Evolving markets: Charleston has surge of digital media business
They come in all shapes and sizes, claiming a dizzying variety of capabilities. They date back decades, or just a year or two. And when you think there couldn’t possibly be much more than 50 marketing agencies in this relatively small town, another one seems to pop up.
Public relations, advertising, web marketing, however you want to “brand” it, digital media is a growth industry in 2013 Charleston.
While not entirely new, the prevalence of do-it-all media shops is becoming hard to miss. What’s behind the message machine?
Jon Yarian, who has spent time in and out of Charleston over the past decade and paid close attention to the local digital media business, has the answer, in three parts, of course.
“It’s huge, huge demand, very low barriers to entry, and then a very desirable, fast-growing place to work,” said Yarian, who recently left one such firm, Fuzzco, to concentrate on his own company, SeaChange Public Relations.
“The truth is businesses like this can be anywhere,” he said. “More desirable places to live become leaders in segments like this because you’re trying to attract talent. And it’s always going to be New York, Chicago, L.A., ... but it’s true that Portland, Austin, Charleston are centers for firms like this because they have the power to be anywhere.”
Bruce Murdy, who’s worked at downtown ad agency Rawle Murdy for 26 of its 38 years, contends the marketing company count is more “proportionate” than outsized for Charleston and that it’s not appreciably bigger than a decade ago.
“I don’t know if it’s as much of a trend, as much as a quickening of pace,” he said of the agency business cycle. “I’ve seen it happen through the years. I think it’s healthy.”
Among the new vanguard is Fuzzco.
“We felt like there was room for a young, scrappy operation,” Helen Rice said last week.
Founded by Rice and husband Josh Nissenboim in 2005, Fuzzco is 13 people strong.
A reflection of its growth over the years and the expectation of more to come, the company will be moving from its Spring Street office, which Yarian calls a “hipster fever dream,” to a renovated warehouse six times larger than its current digs on Cannon Street this summer.
The company lists some 30 services in six categories on its website’s “What We Do” section, ranging from “brand collateral” to analytics. Clients include prominent local restaurants, including The Ordinary, to Web 2.0 names such as eHarmony and Zynga.
“We want to continue what we’re doing, but better,” Rice said.
It’s hard to get a bead on where all the firms came from or how many have cycled in and out over the years. But it’s clear the agency model has changed markedly from the “Mad Men” days of creative, art/design and accounts all working in different sections or even different floors.
Both Murdy and Yarian pointed to the early 2000s as the point when, thanks to the availability and affordability of technology, small shops began to pop up, offering to build websites. Digital became a new profit driver in the marketing and advertising world, Yarian said.
“In real time, we’re all kind of figuring out this new model,” he said. “We’re all kind of making it up as we go. Charleston’s a fun little microcosm where it’s playing out in real time.”
Murdy has seen those changes come from a front row seat that has caused him to have to rethink and rework his business.
“It’s just like any company: You have to evolve,” he said. “If you stay the same, you’ll die.”
A primary driver of any uptick in the number of local PR shops is the low barrier to entry, several Charleston promo people pointed out. Add to that the recent recession, which forced some to create their own jobs, and the fact that Charleston seems to be an especially entrepreneurial town.
“If you and I have nothing better to do, and we’ve taught ourselves Wordpress or Ruby, we need laptops,” Yarian said, referring to a popular website platform and programming language, respectively. “Rather than be two unemployed idiots, we’ll start a business.”
Combine that with “the realization among everyone on planet Earth that if you don’t have a website, you don’t have a business.” And there are more businesses all the time in Charleston, and many of them can’t or don’t want to do their own web marketing.
A 2010 study commissioned by the Charleston Creative Parliament showed the city’s creative industries together make up a Top 5 employer in the region. Digital media constituted 12 percent of those jobs, and that figure is likely to have grown in the years since.
Lee Deas-Brown, a Charleston native who founded Mount Pleasant-based Obviouslee Marketing in 2005, said the growth of the other creative industries supports the PR firms that help them. More publications means more room for ads and stories; more new restaurants means more branding and promotion is needed.
“Those people growing leaps and bounds and hiring really fantastic people affects our world, too,” she said.
