The State of PR & Company Culture (with Sabina Gault Founder & CEO of Konnect Agency)
Exit Intent Episode 07 Introduction
Sabina Gault (founder & CEO of Konnect) has done a wonderful job building relationships, starting her agency from scratch, and creating an award-winning company culture (and agency). She has also been part of a handful of exits along the way (Krave, Sweetleaf, Stubbs, One1 Brands).
In this episode, Sabina and Vasa Martinez, host of Exit Intent, talk about what's next in PR, how to hone in on your brand's target audience, and what kind of employee perks she offers (a lot!) to keep remote culture at a high.
- Check out Growthbuster
- Check out Konnect
- Follow Vasa Martinez on LinkedIn
- Follow Sabina Gault on LinkedIn
- Employee surveys Sabina spoke about: Office Vibe
All right, everybody. Thank you for joining us. We got Sabina Gault from Konnect Agency here with us today. Sabina, welcome to the show.
Hey, Vasa. Thanks for having me.
Of course, of course. I'm glad to have another fellow agency owner on the podcast for the first time. You're the first.
Oh, thank you. That makes me feel very special.
Saved it just for you.
I love it.
I'm excited to chat with you about Konnect, the world of PR. Another agency owner, this one really, really makes me happy. Before we get into that, can you give our listeners a little bit of a background on you and how you got to Konnect and what started it, all that good stuff?
Yeah, sure. The interesting thing is I think a lot of people have these amazing stories as business owners and they started off and did it on their own. They did it because nobody was doing it better. They invented a product. They came up with something that's really cool, or they started a new discipline that nobody was doing. I just don't have that story. I'm born and raised in Romania. The landscape prior to 1989 was the communist country. It's just a trickier sort of landscape than you would have here in America where everybody is typically running businesses or knows enough about entrepreneurship and knows enough about running a business and having high-powered jobs or really building those relationships. In Romania, that didn't come with the territory. There was no such stories of entrepreneurship.
You get a job and that's your life. When I moved here almost 20 something years ago, it was just a very different world for me that I wasn't really trained in. I didn't have that kind of understanding of what it means to run a business, what it means to have your own business, what it means to start something from scratch. It was definitely kind of a whoa factor. I've never thought about this before. I didn't want to start a business. To this day, I didn't want to start a business. I always thought that it's the most horrible thing ever. This is the worst thing to do. That it's just really difficult, really hardcore, and it is. But I'm a really crappy employee. I got fired from my job. I was like, oh my God, what have I done? I was doing PR.
I've been doing PR all my life. At that point, I had brought a bunch of clients to the agency and the clients were like, "Well, we want to go wherever you're going." I was like, "Well, I'm going nowhere. I'm going home. I don't know about you all, I'm going to go home." I was just about to pick up my stuff and go home. They were like, "Oh, we don't care. We want to be with you." I sort of found myself with clients and business, knock on wood, but it was super, super helpful because I took it easy and I didn't jump into it right away. I took a little bit here and a little bit there. I did my accounting and I learned how to do that. Then I started learning how to run the business and the back end of it. I did that for a while and then I started growing. It definitely was a progressive approach to it versus just a jump in and have this big idea and make it happen. It was more of a, oh crap. I'm here. What do I do now?
Well, first and foremost, you mentioned that you don't have this amazing story for Konnect. I really do find that amazing. Coming from Romania and getting things going and building up a solid clientele and they want to follow you. I think I'm a big fan of that. It's somewhat similar to how GB started. I just started consulting after I got tired of being an employee. I just started consulting for a couple of brands that had a little steam and then incorporated GB. Then started building even more. Then started hiring people. I wasn't expecting it. Sure as hell it's hard, but it's something that's just so much more rewarding.
Yeah. It definitely is. It's really hard. I think that if you look at it through the lens of, I'm going to look at only the very difficult parts and only the hard parts. I think that then it makes it easy because you're always going to like the good signs are going to take care of themselves, but the bad times never take care of themselves. How do you approach that I think as an entrepreneur, I never look at the good side. I never look at the exciting stuff. I always look up, oh my God, I'm always running it like we're about to enter a recession. My staff laughs at me so hard because I'm always like, "Oh my God, a recession is coming. It's around the corner." They're like, "Sabina, everything's fine. You need to calm yourself. Nothing's happening." But because of that, then I'm never surprised by the really bad stuff because you're likely to take in more strides.
