Leigh George, founder of Freedom, a marketing company in Washington DC shares her thoughts on what isn’t working with traditional agencies. She also shares some wonderful insights on how to approach branding and content in a time of so many outlets.


Rudy:               Hey, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. On this episode I talked with Leigh George, the founder of Freedom marketing, a strategic branding firm in Washington DC. Leigh and I talked about what’s not working with existing agency models and we talked about design thinking and evolving a brand and how brands need to fulfill a customer’s mission and not the other way around. It’s a great conversation about branding and really knowing your customers. Check it out. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.

Earcon:             You’re listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse.

Rudy:               Hey, thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval. My guest is Leigh George, the founder of Freedom marketing, the un-agency. I first heard Leigh speak at a digital summit and couldn’t take notes fast enough. She has some keen insight on branding and content, so thanks for joining me, Leigh. I really am excited about this podcast.

Leigh:               Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Rudy:               You’ve had leadership roles in strategy at Ogilvy and other agencies and now you head up Freedom, which you brand as an un-agency. So why? Why The un agency positioning?

Leigh:               I wanted to signal that I was different. And using the term un agency instantly gets people’s attention. It’s a, it’s this big flag and it really invites conversations and questions, you know, why do you call yourself an agency? What’s an un-agency? So it was a great, I felt it was a great way to get attention and get conversation going with people. Also wanted to signal that the way I do things in the experience clients have with me are different than what they would have at a traditional agency.

Rudy:               So they ask you just kinda like, I just did. So what do you think is different? What, what do you think isn’t working about traditional agency models?

Leigh:               When I founded my company, you know, the reason I did it was because I sort of asked myself if I could work anywhere I could walk in any place and have the job of my dreams, where would I go? And I, I couldn’t name any place. And so I realized that that there are a lot of things I didn’t like and that in my own agency I wanted to try a different approach. So one is the billable hour, which I think is just, it doesn’t serve clients and it doesn’t help creatives be more creative. It really just drains staff of time and it irritates clients cause they feel like they’re being nickeled and dimed. So I just take a flat fee approach and it’s great. It has opened up a ton of time for me to work on my client challenges and it just makes it easier to build the relationship with the client instantly.

Leigh:               And then another thing I think that I feel like it’s not working at agencies is there’s a lack of flexibility and I think that’s tied to the billable hour, right? Anything you want to do that’s slightly outside of what you talked about is going to cost you more. And I just thought, you know, that’s ridiculous because there’s no project I’ve ever worked on anywhere that’s gone according to plan. And if you look at your own personal life, right? Nothing, nothing you do ever goes according to plan. I think that the, a sort of flat fee approach supports this is say, you know, look, I know things are gonna Change. I am happy to pivot as long as we’re kind of working towards the same goal that we kind of discussed initially. If we’re now working on something completely different, right? Where the situation has changed so much that the entire project has changed.

Leigh:               Then I will say to clients, I think we need to rethink what this project is. But it’s worked out incredibly well and I think it really builds trust with clients. They feel like you are in it with them and you are trying to help them and you share kind of a common purpose. And then finally I would say an area that I think where traditional agencies are broken is a lack of collaboration with the client there the sort of walls that agencies put up between agency and client where agencies tend to present themselves or can present themselves as being almost paternalistic. You know, we’re smarter, we’re brilliant. Almost as though they’re metaphorically padding clients on the head and saying, you know, we’re going to go off think deep thoughts and come back with some brilliance when really you need the knowledge, both institutional and just every day that clients have working on their business, working with their customers or their clients or their members or their funders, understanding the politics within the organization. I like to do a lot of interactive, mindful, collaborative approaches from workshops to other kinds of facilitated discussions so that the clients are actively involved in the solution. Collaboration is really an important part of my agency also.

