Aimee Woodall has always had a rebellious streak. When we interviewed her in 2010, the founder and “Leader of the Flock” of The Black Sheep Agency was staging flash mobs and protests as part of her guerilla marketing tactics. Now she is taking her firm in a new direction as she promotes Houston’s first “cause driven” strategic branding and public relations agency. The firm wants to work with non-profits and social enterprises; Aimee says it makes for a more rewarding workday. And now she has received a “40 Under 40” award. Maybe she’s on to something?!
Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today, Aimee Woodall, Founder and CEO of the Black Sheep Agency; Aimee, welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show.
Aimee: Thanks for having me Russ, it's great to be here.
Russ: You bet. Now it was like 3 years ago I think when you were on the show, I was already impressed because you had been in business a while, now you're growing, you're bigger, you have more employees, you're winning awards all over town, you must be doing something right.
Aimee: Well I hope so. Yeah, things have really changed in the last 3 years, it's kind of - they're a whirlwind. I can't believe it's been almost 5 ½ years now at this point.
Russ: All right, congratulations.
Russ: So you still have this real cool, uh, byline: A Marketing and Publicity Rebellion; what's that all about?
Aimee: Well, when we were first starting out we wanted to position ourselves very differently from other agencies in town. Part of my inspiration for starting the agency was just really wanting to do things differently, uh, so in the beginning we were rebelling against traditional tactics. We wanted people to have conversations with us about how they could approach media relations differently, how they could talk to their audiences, their, um, and - and formulate their communication strategies in a really different way. We did a lot of experiential marketing, a lot of things that really allowed brands to connect to their audience in person, uh, to create that storyline and that - that two-way feeling with the brand, um…
Russ: But you're kind of talking in past tense when you tell this story, yeah.
Aimee: I am because we - we've really made a big transition this year and now instead of rebelling, uh, in the way that we're trying to stand out and do things differently we're really trying to rebel in standing up for things; instead of standing out we're standing up. Um, and we're working to serve causes so we've actually, uh, transitioned earlier this year to become Houston's first cause-driven strategic branding and public relations agency.
Russ: Okay, now I sort of knew about that - yes it is but explain what the cause is.
Aimee: Well the causes are all different. Really what we're trying to do is accelerate impact so we work with people who are serving all types of different cause. Uh, we work with non-profits who are serving different needs in the community, we work with for profit companies who have a strong desire to balance purpose and profit and give back in some meaningful way, um, and then we work with B corporations - or social enterprises - which is, uh, a new variety of company that a lot of people don't know about that balances purpose and profit and reports similarly to a nonprofit in their, um, in their transactions and makes their mission, uh, very equal to their overall sales goals.
Russ: Okay. And so you talk about doing that, does that mean that's all you do? You won't just go work for just a regular business-for-profit corporation that, uh, is so focused, maybe even fighting for survival?
Aimee: Correct. So, yeah, it's a little scary isn't it. Um, so early on in - in our business development we started working with an organization called Neighborhood Centers and that was my first taste of really getting to do work that meant something. It made me feel good every day, that re-inspired me every day, no matter how much, uh, how hard I was working or how little sleep I was getting, every day I just felt this renewed sense of purpose to do this work, um, because I was serving their mission
Russ: Okay, Neighborhood Centers is a nonprofit.
Aimee: Neighborhood Centers is - yes.
Russ: But they hire you and they pay you, but you also work for - for profit corporations as long as they also have a social cause.
Aimee: Correct. So, um, so the - the second category of business is really just the for-profit that wants to do something meaningful to give back so they're incorporating social responsibility as a part of their grand strategy; as a part of their work that they want to do every day. A good example of someone that we're worked with recently is Rajin' Cajun. They were one of our clients when we made this transition and so I sat down with Dominic Mandola and I said this is - this is where we're headed, do you want to come with me? And - and after chatting with him a little bit and explaining how - how it would work he was totally on board so we just finished developing their corporate social responsibility program which is called Cuz We Care, um, and it's really awesome because we've - they were already giving in the community.
Dominic was already giving all over this town and so what we did was we assessed where he was giving, we had some really great discovery sessions to find out what he and his other leadership team, uh, members cared about and then we brought those things together in a very strategic way to give back. So it - it almost saved, um, a lot of time and resources because we streamlined things and packaged it a little bit better and made it easier for them to give back and then made their commitment to the community a little bit more meaningful.
Russ: How are they giving back now?
Aimee: So they, in our meetings with them where we were trying to get to the heart of what they cared about we found that they really were interested in working with children in Houston and especially on the health and education side. So we worked to establish this Cuz We Care program and they work with a different children's charity every month; it rotates out. And not only do they give a percentage of sales back to that charity but they commit their marketing and resources to educating about that cause.