I think that it's no matter what, you and I are going to be absorbing all of the tough stuff and we try to make it as fun as possible for the staff. Speaking of that, you've won. What are you like 20 years in a row for best places to work? How do you keep that culture up after growing so fast or so thoughtfully but also pretty fast and hiring so many people? How did you do that?
We definitely do a decent amount of perks. I think we've over the years gotten smarter about how do we really give people what really matters and how do we bring those services to the table that are actually going to bring value to people's lives. Because ping pong tables and beer tastings and tequila Sundays are really fun but then the same person still goes home. If they don't have a great salary and compensation package, and if they don't have amazing time off, and if when they're off they're being pinged 17 times a day, then that really doesn't matter because you're not really absorbing yourself with that tequila Sunday or tequila Monday. I think one of the things for us as an organization has always been really delving down into what matters to people. We have an amazing max for 401(k) and that is a big deal.
Our team is investing in their future, is investing in their 401(k). We match 10%, so we match a significant amount. It's theirs, it's theirs to keep. There's no strings attached. We don't take it away if you leave. That's a big thing that our team loves. We, prior to COVID had a full-time therapist, which in an industry like ours is a really big deal because we deal with a lot of personalities all day, every day. It just really helped having somebody else to talk to and be a sound board, and our team really loved that. We think about our team because we have a large chunk of our team that are moms. We provide a lot of resources, amazing maternity leave, which we had just somebody come back from maternity leave. She was gone for almost six months. There's a lot of those perks that matter to people that are actually meaningful.
When I say mat leave, I don't mean like, oh, you can go on for however long you want. It's more like, oh no, you go and we pay a ton of the months you're off full board. Those are things that matter to our team. I think we did when we were in an office, which now we're all in our homes, but as we were in an office, we did an office massages because again, everybody is super stressed out. Everybody's just massively working and sitting at a desk and none of that is comfortable. Getting that half an hour massage, 15, 20 minute massage is really nice once a week. You're like, okay, at least I get a 20 minutes to myself. I'm in a room. The lights are out. There's massage therapists that's just massaging me for 20 minutes. Those are things that just really matter to our team. Then, yeah, we do reimbursements and we do fitness reimbursement and gym reimbursement.
We do cell phone reimbursement. Obviously, some of those are not happening right now because gyms are barely opening in California, but some of them are happening. I think it's a matter of picking what really matters to the team. When we saw that people didn't care about certain things but they cared about Summer Fridays. But they could care less if we gave them, I don't know, some extra day lunch thing. They were like, "Yeah, that's cool. But you know, we'd rather have our half Friday off." We started really implementing only the things that matter to the team. We do polls all the time. We use a tool called Officevibe. We use it. There's a random questionnaire that goes out to the team every single week that we have no control over. But then we get pure, honest, and truthful feedback all the time about everything we do and we react to them.
Officevibe, I'm going to look into that. That seems amazing. A bunch of cool perks you got there. I can see why Konnect won so many awards. Sabina, my next question for you is we all see a lot of PR focusing in certain directions since COVID hit. What do you think that the trends are like tomorrow and in the future? What do you think is the way to breakthrough often, sometimes the noise for brands?
I mean, it's hard. Let's make no mistake. It's always been hard. Now it's gotten that much harder. I think we went from old, old, old school back in the day propaganda to a more paid approach of this is brought to you by Marlboro. Then we went to a more free news, open forums, open letters to the editor. We went to brands being able to activate a lot more. There were a lot of places to activate on. There were a lot of newspapers. There were a lot of magazines. There was a lot of media out there that people were consuming on a regular basis. Then Facebook and Instagram came on and nobody consumed anything. Everybody just sits on their social networks all day and post selfies. That changed. Then we retargeted the bejesus out of people on Instagram and we retargeted everybody on Google. Then the app kind of is going away as well now. It's changing so fast.
I would say there's a lot of industries that changed and there's a lot of industries that have changed over the years. But this one, man, has changed so much. What you were able to do even two years ago just doesn't have the same value anymore. I mean, influencers are changing as we speak. It's less about doing a quick and dirty deal and taking a photo with a product. It's more about, how do you involve this person in a long-term programming? We'll see how long that's going to last. Right? Because we just don't know. As we continue to evolve in channels, clubhouse is a thing, TikTok is a big thing. YouTube continues to grow. Where are the channels that somebody can and a brand can specifically activate and really be meaningful? I was on a call the other day with a client.
