An Agency Story podcast sits down with Chris Julian, president of Advertir – a branding and marketing agency based out of McAllen, Texas. With 45 years and counting of marketing experience under his belt, Chris has seen just about everything. From experiencing the phenomenon as we now know as snow birds first hand and the effect this phenomenon has had on real estate, to losing multiple business partners, to almost declaring bankruptcy, to eventually prevailing through it all, we could all learn a thing or two from Chris’s long history in the industry.
Chris takes us through a wide range of events, providing fantastic advice that one would only gain through 45 years of hands-on experience. Chris describes his team and himself as servants for their clients who possess a combination of left and right brain – analytics and creatives, which he believes is a mandatory balance in business that leads to great success.
In this episode, Chris discusses the changes he has learned to adapt to within the marketing world. He believes that there is a big difference between being in the advertising business and being in the business of advertising. Chris believes that being in the business of advertising has basic principles – delivering a compelling message to the right target at the right time is still the basics of delivering advertising. Despite all the changes, Chris believes one thing remains the same: the basic fundamentals.
Chris and his team boldly embrace the new technology that has presented itself to marketing such as the streaming, the programmatic, and the digital aspects. Clients are the bottom line and their job is to bring their clients the most viable solutions to what their golden objectives are.
Chris’s mother once told him, “Chris, hire younger, smarter people than you are and everything will be okay,” and he continues to carry this piece of advice with him today. Chris not only believes that analytics and creativity should play hand in hand when it comes to marketing, but he also believes in looking for the stars, collaborating with the right people, and keeping an eye on the bottom dollar.
This episode will leave listeners with a sense of hope against all odds and the strength to preserve and adapt to changes beyond their control.
Enjoy the Story.
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[00:00:00] Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.
[00:00:39] Russel: Welcome to another episode of an agency story podcast. I’m your host Russel. Today’s guest on the show is Chris Julian with Advertir, a branding and marketing agency based out of McAllen, Texas.
[00:00:51] Chris started his business at 1978 folks. A gentleman never shares his age, but I can tell you I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes [00:01:00] back then, as they were only one year out of high school.
[00:01:03] Like most things in life, especially over the course of 45 years, technology tools and the processes change rapidly, but you’ll find in Chris’s, some of the fundamentals simply never change. In the next 25 minutes, you’ll hear how Chris has seen it all and then some in his over 45 year career as an agency owner.
[00:01:21] Enjoy the story.
[00:01:26] Welcome everyone to the show today. I have Christopher Julian with Advertir. Chris, welcome to the show.
[00:01:32] Christopher: Good morning and happy election day.
[00:01:34] Russel: Happy Election Day to you sir. Start us off with just a quick overview.
[00:01:39] Tell us what Advertir does and who do you do it for?
[00:01:43] Christopher: Advertir Incorporated, we opened in 1978. We started as a full retail advertising agency in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. We did retail, banking, real estate, and a lot of special events with Chambers of [00:02:00] Commerces and municipalities. That’s our background and been doing that ever since then.
[00:02:06] Russel: Straight and to the point. Tell us how you came up with the name.
[00:02:08] Christopher: The old way of doing it normally was the last name of the principles of the agency. Julian DeJulio Lipscomb didn’t roll off the tongue very well. Our president, who was also our creative director, did all kinds of research, including Greek mythology, and nothing was really working at the ninth hour.
[00:02:27] We opened Webster’s Dictionary and looked up the word advertising. Down below it the French root word, advertir.
[00:02:38] Russel: Ah, I would not have had guessed that. Okay.
[00:02:40] Christopher: Good thing because my other two partners aren’t with us anymore. I’m the last man standing. We separated ways, but they’ve passed on. Fortunately Advertir will live forever.
[00:02:52] Russel: There we go. All my years of French class didn’t pay off for me to guess the end of that one.
[00:02:56] Christopher: Interesting enough, it has a good Spanish [00:03:00] translation. Advertir in Spanish is “to alert” so it even works in our international border community here in deep South Texas.
