every year; I have to go someplace within Massachusetts. There’s a little bit of depression that comes from that. But I’m finding people are saying, “I’m going to make the best of it,” and there’s a certain acceptance. In Massachusetts, there are amazing places to go visit and escape, and I can take some revenge on COVID. I think that’s what’s going to happen as different countries stay shut down.
Revenge tourism is real, man. Our biggest piece of business when COVID started was Four Seasons in the Americas, and I lost that business in the first 2 weeks, for obvious reasons. But I think hotels are going to start – certainly, it’s happening here in the States again, and some places, some hotel groups, destination groups that continue to spend and engage with customers at the bottom of the rollercoaster are going to see the benefit of it now that things are starting to pick up, where others are going to have to make up ground.
From a marketing perspective, that’s a little bit of an insight that’s going to be fun to observe: how fast people can catch up.
ROB: It’s going to move. It’s already moving pretty quickly. To your point about investing when things are down, I’m hearing that a lot of the rental car companies disinvested in their fleets and now, come July and August, you’re looking at $100 a day for economy class cars in some places. If folks had kept it up, they’d have a fleet to sell.
STEVE: I’ll tell ya, man, I went to Naples this past weekend to golf. I’m in the Hertz Club Gold and I’m also in the National Emerald Club. I booked my car at National in the Emerald Club, landed at the hotel with my golf bag and my clothes, and there were no cars in the road except for one little teeny tiny clown car. I’m not a small human being, but this was my only choice. I was in a state of shock that every single car was gone, or, as you said, they’ve liquidated some of their fleets.
I’m driving around Florida in this little teeny tiny thing, trying to figure out where all the cars went. They clearly didn’t invest at the bottom. I get it; I think there are financial realities. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m driving with my knees up to my chin.
ROB: [laughs] Sounds challenging. It’s going to be interesting. I was ready to go to Ireland. I was ready to self-quarantine for 2 weeks when they were still open, I think last summer. It turned out our kids didn’t have passports yet, so we didn’t make that. But I was ready to do that drive around Massachusetts version of Ireland. Just pick a home base in the middle of the country and drive around and see it.
STEVE: When you’re ready to do it, give me a call. I followed my son some years back on a rugby tour around Ireland, and it’s a spectacular country. The people are – for people that live in a country that has two seasons, cold and rainy and warm and rainy, man, they’re happy, friendly, nice, accommodating. We had the greatest time ever, and you will too.
But I could say the same thing about Massachusetts in terms of people that are driving to The Berkshires, or for me going to New Hampshire within 100 miles. There’s so much that we haven’t seen. I think at the end of the day, revenge tourism is about getting out of the house and reconnecting with some people, and you can do that driving 50 miles as well as flying 500 miles.
ROB: Absolutely. I will look for those tips. Steve, with the journey you’ve been on, and really successfully running and growing a firm for over 20 years, I’d be remiss not to ask you about some other lessons you’ve learned along that journey and maybe some decisions you might advise yourself to do differently if you were going back in time.
STEVE: I wear a lot of t-shirts. The people here would validate that. One of my t-shirts I wear is, “Often wrong but never in doubt.” I think that’s a key categorization for people that lead firms. You’re going to make mistakes; just make them quick and move on. Once you make a mistake, try to fix it.
I see a fair amount of people that are suffering from analysis paralysis. I think that actually is because of data, too. There are so many different hunks of data out there that people can study. By the time you figure out what it is you want to do, it’s too late. I think that’s true with clients and that’s certainly true with agencies.
I trust my gut. I trust my eyes. I trust my instinct. I’m a coach by trade, too, and I think there are certain skillsets that come from coaching groups of kids and high school and college kids and getting a group of people to work as a team. Those are transferrable skillsets.
The things I wish I could do over again – that’s a trick question because everybody has a thousand of them, but I don’t really think about them. I’ll give you one, but I don’t really think about them because you make a decision, you go with the decision, you do it based on what your gut and data tell you to do, and if you revisit it, you’re going to drive yourself mad. I mean, I have a beautiful wife, I have great kids, I have a great company. Would I have gotten here if I had made other decisions? Who knows?
But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m sure no one’s ever gone way back to when they were 12 years old, but when I was 12 going on 13, I was a really, really good baseball pitcher. I’ve told this story before. Stay with me; it’s relevant. I had a choice at that time. I could’ve played on an elite team in my hometown that would’ve developed my skills, honed my skills. I would’ve found out how good I could’ve been. I stupidly at that point – perhaps not – chose not to play on that team. I chose to play on a lower level team because that’s where my friends were.
That one decision caused me to lose skills. I was never able to find out how good I was. I spent literally the next 8 years trying to find out how good I could’ve been as a baseball player, and I couldn’t play in high school baseball. I wasn’t good enough. I could’ve if I had made that choice. I did play in college, but it took me 5-6 years of training to catch up, and I was one of those athletes that the older I got, the better I was. I sat on the bench. I got on the team.
But by the time I got into my mid-twenties and thirties and forties, and now as I’m 60, I can throw a baseball better than most at any other age, still. I love the game. The lesson is, if somebody presents an opportunity for you to explore and find out how good you can be, even if it’s painful, even if it makes you uncomfortable, even if it pushes you outside your comfort zone, you take that shot and you go find out. Because if you don’t, it’s going to cost you years to find out how good you could be.
It took me 8 years to undo one decision I made when I was 13 years old. I’ve never forgotten that.
