Greg Abel’s career began in advertising at McCann-Erickson and Fitzgerald+Co in Atlanta, then jumped to the digital space, with digital marketing mega-consultancy US Web/CKS (later marchFIRST) where he helped to develop digital strategy and online user experiences for a range of consumer brands. In 2002, Greg cofounded Tailfin, which has grown into a diverse, award-winning marketing and creative services agency. In his spare time, Greg is an avid (or maybe “rabid” is a better term) Atlanta sports fan and a single-engine airplane pilot.
How did you get into the industry?
Oddly enough, I am probably one of the few people that actually went to school, majored in advertising and then went and got a job in advertising. When did the ad bug bite? Probably back in high school – I was editor of my school paper and though I loved to write, I didn’t really have the patience for long-form. Ads can still be a great creative outlet, but they have to be quick and to the point – that suits my pace just fine. Plus, there’s nothing quite as fun as really connecting with an audience, changing a mind, bending a will.
Any emerging industry trends?
It’s not a “breaking news” trend, but it’s one that here to stay – the complete integration of measurement in all shapes and forms in marketing. A heavily data-driven approach to marketing has some real merits in helping identify targets and really delve into perceptions, so we rely on a lot of data points to make decisions and guide work. That said, we’ve also seen clients become “blinded by data.” The numbers overtake all logic, experience and intuition to a point where brand messages get washed out and generic. Sometimes people in our industry become so focused on the real-time, right-now data that they forget what and why they are measuring in the first place. We trust data, but we also believe in common sense and expertise when it comes to how we steer brands.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
The continuing ascent of social media has uncovered an opportunity for many of our brands to find a more authentic, active and natural voice. Brands that connect with consumers in a way that feels real and truly shared can build enormous affinity – and can insulate and recover from missteps and mistakes. Even so, it takes a lot of guts and tenacity to get it right – if you are serious about being social with your brand, you have to dedicate to making that brand feel as human as possible, which means consistency of voice and a natural volume of conversation (in this case, content). Above all, you have to find ways to get users to respond and you need to respond in kind. This isn’t advertising, this is a conversation.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
We’re in a work hard, play hard business, so inspiration almost always comes from two places – the people and the work. Marketing and advertising attracts a lot of kick-ass personalities – creative, smart, curious, funny, diverse, intense – so you are exposed to a lot of energy and plenty of different perspectives. That people mix keeps things from getting stale in the day-to-day. As for the work, like any “creator” there’s a great sense of satisfaction when you can step back and look at a finished project and say “that was great, that was smart, that was original.” Hitting measurable goals and getting client accolades are great, but that sense of team accomplishment is right up there in terms of what motivates and drives us to the next day. As for a future vision for the business? We want to continue to find more and more “fun” clients to work on – brands and projects that give us opportunities to flex our brains, push a boundary or make a real difference. If we’re having fun, it never feels like work.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We continue to grow current clients and bring in amazing new partners, which drives the main change in our business – adding new people. With new people come new possibilities, directions and opportunities – they are the keys that open the doors for positive change.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
We need to get better at telling our own story. Like many marketing shops, we can sometimes be the “cobbler’s children with no shoes.” It takes discipline to treat yourself like a client – to look in the mirror, self-assess, then put a plan in motion (with real deadlines) to create and promote your own brand.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
We caught the economic downturn of 2008 about a year later than most industries, and it was tough. We had clients that just couldn’t maintain, so we had to really tighten our belts. As cliché as it sounds, we operate a lot like a family and everyone did what they could to ride the storm out – we even had folks volunteer to go from full time to half time. In the end, we came through with very few injuries and went to work to rebuild.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
For us, an ideal client really only has to have two components – trust and smarts. A killer product, a healthy budget and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, but we can do great work with just about any client who knows what they’re doing and is confident enough to trust us to help them get where they want to go.
How do you motivate others?
(EXAMPLE: Tell us about your most effective techniques or strategies for inspiring and encouraging those that you work with)
I think there are two pillars to motivation – lead by example and be generous with feedback, positive or negative. There’s a huge difference between being the boss and being a leader. Leaders are out front, pulling oars alongside everyone in the boat, and that’s inspiring. As for feedback, most people’s biggest fear is just not knowing where they stand. We try and keep communications open, honest, constant and consistent. And we make it a pretty damn big deal when people go well above and beyond.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Follow Gretzky’s motto – “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Risk is necessary for reward, and there’s always some value, some learning, in failing. Yes, losing stings – but a sting is temporary and in the grand scheme of things not all that painful. Win a lot, lose a few – just don’t get boxed in by fear losing to the point that you never have a chance to really win.