A mountain boy originally from southern California, Clifton came to the Midwest to attend the esteemed Kansas City Art Institute. After working for several local agencies in creative roles, he founded REACTOR Design Studio. He has appeared on national television, been featured in countless publications and guided the studio to more than 200 design awards. Clifton regularly speaks to companies and industry groups on topics ranging from branding to creativity to workplace culture. His philosophy that there’s no point in designing something unless it’s awesome permeates the soul of REACTOR and helps the drive to achieve better results for clients. In 2012, Clifton was honored as a Rising Star by KC Business Magazine and in 2015 the firm was named one of the Kansas City’s top 25 small businesses winning the 25 Under 25 award from Thinking Bigger Business Media.
Although he prefers the much warmer and more consistent weather that SoCal offers, he and his wife Holly have chosen to remain in Kansas City because of the vibrant creative community and the fact that it’s an amazing place to raise their three awesome kids!
Brad Burrow: Hello, this is the In A World with Real Media podcast and I’m here with Clifton Alexander, good buddy of mine. Clifton is the creative Chuck Norris. I feel a little intimidated sitting right here.
Brad Burrow: Look out, look out. And the owner of REACTOR Design Studio. And I’m just going to read a little bit from your LinkedIn profile. So you’ve got a pretty interesting background. I was quite surprised. I don’t ever really go through people’s LinkedIn profiles until I interview them, and then I’m like, “Oh, wow. That’s pretty cool.”
Brad Burrow: So past president of the KCDMA. Okay. Pretty cool. You’re a graduate of Kansas City Art Institute. Moved here from California, right?
Brad Burrow: Okay. So-
Clifton: I came here just for that great school.
Brad Burrow: Isn’t that amazing?
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Kansas City people … I think it’s amazing. It seems like California.
Clifton: It’s one of the top ten art schools in the country and it’s, even though a lot of people around here know it, it’s still somewhat of a hidden gem.
Brad Burrow: Yeah, awesome. So from there, you interned at Berkeley.
Clifton: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Brad Burrow: Is that right? Yeah.
Brad Burrow: See if I might need to get my glasses changed here. Bernstein-Rein advertising and what I thought here is you had some pretty cool brands that you did some work with.
Brad Burrow: Rent-way, Commerce bank, Royals.
Clifton: Royals. Yep, did a lot of work for the two thousand season for the Royals, that was fun.
Brad Burrow: Well so let’s talk about that a little bit and then Beauty Brands.
Brad Burrow: Bare Advantage.
Brad Burrow: You got some Animal Health Corridor stuff there, probably huh.
Brad Burrow: So, pretty cool. From there Ellerbe Becket. So what a change in a, I mean you go from advertising to architecture.
Clifton: Yeah. So I ended being an in house environmental graphic designer over there. So they had a group that just worked on signage and way finding for museums and children’s exhibits and for the stadiums that Ellerbe Becket was designing at the time. And so we had some of our own projects as part of that and some projects were part of the bigger company. And so, yeah, that was a great … I really enjoyed that.
Brad Burrow: Was that good experience for you? I mean, from a creative standpoint, learning a different style or different type of approach.
Clifton: Yeah, I like to see it as graphic design, but in three dimensions. So when you’re designing signage and graphics and way finding for big projects or monuments or whatever it might be, it is like putting your graphic design brain on, but having to do it in three dimensions, which is really unique. And some days I’d be designing a bracket so that some sign could hang from a rafter somewhere. Yeah. Or just putting a really great treatment and patterning on the side of a children’s museum exhibit or something. A lot of different experience, great place.
Brad Burrow: Yeah, that’s great. Then decided to start your own shop?
Brad Burrow: Shop is not the right word, but agency I guess you could say.
Brad Burrow: So, and that’s the thing. Let’s talk about that. And probably a lot of people in the industry want to go out and do their own thing. You’ve been doing it for a long time. What was the year that you started REACTOR-?
Clifton: It was 2003, so 16 years now.
Brad Burrow: Awesome.
Brad Burrow: I mean most companies don’t stick around for a year or two if they’re lucky.
Brad Burrow: You guys have made it a long time.
Brad Burrow: So what was that like? Do you remember back then starting a company saying, “Okay, I’m going to do this?
Clifton: I do remember a lot about that time because I remember being extremely naive to how the world works and how, salespeople go about getting business and that sort of thing. One of my biggest, maybe one of my mistakes right off the bat was I opened up my shop and I essentially hung my sign out doors in quotes. I wasn’t working out of my house, but I hung it on my shingle and created an email address and a simple website and I just thought that people would be like, “Okay, hey, cool. This guy is out here and he’s doing good work so let’s just-”
Brad Burrow: Start raking in the money.
Clifton: Yeah, let’s just start hiring this guy. Right?
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: And that was my biggest lesson. I thought I’d just send some mailers to some people that didn’t know me and they would just call right away and need some project. And I realized very quickly that that is not how the real world works.
Brad Burrow: Right.
Clifton: That there’s a long, long, long process involved in sales. A lot of it is, networking and relationship driven.
