THE WINNING FORMULA FOR BRANDING AT MCGARRAH JESSEE
By Dacia Rivers
Photography by Jonathan Garza
Branding is one of those business buzzwords that can be difficult to define. Mark McGarrah suggests, “Branding is giving a personality to the emotional connection a brand has with their constituencies.” All you need to do is watch the memorable “We Speak Texan” campaign for Frost Bank to understand McGarrah’s view of the often misunderstood concept of branding. Or, read an ad for Shiner, a town of 2,069 residents and a product made by Spoetzel Brewing. It’s a Texas beer that has roots in a small town—something many Texans share. Or just say “patty melt” to yourself, and here comes the image of a hot lunch from Whataburger, imprinted in your mind and your taste buds. It’s a visceral reaction that can leave your mouth watering and your eyes checking the clock to see how long ’till lunch.
All of this award winning creative work is done by McGarrah Jessee. Mark McGarrah and Bryan Jessee started their ad agency 19 years ago with a different kind of operating philosophy: Account people and creative people can get along, respect each other and do good work. And they do it while creating iconic brands.
McGarrah is specific about what makes a great brand – it’s the reputation a company has, and that reputation has to be authentic and true.
McGarrah Jessee maintains only six core clients: Frost Bank, Shiner Beers, Whataburger, Costa (sunglasses) Yeti Coolers and Lemi Shine dishwashing products.
After 10 years of providing all of the branding for Shiner and Whataburger and 18 years with Frost, it’s safe to say the partnerships have been a huge success on both ends, growing the brands’ reputations exponentially and propelling McGarrah Jessee to the forefront of its field. The firm has raked in the awards in its 19 years in business, including being named the Ad Age Southwest Agency of the Year in 2009 along with receiving accolades at the ADDY Awards and the OBIE Awards.
A Culture of Collaboration
The success isn’t something McGarrah and Jessee stumbled into blindly. The duo, who share one office in a beautifully restored mid-century building downtown that happens to be home to Austin’s first escalator, have been working together since the mid-80s, when McGarrah worked in accounts and Jessee worked in creative at the Richards Group in Dallas. Despite their backgrounds in different areas of the business, the pair worked so well together that when Jessee made the move to GSD&M in Austin, he convinced McGarrah to join him.
“We were working together collaboratively and started to wonder if you could create an agency with a culture of intense collaboration between the disciplines – that was our genesis,” McGarrah explains. “We wanted to see if we could build a company around this model.”
The pair left GSD&M without poaching any clients, to give the business model a shot, in what they referred to as a “grand experiment,” in 1996. The response was instant. On the first day of running the new business, Jessee was in the office at 7a.m., when the phone rang. It was a man from Hilton Hotels, looking for someone to write a few spots for the company. Jessee and McGarrah were shocked someone had heard about their business so soon, and when they asked the potential client where he had heard of them, they learned that they had been featured in The New York Times in a blurb about two officers from GSD&M who had struck out on their own. They landed the business and were off.
Twenty years later, McGarrah Jessee turns down potential clients on a near daily basis. Perhaps it sounds odd in an environment where a business’ growth is so highly regarded, but at this company, McGarrah and Jessee have a unique philosophy that takes “quality over quantity” to a new level.
Going Deep, Going Wide
At McGarrah Jessee, branding isn’t just about creating ads. Their “deep and wide” philosophy means that when they partner with a client, that client is getting their services in depth, from top to bottom.
How deep are we talking? Well, for instance, one of McGarrah Jessee’s planners got a job on the sly at Whataburger and spent weeks working there to understand the company’s hiring process, gaining an invaluable inside view to what the brand is all about. They’ve had employees deliver lumber for McCoys, and when they pitched Taco Cabana, Jessee ate at the restaurant every day for a month.
“We want more than a description on a piece of paper,” Jessee says. “Our people are out meeting the clients and meeting the consumers, and testing the competition.”
As for wide – when McGarrah Jessee takes on a client, they work on every aspect of the business. For instance at Whataburger, the team has worked on all of the company’s online content along with television ads, billboards, employee recruitment programs, internal conventions, employee motivation, uniforms, product development and more.
“Most agencies of this size would have 100 clients and we have six,” McGarrah says. “It’s because we go wide – it takes a lot of time and energy with a broad skill set.”
The proof that this attention to every detail is paying off is in the pudding . . . or perhaps in the hot apple pie, in the case of Whataburger. Many agencies may focus on creating ads, but in McGarrah and Jessee’s eyes, they’re missing a large part of the picture.
“The solution isn’t always making an ad…that’s a Band-Aid approach,” McGarrah says. “We’d rather be involved in the whole thing with a smaller company, than one thing for somebody big.”
Branding Done Right
Both McGarrah and Jessee cite Apple as an example of a company that’s doing branding right. It’s the company’s focus on design and customer experience that appeals to them the most.
“It’s a company that values the X factor,” McGarrah says. “It’s clear they are not doing things quickly – they are using design and they value the equity they get from design.”
What sets good branding apart is consistency, according to Jessee and McGarrah. Good branding is not just advertising to them – it is opening the door and having a conversation. And staying consistent in all facets of business, whether it’s web presence or internal communications – that’s the way to build a reputable brand.
And having that strong reputation is something that benefits companies in countless ways. For instance, McGarrah says that when someone goes on the Frost Bank Facebook page to make a complaint, the bank doesn’t even have to respond – it’s loyal customers take care of that.
“That’s the sign of a really strong brand,” McGarrah says. “When your customers are advocates for you.”
McGarrah and Jessee understand that hiring a full-service firm is out of reach for many small businesses. Their one piece of advice to business owners looking to establish their brand on a budget? Don’t neglect design on the front end. McGarrah says that many entrepreneurs are so excited about an idea they’ll rush it to market without thinking about their brand.
“They think they can fix things later when they have the money,” he says. “That’s a potentially fatal mistake.”
He warns business owners to understand the value of design and using new technology that puts design in anyone’s hands, allowing small businesses to look even more sophisticated than they really are.
A Team United
At McGarrah Jessee, the company culture is a crucial piece of the business. McGarrah says some potential employees have a hard time moving from a huge firm to one that focuses on just six clients at a time. Because of this, hiring the right people with the right attitude and frame of mind is crucial to the firm’s success.
“We created a handbook for people who work here, and we gave it to people who wanted to work here to scare them away,” Jessee says.
The handbook’s essential message is that McGarrah Jessee isn’t the place for anyone who isn’t comfortable going wide with clients. If a designer insists he can only do ads and doesn’t want to design uniforms, that’s not going to be a good match. At first, Jessee says finding like-minded people was difficult, but that’s not the case anymore.
“Now, our building is full of people who are anxious to do things we haven’t done before,” he says.
And it’s paying off. One of McGarrah Jessee’s clients is about to build a retail store, and despite a lack of work done in the field, the firm was allowed to pitch the design along with three architectural firms. The outcome? McGarrah Jessee won the bid, continuing to take branding to whole new levels of depth and width.