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Casting Call

Laura Teicher and Adam Rodrigues, seen here at FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park, say the agency is more than living up to its new name.

The agency formerly known as Greentown Learn has been rebranded as FORGE, a name that more effectively speaks to its mission of making connections between entrepreneurs and manufacturers that can create prototypes of their products or actually produce them. Since its inception, FORGE has facilitated such connections for nearly 200 companies, helping improve the survival rate of such ventures while also bringing more work to a number of area manufacturers.

Neil Scanlon equated it to a sales force — a different kind of sales force, to be sure.

He was referring to the agency now known as FORGE and formerly known as Greentown Learn — a rebranding was deemed necessary, and we’ll get into that in some detail later — the nonprofit arm of Greentown Labs in Somerville, which loudly proclaims itself the “largest clean-technology incubator in the United States” and “the best place in the world to build a clean-tech hardware company.”

FORGE was created to help those entrepreneurs developing this hardware to create prototypes and find manufacturers that could build the products they’ve developed and specific components for them — more specifically, manufacturers in Massachusetts and especially Western Mass.

Indeed, one of the primary goals behind FORGE was to build what’s being called an east-west connection — products developed in the eastern part of the state and prototyped and produced in the western region. It’s still a work in progress, but there have been a number of matches made, including several with Scanlon’s company, Worthington Assembly in South Deerfield.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects. It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

He’s not sure exactly how many of these matches have been made because many of the orders are placed through a sophisticated online system. But he’s quite sure that a good number of boxes heading out the door are bound for Somerville.

“Worthington ships to Greentown quite often, and I don’t always know how that connection was made,” he said, adding that he does know that his firm, which specializes in circuit-board assembly and has customers in many different sectors, has gained some new customers through FORGE.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects,” he went on. “It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

This is exactly what those at Greentown Labs had in mind when they created its sister organization, now known as FORGE, said Laura Teicher, the agency’s executive director.

As she talked with BusinessWest in FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park in Armory Square, she said the nonprofit is succeeding with its basic mission of helping to see that products blueprinted in Massachusetts are prototyped and manufactured here, when possible.

“Through its Western Mass. office, FORGE is able to engage a critical cluster of precision manufacturers in producing prototypes, early runs, and production at scale, deepening the east-west link between Eastern Mass. startups and Pioneer Valley manufacturers that was started with the support of leadership in the House of Representatives,” she said.

Startups like RISE Robotics, which is working to replace energy-intensive hydraulic systems with clean and efficient electronic models, and has engaged area manufacturers such as Peerless Precision and MTG Inc., both in Westfield, to create prototypes.

And like Clean Crop Technologies (CCT), a Haydenville-based startup working to solve the crisis of aflatoxin infection in grain and nut crops, which reportedly causes more than 100,000 deaths and $1.7 billion in lost revenues each year, especially in developing countries.

Led by co-founder and President Dan White, the company has, through FORGE, connected with Newbury, Mass.-based Product Resources to create a prototype of a post-harvest assembly-line-like fumigation process that removes up to 90% of aflatoxin from crops in less than 20 minutes.

But White noted that some components for this system, which he equated to the sandwich-making line at Quiznos, may be produced by manufacturers in the 413.

For area manufacturers, meanwhile, FORGE acts as that sales force that Scanlon mentioned by introducing entrepreneurs to area shops and acquainting them with their capabilities. And most need some help in this critical step in bringing a product to the marketplace, because they don’t know what skills are needed or how to find a firm that possesses those capabilities.

“Greentown Labs is inventing products in Massachusetts, and FORGE’s mission is to make sure they’re made in Massachusetts,” said Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless Precision, adding that she conducts ‘lunch and learns’ in Somerville and takes other steps to educate entrepreneurs not only about the firms in the area and what they can do, but also how to approach manufacturers, what those shops need to submit a quote, and about the higher quality they’ll get if they choose a Baystate firm instead of one overseas.