Brad Burrow: Right.
Clifton: And it takes a long time to really build those relationships. And that was the piece that I learned over the years and have, and I’m still learning, honestly. It’s a constant education [crosstalk 00:04:53] constant learning aspect.
Brad Burrow: Right, right. As creative people, that’s foreign to us, I think. You know, it’s like this, the whole sales side of thing is something that you have to learn and really you don’t want to do that much.
Clifton: We’re not trained to do that in school. Kansas City Art Institute did not teach me how to be a salesperson.
Brad Burrow: They should have sales training there probably shouldn’t they?
Clifton: Oh yeah, yeah. And so that was just the biggest part of it. It was really learning and understanding that. And that honestly is the hardest part, I think about owning a business. We’ve always through 16 years, we’ve always had incredible creative talent and we’ve always been able to create really great work. But if you don’t have the relationships that allow you to sell that work to companies and individuals, then your work won’t, it won’t exist essentially.
Brad Burrow: You know, I find a lot of the younger folks that I’ve hired through the years still don’t get that. They think this stuff just happens and that you just go out and, “I’ll take that job, I’ll take that job. Well, why can’t we do stuff like that?” They don’t realize that you have to go out and build relationships, demonstrate that you can do something well and then sell it.
Clifton: And the exact same thing happens with getting a job. And so we do tours for high school and college groups every once in awhile. And I’m constantly amazed at the groups of college students that’ll come in there. They’re designers, they’re may be juniors or seniors in college, which means that I could theoretically be hiring them sometime in the next year and they’ll come into our studio and they won’t ask us any questions or they’ll just, like most of them will just be kind of sitting silent in the wings and not really trying to engage with us. So there’s always one or two and I just, I always advise the students when they come into our offices, they’ll ask us for advice and I say that every time, “Build these relationships.”
Clifton: If I am not the one who’s going to be hiring you six months from now, one of my friends certainly will be. I guarantee you it’s going to be somebody else that I know. And so how do you network with those people when you have a chance to talk to somebody like me or my creative director or somebody in my office, then get as much information as you can out of us and try to network, give us a business card, keep in touch with us. You never, never know. And the exact same thing is the sales process works the same way.
Brad Burrow: Yeah and I think creative people are very introverted and a lot of times too, so it’s very opposite of what they naturally feel like they’re comfortable doing. So it’s getting out of your comfort zone a little bit. What would you say to somebody? How do you do that? How did you do that?
Clifton: So I may seem like a very outgoing, personable kind of person. That is true. I’m one of those people that can sit down and have a great conversation with someone. I can open up, I can be very introverted or extroverted in that way, but walk me into a room full of people that I don’t know and I close up man and become like a clamshell thing, whatever you call that. And I just close up and I won’t talk to anybody. I’ll try to find somebody I know and maybe go talk to them even though they’re not the person I need to talk to when I’m in these events. And so the advice really is when you’re out there, talk to whoever you can and just make sure to talk to them. Try to find one on one situations that always, I feel like is a little bit better, than trying to just sit down at a table and just start talking to a group of people. Try to find someone who’s maybe standing by themselves somewhere maybe they’re in the same situation, just go strike up a conversation if you can. But that’s really the only way you’re going to get out of that is by actually talking to people at those events and getting to know them.
Brad Burrow: So one of the things I think is really funny about you and I, we’re good friends, both married accountants.
Clifton: Yeah, that’s right.
Brad Burrow: Well, what’s up with that?
Clifton: That was a gen-
Brad Burrow: Creative.
Clifton: Genius move on each of our part.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Okay. I’m sharing this podcast with my wife now.
Clifton: Creative owner, creative business owners, each marrying accountants was a really brilliant move. That would be my other source of advice, right? And we’re not great with money, so marry someone who is.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. To balance off.
Clifton: That’s right, that’s right.
Brad Burrow: Our tendencies to want to run the other direction.
Clifton: There is a great balance in something like that though. There really is where, the things that my wife is really good at or the things that I am not very good at.
Brad Burrow: That’s right.
Clifton: And the things that I’m really good at or that I inject energy into or whatever, she’s not as good at. And so we really compliment each other very well. And that’s a huge part of the equation.
Brad Burrow: I didn’t mean for this podcast to become a marriage podcast but …
Clifton: Hey wherever, wherever it leads man.
Brad Burrow: That’s right. So one of the questions I had for you is, so you grew up in California, is that right?
Clifton: I did, yeah.
Brad Burrow: Yep. So in the art institute was, you knew that was a place that you wanted to go. How did that all happen?
Clifton: So back in the 90s when I was in high school, there was a thing called Portfolio Day and these were all over the country and every big arts school around the country would all descend in certain locations and do a Portfolio Day. So everyone who was an artist in high school that wanted to potentially get into an art school would go to Portfolio Day. You would pick a few schools to interview with and you would literally just stand in line and wait and then you show your portfolio to the college admissions counselors that were there on hand. And they would give you feedback and advice and take your name and notes down. And at the end of the day, I was drawn to Kansas City Art Institute.
