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Matt Blanchard, CEO & Co-founder, Crush & Lovely

Matt Blanchard, CEO & Co-founder, Crush & Lovely

Mazin Melegy, Managing Director, Crush & Lovely

Mazin Melegy, Managing Director, Crush & Lovely

As a digital maker, leader or even digital agency owner, you may feel that you’re lower on the client project decision-making chain than you would like to be…That you’re just building what people tell you to build, without really examining the problem and determining the right solution.

Like many digital shops, Crush & Lovely has experienced this disconnect. With a solid reputation for video, web, mobile and other digital solutions, they’ve shifted their focus to high-level strategy with execution. Not just for a project or team, but across entire companies. CEO & Co-founder Matt Blanchard and Managing Director Mazin Melegy join us to talk about what an impact agency is, and how Crush & Lovely fulfills a vital business need.


Show Notes

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Carl: Hey everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and we've got a great episode lined up for you today. If you run a digital services shop, you probably sometimes see things and you you go, "We started this way, but I'm not sure this is who we should be anymore." Well, that's what this episode's going to be about.

Back at the second ever event for the Bureau, I met Matt Blanchard and his partner Nathan who run a shop called Crush and Lovely. I was blown away by the quality of the work they did and thought of them as a video shop. Now recently, I was talking with Matt, and he was telling me about how they had shifted up and they had a new core offering and they were an impact agency now. I was just like, "I don't even know what that is.".

So here today to help us understand what they're doing for their clients and how to make that kind of a shift is Matt Blanchard, who is the Co-Founder and partner of Crush and Lovely. Also Mazin Melegy, who is the Managing Director and Head of Strategy over there, who has been part of pushing this change.

So gentlemen, welcome to the show.

Matt: Thanks, Carl. Thanks for having us.

Mazin: Thanks for having us.

Carl: Ah, you're welcome. Now Matt, do you mind just giving a little bit of background on Crush and Lovely? How you started, and sort of take us up to the beginning of this transition.

Matt: Yeah, sure. So myself, and as you mentioned, my business partner, Nathan, we're both, and we continue to be, professional saxophone players. We were in the same college, back in the day, and Flash four had just come out.

Carl: Respect, baby.

Matt: That's right.

Carl: Respect.

Matt: That's right.

Carl: Flash, I apologize to nobody. Go ahead.

Matt: We both had bands at the time and needed websites for those bands. This was 1999, so the internet was young and everybody wanted a website. Of course Flash came out, you could have things flying all over your screen. Of course everybody wanted that. So I called my friend, who was in school for web development at the time, and said, "Hey, can you build my band a Flash website?" He gave me a suspect answer, which was like, "No, that's for experts only." I raised my eyebrow at that and thought, "Well, let me try."

So I downloaded the 30 day free trial of Flash four, which took all weekend, because we were still on dial up back then. Did a bunch of tutorials that came with it, and built a rudimentary Flash website with things flying all over the screen in about two weeks and popped it up. Other folks in school that had bands or just wanted websites for themselves started asking me to do that for them. So for $100 here, $100 there, I would make these websites.

Nathan, just coincidentally, was doing the exact same thing, separately. We were friends and kind of knew we were doing these things, these websites, but just continued to do them separately. Then we both graduated and lost touch for a couple of years, but we were both touring and playing with different bands around the country and around the world. One day, just happened to end up on the same show together, and we went out to lunch to catch up and he asked me at lunch, "Are you still making websites?" I said, "Yeah, are you?" He said, "Yes." He said, "Do you want to start a company?"

Carl: Oh, wow.

Matt: Yeah, just super off the cuff, and we were like, "Yeah." So a month later we met at his parents' house in North Carolina, and within about 30 days, had the company up and running. Our initial focus was on artists and musicians. Within, I think, a year and a half, we got a real lucky break, which I won't go into now, but got a real lucky break with ABC, and that launched us into a number of other things besides Flash websites. We made our first couple hires, got into HTML. Then over the course of the 15 years, our offering expanded to, obviously, all types of technologies for websites and web applications.

