This week on An Agency Story podcast, we have Chris Schembri, founder and CEO of Aletheia Marketing & Media. Aletheia is a comprehensive marketing and media organization based out of Dallas, TX, catering to diverse projects ranging from initial consultation and marketing plan development to media strategy implementation and analysis. Chris and the agency cover the entire spectrum of services.
Chris has had a long career in media and originally started on the Canadian side of the border to begin his journey in the marketing industry. He started his first social media job working on Montgomery Ward clearing invoices before digital existed and he did not stop there. He would eventually gain experience with different companies, given the opportunity to work with clients like Ikea, Dominos, Ford, AT&T and more.
Although Chris has plenty of experience working with large companies, large clients, and large budgets, he still believes that despite the client’s size that everyone should receive strategic thinking and all the stops should be pulled out regardless of client’s budgets.
For Chris and his team, it’s all about trust, truth, and transparency – the mission that inspired the name of the agency itself, a term that has been originated from Ancient Greek philosophy translating to “truth.” Chris and his team work diligently in understanding the market truths and working transparently to help drive traffic or business to whatever brand they are working with.
Chris’s honesty and openness are undoubtedly sensed as he navigates us through his own personal journey through several occupations and hurdles along the way.
Enjoy the story.
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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.
Welcome to An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russel this week on the show. We have Chris Schembri, founder and CEO of Aletheia Marketing Media, a comprehensive marketing and media organization based out of Dallas, Texas. Chris cut his teeth in the marketing world with some of the largest companies in the game. The likes of Ikea, Domino’s, Ford, AT&T and more for companies, bigger, small transparency and trust are cornerstones of his mission as an agency owner, which is also the meaning behind his business name Aletheia. Listen to Chris’s big clients big goals and big dreams on this episode. Enjoy the story. Welcome to the show today everyone. I have Chris Schembri with Aletheia Marketing and Media. Welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here today, Chris.
Thanks for having me, Russel. Appreciate it.
If you don’t mind, start us off. What is Aletheia? Tell us what the company does and who do you do it for?
Aletheia is a full service marketing and media organization. We do work for everything from starting to the initial consultation and developing a marketing plan to the implementation and development of the media strategy all the way through to completion, and then the analysis at the end of seeing the results from the campaign and measuring whether or not the campaign was effective or not. We do a lot of work for clients on the border. Norwex, Abilene Christian University and a variety of others. We service probably about 20 clients overall.
Sounds like you gave that spiel a timer too.
Yeah, it’s my elevator speech for sure.
There you go. Let’s go back in time for a little bit. Was it always the plan to start your own agency? What was life like for you prior to where you’re at today?
I’ve always wanted to start my own agency. Whether it was a plan or not, it certainly was a deep desire to do it. As I started off in my media career the glamor of being an agency owner was there, but it wasn’t at the forefront of what I was doing. I was making pay with the work that I was doing at the various places I was working with and have always been in media. One of the key things that I guess was a driver for me was I look around a lot, especially when I was growing up in the business, I was like, there’s not a lot of old people in advertising and the only people that are a little older are the guys who own the place or people who have managed to navigate their career through all the tumultuous changes. For me, that was a big part of it, the excitement of working in the business and then also being able to pave my own way to growing to what I’ve become.
Sum that, not the plan, but came the plan or was an idea, but not the plan, and then here you are.
Life takes you in various different ways. This ended up taking me here, which was great.
One of the things that was fascinating, you had a pretty successful career in large companies, large clients, rather large well-known agencies, in fact. Large budgets, in fact. How did those experience shape when you’d ultimately start your own agency?
