Remote work has changed the workforce. Hear what Greg has to say about creating a cohesive brand experience despite all these changes, and what trends we should watch for in 2021.
Greg Kihlstrom is Co-founder of CareerGig (after selling his digital experience agency, Carousel 30, in 2017.) He's worked with some of the world’s top brands including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott International, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He also serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.
0:54 Megan Ingram (MI): Today we have Greg Kihlstrom on the show who is an author, entrepreneur, and remote work advocate, launching a new book this year, and also a DC local. Welcome, Greg.
1:04 Greg Kihlstrom (GK): Thanks for having me looking forward to talking with you.
1:06 MI: Yeah. Looking forward to talking with you as well. To kick it off, we're going to dive right into work from home life. It's been about a year into COVID now. I'm actually rare before COVID work-from-homer, but what have been the biggest pros and cons for you in this new work from home reality, we're all living in?
1:24 GK: Yeah. So it's, I mean, it's interesting that we started Career Gig at the early part of the pandemic. And so for my company right now, our employees and the contractors and everything. We've been working remotely ever since the company started. So we have no transition away from going into an office. Plus we're a distributed team. So from that standpoint, it sounds much like yourself. I've worked from home quite a bit over my career. For a while, when I owned the marketing agency, we had an office and everybody came in. But it's one of those things where I think as a workforce in general, I think that there are some people that really, embraced it and are very productive when they do that. And I think there are other people, some people I know very well that really struggled with it, and I think a lot of it has to do with individual personality. I think some of that has to do with the company culture. And it kinda takes both to do it well.
2:35 MI: Yeah. And I actually say, as someone who worked from home before it was actually tougher just being at home all day. Like I used to go places and do things. And be somewhere like in a coffee shop or some public place, and then physically having to be at home and not being able to change the vibe or just the overall work spot environment has been, even its own challenge.
2:59 GK: Yeah. I know what you mean. I would definitely when working from, I would just get out to the actual coffee shop or something.
3:06 MI: Just being somewhere, yeah.
3:10 GK: Although, you know, I mean, it's interesting how much more productive I've been. And I've heard others say this as well with just not having to drive to meetings and all of that stuff. I can't even imagine how much time I spent in the car some months just like even with local meetings. It's interesting, but it does force you to create habits that got you out. I got a stand-up desk, for instance.
3:45 MI: Yeah, I have the same thing.
3:47 GK: So I wasn't at least sitting cause I would find myself like, when's the last time I saw the sunshine or when's the last time I got up or anything like that. So try to force some things to break it up.
3:56 MI: Yeah. I did similar things. I actually have a standup desk myself and it's been great.
4:02 GK: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, right now I'm sitting, but it's nice to have the options.
4:06 MI: Which is another thing to change up your scenarios often. So even in the spring and summer now, I can't do that in the winter, but going to our rooftop and just trying to change the vibe as much as I can. I just write better, work better in general, when I'm doing those kinds of things.
4:22 GK: Yeah, I know what you mean.
4:26 MI: What do you think work from anywhere looks like in 2021 with now obviously the vaccine being distributed? And hopefully, we start to see a slow shift as the year progresses.
4:38 GK: What the company has realized, so we've been on this trajectory to have a more distributed workforce and do more remote work and just be flexible. We've been on this trajectory for years, but obviously, there are many terrible things that have come out of COVID and certainly don't want to discount that, but one of the positives is that it accelerated a lot of these things that again were already in the works, and there are a lot of positives when we look at remote work and greater flexibility that I deserve to be underscored. So, when it comes to looking at diversity in the workplace, it makes it a lot easier for people, whether they have kids that they need to take care of and have specific hours. They need to do things or a spouse or partner they need to take care of, or people that can't afford rent in downtown New York or San Francisco can get jobs at great companies doing good work. So, there are so many benefits to this, but like I was saying earlier, it takes companies embracing the kind of culture that allows distributed work and work from anywhere and everything like that. It takes technology that maybe some have clumsily adopted, just because they thought it was a temporary thing. They really do need to embrace. I see the future is it, we're not going to go back to how we were, I think companies that are saving money on their real estate lease, if nothing else aren't gonna, immediately go back to that. But I just don't think we're going back to the way that it was. I think there will be a large shift back into people going back into the workplace. I think in some industries that are a necessity, and in others, it makes sense for at least some portion of those working remotely. But I think there's going to be a large percentage of companies that are okay with it, but also employees that decide, you know what, I don't really want to sit in my car for an hour every morning and afternoon. I'm going to find a job that allows me to work remotely. I think both sides are going to kind of come to that conclusion.