We got deep into mobile applications for both iOS and Android. Then as you mentioned at the beginning here about, I guess about 10-ish, 11-ish years ago, got deep into video. Our initial project was a series called Fifty People, One Question. Which at the time made a big impact, because it was one of the first video series on the web that was of high quality production, in terms of how it looked and sounded. The theory behind it was getting emotional responses from people out on the street.

So we did that for years, and of course that's been our bread and butter, and I think continues to be. But one of the things we strived for, for many years, I would say about a decade, is to try to get to the decision-makers in companies. Oftentimes in our early years, we were very much at the end of the food chain and would basically be handed a brief and say, "Hey, all the strategy work is done." Sometimes all the design work was done, and it was just like, "Build this."

We knew we wanted to be more towards the top of the chain and be involved, if not leading the strategic side of things. So over the course of the years, we've shifted to that. I guess about a year or two years ago, we took that even up another level, which I'll kick it over to Mazin to talk about. But that's where we decided to start calling ourselves an impact agency.

It's always this huge conversation about what do we call ourselves and what's the proper language? It seems to shift often according to what culture is looking like and how we shift our offerings to match the needs of industries. But that's where we're at now, and I'll let Mazin take it from there and describe what that's all about and why we made that shift.

Mazin: Totally. I think it's a question of a couple things, when we talk about who we are. I think anyone that has a team, big or small, managing ... companies are mismanaging departments within companies, can relate to this struggle, where you put in really hardworking shifts and you know your thing inside and out, and then you go to a dinner party or whatever and somebody asks what you do, and you can't even explain what you do to somebody. It seems to be just a common thing. It's, "How can I spend 40 hours a week or more, obviously, in today's professional life, doing something, and then I can't even say what it is."

It's actually funny that that internal question really drove us to change what our offering is for everybody. Because what we find is, as Matt said, Crush and Lovely would come into projects really downstream, we'd create really quality stuff based on briefs or strategy or design that other people had come up with, to solve challenges or problems that they deemed to be the big problem. A lot of the times it is, but what we find is organizations and people oftentimes spend tons of money and time and effort and brainpower and resources on problems that are the wrong ones.

What we mean by that are, they may be the loudest problems or they could be just the sexy trends of the day, but they're not really the points, where if you were to change them, you'd make a significant impact in your business or your organization. When we looked back at our case studies ... because like Matt said, we've been doing video work, we've been doing digital work, we started doing events and experience work. I think it's the dream for every creative group to do this. We all build great networks of artists and builders who do all sorts of things and we want to do all sorts of things.

But in an era where people specialize more and more, you have to kind of pick what it is that you're going to do. So when we sat down to think about what it is that makes Crush and Lovely, Crush and Lovely, is it the videos? Is it the websites? We decided it wasn't any of that. It was the fact that we were good problem solvers, we were good listeners and we could hear, absorb, understand organizations and help them to decide the choices that they need to make to push their businesses to the next level.

Then to actually make this stuff, not just consultants who come in and tell you, "You have to do this or do that." But rather, roll up our sleeves and in a short amount of time get going and actually making stuff. So we oriented an offering around that. We changed our internal staff to match that kind of an offering, and we're in the process of continuing to try to market this new idea to folks, this qualitative idea of consulting. So it's been kind of a wild ride. We're definitely in the middle of it, but we think it's something the world needs and more importantly, it was the thing that we were good at, so we decided to go for it.

Carl: Well, I have to say, first of all, congratulations on making the decision. Also, impact agency, that resonates. I didn't have to go back and look, I remembered that from Matt's email, right? It was like impact agency. But here's the question I have, because there's so many shops out there, really good shops, good at execution, maybe different mediums, whatever, who also have that feel, that they need to be higher up in the decision-making process.