I said, "Look, I think this is not about looking at what everybody else is doing. I think this is about looking at who our tribe is and how do we develop that tribe of consumers that are going to love what we do, and that are going to believe in us and they're going to be our advocates." That's where we have to go. If those consumers are on Facebook, then we got to go on Facebook. I get it that TikTok is cool, but if your consumer isn't there, then you're wasting your time and money. It's really about driving down. Where is our consumer? Where is our tribe? How do we build around that tribe? What mediums is that tribe really excited about? Is it Hulu? Is it Spotify? Is it traditional media? Is it a business community that we're trying to get to? Where are we going with this brand that is going to make the most sense?
Yeah. One thing I see often is brands who are looking at what others are doing too much. When I was younger and I played sports, whether it was baseball or basketball, one of my older brothers that taught me a lot of it always said, don't look at other people's swings. It's going to mess with yours. Don't look at somebody else's jumpshot. It's going to mess with yours. I often find in what we do, people want to do so much of what the other is doing, but what we don't do is sit and really be self-aware for our brands. Is that the right place for us to be? Is that where our customers' attention is at? If not, hold on it for now. It's nice to have really focused on where your customer's attention is at. I find that startup brands that we work with, not today, but brands in general that we could work with are having a tougher time figuring out where that should be.
Well, and it's that much harder, right? I mean, let's be honest. What we were able to do, think about Instagram four years ago, how much easier it was to get followers? How much easier it was to post content that was engaging and for people to actually engage with the content? Giveaway, people were excited, people actually wanted a giveaway. Now you do a giveaway and it's like crickets. You're giving away $200 on Amazon. People are like, [inaudible 00:14:30]. I don't want to follow another brand. Bye. I mean, it's just gotten so much harder. We're all fighting for the same five seconds of space. We're all fighting for the same two minutes of attention from a customer. The discovery phase has changed, especially with COVID. People are all discovering in the same places now. That's the big, massive change that we've seen.
Discovery of a brand used to happen in so many places. People will travel, they discover a brand. People will get on a plane, they discover a brand in the snack box. People would go to the grocery store, they discover a brand. People would walk down the street and a brand would hand them a product. All of those moments of discovery are gone. None of that exist right now. Right now, you're stuck in your home at best. You're going possibly to the grocery store, but much less. Grocery store visits are down and much faster and you can't wait to get out of there. Right? There is no other element. You're not going to music festival to discover a brand. You're not going to a cool art show to discover a brand. You're not traveling. You're not doing any of that. Or the majority of the people aren't doing many of that.
Discovery is all limited to .com really, or as we like to joke, the interwebs. CTV or connected television and connected online radio and digital. That's it. That's where you're discovering. You're not even driving somewhere as much to discover something on traditional radio or Sirius for that matter, unless you're listening to Sirius on your phone.
I'm just waiting for Zoom to have breaks in between meetings for advertisements. I mean, it might not be a bad idea.
That'd be amazing. We interrupt this programming real quick. We have a quick brand announcement. Do you want more jerky? We have a brand for you.
I'm just waiting for that. Talking more about strategy. I've been part of two brand messaging and positioning meetings with you at the old office. That's one thing. I don't want to get into the granular tactics of how amazing that is. But for me, it's like Disneyland for starting a brand. How do you go into those? How do you think about that? How do you find brands' reasons for being? There's a lot of brands that want to be a lot to everyone. What I find is that you find a very magical way to really put the focus on certain aspects of a brand. How do you go into those meetings?
The very polite answer is you do a lot of research and you try to think through what the other party is going to want and how you're going to need to position it in a way to actually drive to the results in a not politically correct way. You have to really corral everybody in your direction. I mean, we're going through this right now where particular brand is that, "We want to do this. We want to do that. We want to do all the things to all the people." I'm like, okay, but we're here now. We're not there where you want to be all the things to all the people. No, we're not yet Nike. No, we're not Lululemon yet. No, we're not Red Bull yet. I get it. We all want to be that, but we're not that right now.