The wonderful thing in managing all of that throughout my career has been the exposure. I received, starting with Jay Walker Thompson I initially got hired to run one region for Domino’s Pizza. Ended up becoming the head of all the regional planning for Domino’s over time. That gave me a full education on all the local market media planning that we had to do. We were literally doing media plans in the back of pizza stores on behalf of franchisees. That gave me an opportunity to kinda learn all the markets across the US. If I hadn’t mentioned, I’m a guy from Canada that came into the US and started my career in Canada. It was a good opportunity for me to understand the US markets. From there, working on Ford, switching gears from pizza to automobiles, that was a lot of fun because we were developing the beginning of brands, right? Ford Escape Hybrid was one brand that we started off with. There was no marketing for Hybrid. It came right after the Prius so there was a first SUV that was coming into the hybrid markets. We got to define the markets, define the audiences, and then be able to go from there to roll out the the launch. Moving from there to Discovery Networks gave me a whole new perspective in terms of media. What I was able to see was the media planning from the other side of the fence. I was trying to get people to watch tv. Being on the media side, I got to see how the ratings were calculated, how they were all tabulated and all the work that we had to do in order to drive those ratings. It was great to see how that combination worked. From there I went on to AT&T. I had a 2 billion budget, and you could hit a lot of things with a blunt object but what that taught me was the level of exposure and that the opportunities are endless regardless of who you are, cuz you build up the relationships. As long as you have those relationships, you can build up opportunities for you and for your clients. Which moved me on to Camelot, which was a great place for me to hang my hat for several years. Was able to run the Southwest Airlines business and picked up several other pieces of business along the way. What that gave me was a much smaller budget but the opportunity to be creative and focus on driving people’s businesses. From there, coming to Aletheia, that was my real passion because anybody can do work with a large budget, right? 2billion dollars was a lot. And I could, I wanted to be on TV. I was on TV. But when you’re working with clients in the mid-market level, it’s tough to say, okay, I only have 5 million. Give me the best plan for that. That’s a lot more work, right? Because you can only do so much with that money and everything that you plan has to have an impact. That’s ultimately the charge you get by working with some of those mid-markets.
Fascinating. $2 billion budget. That’s that’s a lot of budget. I bet that tested some math skills if nothing else.
I always joked it was just a couple of extra zeros. The 1.4 was still the same, regardless. It was just a couple extra zeros that ended up.
I’m gonna tell that next time I go to the bank. It’s just a couple extra zeroes, not a big deal. It made me think you were talking about watching TV. It makes me think, when I was a kid and we got something for the Nielsen ratings and it was like such an exciting moment in the house. I don’t even remember, I was too young to know how it all worked, but my dad made it a big deal, we’re gonna rate the TV shows or these commercials. I was like, wow, this is fascinating. Long, long time ago. Speaking of that, you’ve definitely had a lot of experience in the marketing world, agency world, advertising, and as you mentioned several large brands. How would you describe the evolution and how the marketing industry has changed, particularly in advertising over the last, let’s say, maybe the last 20 years or so?
Boy, oh boy. There’s a lot of things I could talk about regarding the change in the industry. When I first started it, the internet media was just not there. That was the biggest part there. I remember when email first rolled out, as crazy as that might sound, we were moving from the DOS system to a window system. All of our orders were always in DOS and it was just a different time. Definitely if you don’t like change, don’t be in media. If you like to change and if you like to do something different every year be in media, there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think that’s the biggest thing for me that I got the charge with, is that it wasn’t the same every year. You don’t break out the same plan. Now, some of the fundamentals might be the same and some of the core pieces, but you’re always looking for innovation. You’re always looking for new things to do. That’s where I got also excited by, is that I would start to convince clients that we needed to have some form of innovation spending. That doesn’t have to be huge. If it’s $25,000or $10,000or $100,000, it’s certainly something to get some innovation and understanding what was happening. When internet advertising was starting to take shape, it was, let’s go test it. Let’s go see what we can get for $5,000 and see if it has an impact. Let’s measure and learn from it. I remember when I was AT&T and Facebook’s advertising was just starting to ramp up. We did a college promotion with Facebook. It was something that we were able to learn from. The biggest hurdle I had was actually the internal hurdles of legal and communications. They were reluctant because everybody could share an opinion on Facebook. That was a big challenge. It was like, oh my gosh what if they don’t like us? The thing is that consumers, if they don’t like you, they’ll always find a way to communicate that and communicate that publicly if they want. They’ll go create a website or they’ll co-create at that time, that’s what you did. You created a website that says, this product stinks, or whatever it might be. All sorts of people would go to that website. But then what happened is social media came in and democratized that, and everybody’s a critic when it comes to a social media plan.
Everybody’s a critic. Ain’t that the truth. I like that little takeaway that was hidden in there of convince your clients to have a little innovation budget. I think that’s a good thing. We’re so careful with the dollars and we know that budgets are fragile. But it is important to have some fun money when it comes to marketing, spend and innovation.
