This week on the Post Some Love podcast, Steve Strauss interviews David Warschawski of Warschawski, a full-service, award-winning boutique marketing communications agency. Listen to his story and the importance of positive online reviews.
Post Some Love: Warschawski Podcast Transcript
Steve Strauss: David, I'm wondering if you could expand a little bit on that moment when you started the business and went off on your own.
David Warschawski: Do you mean that time in my life when all my friends thought I was crazy?
Steve Strauss: That time, exactly.
Steve Strauss: Hi, I'm Steve Strauss, USA Today's senior small business columnist and author of The Small Business Bible and you're listening to the Post Some Love series on the Bank of America's small business podcast. This is the series where we speak with small business owners about their journey and share some of their great customer reviews. On this episode of the Post Some Love series, we're speaking with David Warschawksi of Warschawski, a national full-service marketing communications agency and a Google-certified agency partner that provides personalized care for every client. The company has been named the U.S. Small Agency of the Year for three years in a row, including this past year, has won more than 200 industry awards for its work and, for ten years in a row, has been named one of the top U.S. agencies to work. Warschawski was founded in 1996 and is headquartered in Baltimore. It also has offices in New York City and Washington D.C. Warschawski delivers the experience and expertise of a large firm coupled with the personalized attention and care of a boutique agency. David himself was recognized as Maryland's most admired CEO by the Maryland Daily Record. He's a published author whose works have appeared in numerous publications and who has provided expert commentary from media outlets ranging from CNBC to NPR. He also serves as a visiting professor for the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business and has coauthored the book Building Customer Relationships through Public Relations. David, great to have you on the show.
David Warschawski: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Steve.
Steve Strauss: So, let's start at the beginning. How long have you been in the PR/media world and how did you get started?
David Warschawski: Sure. I cut my teeth in big agencies in New York City and, throughout that experience, I always felt I wanted to do it differently. So I decided to go out on my own. It's been over twenty years at this point and, thankfully today, we've established ourselves very nicely with lots of national awards, including the ones you so kindly mentioned: being named Small Agency of the United States for three years in a row, including this past year.
Steve Strauss: Very impressive. So, what’s your secret?
David Warschawski: I think a lot of it has to do with the culture that you create. In our industry, having great people who really know what they're doing and allowing them to work hand-in-hand with the clients, the secret and part of that is why I left big agency life. I wanted to be able to offer something different. I wanted to be able to offer what I felt was the best of two worlds, the large agency experience and expertise but coupled with the boutique agency service and care that you get from senior folks throughout your experience with the agency. Thankfully, we've been successful in doing that and I do think, in large part, that's part of our secret sauce. I would say we have a second ingredient. It is we really want marketing communications to focus on generating real, tangible business results. Too many folks in the marketing communications industry are creating fluffy or feel-good or “looks nice” results. That's fine but, for us, the question is what was the business goal and can we help you achieve it and that's why, whenever we sit down with a client, our first question is: what's the business goal we're trying to achieve here and how are we going to measure it, and then let us help you build a marketing communications approach that will help you achieve that business goal.
Steve Strauss: So, that's really impressive. I used to practice law. I came to my senses many years ago. I don't practice it anymore but I did do the big firm.
David Warschawski: You're reformed, huh?
Steve Strauss: Exactly and I did the big firm thing and then I went off my own and started a small boutique agency, small law firm, but it is hard to offer the personalized service that you want to give someone, that you can give them when you have a small business but give them the expertise of the large firms. So the fact that you've been able to couple those two, I think, is really quite unique and so let me read one of these reviews, in fact that, we found about you and have you comment on it. So this says ‘the Warschawski agency just gets it. We’ve spent years bobbing around, looking for the attention that you get from a small agency that has a big agency experience without the New York City price tag. The Warschawski agency does it all from branding to PR, design web packaging to digital and social media. The creative team really seems to understand who we are and who our consumer is. They have successfully perfected our brand’s rather complicated positioning and messaging.’ So that's, I would think, the kind of review and online love that you're wanting to achieve, right?
