I started The Creative Company in 1989 when I was a senior in college. While doing a little research on my longevity and wanting to make sure we continue for at least another 20 years, I contacted the National Business Women’s Council to see how I rank. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, I had a 1 in 6 chance of making it this far. Given that I had no connections, I was 21 years old and had no money, I doubt anyone would have chosen me for the “most likely to succeed” award. However, here we are—25 years later—with many awards and accolades including Southwest Wisconsin’s Business Women of the Year award, several Best Place to Work awards and recognized as one of the Best Ad Agencies in Wisconsin by Readers of Corporate Report Wisconsin. Our work has received industry accolades at the Addy’s and Alchemy Awards. I’ve served on a national board for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation for over two terms.
Despite my success, I was conflicted about some of the statistics I found because I am in the minority: fewer than 16.6 percent of women are ever invited to serve on a national board. Women are under capitalized in comparison to men, which is one of the reasons the average woman-owned business earns only $130,000 a year. Naturally, this leads to fewer employees; less than 10 percent of woman-owned businesses have employees (Source: AmEx Open). In other words, there is a glass ceiling for women, but the experts don’t know what that ceiling is all about.
My first decade was a struggle. Although I had employees, they were young like me, which meant that we were all learning as we went along. However, we had many wins during those years as we represented clients in the hospitality industry and a telephone company at a time of rapid change. I also began working with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, which helped immensely. However, it wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s that the company took off. We benefitted from a robust economy, which was a relief after two Gulf wars and 9/11. In addition to media buying and strong creative, we also created a management consulting division to help brands grow from the inside. We hit over a million dollars in profits a year in 2003 and enjoyed growth and success along with our clients. This also put us in an elite class of business owners, as fewer than six percent of male-owned businesses and two percent of female-owned businesses hit these numbers.
I turned 40 the same year as the recession. The recession had a profound affect on Creative Company as retailers cut budgets in droves. People weren’t buying cars and jewelry, so the agency that supported them needed to make a change. As it turns out, it was a change for the better.
I rewrote the business plan in July 2007, creating a future for Creative Company that focused more on showing, not telling. We would have stronger design, better stories and online integration of everything—from email marketing to social media to websites design. Creating stories that mattered to the hearts and minds of customers was a winning strategy. Utilizing new technology to show and not tell was effective and cutting edge.
This felt like I was starting over, but eight years later I see that it was a good decision. There were clients who changed with us and many new ones that came along, but the skill set it required also brought new staffing needs in an industry where change is always present and the channels themselves are always changing. The pace is different, the challenges are real and the competition is tough, and yet we’ve experienced double digit growth every year with respectable margins for our industry. We’ve also given well over $100,000 to non-profits in the community over the last five years alone, helping us to feed the hungry, clothe the less fortunate and make a positive impact on the lives of many here in Dane County.
Years ago, I heard a management consultant speak about lessons learned on the “turnaround trail.” I still remember the talk because it resonated with my own story. There are continuous set backs and wins in business. Your ability to remain flexible, work towards tomorrow and be open to new ideas and new possibilities is essential for your success. To some extent, you also have to be what the market needs you to be and, like them, you must be willing to change. Last but not least, you absolutely must be resilient.
Today, woman-owned firms represent one of the fastest growing segments of the economy, experiencing growth at 44 percent, twice as fast as men. (Source: Economic and Studies Administration). These statistics make me feel encouraged, not only because of my own possibilities for success but also for other women in similar positions. Through the agency, I’ve been able to shape Madison in many ways as we’ve worked tirelessly behind the scenes on the PR front and we’ve helped countless businesses achieve real growth through better advertising and marketing, both online and off. I’ve also personally had a chance to work alongside and become friends with many leaders across the country. Together, we’ve created career opportunities for many people over the years while collaborating for the greater good. Thousands of connections and 25 years later with a thriving team in an incredible community, I’m glad I made the decision to go into business.
I often say I’ve never had a Dilbert day. I’ve been many things as the CEO of The Creative Company—challenged, frustrated, exhausted, excited, courageous, bold and even fearless—but I have never, not for one second, been bored. Every day, I’m given a blank sheet of paper, a spreadsheet with goals that must be met, clients to serve and a community with great needs. On my best days, I’m a passionate creator with great vision. On my worst days, I am, if nothing else, tenacious. I think that’s the secret—I never ever give up. Not on this business, not on Madison, not on my team and not on myself.
Founder and President
The Creative Company, Inc.