Clifton: I honestly don’t know what the initial draw was for me other than the fact that it seemed like an interesting place. I’d never been here before, it seemed an interesting place to me to go. I really liked the, the pictures of the campus that I saw where it seemed like there was a lot of green space yet it was still in the city. Some of the colleges I looked at in LA were literally in down town LA, like in a eight story building and the entire college was in that one eight story building. That to me was not gonna work. At the time I was growing up, I lived in the mountains, we had a little tiny mountain community where I could ride my mountain bike everywhere and to get around town. And that was where I was coming from. So the idea of going to college in downtown LA in a eight, nine story building and no other thing related to that just didn’t appeal to me. So I looked at Kansas City as an opportunity and they happened to give me the most amount of scholarship money as well.
Brad Burrow: Is that right?
Clifton: That kind of helped.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: And they said they wanted me and I said, “Sure, let’s do it.” And so on my, literally my 18th birthday, I jumped on a plane and came to Kansas City for the first time to start school.
Brad Burrow: And you’ve stayed.
Clifton: And I’ve been here ever since.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah. So you’ve liked Kansas City, great place to raise a family.
Clifton: Fantastic place to raise a family. The way I always say it in my bio is that I pretty much dislike or hate the weather here, especially the humidity and the ultra cold, hate those things. But the family aspect and the business community, everything has really been a big benefit and a blessing to me. And that’s something that, causes me to stay here.
Brad Burrow: Yeah, no, that’s awesome.
Brad Burrow: All right. So let’s get into some of the aspects of what you do. We were talking earlier, you were talking about Brand Voice and first let’s define that. How would you define Brand Voice? What does that mean?
Clifton: So maybe we could step back just a [inaudible 00:12:14] and when I talk to my clients or when I’m speaking or doing something like that, brand becomes a catch-all word for a lot of different things.In the world of business, brand tends to just mean logo or something visual or tangible or something you can, you might have a brand if you have a sign on the door and you have a logo on a letterhead [crosstalk 00:12:36] nowhere-
Brad Burrow: It’s probably what people think.
Clifton: That’s what most people think.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: And so to back up a little bit, when I talk about brand, I’m talking about all aspects of your company that are part of what makes you you. So that includes those tangible things, those practical things like your logo and your colors and website and all that. But it also includes a whole list of intangible or emotional type of things, which could be your voice, your actual voice, how you talk about your company, it could be the way you answer the phone on your phone message, it could be the employees, how they interact with customers, it could be, there’s a whole host of things. Anything you can think of that’s part of your business that is not, very tangible or physical. So if you call up a company and you’re talking to someone and they seem a little bit short with you and you hang up the phone, you might say to yourself, “Well shoot, that wasn’t a very good experience.” That’s part of the brand of what that company is putting out there in the world.
Clifton: And so when we talk about Brand Voice, we talk about part of that emo- or that intangible side of the equation, is how do you talk about yourself? How do you talk about who you are? How do you explain that in a way that’s the voice of your company. So we do that in a number of different ways and how we get there. Sometimes it ends up in a tagline and a bunch of other words and phrases and things like that. But a lot of times it’s really just a way of thinking in terms of how you want that brand to be experienced in a very consistent way across the board. If you want to say these things, say them very consistently and mean them, and that’s a big part of it as well. And make sure that you’re saying who you are is actually who you are and you’re backing that up and that’s a big part of it. So we’ll develop those things together. We’ll develop a visual side of your brand and a voice and put all those things together to create one bigger piece of the puzzle.
Brad Burrow: So that’s not just a defined process that you can go with every company on and come out with the same result. You really have to dive in and research, understand-
Brad Burrow: I mean-
Brad Burrow: It’s got to take a while. I bet on, on …
Clifton: There are some pieces of it that are defined in terms of how we can go about getting some of the answers or the data or the certain types of meetings we have with clients where we’re asking certain types of questions. We’ve really developed and honed our list of questions and interactive and kind of how we interact with clients to get the answers to these things, we’ve really honed that over the years. But at the end of the day, every client is very different and their answers and their results are going to be very different and how that comes about. And that’s where the magic happens-
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: So to speak, right?
Brad Burrow: Yeah, yeah.
Clifton: It’s the same way with the creative process on the visual side. We can ask as many questions as we want, but at the end of the day we still have to come up with something visual that represents the voice or the ethos of that brand. How do you do that in a visual way? And that is something that is, again, can be a little bit different depending on each client. And it can be a different response or a different way to go about doing that. But, it’s part of the creative process that we’ve developed over the years.
Brad Burrow: You’ve got to be like a psychiatrist.
Clifton: Oh my gosh. You would not believe-
Brad Burrow: Yeah, lay down on this couch. We’re going to-
Clifton: Well, okay, especially if you’re trying to convince a company that they really need to change their name. That’s when-
Brad Burrow: Oh yeah.
