Jul 8, 2021
1984. Maybe ’85. Take a 26-year-old art director who loves her work. Put her in a big agency where she is surrounded by middle-aged white guys. Strangle the agency’s creative work with politics and bureaucratic overhead. Ask a simple question, “How long can this last?” Sue Kruskopf’s answer? When both the employer’s and her futures looked bleak, it was time for change.
In 1988, Sue and the copywriter she worked with started KC Truth, with a focus on truth, simplifying the complex, and serving clients by –
Sue says, “Simplifying things is always a lot more difficult than complicating things.” Her ideal client website is one the communicates what the company does and why they are different from everyone else . . . and does that in the shortest (simplest) way possible, which is both an art and a science.
The large companies KC Truth works with have multiple siloed business units. Sue says the way to get to a company’s “truth,” align the organization and build a strong strategy is to get everybody in the same room and listen to what they all say. When all the various departments – marketing, sales, engineering, researchers – see their part in creating the truth, they become invested in the collective work that follows.
After that, Sue believes, “Great strategy requires great creative.” Maintaining the creative resources of a world-class agency is critical to KC Truth’s work with such big, complex clients as Cargill, 3M, and some Minneapolis-based global companies. That might be a challenge. However, KC Truth belongs to a strong network of independent agencies, AMIN, which means they “can collectively buy all the tools we need.”
Sue says that building strong relationships, hiring the best people, the smartest people (smarter than you are), and treating people as you would want them to treat you are a big part her agency’s success. She supports treating clients with respect, “not trying to shove ideas down a clients throat,” and “walking hand in hand down the same path together.”
Sue can be reached on her agency’s website at https://kctruth.com/.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Sue Kruskopf, CEO at KC Truth, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome to the podcast, Sue.
SUE: Thank you. Good to be here, Rob.
ROB: It’s wonderful to have you on. I’m eager for all that you have to share. Why don’t you start off by telling us about KC Truth and where the firm excels?
SUE: Thank you. First of all, we excel in longevity. We’ve been around since 1988, which in advertising years is about a million years I think, pretty much, in this day and age. We’ve always believed at our core, our mission has always been to rid the world of B.S. and get at the core truth that companies stand for. As we all know, in this day and age, truth is more important than ever before. So, I’m glad that we have stuck to our guns and had this in the foundation of our business for over 35 years, since way back in the day.
ROB: Truth certainly has a habit of falling in and out of fashion, so the longevity there is certainly admirable. If we can drill down a level, if there is a typical type of client, type of engagement – obviously everyone’s a little bit different, but what does a median client, median scope of work look like for you all?
SUE: One of the things our clients tell us is we’ve always been really good at simplifying the complex. I think anybody in our business knows that feeling when a client comes in and you’ve looked at their website 10 times and can’t quite figure out what it is they do exactly, or the word “solutions” is in there too many times or whatever else. We’re really, really good at – Truth is all about getting to that core truth about their business and stripping away all the B.S. and getting it down to the simplest thing we can determine based on the audiences we’re trying to reach.
Typically, we have a lot of big, more complex businesses like Cargill, 3M, a couple global companies that are based here in Minneapolis. I’d say that’s our core sweet spot. We’ve had experience that runs the gamut across all kinds of industries, but at this point that’s really where so much of our growth has come. Simplifying things is always a lot more difficult than complicating things, that’s for sure.
ROB: Absolutely. It’s interesting that you mention websites, because of course, that wasn’t really a thing when KC Truth started. It strikes me that the website creates a space, whereas in an advertisement of some sort – print or even billboards, etc. – you’re kind of limited in what you can say. The website has more room. It has unlimited room, which may be a curse in some cases. But it almost seems like there is a set of truths that you can put onto a website that may encompass everything you’re trying to communicate elsewhere. How does that track from the early days of the firm?
SUE: Obviously, we started back in those early days when there wasn’t any of that. But I come from the creative side of things, and I always felt there was nothing better than a great creative brief that you could really get in and dig into and you understood there was a really strong strategy there. No matter what it was, back in the day we’d always go, if you don’t have great strategy, you don’t have great creative. That’s really been the basis of what we’ve done for all of these years.