When we go back to some of the Bureau research that's been done on digital services, shops that make the move into strategy, that make the move into more of that problem solving, they do better. They're more sustainable, they can make it through some of the trends. But with your current clients, and I would imagine a shop like Crush and Lovely, you have some long-term clients. How do you start to position yourselves with them? How do you explain to them, "Yes, we're still doing the great execution, that's a given. We want you to bring us in in these early discussions now."

Mazin: That's a great question. You're hitting a question right on the nose, in terms of some challenges. Because I think it's easy, like you kind of said, it's easier in a way to introduce yourself to someone new, because they don't know you, so you can say, "We're an impact agency, this is what we do," and that's their first impression. But yet to an existing client or a longer-term relationship, it's difficult sometimes to make that shift.

Just to be completely transparent, it's not 100% batting average for us, in terms of our current clientele. There's still some people that view us as what they thought they were at the beginning, the website vendor or somebody who makes really great videos. We're okay with that, because we are super good at making websites and really great videos. To a certain extent, you have to bring in the business where people demand it.

But the key to, I think, the reason why companies that are successful at making switches to strategy, the reason why they tend to have more success, is because strategy is, to a large extent, based on trust. At the end of the day, what you're giving somebody is a plan of action, and they have to necessarily take a risk to go about doing it. Because it's such a trust-based endeavor, obviously there's data involved, not all just based on, "Hey, just try this thing willy-nilly." It requires this really strong attention to relationships.

So, where you have long-term clients, where you can make the switch, I think the advice that we would give to other companies or other firms that are also looking to switch the way they work with current clients, is to lean on that, lean on the relationship and just be honest. "We've expanded our offering in these kinds of ways, we think about things a little bit differently, we would love to work with you in this new way." We found that clients tend to react really well to that, because they trust us, so they want to hear what we have to say.

Matt: Yeah, and I'll add that, to give some specific examples with two current clients that have been clients of ours for multiple years now. One, who we had very much turned into their website vendor, which I just hate that word vendor. It's terrible.

Carl: You put in money, and something falls out at the bottom.

Matt: Exactly.

Carl: That's what a vendor is, right?

Matt: Right. So we approached them, I think it was the middle of last year, and we just said, "Listen, we helped you with all of this great stuff a few years ago, and we've kind of just devolved into making changes on your site once or twice a month. But we have this new offering and we'd actually like to come down to your offices and host a two day session at no cost to you, cover our travel costs. But we'll do a two day session with the key stakeholders on your team." Which ended up being about 30 people that came into these meetings.

But Mazin and I hosted a two day session that was very much focused on higher level strategic thinking across the company. So it wasn't just strategic thinking about the website, it was about all the different divisions, and we did some exercises and activities that really showcased some of the common problems that the different divisions of the company had, that they didn't even know were sharing. Some of them they did know they were sharing, some others they didn't.

So, that was one real direct way that we were able to change or ideally change their minds, in terms of how they thought about us. The other client is this amazing sculpture park in Montana, they're called Tippet Rise. Similar thing, we had done a bunch of great strategic design work for their website a few years ago when they were launching, when they were initially opening the park. We've continued to help them on website things over the years. Luckily, we've remained part of the strategic piece of that website, but we wanted to expand beyond the website, now that we're capable of doing other things.

So last year, and actually right now, we're working on some outside of the website ideas for them. We put them in a deck, we do a little design work, and then we present that to them. It's essentially out of the blue, right? So next week, we're going to say, "Hey, we put some new ideas together for you for 2019, and we'd like to present them to you." Whether they decide to do them or not, it's starting to reframe in their minds how they think of us from just a website company to, "Hey, maybe Crush and Lovely can help us with this particular problem, or we want to get into this thing, but we don't know how to do it. Let's call it Crush and Lovely to help us brainstorm."