We have to focus on who we are today because by really extrapolating that, that essence of who we are today, that's what people are going to fall in love with today. We can't make them fall in love with the brand that we're going to be in 10 years or in five years. I think that this is the biggest challenge. We're dealing with this expansion and fast growth in so many areas. Right. I was watching the WeWork documentary last night on Hulu and it's good. I think they've done a really good job with it, where really they're saying, technology and the areas of technology have just provided everybody with this magical wish of a unicorn. Everybody wants to be a unicorn. Everybody wants to grow a company in two years, sell it for a hundred million dollars and go off into the sunset and be the richest person ever. It's like, that doesn't happen.
The majority of the brands that we all see today has been around for 30, 40, 50, a hundred years. Yes, they're phenomenal brands. Yes, they do a great job, but we all forget, Red Bull didn't start yesterday. Red Bull started 30 plus years ago and they're 20 plus billion dollars worth of spend against the brand. It doesn't happen all night. I always give Kodiak Cakes as an example because people are like, "Oh my God, that plan just skyrocketed." I'm like, poor Joel has been literally selling out of a red wagon for 30 years. The guy didn't just start yesterday selling pancake mix and protein, he's literally been selling this for 30 years. Yeah, they're phenomenal brand now and they're being absolutely amazing, but it didn't take a minute. Back in the day, when all of these brands started, they created that the magical message that people wanted to love and fall in love with.
Then, yeah, they iterated on it five, 10 years later and they iterated on it again, 10, 15 years later when their audience grew and they became global national whatever. But we all got to remember to look at where we are today and who the brand is today and what are the first circle of people that are going to really like us. We do this messaging exercise and we really force people to think who are the people that this is a given to? Who is our immediate tribe that will take this no matter what? If you're a plant-based product, no, I am not your... Or the guy that eats meat five times a week is not your demographic, not the tribe. He's not your tribe. You're going to have to pull a lot to convince that guy to stop eating meat five days a week.
Me, I already eat plant-based every single day, at least one meal a day. I'm an easy target. You can target me with that and it's an easy thing. I'm an early adopter of technology. If you have technology, that's really cool. I'm always like, oh, this looks great. I'm also an appliance person. I really love appliances. They make me happy. I'm an easy target for that. But somebody that literally has one blender in their whole house, you're not going to try and get them to buy some new oven that cooks your meat in 20 seconds. Also, by the way, that person is plant-based. That's where we have to go to that super, super close niche, fall in love with that, and then move on to the next circle and who's that circle. Then move on to the next circle. It's all these concentrical circles and the messaging really has to start and to relay from that outwards. Everybody wants to sign to start at the last circle. Everybody's like, we want to be over there. I'm like, yeah, we all do.
Again, none of these questions are meant for you to divulge any of the secret sauce, but how do you feel about brands that may go into launches maybe a little bit too targeted? They're not quite sure who that person is. Are you against pivoting once they realize like, oh, we might've been wrong. How often does that happen in your experience?
I think it depends. I genuinely think that the majority of the brands are fairly... If they don't go massively targeted, again, there are certain categories that just people want to be super targeted with, but it's like, it's pizza. Come on. Nobody says anything bad about pizza, or it's candy. Nobody hates candy. Yes, people may not eat it every day, but nobody says, oh my God, I'm so upset with candy, no. Let's be honest, it's something that brings people joy. Everybody loves a good candy here and there. Even if you don't eat sugar, you're still going to like some candy at some points in time. There are certain categories that you really can be super loose about because you don't need to know whether your target is a mom of three children, annual household income of 125 plus. She lives in major metropolitan cities. Or if it's school-age kids that happen to love because you're putting some Disney character on your packaging.
At the end of the day, it's a loose enough category. Now when you're trying something super niche and super targeted, trying to get super deep with it, that's where it's a little tricky. Like you're doing CBD supplements for pets. I mean, that is three degrees of weird, and not in a bad way, but in a, hey, we need to not only explain to people why CBD for pets works first. Then we need to explain that it's safe, so we need a third party validator for that. Then three, you need to actually convince people that they need to give the supplement all of these times of the day to this person. You have to pull so hard with that message to hit all of these three. Then yeah, you really got to go down and be like, okay, well maybe chances are that the parents, the pet parent is already using CBD themselves.