I would say even on websites, I still want to go to a website of one of our clients and be able to understand what it is that they do and why they’re different from anybody else. I still think that’s what people are looking for in the shortest way possible. There’s an art and a science to that, that’s for sure.
ROB: You take a client like 3M or – I don’t know if you work with them at all, but Metron – people may have heard the name, but it’s a very abstract thing. It’s kind of like the myth of the blind men touching the elephant and everyone has a different experience of what that elephant is depending on if you felt the elephant’s trunk or tail or leg. It’s a different thing.
How do you think about taking something like 3M and making it tangible and helping those individual places where it really does touch people’s lives make sense rather than just being a house of brands or of chemicals or products?
SUE: I think anybody out there in the B2B world knows that in most big companies like Cargill or 3M, there are multiple different business units within each one of these organizations. One of the things that we believe in, and it’s part of our foundation and our process, is that finding the truth involves getting people in a room from all different parts of the company. For example, when we work on a product within 3M, we want to get in not only the marketing and sales people, but the engineers, the researchers, the product people, getting everybody in a room to really understand the totality of the business.
What’s interesting is, especially in this day and age when people are so siloed into their specific disciplines, it’s amazing how much alignment comes from getting everybody in a room and hearing what others have to say. That’s something that we do and we believe in. You have to hear all sides of things. That helps us create a strong strategy, because everybody has been heard. So when we come back with a strategy, the engineers have played a part in it, besides the marketing people, and the salespeople had a part in it.
Everybody sees themselves in it in some way, and that’s really the magic of what we do with finding the truth. Everyone has been a part of creating that truth, so they all have a share in the collective work when it comes back. They see themselves in it, and I think that’s one of the things that we’ve found really works. You’re not trying to shove ideas down a client’s throat or anything like that; you’re all walking hand in hand down the same path together.
ROB: Right. That’s a very meaningful approach and process. If we rewind the clock a little bit, Sue, what led you to start KC Truth in the first place and take that leap? You mentioned coming from a creative background.
SUE: Yeah, I was a frustrated art director. I was at a big agency in Minneapolis at 26 years old, and I just didn’t dig the politics. The politics and all that got so much in the way of doing the work, for one thing, and it was really frustrating to me. I felt like there were way too many people involved. I think we used the term once that there were a lot of brilliant minds within this organization surrounded by a lead shield. You couldn’t get any good ideas out of the company. That was one thing.
The second thing was I was 26 years old and all I saw around me were – I hate to say it, but middle-aged white guys. I thought, my goodness. There were no women. This was back in 1984-85, and there were no women that were middle-aged. There was one woman and a few account people, but there certainly weren’t any creatives that were older. I thought, “Wow, I don’t know if this business is going to have a very long life. I’d better find a way to ensure a long career,” because I loved what I did.
So my copywriter partner and I – we weren’t making any money at the time anyway. I don’t even remember, but it was an amount of money that we thought, “All we need is a few more $5,000 projects and we’re going to be golden.” We literally quit, and we were having a good time doing a bunch of freelance. Brick by brick, things just kept growing.
We went out of business a couple times. I’ll proudly say that because I think that you learn more from your failures than your successes. We thought the account people could run the business because they were in charge of numbers and we were just going to do creative. Well, that was a false thing to believe. [laughs] All of a sudden we had no money left for rent or anything else, so I figured, “I’d better figure out the business side of this, too.”
It was just lessons learned all along the way, and I think that’s why perseverance and grit are probably at my soul. When you pick yourself up a few times and dust off the ashes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Next time around. So that’s what happened, and we just kept going back at it. Lucky to be here today, that’s for sure.
ROB: It’s quite a dance, that balance not only of personal transformation – which is ongoing – but also, when you look at when you started the business, of repeated reinvention. I mean, there’s just been wave after wave after wave of change in the market that, if you didn’t adjust to it, you were going to be a dinosaur.
SUE: Oh, for sure.
ROB: Even in TV advertising. I haven’t talked to anybody about this on the podcast – would love to find them – who didn’t survive the jump from broadcast to cable, much less websites, much less social, much less video and the ubiquity of video now. How have you navigated the necessary reinvention to keep the firm relevant?