Scanlon agreed. “It’s not easy to figure out who might be a good match just by doing Google searches,” he said. “Especially when it comes to small, Western Mass. shops that are not strong in marketing themselves — that’s where FORGE comes in.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with manufacturers and entrepreneurs alike to find out how FORGE is living up to its mission — and its name.

Testing Their Metal

Teicher told BusinessWest that, even as she was being interviewed for the job of executive director of Greentown Learn more than a year ago, she was thinking the agency’s name didn’t effectively convey what it was all about, and that it needed to be changed.

And when she won the job, she made it one of her first priorities to orchestrate a rebranding.

This was a months-long process, she noted, adding that the agency wanted a name that reflected its mission, a task made more difficult by the fact that most words associated with manufacturing, making, metalworking, and so on were not usable because they’d been copyrighted or trademarked, or incorporated into a URL.

“It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

“Any cool name that you can come up with that signals hardware has been taken,” she said, adding that some that weren’t already taken came with other problems, or baggage.

Like ‘KINECT,’ a brand option that was one of several finalists, if you will. It’s a play on words, and an effective one, blending ‘connect’ with ‘kinetic energy.’ Problem was, said Teicher, that research revealed this same name was attached to a failed Super Nintendo app.

“We were very close; we were attached to it for a while,” she said. “It was great because we’re forging connections, we’re working with physical products, and it’s pretty simple. But we didn’t want to be mixed up with a failed product at all. And there’s something a little childish about it because of the K’Nex toys — so we didn’t want that association, either.”

Kristin Carlson says FORGE helps educate entrepreneurs on the capabilities of Bay State shops and also the advantages to getting work done in the Bay State instead of overseas.

Eventually, those involved with the process settled on FORGE, which is not an acronym for anything (the capital letters are used for emphasis), but a name that drives home that ‘forging relationships’ is a critical part of the equation.

Which is important because, while the companies at Greentown Labs are pushing the envelope when it comes to clean-tech hardware, they often struggle to find partners to take their concepts off the drawing board — or the computer image, as the case may be.

And they are likely unaware of the large and in many ways historic precision-manufacturing sector in the Pioneer Valley, a sector born, in many respects, essentially where that satellite office is located, within what was the Springfield Armory complex.

FORGE makes introductions to companies in a number of ways. It organizes tours — manufacturers we spoke with said they have hosted a number of visits as a result of the initiative — and also helps companies draft requests for proposals for specific projects. And it organizes events such as the first annual Supplier and Innovation Showcase at Greentown Labs.

The gathering was designed to support connection-building efforts between inventors and makers, and it drew more than 200 attendees from the innovation and manufacturing ecosystems, said Teicher, who noted that, since its inception in 2015, FORGE has helped more than 190 startups source their supply chain with what she called “right-fit and ready local connections to manufacturers,” thus helping them over some critical humps that often derail such ventures.

“These startups have an 85% survival rate to date, far exceeding national standards, proving that FORGE has identified and provides a critical intervention for these startups,” she told BusinessWest, adding that programming has led to more than 130 contracts to manufacture innovative physical products and components in the region, infusing a known economic value of roughly $11 million — and counting.

The Western Mass. satellite office plays a key role in these efforts, said Adam Rodrigues, director of Regional Initiatives, adding that it serves as a clearinghouse for connecting startups with area manufacturers, often through those aforementioned tours, which are often eye-opening.

Companies may or may not be ready to seek manufacturing help when they take the tour, he added, but they’ve made a connection and generally go home with a business card. And when they are ready, they use it.

Scanlon agreed.

“Oftentimes, the connection may happen much later — it’s not right after the tour,” he explained. “It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

Getting a Lift

The case of RISE Robotics, which has recently ‘graduated’ from Greentown Labs and is now operating in Somerville, exemplifies just how FORGE makes those connections.