David Warschawski: 100%. That's great validation that we're living our brand values, our clients are experiencing exactly what we're trying to put out there, and also we're helping them create business success.
Steve Strauss: And that second point that you brought up about achieving substantial and specific and tangible business results, it's not always easy in your world. So the fact that you focus on that, I think probably is very attractive to your clients.
David Warschawski: 100%. Look, I'm a business owner, number one. I also am an investor and owner of some other businesses. So getting real business results, I know it matters and we're not doing marketing communications as a vanity project. It is a true business function that has to move the business needle. Otherwise the [PH] C suite is going to say it was very nice, looked good, felt good, but what did it do for us. Was the money well spent? And, especially in today's bottom line-driven world and also in our constantly [PH] on-world, you really have to focus on generating real, tangible business results that are measurable, that you can share with your clients
Steve Strauss: Did you grow up in a small business or entrepreneurial family? When did the entrepreneurship bug strike you?
David Warschawski: I was very fortunate. I grew up in a household where my father was a top-level business management consultant, very entrepreneurial, encouraged me throughout to learn about all different facets of business, and, when I decided to go out on my own, he and my mother were two of the biggest supporters I had in that endeavor.
Steve Strauss: David, I'm wondering if you could expand a little bit on that moment when you started the business, when you left the big firm and the security the big firm and the nice paycheck every two weeks and the benefits and all those things and went off on your own. What went into that decision and what was it like for you, personally to become an entrepreneur?
David Warschawski: You mean that time in my life when all my friends thought I was crazy?
Steve Strauss: That time, exactly.
David Warschawski: So, I was a young guy under thirty and I worked in the number one large agency in New York City working on some of the highest profile pieces of business but, in my gut, I had that feeling. I wanted to do things differently and the gut beat out the rational part and I would tell most entrepreneurs, if you're a good entrepreneur, listen to your gut. It knows. You can use rationalization to make almost anything sound good but you have to live with yourself. Listen to your gut. So, when I decided and began having these conversations, most of my friends said, you are just out of your mind. Why in the world would you want to do this at this point in your career? I will say that my parents were incredibly supportive and said, we're behind you. Go ahead and do this. I am, now in retrospect, didn't know this at the time, wasn't married, didn't have kids, was under thirty, had a tremendous amount of energy. It's actually a great time in your life, if you're entrepreneurial, to start a business.
Steve Strauss: The perfect time.
David Warschawski: As other things take up your time, you realize, and I see some of my peers at their point now in life, trying to start up businesses when they have families and children and little league to contend with. It's tougher for them. I will, however, say, you know, on the personal side, it was a big risk. I was incredibly nervous. I worked like a dog. I think most entrepreneurs who are listening to this know, you’re everything. You're doing everything from answering the phones to being the bookkeeper to doing the account work to doing the research to cleaning the place up after you leave and, with time, obviously, that hard work has paid off and I've been able to delegate some of those things away.
Steve Strauss: You know, a wise man once told me that an entrepreneur is someone who takes a risk with money to make money. They take a risk with money to make money and so entrepreneurship is, by definition, a risk, as you just said and as we all know. That said, one thing I've also learned is that the best entrepreneurs really strive to reduce that risk to the extent possible. For example, starting a business when you're 25 or 28, much easier than when you're 45 or 48, when you have a lot more responsibilities and the stakes might be a little bit higher.
David Warschawski: 100%. I didn't know that at the time and, certainly, it was tough going against some of the advice of my good friends at that point in my life but now, in retrospect, it turns out that it worked out just perfectly and beautifully.
Steve Strauss: You worked in a big firm for how long before you started your own agency?
David Warschawski: So, overall, I worked in big firms about 6-7 years in New York City. I worked in two different ones. One is called the Dillon-Schneider Group and my last stop was at the largest agency in New York City, at that time called Edelman.
Steve Strauss: Oh, Edelman. They're both big firms. Edelman, I worked with myself. Very, very impressive.
