Executive Leadership: Tom Hirons

CEO Tom Hirons sat down with us to discuss his unique experience in the advertising world after 39 years in the business. A creative at heart, Tom recounts the path he took from starting the company to where he is today and the challenges he has overcome to achieve success in a fast-paced industry.

Where did you go to school, and what first drew you into the world of advertising and marketing?

I went to Indiana University in Bloomington. I long had interest in advertising and actually paid for part of my college as a freelance designer, concert promoter and political campaign manager. Luckily an extraordinary mentor, Phillip Ward Burton, convinced me I should get better clients than rock stars and politicians. He opened my eyes to the opportunities in communications and what I could learn.

What is something that makes your day-to-day work life unique from others at Hirons?

Ideally, my day is not unique from others. I strive to do the same jobs everyone else is doing. I want staff to perform at the highest level and think strategically, which is why we do our best to work together and keep it uniform. I do, however, have responsibility for more unique tasks such as serving as the senior branding consultant in the agency, gathering talent and assembling high-performing teams. I also have the ultimate responsibility for accountability to our clients for our quality of work.

In the beginning of your career, whom did you look to as a mentor? How has that changed as your career has grown?

In college, Phil Burton was my most important mentor. He helped me realize my potential in communications. Another influencer was my entrepreneurial mentor, Steve Huse, founder of Noble Roman’s and current proprietor of St. Elmo’s. Jerry Neely and Lee Marchant were also extraordinary mentors, grooming me to be chairman of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce at a really young age. As my background was not in business, they taught me how to use boards of directors and gave me in-depth training on budgeting and financial analysis.

The biggest challenge to starting as CEO is you don’t have co-workers or a boss who is constantly thinking about your professional growth and development. It is essential to find a way to identify the experiences you need, correct the shortcomings you have, and build a set of professional experiences to help you grow in your profession.

As my career has grown, it became clear I needed a challenge, motivating me to open an office in China. This allowed me to work with three Fortune 500 companies as well as work in another culture, opening up a mid-career professional growth opportunity that I could not have found anywhere else. I continue to do that with clients and peers. Today, I look to our COO, Jim Parham, and David Geis, state director of the Indiana Bankers Association, for guidance.

What would you describe as your “time capsule” accomplishment? If you could only take one project or victory with you from your career, what would it be and why?

My most meaningful accomplishment is building a successful agency and operating offices in Beijing. I am very proud to say that we were the first international company to register a woman as our CEO. It was incredible to see her break that barrier and create opportunities that would lead to an extraordinary career.

How has the industry changed over the course of your career, and how have you adapted?

The most visible change is technology. Our initial technology purchase was an IBM Selectric II, a typewriter with a small memory card. Before technology we would buy marker pens by the case to do hand-drawn design renderings and camera-ready art. Technology has driven change. Early on it changed how we did our work, and now it is changing the work and services we provide. Not being a digital native, I have had a learning curve, but surrounding myself with talented digital workers has helped me learn tremendously.

Of all of the agencies in the industry, what makes Hirons different?

Our brand. In reality, there are a number of great firms and talented people in communications. We are different by our integration and digital leadership, and by being research-based, results-focused and employee-owned. Philip Kotler, among the senior faculty at the Northwestern School of Management, is quoted saying, “If you are not a brand, you are a commodity.” This rings true, which is why we have built our brand on a set of values that distinguishes us from other shops. Our values are to outthink, outwork and outperform with a core essence of being bold. Our reputation has continued to be our greatest strength for 39 years.

Cracker Barrel’s Hard Lesson

By Emily Hayden, Account Manager

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is learning a hard lesson in social media best practices this week.

A month ago, an Indiana man named Brad left a simple post on the wall of the corporate Facebook page, “Why did you fire my wife?” There was nothing else. Initially, just a few responses to the original post added more details, including that Brad’s wife (now identified as Nanette) had been let go on his birthday after 11 years of service.

Once these details came out, the story went viral, and internet trolls have now taken over the corporate page. The campaign has spread across Twitter and Instagram, with the rallying cry of #JusticeForBradsWife.  Within 24 hours, there have been thousands of posts and comments, and national media are beginning to take notice.