Arron Acosta, co-founder and CEO, told BusinessWest that the company is making strides in its efforts to create a ‘green’ alternative to energy-intensive hydraulic systems used in everything from fork trucks to bulldozers to tractor trailers. Through FORGE, the company was connected with three manufacturers with the requisite capabilities, including Peerless and MTG, to produce prototypes of the RISE cylinder, which, according to the company’s website, “delivers hydraulic-like performance in a simple, maintenance-free and fluid-free package.”

The prototypes developed by the firms in this region have not moved to the production stage for various reasons, he said, but the experience of working with those firms has been very beneficial on the company’s long climb to find the optimal market fit.

CCT is another solid example of how FORGE works, said Teicher, noting that the nonprofit not only connected the company with relevant manufacturers, but also helped it find R&D lab space in Haydenville and at the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst that allowed it to remain in Western Mass.

White said the ag-tech startup combines air with electricity to degrade contaminants in food and is focusing much of its energies on combating alfatoxins on peanuts.

“But as a technology and as a venture, we’re looking much bigger and broader than that over the long term,” he told BusinessWest. “By sterilizing the surface of foods with these ionized gases, we can get up to two to three times shelf-life extension for perishable foods; for example, we’ve been treating blackberries, and we’ve been able to get an additional five days of shelf life in the refrigerator because we’re knocking off that surface mold while otherwise not affecting the quality of the food.”

White said the company, looking to scale up, was drawn to the Bay State and, more specifically, Western Mass. — instead of Virginia, where his partner in the venture was living — because of the extensive innovation ecosystem in the Commonwealth.

And FORGE is a big part of this ecosystem.

“Fairly early on, in April or May, I can’t remember how, but I found out about Greenfield Learn,” he explained. “And they were extremely helpful in connecting me very quickly to a range of product-prototyping and manufacturing partners that I had no idea existed here in Massachusetts.”

Those thoughts sum up why FORGE was created — to give entrepreneurs an idea of the shops that exist and their capabilities, but also some education in why firms in the Bay State are often their best option, said Carlson, who, like Scanlon, sits on the board of advisors for the nonprofit agency.

She told BusinessWest that, oftentimes, entrepreneurs are looking for “cheap and fast” to get a prototype out the door.

“One of the goals at FORGE, and also within the firms in Western Mass., is to educate these entrepreneurs that, in Massachusetts, you get what you pay for,” Carlson went on. “You’re not going to get something you didn’t order.”

Jack Adam, vice president and co-owner of MTG, agreed. He said his firm, which provides a wide range of services, including high-volume laser cutting, welding, machining, precision forming, and more, works with clients — and RISE Robotics is one of them — to look at products and “make them more manufacturable,” as he put it.

“We support the OEMs and new-company startups to some degree, to come up with a product that’s manufacturable — we try to tell them that, ‘if you do it this way, instead of that way, you can eliminate a lot of welding, save some money, be more cost-effective, and be more competitive out there,’” he said, adding that this is the kind of support it provided to RISE Robotics as it helped the company produce close to 20 prototypes of its products.

And while helping startups by providing such services, these manufacturers are also helping themselves become more nimble and more competitive, said Scanlon, adding that it also helps them think more globally.

“It gets them thinking that there’s more out there than defense work, there’s more out there than United Technologies work,” he noted. “Meanwhile, these projects will be a little more challenging, they’ll be a little more cost-sensitive. It’s kind of like working out; it gets you more fit — it gets your business more fit.”

Parts of the Whole

As he talked with BusinessWest about RISE Robotics and the team behind it, Adam said, “they’re trying; they’re young folks, and they’re pretty talented. They’re going to hit some home runs someday, and they’re getting pretty close.”

With that, he described most of the startups at Greentown Labs and those who have graduated as well. Many are getting close, and a good number are potential home-run hitters.

To clear the bases, though, most need help taking a product from the concept stage to the prototype stage to the production line. And the aptly named FORGE is helping companies find that help.

