Are you looking to increase your brand’s credibility and reach? Do you want valuable customers who are loyal to your product or service? Ethical marketing is the way forward for intelligent businesses. It boosts goodwill by connecting with an audience that shares similar values and helps promote your brand’s message in a positive light. From being mindful of potential legal risks to figuring out how best to appeal to core ideals, We had a chance to interview Ash Geary, who was recently published on the frontpage of Entrepreneur, about his journey of starting an ethical marketing agency.
Tell us about yourself and Remark
I’m currently the CEO of Remark. I have over 25 years of experience creating, designing, and marketing in digital markets and traditional industries. My background is in psychology, so I like to bring a mix of behavioral psychology and strategy to our marketing methodology.
Remark is a Japan-centric agency with international clients and agency partners. We believe in moral marketing and hope to change some stigma around unethical marketing practices, hopefully leading by example. We heard a lot from our clients about how big-named agencies would make a lot of promises during the pitch about their quality and performance. But as soon as the deal was closed, they were turned over to the B-team or C-team, and the results were lackluster. At Remark, we only have an A-team. We offer the highest quality of work at competitive rates and are guided by data and accountability. We always promise to tell our customers the truth—even if it makes us look bad or lose business.
What motivated you to start Remark? How did the idea come about?
We were all working individually in Japan, and each of us had reached a level of success in our careers. At the same time, we recognized the limitations of going alone and were curious about what kind of impact we could have if we teamed up.
The name, Remark, was inspired by Seth Godin’s books Purple Cow and Linchpin. From the beginning, our top priority was creating something of value because nothing is ever wasted.
What was your mission at the beginning of starting your business?
Initially, we focused on what we refer to as mottainai business. Mottainai is a Japanese word meaning waste. So many great Japanese products and services suffered because they lacked marketing know-how, and that was wasteful to us. However, we soon realized this isn’t a problem limited to Japan, and companies worldwide could benefit from guidance and marketing support.
What do you attribute your success to? Is there a trait you have or a person who helped you along the way?
I’ve learned firsthand that no success happens without the ongoing support of the people in your life. My business partners have supported me through challenging times, both personally and professionally. Often help comes from unexpected places, like an employee who made a remark in passing, which led to an entire rewriting of our pitching and quoting process. Listening is crucial to success.
On a personal level, I’m not too fond of the idea of competitors, and Everyone can be a collaborator. You must stay open and recognize that you only hold one tiny piece of the truth. That mindset has opened the door to many fantastic opportunities, knowledge, and support.
When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many tough times, and it’s helped me be more resilient. When I go through difficult times now, I remember all the other times I survived and even thrived beyond them. I’ve also learned that the tough times now are making me stronger for the future. I’d like to find out if we ever become bulletproof.
Employees are one of the most important players to succeed in business. What do you look for in an employee?
Top of the list must be the ability to take ownership. In the early days of Remark, we looked for things like likability, compatibility, and competency. At one point, I would joke about printing a giant poster that said, “Google it!” Employees can quickly develop a dependency on the leaders—especially in a small company. Most of my day was spent running around fielding questions that could quickly be answered by a quick web search. There’s no substitute for ownership.
Going hand-in-hand with ownership is the ability to solve problems. We consult a lot in our agency, and most of the issues we encounter are unique. They require non-linear thinking across a broad spectrum of variables to solve. This is a non-transferable skill, meaning you can’t teach it, and a person either has it or they don’t.
What is unique about your business? Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest?
As mentioned above, we’re a moral marketing agency. We don’t sell products or services we don’t believe in and use ourselves. That’s better for the client, and it’s better for us. I’m not sure that’s a competitive advantage, but we hope it makes us more enjoyable to work with. Who wants to work with an agency whose hearts aren’t in the work they produce? It will definitely show in the results.
Our decentralized agency model allows us to provide the highest quality of work at competitive prices. We stay true to our guiding principles to only work with the best worldwide. We fight the stereotype of the adage, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This means that agencies that carry a large team for social media, for example, are far more likely to offer social media solutions to their clients—even if that’s not what will really help the client grow. Our agency model allows us to approach each client with a zero-based thinking approach. We identify the quickest path to growth and find the absolute best team to deliver success.
Have you ever gotten a disappointed client or customer? If so, how did you handle the situation?
It’s not possible to avoid it. Every person comes to their experience with expectations, and sometimes those expectations still need to be met. Most of these disappointments happen when there is a fundamental incompatibility between the client and the agency. You tend to overlook these mismatches when you pitch to get the work. But they more often than not appear down the road. The disappointments decreased as we became more selective in who we chose to work with.
That’s not to say that they went away completely. Sometimes we need to correct it. When we do, we apologize and try again. And again. And again. If we feel a break in the relationship, we communicate that to the client and will try to end the relationship amicably. We can recommend them to another agency that can better serve them.
Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for Remark? If so, how did you stumble upon it?
From a B2C perspective, brand revitalization yields some surprising results. People often need to remember that brand perception internally can be as important as how it’s perceived externally. We saw a massive impact when one of our clients sold an electronic device, and they felt they needed to lower prices to compete with cheaper imitation products. We pushed them in the opposite direction, improving the quality of their photos, web design, and messaging.
Within a month of launching the new look and feel, multiple high-end magazines published articles on the devices, awards were won, and sales went up. That was only the beginning. The perception of the devices changed internally. The marketing team was less likely to discount the product and eventually raise the MSRP, not lower it as initially planned. The result was almost a $2m increase in profit over the previous year for the same amount of devices sold.
Is there any resource or resources that helped you on your journey to becoming a business owner?
I read a lot of books and articles about business. At the end of the day, though, there’s no substitute for experience. The most trusted and valuable resource for me is the guidance of those who have had similar experiences. When you have a problem in real-time, it’s unlikely that you read about a solution in a book. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have a problem in the first place. Having as many trusted advisors around you as possible to talk to helps.
More often than not, the problem isn’t something wrong with the company; it’s a problem with my perspective or approach. Having those things pointed out takes a trusted relationship and receiving feedback positively.
If you’re thinking I’m saying you have to have top-tier executive advisors, I’m not. My most trusted advisors are independent small business owners and, sometimes, sole private practice operators. The advice they offer is practical and realistic.
What are the three best pieces of advice that you would give to anyone starting a business? What do they need to know from the very beginning?
First, don’t limit yourself to businesses in which you have expertise. There are tons of ways to make money running a business. Sometimes when you don’t know the industry, it can help you focus on constructing your business structure without the biases that come when you are an expert. This is a trap I fell into, and it took me 20 years to see the truth of it.
Stay humble. The minute you think you’ve done something great, you’ll be taught a painful lesson the next. Humility also helps you to avoid being overly cautious or over-ambitious.
Finally, never stop learning. It’s a bit cliché, but practically true. You can avoid a lot of pitfalls by educating yourself a little bit on the subject matter in the beginning. Make it a daily habit but don’t stress about implementing what you learn, and don’t expect immediate results. One day, you will naturally implement practices you read about years before. In particular, I always recommend people have a clear understanding of economics. It’s how business and marketing work, and understanding the fundamentals will help you avoid making mistakes.