Mike Schaffer is a founder and partner at Echo-Factory, an award-winning advertising agency in Pasadena, Calif., whose diverse past and current client list include Maglite, Dainese, Goodwill Industries, GE, Audi USA, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Honda and others. Mike started out as an advertising photographer, and he has produced a prizewinning body of work. So, as agency CEO, Mike also works closely with clients and his team of creatives throughout the marketing process and is a believer in the value of this type of ground-level leadership. He is an organizer of Friday Coffee Meetup, one of the LA area’s top 10 tech meetup groups, is advisor to LA Cleantech’s portfolio companies and is a mentor at the USC Incubator. Mike is also a regular contributor to CSQ magazine on the topics of branding and marketing.
How did you get into the industry?
After high school, I got a job as a photo assistant. I was working for an advertising and commercial photographer who did some good, credible work on a local and regional level. Then, he lost it. Not in a “losing his creative vision” or a “yelling at his photo assistant” way, but more of a “discovering the secret formula of the illuminati and writing it in tiny letters on the photo studio wall” way.
I decided that was all the encouragement I needed to go out on my own. I started my own studio and earned an AA degree in photography.
I enjoyed the creative work, but I enjoyed the business aspect of running a photo studio just as much. After a few years, I was ready to expand into a full-service agency. But as brash as I was back then, I also knew I wasn’t ready to do it on my own.
I spent a couple years badgering the best creative director I knew to quit her job. I finally convinced Dea Goldsmith to leave her cushy agency gig and come start from square one as my partner at Echo-Factory, which, at that point, didn’t exist. Our first “agency headquarters” was a garage in an industrial park in Upland, California.
We had a pretty simple formula back then. We’d do the best possible work we could for anyone who would take us on. Our clients appreciated that, they told their friends, we grew, moved a couple times and ended up here in Old Pasadena with a staff of about 20 agency employees.
Any emerging industry trends?
Business owners love being able to track ROI from marketing.
A decade ago, agencies would be selling radio and TV spots, and if the clients heard the radio ad on their commute or saw their TV spot while they were watching Sports Center, they thought the campaign was a huge success. The truth was nobody really knew where the sales were coming from.
Now, with the technology and tracking everyone has available, we can say, “You spent $X on this campaign, it brought you Y number of new customers and generated $Z in sales.” It’s really easy to keep clients happy when you can show them that the things you’re doing have a profitable ROI.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Advertisers are great at taking a good thing, and ruining it.
Remember when your Facebook feed used to be full of photos of your friends and like actual social interactions? And now it’s all BS “Top 10” articles and ads? That was us; that was our industry.
There’s not a social trend in existence that our industry won’t find a way to ruin. And consumers are starting to figure it out.
That’s a challenge and an opportunity. Consumers are more skeptical than ever, which means that brands have to work harder than ever to earn their trust. It also means that if you find a way to do it right, if you can figure out how your brand can add value to people’s lives and not just extract money from their wallets, you’re going to really stand out from the crowd.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I’ve never been big on manifestos. But there are a few principles we had when we started that we still live by today:
We do our best work or none at all.
We only work with people we like.
We only do work for products we believe in.
Those simple rules keep me happy as a principal, they keep our employees happy and they keep our clients happy.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Our big initiative right now is implementing what we call “Trigger Systems.”
It’s a simple concept. When something important happens at your business, we’ve got a pre-set group of projects ready to go that all work to support that thing.
Say you’re about to release a new product. We’d have a trigger system in place that says, “Every time your company releases a product, that triggers a product photography session, the design of support materials, a PR outreach campaign about that new product, website updates and a social media and content marketing campaign.”
It’s a pretty simple concept, but it does two really smart things. First, it synchronizes your marketing with your business. We’re not working off a marketing content calendar that may or may not coincide with what’s actually happening. Our marketing projects are triggered by what you’re doing.
Second, it amplifies the effect of what you’re already doing. It makes sure that when something important happens, we’re telling your customers about it in the most effective way possible.
Really, it’s a pretty straightforward idea. But we get really impressive results from its implementation.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
I love what I do, genuinely. This is my dream. I’m coming to work every day at the agency I built with my partner doing exactly what I wanted to do.
I know that’s unique, but it’s an experience we try to give to everyone who works here and to the clients we work with. As much as possible.
We want our clients to look forward to coming to meetings with us, and we want our employees to look forward to coming into work every day. Or at least to sitting around the kegerator for a few minutes at the end of the day.
The truth is, that attitude makes us a better agency.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (And what did you learn?
The rough times are all characterized by one thing: a lack of trust. You can’t have a good client/agency relationship without it.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, and one that I’m sure I’ll have to learn again. But the truth is, it’s impossible to have a good relationship, and do good work, if that trust isn’t there.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
It’s pretty simple: We want our clients to enjoy working with us, and we want them to be thrilled with the results we deliver. Everything else is just window dressing.
How do you motivate others?
We keep a live alligator in one corner of our photography studio. Anyone who does subpar work has to spend 30 minutes alone with Mr. Chompers. The ones who make it through tend to be both highly motivated—and tough.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Work with people you like. Be nice. Don’t take shit from anyone.