As Scanlon noted, it’s become a different kind of sales force, and a very effective one.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sales and Marketing

The Art and Science of Story Telling

The team at BRIGADE

The team at BRIGADE shows off the many honors garnered at the recent Ad Club of Western Mass. award show.    Photo by Stephanie Craig Photography

It was just a few weeks after Kirsten Modestow and her husband relocated to Western Mass. from San Francisco that she got the phone call that would ultimately change her life. The person at the other end was looking for someone to do some freelance work for a fledgling vodka brand called Svedka. As many people know, Svedka has gone on to become the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S. What they may not know is that, with that notable first client, Modestow created the marketing firm BRIGADE, one that has certainly built on that solid foundation in every way.

Kirsten Modestow says the branding company she would call BRIGADE (yes, all caps) was started on her kitchen table.

Which doesn’t exactly make it unique; many startups are blueprinted in such a setting. Which makes this one different is what happened after it was conceived.

For starters, that kitchen table would later become an official work station for one of the first hires, and soon other parts of the house were absorbed by additional team members as they came on board.

“The first person was in the living room, the second person was at the dining-room table, the next one was in the spare bedroom … then we all moved into the garage,” she explained. “When there was no room in the refrigerator for people’s lunches, we knew it was time to go.”

By that, she meant move into larger quarters, which the company has done a few times, but we’ll get back to that later.

The other thing that separates BRIGADE from other ventures hatched on the kitchen table is the pace of growth. Indeed, over the past 13 years, the company has expanded to 35 employees, most of them artists and designers who commute to the current home on Route 9 in Hadley from across Western Mass. and well beyond.

And their client list includes a number of prominent national brands, including Svedka vodka, the Wyndham Hotel Group, Black Box Wines, and Vertical Water, as well as some local businesses, such as Esselon Café, just a few hundred yards down Route 9.

Actually, Svedka wasn’t a national brand when Modestow was hired as a freelancer to help with a branding campaign. It was a fledgling vodka label looking to break out — and it did, big time; a few years ago, it surpassed Smirnoff as the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

“We’ve been along for the ride,” Modestow said, noting how the growth of Svedka and BRIGADE have mirrored one another. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them.”

But BRIGADE hasn’t outgrown Modestow’s kitchen table, then a space on University Drive, and then a totally renovated foreign-car sales and service shop further down Route 9 because of one client — although Svedka certainly has played a huge role in that transformation.

Instead, it’s been the company’s ability to work with clients to create branding that resonates, builds name recognition, and drives sales, Modestow explained, adding that this is what branding, the company’s specialty, is all about.

Elaborating, she said BRIGADE focuses on helping clients tell their story, and to do that, she and her team must first understand what that story is and then develop effective ways to communicate it.

“We get to know a client by doing an audit of their existing brand,” she explained. “We always see it as the client being the expert in what they do in their industry, and we bring in the branding piece, so it’s crucial to work with them as a partner.”

That was certainly the case with the new coffee bags the company created for Esselon Café. Coffee had long been a key ingredient in the restaurant’s recipe for success, said Modestow, but a while back, its leaders decided a new look was needed.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies. Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

“We worked with them to determine how to capture the heart of Esselon and capture who and what Esselon is,” she explained, adding that BRIGADE came up with new packaging that drew on the Western Mass. landscape — specifically the Seven Sisters portion of the Holyoke Range — as well as new language: “All roads, bike paths, and quests for the best cup of coffee lead to Esselon Café.”

Kirsten Modestow

Kirsten Modestow

“The whole idea is that they’re on the bike path and everyone comes to Esselon; the place is packed, and you have to park illegally,” she explained. “We decided to embrace all that — we have these bike paths and roads that wrap around the bag, and we told this café story, and it’s been awesome for them; the bag is loved by Whole Foods, and retail sales have tripled because of it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how BRIGADE has moved well beyond that kitchen table and grown its own brand by delivering services that tell a story and generate results.