Clifton: That’s when being a psychologist or psychiatrist or whatever it is really comes into play because you are doing some hardcore counseling sessions with those clients and you may have some leadership members inside the organization that are really agree with you and say, “Yes, I do think we need to change the name or do something more drastic.” And you may have some that don’t agree and you have to figure out how to really come about a compromise there in the middle or to come up with the best solution. If we as REACTOR are suggesting that we think that a company needs to change their name, we don’t take that lightly at all. It’s something that if we come to that decision based on the research we’ve done and the interviews and everything, that is a very serious decision and we understand how hard that is going to be for the client. And so we’re going to make sure to present it as thoroughly as possible. But there is a big, there’s a counseling session piece to that for sure.
Brad Burrow: I mean we get so close to our businesses that we, to change a name that’s a big deal.
Clifton: And we’ve had situations where there was some major pushback to that type of scenario, but we persisted and we eventually came up with a solution that really worked. And some of the internal folks who were really against it will end up becoming our biggest champion and our biggest, cheerleader so to speak. Because they, at the end of the day, they knew and understand that it was a really good decision to do that. But sometimes it takes a while to get there.
Brad Burrow: It’s amazing how sometimes a change like that can really help a company grow too.
Clifton: Yeah.You Bet.
Brad Burrow: Right.
Brad Burrow: Educating clients. Okay. So that was one of the things that I wanted to ask you about is you have people that maybe have owned their business for a long time or they’ve been in the industry for a long time, don’t really understand brand, don’t understand any of the things we’ve been talking about. How do you go about the process? Because they have to be educated to understand the impact. Right?
Brad Burrow: That’s a challenge.
Clifton: Yeah. They have to educate us on their business and what they’re doing. Especially if it’s an industry that we’re not familiar with, but then we have to then educate them on how this whole process works. And for us, really, it just, this may seem like not the best answer in the world, but honestly it’s about asking a lot of questions. We ask a lot of questions and we sit them down in long form meetings and we’re sitting down with leadership and hopefully multiple people on a leadership team and we’re asking a lot of questions and we’re trying to get down to it as deeply as we can in order to come up with the right answers. If we are in a bigger, broader situation where there’s more data that’s needed, that’s when we’ll start going and asking outside people, maybe it’s customers or other employees or people in the community or whatever you need to do to ask various people or pooling or interviewing and that sort of thing. Because then you’re getting as much information as possible from the outside and the inside and you’re taking all of that and putting it together into a good solution for the client.
Brad Burrow: How would I know? So let’s say I own my business. I’ve had it for many years. Maybe it’s a family owned business, has been passed down. How would I know that my brand needs an overhaul? What are some things that I could look at and say, “Yeah … ” And I may not know that that’s the case, but there are some signs pointing me to that.
Clifton: Yeah, there’s a couple of different things that I will say. One of them is a drastic change in leadership can lead to needing to do something like that. So say you are still the owner, you’ve been part of the owner of the family of the company for a long time. Maybe you’ve brought on another partner or maybe you’ve sold the business to the two people that have been with you the longest and they’re going to now take it over from there. So a drastic change in leadership can lead to that. Say we need to really rethink the brand and the message and marketing side, because there’s going to be a different thought process from the top, top level down. Another way would be if the company is actually sold or moved in a completely different direction related to something in a similar way to what I just discussed but maybe it’s sold to a completely different group. You might want to look at that and say, “Okay, maybe we need to think about doing somethings differently because now the customer wants to and needs to know that something different is happening.”
Clifton: And then the other factor really is all about market and change in market. So if you’ve been in a market or if you’ve been doing something for a very long period of time and you as a company have changed what you’re doing or you have ebbed and flowed over the years into maybe a totally different kind of thing. Maybe the name of your company is Legal Marketing Group and you find that 10 years ago you stopped really doing a whole lot in the legal profession and now you’re focused on hospitals or something like that. Those are really good ti- That may seem obvious to make a change like that, but sometimes it’s not as obvious when you’ve been or had a company name for so long. We’ve had companies that have had names that were clearly, come up with in the 80s, in the technology era and they had, pieces of technology kind of in the name that are just not relevant at all anymore. Right. So there’s those sorts of things. And so that’s the other piece of it, its just something has changed about the market that you’re in or the technology that you use or how you’re building your brand based off of those. And so those three things are generally the reason that a company would want to change or start to do something different.
Brad Burrow: So Chuck Norris, what are your thoughts on Chuck Norris? I mean he’s-
Clifton: He’s the most bad ass guy out there and in terms of versatility and awesomeness and can kick anybody’s butt and the whole deal. Right. So that’s my alter ego is the Chuck Norris. I’m the creative version of the Chuck Norris.
Brad Burrow: So that had to happen just a few years back. Because that was when the whole Chuck Norris thing really kind of exploded. Right?
Clifton: It was huge. Yeah. It was huge, Chuck Norris was huge about four or five years ago as a wise warrior of all things. And so why not be the creative version of that?
Brad Burrow: I wonder how that happened. You think he had a branding guy? Says, “We need to turn you into the guy.” It’s amazing.
Clifton: Who the heck knows?