You definitely learn from that.
Yes, absolutely. You’ve built this amazing career and somewhere somehow in there you decided you were done with working for the man, as they say and the Aletheia journey began. What was that situation and how did that evolve?
I’m one of the fortunate ones. I was leaving Camelot, I had a great experience there. Tom Kalahar who had founded and had been running the company at the time, Southwest Airlines, ended up going up for review. The contract, Tom decided that he wasn’t renewing the contract and so he and I had a conversation and he’s hey, you wanna go start your own thing? I go, yeah, I do. I was very fortunate to bring several clients with me. Which gave me the nucleus to start Aletheia Marketing Media. I was able to bring these clients in and I worked with an agency to help incubate them for a little bit until I got on my feet. Once I got on my feet, we were up and running and it’s now been just around five years that we’ve been operating. It’s been quite a ride, but I was very fortunate and thankful for Tom, allowing me to take that opportunity to go. Made it a lot easier to get into my own business.
A little jumping off point never hurts anybody. You’ve worked for these big companies, obviously had big budgets, talking billions of dollars. Were you apprehensive in going from this big corporate world to running your own business, just you and maybe a handful of people? What was going through your mind at that time?
I was scared shitless. Pardon the language. The biggest thing for me was trying to overcome the fear of doing it. It’s kinda like one of those things where you’re on the diving board and you’re getting closer and closer to the edge and you wanna jump off and try and see what the feeling and exhilaration will be, but it’s scary. That was the biggest thing for me. I was like, how am I gonna overcome this? But I did. I figured I was at the point in my career where I’ve worked in corporate environments. I’ve been working for a Fortune five company for several years. I wanted to go out and do my own thing. I said, if I don’t do it now, I’ll regret not doing it. I said, I’m gonna do it now. And that’s what I did. Three months in we’re making money, finance budgets are being spent. Nothing is super disrupted. I felt good about that. And then once you get going through it and you’ve built more time under your belt, your confidence grew, just like anything. We talked about ice skating earlier. It’s a few moments on the ice. You start to skate around, all of a sudden you’re doing circles and you’re going faster and you can stop now. All of those things, same thing happened for me, right? I got over the fear of falling. I got over the fear of maybe running into a few snags business-wise. They become things that you have to deal with on a regular basis. No different than working in a large company. It’s just now the problems are yours. You own them a little bit.
You had this jumping off point and as you were describing, got through some of those early fears, where did you get the rest of the clients coming from? What did the biz dev world look like for you after you had to go find the rest on your own, so to speak?
I had a small team. We were six, seven people. I was the biz dev and managing a lot of those relationships. Working with people that we’ve worked with before and given the opportunity to add their business. Some of it was just through word of mouth, where we picked up our client relationships or referrals to us. That helped. Then as we got through, especially in the very beginning was, you picked up one or two clients and all of a sudden your portfolio’s a little bit more diverse. Now you’re thinking about adding people. That was a great opportunity for us to grow the business through those referrals. I will say that, immediately two years in, all of a sudden I got hit with the pandemic, much like everybody else, and that made me think, oh boy, I’m surely gonna get an education now and what’s it gonna do to my business? Fortunately our business was intact. We had some interesting clients come on board. That gave us a lot more of the revenue we needed. I was a little bullish but focused in terms of managing costs and trying to keep the people we had. But then we ran into a lot of the work around, people not being overly cautious with what they’re doing. We had to do a lot of project stuff that eventually converted into bigger projects and then ultimately into longer term clients. That helped us.
Speaking of the pandemic that’s obviously had a big impact on not only the world, but especially marketing budgets were some of the hardest hit and all that. It sounds as we got into the pandemic, you had a large client go south, I guess you could say, in terms of bankruptcy, I believe. How did that situation affect your business and how did you overcome it?