SUE: Yeah, how many times have we heard that TV spots are dead and all that? Went through that probably 10 different times throughout the years. I have always tried to stay ahead of the curve in everything. I’m a very curious person. It’s one of our values at my company. I always believe you’ve got to be ahead of the game – and you’re right, Rob; that’s really what has kept us relevant for so long.
Part of that is we belong to a network of independent agencies. There are many networks, I know, like this that agencies belong to. Ours is a really strong one called AMIN. It has helped us because we can collectively buy all the tools we need. Honestly, this is where I really sound like “OK, Boomer,” but back in the day, all we had when John and I started out was markers and sketchpads we stole from the art department at the agency. [laughs] Then we had the first Mac, that little shoebox Mac. That was a huge thing going forward.
It was so much art back then, and now it’s art and science. I still think it’s more science sometimes than art. But we’ve had to stay ahead of the science game now, too. We do have all these data and media tools that really, really help us be accountable for our clients’ success. I honestly think if you don’t have that as a creative-driven shop, if you’re not proving results all the time and constantly measuring and optimizing, then you’re not going to be in business, because clients and CMOs more and more are held accountable for that.
We have always stayed ahead of the game to make sure that we have the resources of a world-class agency at our fingertips so we can work with big global clients. That’s like 35 years in a nutshell, but it really is the truth. I think that’s one part of it, and I think a lot of it is you really appreciate how important relationships are and building relationships and all that. That’s another huge part of that.
And also hiring really good people. I always do what my dad told me, which is “hire people smarter than you.” That’s what I’ve always believed in. That and “treat people as you want to be treated yourself.” I’ve always loved that we have a great culture and really good people. That’s core to being a good agency.
ROB: It’s certainly a fear some people have, walking in the door of really any independent business. You might have a bad boss in a big company, but within an independent firm, you could really be exposed to some person’s full crazy. What a privilege it is when you can be a good place to work, even for a part of somebody’s career, for that season for work.
SUE: I totally believe in that. I totally believe in finding not the best skillset, but the best mindset. It’s not who they are maybe today, but who I see the potential in the future being from that person. We’ve had a lot of people stick around because we’ve let them evolve into the position that they feel most comfortable in. Somebody that started out as an account person decided she was better doing the agency work, and now she’s Director of Business Operations for us, for example.
So, I always think you have to watch where people excel and where they’re finding their passion and their happiness and try to nurture that as much as you can. On the flipside of that, I also think it’s about making sure people don’t get too comfortable. You always want to make sure that people are continually curious and trying to do better and be better. I think that’s another side of the coin, too.
ROB: Just to take a snapshot at the moment of where we are right now, if you have a new client, a new total brand messaging package or a new campaign that’s pushing out into the world, where are all the places that you are seeing that push into now? Where are you having to manage and have your team ensure that they’re aligning that message to each place? What does it look like?
SUE: It’s crazy the amount of channels that we work in. You name it, from LinkedIn to TikTok. You have to look at every single channel as a place where a message might play, all depending on what’s appropriate for that audience. We’re like 100% digital right now. I don’t even know that we’ve done anything traditional, which is kind of ironic, in a long time. Video is the new TV, there’s no question about it.
We don’t have one niche or whatever, one type of thing. I would just say what we’re good at is being a chameleon; we can adapt to whatever channels those are to reach people. A lot of times with the audiences we work with, it’s the long tail. They might be chief technical officers, and how we find them and serve them programmatic media, for example, so we’re following them where they live. There’s all kinds of things like that. Sometimes it’s a channel, sometimes it’s following that person to see where they consume media and following them along their journey.
There’s just so many right now. Believe me, our media people can speak way more on this than I can. [laughs] I had a client say she feels like she’s got a firehose pointing at her all the time, trying to figure out what everything is, and I think that’s true. I think clients really need help understanding where they’re going to spend their money and get the most bang for their buck. There’s so many choices out there, and you need somebody that can help you wade through that and find the right audience at the right time, for sure.
ROB: I have an unsubstantiated but sneaking suspicion that out-of-home digital billboards are going to be more than they are now.