The only action taken so far by Cracker Barrel has been to turn off the ability to comment directly on the wall of its page. Scroll through the comments section of anything that has been posted recently, and you can see how that doesn’t really slow down the wildfire once it has started.

While Cracker Barrel is attempting to figure out a response, we thought this was a good opportunity to point out the value of strong corporate social media management.

First, don’t take the decision to approach social media lightly. If you aren’t prepared to commit the resources needed to properly maintain and monitor your presence, it creates the potential for these PR nightmares. If you don’t have someone highly skilled on your team, hire professionals who can establish pages, create content, monitor and respond for you.

Next, a few safeguards should be put in place on all corporate pages to prevent this situation.

  1. Set pages so that wall posts must be approved by an administrator before going public.
  2. Have a team in place to continually monitor page activity.
  3. Keep an eye on comments to things you have posted. There is no way to filter these through a pre-approval process, but someone monitoring the page can hide inflammatory posts and comments and even ban abusive users from the page.

Last, and possibly most important as far as Cracker Barrel is concerned, respond quickly and accurately to any posts or messages. A simple statement from Cracker Barrel on the original post would have gone a long way in preventing this whole situation. While Facebook and other social streams seem larger than life, real people are on the other end of all interactions, and each has the potential to stir the general public to either hate or love your brand.

Cracker Barrel, we feel your pain and wish we had been there to help prevent it. The Hirons team is ready for any questions you have about social media or crisis public relations.

Building Client Relationships One Post at a Time


By Emily Hayden, Account Manager 

As an account manager at Hirons, I spend quite a bit of time each week monitoring my clients’ social media pages. I act as the front line when it comes to observing and responding to online conversations involving the brands I represent. This takes certain levels of skill and tact in order to maintain the brand’s voice and please its customers.

When monitoring social media, I see it all – the good, the bad and the just plain weird. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of really trying to understand what the original poster wanted to say and the emotions behind it. While it might seem counter-intuitive, social media truly are about relationships. Most posters just want the company to hear what they have to say, whether it be critical or complimentary.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s really easy to see a negative comment online and give a canned response along the lines of “Thank you for your feedback, [NAME]. We will take it under advisement moving forward.” Here’s the thing, though: This doesn’t accomplish anything for anyone. As the account manager, it’s my job to get that feedback to the client in the hopes that its staff can make the necessary changes to improve that customer’s experience. Along with doing that, it’s crucial to provide the customer with a response that shows that the company really does care about fixing whatever might be broken.

On the other hand, as important as it is to respond to negative comments online, it’s equally important to acknowledge the positive ones. I try to never use the same “Thank you” response more than once. I like to authentically thank people for being loyal customers in any way I can. It just makes people feel good to be acknowledged, and it makes me feel good to reach out to people who love the brand as much as I do.

A great client recently gave me the most humbling compliment anyone could give to someone in my position. He thanked me for replying to customers on Facebook in the way that I do – adding that I respond as though I were an actual employee of the company. While that’s an amazing compliment, what he doesn’t realize is how seriously I take the responsibility of managing social media accounts.

As an account manager, I am able to see firsthand how passionately our clients care about their work, and that enthusiasm is contagious. The work we do through Facebook, Twitter and other social channels is our opportunity to help our clients share their passion with their customers and fans on a personal, real-time level. In many ways, social media are the most powerful tools we have for sharing the voice of our clients, and we waste them if we issue a canned, computer-generated response.

My advice: Be a fan of your fans. Share your passion, get more shares!


Is Your Celebrity Endorsement a Knockout?


By Jessica Peine, Communication Management Intern

After losing iconic sports legends Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe, conversations are swirling regarding the impact these individuals have had on the sports world and on society at large. While both men epitomized sportsmanship and were amazing role models in their respective sports, they also left an impact on our world of advertising, creating a dialogue around how athletes and other celebrities contribute to brand recognition.

Ali appeared in advertisements ranging from fish sticks, to d-CON Roach Spray, to an immunization PSA for the New York City Department of Health. Howe tended to keep a lower profile, doing occasional brand appearances and speaking engagements.