Chances are that that is niche, but then the explanation process is that much less. You're not pulling this audience in three different circles that they're not comfortable with. Maybe that pet parent is already thinking about CBD for pets. Then it's like, okay, I already take CBD. I'm kind of not opposed to giving my pet CBD. If you just show me a doctor that's legit enough that talks enough about it, chances are I'm going to believe you and I'm going to buy it. I already give my pet supplements. That's one. I had a client who said that to me, and it was the coolest thing ever and I stole it from him. I told him I'm stealing it from him. He said, you can only be one degree of weird. You can't be three degrees of weird. You got to create a product, and you got to target that audience with that product. An audience that only goes one degree of weird.
You can't have like, oh, we're going to infuse that with 17 routes that you've never heard about. Then we're also going to be using some new technology that you've never heard about. Then we're going to put it in a form that's totally weird and it requires you to open it and then shake it and then put it in a glass and then drink it with three straws. I mean, by the time you're trying to get an audience to vet in on that, it's just a long road.
A lot of ways to lose there when you get more than one degree, what is it? One degree of weird?
One degree of weird. One degree of weird.
It reminds me of the four degrees of separation of Kevin Bacon or whatever that was.
Kevin Bacon, yeah.
All right, cool. I've got one more for you before we go into rapid fire. Rapid fire questions will be very mellow for you though. This podcast is called Exit Intent. I want to ask, you've been doing this for a while. What are some of your favorite exits that you've been a part of with brands that you've represented and how great was that feeling when you started working with them and then you see it happen?
I mean, I think they're all very, very different. I think one of the most popular and really a darling is KRAVE. I always say John is one of the best marketers I've ever met in my life. He's phenomenal marketing brain, obviously economical, financial as well, but just a really, really amazing marketer that can really take a brand to the next level and then think through all the things that will make sense and that will take that brand and skyrocket it. I've now had the pleasure and the joy of working alongside of him for over a decade in various other brands. KRAVE, amongst many others, and we continue to work with KRAVE, but that's one where they did probably one of the notable first exits in the industry and the kind of better-for-you food and beverage industry.
My first exit ever was actually with Sweet Leaf Tea. Both Clayton and David are still very, very dear friends. We continue to work together on many things, but that was the first thing. It was not a massive exit. It was a great exit. It was a great exit to Nestle Waters. That brand was just had so much excitement from fans, and then they had such a huge audience that people just love Sweet Leaf. There was like a whole very, very connected audience. One that took a decently long time was Stubb's Bar-B-Q. We exited to McCormick's on that. That was one that took a long time and a lot of iterations. It wasn't the sort of easy, quick and dirty way that people expect.
It is just a very cool, very old school Americana brand. Christoph Stubblefield founded it and it's been around for 40 plus years. The Stubb's venue in Austin, one of the most well-known Austin venues for music. It's a live music outdoor space. On Sunday, brunch, we had a line around the corner with people waiting from brunch and just really, really cool, great ribs, great briskets. Really translating back and translating kind of the sauce business, that was really exciting. That took a long time. I mean, I personally was on that brand for many, many years. Scott who's the CEO and who helped kind of take the brand from Stubb into the next level was and is one of my best friends. He's an amazing human. That was a phenomenal kind of exit in the end.
Recently we did one brand. We exited to Hershey, and that's another huge success because we basically changed everything. We changed the way the brand looked and felt and talked and marketed. The team there was amazing. The CMO there was one of my favorite people. I've had lots of work with Peter Burns there who's a phenomenal human and an awesome CEO and a great leader. So really seeing those people in action was just the most exciting thing. Seeing how you take a brand to that level and you really turn it around and move it from a very manly, very dude focus brand to like a very female, very athletic, very Lululemony kind of brand, and others. But those are the ones that just come to mind.
I definitely could feel the Konnect effect when you took over. I didn't know you then, but I was at Quest when one started switching it up. I saw them kind of maybe a little more popular, more popular, more popular. Definitely felt that's likely when you probably took him on.
I mean, it's probably five years or so, four and a half, five years.
Yeah. That's right around the time. Right when I was leaving. Well, very cool. Let's jump into rapid fire. I'm going to do a different format on these. I'm going to name a category and you're going to respond with your top three brands in that category. Then full disclosure for any clients that are maybe listening to this, if your brand doesn't get listed, it's all good. It's all good.