Carl: That makes perfect sense. I think the way that you're talking about approaching it ... and to what you said Mazin, about it's a matter of trust. It's also a matter of a lack of trust on how they feel internally, right? Because I remember sitting down with clients ... and normally, it depends on the client too. If it's the sculpture park, it's probably a smaller team. They're probably stretched thin, they see these ideas and they're like, "Wow, thank you. That's amazing," right?

Because they're so busy doing what they do, they can't get to that external thought, they can't get to that original strategy. If it's the bigger corporate client, they're the ones that are convinced that they're stale inside and they're looking for anything. So then to give it to them at no cost, I think is absolutely great.

Matt, I heard you got nervous about spec, right? You said a little work.

Matt: That's right.

Carl: You said you gave them a little work. But see, I've been in this discussion a lot. If you decide you want to do it for a client and you decide to share it to a client and the client never, ever, ever asked you to do it, I don't think that's spec work, you're not working on spec, you're working on business development.

Matt: Yes, I agree.

Carl: I'm going to bail you out. But when you said it, I was like, "Oh, man, I can see him. He's putting up the shield, waiting on the tomatoes."

Matt: I know, right? Yeah.

Carl: So how has the response been now? It sounds like some of that's yet to happen, but the response has just been great.

Mazin: [inaudible 00:17:28]. We're trying to be as honest as possible here. I think we're onto something, in the sense that, I think, okay, so where I think it's really working is that we're being true to who we are and what we're good at. I think that's the most important thing, just full-stop. Because we want to orient our offering around our strengths, there's no point in going to market around something where we're not at our best game. So in that sense, internally with our own team and with the people that we're working with on our projects, it's working great.

Where the results are a little bit mixed is in the general market, because nobody knows what we're talking about, right? When we say like, "Hey, we're an impact agency," people are like, "I don't know what that is." [inaudible 00:18:11], that's what you said at the beginning of this recording. You said, "I don't even know what that is." The truth is, yeah, of course, it's kind of a new idea.

But if I can throw just kind of our own philosophy out, and people can judge this for what it is. I think consulting is often perceived as a numbers game. You come in and you talk about the dollars and cents and the profit and the loss, and you look at how many people liked this thing or how many people clicked this other thing. But what we're finding, in the market, is that companies today are not really suffering from a lack of data. They're not suffering from quantitative insight drought, what's missing is a qualitative alignment of values.

We're seeing a lot of big companies with lots of great resources make really bad decisions in the public view today. We don't think it's like rocket science, it has to do with a lack of authenticity or some kind of message that's in the marketing, that's divorced from the reality of the organization's actual position. Who they've hired, what they're actually doing, and these misalignments are really damaging. They're damaging to companies in a real sense, and the consumer and audience can see right through them. Employee performance suffers when motivations aren't aligned with the company's overall motivation.

So when we talk about what we do when we come into teams, yeah, it may sound silly, that sometimes we can come in and say, "Hey, we're here to work on a web project." But we don't necessarily just enter into a web project and start talking about fonts and colors and this and that, we talk about the authenticity and belief structures of organizations. What are the values that the actual employees and people who come to work every day? What are their values? And how does that match and how does that meet with the value proposition of the company?

Creating that alignment can help teams to have a much more coherent idea of what it is they do in their jobs, and that translates outward into the marketing message, which hits the market as authentic, and people have that enthusiasm that really drives the company to the next level. So it doesn't matter if you're talking about web projects, marketing projects, if you're talking about an event, that alignment has to exist, and when it doesn't exist, you really start to see weaknesses in that company's message.

So that's why we think it's super important to align an offering around that, and we don't feel like there are enough companies that are doing it today. So yes, right now maybe it's a little bit mixed, but we do have really optimistic outlook for the future, in terms of how this offering will be in a few years.