Companies, both big and small, often go back and forth about whether or not they should enlist a celebrity spokesperson; while there is no right answer, there are definitely some factors to consider when making that decision. On the positive end, celebrity spokespersons can help build awareness and even influence consumer purchases. A potential consumer might see an endorsement and think, “If Product X is good enough for him or her, then it’s good enough for me.” Celebrities, particularly ones that are rather recognizable, can offer the eye-catching edge you might need to get consumers to listen. A spokesperson could also help breathe new life into your brand, particularly if you are trying to reach a new demographic audience.

On the other end, though, there are some things to be wary of when choosing to use a celebrity spokesperson. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that their reputation will become entangled with yours. I don’t need to go into specific examples, but we’ve all seen what happens when a celebrity goes off the rails and how that impacts a particular brand. Consumers are also pretty smart when it comes to endorsements; they aren’t going to believe that “Famously Beautiful & Filthy Rich Socialite X” uses6789333 “$5 Drug-Store Makeup Brand Y.” Your spokesperson has to be believable and genuine when they are representing your brand or product.

In order to achieve that genuineness, you might consider enlisting local politicians and change-makers who are viewed as down-to-earth and approachable. These individuals can help position you within your local markets and create opportunities for word-of-mouth advertising.

Celebrity endorsements can be a pretty big toss-up, and they certainly aren’t going to come cheap. National consumer product brands might find some success if they can create a genuine conversation (I really can’t emphasize that enough), but local brands might do better to put their time, energy and resources into other advertising outlets. Ultimately the choice is up to the company whether or not they want a celebrity to represent their brand and hopefully they have a Muhammed Ali rather than a Jared Fogle.


Connect to your Customer

By Ethan Thomas, Communications Management Intern 

IKEA marketers hit the nail on the head with their most recent fundraising efforts. They turned children’s drawings into well-made soft animal toys. They combined several key marketing techniques into a very impactful worldwide campaign. They involved consumers, raised money for a good cause and showed the integration of the entire process.

IKEA only has a small market for selling plush animal toys. It makes sense. Drag your kids through the maze of home furnishings, then reward them with a cute and lovable toy! But this goes beyond that. The company has successfully involved a consumer that many would ignore in the furniture industry: children. IKEA uses children’s drawings as the inspiration for new plush toys and recognizes those kids for their drawing efforts. Fantastic. I may be generalizing, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s every child under 12’s dream to have a toy he or she personally made.

What really stands out, though, is how IKEA is using these toys to raise money for schools in need. Every year, the IKEA Foundation donates €1 for every soft toy sold in participating IKEA stores in November and December. The donation goes to Save the Children and UNICEF and is spent on children’s educational projects. It’s refreshing to see a company take up a cause that’s outside of its business interests. It exemplifies how IKEA wants to have a global reach with its fundraising efforts.

There are many ways to reach a consumer. What’s great about this campaign is the focus on the specific product and the organizations IKEA wants to support. Look through every single video produced by the company and you will not see one mention of their other furniture products. IKEA’s focus is solely on raising money for Save the Children and UNICEF. Kudos to you, IKEA. Many organizations would try to turn it into a campaign that might as well say, “Look at us donating money. Aren’t we awesome? Come on. That’s pretty awesome of us!” Through positive engagement and strategy, the company effectively removes that notion and creates a greater connection to its audience.

Honestly, we’re all kids at heart and I believe that’s why a campaign like this will resonate with so many. Here’s a quick tip though: Relate and connect to your consumer through an integrated, positive and emotion-triggering strategy, and you’re likely to do pretty well for yourself.


How Maintaining a Close Relationship with Early-Adopters Can Launch You to Stardom

By Chloe Lyzun, Management Coordinator

In the fall of 2010, a few friends and I followed the sound of live music past the “mall,” cafeteria and bookstore. It was there that I heard the song that would define my college years and play at every major college event for the next four years. The band performing was high-energy and, despite playing for only a few dozen college students, looked to be having the time of their lives. It was obvious that this unknown, face-painted foursome had talent and would someday be playing bigger venues than a Butler University Starbucks, but in that moment it was clear that the guys in Walk the Moon were on top of the world.