ROB: Yeah, and gladly, you do get to take that with you as you go. I wonder if it ties in a little bit – when I look at the sort of clients that you have and the way you’ve grown and the way you’re still accelerating into acquisitions, I see the sort of firm that probably easily could have been acquired three times over, or you could’ve found somebody else to run it or something else. What keeps that fire burning in you to keep the gas going on the business, to not take a big check from some sort of ownership group that comes along, that sort of thing?
STEVE: Well, to be clear, if anyone out there has a big check, please provide them with my email and contact information. No, I’ll go back to when I was 13, man. That meant that I had a chip on my shoulder. I had something to prove. There was a certain anger and a fire in me that I think has gone to the point of where I am now at 60, where I’m like, I’m not done, man. I still want to try to compete at the highest level. I want to find out how good I can be.
I think on a different level, I feel a responsibility as a company to defend the human right brain from the marginalization of it that’s being caused by technology and data. I think I feel an obligation to be a defender of all things human at a time when we’re trying to be algorithmically discounted. I think there’s an opportunity for a company out there to have a good human soul, to be a non-arrogant, non-know-it-all marketing partner that is filled with confidence but not arrogance. And I don’t think there are many companies like that.
Meanwhile, I sit in a corner of the country where there’s an opening for a firm like ours to provide a resource to a certain segment of clients that are interested in anthropology, that are interested in understanding their customers better, that are not interested in juggling llamas, that are interested in better connections.
I always like to say, too, that we as a company are a terrible first date. We’re awful. On your first date – it certainly was true with me – that’s when you’re at your absolute most artificial. You make yourself look as good as you can possibly make. You make sure that you say the right things. You’re very measured. You prepare. The first date is an artificial presentation of who you aspire to be.
You get down to second, third, fourth dates, then the real you is revealed. We’re terrible at being artificial at that first thing. If somebody asks me a question, I’m going to give you an answer. I’m not going to bull anybody. I’m not going to try to shovel anything. If they ask me what I think, I’m going to tell them. That second, third, fourth date kind of stuff – when I put on a pair of pants and go to my wife now and say, “Do these pants make me look fat?”, my wife will say, “Sure, they do. So change them.”
You have to get to a certain comfort level with a person, with a client, with an agency, where you have that kind of value conversation. I think there’s need for that, and I don’t see enough of it in the world or in our region. So I’m going to keep going till I don’t.
ROB: Sure. It’s wonderful to see that burden on both sides to be a place that is worth working for and also one that’s worth working with. There’s certainly not enough of those. I don’t talk to people with regular jobs that often anymore, but I think about the conversations complaining about them.
STEVE: We’ll see, too. One of the biggest struggles most agency leaders and most company leaders are going to have is the work from home discussion and the reality of how people like to work. Ours is a business, I believe, that’s an organic exchange, but there’s certain aspects to working from home that people have discovered, in terms of productivity, in terms of balance, that are good. How are you going to rebuild a corporate mentality and structure?
I find it absolutely mind-boggling the amount of companies that are going to unilaterally embrace work from home all the time because they said that they have been productive during COVID. And we have been. All of us have been remarkably creative in figuring out ways to manage, but we’ve all been playing by the same rules. Now the rules are going to change, and I think some people are going to do it differently. A lot of people are going to move their companies to be unilaterally work from home, and it’s a money grab. You’re going to be able to cut out a bunch of operational expenses and put them in your pocket under the guise of work from home.
And I don’t know the answer, by the way. We’re going to figure it out together here. But some sort of a hybrid model, certainly initially over the next year while we try to figure out how to keep the best of what COVID management has revealed in all human beings as we’ve worked from home – because surely some really good things came out of it – and combine that with the best of working together in an office environment where spontaneity and organic exchange can happen in ways that it can’t when you work from home.
That’s going to be fascinating. Like I said, I wish I knew the answer, man. I don’t, but I’m going to go on my rather substantive gut, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll be willing to change and adapt going forward.
ROB: That’ll be a great conversation going forward. Steve, when people want to get in touch with you and connect with Connelly Partners, where should they go to find you?
STEVE: My email is email@example.com. I get a gazillion emails. I read them all; I don’t respond to them all because I’m trying to get through them all. I think the easiest thing to do is just shoot me an email and I’ll get back to you.
I’m not a big social media guy, and one of the reasons for that – and I hope you and your audience understand – it’s not that I’m a Luddite; it’s just that I believe in honesty, and honesty is not unilaterally embraced in a lot of places. So I’m going to not expose myself in a position where somebody’s going to misconstrue something. I have been in positions where I have said something innocuous and honest and some people want to take me to task for that. The debate is exhausting, so I choose not to have it.
I’m big on LinkedIn. Our company is a big social participant. If you go to our website, to where we are on Instagram, on all social channels, you can get a feel for our culture and our people. You can get a feel for our approach and our philosophy. But if you want to talk to me, send me an email and I’ll call you.
ROB: Sounds excellent. Steve, thank you for coming on the podcast. You’ve really got a great deal of wonderful things to share. We could go on for three times this long, but we’ll put that off to another time and wish you and Connelly Partners the absolute best as we all have our revenge tourism.
STEVE: Thank you, man. I would just leave this parting thought with everybody: be as positive as you can going forward. Be a little less angry. I was reminded of that 3 days ago. It snuck up on me. I think it sneaks up on all of us. Let’s go back to trying to be a little less angry and a little bit more huggable.
ROB: [laughs] Perfect. Love it, Steve. Thank you so much.
STEVE: Rock on. Take care, buddy.
ROB: Take care. Bye.
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