[00:03:09] Russel: There you go folks. We’re two minutes in and we’re getting all kinds of lessons here. Alright, not sure if we caught that at home, 1978, what a year. Tell us what you were doing in 1978, if you don’t mind.
[00:03:20] Christopher: Our story is probably like many other startup stories. Three young mavericks in the radio business, sales and management, ah, let’s open an advertising agency. We did. Retail was on fire in the Rio Grande Valley years before. It was an agricultural area. It was a delta, the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Agriculture, lots of citrus and oranges, but all of a sudden retail exploded on us.
[00:03:50] Accompanied by the name of Mel Simon & Associates, found McAllen and opened a huge mall, La Plaza Mall. Of [00:04:00] course, that’s where we started focusing in. Retail exploded. Actually, this mall, retail sales is still twice the household income, per capita income.
[00:04:10] Now how could that be? People are spending twice what they’re making? It’s because of the phantom shopper, the Mexican nationals. We’re six miles from the Mexican border. Monterey was only two and a half hours away, so millions and millions of dollars every year crossed the border to do retail shopping.
[00:04:32] Downtown McAllen was full of stores, and La Plaza Mall is still the highest grossing per capita of all of their mall. We had some ups and downs with peso devaluations and that sort of thing but fortunately they are coming back due to all the murder and mayhem in Mexico over the past several years, but they are coming back.
[00:04:52] Back in the early days, retail was on fire. Banking was on fire. Then we had another phenomena [00:05:00] called the Snowbirds. They are the winter Texans that come from the Midwest down to the Rio Grande Valley. They used to go to Florida, but we enticed them to come to deep South Texas and they would buy real estate.
[00:05:16] They didn’t just live in mobile home parks. They have million dollar travel trailers and they bought retirement communities down here. Real estate was real big. We were on fire. We started with three partners in a restored wood frame house on Main Street in McAllen, Texas.
[00:05:36] Within about four years, we grew to 14 employees in a 4,000 square foot facility and doing gangbust.
[00:05:47] Russel: Makes sense, right? Way before remote working was cool.
[00:05:50] Speaking of that, in a time before YouTube and all the business books that have been written and otherwise, this wealth of information that now exists on the [00:06:00] web, how are you figuring out not only how to run a business back then, but also delivering advertising as a service?
[00:06:08] Christopher: Delivering the advertising was a simple thing.
[00:06:10] We discovered there’s a big difference between being in the advertising business and being in the business of advertising. Business of advertising there are very basic principles. Deliver a message to the right target, at the right time and have a clean and simple funnel for sales.
[00:06:32] I don’t think that principle has changed much at all. Now, how we deliver that message, how we create that message, certainly that has all changed. What we didn’t know was how to run a profitable ad agency. It was shocking to discover that after four years we had grown so much and had no clue how to run a profitable business.
[00:06:58] Russel: There came a turning point [00:07:00] for you in your business. What was that moment and what was the impact like for you?
[00:07:04] Christopher: We discovered we were in debt, and I had a decision to make. Either walk away from it like so many other small agencies did. They’d run up a media bill, then close the doors and leave everybody on the hook. I decided that’s not what I wanted to do.
[00:07:25] I went to the guys that I owed the most money to and signed a personal promissory note and said, hey, we can do one or two things. I can sign this note, we can continue and I’ll try to stay current, or I can declare bankruptcy and nobody gets any money. What would you like to do? 40 years later, we’re still in business.
[00:07:45] Back then when the majority of our sales was media buys, we didn’t realize that we only get 15% of that media buy. We were doing tens and thousands of months of gross billing, [00:08:00] but it wasn’t our money. Fortunately, I was a member of the Southwestern Association of Advertising Agencies which was all over Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas.
[00:08:10] We went to a agency executive seminar in El Paso, Texas. The keynote speaker was a consultant outta California, Pete Wolf. He wrote a newsletter for ad executives called Blood and Guts of the Advertising Business. He laid it all out. He says, okay guys, here’s the deal.
[00:08:30] Three employees per million dollars capitalized billing. I’m going, wait a minute, I got 14. Something’s wrong here. 100 square feet of office space per employee. I got a 4,000 square foot facility I’m dealing with, and then he laid out the percentages of gross income, not gross billing.