Rudy:               Yeah, I agree. I mean, to be honest, the reason I started my own company, I never had aspirations of owning my own company. I just wanted a different relationship with clients. You know, the whole madmen structures let us go into the lab and come up with this magic that no one else can do. Those days are so long gone and you’re right because there are a lot of brilliant ideas that come from everywhere and the client has to be involved,

Leigh:               Especially with in-house marketers, they never get a chance to do. Because these are people who are in meetings all day long, constantly having to justify what they do to everyone else in the organization. Um, they’re kind of constantly getting dumped on. And so I try to be kind of this breath of fresh air, this space for them to really think creatively in a way that they just don’t have the chance to do day to day because they’re just swamped. I also hope to do is so many times clients consider to be very tactical, right? We want to get just to the design stuff for the social media posts or the website, getting them to slow down and kind of be contemplative and really think about the bigger picture makes work that they really appreciate because as I mentioned, they don’t get to do it at all. And then they, I think they kind of understand the value of that and how you have to have that before you can even get to the design.

Rudy:               So how do you get them out of that mindset? A lot of times they do think tactically and you know what? They probably put forth a budget for let’s say the quarter that has specific tactics and scope of work. How do you get them to step back and say, wait, let’s talk about the strategy first before we start talking about executions.

Leigh:               I am super passionate about brand and the belief that all brands should be based in this intersection between a customer’s passion and your purpose and that today, if you don’t understand who your customer is or client what they want, what their needs are, what their motivations are in relation to the kinds of products or services that you offer, you are going to be disrupted. Because there is a long line of big companies that have gone out of business, not because they didn’t have great technology or weren’t like business savvy, but because they just didn’t care about the customer. So I think by kind of whenever I talk to clients who said, you cannot do anything until you understand your customers. Because if you try to go out and design something without understanding how your customers think what they want, all of those things, you’re going to fail.

Leigh:               And by the way, that is not even enough. You need to understand how those things intersect with your purpose. If you don’t honestly know, you know what your brand is, what you stand for, why you exist outside of making money, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to connect with people. So you’ve got to figure those things out before you even start to think about executing on anything. I always talk about this when I give presentations is that, you know, as marketers like we are consumers. We know this because we experience it every day. But it’s like when we go into work, we put on this hat or something. All we can see is data and numbers and we totally dehumanize the people we’re trying to market with. And at the end of the day, we’re humans trying to connect with other humans. That’s what marketing is. And I think that just it gets lost easily.

Rudy:               So who do you see maybe an agency or clients doing it right?

Leigh:               So you know, that’s, that’s an interesting question because people ask me that a lot and I always have a hard time answering it. And I think, well that’s crazy because there’s a lot of really great brands. Why can’t I think of one? And I realized part of the problem is in companies and the way the bureaucracy and the way companies are set up is that one aspect of an organization’s brand I might think is really strong. But then I look at other parts of it or experience it in other channels and it’s not, you know, I don’t have as good of an experience. And so I think it’s hard to think of a brand that’s great no matter where I encountered them, whether in real or online. And I think that’s because of the bureaucratic structure that no one in the company sees it in the way that a consumer sees it.

Leigh:               Right. Cause we don’t care if we’re interacting with you on email or social or you know, whatever. We expect the same amazing experience. And I think companies are still, despite all of the, you know, there’s some huge brands that have a lot of resources and still, I don’t know that they’re doing a good job, but I will say I was really impressed by the presidential candidate. Pete Buttigieg, especially for a political candidate, which tends to be, their brands are very like trite. He did a really great job to leverage his kind of small, you would think small role as mayor and use a lot of iconography from his town as metaphor. So he uses the bridge from his town in his logo. And another thing I thought he did that was just really amazing. He put basically his brand standards and brand assets online for anyone to use.

Leigh:               So typically right when you create brand standards, you’ve got the brand police and everything is very tightly controlled and you are hypervigilant as a brand around how your brand is used. He realized like, I don’t control the brand. My supporters control it. Right. That’s who brings the brand alive. That’s who has the passionate about me. I need to help them share that passion and advocate for me. So you can create certain pairs of colors with a certain font and a certain design. And even more than that, you can select how you’re going to use it. So are you creating a sign for your front yard? Are you creating a social graphic? Do you want something for like a tee shirt and then you can download the graphic file your print, which I just thought this is amazing. You know, why aren’t more brands doing this? This is just fantastic.