Seeking an Ad-vantage

Modestow told BusinessWest that the BRIGADE story really starts in Boston, where she worked for the acclaimed marketing agency Hill Holiday Advertising and such clients as Dunkin’ Donuts.

When the dot-com sector was at its pinnacle, however, the place to be was San Francisco, and Modestow went there and had the opportunity to join a firm and work with brands such as Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), the video-game maker.

Her firm eventually closed its doors, however, after losing one of its mainstay clients, and Modestow and her husband were at a crossroads.

“I could afford to live in San Francisco for about four and half minutes after that,” she joked. “I think we sold our house within seven days and left.”

The two then made a pact of sorts. They would relocate to wherever one of them found a job first.

“He beat me by a day; he got a job in Western Massachusetts — he’s originally from Worthington — and we came here,” she explained.

And it wasn’t long after they landed that she got that life-altering phone call.

“Someone called and said, ‘I have a freelance opportunity for you on this startup vodka brand called Svedka,’” she recalled. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them and helped them along the way; they’ve been really wonderful to us.”

As noted earlier, the company quickly outgrew Modestow’s kitchen table, refrigerator, and garage, and settled into that space on University Drive, above the popular Hangar restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a long stay, though, because the company continued to grow at a rapid rate, doubling in size from five to nine employees in a few years.

It then relocated to the foreign-car shop — a site that required a massive renovation effort — but outgrew that in just over a year, as Modestow recalled, adding that the next home is intriguing on many levels.

A portion of the 8,500-square-foot facility was home to a Registry of Motor Vehicles office, and even though it’s been closed for quite some time, people still walk in the front door looking to renew their driver’s licenses, said David Bosch, the company’s operations manager.

Another portion of the facility has home to Zoe’s Fish House, he went on, adding that, while BRIGADE renovated all the spaces into work areas, including a banquet facility that never became reality, it kept the bar intact.

The company doesn’t have a liquor license, obviously, but it does use the bar for company functions, said Bosch. Meanwhile, it’s an unusual decorative touch, and it give the company a chance to showcase many of the brands it has helped develop in what would be described as a natural setting.

The space is wide open, said Modestow, adding that this the desired environment for a marketing firm where people work together to create solutions for clients.

“We work in branding, and a lot of that is people coming together to solve a problem,” she explained. “So being in a very open space, one that’s conducive to gathering, is important.”

BRIGADE should be in this home for quite some time, because there is not only ample room to grow, but plenty of business coming through the door as the company continues to build strong word-of-mouth referrals.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

Indeed, as noted earlier, Svedka has been a dream first client and solid foundation for BRIGADE. But the company has been able to build on that foundation, said Modestow, and for several reasons.

One is the large number of contacts she made from her previous career stops, and the experience she gained working for national and global clients, a tremendous asset in this business, as in any other.

“Having the exposure in Boston and San Francisco enabled me to work on some high-caliber clients and hone my skill set that I could then pass on to people here,” she explained. “We started off with an ability to work on those high-caliber clients; we’re really good at it, so we’ve attracted through our work the attention of others.”

Another factor is a growing willingness among corporations to work with agencies not based in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, or whatever major metropolis the corporation was based in or near.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies,” she noted. “Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

Getting the Message Across

But easily the best reason for the company’s success is the results it has garnered for its clients, said Modestow, adding that more important than the awards the company has gained for its work — and it has won many — are the gains registered by the companies looking for help with their brand.

Which bring us back to Esselon Café.

That new packaging has won a number of awards for BRIGADE, said Modestow, but the bigger story is that dramatic rise in retail sales at Whole Foods and other locations.

It came about through that art and science of storytelling and creating a brand that speaks to who they are.

When asked about the methods for gaining such results, Modestow returned to the subject of effectively partnering with the client to solve a problem or revitalize a brand.