[00:08:53] There’s a big difference. I had a big fight with my CPA for years because he always started the financial [00:09:00] statement on gross billing. I’m going, no, I don’t want that. I wanna know what part I get to keep to pay the bills. For the gross billing, 62% is for employees. We are labor driven in this industry, we don’t make anything. Two campaigns, 18% overhead, and here’s my favorite, 20% profit. How do you spell relief? P R O F I T. Interestingly enough, at that point we unfortunately discovered some discrepancies in our bookkeeping department and our business manager resigned.
[00:09:34] Then the president of the company who was also our creative director, I don’t think I want to be in the full service agency business anymore. I’m gonna be a little creative boutique. I’m going, okay. We rearranged the financials and I took over the reins. I remember when I got back from that seminar, I called a staff meeting, they all gathered up and I said, okay, you three ladies, y’all stand over here.[00:10:00]
[00:10:00] The rest of you guys, bye. It’s kinda like Twitter today. Then I called my landlord and I said, I’m outta here. The moral of the story is, we’re still in business. I’ve got three employees and a 1400 square foot facility. I created a new model of full service advertising agency.
[00:10:20] Back then, we thought that full service meant he had everybody in house, hence 14 employees and a very small market like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. I started outsourcing before outsourcing was even a buzzword. I realized that, okay, left brain, right brain, analytical, creative. I’m gonna focus on the analytical part, crunching the numbers, especially when 90% of a client’s budget is towards media buying. That’s number crunchy.
[00:10:52] I was able to develop a wide variety of creative people. The right brain people, [00:11:00] those people that were very creative, but very expensive to have on board. I started outsourcing and it increased our creative capabilities tenfold. When one creative mind is developing all your campaigns, what happens?
[00:11:17] They sometimes start to look and sound alike. Picasso is a Picasso. Now I have the ability to pick and choose the right creative for the right product. When we’re selling boots and jeans, that’s very different than a brochure for the wealth department of a financial institution. I was able to lower my cost and lower the cost to the client. It was a win-win for everybody involved. I contracted it, did the job, sold it to the client. They paid me. I pay them, going down the street.
[00:11:52] Here we go. I still have that brand new business model. We are still full service. [00:12:00] We’ve seen it all. We’ve done it all. That doesn’t mean I have to have ’em all on my payroll. It was a revolutionary that enabled me to continue this company five years into its original start date.
[00:12:16] Russel: You had some early success, ran into some trouble. You said your partners left the business. What was that like going from, having partners you could collaborate with, talk about the business with, to being in the business alone. How’d you handle that transition?
[00:12:28] Christopher: I wasn’t really alone. I took my mother’s advice from many years ago. It says, Chris, hire younger, smarter people than you are and everything will be okay. I surrounded myself with very talented and intelligent people that helped me run the company. I started enlisting all of the support people that an agency really needs.
[00:12:53] One person can’t do it all. You’ve gotta have a bunch of different creative people, [00:13:00] analytical and creative, both sides, left brain, right brain. I wasn’t ever alone. I surrounded myself with the people that we needed to be successful in the agency business and in the advertising business.
[00:13:14] Looking back, our new business model allowed us to reach out, enlist and collaborate with some of the most intelligent, talented people all over the state of Texas. I even have a jingle production company in Nashville, Tennessee that we do work for. It’s limitless, especially today in the world economy that we live in.
[00:13:38] Russel: A common theme in a lot of the folks that I talked to on the podcast is whether or not you should listen to your parents. We clearly know what category to put you in, in that case. Time will tell, should or should we not listen to our parents when it comes to entrepreneurship.
[00:13:51] Besides technology, what do you think has changed the most about the world of advertising over your career?
[00:13:57] Christopher: Everything.
[00:13:59] Russel: Everything. All [00:14:00] right. Do tell.
[00:14:00] Christopher: Because technology has allowed all of these changes to take place, how we produce TV commercials totally different than what it was in 1978.