Leigh:               I think that’s a bigger shift that’s happening or I think will happen or should happen, is that we were always under the impression that you know, the, the company or organization owned the brand. But more and more you’re seeing people the mindset of your customers own your brand. W with the more egalitarian nature of, of brands. Take your followers and make them, you know, your advocates and your leaders and your brand will grow.

Leigh:               For the longest time companies thought brands were about them. Right? And that customers were there to help brands with their mission, right? Help make us money buy our stuff. Well, I think the Internet and social media and a lot of other factors have completely changed that relationship and consumers are in control. We know more about a brand before we decide to buy something. We have the ability to talk back in a way we never had before. Brands have to realize that their brand needs to be helping customers with their mission and their purpose, not the other way around. When you tap in, that’s why I think brands need to be the intersection of customer’s passion and a brand’s purpose. Cause your brand cannot be about you because no one cares, right? People want something to believe in. They want to support a cause or a mission or purpose that is personally meaningful to them. If you’re just selling widgets like, well, who cares? Right? There’s nothing, there’s no emotional connection that I have to that. And so I think the brands that are really doing a great job are ones that are understanding how what they do intersects with causes or issues or things that are at stake for their customers.

Rudy:               Well, you know, for these episodes we always, you know, have a little graphic about the guests and we always have a pullout quote thinking you just gave us. So that’s covered. Brands have to be cognizant of have to help people fulfill their missions and not the other way around. I heard you say something at the summit that we both attended. You said people don’t hate bad ads, they hate bad experiences and I immediately wanted to go out and get tee-shirts made.

Leigh:               Yeah.

Rudy:               Can you talk about that a bit?

Leigh:               The thing is traditionally advertising has been interruptive, right? I’m watching Pose on FX on my iPad and suddenly there’s an ad which has nothing to do with the show or, or the themes in the show. It’s a complete interruption. It’s as though someone just jumped in front of me. It’s kind of a shock to the system and it’s just irritating. And the other reason it’s irritating. It’s not only that it interrupted you, it’s not relevant to me. It’s not speaking to things I care about. It’s it’s very salesy or very transaction focused. And I think ultimately what we want is a good experience. Right. For example, I was watching the World Cup and the now famous Nike commercial came on, it was all about kind of female empowerment and it just played you cry, right? I was. And did I view that as an interruption?

Leigh:               No, because it spoke to something deep within me. It inspired me and it kind of, and it was, it was relevant to the game I was already watching. So I think that it’s, especially now where our attention spans are so short, I was reading somewhere that research shows that humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. You know, we don’t have, no one wants to waste time. And I think it was Trend Watch, which is a kind of a forecasting company. They said, you should, your marketing should either be saving people’s attention or seizing it. And especially now that we’re in the age of the customer, customers are in control. If they don’t see any value to what you’re offering, they’re gonna move on to the next thing or block you or skip you or use a subscription service so they don’t have to see you at all. So I think that’s why understanding your customers is critical. If you want to break through all the clutter and not be irritated.

Rudy:               Yeah, it has to be more than, I know you’re shopping for shoes, hey look, we’re selling shoes.

Leigh:               It’s what just cracks me up is, well, we’ve got all this technology, IAA and blah, blah, and yet no one can fix for me the fact that I’ve either bought or decided not to buy things and I’m yet getting retargeted with the same stuff. It’s like I thought I in this magical world where I would get this completely personalized experience and it still kind of feels like you’re in a, you know, I don’t know. Pre-Internet Times.

Rudy:               Yeah. Well, that goes back to something I heard you say, which was, um, brands had to do more than talk about themselves. They have to give consumers a reason to care. How do you do that? You, you, you talked about earlier about fulfilling their missions.

Leigh:               You have to understand them. You have to understand your customers. You have to understand, you know, what challenge are they facing in relation to the kinds of things that you do and really see your world from their eyes. What are they thinking, what do they feel, what are they up against? And I think once you do that, that helped develop empathy that you can then understand how your unique brand and purpose, how it can be relevant to them.