Yeah, that was pre pandemic. I remember we won a big piece of business. The client was Krystal hamburger company and we did some initial consultation. We were able to work with them to eventually get the business. We got the business, we started planning and buying the business which kicked off in the beginning of January, by January the 20th, I believe it was. I got a letter that stated that the client was going to be declaring bankruptcy and they’re gonna enter into chapter 11. Obviously, you talk about education, I never had to experience that before, so I was like, oh, this is interesting. Let’s see what this is gonna bring. What you learn is you learn patience. You figure out what the actual outcomes are going to be. As it turned out, there was some revenue loss that occurred, but at the same time, throughout the bankruptcy we were still held as their agency. The good parts about that was that they were always cash in advance, so you always had the money in advance of when the work was gonna be done. We worked through that and we built up. We had to obviously go cash in advance, and then we helped them build up their credit position again. But the unfortunate part was, is that the wrong PE firm won and bought the company. Therefore we were put aside as a result. Not from anything we did, just wrong place, wrong time, who ended up purchasing the company and then moving forward.
I was gonna ask, does that mean there was no more Krystal hamburgers? But it sounds like a lot of bankruptcies they just picked up and then new company, new ownership, all new things. Business as usual.
Yeah. It helped my cholesterol levels, definitely.
This is making me hungry right now. Yeah, we actually had our first bankruptcy experience during the course of the pandemic Gold’s Gym was one of our clients and they went bankrupt as well. It was an interesting experience to have to go through and to the whole point, nothing you can do whatsoever. It is what it is and you hold out your hand and stand in line and wait for your turn for the payouts. You were hinting at this earlier, you’ve had a lot of big budgets but that now having to move into mid-market and things like that, we’re not dealing with billions anymore, but obviously you’ve just gotta be a lot more savvy in terms of how you’re managing budgets and how you’re still being effective. Anything interesting coming to that? Whether it’d be a learning or just something specific that kind of speaks to that?
It puts the emphasis on strategy and making sure you have a sound strategy. That’s where I’ve spent a lot more time investing in resources that we have, as well as in where our people are thinking. If you develop that sound strategy at the beginning, and it’s not just a media strategy, it’s associated with also the business strategy, and making sure you’re aligned with the business strategy, that’s ultra important before you even get to figuring out what the tactics are gonna be. For me, that’s the biggest part for a mid-market client of any size is to make sure that your strategic approach is sound and then also thought through and understanding all aspects of the marketplace. Then being able to report back to specific KPIs. You can’t achieve all of the KPIs in one media plan. That’s a difficult challenge to try to deliver on. However, if you have a honed in area for KPI that you can focus on, you can certainly deliver on that and that becomes what drives the business. Helps our clients become profitable in what they’re trying to do.
Sounds like you’ve solved a lot of things in your business’ point. Was there a turning point where you’re kinda like, I got this, we’re good. Or we still looking for that turning point? Where is that in your journey so far?
Definitely still looking for the turning point. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. You’re up and down and you’re hoping that once you secure these clients that everything’s gonna run the exact way you want them to. That’s not always the case. But I do think we’re a lot closer to getting to our turning point and our level of scalability. I think we’ve got a sound infrastructure for that, and that’s taken the last three or four years to build our infrastructure. Our data set that we use, our data warehousing that we develop, all of those aspects of the foundation are put together. Now we’ve got also the brains behind those tools that know how to use them, from a staff standpoint. The people that we’ve brought on board are capable of building out the strategic plan, are thoughtful with the research, all of those things. Aletheia,if you hadn’t figured that part out, she’s the Greek goddess of trust, truth,and transparency. When we go to market we try to uncover the market truths, the customer truths, all of those things that are important for us to understand. The business truths with respect to our clients is to understand that and then be able to deliver on that through a plan that’s going to have an impact on the business.
What’s your favorite part of running an agency? What excites you the most?
The people. Not only on the client side, but also the people that you have on your team. It’s the interaction with the folks who are coming into the business and those that have been around for a while, being able to bring ideas together, collaborate, that’s a lot of fun for me. And then not always taking ourselves seriously. I built here at Aletheia, we’ve got an ambassador of fun and we’ve got an ambassador of giving back. For me, I have a lot of fun with that as well in terms of the people. We get to kid around, we get to joke, we get to have some laughs and at the same time, we’ve gotta deliver on our behalf of our clients. It makes it easier when it’s a lot more fun to come into, in my opinion.
Isn’t that the truth? Yeah. I’m a big advocate of, we often talk about fun in the work setting means actually not work and it’s like happy hours and things like that, but if you can make the day-to-day work fun then you’re onto something. What’s the flip side of that coin? What do you like the least?
