The Chicagoland Conversation with Marshall Creative

If you think you’ve seen Sandy Marshall somewhere before, you’re probably right. Besides running a small advertising agency, Marshall is heavily involved with Second City, has appeared in movies such as “The Dilemma” and on Comedy Central. I sat down with him to learn how improv comedy and marketing blend in perfect harmony at his agency, Marshall Creative.

Sandy Marshall, CEO of Marshall Creative – and the guy who might be behind that Second City production you’re about to see.

Dan Gershenson:
Sandy, you’re an actor, a director at Second City, a TV writer…then on top of it all, you decide in 2006 that you need even more to do and found Marshall Creative. Why?

Sandy Marshall: 
I was working as a freelance writer and was doing some copywriting and someone was asking if I do websites. I said, “Sure, I do websites!” I went and opened a bank account and started doing some small little jobs.

So I founded Marshall Creative sort by accident. Our biz has been almost 100% referral.

Since then, we’ve grown what was a very small freelance operation to where we’re at now, with an office that has 6 employees and a number of different contractors.

Our cardinal rule was that we didn’t get anything unless we absolutely needed it. Including business cards. We were careful to move at exactly the right pace. I didn’t set out to plunge into agency life. We had the great fortune to work with clients who were seeing a huge change in the multimedia landscape, so because of our experience in the creative world, we were able to blend talents and provide a lot of services other agencies did in about a third of the time. Being a small, flexible agency, we can divide and conquer better on certain things.

DG: What I notice that’s different about MC is that while there are many talented people in writing, design and web programming, almost all of them have a background in theatre. You direct at Second City, your Chief Technology Officer is also a sound designer for theatres, your Chief Brand Officer is also an actor and director. Did you intentionally seek to bring theatre-minded folks into the fold here?

SM: Absolutely. It was very intentional. It’s very important to me that people here have an artistic passion outside the office – not just people who want to work at an agency. I’m more interested in the kind of person who is in Chicago because they want to do comedic acting but also want experience as a Copywriter. Which tends to yield better work.

We’ve found ways to “under-complicate” projects and cut out a lot of office drama because we have a lot of other outside passions. It’s a very creative-minded group that arrives at decisions a lot quicker and collaborates more effectively as an ensemble. Creative ensembles in theater are used to building on small budgets and constructing beauty in a small amount of time. We’re able to do the same for our clients quickly and it’s much more fun.

It’s crucial that the vibe be right in an office. Putting together an ensemble like this is very similar to casting a show. Every personality has to be the right fit for what they’re doing.”

– Sandy Marshall, CEO of Marshall Creative


DG: How does improv training come in handy in the marketing world?

SM: With improvisation, every idea is a good idea. If someone has an idea, a lot of times they’re not sure why they had the idea. It’s our job to build upon that idea and turn the idea into gold. We try and build on any idea that the seed of that idea suggested. Improv is built on collaboration, listening and taking one idea and building upon it as quickly as possible.

DG: Speaking of as quickly as possible, you have a concept at Marshall Creative called “The 4-Day Website.” How does that process work exactly?

SM: It was in response to websites that we were building that were, at the time, taking forever. The thing that usually takes the longest is the “About” page. So we decided to cut down on that by having the client come into the office, book out 4 full days with the entire agency and begin building the site from ground zero on Day 1. We get a designer and copywriter in here, we talk about needs and ideas and we build mockups and wireframes based on that. The client signs off on crucial phases every step of the way.

It all happens very organically in the office. The advantage to the client is that they can be in our office as much as they want. It becomes a living, working office for them for 4 days. Which is great for clients who really want to get a site up and running very quickly. Once we launch the site within 4 days, we train them on how to use it – so they tweak, change and update it on their own.

DG: Who are some clients that you’ve worked with recently?

SM: We’re very excited to be working with Second City Communications, who hired us to manage the redesign a website of theirs that sells short videos to corporations. These videos are called Real Biz Shorts, short films designed to lead off training for sales reps around the country. In addition to their site, we’re working on earned media campaigns, paid media campaigns and more. It’s a great gig because it combines a lot of institutional knowledge of what Second City is, it’s nice for me personally since I’m a Director at Second City and it’s nice because it’s just the right amount of “business meets creative” to allow us to flex a lot of muscles. We were hired to deliver the right vibe – which is awesome. It’s a very exciting project.

DG: As you’ve had an agency for a little over 5 years, what’s your goal for the next 5 years at Marshall Creative?

SM: Our 1-year goal is to sustain and grow at the right rate. We’re continuing to see new business come through the door, which is exciting. We have the right people for the right positions. We’re in a good spot and we’re looking to add even more stability. In 5 years, our goals are a number of product-based initiatives we’d like to sell that will come to fruition in the next 18-24 months. For now, we’re having fun applying what we’ve learned for clients to our own brand, including our own website.

The “pie in the sky” is we would like to do all of the marketing for whatever becomes the biggest privatized space company in the next 5 years. So Virgin Galactic would be a dream client. Because we would all like to get paid to go into outer space to make sure the job goes well.

2 thoughts on “The Chicagoland Conversation with Marshall Creative

  1. Great interview, guys! LOVE the idea of a 4-Day Website. Very, very smart. Many companies, both large and small, often get frustrated by the lack of progress their agency makes with regard to building or making changes on a website project. To give clients a chance to move into your office while you work is a terrific idea!

    • Right on, Steve. The idea of brainstorming an idea with the client is foreign to many agencies, so having them move in for a few days is probably mind-blowing. But it’s a smart move on Sandy’s part. More like him need to bring the walls down on the “you client, us agency” relationship. You’re both trying to get to the same place so why not let them in a little more?

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