Rudy:               Well let me ask you this, cause you know, when I think of branding, you’re usually thinking of something that’s longterm and comprehensive. So you had brought up, for example, lots of brands that do do a good job maybe in some forms and some touchpoints but not in others. So brand is something has to be considered and sort of like I said, a longterm sort of thing. But at the same time we’re moving fast on actual tactics. So how do you balance getting something out now while making sure you’re putting your best face forward?

Leigh:               I really believe in design thinking. So this idea of developing deep empathy with your customers, coming up with some solutions that you can test with them via prototypes and then just sort of iterate. So I think in the past, and this is another thing that that sort of irritates me about agencies and I think that they’re getting wrong, is their whole model is based on these deliverables. That will be perfect, right? We’re going to go away. We’re going to come back with the answer. Well, you know, no one has the answer and and the world is changing so fast that you can’t, it’s not about like reaching a finish point. It’s more about iteration. So I think you do need to do research, but you don’t need to do exhaustive amount of research. For example, I was reading one study that said, I think it’s like 20 to 30 customer interviews. We’ll give you enough of the insights you need because there’s a certain limit beyond which you just keep hearing the same things. The idea is whatever is customer facing, get it out in front of them fast so that they can respond to it and see like are you actually in line with them or do you need to course correct and be able to kind of change things as they’re live as opposed to keeping them private and in-house and only launching them when all of the stakeholders are ready.

Rudy:               No, I, I’ve seen that aspect from a creative point of view or let’s say we’re doing a digital campaign and I’ve seen a clients treat it the way you ad campaigns in the past, which was three of them. Like why we’re not killing trees or anything here. We can do lots of these.

Leigh:               So I recently launched my website and so I always feel like, well, I better practice what I preach, right? So I knew who my prospects and clients are right there in-house marketing directors or VPs or CMOs. These are people that don’t have a lot of time. They’re not gonna want to read a lot, so I knew I had to keep my web copy short. I wrote it pretty quickly because I was kind of pulling it from stuff I already had that I new resonated and then I worked with a design agency. Once the wireframes were done with the copy, I shared those with clients and said, Hey, can you take 10 minutesand take a look at this and give me a gut check. Am I on the right track? Does this resonate with you? And I got some fabulous feedback. Things that hadn’t occurred to me because as much as I tried to empathize, I am not them. And as a result I changed several things around and so if I had sat on it and the copy and hemmed and hawed over, it would’ve been a total waste of time.

Rudy:               I know you’ve mentioned this and I guess we all experience it that people see thousands of ads every day more than we’ve ever seen before. How do you think seeing so many ads change the way we view ads or the way we brands put out these ads?

Leigh:               I feel like before the Internet it was kind of ads were how we interacted with brands and now it’s so much more, right? It’s email, it’s social media, it’s texts, it’s, there’s so many different channels. It’s really brand messaging that that we are kind of bombarded with and I think when there is so much they become less useful. Right? Because we’re caught like we’ve entered this weird cycle where brands are like, oh, I’m not meeting my numbers. I guess my solution to that is just to market more and put more messages out there. And so in response people are like, oh, this is irritating. I’m going to use an ad blocker or unsubscribe or use a subscription service that doesn’t have ads. And then the company’s like, Oh, I’m not meeting my numbers. I bet our market more so horrible cycle. And a phrase I like to use is don’t raise your voice and prove your argument. Don’t just throw more messages out there. Make sure that what you’re doing is actually resonating with people. Sort of the quality over quantity.

Rudy:               No, you just made me laugh. I was just thinking of – I won’t name. But certain individuals who think that if they’re louder than they’re correct,

Leigh:               it’s almost like a shouting match, right? If I think about, I use Gmail just for my personal email and I use the folders for promotions and I mean ga jillions of email a day that thankfully I don’t even look at it because it just is carted off to another folder. But it’s just, and you know, I think about the teams, either agency or in house and the time they spend creating these emails and creating the graphics, it seems so wasteful and I just feel like there’s gotta be a better way because if, if something does is relevant to me, it does speak to something that’s meaningful to me. I want to look at it. I will take the time if it’s coming from a brand that I feel a connection to, I will look at it. But otherwise it just all is noise.

