CEO Chris McMurry Talks About His Company's 50% Growth and the Value of the Tempur-Pedic
Certain people just exude confidence and have an obvious, clear path for their company's direction. Chris McMurry, CEO of content marketing firm (in "old" terms: custom publisher) McMurry, is one of those people. His focus and ability to anticipate and adapt quickly to market shifts have led the company to grow "around 50 percent in five years [from $33 million in 2006 to $50 million currently], despite the recession and industry shifts," he says.
The company has 170 staff members in three offices (Phoenix, Ariz., Manhattan and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) and serves more than 400 clients, including many Fortune 500 companies, such as The Ritz-Carlton, Toyota, Verizon, Johns Hopkins Medicine and PNC bank. It was one of the first custom publishers, launching Vim & Vigor in 1984, and has evolved from a print-centric custom publisher to a multimedia firm serving marketers with custom programs in print, Web (including websites, social media and e-newletters), video and mobile.
While "print is still king," says McMurry, "video and web are growing fastest."
Here, McMurry shares his insights into the keys to growth and running a successful company, what content services best serve marketers today, and how racing cars and sleeping on a Tempur-Pedic mattress influence his life and business.
The Revenue Picture
Noelle Skodzinski: McMurry has been a pioneer in custom publishing for several decades. What have been the biggest changes during that time that you've seen in what marketers are asking for and what services you're offering?
Chris McMurry: The single, greatest change is that content has become a marketing essential with far-reaching implications (for instance, achieving stellar search rankings requires content). Whereas just five years ago, content was predominantly limited to projects that often sat in a silo in the form of a branded magazine or newsletter.
The Internet and social media (among other developments) have allowed marketers and brands to think of themselves as the media-informing and entertaining consumers-and to build content in all imaginable forms, and distribute it easily and without the necessity of the traditional media middleman.
This trend will only accelerate with the rapid adoption of Internet TV, where consumers will "search" for programming (rather than scanning a guide), the result of which is that brands will be able to access your TV screen without the middleman and will be able to outspend and win search terms that will serve up their content. I have long contended that brands would become the leading media in the world, and that time is upon us.
NS: For what percentage of clients is McMurry still producing print? Are many of those using your print services alone, or in combination with, your other services?
CM: Most of our clients use print. The difference is that during the custom publishing era of 1980 to 2005, branded magazines and newsletters served as the hub of the typical company's fairly limited content effort. Today, content and a content strategy are the hub, and the question is how to get it distributed and how to get the various forms of distribution to leverage each other for an exponential effect and result. The conversation with clients today is not about their magazine or newsletter, but it's about a highly integrated, often complex, frequently more-funded, multimedia content strategy.
NS: Where do you see print in two years? Five years?
CM: It's hard to say. On the one hand, everything is going digital, and that trend is undeniable and unstoppable. On the other hand, the mailbox is less and less cluttered and possibly an improving place to reach people.
For us, though, that topic is neither here nor there. It's all about a client's business objectives, and using content marketing in whatever form is necessary to achieve those objectives. With 29 percent of the average brand's budget being applied to content, we believe that content marketing soon will supersede advertising as the preferred way for brands to effect their audiences.
NS: In late 2009, McMurry acquired video-production company Spark Productions. To what extent, since then, has video become a part of your business? Has the investment paid off?
CM: We've doubled the size of Spark since it was acquired. Video is probably the hottest media form at the moment. Virtually every comScore release on video consumption shows increases; the latest being 16.8 hours of online video viewing per person in June. Currently video accounts for about 10 percent of our business, and we would expect that percentage to continue to grow, especially as brands come to realize their TV broadcasting potential through Internet-enabled TV.
NS: You recently revised your website to reflect the changes over the past couple of years in your business and the services you offer. I noticed that in your services 'tagline,' "Web - Publishing - Video - Mobile," that "Web" is listed first. Have custom websites become the primary service you provide clients? What percentage of your clients utilize your web content services?
CM: We do all sorts of things for clients under the banner of "Web," such as sites, search marketing, digital advertising, e-mail services, social media and more. Web represents about 20 percent of McMurry, and there almost isn't a new client that doesn't buy into some Web-related activities.
NS: Are e-newsletters significant among your clients' needs? If so, how much so? What is the primary function of the e-newsletters?
CM: One of the keys to e-newsletters is a quality customer database, and we help clients on that front as well. Another key is riveting, arresting content that stops consumers from hitting delete. E-newsletters can serve all sorts of purposes, so I wouldn't say they are used for just this or that. Sure, they have features such as being easy to produce and therefore they can be timely, but a good quarterback might have a classic throwing arm, but can still scramble when needed. E-newsletters can be good in many roles.
