“I Wish Someone Had Imparted Upon Me The Importance Of Brevity In Emails” With Zach Suchin, CEO of Brand Knew
“I wish someone had imparted upon me the importance of brevity in emails. I love to write and have often sent dissertations to clients and prospective partners that surely have little time for my novellas. I have learned to email succinctly, but to provide enough information to avoid long email threads.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Suchin, Co-founder and CEO of Brand Knew, an LA-based creative agency and technology studio that develops unique digital strategies for some of the most well-known brands in the world (including YouTube, E! Entertainment, Stand Up 2 Cancer and Mayor Eric Garcetti), while also creating its own proprietary technologies to effectively bring digital, brand and social ideas to market. Prior to founding Brand Knew, Zach was the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company in the United States, College Tonight — an event-based social network launched in 2007 as a conduit between local business and college students. In 2009, Zach went on to co-found Brand Knew with Jason Schutzbank to help both start-ups and veteran brands better navigate the digital landscape, where he continues to lead the creative direction of his clients, sits on the board of directors of several portfolio companies and steering committees for non-profit organizations, inspiring the curation of original, visionary strategies and content.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up an only child, which can either be considered a creative catapult or a root cause of the insatiable curiosity that serves me with undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. Growing up without siblings forces you to discover your surroundings, discover yourself and to throttle your imagination towards entertainment. Don’t get me wrong; I had plenty of cousins and friends. But I still spent a great deal of formative time creating, inventing and testing boundaries in a pre-internet world of limited TV and video game access. If ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ being an only child is the father of creativity.
I cycled through various interests in my adolescence, thinking in elementary school that being a plastic surgeon would be a creative way to help people and make lots of money. Then in high school, as I became more exposed to traditional advertising, I came to like the idea of working at an ad agency. And as I started college, I was certain that I wanted to move to NYC and creatively express myself as a staff writer for Conan O’Brien.
None of this was relevant when I became enthralled by Facebook in college, and started to spin with ideas for complementary social services. I launched a Facebook-like service catered to high school students the same day that Facebook opened its doors to high school students. I launched a precursor to mobile check-in service, Foursquare, before there were mobile operating systems like Android or iOS, which made a system predicated on text protocol, extraordinarily difficult to sustain. I developed a broader community platform for college students called The Quad, but raised money through the public markets during a major economic downturn, which relegated the idea unable to raise more money during a critical time of growth.
So I essentially failed forward with an MBA from real life experiences, all the way to the front steps of Brand Knew, a creative agency and technology studio. I co-founded Brand Knew to leverage everything I’ve learned, towards serving clients like YouTube, E! Entertainment, Stand Up 2 Cancer, President Obama, Nike, EL AL Airlines, Mayor Garcetti and Universal Pictures, with custom strategies for building brand equity and piercing through all of the digital noise.
Now I’m a perpetual student, learning each day from leaders of industry and lending our creativity to their respective missions.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are plenty of interesting stories and great / funny moments, but probably best to hone in on one of the most embarrassing moments.
Since the iPhone launched in 2007 with the automated mobile email signature “Sent from my iPhone”, I’ve been playfully advancing my devices each year by one generation, in an effort to throw off recipients of my emails. By the time Brand Knew started in 2009, the iPhone 3G read “Sent from my iPhone 4G” (a device that never existed). By 2013, my iPhone 5 read “Sent from my iPhone 6”. I always anchored that statement with a cryptic “as part of the Apple Elite Enterprise Program (AeeP #5z19*rs)”. This designation, coupled with my immersion into the Los Angeles tech scene, seemed to legitimize the notion that I would have a device that was simply impossible to have. The random sequence of digits and letters are just my birthday and initials, adorned by a random asterisk that serves no purpose. People would often email me back and demand to know how I’d gotten a hold of a next generation device. Usually, I wouldn’t respond. On occasion, someone would email me and ask how I was liking said impossible-to-get device and insist that they were thinking of picking it up this week. In these cases, I would respond that I was loving it, in hope that they would go to an Apple store and actually ask to buy it.
By 2014, I’d bored of this routine and opted for a tease of a device that had long been rumored, but that no one had. “Sent in a timely fashion from my Apple Watch as part of the Apple Elite Enterprise Program (AeeP #5z19*rs).” About 5 years into our business, we were picking up steam and working with some higher profile organizations. I had two important meetings that happened to fall on the same day; one with the CEO of a major movie studio, and one with the Vice Chairman of a major record label. I had confirmed both meetings that morning from my cell phone (an iPhone 6).