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: Who the heck knows how any of those memes or internet rumors get started? It could have been driven directly from Chuck Norris himself, who knows.
Brad Burrow: That’s pretty awesome though.
Clifton: Oh yeah.
Brad Burrow: I love all the Chuck Norris jokes and stuff like that. As a matter of fact-
Clifton: I very much love it.
Brad Burrow: So my brother has a coffee franchise called Classic Rock Coffee and they have a franchise in, I think Lubbock, Texas. And he lives in Lubbock or close to there. So he comes in there all the time.
Clifton: That’s amazing.
Brad Burrow: So he’s thought about doing a Chuck Norris …
Clifton: Chuck Norris Blend.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: Nice. A power blend-
Brad Burrow: But nobody else could drink it.
Clifton: Yeah, right. No, the only coffee that no one else can drink. That’s amazing.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah. That’s awesome. So, okay. So I wanted to also, talk about, how important it is to be in our industries in general to be a learner. Okay. In yours especially, I mean branding, just so you mentioned it, I mean, technology in a name, in the 80s means something completely different now. I mean, you’ve got to be staying on top of what’s happening in marketing world, brand world, all of that is, how do you approach some things like that? Do you study, I mean, do you look at stuff, are you learning to see what’s happening with other things?
Clifton: Yes. [crosstalk 00:24:08]
Brad Burrow: You watch TV commercials differently than everybody else?
Clifton: Well definitely. So one of the, and I think this is probably the bane of my wife and my family’s existence, is the idea that I’m critiquing literally everything that comes on. So whether it be a TV commercial or whether it be a sign hanging from a building or a menu at a restaurant, I am 100% critiquing it in my mind or out loud to my family. So that it is part of the being a designer.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: Being a creative is just constantly looking around you and critiquing. And when you go to college and actually went to an arts high school as well, when you’re in arts high school and college for eight, nine years, you’re living your entire life and creating artwork and then critiquing other people’s artwork. That’s your entire existence in art school.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: It is creating your own and then critiquing others. And so it’s just ingrained into your brain that that’s just what you do. So you got to not take it personally. Right? So if I’m judging you and your ads from 1998, Brad that I saw there earlier …
Brad Burrow: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Clifton: Then just know that I’m definitely judging you, but don’t take it personally. Right. And so that’s part of it. But just being aware of what’s going on in the world is really the education piece is a little bit easier than it used to be. And I think part of that is that we have so many tools with online resources and with social media, we can follow Instagram accounts that are the top of the top in terms of what’s happening in the world of design and marketing. And they’re posting content every single day, all the time. And so we’re just getting flooded with, here’s what’s new, here’s what’s now. This is what’s happening in the world of business. We do the same for business. I do a lot of, not a lot, but I do some training on the business side of things. And so all of that just comes back to a general knowledge base where we’re just continually out there and knowing and understanding what’s going on.
Clifton: So there’s not as much of a formal learning process. There’s not a class you can take. There’s not stuff like that. But there’s conferences you can go to stuff like that. But mostly it’s just living in the world as a designer and critiquing everything and trying to understand what is new and what is now and what works and what doesn’t work if we look at the most … So a really good example, QuikTrip is one of my favorite examples of building a brand.
Brad Burrow: Boy they have done an amazing job.
Clifton: They’ve done an absolutely incredible job. But one of the things that I love about how they work and Walmart and McDonald’s also work in the same way. So you look at brands like Walmart, biggest brand in the world, McDonald’s, one of the largest food brands in the world and a QuikTrip certainly the largest convenience store gas station chain in the Middle States area.
Brad Burrow: Yeah, right.
Clifton: All three of those brands operate under similar principles where they’re never settling on the progress that they’ve made previously. So a lot of companies would sit there and create some revolutionary thing and then just try to sell that forever until they die. That one thing that they created way back in the day. QuikTrip, McDonald’s, Walmart, all three of those companies in their growth, they will come up with some unique way to merchandise or retail or do whatever. But as soon as they launch that in all of their stores nationwide, they have three more ideas in the hopper that are the next bits, that they’re continually testing. So as soon as they launch something new, they’re working on testing the next big thing, they never rest on their laurels, so to speak.
Clifton: And so they’re constantly innovating. So as soon as soon as QuikTrip tears down their old buildings and build a brand new ones that are bigger, that have more kitchen space in it for more, fresh hot food, they are building that. And then their competitors are starting to build that, well as soon as their competitors, a couple of years later now start to build theirs with more kitchens, then QuikTrips is going to start maybe adding a drive through to theirs or something like that. So they’re always two steps ahead of everybody else. And it’s the reason why a company like McDonald’s will completely tear down a perfectly functioning restaurant in order to build another one on the exact same site in order to efficiency and streamline their processes and their design language and everything on the inside. Sometimes it’s easier to tear down and build new. Now they’re going to be out of business for three months, but they know that the efficiencies they’re gaining from those new processes and new, whatever it is, is going to make up for that and then some. And it allows them to continually innovate and to continually grow.