NS: You also offer social media services. How significant is this to your business?
CM: Definitely growing; it's part of the Web work noted above. One aspect to keeping social media followers and participants engaged is informative, arresting, sharable content. After brands have used social media to solve consumer problems, to push out coupons, offers and promotions, or to disperse news, they often find their audiences getting tired of and less responsive to these repetitive, often unimaginative tactics. And that's where content comes in. Content is unlimited topically, and if done right, can reignite a fatigued group or inspire new groups.
NS: You are now offering mobile services as well, including app development. Is this a large part of your business today? If not, do you expect it will be?
CM: Like social media, it is a growing part of our business, and like social media, brands are trying to figure out how best to use this tool and all the new tools at their disposal. There's a bit of mad-rush, "me too" thing going on where everyone feels like they need an app. In fact, just the other day we suggested to a client that it just made sense to have their site mobile-enabled, rather than building apps for Android, iPhone and Blackberry. It was a more cost-effective solution that would accomplish their objective. So, yes, apps are definitely growing and they have a place in the mix given a certain set of circumstances.
NS: What is currently your largest revenue driver?
CM: Print is still king. But, video and web are growing the fastest.
NS: Where is McMurry investing most heavily?
CM: I like to say my three most important duties are hiring great people, making sure we keep those great people happy and evolving the business around the needs of customers. That probably tells you where we are investing most heavily.
Right now we feel like we have a world-class suite of services, and honestly, we have no acquisitions in the works. We took advantage of a down market and made strategic investments then-namely in the Web and video realms-that we think will carry us for a number of years.
Through our Web group, we are launching some pure play Internet startups, and that's fun and entirely different from our core business. For instance, we launched one about 12 months ago—NameSilo.com, which is a domain registrar like GoDaddy or Network Solutions, except it is cheaper, easier and gives users domain management tools that others typically charge for. Though still a small business, it is growing very rapidly and at a rate of about 50 percent every month! We expect it to be a multimillion [dollar] producer within two years.
Also, we just launched TheOfficeProfessional.com yesterday. Another pure play Internet business. When I say "pure play" I mean that we weren't hired by a client to make the sites; they are our sites, and the business model is entirely Internet-based.
NS: For those clients who tap your company's full range of services-print magazine services, website services, video and mobile services, how do you see these various forms of media fitting together or relating?
CM: It all depends on the situation. There isn't a one-size-fits-all formula. Whatever the circumstance, the one aspect that is a universal truth is that a great content strategy has all of its tactics leveraging each other for an exponential impact. Just like two minds (working together) are better than one, two tactics (working together) are better than two tactics working separately.
NS: What are the company's biggest challenges and how are you addressing or planning to address them?
CM: The biggest challenge is always-and this will never change-finding the best and brightest talent. We've been named a top 10 Best Place to Work in the U.S. for five straight years, so we're doing a good job already in finding the best and brightest ... but, just like the New York Yankees, we can always use more superstars since people fuel success.
Even More Interesting Stuff
NS: Has your role as CEO changed in recent years? If so, how?
CM: The biggest change is that as the company grows I've focused more and more on corporate direction and strategy, and less on day-to-day operations.
NS: What is the best business decision you have made during the past year or two?
CM: Making sure I go on vacation with my family, and staying true to my belief that it's all about hiring great people and evolving the business around customer needs.
NS: Has your company restructured internally to adapt to a shifting marketplace? If yes, how?
CM: We tend to evolve the business rather than do sweeping overnight restructures (that can upset the apple cart). The evolution seems to never stop and is triggered by acquisitions, the evolution of our people, and frankly, unforeseen opportunities. As time goes on, I can feel the business moving more and more toward a classic agency operational model.
NS: What keeps you awake at night?
CM: Pretty much nothing. I work incredibly hard and sleep on a Tempur-Pedic. That's a "lights out" recipe! Not kidding, I typically fall asleep within 30 seconds. Seriously, and I'm afraid of sounding like a broken record, the key to sleeping well at night is hiring great people. Everything starts there. If a business is struggling, the first place I would look is at the hiring practices. They are likely not stringent enough.
NS: What helps you sleep?
CM: Exhaustion and a Temperpedic!
NS: Are you still racing cars? Does racing cars feel at all like being in the publishing industry right now?
CM: Yes, I do still race in the U.S. and Europe. Racing has many parallels to business. Sometimes seeing your business through another industry lens and interaction with people completely outside your circle, breeds new thoughts, ideas and ways of handling things.
Also, racing requires the most intense level of mental focus ... and that has a powerful way of cleansing one's mind of everything else, the net effect of which is a flossed mental slate every few weeks. I find that some of my best thoughts happen en route to or returning from a race track ... but never on the race track!