Soon after, I became sorority sisters with their manager and was given a mixed CD with a few of the band’s “popular” songs. I was immediately hooked. During the summer after my freshman year of college, I was making copies of their independent record release, I Want! I Want!, for anyone who would take them. This band had stolen my heart and I was determined to be part of their success story.

Walk the Moon returned to campus a few more times, sometimes playing for tired dancers at Dance Marathon or in someone’s grandparents’ garage. Their last free show at school came in December of 2011, when the band played for the largest number of Butler students I’d ever seen jumping, dancing and singing together. “Anna Sun” had never sounded better. Because it was college, and no one had money, the boys slept in the sorority’s TV room (which was definitely not allowed) and ate brunch with us the next morning. It was clear that Walk the Moon was going to be Butler’s band (even though they’re from Cincinnati) and we were going to support them on whatever journey laid ahead.

The next few years went by in a flash and were highlighted with Walk the Moon-related moments: sixty-plus girls crowded into a stuffy TV room to watch “our” band play on Jimmy Fallon’s show, (a video I’ve now seen thousands of times); my parents calling the phone at my summer retail job to scream and tell me they heard “Tightrope” on an HP commercial; and voting for “Anna Sun” to become MTV’s Song of the Summer, which it did.

Now, not a day goes by that I don’t hear them on the radio. “Shut Up and Dance” has gone double platinum, they’ve performed on every major late night show and you can even see Ellen Degeneres and Al Roker dancing with them.

The point of this post is not to brag about my early exposure to such a phenomenal group of guys. Walk the Moon created a brand just like any client we see in agency life. They identified their target audience, solidified their brand image, used social media for strategic communications and made sure every tweet, performance or interview was “on brand.”

The methods they used to build a secure, loyal fan base are universal. Engage with your audience from the very beginning and they’ll stick with you until the end. Walk the Moon was never “too big” to remember the little guys. They still interact with Butler on social media, humbly pronounce that they owe everything to the tenacity of their fans and continue to star friends and family in their music videos.

As for the sorority sister managing them four years ago? They hired her as their touring manager when she graduated. Ah, the life.

Why Brands Were the Real Stars of ‘Jurassic World’

By Maggie Stephens, New Business Intern

‘Jurassic World’ hit the box office last weekend with record-breaking force. It grossed over $511 million worldwide, thus earning the crown of the biggest worldwide debut of all time.

If you saw the movie, then there is no doubt you noticed the heavy amount of product placement. At first, I couldn’t be distracted from the dinosaur-induced awe that the Jurassic Park franchise supplies me with. But, as the movie sped on, I was consumed with spotting products instead of focusing on the dinosaurs. And to me, the brands became the real stars of the mega-movie. Bravo, brands.

Mercedes-Benz and Samsung
Two of the biggest brands throughout the movie are Mercedes-Benz and Samsung. Nearly every vehicle on Isla Nublar is a Mercedes and the characters all use Samsung phones. And, the research and science on the island would not have been possible with Samsung, as seen in the ‘Samsung Innovation Center.’

Verizon Wireless
When funding for the genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur the Indominus Rex is lacking, the park gets a sponsorship from Verizon Wireless. Enter: Verizon Wireless Presents The Indominus Rex.

The hotel of Isla Nublar.

Brookstone, Oakley and Pandora
Tired of walking around the sprawling park all day? Go relax in one of Brookstone’s massage chairs. Or maybe you need some sunglasses so the glare from the Gyrosphere doesn’t blind you. You should stop by Oakley right after you watch the Tyrannosaurus Rex feed on a goat. Shopping is one thing Jurassic World is not lacking.

Because what theme park doesn’t have one?

Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville
This is one of my favorite product placements in the movie. Frozen drinks on a dinosaur-filled island. Relaxing!

Good for brands
The movie showed how product placement has evolved over time. Marketers see the value in product placement because the product will be shared or talked about. Traditional advertising isn’t always as effective these days, and marketers’ best answer to stay ahead is moving toward a model with a higher risk and greater award.