The client knows their industry, their product or service, and their story, she went on. BRIGADE essentially takes that insight and uses it to create a brand that conveys the story in a way that resonates.

Steps include the brand audit she described earlier, and also creation of brand strategy.

“We would work through positioning statements with the client, help them figure out their key messages, how they’re different, how they talk about themselves, what their voice is, and more,” she explained. “And once we have that platform, then we would go into the visual component of all this — bringing it all to life visually through some kind of toolkit, which might be a refresh logo or packaging or a new website. We’re helping them see how this language and this new positioning can visually come to life.”

As the company creates these strategies and brings them to life, it does so not with a hard focus on targeting specific demographic groups — a mistake some companies make when marketing and branding — but building a brand that’s “authentic.”

“I don’t think you build a brand to speak to a specific group of people,” she told BusinessWest. “You build a brand that’s true to who the brand should be, and then it resonates with the right people.

“A mistake you see is when companies think the key to their success is going out and capturing the Millennials,” she went on. “Well, the Millennial doesn’t want to be captured — you have to find them because you have something compelling that made them want to believe in you. It’s about consumer experience and storytelling; people want an authentic experience with a company.”

As an example of how the firm partners with its clients, Modestow referenced the Wyndham Hotel Group and some of its specific brands, including one in particular — Travelodge.

“It was kind of an old brand with old, tired signage,” she explained, noting that, at the time, Wyndham hadn’t put much emphasis on branding, but has since changed that attitude. “We helped refresh the Travelodge brand, we helped them with an ad campaign, and we helped them with a new way to talk about themselves.”

Another example is work with Svedka to launch a new line of spiked seltzers. The company designed the cans in a way that were true to the Svedka brand but also resonated within the growing spiked-seltzer product category, said Don Magri, the company’s chief financial officer.

“They came to us with a good amount of research that they had already done on their consumer and who they were really trying to target,” he explained. “You go through iterations, but you’re really trying to creating a design that is true to the brand going into a new category, but also hitting the demographic they’re trying to reach.”

Looking down the road, those at BRIGADE said they look to continue providing clients with what they call ‘responsive branding,’ so that they are ready for the future and their brands are as well.

In short, they aim to do what the company’s done from the beginning — grow with its clients.

“We want to grow and create new opportunities for our employees and then for the people who don’t work here yet,” said Magri. “Growth for the sake of growth is not something we’re interested in, but growth for the sake of growing our skills and growing our client base and securing our client mix is our plan.”

Bottom Line

In other words, the company is going to continue doing what it’s been doing from the start, back when work was being done on Modestow’s kitchen table and her refrigerator was getting filled with employees’ lunches.

The company has come a long way since then — a quick tour of the facilities at 195 Russell St. make that clear — but the guiding principles remain the same.

And those are to tell the client’s story and create an authentic experience that resonates. When you that, it’s a lot easier to do what BRIGADE has done with and for Svedka and all its other clients — be along for the ride.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sales and Marketing

Putting the Focus on Innovation

The team at GCAi

The team at GCAi: from left, John Garvey, Quinn Garvey, James Garvey, Mary Shea, and Darcy Fortune.

John Garvey isn’t shy about noting that he never worked for a large ad agency, or a ‘traditional’ ad agency, as he calls them.

In fact, he’s rather proud of that background — as are the rest of the members of the team at the agency he formed more than 30 years ago known as Garvey Communication Associates Inc., who didn’t work for a traditional agency either.

They’re all fond of saying they didn’t follow any model in creating and then shaping the firm known as GCAi, but instead created their own model.

“None of us come from an agency background,” Garvey explained. “So we put this together on our own; we didn’t throw away the book — we just didn’t really know the book was there; so we invented our own book.”

“There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising.”

As they talk about this book, the company’s main players — Garvey; his son, James, the social-media marketing analyst; Mary Shea, vice president of Digital Strategy; and Darcy Fortune, digital PR analyst — collectively wear out the word ‘innovation’ as they discuss evolving technology, what the company can do with and for clients with regard to this technology and using it to reach targeted audiences, and, perhaps most importantly, how they do all that.

