LKF Marketing and Heather Isch: Clients, Culture and Kalamazoo

Taking over one of Kalamazoo’s oldest locally owned and run advertising agencies is no small feat. But that’s exactly what Heather Isch did back in December of 2015.

Heather spoke to InterCom at our April lunch about her agency’s transition, their niche business, pathways for success and the future of advertising. Heather, the new president and owner of LKF Marketing, held a cozy roundtable discussion about traditional and digital advertising sans any digital support. Communication was served up old school with good old fashioned conversation.

The agency started as Lawton, King and Fricke in 1989 with three partners: Brian Lawton, Charlie King and Carol Fricke. Nine years later, Carol Fricke took sole ownership and christened the company LKF Marketing, Inc. Heather Isch joined in 1998, served as Vice President for nine years and purchased the company in 2015. With new ownership came a new address. After spending more than 26 years at the Rose Street Market, the LKF crew made the move to the Main Street East building off of East Michigan in downtown Kalamazoo.

As with all businesses, we have to adapt to and apply new technology. When Heather first joined LKF she asked what they were doing with the internet. Their answer was, Nothing. Do you know anything about it? This was the launch pad for the digital-based success LKF enjoys today. Through trial and error, they found their niche. They continue to be a full service ad agency but combine creative, strategy and technology under one roof.

One of the keys to their success is sticking with B-to-B clients, but not limiting themselves to one industry. Their philosophy is good marketing and good strategy work, no matter what industry you’re in. They tend to shine in businesses that are technology-heavy, have challenging sales channels and have complex marketing issues. This includes clients in the fields of finance, economic development, environmental consulting, health care, government and non-profits.

Key Discussion Takeaways #1: Good Programmers are tough to find and keep in Kalamazoo.

One of LKF’s main services is building websites and driving traffic to them. With good strategy and design comes programming. Yet with a local programmer unemployment rate of 2%, good programmers are tough to find in our region. I have a job listing for a PHO programmer on our website, stated Isch. We never take it down.

One of their latest digital challenges has been cyber security. They’ve gone from solving fun marketing challenges to all of this crazy cyber stuff. Clients want their sites to bring them customers, not thieves. Luckily, they just hired a programmer who will oversee PCI Compliance and allow the rest of their team to do what they love to do¦ which is marketing, not IT.

Key Discussion Takeaway #2: Culture is king. Work hard, play hard.

With a tip of the hat to former owner Carol Fricke, Heather detailed how one key to attracting and retaining good team members is building an exciting work culture. Work hard, play hard isn’t just a motto, it’s a way of life. They’ve always had an agency that did whatever it took to get the desired results for their clients, but they had fun doing it.

It’s not unusual to come to their office and see dogs running around (It happens every other Friday). They also stop working at 4:30 on Friday, get everyone together, have a cocktail and decompress before they part for the weekend.

On a serious note, about four years ago they started implementing E.O.S. or Entrepreneurial Operating System. Founded by author Gino Wickman, the E.O.S. model provides a visual illustration of the six key components of any business that must be managed and strengthened to be a great business. This model applies to big and small businesses alike, in any industry.

E.O.S. gave us access to a lot of tools to run our business and help solidify our culture, Heather explained. Work Hard, Play Hard became a set of core values that helps them hire, review and, if needed, fire team members. Somebody may have all of the right skills, but they may not share the same core culture. If they don’t have those cultural values, they are not going to fit on our team very well. These standards help stop the revolving door of employees that plague some companies. Most of the LKF team has been there for more than 10 years. Longevity also runs with their clients as well. The average client tenure in the agency world is two and half years. LKF has a list of loyal clients that have been with them for 15 to 20 years.

Key Discussion Takeaway #3: Clients are good, good clients are better.

LKF’s passion statement is assisting the people in their family to thrive. Family is defined as the employees, the employees’ family and to no lesser degree, their clients as well. However, not just anyone can join the family.

A key to having a great client relationship is avoiding potential cultural differences and misunderstandings down the road. LKF can be picky about the type of clients they seek. They built a profile client list. These clients should have certain desirable characteristics in order to fit into the family. One key element is seeing LKF as a partner, not just a vendor. Another is clients looking for a long-term relationship and seeing LKF as an extension of their own marketing department. It is better to shy away from a potential bad relationship at the start t than to find disaster six months down the road.

It was clear to all who attended Heather’s talk that LKF’s third act is just beginning, and their journey is definitely headed down the right path.

By Curtis Cunningham, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Lawrence Productions.