So it's more meaningful than just the financial side, they really partner with that charity to build awareness, to bring them into the restaurant and allow them to have conversations with patrons and then on top of that they do the financial contribution. So in the first 2 months alone they donated over $3,500.00 to these two charities that they kicked things off with and - and it's really just helped, um, connect them more into the community and help showcase what they're doing in a more creative and meaningful way.
Russ: So, uh, I get it, it's pretty cool and - and by helping them, you know, develop a social responsibility program you do also help their business, but do you - the question is do you also independently help their business? Do they also say we want to do this big promotion over here that has nothing to do with our social responsibility or do you just want to work with the social responsibility program?
Aimee: That's a great question. We still provide all of the same services that we provided before. We - we provide public relations, media relation services, connect - our clients to the media and help to tell their stories. We promote them through social media, we help with their event strategies, we help with their direct marketing, their digital marketing; we still provide all of those same services that are common to a comprehensive agency, but on top of that we pull this corporate social responsibility mission into the picture and you know what it does?
It automatically lifts those things up, accelerates what they're able to do, so instead of just talking about their everyday story and PR or coming up with something to talk to the media about, we have this dynamic, amazing thing that they're doing through their corporate social responsibility that just gives us a whole new layer of storytelling. Um, that's also - I mean not just with media relations, that gives us something more dynamic to talk to about social media, it connects us to new audiences. Automatically if you think about - and this has been a part of our culture from the beginning - collaboration just makes everything bigger and better. And now we're having these causes connected to these corporations, these for-profit entities and what they're able to do is just huge.
Russ: I kind of feel like, uh, you feel real good about your business and where it is today.
Aimee: I get really excited, can you tell?
Russ: Yes you do but I mean that's pretty cool. Like I always like to say it's really hard to start a business, to grow a business, and for you to sort of add this dimension to it which some, you know, just profit and loss business people would say my God, you're unfocused on what you're doing. Uh, but you're feeling instead we're a good about what we do and feel like it adds to (??).
Aimee: Very focused. I mean, one of the things that most people who - who have this sort of like concerned look on their face when I tell them is - is - they're, you know, well you're eliminating all these possible client's but I find that the more specific you are about the kind of work that you're trying to do, the more that client connects with you and that's what we've evidenced. I mean it was very scary to say this out loud and to say we're not working with anyone who doesn't fit this - this mold. Which is - it affects the whole mold; I mean all - all you have to do is say that you want to do something good with - with your business. So, um, it's not as limited as some people think when they first talk about it and a lot of people turn off when we say nonprofits and - and just hear the nonprofit side of it and it's so much more than nonprofits. I mean we could theoretically work with any business in - in Houston and the United States and the world if they were willing to commit to something like this.
Russ: Right. Well, and from what I understand, uh, another reason you can kind of be comfortable with this strategy is that you have all the work you can handle these days, isn't that right?
Aimee: We do. We do and we have such cool projects, um, which is great for us, it - it renews our energy every day to come in and work on these projects. It - we are connected to the most amazing people doing the most amazing things in the city which is awe inspiring to me. Like to just have the opportunity for it to be my work to connect with these people and to promote what they're doing is - I - I couldn't ask for anything more. Um, not to mention it helps my staff. I mean I've - I've recruited the most talented team of 10 people and - and they are all fired up about social responsibility and serving - serving this mission and, um, helping these people do these - elevate these things that they're doing, so…
Russ: Okay, so does this mean we're going to change from a marketing and public relations rebellion?
Aimee: Potentially. I mean, we've altered our mission statement a little bit; it used to be to shock, to awe, to be the agency that changes minds and now we've added at the end of that to be the agency that changes minds and accelerates impact. So we're not - we're no different now than, you know, who we were before, we've just really gone all in, um, so we're adjusting a few of our messaging points to reflect that because we've really - our biggest thing is we just want to communicate who we are and who we - who we - you know, the kind of client that we serve and make that clear from the start so that the right people are connected.
Russ: Okay, it's very impressive. But you've been impressing quite a few people lately, I understand, uh, you, uh, were awarded a 40 Under 40 award and perhaps even a Best Places to Work kind of got in the top category there too?
Aimee: I did. The HBJ has just really affirmed that people believe in the work that we're doing this year. Um, you know, the thing that I'm most proud of in this 5 ½ year history is the - the culture I've built internally and the people that I'm able to come to work with every day, so the Best Places to Work was ???? I've ever gotten, um, because it was staff-based, you know, it's a survey thing and they, I guess their responses are the reason why we won so that's really meaningful to me. Um, and 40 Under 40, I mean it's just such an honor that - you know, you question the work that you do, no matter what it is everyone questions the work that they do and so awards are just, you know, everybody has a different opinion about awards but you can't deny that they are - that they affirm that you're - that people believe in the work that you're doing and that's incredible.
Russ: And congratulations.
Aimee: Thank you.
Russ: All right, and that wraps up my discussion with Aimee Woodall, the Founder and CEO of the Black Sheep Agency. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.