David Kiley of Businessweek found that up to 66% of all TV viewers mute, skip or basically just “tune out” during commercial segments. JMMR notes that average brand recall across all commercial campaigns has dropped to 30%. With these numbers showing such declining results, are product placements in movies the new face of advertising?

The numbers are certainly hopeful. Placements can increase brand awareness by up to 20%. This newfound brand awareness indicates that 31.2% of consumers who see product placements show interest in actually buying a product. I know I bought a Starbucks drink after seeing the movie, but I’m also easily tempted by caffeinated beverages.

While the in-your-face placement of brands was a bit of a distraction from the dinosaur action, it’s generating a lot of buzz for Mercedes-Benz, Samsung, etc. We may just have to get used to this new model as the progressively challenging advertising market changes.

Be Bold.

By Nik Heimach, Digital Communications Management Assistant

The night before I started my very first day at Hirons, my roommate gave me a coffee mug as a good-luck present. As I blithely accepted, I noticed it displayed the Hirons insignia, along with its tagline:

Be Bold.

Useful advice for an introvert intern freshly moved to the city.

But I’m in the advertising world now. I couldn’t possibly think of it as “advice.” I had to start thinking in terms of strategic rhetoric, market strategy and audience perception. That’s all a tagline is, right? Nothing more than a calculated foray into my vulnerable subconscious to promote brand loyalty.  Sophistry at its finest!

On this side of the coin, a tagline is just the repetitive expression of an idea, simply created to tap into a collective emotion or purpose. Yes We Can! I’m Lovin’ It! Pop Pop, Fizz Fizz, Oh What A — you get it. Be Bold is a great tagline because it positively challenges audiences to live life fuller, to not hesitate in the face of fear, danger or doubt. For a company like Hirons, it translates to creative enthusiasm, enlivened communications and resolute professionalism. Pretty good for a tagline.

But every morning I look at that mug, it starts to seem like something more. Be Bold, it tells me, before heading into a still unfamiliar workplace. Be Bold, on a weekend when I could stay in or go explore my new city and meet new people. Be Bold, as I sit at a coffee shop, laptop open to watch YouTube or maybe write a script.

Be Bold.

But wait. When did a tagline become a motto? A maxim? A dictum? A truism? An AXIOM! The more I adopt it, the more I question what I thought I knew about advertising. It’s easy to boil down advertising or public relations to simple keywords for cynical 20-somethings, but what happens when an advertisement becomes something else entirely?

Call it artistic integrity. Call it intelligent branding or strategic implementation. Call it whatever you want. It’s the meaning that matters, and, to me, it means something.

It means I have the opportunity to leap into the fray instead of tiptoe on the sidelines. I get to work for a company that challenges me not to be inhibited by the fear to succeed, the fear to matter.

Be Bold. 

But what do I know? I’m just a recent college grad, starting my life in a new city, with a new job and a new perspective. And you know what else? I’m Lovin’ It.

Standing Out: A Fine Line Between ‘Unexpected’ and a Gorilla in a Jock Strap

By Tom Aschauer, Vice President, Executive Creative Director

“Well, that was unexpected.”

In the world of branding, we strive for consistency. We preach over and over again that only through consistency can you build a strong brand. Doing something that your customers would never expect from you breaks the trust you’ve built up with them and sends them scurrying to your competition.

And yet you want your messages to stand out. You want to zig when others are zagging. The last thing you want is for your message to blend in. Right? So you look for something “unexpected.”

What Do You Stand For?

By Tom Hirons, President & CEO

“George, you have to stand for something.” These are the words President Ronald Reagan spoke to George H.W. Bush in 1992 as Bush trailed Gov. Bill Clinton in the race for the White House. Politics aside, there was a reason Reagan is remembered as a great communicator.

A sign hung on the wall of Clinton campaign manager, the “Ragin‘ Cajun”, James Carville. It read, “The economy, stupid.” This sign was a reminder of research that clearly showed that if the election hinged on the economy, Bill Clinton would be the next president. If the election hinged on almost anything else President Bush would win his second term.

President Reagan intuitively understood this. And, when President Bush asked for advice, President Reagan astutely gave the same advice we give many of our clients: “… You have to stand for something.”