Something you have to think fast, you're like, oh.
It's like the Oscars when somebody forgets to name somebody as a thank you. First category is beverage.
That's a good one. Well, Zola, just because they're amazing right now and killing it. I think Body Armor has done a really great job. Probably I would say La Colombe, just because it's one of my favorite coffees.
You know, I was just doing some research on Body Armor because I love that story and I miss Kobe. They have a trademark on super drink. I think that's one of the coolest things I didn't even know that they had. I feel like super drink is just a sick, sick thing to have.
That is very cool.
Next one is plant-based.
I think it depends where. I would say obviously Beyond Meat comes to mind at the same place with what sort of an impossible, right. For that kind of burger category, Alpha is doing a great job with their nuggets and their chicken nuggets. I would say a good kind of old school but still very relevant, Gardein. They still do that orange chicken, it's my little guilty pleasure and it's really good. But then if you're looking at like milks, for example, I mean, what Califia has been able to do is just phenomenal. Oatly. I mean, I live on Oatly. I probably buy like seven cartons of Oatly and eight cartons of Barista every single week. They've done an amazing job.
Newcomer on the market is a brand out of Sweden called Sproud. They're super exciting, kind of have a totally different packaging, different approach to kind of the milk. It's a pea protein. There's lots there. I think it depends on where you're looking. If you're looking at that alternative of, like RightRice has done a great job. Our good old friend, Keith, I think he's done such a great job with really taking plant to the next level. Banza has done it in pasta, he's done it in rice. I think it depends on where you're looking at.
That risotto is ridiculous.
I had it two nights ago with chicken and I texted him a photo. I was like, I ate the whole bag basically with chicken on top.
It is so freaking good and so easy to cook. I know we're a little biased, but it is. I could not believe it.
Yeah, it's amazing.
I'm glad it made the list. Next one is, I said beverage at first broadly, but I want to go into a little bit more, I would say busy of categories, sparkling water.
That's a tough one. That's a really tough one. Who has affiliations? I mean, I'm a Perrier Pellegrino kind of person. I do like the sparkling smartwater. I don't think there's really any difference. I mean, they all have good amount of bubbles. That's how I test my waters. There's a brand out of Italy that sells here that I'm blanking on the name right now. They do a really good job with their bubbles. They have a good amount of bubbles inside, but I mean, that's a hard one because affinity is so... When we worked with Nestle, we couldn't get any sparkling water or any bottled water unless it was a Nestle property. If we went to dinner, we couldn't order anything, which makes sense obviously. I lived on Acqua Panna for like a million years just because every time we'd go to dinner I order Acqua Panna. Then I got into the habit of ordering Acqua Panna and not sparkling obviously, but still. Then I was Perrier Pellegrino.
Got it. I did not know that with some contracts, it can prohibit what you drink at a dinner table.
I mean, you can't expense it then.
You can drink whatever you want but you can't expense a non-brand on brand.
Got it. One of my faves. If you haven't tried it, I'm a big flavored water guy. Sanzo I think does a great job at bringing these traditional Asian flavors to life. They have a calamansi, got a lychee, and they've got a mango one. Super refreshing. I think he did a great job over there. That's one you should check out if you have it.
I got to check it out.
Super good. Cool. The last one I would say is, I don't think I have a last one. I think we did a decent job at running through those. Great answers. I'm stumped on that. I had fun with that. I'm still kind of thinking about that Nestle thing, but I'll get over it. That's good.
That's it for our rapid fire. I just had such a pleasure chatting with you, Sabina. Thank you for coming on. Thanks for sharing.
Always a pleasure. Thank you for having me on. It's just really good to have friendships and close relationships with people that do the same thing. It's awesome. Thank you for being an awesome human and a friend.
You got it. Where can everyone find you, Sabina?
The easiest is our info email, it comes to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram, Sabina Gault. LinkedIn, Sabina Gault. I'm probably better at reading DMs on Instagram than I am on my LinkedIn. I need to change that. But then the info comes to me and my EVP, Amanda.
Awesomeness. Info@konnectagency with a K. For any of the listeners that want to reach out.
Have some fun chat with Sabina. Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you, Sabina. I had a blast. Really appreciate it. We'll chat soon.
Sounds good. Thanks, Vasa.