Brian Onorio: CEO, founder & partner, Walk West

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Brian Onorio is the CEO, founder and partner of the full-service digital-first marketing agency Walk West, based in Raleigh, NC. Areas of expertise include discovery research, web design and development, marketing strategy, social media marketing, SEO, SEM, video production, professional development services and content creation.

How did you get into the industry?

I got into the marketing and advertising industry by complete accident. And even when I was in it, I didn’t realize I was actually in the marketing and advertising industry.

I earned a degree in Computer Science and went that direction for a few years. After getting burned out working in healthcare IT infrastructure, I decided that working for conglomerate health care was not where I wanted to drive my career. In a moment that probably represents my most courageous to date, I gave a month’s notice and quit. I had a laptop and a few clients under my belt and it was sink or swim from there. Only a month later, the 2008 financial meltdown happened. With plenty of nerves, I started doing what I knew I could do well – develop websites. I started freelancing out the design portion and talking to as many people as I could.

For the first few years, I was really a web design and development freelancer. I wasn’t yet mature enough to understand how that played into my clients’ marketing. The early days of Walk West (then O3 Creative) really was rudimentary, but we provided solid services and helped us get to where we are now.

Any emerging industry trends?

It’s no surprise that digital marketing has become a critical piece of any marketing plan. Last year and for the first time, we saw digital marketing spend overtake that of traditional marketing spend. This isn’t surprising as the trendlines could be predicted. I think the big question that we’re all grappling with is how long that trend will continue. I don’t think traditional marketing will become obsolete, but there’s also a reason why Walk West is full service digital. It’s where budgets are going and it’s not because it’s “cool” (although it certainly is that). Output per dollar is much easier to achieve with the tremendous amount of data we’re able to get from online sources.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

As an industry, we’re going to have to deal with the commoditization of the end service. Building websites (even e-commerce websites), taking out ads on social media, and launching digital campaigns is becoming easier and more accessible to the novice. I’m not particularly concerned at this point in time over Wix, Squarespace, or the bevy of applications that promise to deliver digital success on a DIY platform. For the time being, the strategy and approach matter if you really want success. This year, we added a Director of Strategy for this very reason. Doing meaningful work with the suite of SaaS services available is straightforward with the right plan. So far, that plan can’t be commoditized because it’s necessarily unique to each client.

Wix and Squarespace’s value proposition is a great looking website without a huge investment. It can certainly deliver that, but “great looking” is probably the weakest of primary value propositions. It should certainly look great – but it also has to speak the right words to the right people at the right time.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

The inspiration and vision for the business idea has morped over our 9 years. Initially, it was simply I didn’t want to work for a 100,000 employee company. That got us past phase 1 with grit and passion. Now that we’re more mature, the inspiration behind what we do is fulfilling: it’s about the people. We take tremendous pride in taking care of our people who come to work with us everyday. What we do inside the house is to fulfill the visions and dreams of those we work with.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

This month, we announced a merger with an agency local to us who specializes in video production and social media strategy. This was a hole for us as these are services we dabbled in but didn’t own in the same way we did our other services. Now we’re truly 100% full service digital. The future is exciting for us.

We’re also currently in the R&D process on some applications that we believe will be a differentiator for us and a game changer for our clients. I can’t disclose too much, but there’s been a steady drumbeat of developing out IP that doesn’t yet exist towards the goal of giving more information to our clients towards the goal of engaging their audience.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

As a tactical agency historically working on the fulfillment of digital projects, I quickly learned that we had to swim upstream and set the strategy. Once we were able to do that, we were able to expand our services and stopped leaving money on the table. Complementary to website design is building an audience and traffic. We adopted and hired against SEO strategy. We quickly moved into social media strategy and paid advertising as well. We keep growing in areas where our clients are headed.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Growth. Growth can be difficult. I’ve taken a small team into a staff of more than 30. Most of our growth came in the past 24-months where we grew from a two person nucleus. Fortunately, I’ve got great advisors and mentors around me who have been there and done that. That has been the critical piece in maintaining high growth with sustainable methodologies.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Most of our clients are in two buckets. A company doing $5m in business without a real dedication to marketing and companies in the $10m - $200m range who have dedicated marketing departments. Our ideal experience for them has the same result. To the small company, we come in and set strategy and fulfill that strategy towards growth and ROI. For the larger companies, we augment strategy and delivery. The goals are the same.

How do you motivate others?

We’re very people-centric. We’ve got a fantastic team that comes to work everyday looking to make a difference. My job is to make that available to them. In terms of career growth, it’s about setting a plan for each individual and helping them achieve their professional goals which usually align with their personal goals as well.

Career advice to those in your industry?

The marketing and advertising industry is fueled by millennials. Usually, the people in this demographic are on their first or second job without a whole lot of experience. Where I’ve seen individauls put their career on an all-star pace is work ethic. I personally took this mantra early in my career. I may not have been the most experienced person at the table, but I vowed that no one would outwork me. Be the first in and the last out while you have the time to give. Life happens quick and when you start adding families to the mix, your personal equation changes. You can pave your path for that early on by being the hardest worker and being unafraid of things that may be over your head. Willingness to learn and work makes all the difference.