Gary Slack left Doremus in 1988 to build a Chicago-based business-to-business marketing agency. He carried charter client NutraSweet with him to a six-person startup then known as Slack Lasky Brown.
Another agency, once considered the gold standard in b-to-b, had just made a serious misstep, Slack says. He saw an opening. “My goal was to assume the mantle. I saw that I might, in a lifetime, be able to build a leading global b-to-b agency.”
The integrated marketing communications firm that he established, now known as Slack and Co., celebrated its 25th anniversary last month. The company employs 60 people, serving clients as diverse as Dow Corning, GE, Google and Jones Lang Lasalle.
Slack spoke to BMA Buzz about building the agency, the changes he has seen over the years—and all of the things that have stayed the same.
On copier repair
“In the early days of the agency, I was the go-to guy to get the copier running again,” Slack says. “These days, I don’t know how to fix a copier.” He focuses on building client relationships, marketing the agency and developing the long-term strategy. His goal is to become the indisputable top b-to-b marketing firm. “Four or five of us are slugging it out,” he says.
On timeless truths
The tools of marketing may have changed, Slack says, but the overriding goals have not. "We're all about helping to identify, convert and hold onto profitable customers. Fundamentals don't change." Popular trends like content marketing and a customer-centric approach predated the Internet, he says. "We have more focus on that now, but it's not like it didn't exist."
On client diversity
The agency initially built its reputation in food ingredient and packaging verticals with clients like NutraSweet and Dean Foods. Over the years the client roster diversified. “Now we’re in many verticals,” Slack says. “Clients like it because we have cross-over ideas. We’d be pretty stale otherwise. It would limit our ability to grow.”
On carrying the IMC torch
Slack was an early advocate of Don Edward Schultz, an author often credited as the father of integrated marketing. Slack focused on building a company that held a big picture view and that developed competencies across multiple platforms. “We’re strongest when pulling all the strings together,” Slack says. “That’s the promise of an IMC agency.” Schultz recognized Slack’s firm as one of four standout agencies in the United States in his book IMC: The Next Generation, released in 2003.
On building the client list
“The best agencies select their own clients,” Slack says. “We have a discerning process.” He looks at the culture of the client company, the potential for return and the types of work that his company will be doing. Slack and Co. has built a reputation as a firm that can handle branding and demand generation. “For the first 10 years, it was hard to get branding assignments,” Slack says. “These days about half of client inquiries are for branding.”
On pet peeves
Slack rails against the proliferation of unsolicited email and advises his clients to come down on “the right side of history.” Marketers need to do a better job of securing opt-ins for their lists, he says. Spam “is a scandal. It embarrasses the profession. Responsible companies have got to stop it.”