Indeed, they’ve all become involved with MassChallenge Boston, the group that helps accelerate startups, and they’ve also assisted Valley Venture Mentors (through donations of money and expertise) in its efforts to mentor startups and expand its mission. And such work has fostered a true spirit of innovation within GCAi itself as it partners with clients to help them navigate a changing landscape within marketing and with everything from understanding and maximizing social media to corporate reputation management.

“Innovation is a stick that you have to sharpen continually,” John Garvey explained. “You literally cannot be innovative unless you have your eyes wide open and you’re looking and you’re learning and you’re challenging yourself. Being around startups … that entrepreneurialism, that innovation, is absolutely contagious. So we find ourselves thinking and acting in new and different ways.”

Such an operating mindset is necessary for a marketing firm today, said Shea, because change is constant, it’s coming from every direction, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Also, in this era of conversion, marketing firms are increasingly being judged not on their ability to garner exposure, but on sales generated by a specific campaign or strategy.

Which brings Shea to the subject of data and access to it.

“One of the most profound changes to come to marketing is marketers’ ability to use data,” she said, while summing up how the landscape has been altered by technology and why innovation is important. “It’s a seismic change in terms of our ability to get our work done.”

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event, says companies have more access to data than ever before, and they must take full advantage of that opportunity.

Elaborating, she said Google AdWords, Facebook, and other vehicles enable marketers to send specific messages to targeted audiences in ways that simply weren’t possible decades or even a few years ago.

James Garvey agreed.

“It’s a fascinating time to be involved in social-media marketing since Facebook is in the headlines daily,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising. We develop messaging for clients, and we use Facebook as a means of delivering the message in a way that people can consume it, but also delivering it directly to the audience we need to reach — meaning very specific groups of people.

“For example, you can reach men or women ages 25 to 35 who live within two miles of downtown Springfield who are interested in home ownership,” he went on while elaborating. “That’s how specific you can get.”

GCAi, which boasts clients across virtually all sectors of the economy, including financial services, healthcare, transportation, and more, is a certified Google Partner (the only firm in the region to gain such status), and its qualified AdWords professionals are independently tested and certified in several different aspects of online advertising each year.

Meanwhile, the company specializes in what it calls the ‘ideation’ approach to working with clients to identify needs and challenges, map out a marketing strategy, and determine the most effective methods of getting a message across.

To explain, Shea and Fortune pointed to the whiteboards on all four walls of the GCAi conference room. Over the course of an ideation session, they will become covered with writing in the form of answers to questions asked and thoughts about what to do, strategically, with that information from a marketing and branding standpoint.

For this issue and its focus on sales and marketing, BusinessWest talked with members of the GCAi team about marketing, technology, and social media — but mostly about innovation, and how it enables the company and its clients to stay on the proverbial cutting edge of progress.

Data Driven

On the day BusinessWest visited GCAi, the whiteboards in the conference room were covered with what amounts to a bullet-pointed chronology of the firm.

Noted milestones included everything from the elder Garvey’s first work in public relations, back in college for the U.S. Youth Games, to the arrival of each staff member (Shea started as an intern in 2004, for example); from the reminder that Garvey needed a loan from his grandmother to stay afloat after the dot-com bubble burst at the start of this century and business dried up, to his self-proclaimed 15 seconds of fame when he captured a dramatic photo of the tornado that tore through downtown Springfield on June 1, 2011, an image that went viral within minutes after it was taken.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board. So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.”

Mostly, though, the walls tell the story of a company responding to rapid, constant change in technology, especially within the realm of digital marketing, and using innovation to help clients make sense of it all — not an easy task in any respect — and make the very most of their marketing budgets.

Indeed, the team likes to say that GCAi, unlike many businesses today, has social media figured out, and it has created a niche of sorts as it specializes in helping clients large and small figure social media out and put all that data that is now available to good use.

