Innovation Generation: Why brand–startup partnerships are a must for marketers

This article originally appeared in Upstream, Rockfish’s newsletter that shares our insights and points of view across technology, marketing and strategy; our take on current trends; and a look ahead to what’s on the horizon for marketers. You can sign up for the next issue at

Smart businesses thrive on the right amount of chaos – in the form of disruptive innovation. At Rockfish, we embrace innovation – and the disruption and chaos it brings. Why? Because innovation drives progress.  And growth.

That spirit of entrepreneurship runs deep in our organization. It’s how we approach every project, and why we call ourselves a digital innovation partner (not just another digital agency). We don’t want to just create work. We want to help our clients redefine industries, change models, find explosive growth and create partnerships.

I believe every marketer should be finding ways to drive innovation both from inside their own organization and by partnering with outside agencies and startups who can partner with them to push these goals forward. As an enabler of disruptive innovation, Rockfish partners with startups to deliver best-in-class thinking and the technology and mobile innovation that drives our clients’ brands forward. We innovate both externally and internally by:

  • Partnering with and mentoring innovative startups
  • Driving innovation within our organization with a startup process model

Supporting innovation

Rockfish also has deep ties to the startup world in each of our markets. Take Cincinnati, for example, where Rockfish is one of the partner agencies that guide startup companies through the development and growth process at The Brandery during its four-month program annually. The Brandery is a nationally recognized startup accelerator and the first to focus on applying the principles of brand marketing to startups. (Myself and Rockfish colleague Bryan Radtke, VP, Client Services, are both co-founders.)

Specifically, Rockfish experts provide strategic  branding mentorship and design guidance to help startups focus their brand, find their message(s) and make true connections with their target audience(s).

Collaborating to innovate

Rockfish also thrives on introducing our clients to smart startups that may help them meet a business or industry challenge.  One example of this is our participation in Brand Fusion, an innovative gathering that introduces top-level brand managers to startup founders, for collaboration and networking. In a fast and efficient round-robin format, brand managers get to meet 8 to  10 startup leaders that could help them solve digital marketing challenges. It’s both inspiring and practical for all parties involved.

Innovating from within

We talk the talk, but we also walk the walk by baking innovation into our operational model and our hiring practices. Our internal innovation starts with a workforce that thrives on it. If you can’t bring new ideas to the table, you won’t be a good fit at Rockfish.

Each new hire brings an entrepreneurial spirit to work every day. Our core value of collaboration plays out into our hiring must-haves: Smart people who are innovative, driven and versatile.

Quick-turn innovation

In early 2013, we hosted our first-ever Rockfish Hackathon. The inaugural event pitted cross-functional teams of Rockfish employees against each other with a deadline for rapid innovation – and an accompanying lack of sleep. Over two days, nearly 75 employees formed 10 teams and dove in to develop working demonstrations of groundbreaking digital ideas, based on ideas they had developed leading up to the competition.  The all-nighter took lots of coffee and tons of teamwork.  The results blew us away. Browse the projects and see for yourself.

Rockfish Labs

Our internal startup incubator, Rockfish Labs, has generated some amazing products and services that we have spun out to deliver innovation to clients. They include:

  • YouEarnedIt, an employee rewards program that encourages teamwork and peer encouragement.
  • Media Multiplyer, a platform that provides rich-media technology to optimize digital ads across channels and devices via self-contained and sharable ad units.
  • Sygnl, a social-local-mobile diagnostic tool that provides a holistic picture of your current so-lo-mo efforts

A continual learning model

Generating innovation around here also means investing in our communities, to fuel the next generation of disruptive innovators. Rockfish employees are also involved in groups including:

  • The Ark Challenge in northwest Arkansas, a mentorship-driven business accelerator program for technology startups. []
  • Hosting Meetup groups to share Android development skills
  • Volunteering for local schools to help develop mobile apps

The Rockfish point of view is that by innovating from within, we can keep our clients and partners at the cutting edge of technology, digital marketing and communications.