6:59 MI: I've also heard a lot of mixed theory where it's, I want to be able to work from home, but I want one or two days to go into the office. So a job that's at least accommodating to the fact that, Hey, you know, I'll come in like once or twice, but I want to be able to work from home when I can.
7:15 GK: Yeah. And I think that's one of the things where, you know, pre-pandemic if companies invest in the infrastructure, like even the technology and security infrastructure alone to do that. I don't think it was worth their while to do all that. But now that they've done that, they've made the investments they could stop some services or whatever, but like now that they've made the investments, it becomes a lot easier for companies to allow that as well. Versus, uh, you know, we're going to allow people to work one day from home, but now we have to set up all this infrastructure that is going to cost a lot of money. Well, yeah, if it's already there, then why not do that? The employees are happier in many, many cases they're more productive when they work from home as well. And so, you know, and again, if nothing else, like the numbers, will speak for themselves.
8:02 MI: Yeah, that's so true. So we're going to pivot a little. Brand storytelling is a central theme, obviously for Ingram Digital Consulting and me personally. Talk about your book and what creating a cohesive brand experience means to you.
8:19 GK: Yeah, absolutely. So, the book is called “The Center of Experience.” So I've written another series of books, and I have a new one coming out in what I call “The Agile Series” and just kind of looking at different aspects of business and applying agile principles to them. I took a little bit of a detour with this book. Just some of it was professional curiosity. Some of it was just, there were a lot of things going on that I wanted to talk about. And so the idea behind there's a lot of, in the marketing world and branding world, there's been a lot of focus on the customer experience of late and for good reason. Coming from a marketing agency background myself, I found myself frustrated that I was tasked with marketing and branding products and services that I had no control over the delivery of, or the quality of, and therefore, you can make something sound or look, or feel as good as you can. But if the actual delivery of that is not great, then customers are gonna find out and they're not going to buy again or refer others. So that piece drew me to customer experience. But what I found, the deeper I dove into customer experience, if the person or people delivering, designing, deploying those products or services, aren't happy, they're not well taken care of, not well compensated, just not engaged, then those products and services have no chance of being truly successful in the long run either. You can maybe get something that's good for a little while but just doesn't have that staying power. And so the brands that we know of that are great at customer experience are also the ones that take employee experience very seriously and are intentional about it. So the idea of, I use the term brand experience to really be customer experience plus employee experience is that overall brand experience is literally every touchpoint that our brand has whether it's external or internal audiences.
10:32 MI: Totally, totally agree. What is the biggest takeaway you want brand and agency leaders to know about customer and employee experience?
10:41 GK: One thing is that it's everybody's job. There's a positive side to that for everyone in the organization in that you're not alone. Like there's a lot of chief experience officers and customer experience teams popping up and everything like that, but they can only be so successful. And having worked with several and whether it's small organizations or very large, fortune 100 organizations, they only have so much control over the entire customer experience because that's huge. That's every touchpoint. An HR person only has so much control over the employee experience. And so therefore it really becomes everyone's job and responsibility to make sure that their piece of it is cohesive. And so I think for marketers, we want the customer to buy, but if there's not authenticity and if we're over-promising and under-delivering, if we're not realistic about that experience post-sale, you're going to get a bunch of first-time buyers because if you're an amazing marketing agency, you'll catch people's eyes and get first-time customers. But it's so much easier to get repeat business from a happy customer. So that mindset of it's gotta feel great to buy a product or service, not just sound good or look good from the outside.