“There is a lot more data available today, there’s easier access to it, it’s instantaneous, and you can use it quickly and easily to make adjustments to a campaign,” said Shea, adding that, not long ago, companies would have to spend a lot of money to access such information, which essentially limited that access.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board,” said John Garvey. “So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.

But having access to data is just part of the equation. Knowing what to do with it and how to present a message to the audience being targeted … that’s the other side. And the team at GCAi has become specialists in such work, handling both aspects of this work — creating content and a message (work that falls more to Fortune and John Garvey), and devising the most efficient, cost-effective means of disseminating it, work assigned to Shea and James Garvey.

And the watchword in all aspects of this work is relevance.

“That’s the church we go to pray at,” said John Garvey, referring to that team. “If the message isn’t relevant, meaning the target audience we spoke of doesn’t react to it in a positive way, find it useful, and find it interesting, then we get penalized as marketers; it’s the modern-day equivalent of hanging up a bad ad that no one gets.”

To keep clients and their messages relevant, the GCAi team focuses on innovation, said Fortune, adding that the company’s involvement with Valley Venture Mentors and MassChallenge has helped it in a number of ways, from getting in touch with what’s happening within specific business sectors to sharpening presentation skills, to mentoring startups on the best ways to reach their audience.

“We sit with them and talk with them for maybe 10 minutes, and you can see the light go off,” said Fortune. “They’re excited to have that tidbit of information from us on how to reach people. And you get to meet people from around the world; it’s very exhilarating.”

John Garvey agreed, and noted, again, that when you hang around entrepreneurs all the time, there is a trickle-down, or rub-off, effect.

“We’re much more attuned to new and different ways of getting results,” he explained. “Our secret sauce is comprised of ingredients like energy, innovation, and ideas, and the cake that we’re trying to make is to create really meaningful and measurable results, and the only way that’s possible is through a continual search of the means and methodologies of these platforms, but also an appetite for data, the ability to digest it, break it up, understand it, and make it relevant to the client.”

James Garvey agreed, and said his technical background — he’s a graduate of BWM of North America’s STEP program and has worked for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the Boston and New York City markets — has helped him, and thus the firm, grasp the importance of data and measuring results.

“Having that engineering background, or training, and working with data are very similar,” he explained. “They’re very precise, measurable, and granular.”

Together, those involved with content and those focused on dissemination work together to create an overall strategy, said Shea, adding that, collectively, the team works to find the right channels to get the message across.

“You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole,” she said, adding that each platform, or channel, is different, and it’s critical to devise content that is appropriate for each one and not ease into a one-size-fits-all mentality.

John Garvey agreed. “All those platforms are arrows in our quiver, and Mary and James help us figure out the right means and methodologies to take this to market.”

And finding the right ones is now critical, said James, noting that marketing firms like GCAi are now more accountable, if that’s the proper term, when it comes to sales — or the conversion of leads into sales — than ever before.

“Marketing firms are more responsible further down in the sales funnel than we were even a few years ago,” he explained. “Before, we were measured by our ability to generate top-of-mind awareness; now, our clients hold us responsible for a full and trackable conversion, meaning that we can prove that our campaign led to a particular conversion. That responsibility totally changed.”

The Last Word

There’s been a recent addition to the décor at the GCAi suite of offices in Monarch Place — an old manual Underwood typewriter that the senior Garvey found “somewhere.”

It’s an example of where technology and this industry were a long time ago, said Fortune, and therefore a reminder of how quickly and profoundly things change.

So quickly and profoundly that trying to project a few years, or even a few months, into the future is a largely futile exercise. There’s no better way to explain why an effective marketing firm today must, or should, have an operating philosophy grounded in innovation — in constantly finding new and better ways to do business and help clients succeed.

And there’s no better way to explain why GCAi continues to grow and prosper.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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