Rudy:               Let me ask you, what do you think the role of creative is in delivering these things? Other than just making something relevant? You know, we have the data and we know you want this sort of thing. And so here’s this sort of thing. How do you think creative or do you think creative makes a difference in, in how you reach that person

Leigh:               By creative do you mean both the words and the image or…

Rudy:               yes, the, the actual thought about, yes, I should have specified the creative execution.

Leigh:               Yeah. Oh No, I think it’s usually important because it’s really, I always talk to clients about don’t market from your perspective out, you know, market based on what internally the business thinks important. You have to start with what is your customer thinks important, what either motivation or barrier do they have? What message do you need to send to interact with those things or animate those things or overcome those things. And then what kind of, you know, content based on where that person is in their kind of decision process or relationship with you. What kind of content do they prefer and then what kind of channels do they like to receive that content? So have every aspect of the marketing campaign ladder back to customer preferences. So I think the creative is crucial in being able to present. It’s a tool that allows a brand to be able to present information in a way that will be welcome by a customer.

Rudy:               Well you brought up content a couple of times and that’s, I’m going to ask you what is probably gonna sound like a silly question cause you’re a content expert. How would you define, because that word gets thrown around a lot, how would you define content?

Leigh:               I, I find this whole notion of like content strategy or like there’s the content marketing institute. Is it all marketing, content marketing? I mean, I can’t think of any marketing that doesn’t have content like marketing is content, right? So I like to think of kind of all marketing is content marketing. Yeah. I think maybe there was a attempt to kind of differentiate like somehow content marketing is inbound marketing versus outbound marketing maybe. But I feel like all marketing is content marketing. The difference is you want your marketing to be welcome as opposed to being an interruption. You want it to be ideally something that someone you know has asked or is interested in we’ll find helpful or entertaining versus um, a nuisance and an interruption

Rudy:               Are there basics to a good content strategy?

Leigh:               Um, I think the, I mean obviously creating content that’s welcome is important. I really, I know I keep hammering home on this, but really starting with your audiences and figuring out at each stage of their relationship with you, what do they care about? What or what, what are their needs, what are their barriers and kind of building your marketing plan around them versus building it around whatever the priorities of the organization are.

Rudy:               So if you look along the broad scope of branding and strategy, what do you think the biggest changes that are occurring in terms of how companies and organizations brand themselves?

Leigh:               Huh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I think that certain companies that are doing a much better job, being more kind of purpose driven in a way that intersects with, with what their customers care about and really having it having a purpose. Like, I think we, everyone kind of thinks of apple as the brand. That really was the first one that really branded based on a why versus a how or a what.

Rudy:               Yeah. And going back to what you said, I think apple was able to say if you are a creative, independent thinker, then we’re, we’re aligned, you know, and that, and that’s how they connected with their audience. So more about how I thought about myself.

Leigh:               Right, exactly, exactly. And the kind of person I want to be thought of as. And also just the kind of experience that’s important to me. I buy all Mac stuff because for many reasons, one, I think it’s beautiful and it just, I enjoy the experience of using it versus other, whether it’s Microsoft or Google or whatever it might be, I just find it to be a much more elegant, enjoyable experience to the point that when I was a graduate student, so I was getting ready to start my Phd, which would be, you know, it turned out it was like a 400 page book. So I was going to be working on my computer a lot. So I decided I needed a new computer and at that point the apple cube had just come out. I don’t know if you remember, so it was like infamous is one of the worst computers ever.

