Blaine Lifton: Founder & CEO, Free Enterprise LLC

My NativeAdVice:

How did you get into the Advertising industry?

I went to college to study design but I changed my major to advertising when I discovered I could apply broader creative thinking to a marketing need and, frankly, be clever in the process. I loved writing and art directing my ad assignments. Simultaneously, I was studying every advertising awards annual and reading industry publications. I couldn’t get enough. Just before leaving school I created a resume that looked like a two-page magazine ad and mailed it out to various agencies. Two weeks after I graduated I got a job at one of them.

Tell us about Free Enterprise. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

A small group of us decided to break away from a large agency in New York and form, of all things, a package goods company. We wanted to be the client and the agency at the same time. We identified a unique household product and formed a partnership with its creators. We renamed the product, created the packaging and began a marketing program for it. Today it’s in nearly 20,000 stores nationwide. Along the way, we began to pick up clients through past associations and friendships. Suddenly, our tiny group had turned into a real agency.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Free Enterprise's success?

I think our in-house video production and editorial capabilities have helped us tremendously. We have a particular talent for capturing what we call real people testimonials on camera in a very believable and credible way. This can be a powerfully persuasive marketing tool. But our success isn’t execution-driven. We always set the table with a strong strategic positioning.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

This relates to the previous question. We are seeing greater use of testimonials on TV and online. It’s something we’ve been doing for many years. Our examples and our reputation for capturing genuine consumer emotions have resulted in numerous inquiries from potential clients. But, again, a testimonial execution is only as good as the strategy behind it.

Life Motto?

Do things that benefit others as well as yourself. And, no matter what, enjoy what you are doing.

Your greatest success as Founder/CEO of Free Enterprise?

When we acquired the Sleep Number Bed account they were really struggling. Their stock was at 21 cents per share and shareholders were calling for the head of the CEO. They enlisted our help for a very modest fee and we went to work to resuscitate their business with a strong strategic approach to their marketing. Within 4 years their stock was trading at $35 per share. The CEO gave us a tremendous amount of credit for their success. That whole experience was a real confidence builder for us.

Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

Oddly enough, losing the Sleep Number Bed business after helping to make them so successful was our most difficult moment. As often happens in our business, the now-successful CEO and CMO left the company on a high note. They were replaced by a new management group that had different ideas about marketing their company.

The shock of that loss put us into an intense mode of hunting down new business. Leveraging our own sheer will and the impressive Sleep Number case study, we have recently established a close working relationship with a very forward-thinking bed company with an entirely new business model. It’s very exciting – and gratifying.

Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Never give up. You may have to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. You may have to change directions against your desires. Be flexible and resilient. And always keep your eyes on the road ahead. In the end, there is no more rewarding experience than being an entrepreneur.

Describe the ideal experience using Free Enterprise.

We like to think we apply inventive strategic thinking and a very collaborative environment to every relationship we have. I can safely say that, every time a client has a strategic or creative meeting with us, they walk away highly energized and satisfied. Our clients can sense that we are genuinely interested in helping them grow their business. To put it another way, we’re very good in a room. We’re an extremely smart and likable bunch of people.

How do you motivate your employees?

I do my best to listen to what every employee has to say. Not only does it open my eyes to new thinking, it provides them with a vested interest in the growth of the agency. I also try to have regular staff meetings to update them on the status of the agency. It’s important that they have an understanding of the global picture, not just their role in it.

What's next for Free Enterprise LLC?

Reinvention is a word that may be overused these days, but it’s appropriate. The advertising world is changing rapidly, along with the rest of the world. Keeping abreast of a shifting culture and the constantly evolving modes of communication is a key priority for us. And so is efficiency. The days of bloated marketing budgets are over. The good news is that these are not challenges that can’t be overcome with good, solid thinking. That makes me optimistic about our future.