Carl: Well, I'm just going to say, Matt, you get Mazin in front of everybody you can, because I'm buying right now. The way he just explained it. Well, and I'll tell you, and Mazin, we haven't met before. I ran a shop for quite a while, and one of the things we would always say is, "Before we talk about what we're going to do, we'd like to understand the business problem. We'd like to understand more about you. You understand your business, we understand the web," right? This would be the thing.

Some of it was marketing, a lot of it was real. We got to work on the line at a chocolate factory, we got to bag groceries, that kind of thing, because we wanted to see what it was to work there. All of it was fun, but the thing I'm picking up on, is you really know what the hell you're talking about. We really didn't. We would say, "Let's talk about humans, not users," right? And these types of things that I think carry over.

But now, I get the sense that you have more, I don't even want to say science, it's almost more philosophy, that you're putting into that, and it leads me to this question. Would you take a strategy-only project? If you get good enough at solving the problem and understanding what has to happen across the different mediums, the different experiences, but that company has an internal team that's good and you respect their work. Would you ever take a strategy-only project?

Mazin: I think it depends on what the definition of strategy is. I'm a strategist, so I'm a super nerd about this.

Carl: Right.

Mazin: I'll just say one thing. If I write you a really well-written, amazingly beautiful, bring you to tears strategy on a piece of paper, and I hand it to you, and you read it and you're like, "Wow, this makes so much sense to me." Everybody really agrees, "This is an amazing strategy." Then it doesn't get executed. Guess what? It was bad, it was actually a bad strategy. That's the reality that everybody has to understand.

Part of strategy is the execution, they are not divorced from one another. They're intricately connected, I mean, they're literally the same. If a strategy is to work, the team has to be built to execute it. If the team isn't built to execute it, then the strategy has to include the changes you need to make to the team in order to execute it. If it doesn't include all that stuff, then it's not very good.

So a strategy-only approach, we're not so arrogant to say that we're the only people that know how to make beautiful things. Tons of people are really good at that, and we totally respect lots of other people's execution. But, I think in order to work with us, we would want to get our hands dirty in the doing too. Not necessarily like we have to be the ones doing it, but we definitely the ones thinking about how to do it. In that case, absolutely, that's the sort of project that I think would be right up our alley. To a certain extent, we're already doing a little bit of that work with some clients. So yeah, I think so.

Carl: Matt?

Matt: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree. It's what Mazin just said, in terms of strategy being executable. That's something that I hadn't put those two things together until Mazin said that to me, I guess about a year ago. I always thought as strategy is your Bible, essentially. Then there's a whole other phase to it, where you can choose to execute, either the entire thing or portions of it. But to Mazin's point, my mind has been changed, in that if a strategy isn't executed, then you've done something wrong in the strategy. So, I do think that they're linked together.

Carl: Well, I want to say thank you both for being on the show today. I'm excited, I want to check back in, maybe in six months or a year, and see what the mix has become, how is it progressing. Matt, I've got one question for you. Did you see that Bill Barbot is back on the road with Jawbox?

Matt: No, I didn't. No.

Carl: They're selling out shows.

Matt: Amazing.

Carl: I don't think they have a sax player. So I don't want you and Nathan getting in a fight, but I'm just saying.

Mazin: Do they need a keyboardist?

Matt: Awesome.

Carl: So if you want to get back out there. See, there you go, Mazin's playing keyboard.

Mazin: That's right.

Carl: That's right. No, seriously, gentlemen, thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing how you're approaching it. I just want to say it's really refreshing to hear, not only the passion in the way you're approaching it, and this is going to sound horrible, but the intelligence. Because so many times you'll talk to people who show up and say that they're going to do something and they're going to be something, and then when you ask them a question, it's like you said, they can't quite articulate it. But you've got it thought through and you believe in it, so that's very, very refreshing. Thank you so much.

Mazin: Thanks, Carl.

Matt: Thanks, Carl. Thanks for having us. Appreciate it.

Carl: You got it. Everybody listening, thank you so much, and we'll be back next week. We'll talk to you then.

Image via Crush & Lovely

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