[00:14:12] I think I’ve got a three quarter inch beta cam recorder in my closet back here. We used to have to shuttle tapes back and forth. Now we just email ’em. The creative process, all the technology in cameras, the 4k, that has all changed. How we look at media has all changed but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for data. Research.
[00:14:40] Back then, even in 1978, we subscribed to Nielsen Television and Arbitron Radio for audience levels. If you don’t have that knowledge, you’re at the mercy of the salesman.
[00:14:54] Rates are one thing, but how many pairs of eyeballs are watching that 10 o’clock news?[00:15:00]
[00:15:00] We had to have the data to help us make those decisions, even back in the Stone Age. The technology has changed everything, but the basics are still there. Delivering a compelling message to the right target at the right time is still the basics of delivering advertising.
[00:15:24] Russel: The fundamentals never go away.
[00:15:25] Love it. With this tremendous amount of experience you’ve had in the advertising, and obviously you’ve seen it all, as you mentioned before. How have you been able to leverage all that experience to your advantage?
[00:15:36] Christopher: Our roots are in traditional, that’s where we started. I think that’s where the principles of advertising today started.
[00:15:45] We are embracing the new technology. The streaming, the C T V, the programmatic, the search, the digital. We are embracing that, but these digital only [00:16:00] agencies don’t have the advantage of the basics. I think they’re lost in that. Because we have those roots, we can bring more understanding to the table.
[00:16:13] Our job is to meet with the client, find out what their goals and objectives are, do our research, come back to them with suggestions. Least we forget we are servants. We are in the service industry. We serve our clients. The clients are the bottom line, the final decision maker. Our job is to bring that client the most viable solutions to what their goals and objectives are.
[00:16:40] We’ve got an advantage because of our roots and our embracing the new, over the digital only newbies in town.
[00:16:48] Russel: Speaking of embracing the new, what’s been created from a technology perspective over the years that you’re like, if this is the only thing I could keep, I’m so glad this happened relative to the [00:17:00] advertising industry.
[00:17:00] Christopher: The market that we serve. It’s been pretty easy in this area because, it’s not New York City. It’s not a very sophisticated marketing town. Even today, the majority of our clients are still traditional. A lot of ’em are goin’, I don’t know about this digital.
[00:17:18] I’ve got partners that are bringing me digital solutions, especially, for example, the automotive industry. We can serve up a dynamic ad to a person that’s looking for a GMC Sierra that my customer has on their lot and it scares them as much as it excites me. I guess the saving grace is, The Rio Grande Valley has always been known to be the last to make the change, right?
[00:17:46] We’re last leg on the dog. We’re using that to our advantage because our roots are in the traditional but we have several different digital display campaigns going for clients. My real estate company owned South Padre Island, [00:18:00] they understand it. I’ve got air conditioner company that understands it and we’re getting some clients that understand that part of it, but it’s slow coming.
[00:18:08] Russel: For all the up and coming agency owners out there, their hope is to make it 45 years in the business like you, what’s your words of advice to those folks?
[00:18:21] Christopher: We need to understand how our business is a unique combination of left brain, right brain thinking. Without the analytical side to know how to run a profitable business, you will die. If you don’t enlist and collaborate with some of the most creative people in our industry, you will die. Look for the stars. Collaborate with the right people, but keep your eye on the bottom dollar. Just cause you’re doing mass gross sales, doesn’t mean you’re making money.
[00:18:55] Combination of left brain, right brain. [00:19:00] Nobody was watching our pennies when we first started. We were going fireball and selling like crazy. We had clients everywhere, but nobody was paying attention to the finances. Left brain, right brain, keep that in mind.
[00:19:19] Russel: Love it. That is such a hard thing in this space.
[00:19:23] A lot of people enter the agency world being primarily left-brained people on the creative side, and then it’s that business side, especially when it comes to accounting. It’s been a surprising thing for me is how some businesses keep their books and watch their pennies, so to speak.