Clifton: And that’s one of my favorite parts about following and being involved in the design and the marketing side of business is just really seeing how companies are doing that and then extrapolating that out and trying to say, “Okay, the companies we work with are probably not going to be on the scale of McDonald’s. However, we can use those principles for a nonprofit, for a small business, for a solo preneur, for a mid size regional bank, for whatever it is.” We can use those same philosophies to help them grow their brand. Just in a little bit different scale.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Well, you look at QuikTrip as an example. I mean, you go into any QuikTrip and it’s packed almost anytime of day-
Clifton: All the time.
Brad Burrow: It’s unbelievable. But you go up to the register and they’re fast. No matter how many people are in there, they’re fast and they’re courteous. “Would you like a receipt with that Sir? Can I put this in the bag for you?-”
Clifton: “Have a good day.”
Brad Burrow: Everyone of them.
Clifton: All that.
Brad Burrow: So Brand Voice.
Clifton: Yeah, it’s all about the Brand Voice. They have very well trained employees. Their employees know the ethos of the brand and they understand how that system works and they’re paid really well. That’s another secret to it. The higher paid the workers are the better chance they’re going to be at customer service.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: How many 7-Eleven’s have you passed on in order to just to get to a QuikTrip right. That happens all the time. It is a thing, because you know that when you’re going to walk into a 7-Eleven or one of the other convenience stores, it’s probably going to be dirty and dingy and they probably haven’t changed the layout on the inside for like 35 years, maybe longer. And that just becomes a big issue. And so you then you’re desiring a brand that is more modern, that understands where you’re at today, not where you were at 30 years ago. That’s the big difference.
Brad Burrow: I mean, we will look for QuikTrips when we stop at places when we’re traveling, that’s how much we like it.
Brad Burrow: Now you can even get a milkshake there.
Clifton: I know.
Brad Burrow: They’ll make a milkshake right there for you-
Clifton: I know.
Brad Burrow: And they’re good.
Clifton: It’s dangerous.
Brad Burrow: They’re really good. Bad for me so stay away, stay away. All right, so we talked about Brand Voice a little bit. So what are some really cool things that are happening at REACTOR these days? What are some neat things that you can tell us about … Probably some top secret things and then I’ll talk in my movie voice right there, top secret things happening. But what are some cool things that are happening that you can talk about?
Clifton: Yeah, so we’ve done a lot of really great work with Q39 Barbecue this year, which has been a lot of fun [crosstalk 00:31:13]
Brad Burrow: I got to say.
Clifton: Talk about it.
Brad Burrow: So I have to do some video interviews. And one of the things I ask a lot is, “What’s your favorite place to eat?” Q39 almost every time.
Clifton: They’re amazing. I know.
Brad Burrow: Unbelievable.
Clifton: I know. So I was at the Jonas Brothers’ concert last night and of course who was catering for the main act was Q39. So I saw their truck go into the building and I talked to somebody that I know over there and sure enough that’s where that barbecue was going, straight to the Jonas Brothers. So I happen to know … So they do a lot of really great things, but we’ve been working on them with refreshing their brand, not changing their name, not changing anything drastic, but really just freshening things up. All new menus, new website. We’re working on some other really cool things coming up that they’re going to be able to offer in the near future here. So we’re doing a lot of work with them on their brand. We’re also doing all their monthly advertising and all that stuff they do, they do a surprising amount of getting their name out there in the world. Honestly that’s just part of being in a business that has a lot of competitors and it has a lot of clout in a city like this, there’s so many barbecue restaurants, so many other good high quality restaurants just across the board in this town. How do you continue to compete? You’ve got to continue to market yourself, you have to and you can’t just rely-
Brad Burrow: So they’re living by the same thing as a QuikTrip or McDonald’s basically?
Clifton: Exactly, constantly trying to innovate, keeping their name out there, not just solely relying on the social media traffic they get or so-and-so celebrity was in here. That’s a huge part of it. But they are also actively marketing themselves and they do a really fantastic job of it. They’re very, forward thinking the team over there and just how they do that and we’re super happy to be part of that process as well.
Brad Burrow: That’s one of those accounts that, you got to love having that account.
Clifton: Oh yeah.
Brad Burrow: “We’ll just have lunch at your place.”
Clifton: Yeah. So it doesn’t suck. I can say that much and it’s a great conversation starter for us to be able to work with such an iconic brand. We really like that part of our business and again have really enjoyed the team over there and they’ve been really fantastic people. One of our better clients to work with literally just in terms of how they understand our work and our business and the things that they’re doing. So that’s a lot of fun.
Brad Burrow: Don’t you think that’s one of the neat things about this business is and in ours too that we get to get involved in so many different kinds of businesses.
Clifton: Oh yeah.
Brad Burrow: So you got barbecue, you’ve got an education, is it a foundation that you do work for?
Clifton: So we do work, so that, [inaudible 00:33:46] say the other side of it is one of our longer clients right now is the National Charter Schools Conference and so that’s an education based thing, it’s charter schools focused. But it’s a conference that happens, it’s part of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which is a group out of DC and they host a conference every year. So we go to whatever city it is they’re hosting their conference and we create everything from the branding at the beginning to the 120 page program book to the signage on site to social media advertising to direct mail to templates for PowerPoint presenters to the whole deal.