12:19 MI: Yeah. This is why I think retention is so important. Sometimes even over acquisition. Can you have long-term customer relationships? That's authentic and that you continue to build on because those are actually the most valuable partnerships that you're going to have in your business.
12:36 GK: Absolutely. I agree. I mean, retention and things like that are a better metric of how the delivery of things versus sales. Again, you can have very good short-term success and it doesn't translate in the long run.
12:58 MI: Totally agree. You're also an entrepreneur and the founder of Career Gig. Tell us more about the company and what your biggest lessons and learnings are from building the brand.
13:09 GK: Yeah, sure. So I'm really excited about it. We launched in April of 2020. So, some people thought I was crazy, co-founding a company in the midst of a global pandemic.
13:25 MI: Yeah, I get that.
13:27 GK: But it turns out, we did it intentionally and there was a good reason for it because I think we solve some challenges in unique ways and some challenges that really need to be solved. So this is my first time starting a company. It's not my first time being an entrepreneur, but it's my first time starting a company that isn't consulting. So in agency speak, I'm on the client side now. Right? So that's a whole topic of another podcast. What we did, which I'm proud of, is we focused on solving some big challenges. So, just very briefly, there are marketplaces that connect freelancers with companies already, and they're only focused on different areas. What we wanted to focus on really was the freelancer and their life and what it takes to actually be successful. So yes, you need to find work and gigs and stuff like that. And that's something that we offer, but all of the other things. I've been everything from intern to employee, to entrepreneur, to you name it over my career to a freelancer at several points in my life. And so having seen a lot of people get full-time jobs because they provide stability, they provide benefits like health insurance, life insurance, like all of those types of that, disability, and they provide, just that overall, that long-term stability, except when we keep having these financial crises. So I've been through three in my career, you know, 2001, 2009, and now with COVID. Every time one of these financial crises happens, the long-term employment outlook becomes less and less stable. I think more and more people get disenchanted with this idea, this romantic notion of you work somewhere 20 years, get a gold watch and retire and you have a pension. That never existed in my career. So I know there are some kinds of positions where you can still get that, but it's few and far between, and more often, the average tenure is less than two years at just about any position and people are hopping. They're going from freelance to full-time employment, they're kind of going back. But what we wanted to do with Career Gig was let's give stability in the form of benefits like insurance and retirement and those things. Let's give peer-to-peer mentoring and up-skilling, re-skilling opportunities and give that stability back to the freelance lifestyle, which offers a lot of positives in and of itself. If we close those gaps, then it's a win-win for everybody. Companies are moving to hire more contingent and 1099 workers as well. Whether it's financial or just other logistical reasons. So, for us to solve that, it makes us unique.
16:47 MI: Yeah. And I mean, I can't tell you how often I hear community, loneliness, and insurance being really the top reasons that stop people from some, even maybe being someone who's dabbling in freelance to going a hundred percent full-time and being real roadblocks to whether they're going to make that kind of jump or not. So totally agree. What are common pitfalls when building a brand and creating a cohesive strategy that companies often fall into?
17:15 GK: Yeah, the danger, one danger is to just think too internally. Again, being client-side now, it's so interesting because I spent most of my career consulting on whether it was as a freelancer or an agency owner or things like that. And it's interesting that agencies have a really good perspective on things and yet they only get this deep in a problem. The brands themselves have to do not only that piece, but they have to go a million miles deep and everything. The downside to having to go so deep and get so tactical and things like that is that a lot of organizations think that the world has any notion or even cares about how that organization is structured. And I think a very simple example of this, not exactly branding, but I built a lot of websites with the agency. And time and time again, we would see clients that basically organize their website structure according to departments. And the first thing that I would always say is just like, no one cares that you have this department and that department. They want to solve a problem. And so I think the challenge with building a cohesive brand is you've got to, it sounds so basic and yet it's, it's missed so often you've got to think from, what is the challenge that I solve for a customer and how do I deliver on that? And what's my promise to them? And when you start getting, when you're a brand promise or, all of that language is three paragraphs deep, because, well, what about this audience? Or what about this problem? Or what about this person in this department that's going to get upset if we don't mention that, when you start compromising a very clear mission, customers can tell. Think of the successful brands out there. Look at Apple. They're an often-used example, but I'll use it again anyway. Like who is Apple's target audience? How many times have your clients said, well, our target audience is kind of everyone, right? Because anyone could buy our product. Well, yeah, everyone and anyone could buy an Apple product, but when you really look at their marketing and their messaging, and everything like that, it's pretty focused on a particular feeling and lifestyle and aspirational quality, even though literally anyone can buy one as long as they can afford it. And I think that's what brands need to think of is, yes, you can appeal to a wide swath of people and audiences, but if no one knows what you stand for, no one is going to want to buy from you, let alone your actual target.