Leigh:               But when it was launched, it was a big splash and beautiful. It was literally this cube and it lit up and it kind of pulse like a living thing. So I’m this broke graduate student, but I was like, apple take all my money. I want the monitor, I want the speakers, I want the cube. And so it was wonderful because I knew I was going to be at my desk long hours every day working on my computer and I wanted at least to know that that would be enriching experience. So even after my cube died, I loved it so much. I kept it and I put it, it’s still in my house underneath a window because when the the light shines in, it kind of illuminates the case. It’s just the beautiful object in and of itself. And I think that’s really magical. When someone has such intense feelings toward an object that they keep it even when it is no longer functional.

Rudy:               I still have my clamshell laptop that’s shaped like a clamshell even though it doesn’t work.

Leigh:               Yeah, it’s, yeah, it’s, I mean that’s, that’s an amazing brand.

Rudy:               Yeah. So a lot of changes going on and we’ve talked about and who knows once we have talked about what excites you the most about all the changes going on. What we do and what scares you the most?

Leigh:               I think one of the things I’m just super excited about is the pace of change in disruption. And I mean, when we think about how stable business was, you know, throughout the 20th century and then in the last, you know, 20-25 years there companies that, you know, fortune 500 Nasdaq companies that are just disappearing at an astounding rate. Yeah. Yeah. And there are, there’s so much innovation and creativity happening and new companies are coming along all the time that no one, no one can afford to kind of sit back and take anything for granted. It keeps everyone on their toes. To me it all goes back to, you know, the consumer and what the consumer wants and companies that can’t or won’t, um, or aren’t interested in what consumers want are the ones that are, are dying or being disrupted. So I think it’s, it’s a really exciting time to kind of see how all of this plays out and it’s fun to just sort of follow and I think nothing really scares me. I think it’s, I’m just really excited about the kind of dynamism now and in business, which also obviously impacts marketing and branding and everything else associated with, with business.

Rudy:               Yeah. I honestly confess that all the changes in marketing at first were what scared me because you know, we’d done things the way we’d always done things right. And then I realized, wait a minute, um, I’m a creative guy. I like this stuff. And it’s actually because it’s always changing. That makes it a lot more fun.

Leigh:               Right? Yeah. And I think when, I remember when Twitter first started thinking, well, this seems stupid, why do I care getting an ice cream cone down the street? Right? And so now I’ve learned like if any new thing happens, I’m like, okay, let me understand this. Like why is this taking off? And coincidentally I’m very lucky to have a 14 and a 10 year old in my house. So I’m constantly like, so what are you doing? What are you watching online today? What is that? Yeah, because it’s, yeah, it’s just, and that there, they’re a whole different generation that now all eyes are turning to them Generation Z and their habits and their beliefs. And so I kind of just use my house as a petri dish to, to understand the different kind of preferences and technologies and media consumption habits and everything that’s happening with them.

Rudy:               Yeah, I do the same. I realized finally that I don’t have to actually use Snapchat.

Leigh:               Right, right, exactly. A big relief for me, preferences are changing super fast. So I have a bunch of friends who are creatives in their twenties and they kind all went to snapchat while staying on Instagram and I was kind of following them and they’ve all kind of given up there. Instagram, I mean, I’m sorry, their snapchat are focused on Instagram. So it’s just, it’s, I think there’s always this kind of explosion of interest with the new platform. And then it’s kind of interesting to see like what sort of holding power does it have? Who’s who’s using it, how is it being used? And I think that is like one of the biggest challenges parents have is keep up with the pace of change among consumers.

Rudy:               Well thank you so much Lee. This has been such a thrill.

Leigh:               Oh No, this has been fun. Thank you for having me.

Rudy:               I appreciate your time today. Thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. If you want to learn more about Freedom marketing and the work Leigh is doing, vist Find-freedom.co. For show notes, previous episodes and previews to upcoming episodes, visit CreativeOuthouse.com/podcast and if you liked this podcast, please give us five stars subscribe, and share with others. That’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. Remember if the current state of marketing has got you confused. Don’t worry. It’ll all change. See ya.


Podcast credits:

Host: Rudy Fernandez

Producer and Cover Art: Susan Cooper

Earcon sound design: Gopal Swamy

Audio Consultant: Jason Shablik

Post production provided by: Music Radio Creative

Hosting provided by: Buzzsprout