David Warschawski: Well, we never got to work together.
Steve Strauss: No. Not yet, right?
David Warschawski: Right.
Steve Strauss: I'm wondering how you then built the business and built the brand. What were the bricks you had to put in place to create a foundation that eventually allowed you to open a second shop and then open a third shop in New York and, obviously impressive? How did you do that?
David Warschawski: I think of it like building a pyramid. You've got to start at the bottom. You're laying the first brick and, sometimes, laying that first brick in the hot sun is lonely but you do it really well and you build a foundation with one client win after another and proving to them that you are capable of doing just the same level of work that they may be getting from a full service agency, as opposed to one person shop at that point and you grow from there and then you win the next piece of business and then you have to hire a couple people and then you win the next piece of business and you're hiring even more people and, thankfully, from both a culture standpoint, internally, it enabled us to hire continually great folks who could do great work and also it allowed us or gave us the legitimacy that larger and larger clients were saying, wow. Look at what they're doing and the attention that they're going to give us and even the cost, at that point, was such an appealing proposition that, over time, it continued to grow and to expand to where we are today, thankfully.
Steve Strauss: You’re listening to the Post Some Love series on the Bank of America podcast. I'm Steve Strauss and I'm speaking with David Warschawski of Warschawski, a boutique marketing communications agency on the East Coast. So, tell me a little bit about how your business has grown. Which of your three cities you start in? How small was it and how big is it now?
David Warschawski: It really has been a great ride and it's been a step-by-step process and, as you mentioned, thankfully today, we have an office in New York, an office in D.C., and an office in Baltimore. Baltimore was really the headquarters after I left New York City agencies. I cultivated some business in New York but my family was based here in Baltimore, decided it would make sense to come back to this region. We certainly have, and early on, worked with major national and international clients. In fact, when you talk about how has our business grown, we were very fortunate early on, a couple of years into our lifecycle, to win some very prominent pieces of business, including being named the agency of record for the United States for the Adidas brand and that created validation for us and allowed us to win lots of other large, national, or international clients. So it was a step-by-step process and now the sort of next step in that process has been really focusing on creating a great digital marketing capability in-house. Today, we were very honored that Google recently named us a Google certified agency partner and today we have ten Google certified analysts on staff and we are doing a ton of very high-end and sophisticated digital marketing, which is really changing the game in marketing communications.
Steve Strauss: You know, I obviously don’t need to tell you that branding is so important for a small business. That's what you do for a living but people who listen to this show may need to know that, as a small business, I think, and I'd love to hear your opinion, obviously, you need to have a brand every bit as strong as your larger and big competitors because there's so much competition out there for a small business. There's thirty million small businesses in the United States. I'm wondering if you can give us your thoughts on small business branding and marketing and what you think of it.
David Warschawski: It's so key to helping you set the foundation. We talk about branding as being the cornerstone or the foundation for the house that you're going to build and, if you don't build a great foundation, anything you build after that is somewhat shaky. So you have to, early on as a business, really clearly define what your brand is, what you want people to feel when they interact with you, and who your primary, secondary, and tertiary target audiences are. The sooner you do that, the sooner you codify that, the easier life will be because, all of a sudden, there's now a North Star for making business decisions. I've got two candidates in front of me who I could hire. Well, before, you may have looked at sort of the logistics of who would be better but now, all of a sudden, you can say, who’s a better fit for our brand. Or, when something goes wrong or right and you need to make a business decision, that decision’s much easier when you have a clearly-distilled and put-down-on-paper brand.
Steve Strauss: And, in your case, you've clearly gone out and gotten some very impressive industry awards and that's got to do a lot to build your brand and create some word-of-mouth for your business.
David Warschawski: 100%. It creates validation. One of the things I'm proud of is, you know, we've put in the hard work and we have a fantastic team who's made it possible to get these accolades. So, yes, it's validation. It helps us grow as a business and get bigger and better and more exciting clients. Those are wonderful things but, because of our culture, it really excites me for the team when we get that kind of recognition because it's a pat on the back for everyone that says we're all pulling in the right direction and we're special. We're doing something different and unique from all the other agencies that are out there.