The next issue of Upstream from Rockfish will be released soon so sign-up to receive it in your inbox at

The Impending Era of SoLoMo

Rockfish CEO Kenny Tomlin gave the keynote for the 2012 iMedia Agency Summit. Check out his below presentation entitled “SoLoMo: Creator of The Hyper-Connected Consumer & What Brands Can Do to Keep Up”

The Value of Wearing Two Hats

Every day in business, I wear two hats (metaphorically of course).  The first hat is in the agency world as the Chief Marketing Officer at Rockfish.  The second hat is in the start-up investor world, both as the co-founder of The Brandery and as a partner at Brand Ventures.  While these two professions have more differences than similarities, I know I am better at both jobs because of the other.

On the agency side, each day is spent uncovering the marketing and business pain points of our clients.  These pain points create opportunities which start up companies can capitalize on by providing the solution.  As an investor, I often have one of the first opportunities to evaluate the start-ups that are looking to provide that solution.  Well before they hit the pages of Mashable or the New York Times, many of these start-ups are pitching investors.  In the investment world, venture firms often talk about “proprietary deal flow” where they get a first look at investment opportunities.  In much the same way, being involved directly in the start-up investment space gives Rockfish proprietary deal flow to bring digital innovation to our clients.

Being a practitioner in the world of marketing helps me be a subject matter expert when it comes to brand marketing.  In turn, I become more valuable as an investor because of the subject matter expertise I can bring to start-ups.  And ultimately, the value comes full circle as I can better help the digital innovation strategy of my clients to identify opportunities.

Wearing two hats in your professional life definitely requires double the work.  But at the same time, the return you get for both jobs clearly proves the old saying of “one plus one equals three.”

Klout’s version of March Madness

Last week I got a fun invitation from the crew over at Klout asking me to participate in Agency Insanity, their version of March Madness.  Instead of college hoops though, this bracket is a match-up of marketers from different agencies.  In Agency Insanity, marketers compete head-to-head in a bracket on who has more influence. The bracket has 6 rounds of competition and people are seeded based on their Klout Scores.

Klout gets credit for some solid B2B marketing on this one for sure.  Agencies are a key target audience for them and what better way to get their attention than to throw a little competition into the mix.  After all, which agency wouldn’t want to be able to take home the title of Klout’s Most Influential Social Media Marketer?

I’m always up for a little competition and I could use your help.  In the first round of the Agency Insanity Tournament, I’m up against Maggie Ratigan, a Media Planner at AKQA.  My team name is ROC-DK.  You can help me advance to the 2nd Round by visiting the bracket matchup and giving me +K.  Our CEO/Founder of Rockfish, Kenny Tomlin, is also in the bracket as ROC-KT.  He’s faced with a tough first round match-up, going against my fellow VCU BrandCenter Board Member, Gareth Kay.

The tournament is taking place over the next two weeks with Round 1 today, Round 2 on March 21, Sweet 16 on March 22, Elite 8 on March 23 and then Final Four on March 26.    You can log-in daily to ”Give +K’s”.  I appreciate the help!

Help Rockfish win iMedia Agency of the Year

Tonight I received the great news that Rockfish is one of ten finalist for the inaugural iMedia Agency of the Year Awards.  With iMedia being one of the leading sources of digital marketing news and insight, this is quite the honor.  But being nominated doesn’t mean that we are the winner.  That title will go to the agency that receives the most votes between now and Friday, November 18th.

I am not one to ask for a favor, but this is one of those cases where I will go out on a limb and ask for help.   If you have been impressed with the work we are doing at Rockfish, please take the time to vote for us at the iMedia Agency Awards.  I’d really appreciate your support.  And if you really like us, it would be great if you encouraged folks to vote for @Rockfish in all of your social channels as well (Twitter, Facebook, etc)

Also, our friends at Empower MediaMarketing are up for two awards (Out-of-Home and Integrated Marketing) so please lend your support to them as well.

Thank you for your help.  This will now end the commercial message.  I appreciate you listening.