These days, tracking analytics plays a big part in how brands decide to spend their marketing dollars. In the race to the finish line (higher views, more clicks), companies may sacrifice thoughtful aesthetics to get those numbers. Hyper-growth digital agency Look Listen CEO Kit Hughes says that the balance between quality and quantity is often skewed.
“Something could be beautiful and ineffective or ugly and effective,” says Hughes. His goal is to increase business value through branding, without sacrificing a strong aesthetic.
Hughes’ passion for branding came early in his career, but his entrepreneurial drive took longer to develop, following a failure of his first company. After holding several positions at design firms, he took those lessons that he learned under his failed company and applied it to a new agency. In 2015, Look Listen was named one of Inc’s 5000 companies and has experience steadily increasing revenue growth. In 2016, Hughes bought out a business partner in a mutual partnership deal to continue driving the agency’s stratospheric growth.
Hughes shares more about the psychology and behavior behind branding, managing a good relationship with his former business partner, and why entrepreneurs should prioritize their mental health.
For those unfamiliar, what does Look Listen do?
Look Listen is a partner to marketing and sales teams. I like to think that we’re an “unagency” because I don’t come from an agency pedigree and we’re not focused on winning awards; we’re focused on delivering results. We create campaigns, marketing materials, and sales tools that are inspired by research, powered by analytics, and driven to move the needle. We have offices in Atlanta and Denver with “practices” in digital media, marketing automation, design, and development.
Tell me a bit about your career trajectory.
I dropped out of school to start my first company in 2000. Like most companies, it failed. Then, I went to work for a small retail and packaging design firm that worked for really big brands (BP and Anheuser-Busch). I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t really feel the calling to be an entrepreneur at that point. I moved from that design firm to work for a big company where I moved through several roles, finally landing in a position where I managed a design team for a global portfolio of products.
I co-founded Look Listen when I was working at that big company because I started to see the impact a design entrepreneur could make. My intention was to leave my corporate job, which I loved, once Look Listen was out of survival mode (a lesson I learned from my first company failing). Once we had a couple of employees and stable clients, it was time for me to focus full-time and the rest is the history of Look Listen, not Kit Hughes.
Oh, and I did go back to school and finish.
How did you find your business partner? (I hear you were in a band together!)
Paul and I grew up together in rural Kentucky. We were two of the weirdest art and music kids in the area so we naturally gravitated toward each other. He’s like a brother to me and our collaboration was forged over a couple of decades of making music, art, and design together. We are very different people, but have a cosmic connection that helped us to be successful business partners.
How did you become interested in brand strategy? What’s one surprising lesson you’ve learned so far when it comes to brand-driven experiences?
When I was a young designer, I naturally fell in love with beautiful graphic design and typography. However, when I started to learn more of the business value of brand I was exposed to a completely new inspiration. I learned that work that was originally driven by a thoughtful brand strategy is more likely to deliver aesthetic and business results. The surprising lesson I learned is that something could be beautiful and ineffective or ugly and effective. I swore an oath to create in a way that delivers strong aesthetic value and solid enterprise value.
You bought out your partner recently. How did you handle that often-messy transaction and what triggered the transition?
It was an amazing experience because we respected each other enough to have what is typically a tough conversation. We were warned about how messy it could be but we went through the experience with a lot of thought and love for what was right for us as individuals and the company. It was triggered by my desire to continue to build the company into a much bigger organization and open offices. Paul preferred a smaller company. The real story is that we figured out a way to do this and still be collaborators. We are still very close and he continues to work on projects for Look Listen.
Any advice for entrepreneurs trying to brand themselves as they scale their business?
That’s a good question. I cannot understate the need to own your story in the most authentic way possible. For me, that meant talking about my personal relationship with Paul in tandem with the business relationship. It also meant talking about the pitfalls of hypergrowth at the same time as talking about breaking the Inc 500. You have to look at who you are — not who you want to be — and honor that.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that there’s a psychological component to being an entrepreneur. Can you expand on that?
I am an outspoken advocate of the mental health of entrepreneurs, especially for those that have families or those that are in committed relationships. The entrepreneur’s way is difficult. It can be rewarding and it can be devastating, but for certain it is difficult. And since most of us are not naturally enlightened, we need to make sure we are taking care of our mental states and not transferring the stress of the company to our home life. Mindfulness meditation and a regular relationship with a therapist are critical to being both a successful entrepreneur and a successful human being, in my non-clinical opinion.
What’s next for Look Listen?
We’ve spent over a year developing a piece of thought leadership called Connected Cohorts and it has over a decade’s worth of experience and research poured into it. This is going to be huge for us because we have formalized how to take the relationships between marketing and sales teams and deliver a new level of results. It’s based on neuroscience, behavioral psychology, and the human potential for creativity. More in 2018!