Steve Strauss: Well and, in fact, let me read one of your reviews along those lines. ‘Warschawski is a talented team doing impressive work for prominent clients. I’m impressed by this agency's ability to quickly produce any and all marketing communications work at the highest quality.’ So, your team is your business.
David Warschawski: 100%. In marketing communications, you've got to have great folks, and today more so than ever. There are so many disciplines that need to be covered when you have a good, integrated marketing communications firm. You have to be good at advertising. You have to be good at marketing. You have to be good at branding. You have to be good at P.R. You have to be good at social. You have to be good at web development and, perhaps most importantly today, you need to be good at digital marketing. We recently, in addition, just opened up a virtual reality and an AI capability within our firm.
Steve Strauss: Well, one thing is true about small businesses and that is, you have to, especially these days, stay up and keep learning and, for good or ill, and as challenging as that can be, it's kind of part of the fun too, I think.
David Warschawski: All the digital marketing has kept me very young at heart because this changes every day. Our industry, overwhelmingly, has always been an industry of change and movement and latest trends but, no time like today, have I seen such a need to stay on the cutting edge of digital technologies and how they can be best leveraged for your clients. They're changing all the time. You have to be expert. You have to be able to explain it to the client and then you need to be able to implement it. Thankfully, our head of digital marketing was just named one of the top seven digital marketers in the country. He's been really able to help our clients understand and capitalize on how you can do digital marketing in ways that create outstanding ROI for them and, in many cases, it's beating the ROI of traditional advertising, marketing, and P.R. approaches.
Steve Strauss: Now, we are getting branding and marketing jewels from an expert. I mean, just that you're able to say that your digital person got another award, that is how you really can build a brand. If you're a small business, just and any way you can associate yourself with that kind of branding, I think really makes a big difference.
David Warschawski: Thank you and I think so much of that, Steve, has to do with hiring the right people. When you're a small business early on, and I certainly remember these days, you did everything yourself and you had to wear so many hats. You get to a point in the life of a small business where you need to find great people and I would tell anyone who asks, if you're in a small business, invest a little extra money. Invest a little extra time in training because those people are your biggest assets and you rather they're great than either mediocre or poor.
Steve Strauss: Absolutely. I'm wondering what challenges you've faced along the way. Clearly, staying up with the digital as you just mentioned is something that you've done but what other challenges do you find you've faced growing your business.
David Warschawski: Sure. So you definitely mentioned probably the biggest ongoing challenge we face, which is, across all of these marketing communications disciplines, staying on the cutting edge and sometimes ahead of the cutting edge is a very difficult task. It's an ongoing challenge and it requires people, including myself, who’ve got to be hungry to learn those things and finding those people can sometimes be a challenge. And the second, I think, ongoing challenge we face is we have a very clear set of brand values and we live our culture out loud and to find the superstar, rock star standouts who embody what our brand values are all about and also can really bring a high level of expertise and experience to the table, that's a challenge. They're not easy to find. Thankfully, we've been able to find them but that is always a challenge we face.
Steve Strauss: So what values do you find important in your business and why have you chosen these values to stress, whatever they are?
David Warschawski: Sure. So we have specific personality approaches to things like staying hungry and relentless that are very important to us. They embody the type of people we want to find and, at the end of the day, when we live all of the various brand values that we have, the end emotion we want people to understand about Warschawski is: we so badly want to thrill you as a client. We want you to be working with us and, hopefully, give us the kind of rave reviews you've just shared with your audience and I want the client to say, wow. That's really different than any other marketing communications experience I've had in the past. The other is: we want people to get a sense of personalized care, that this is not a business equation for us. We care about your business. We're in bed with you. We want to understand how we can help you grow and we take it incredibly personal to ensure that we're delivering the best results. So the embodiment of those ideals and making people experience that, you've got to find the right people who really are capable of that.