Clifton: So it’s become a bit of a niche for us where we’ve really dove pretty hard into that market. It’s an education market that requires more marketing than a typical education side would on a public district type of school. Even though a charter school is a public school, they still are competing for students and so they don’t have the ability to just take every student in a neighborhood like a district school. So there’s a lot of marketing involved in that. So we love being involved in their national conference. We’ve been doing that for eight years now or so. We speak on marketing and branding at that conference almost every year, we’ve done it four or five times now.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: Everything from three hour workshops to 45 minute talks to groups of … Last talk I did in July was, we had over 250 people there and we talked about emotional branding and the importance of bringing emotion into a brand and how even being a charter school is important to have a brand and a marketing presence.
Brad Burrow: Maybe more so than other schools.
Clifton: Way more so. And that’s part of our other niche is that besides some of the stuff that we’re doing here with, restaurants and things like that, we’re doing a lot of work for that organization, but also for the schools themselves. We’re helping them to understand who they are, who are their audiences and to market themselves internally and externally on the school side itself, working with some other charter based organizations. Actually I just had a chance to be on a podcast called Charter School Superstars, which is pretty cool name.
Brad Burrow: Okay. Yeah.
Clifton: So we talked all about branding again and why the importance for a school to do that. And so we have this incredible, range of things we get to do every day with really interesting industries. And that’s one of my absolute favorite things about being in this type of business is just how diverse of thought and creativity we get to be, you know.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: I’m one of those people that just loves to understand how the gears work in something or anytime there’s a show on TV about how something works, like I’m watching it and I’m staring at it and looking at the behind the scenes and the whole deal and you know, so you and I both, we get to do that with our clients. We get to understand how those industries work. We get to understand how those clients work and how they get their product to market or whatever it is. And it’s a really fascinating piece of what it is I do. And that’s probably one of my favorite parts of people if someone were to ask me that.
Brad Burrow: [inaudible 00:36:51] I love watching how it’s made. It’s like one of my favorite shows to watch. I could watch it for hours. “How could you watch that for so long?” “I don’t know. It’s just fascinates me to see that kind of thing.”
Brad Burrow: All right, the last thing I kind of want to talk … we’ve got, I want to wrap it up after this, but I want to talk about running a business. Let’s talk a little bit about that. You know, owning a business, the ups and downs, the family aspect. You know, you and I are kind of the same in those aspects . We’ve been in business 21 years, you’re 16 years both, that’s a pretty long time. I’ve got an incredible wife that’s been very supportive of the ups and the downs. Can you talk about that a little bit? I mean, just the challenges and how you’ve overcome adversity because we’ve all gone through adversity, we’ve all had great, great times. We happen to be in a great time right now. But you know, we’ve been through some pretty rough times too. How do you approach that?
Clifton: So as I was talking earlier about getting started and just the naive factor of how that goes when you get started. The reality of it is though, is that even after 16 years, I’m still very much learning how to run a business. It’s still, can be somewhat of a mystery to me sometimes. And the thing, the biggest factor I think is that it doesn’t get easier after 16 years. Like we’re not able to create something and then just like reproduce it a million times. Everything we create is custom and from scratch and even if it’s following somewhat of a similar process it’s still very custom to every single company and we’re still very project driven instead of retainer and longterm client driven whatever. It’s very project based. Few guys are the very, very much the same way I think.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: And so even after 16 years man, it doesn’t get any easier your network of people certainly gets bigger and there’s certainly more opportunity within a larger network of people, but you’re still having to fight for every little scrap all the time, especially with project base. And so my training or my education over the years or my self-taught or whatever has really just become somewhat of a how do you survive or how do you keep the wheels running when you know that you have things. Like right now we’re in a really good spot as well, but you know, we’ve had really high highs and really low lows just like you have had. And it’s one of those things that just happens. You can’t continue to rest on your laurels, so to speak, and you have to just continually fight and fight and fight. And it gets tiring sometimes. I mean, I’ll admit it, there’ve been times where I’ve definitely been like, “Man, I’m so I’m tired.” You know.
Brad Burrow: Yeah.
Clifton: And I [crosstalk 00:39:46] see how much longer-
Brad Burrow: Mentally.
Clifton: Mentally, yeah, much longer can I actually do this? And you start having those conversations in your brain or even with your spouse about is it time to close it up or is it time to do this or that or the other thing or do something drastic. But then at the end of the day, something really amazing will happen and then you get fired back up again. And for me a lot of times that comes down to if I’m really just not feeling that great about things and I’ll walk into the office and my employees will be talking about something they’ve just created for our client and I’ll look at it and I’ll call it, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. That’s literally one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” And I’ll just feel like, “That thing that those young folks created came out of my shop that has my name on it.” Like that is a really cool feeling. And that’s when you get really, fired up again, right? You get the energy back and you say, “Man, we could do that for 10 more of those types of clients. Let’s get back to it and let’s see what we can do.”