20:05 MI: Actually, one of the more interesting research projects I ever did was where we studied every mission statement for a company and took that end and looked at their social media messaging and saw if the two aligned. Did what you say in your mission is that what you're telling people day in and day out, and you feel even for the top, what we call the top 50 companies in America, how often that's not the case. That what they say they stand for is not actually what they're talking about day-in and day-out. I think that's a couple of, you mentioned Apple. Nike is another one that does a really good job of that. You know, they keep it very simple to inspire athletes. And when you read their message, it's apparent that that's what they're doing every step of the way.
20:45 GK: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And we were pretty intentional about that process, even with Career Gig and we're young as a company, but our mission is to accelerate and optimize human potential. And we just left it at that. It wasn't connecting freelancers and companies and this and that and SaaS platform or whatever. If we're not accelerating and optimizing human potential, we look at everything with that lens. If it doesn't fit that, it's not a priority.
21:16 MI: Yeah. Let's move on. Yeah, totally agree. What keeps you inspired about branding strategy and entrepreneurship overall?
21:25 GK: Yeah, I like solving problems and I like solving new problems. And so I think like an entrepreneur, I ran my marketing agency for 14 years and sold it about three years ago. What was interesting about that was, even though I'd been doing it the longest, I've pretty much-done anything I guess in my career, but we were founded in 2003, so we saw the rise of social media marketing. I mean, social media marketing wasn't really a thing when we started and yet, we had the opportunity to work with some pretty big brands doing some things that they'd done for the first time, basically, with them, we saw the rise of personalization and AI and all of that stuff, programmatic advertising, all of that kind of stuff. So, I like to learn new things. I like to apply various diverse concepts and all those kinds of things. And so, being an entrepreneur. There's a lot of things that you have to do that you don't want to do. Before I started the agency back in the day, I thought I was going to get to do only what I love doing all day long. Its classic entrepreneurs’ fallacy is like I ended up having to learn about finance and operations and utilization rates and all those things. And I'm a designer, I'm not a CFO, but learning about that stuff gave me a much better appreciation for the work that needed to be done. And so, it's about always learning and pushing and trying to do something different. And for me now with Career Gig, it's growing a product company. It's not the first time I've been involved with the product company, but it's the first time I've started one and been an executive at one. And so, that's a new challenge in and of itself. Raising investments, like all those things and we're doing some pretty cutting edge stuff, AI machine learning, like stuff like that. And so, there's constant learning there as well. So I think it's just. You gotta be hungry, learn more and not be afraid to solve challenges that you may not be immediately equipped to solve. But I just try to approach things, I surround myself with people that are smarter than me, I have a good network of people even outside of that, and there is no problem that is insurmountable. Take it from there. Every day is a challenge, but we get through and we learn more and do better.
24:00 MI That's actually one of the reasons I love agency. It’s kind of like the challenge approach where you're always thinking about or trying to solve a new solution or problem. And it always changes, no day is the same. And the days are hard sometimes, but it's also really refreshing and it makes it fun.
24:21 GK: Yeah. Agreed.
24:23 MI: In 2018 you were named one of DC's top trendsetters. Let's talk about the future of marketing. What are some trends people should be on the lookout for in 2021?
24:33 GK: Yeah, I think just overall, it's going to be important for really anybody, but marketers, to understand how they're going to need to rely on increased automation and tools. And so, I think just in general to embrace the idea that machines are our friends, not our foes. So in other words, there are so many machines that will help us be more strategic and get to do actually the things that some people enjoy getting in the weeds and doing the tactics. I certainly have moments where it's actually refreshing to work with spreadsheets for something.