Steve Strauss: So that really begs the question: how important are reviews for you in your business.
David Warschawski: Well, I'd argue it's not just for us. I'd say they're incredibly important to everyone. It's a way that you shape your reputation in the industry and the markets that you serve. It's validation. If I have a choice between, today especially, I'm looking online for three different service providers in the same vertical and one has 4.5 stars and the others have 3 stars in their rating and the 4.5 has multiple positive reviews, it's a no brainer. I'm going with the higher-reviewed company and choosing them to be my partner. So today, probably more so than ever, reviews and anything you can bring together online, that's where you want people to hopefully validate and say the things that you want them to say about you.
Steve Strauss: Well, as you said, this digital revolution is changing everything and it’s changing word of mouth advertising. It’s changing everything about business. Do you read online reviews?
David Warschawski: Sure.
Steve Strauss: You seek them out?
David Warschawski: I’m not online everyday looking for reviews, if what you mean, but, certainly, they get shared with me when I do see them and, when we get the kind of reviews that, thankfully, we do get, they certainly make us all feel good because we put so much into trying to create those results. So, to hear it brought back to us that we've accomplished what we put out into the world, that's wonderful validation, both on a personal level but, also, on a corporate level for building our brand.
Steve Strauss: Do you ever look to get reviews? Do you speak with clients about it or is that not, you just are happy if you find them happening organically?
David Warschawski: For the most, they happen organically but, certainly, we've had clients who, after we did a specific project or some work with them, they're raving to us about the experience they've had with us and we'll say, would you be so kind as to put that down on paper or, in this case, digitally, on any of the social media platforms and share your feelings about how we interacted with you. So, yeah. That happens from time to time.
Steve Strauss: And I think it works. I know it works from personal experience. I'm an author. I've got a lot of books on Amazon and I will do what you do, which is: if I hear from someone and they like my book or they didn't like my book, even, I'll say, hey, if you would just go on Amazon and give me a review, I would very much appreciate it and, most times, people are happy to do it and I have one book has been reviewed 50 times and I have one book that's been reviewed 4 times and the one that sold, you know, 50 reviews sells a little better than one with 4 reviews.
David Warschawski: I bet. I bet.
Steve Strauss: I have a follow-up question about reviews. Obviously, they are great for getting more business. People go online. They find a review. They like the review, as you said, and they might hire that person or go shop at that store or go to that restaurant but what about the use of reviews in attracting talent. I mean, we are now in a market where labor is pretty tight and attracting and keeping top talent is a challenge for some people. Do reviews make a difference there?
David Warschawski: 100% and, Steve, I agree with the premise of your question and I would argue that online reviews of what it's like to work in your workplace are more important than what clients have to say about your workplace.
Steve Strauss: Wow.
David Warschawski: Because you have to find and bring in the best people to create the best work and they have to be a cultural fit and, if you're not thought of as having a great workplace and a great culture, it makes it much harder to recruit those folks. We're very fortunate. Culture is king with us. We put so much time, money, energy, love into creating the kind of culture and environment that we hope people just want to stay with us forever and are having a great time and we always tell folks, we don't believe creating great results and having a great time are two separate concepts. We actually think they work better when they're in coordination. You can have a great time while doing great work. So you need the reviews to find the kind of people who fit that bill. And the second part that I would say is: anybody who's looking at an agency gets a holistic picture, whether that's a client or that is a possible employee, and the only way they're going to get that holistic picture is, that's a positive picture, is if what people are saying about you internally matches up with what people are saying externally about you. When the internal word of mouth is not so good but some of the clients are quite happy, that sometimes a picture that potential clients or potential employees tend to run away from. So, at the end of the day, I'm incredibly proud that we probably have one of the highest Glassdoor rankings in our industry. I think we're around a 4.8 out of 5 and that's what our folks are saying about us and about the environment that we've created and they all help foster.