As you might expect among marketers, there’s a lot of happy talk about how well everyone’s doing and how everyone’s growing.
“I don’t think it’s as much the local competitiveness,” Deas-Brown said. “It’s more I think we’re all just looking to challenge ourselves and do work more in other markets.”
But some acknowledge the stiff competition and that not all the current firms will make it or keep growing.
“We’re good about cheering each other for out-of-town national stuff,” Yarian said, but “there’s fierce competition” for local work. Most firms then look outside the area to grow their client base. “There’s not enough business in Charleston to sustain all of these folks,” Yarian said.
“Charleston’s a small community, so there’s only so much in the community,” Murdy said. “It doesn’t mean it would limit the number of firms that would try to survive.”
Stephanie Coccaro knows how tricky it can be. Coccaro moved to West Ashley with her husband in the summer of 2011 when he got a job at local real estate software firm BoomTown. Whereas she had no problem getting her More Caffeine Studio ranked in Google searches in Northern Virginia, her site’s way down the list here in Charleston. “That is how unsaturated their market is compared to this market here,” she said.
“The reason that there’s so many companies in this area,” she continued, “is that most of these companies are ... just a guy sitting in his house selling websites.”
Then there are freelancers or one-man shops, some of which are side projects for people with full-time jobs at established firms around town.
There’s also been talk of a state-funded digital media incubator that could add to the pool. The College of Charleston was to get it last year, but it was removed from the budget, and now this year, it looks like it might be spread all throughout the state.
Some firms specialize, like in medical marketing or strictly web design. Murdy noted that his firm, which does more big-picture strategy work, is different from a shop that just builds websites.
Rawle Murdy, for example, does not do its own web development. Murdy says the firm contracts that out because it’s outside its core competency and is a commodity, like how a TV production company might not own a battery of cameras.
Still, Yarian said the trend is toward one-stop shops.
“There used to be a lot more people would stay in their lane,” he said. “The areas of competition have grown and grown and grown. Everyone wants to be turnkey.”
Deas-Brown explained the phenomenon of superficially disparate services being offered by one company.
“We saw right away is that all these services are linked,” she said. “It’s difficult to offer just one without having an understanding of all the others.”
She said Obviouslee subcontracts out its photography and videography work but does web development in-house.
“I think certain people probably started in one particular area or their core speciality but you learn more about the other specialities as you go because it’s needed.”
“You want everything to be cohesive and you want to be able to track the success.
Coccaro said, “We can do everything that’s on our website, otherwise it wouldn’t be on our website.”
But later, she said More Caffeine is starting to shy away from search marketing and refers clients who need print materials to a partner in Hilton Head. “We’d rather just build websites,” she said, adding, “If somebody is like, I need to do (search-engine optimization) as well, we’re not going to turn them away.”
Even though Fuzzco lists 30 capabilities, Nissenboim said its core work is branding, design and web development.
Yarian and Fuzzco parted ways because their clientele didn’t quite overlap as much as they had planned. They still will work together but only on a case-by-case basis.
“I think people can claim to have expertise in any number of areas; the reality is very few of them have expertise in any one of those areas. You can’t be all things to all people,” Murdy said. “I think that’s one reason why these firms won’t survive. You can’t claim to do it all.”
Which way the market will go is anyone’s guess. Will there be more of these firms popping up in the next couple of years, rushing into a high-demand market, or will there be some thinning of the herd?
“I think everyone has the opportunity to keep growing just the same way that the tech sector is here. I think the marketing agencies have the same opportunity,” said Deas-Brown, who’s eyeing an office move to the peninsula from Mount Pleasant. “There’s really no lack of business in Charleston, and ... a lot of us are going after more national and international work on top of that.”
“Our clients are growing,” she said. “We grow with them.”
Murdy thinks even among the huge range of options, consumers will be able to see through what’s quality and what’s not.
“You can do things cheaply and if someone’s looking for the lowest price, you can survive doing that for a while,” he said, but the differentiator will be sophistication and depth of resources.
“Ultimately, the firms that have survived and will survive will have to do that.”
“I would suspect that if you did the same search three or four years from now, you would see a lot of the firms listed that pop up today not there,” he said.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.