The other side would be people cause at the same time, you’ve got to also make sure that you’ve got performance happening and you’re dealing with human emotion and so making sure that you’re able to deal with that effectively. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t. That’s probably the toughest part. The managing the money and all of that stuff, that might be a challenger too, but it’s the people, right? You’re dealing with relationships. You’re dealing with people who may have things going on in their lives that you’re not privy to but you can tell. It’s being able to navigate through them. Like I say, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you’re way off and you just have to be empathetic and then move on.
Empathy is definitely the word of the day when it comes to people. What does the future look like for Aletheia? If we’re on podcast episode two with Aletheia Marketing10years from now, what are we talking about?
Oh, we’re talking about maybe another 25 people here. We’re talking about operating as a successful growing concern with a multitude of clients who are benefiting from our consultation and strategic development. Our ability to execute flawlessly, that’s what we’re striving for and we’re getting there. My theory on agencies and cuz I’ve been able to hire agencies as well, so I understand what the expectations are and I think we’ve gotten away with it as agencies are away from it. If they think back and, agencies were more consultative. Agencies were that place where clients would go for the strategic direction understanding their customers. Most agencies would know more about the customer than the client would in a lot of cases, and clients would rely on that. I think a lot of agencies have moved away from that. By being a little bit more consultative and strategic, it gives us the leg up to be able to take on bigger business problems and bigger business challenges and to be able to develop and deliver on.
Maybe if the transition works, and we get back to that, in movies they’ll not say, you’ll hear from my lawyer. They’ll say, you’ll hear from my agency. We’ll look for that to see in mainstream media.
Ideally I’d like to be a little mini Accenture or a little mini Bain Capital with the agent. Rather than an agent be more of your consultant for advertising and marketing.
That doesn’t sound as sexy though. You’ll hear from my consultant.
All right, last big question for you, Chris. Are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
I believe they’re born. I do think that you have a drive. We hadn’t talked about this, but as a kid I started my employment business. I would try to employ high school kids. I remember sending out applications. I had interviewed kids. I took over my parents’ basement and was interviewing kids in my parents’ basement. I got the bug early, I guess you can say. Always looking for an opportunity, so much so that the local shopping center gave me an office space to use. I had my own office at 15. I was going for a city contract. Those are things that obviously I didn’t learn. I just took a stab at it and I did it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are like that. They don’t learn it. They’re just like, hey, I got this great product. I know I can make it a go. I’ve been thinking about making it a go and that’s ultimately how I think a lot of entrepreneurs come together. Now, it’s not to say some just get tired of the working world and then create something on their own. But I do think at that time, when I was growing up, for me it was more born. Now, if I grew up today, I think I might have gone a totally different path because perhaps I’d go into more content creation or the ability to start things with low risk exists. Whereas back then it was a little bit more higher risk. Cuz you’ve got different things that you have to do to have to be an entrepreneur.
I always love a good case of someone making a born claim. That’s a pretty compelling argument there. I appreciate you sharing that. If people wanna know more about Aletheia Marketing, where can they go?
They can definitely go to www.aletheia.com. A L E T H E I A. We’re in the midst of updating our site so that they’ll at least get a good idea about who we are from this version of the site, stay tuned for an update. Or they can go to our LinkedIn profile which is Aletheia Marketing and Media, and they can see some of the things that we’re doing and some of the work that we’ve been doing as well. They can definitely send an email to email@example.com if they’re interested in working with us. That would be great.
I appreciate you sharing all that story, and if nothing else the take away is that billion dollars is just a couple more zeros. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Chris.
Thank you so much, Russel. I appreciate it.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story 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. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to5million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.
The most comical was us moving from our small location on Tollway Plaza to our office here on Proton. The funny thing was is that we all had planned this great big move and everything like that and then we ended up, we all had a bit of jolt of energy. One of our team members got us a trailer and instead of this big move, we did it overnight in two hours. Cause we didn’t have a whole lot of stuff to bring. We’re moving into a14,000square foot building. It was furnished but still, the amount of things we brought over was stuff that you could carry in a small trailer. It made me laugh because it was like, wow, now I probably need a longer or bigger truck to take us outta here to be able to move everything. I was moving the stuff along with a couple of others, cuz that’s just what you did.
Yeah, I remember that. We did the move around a couple times in our early days and and then we get big enough, you’ll either get a mutiny or have a worker’s comp situation on your hands. So then you have to hire the professionals