ROB: I don’t know if you’re seeing anything yet. I know some companies now that are doing – you see online people talk about account-based marketing, like Terminus and all that sort of thing, and people looking at buying billboards near the headquarters of the client they’re going after.
SUE: Oh yeah, I can totally see it. Especially digital, obviously. That would make a lot of sense. Maybe all the old school will come back in all these new forms, like it sort of seems like it is. Could be, Rob. You predicted it here first. [laughs]
ROB: I’m just curious. I may enjoy those sorts of things more than some people. It may just be my own interest there. We’re in Atlanta, and MailChimp is of course based here. MailChimp had this habit – they’re wonderful people, but they’re also tremendously competitive and cutthroat in certain ways. They would paint murals on buildings across from their competitors of nothing more than their little chimp mascot winking. It didn’t say MailChimp. It didn’t say anything.
SUE: That’s great. That’s a super smart idea, that’s for sure. It all comes down to the art, right? Art and science. It’s all art, too. That’s a brilliant strategy that they have.
ROB: Sue, you mentioned earlier some lessons learned. You’ve certainly survived through probably a number of them. What are some things you have learned along the way of building KC Truth that you might do differently, that you learned from or suggest someone else learns from it?
SUE: I can say what I’ve learned from, which is I don’t take no for an answer very well. That’s for sure. That’s probably my number one thing that I do.
I’d say what I’ve learned is in the early days, just to learn, I used to call up the head of another agency and tell them I really respected them and ask if they’d go to lunch with me or go have coffee with me. I learned so much from listening to them. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was an art director trying to start an agency.
When I think back on those days, I think, oh my gosh, I gained so much from going to talk to people. I wish I would’ve kept that up more throughout my life. Now I learn so much from the people that I work with and all that, but I think getting knowledge from other people that are older than me was always really smart. I do think in our business, there’s ageism that goes on, in my opinion. There aren’t a lot of people that are older in the business as much anymore, and I think they have so much to offer. I would always encourage people to have lunch more often with people with wisdom, because I think you can learn a lot from that. that’s one of the things I’d do differently.
Also, I wish I would’ve been a little humbler at the beginning, because I thought I was pretty cool having my own agency at 28. You can only imagine. I just think, God, sometimes I just wasn’t very humble. That kind of bugs me now when I think back on it. Humility I think is key in everything. Believe me, I’ve been slapped down so many times in these years. You’ve always got to be humble.
I think I learned early on, but really practiced it later, hire the best you can at every single level in your company, in every single discipline, and make sure that you aren’t being complacent and resting on your laurels ever, ever, ever, because you never can. That is for sure. You can never sit back and go, “I’ve got it made now.” It’s like, nope. The minute you do, something’s going to come along and slap you upside the face. That’s not going to happen.
Gosh, I don’t know. Those are some things that come to mind when I’m thinking about it right now.
ROB: Sure. How do you calibrate, then? There are times to accelerate the business and there are times to not overheat your ambitions of growth. How do you think about calibrating well when you need to chase versus when you need to sit on it?
SUE: I know, right? Because we’re not a huge company, and I never, ever – every agency has been through layoffs; we’ve been through very few. I can think of a handful of people we’ve had to lay off in all these years. Financially, I try to run the company very conservatively. But I’m also making sure that we’ve never, ever been a sweatshop. I said by the time my kids were six and eight, which was a long time ago, I was going to be home after school with my kids. I’ve always believed in having that work-life balance.
It’s walking a fine line, like you said, calibrating, making sure people have lives. I believe that’s where you get pure inspiration, from your personal life. You don’t get your inspiration from work. You get your inspiration from when you’re not working and your brain can wander.
It’s a very fine dance, honestly, and I wish I had an exact answer for you of how I calibrate. But I have a certain gut feeling about things sometimes. Sometimes I rely on numbers. It’s all a combination of touch-and-feel and trying to figure it out, and listening and taking advice. I’ve got a really good team of people I work with, and I love to discuss things and talk about things. I always rely on other people’s opinions. That makes me smarter.