Clifton: And that’s where the fun really comes in, is when you get to see what your team is creating and just be amazed constantly about what comes out of their brains. I’m always, even as a creative person and sort of the original creative director at REACTOR, I’m constantly amazed by what comes out of the team. It’s amazing.
Brad Burrow: Yeah. It, you know, there’s a couple of things that I thought of while you’re talking there. One is, I used to do the women who mean business videos every year. I did those for I think 18 years in a row and almost every year I would hear somebody say, “I had to learn to work on the business, not work in the business.” That’s so true. [crosstalk 00:41:30] But when you’re small, it’s nearly impossible to do, isn’t it?
Clifton: It’s very hard. Yes. Because every day it’s, “I got an invoice going here or you know, just today I got some random client that canceled something, so now I got to call them up and figure out what’s going on with that and how can I fix this problem or do that or the rent is due or … ” You just hear you have this myriad of just things that are happening all the time and it becomes really hard to focus on the outside part of that sales and business development and all that.
Brad Burrow: So I got to tell you a story, you and I were at a luncheon last week, for the Fallen Warrior Foundation. And there were videos that Real Media did.
Clifton: Great videos by the way.
Brad Burrow: You know, that’s the first time I had seen them.
Clifton: Oh, oh my gosh, I love it, right. Okay. So how cool is that?
Brad Burrow: Can you believe it?
Clifton: How cool is that?
Brad Burrow: So that, that-
Clifton: Those came out of your studio-
Brad Burrow: And I had not seen them.
Clifton: And you hadn’t even seen them. That’s fantastic.
Brad Burrow: And I was sitting there, you would not believe how nervous I was.
Brad Burrow: Because I’m like, but I’ve had to get to that point where I can let go of that creative side, trust my team and work on the business. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we are doing better right now is because I can focus on the relationships and in on the business and these guys are doing the work. But I was so pleasantly surprised that-
Clifton: That’s great.
Brad Burrow: And all of the work, yes. I’m sitting there like-
Clifton: That’s a great [crosstalk 00:43:01]
Brad Burrow: “Oh good, that was a good video.”
Clifton: It was a good video. [crosstalk 00:43:05] that.
Brad Burrow: So anyway, that’s just a little-
Clifton: But a huge part of that is hiring the right people and then trusting those people. If they don’t think that they have your trust, they’re going to always be timid around what they create and they’ll probably never really feel like they can go all in on creating something.
Brad Burrow: Right.
Clifton: Right. And so their work is going to be so much better if they know that you trust them and they know that they can deliver something of value and of great and high worthy of the name creative.
Brad Burrow: Right.
Clifton: And so you trust them to do that and you let them go all in, then they’re going to take the reins and hopefully if you have the right people on board, they’re going to take the reins and they’re going to run with it, it’s going to be awesome.
Brad Burrow: And it might be different than how you would have done things, but still-
Clifton: Oh yeah, yeah, totally.
Brad Burrow: Still good.
Brad Burrow: You know.
Clifton: Like you said there’s always a way to critique everything, right?
Brad Burrow: Yeah. In a good way and a bad way of doing that.
Clifton: Sure, sure.
Brad Burrow: Right. Last thing, I think there’s, I’ve had to learn this in running Real Media is the power of staying positive all the time, even when things don’t seem to be going well. Have you experienced that at all? I mean I think there’s really, there truly is power in that.
Clifton: Oh sure. And I’m generally an optimistic person and maybe that has to be in the nature of someone who runs a business is you have to be optimistic. If I see that sales are down right now, I have to be optimistic that they’ll pick up again next month. Otherwise I’m might just get go into depression mode or something, right.
Brad Burrow: That’s right.
Clifton: And just kind of spiral out. And so you have to be positive. You have to constantly be on the optimistic side of the glass being half full all the time. Otherwise, yeah, otherwise you … I don’t think you’d be able to survive. It goes back to what I was saying a little earlier, it’s like you just have to constantly be, even when you are getting a little bit down or things don’t seem to be going right, finding those little victories and the things that maybe your employees are doing or being proud of everything else that’s coming out of your studio or whatever it is, those are all parts of that puzzle that help you maintain that positivity and just knowing that you’re doing it for them and for everybody else that’s part of that, you know?
Brad Burrow: Yeah. Well, let’s go ahead and wrap it up. I really appreciate you coming onto the In a World with Real Media Podcast and man come back anytime. It’s great.
Clifton: Of course.
Brad Burrow: I really enjoyed having you and getting to know you in the past couple of years and that looking forward to some great things down the road here.
Clifton: Yeah. Thank you, Brad for having me. This has been fantastic. And we’ll [inaudible 00:45:35]
Brad Burrow: All right. Be sure to, log on to iTunes. We’re on iTunes, all of the actual, the podcast platforms. There’s probably hundreds but we’re on the, about the top four or five of them and you can always find it on our website at realmediakc.com/podcast. And we look forward to bringing you more podcasts in future. So thanks
Clifton: Thank you.