This week on the XLIVE Interview Series we sat down with Mark Harrison, President & CEO of the T1 Agency. The T1 Agency is an experiential marketing agency, and Mark has built his agency from the ground up. We spoke to Mark about the experiential marketing industry, why he started an experiential marketing agency, and what advice he can give to other young entrepreneurs in the live event space. Read the full interview below!
ISS 2018, Croke Park, 15/3/18, Pictured is Mark Harrison, Founder, The T1 Agency in Toronto and SponsorshipX. Pic Orla Murray/ SON Photo
For those who don’t already know, can you give us a brief overview of the T1 Agency, the Agency’s mission statement and the opportunity you saw when founding the agency?
Our Mission is to get our clients promoted. It’s about the person across the deck from us. Our job is to help her do her job better. We don’t work for companies, we work for people.
I founded the Agency with a strong belief that we could take blue chip brands to B,C,D, and E markets for clients in a highly impactful manner. Sounds antiquated now, but in 1994 going to the grassroots was a differentiator.
Why did you start an experiential agency and what is it about the experiential marketing space that you’re drawn to?
I believed than and believe today that a tactile, dramatic, and cultivated experience is the best way to build a brand or promote a company. The human touch of love will never be replaced. Marketers know this as well. I’ve thrived during economic downturns because brands cut massive ad budgets but kept their live. In fact it often increased.
What do you love most about running your own business, and what is most challenging?
Let’s start with the challenge. It’s lonely. Really f’n lonely. Every person who works with you only see their own image when they are dealing with you. So their issues or complaints are the most important issues for the company….in their minds. They don’t realize that a boss has to deal with multiple variations of the same person everyday. Plus you have no one to talk to. No one! Can we add some dramatic sound effect to my wailing?
That is also what I love. How do I get in the head of a colleague, client, or supplier, and energize them to chase the same vision I have.
With regards to starting your own business, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Starting was easy. I just printed up some business cards and started bragging to everyone that I had a company. The hard part was convincing myself to quit my cushy overpaid job before I went out on my own. Cushy is an exaggeration because I worked my balls off. But I was paid well. I quadrupled my starting salary before I was twenty-five. Who quits that job???
What are the biggest shifts you have seen in the industry, and how has technology impacted your job?
Shifts imply oceanic tides. There are no shifts. Or if there are, I don’t see them because I have only been on one cruise ship in my life. The industry doesn’t have shifts or tides, it has white water rapids. It has massive protruding rocks. It has those toothless dudes from Deliverance. Okay I should not have gone there. The live business changes every time I use the toilet. I stopped reading on the throne because I have to get back to my desk so I don’t miss something.
Maybe I should answer your question.
Digital and tech has been the best thing EVER for the live business because we finally have a live medium that can be activated in real time with live events. Previously we had to plan media support campaigns months out and pray we picked the right channel. Now we have digital platforms as our co-pilot. Off we go together. It’s amazing.
Why should companies focus on cultivating an entrepreneur culture and what are the business benefits of doing so?
It’s such a cliche that even I blush when I say it and I don’t know if my team would agree. Check on Glassdoor will you and see if I am wrong? I would love nothing better than to have six members come and ask to partner with me on a new venture. But that’s not realistic. What is realistic is to push them, and I mean push, to create things for their clients, their internal team, and themselves that presently don’t exist in order to find the solutions we need.
I don’t need everyone to want to be Whitney Wolfe. It would be nice if I had a few. But I do need everyone to never take NO for answer. That’s being entrepreneurial.
I need to comment I apply this exclusively the projects we build for clients. That, and as a salesperson , are the only areas to not accept NO as an answer.
In which industries has the T1 agency found most success, and are some industries a better fit for experiential marketing than others?
We find our success with people, not industries. Running a service business or owning an event or staging a festival is not about categories or industries. It’s about people. Relationships. Human beings. Luckily every organization in the history of the world uses experiences one way or another – companies, schools, military organizations, charities, political parties, unions, government officials, public departments….should I go on?
Scaling service businesses can be hard. How have you been able to scale your business effectively without compromising the quality of work?
It is the hardest. Because dummies like me think we are the best and smartest person to do things. But I got lucky. My wife joined my firm as CFO some sixteen years in and she helped me realize that is all about the people. I wasn’t the nicest or best boss. I am still not. But she placed an emphasis on talent and culture and vision and it has paid off. Everyone knows the secret. There is no secret to success. It’s people. Read the Netflix HR deck on slide share. But people, like me, often say one thing and do another.
Building a great company requires a commitment to great people. Remarkably it’s not as easy as it sounds.
We have also worked hard to build a management structure that allows the firm to be run by other people. Coupled with my spouse, the rest of our Leadership Team has been “with”me for 11, 15, and 20 years. I have two affiliate businesses where both MD’s are also over a decade of tenure with me. All these leaders know my ridiculousness.
Is it true that you refuse to sell your business? And if so, why?
Maybe I hide behind this statement as a highly strategic smokescreen?
It is simple. I love this business like a third child, second wife – that doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean- bestest friend ever. Selling a business is a smart step for many. It can provide financial freedom, a chance to pursue new things, legacy for children, an exit for partners. I don’t need or want any of those things. What I do need to do though is create economic bandwidth in my organization so my talent, both “senior” and the shooting stars, can participate in the business at a level well beyond being an employee.
The XLIVE community is filled with entrepreneurs, paving the way and creating incredible live event experiences. What is your best piece of advice you can give for other budding entrepreneurs?
You need to learn how to do three things really well. In this order:
1) Learn how to sell yourself to You. Nobody else is going to push you to create the next revenue stream. You need to do this everyday. You need to understand your personal value proposition, you need to have a personal strategic plan, you need to have a personal management system. You need all three or your dead.
2) Learn how to sell yourself to Others. Suppliers. Staff. Family. Friends. Permit Issuers. Talent. Partners. Media. Government. They are all asking the same question – Who the feck are you? Build your greatest asset – your network. Constantly. Carve out the time. Create a vision. State it publicly. Sell it daily to everyone. Focus on success, because success is the number one driver to a powerful internal culture.
3) Learn how to sell yourself to Clients/Customers/Consumers. In this day age the entrepreneur is the brand and vice versa. Branson. Musk. Jobs. They are household names. It was the same many years ago and is today. Barnum. Conklin. King. Winfrey. Stewart. Rowling. Bezos. Ma. Use pain to sell. Create pain to sell. Be a creator of pain and solver of pain. No consumer or corporate client in the history of mankind bought single thing that wasn’t about pain relief. They aren’t coming to your festival to be happy, they are coming because they believe they could be happier. It’s a subtly massive difference. Lastly, don’t forget that your clients/customers/consumers will ultimately dictate what you sell to them. Your website may indicate your product is a festival or that your an advertising agency selling strategy or your organization rents fencing. But you will eventually realize that you are in the clothing merch business or the podcast business or the security guard business, because people in pain trusted you to provide the right medicine.
Thank you so much for talking to me, and I hope some of this doesn’t end up on the editor’s metaphorical floor.