25:22 MI: As a data geek, I can appreciate that.
25:23 GK: Sometimes it's satisfying, the confines of the cells in the spreadsheet are reassuring some days, and other times I'm just like, I don't want to deal with that. I want to think like, huge, big picture or whatever. To me, it's the switching back and forth that helps. But I think, as far as trends go, I think it's trying to find better and better ways to do a lot of things more quickly, more easily, more repeatable. So, you can focus on being more creative and strategic. And, if marketers don't do that, they are going to find themselves replaced by applications that do their job. And that, again, that's not a bad thing. Because with new creations like that, there's going to be new jobs created. Again, I don't believe that robots are taking our jobs. I believe that they're creating new ones and there's a new opportunity, but everybody needs a mindset of, if you solely focus on Twitter marketing, it's going to be tough to have that as a job in 10 years. It requires this idea of continual learning and improvement. And again, that applies to anybody even beyond marketing, but I think it's really important.
26:47 MI: Yeah, and I can totally echo that even with data, which would be a place where you would think, there's obviously a lot of room for automation, but in my opinion, it allows more time for analysis, the insight, because that's really where the value is. It's not what is the data or what is the observation is like, so what, what does that mean? And that's really where the value is in any sort of data analytics data-driven type marketing.
27:10 GK: Yeah. Yeah, definitely agree.
27:12 MI: When it comes to trend-setting where have you gotten it right? And where have you gotten it wrong?
27:24 GK: I think that back in the day with social media marketing, this was several over a decade now, my agency was called Carousel 30. I think we got a lot of things right early on now. I'll finish the story and now I can tell you it was kind of an arc, but we embraced it. We embraced it as something that companies, clients didn't know what in the world to do with it at first now it's social media manager or whatever is ubiquitous and all of that stuff. But you know, back in the day we saw an opportunity. We saw a way to not only make money but to embrace this growing trend. And we're able to do some pretty interesting work with some large organizations, even just from a business standpoint, we're able to create recurring revenue through retainers and all that kind of stuff. It transformed my company really, to have a retainer revenue model. Now as things progressed, I don't think we saw the adoption of that within clients and companies as quickly as we should have. So, our team was getting replaced by internal hires. And so I think where for me, it's not just about social media. It's about the macro trend of the agency and client relationships. So I believe the role of the agency is to bring new ideas, not only new strategies but new tactics, introduce them to a client and then assume that those are going to be co-opted by the company themselves and the agency that needs to bring new ideas and new opportunities. And it's unfortunate because wouldn't it be nice if you could just do the same thing for 20 years, and hold your hands out and collect the cash or whatever, but really the opportunity is the agencies get to do the cool new stuff and always be on the lookout. Be those people that are bringing those great new ideas and processes and tactics and everything to a client. But it has to happen continually or else they're going to lose clients through no fault of their own. They're going to do such a good job, proving that something is valuable to a client that the client's going to hire it internally. And then the agency is going to be out of a job versus if the relationship is, every two years, basically we're going to have something new that we feed into our clients. And that's the kind of relationship we have. I think that's how I try to approach things. That's how I was approaching things towards the end of the agency was just that mindset. I think it's served us well. So we learned from taking it a little too easy with the social media stuff and quickly pivoted to change that approach.
30:38 MI: Okay, great. What's next for you this year? Outside of the book, obviously.
30:45 GK: Growing Career Gig and it's definitely an undertaking to grow something. We have big plans and are very excited about it. My plan with the book and things like that, eventually there will be in-person speaking events. I mean, that whole part of my personal brand was writing and speaking and everything. I have a plan to essentially release one book a year. Until I don't, but I have no plans to stop. So I'll start working on another book in about a month or so, but otherwise, yeah, just really focusing on Career Gig, building it into something really great. And take it from there.
30:32 MI: Great. That's exciting. Definitely be on the lookout for that. Well, really appreciate you coming on the show today.
31:38 GK: Thanks so much for having me.