[00:19:38] That’s really great advice for the folks out there. I’m curious on your take on this question and how this has played out in your own career and life. Are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
[00:19:49] Christopher: My mother was a 30 year veteran in newspaper, radio, and television. She worked for the Manship family in Baton Rouge, [00:20:00] Louisiana. They owned the State Times and Morning Advocate. They owned five radio stations in the area. She helped Douglas Manship launch WBRZ TV two in Baton Rouge.
[00:20:11] Because of that, she was his administrative assistant, and all her children got part-time jobs at the TV station. My first big break was in the promotions department to print up sales brochures for the TV station. After about two years of that, I transferred to KRGV TV and A.M. In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas that was also owned by the Manship family.
[00:20:40] I was in the promotions department, I was a TV cameraman and then sold radio advertising for them for six years. In the meanwhile, when I got into the agency business, I joined the Southwestern Association of Advertising Agencies. I was a member of the American Advertising [00:21:00] Federation. I went to the Wharton School of Business for automotive retailing.
[00:21:05] At one time we represented four automobile associations in the Rio Grande Valley. I had the privilege of going to national conventions with them and four day stint at the Wharton Institute studying automotive retail.
[00:21:21] I was born into it, but I was well educated and well versed by the time I got to 2022, and I’m still learning.
[00:21:31] Russel: You’re saying, it took a long time to make it.
[00:21:33] Christopher: And never say die, never quit. Everybody ask me, so Chris, when are you gonna retire? I’m going, this is not like ditch digging.
[00:21:41] As long as I can talk and walk and having fun, I’m gonna do it. I’m not going anywhere. This is too much fun.
[00:21:49] Russel: Right on. I love the spirit. Technology keeps getting better. Robots can walk for you and then keep your head and you can talk.
[00:21:56] Christopher: I’m gonna hire younger and smarter people than I am to make sure that we [00:22:00] understand all of that.
[00:22:01] Russel: That was my goal. When I first started in the business, I had to hire people older and smarter than I was. Then it got to the point where I hired younger and smarter and I was the old guy in the business.
[00:22:11] If people want to know more about Advertir, where can they go? Where can they find out more?
[00:22:16] Christopher: Advertir.net. A D V E R T I R. We’re gonna be rebranding all of our website because April of next year we’ll celebrate our 45th anniversary.
[00:22:33] Russel: 45. People don’t know how old I am, but that’s older than me.
[00:22:37] What an absolute pleasure to get to hear your story today with someone with your experience and staying in business that long is nothing short of a phenomenal feat. Congratulations to you on all your success, Chris. Thank you so much for being on the show today.
[00:22:51] Christopher: Thank you.
[00:22:53] We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story [00:23:00] podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction.
[00:23:16] Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.
[00:23:32] Christopher: Early on I was working with a bank in Mission, Texas, and I was presenting to the bank president outdoor billboard concepts. I had several of them and going through ’em in different designs and whatnot.
[00:23:46] He said, let me see some different designs, different colors. I don’t know if I like those colors. I go, yes, sir, we’ll get right back to you. I left his office and I saw a friend of mine who was a vice president at the bank [00:24:00] and he says, hey Chris, what are you doing here? I said I’m working with the president on some outdoor designs and he told me he didn’t like the colors he was looking at. I’m gonna go back and get some more colors and variety. He said Chris, he’s colorblind.
[00:24:19] Okay. I guess that’s why he likes gray, huh?
[00:24:24] Russel: That would make sense now.
[00:24:26] Christopher: Yeah. We’re servants. We are a service industry. I’m going, yes sir. Mr. Client, I’m gonna get you some different colors. Only to find out he was colorblind, thank you very much.
[00:24:39] Russel: He didn’t know that up until that point?
[00:24:41] Christopher: I’m not real sure.
[00:24:42] Maybe he didn’t know, but the vice president that knew it, cuz apparently they had some encounters on some other items.
[00:24:49] Russel: Maybe that’s what we’re gonna have to do in the creative services industry is start administering eye tests to all our clients to make sure that sometimes the feedback that might sound like someone’s colorblind is to make sure they actually [00:25:00] are or not.
[00:25:01] That’s that might be an interesting pro tip for folks out there.