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Maria Ross Interview: Insights Into Running A Brand Consultancy

We have the great privilege of talking to Maria Ross, founder of the marketing consultancy Red Slice and author of the book Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget. We discussed how she got started in marketing, her advice for succeeding in the corporate marketing environment, and her favorite books.

Maria-Ross-interviewWhy did you decide to go into marketing and how did you get your start in the marketing field?

As a kid, I was exposed to marketing at a young age: I acted in TV and radio commercials! As the talent, I got to see how ad agencies worked, how marketing messages were formed and how brand image helps sell products and services. I majored in Marketing in college to be in control of the message and I was fascinated by the psychology of marketing – and how it could be used for good to incent people to give, act, or get involved. My original goal was to combine my business and arts backgrounds and do marketing for a city ballet and theatre company. But I got offered a management consulting job with Accenture and I saw that “marketing” was actually a part of that job: communication and training for systems implementations or organizational change. I quickly saw how marketing skills could be applied to any job where you need to communicate and persuade. I then moved back to pure marketing at Discovery Networks and proceeded to get more and more exposure to all aspects of the marketing function as a Director of Marketing for various companies: from working in advertising on the agency side to becoming a client and having responsibility for not just branding and advertising, but PR, lead generation, operations, and sales enablement. Each job taught me about a marketing aspects that I built on for the next job, like the pieces of a long puzzle were slowly being revealed to me. This taught me the full spectrum of marketing’s role and that broad perspective is my greatest asset as an independent consultant.

Having achieved a great deal of success in your marketing career, what advice would you give to marketers who would someday like to reach a leadership position in a corporate marketing department.

I’m a bit old school in that I believe you should at least have exposure to the whole range of marketing functions in order to lead a department. Marketing is not just advertising or public relations. There are so many more “flavors” that marketing covers: product positioning, market analysis, branding, media, pricing, competitive analysis, operations, lead generation, etc. – and I’ve seen too many leaders who only have strong skills in one area, like advertising, but were never exposed to the principles and disciplines of lead generation, PR or the like. I’m not saying you need to be an expert in all of those areas – I’m certainly not. But at least I was exposed to them and learned enough to be fluent in those areas and have a good idea of what to look for when hiring staff or agencies who will be specialists in those areas.

What motivated you the most as a marketer and what got you excited in the morning when you woke up?

I think the opportunity to use marketing for good always motivates me. How can we solve a problem, fulfill a need or just make the world a better place with our product or service? I also really like donating pro-bono hours to help non-profits use marketing effectively to rally support for a good cause and raise money for a worthwhile effort.

I also really enjoy the visual and verbal aspect of marketing: how can you communicate the right mood, mission or message with visuals and with words? I love the moment when a client sees a comp of a logo or a draft of a mission statement and says, “Yeah! That’s exactly how we want to look and sound!”

Why did you decide to leave the corporate marketing environment and start your own marketing consultancy?

Bottom line: I wanted to do work I liked with people I liked. I was in technology marketing for about 8 years, and there is this notion in B2B marketing that you need to strip away all personality and forget that you are selling to an actual human being. It tended to be more about features and functions and less about a brand people could be proud to support. Apple is one of the few companies who gets that this is not the case. So I went off on my own to do more of the branding work that I liked for a wider range of industries and that variety keeps me fresh and focused. And having the ability to pick and choose my clients as much as they choose me is a luxury I enjoy, too!

What type of companies does Red Slice serve and how are you different from other marketing consulting companies?

I have served solopreneurs, small businesses and fast-growth mid-sized businesses. I tend to work with service providers or technology companies, but have also worked with retail and eCommerce businesses as well. The marketing fundamentals are the same no matter what type of company you have. It’s more the personality of the client company that drives my decision: are they a believer in the power of brand and its impact on the bottom line? Do they want to change, grow or adapt? Do they want to try new things? Do they want to launch the business correctly right from the start and not waste time and effort later on? I work with people who understand that strategy comes before tactics – but you can expedite strategic work with a nimble partner like me.

I’m different because I’ve had such a broad range of marketing experience.. Even though I focus on branding and messaging, I can offer advice around how that impacts your lead gen strategy or your PR efforts. I can spot red flags with how to implement the brand due to operational constraints. I also decouple strategy from tactics, so the client can implement the tactics that make sense for their business goals. I am not biased (like only focusing on Twitter, or only focusing on online advertising, as an example) So while other branding consultants are excellent designers or experts in one arena, I bring a broad business savvy that ensures we accomplish corporate goals and leads to not just pretty pictures, but more sales and happier customers.

Your book, Branding Basics for Small Business, is one of my favorite books about branding. What was your goal in writing the book?

Thanks! My goal was to educate people (in a light, entertaining way) on what branding really is, what it is not, and what it means to your bottom line. I also wanted to provide those who might not be able to afford my services a way to craft a strong brand strategy on their own with time and effort. It drives me crazy that people waste so much money on logo design or websites before they’ve ever thought through what they are trying to communicate and to whom they need to appeal FIRST. They immediately jump to tactics – what will I Tweet about? What colors should I use for my website? – before they think about what they want to communicate through those tactics. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people wasting money, or worse, working with a high-priced “branding consultant” for 6 months and getting nowhere. They could save themselves so much money, time and cycles and have much more effective marketing if they spend the time on the strategy first.

What aspects of running a marketing consultancy do you enjoy the most and what aspects are the least fun?

What I enjoy most: Flexibility in my daily schedule, having my dog in my office all day, making all my own decisions, being able to pick and choose clients and collaborators, interacting with a strong entrepreneurial network and community of really smart people.

What I enjoy least: Tracking invoices and all the little business taxes, doing EVERYTHING myself, feeling that the to-do list never ends, trying to make time for client work AND social media, PR, etc. And not always having someone to collaborate with or bounce ideas off of (I often rely on a network of partners and friends to help with this one!)

What books have you found to have a great impact on you professionally or are just great resources for marketers?

Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers. If you have not read this gem about compelling messaging, you must run and read it.

The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. He’s a genius and this book is a simple but profound read you can tackle in an airplane ride (he did that by design).

Switch by the Heath Brothers. A book about how to enact change and motivate people no matter what level you are within an organization. Their theories on motivation apply just as much to marketing as they do to creating a movement or making a significant change in a big organization.

Ogilvy on Advertising. A classic.

Drive by Daniel Pink. A fascinating book that challenges our old perceptions of what motivates people, based on studies and experiments. It’s an excellent book for anyone managing a team.

As the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a Seattle-based branding and marketing consultancy, Maria Ross revels in helping leading-edge small to mid-sized companies translate captivating stories into irresistible brands. She is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business (Norlights Press, 2010) which teaches small and start-up businesses how to create an irresistible brand on any budget and has received raves from experts and media alike.

Maria’s adoring clients range from small businesses to savvy industry leaders, including Microsoft, the CRAVEcompany, Talent Technology, and Mudbay. Prior to founding Red Slice, she crafted branding and marketing strategies for Silicon Valley start-ups, global software firms, Internet companies, entertainment powerhouses and consumer businesses — including Business Objects (an SAP company), Discovery Networks and Monster.com – and created communication and training strategies for Fortune 1000 clients at Accenture. An actress and wine columnist in her spare time, Maria knows first-hand that creativity and cashflow are not mutually exclusive. Her marketing mantra? “Don’t just engage your customers — inform, delight and inspire them.”

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