Steve Strauss: Additionally impressive and, for people who don't know, why don’t you just tell us quickly what Glassdoor, a Glassdoor ranking is.
David Warschawski: Glassdoor is a forum online that allows employees to give comments and feedback and rate their employers and 5 is the highest score you can get. So, most agencies are somewhere in the 3-4 stars’ range and we're very proud. Some of the better ones are a little bit higher but we certainly are at the cutting edge there or at the bleeding edge with a 4.8 out of 5 and, for me, that's just as important as winning new clients because what that means is: all the hard work we put into creating a culture that people should love to come in and participate in and, by the way, that I love to be a participant in. I have to go to work every day and I've got to love the folks in the environment where I work. So it tickles me when other people feel like we've created that kind of environment.
Steve Strauss: And you bring up a really good point. When small business owners think about ratings and reviews, we tend to think about something written about us on Facebook or Yelp but this idea of Glassdoor is not insignificant, that you your employees are out there ranking your business and you've got to be cognizant of that as well.
David Warschawski: Yeah, and you had brought up the issue of branding. Today, and if we were having this conversation ten years ago, I would have told you external branding is much more important than internal branding but, today, that's flip-flop because organizations and companies are so transparent and people are working or interacting with your representatives so much more frequently. If you don't hire for your brand and your brand values, you don't train, and you don't reward, you are not going to be able to create a sustainable brand. It's got to start internally today and then, secondarily, you want to do the external branding.
Steve Strauss: What has surprised you about your journey as an entrepreneur?
David Warschawski: I think the thing that's been, or has changed the most for me is, early on in my career and in the life of Warschawski, there was the thrill of the hunt, of winning the next big client, taking on the next big project, and creating [PH] wowing results for them. There's a tremendous amount of excitement that goes into that. I still have that excitement but, today, I've really transitioned where I get the most excitement out of mentoring and teaching the next generation. There's so much to learn in our industry and, sadly, in our industry often mentorship is not a norm which leads, at the end, to some bad marketing communications. So the chance for me to be teaching the next generation from what I've learned, that's what probably gives me the biggest kick today and seeing people who started their careers with me, for example our COO who's been with us for twenty years, grow from an account executive to becoming an incredibly successful businesswoman, that's more exciting to me than winning the next big client.
Steve Strauss: So, David, what is next for you in your business?
David Warschawski: So I don't want to say it's next. I think it's happening today and that's really the digital revolution because our business today is really, fundamentally changing, and, when I say our business, I'm not talking about Warschawski. I'm talking about the industry and there are a lot of people who just aren't, at this point in their career, willing to put in the time, the energy, and the effort because it is a lot to learn all the new things and become truly expert at them and I think that's going to be a make-or-break for many agencies over the next couple of years. Those who really are at the cutting edge of understanding digital marketing, of understanding how to measure results, those are the ones who are going to survive and succeed. The ones who are staying to some of the more traditional-only platforms, I'm sorry to say, I think they're going to fall by the wayside with time. So I think when we look forward is: we're constantly trying to evolve and grow on the digital side. That means we're getting better at web development every day, at app development. We just created a virtual reality expertise, which I think will definitely have a big impact in the marketing communications space and we shortly will be opening up an Amazon capability as well to do marketing specifically on the Amazon platform.
Steve Strauss: Well, I love how forward-thinking you are. I'm sure your clients love how forward-thinking you are. David, if people want to learn more about you and your agency, where should they go?
Steve Strauss: David Warschawski, so great having you on this show today and good luck and continued success.
David Warschawski: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking to you, Steve. Take care.
Steve Strauss: Bank of America is committed to helping small business owners achieve lasting growth and is now asking everyone for their support in helping small businesses grow by asking them to Post Some Love. We know that positive online reviews views help drive small business success. So we’re encouraging everyone to do just that. Choose your favorite small business and write a positive online review. Bank of America does not endorse or guarantee the perspectives, the advice, or the products or services sold by any business referenced within this podcast. Copyright 2018, Bank of America Corporation.