Nothing concrete there, Rob. It’s just a touch-and-feel, and history. You always learn from what you’ve done in the past and failed or done well. It’s a constant balancing act, like you say. It’s balanced by all those different things we just talked about.
ROB: I think at the same time, though, you probably have some knowledge. You probably know almost more than you would ever think to give yourself credit for, because you’ve learned humility over time. If you were talking to someone who’s just building, setting up, thinking they’re going to grow an agency – you mentioned you can be on the conservative side, but do you have any rules or recommendations for someone to set up financially? Like cash reserves, practice – I don’t know. Do you have any guideposts you use that you think someone would do really well to listen to if they were earlier in their journey?
SUE: Yeah. I’d start out really small. It takes a lot more money to start an agency today. When it was just – I hate to say it – markers and pens, sketchpads, and the first Mac, that’s way cheaper than what you need today. Today, you need more people. The people that are good at analyzing data, media people. You really do need – if you don’t have them within your company, you need to have partnerships with outside resources that can help you. Because clients are going to hold you accountable. It’s not just about it’s a good idea; it’s got to work. Ultimately, it has to work.
I think the investment in people is the biggest expense today, more than anything else. So I think you do have to have a strong financial base to be able to have the people that can really hit the ground running. I think that’s it more than anything else. It’s not like it was, where just an art director and a copywriter could come up with some ads and go sell them to somebody. [laughs] That was easy. That was way easier. All the agencies that started back when I did – none of them are around anymore that started at the same time. You’ve got to have the really smart people or the competition is just too fierce.
ROB: Sue, it’s a good journey so far. What is next for you and for KC Truth that you’re excited about? What should we be looking for?
SUE: Oh, my goodness. As you’ve heard from probably every person you talk to, getting through this past year is like a historical milestone. Now we’re all just going through the headlines about the turnover tsunami. We’ve experienced some of that. Our clients have experienced some of that. That’s a place we’ve never been before, so that’s a whole other deal.
But I have to say, we had our first in-house meeting at the Truth Bar downstairs at our place with our clients. I think people were genuinely glad to see each other in person again. It felt so natural and so good. I just think we’ve missed relationships, and I’m looking forward to – that’s the hardest thing for me, feeling like I can’t build on these relationships with the people I’d like to see and hear what’s going on.
Now I think we’re in for a whole renewal of how important it is to build relationships in our business. Our clients need to trust us and know what we’re going to do is going to work, so you need to have a good relationship. And that’s where trust comes, out of good relationships. We all need to get back to that basic stuff. Face time not on FaceTime, but face time face-to-face, I think is what’s key. I don’t believe that as an industry, we can live on Zoom calls all the time. It’s just not possible. It’s not sustainable.
That’s what I’d say, Rob. That’s where my head is.
ROB: Did you have any hesitancy from any of your clients, or were they like caged animals ready to come out and hang?
SUE: They had to see if it was okay with their corporate people, to see if they were allowed to. There were a few other hoops, maybe, to get through. But no, not so far. We’ve only had one, but we’re going to be back to work a couple days a week soon. I think people are feeling – they really want to be back, I think. With flexibility and all that sort of thing, it’s going to be good times, I think, again.
ROB: It’s certainly new times. We brought in our team from all over the country – we’ve been hiring distributed over the past year. We started off wanting to have a team retreat, and then we realized we still had a lot of our clients local, so we invited our clients out to dinner. Everybody wanted to get out. I don’t think I had anybody who said, “No, because I’m being cautious.” For the most part they either had shots or never wanted one, one or the other, and they were ready to come out and play. Our team was all vaccinated up.
SUE: Same. Hands off the handlebars. That’s it, for sure.
ROB: Wonderful. Sue, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think we would all aspire to build such an enduring firm that continues to be relevant well after the initial playbook was probably in the trash and burned up.
SUE: Oh yes, for sure. You should’ve seen that first portfolio. That was something, way back in the day. [laughs]
ROB: You kind of wish you could frame it somewhere in the office now.
SUE: It’s frightening, it’s frightening. Well, thank you so much, Rob. I really appreciate that. Let’s just hope we continue to move ahead in that way.
ROB: Sounds good. Thank you so much, Sue.
SUE: Thank you. Bye.
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