I drove to my first meeting on the studio lot and waited in the lobby for a few minutes until the studio head’s assistant invited me in to his office. We exchanged pleasantries, as he noticeably gazed towards my wrist several times. He was complimentary of our services and the technology I was pitching. And then before the meeting ended, he asked, “Where’s the watch?” I was wearing a regular watch. I looked at him confused and nervous and stumbled out the words, “Oh… it’s 11:32” He looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “Where’s the Apple Watch?” I looked at him blankly for what must have been a deafening 5 seconds of silence and just said, “It’s a lie. It’s a Breitling.” He stared back at me and after a few seconds, just said, “OK, well thanks for coming in.” I awkwardly backed out, in what inside my head must have looked like a servant exiting the Queen’s quarters.
I never considered that someone so smart in such a powerful position would genuinely think I’d have access to an Apple product before it came out. It was one of the most awkward professional moments I’d had. Until that afternoon…
I drove to my second meeting at the record label and then waited for this music industry luminary in the lobby. We’d met several times before, so he casually emailed me to say he was running late. I shot back a quick ‘no problem’ reply. His assistant finally ushered me back to his office where he was finishing a call behind is giant desk. He looked at me unusually quizzically, while I sat on his couch, repeating ‘uh huh’, ‘uh huh’, ‘I didn’t think so’ on the phone. He hangs up the phone and comes to sit next to me on the couch. “There’s no Apple Elite Program. I would know!” This was a label with very strong ties to Apple. “That was Eddy… Cue (one of the Apple executives second in line to Tim Cook). There’s no Elite Program. I can’t believe I bought that bullshit. He asked me what I was talking about when I asked where my watch was! Last time I fall for that one.” I probably turned pretty red, but this guy was just one of the loveliest human beings and we continued on with our meeting. This was one of the most uncomfortable days I’ve had since running Brand Knew.
The odds of that happening twice in one day, and zero times since, have got to be extraordinary.
Today my signature reads, “Sent from my iPhone XD.” Bad habits die hard.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When my business partner and I decided that we were going to develop a full service creative agency, we recognized how Herculean a task this would be, and how many creative, advertising, social, digital, design, development, media buying agencies there are. We would be going to market with a good sense of self, but against hundreds of organizations offering similar services. We set out to ensure that our agency services would subsidize our interest in building proprietary products… something we believed strongly would help differentiate ourselves in a competitive marketplace.
We were warned that we were taking on too much at once. But all of the services we offer are necessary in concert with one another. You can’t develop good social content without a design team. You can’t offer good digital consultancy and build websites without an engineering staff. You can’t properly amplify good creative without media buying that accounts for how social platform algorithms prioritize content. We have slowly built out tools like Social Press Kit, AmpLive and FitCause that we have effectively leveraged in establishing value for prospective clients. We’re not just developing creative campaigns — we’re developing new methods of delivering the campaigns.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I wouldn’t be so cavalier to presume I have blanket advice that would serve CEOs of varying businesses equally well — there are so many nuances to each individual business. But I do believe there are essential elements to empowering employees in a creative endeavor. Employees have to be presented with an environment that is conducive to creative pursuit, a physical and mental environment that makes them comfortable. Not too comfortable though…because complacency is dangerous. It’s a delicate balance.
But the number one thing I focus on is the composition of the team. As a creative agency, we are functionally a sum of creative people applying our talents to problem solving and opportunity seizing for clients. The diversity of thought process amongst staff is extraordinarily important. The manner in which employees are drawn to and respect one another is extraordinarily important. We have to constantly offer growth and empowerment initiatives both in office and outside of work. As we grow in year nine, we’re keenly aware of stresses to the cultural fabric and how individual needs can, if improperly cared for, fracture the sanctity of what we’ve built. We spend more money each year on refining and supporting a healthy company culture than anything else.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
The list of people towards whom I’m grateful is far too long to succinctly enumerate. My parents and my business partners certainly serve as obvious recipients of my endless gratitude. They are the pillars of influence that have enabled Brand Knew’s growth. But beyond that, there have been two people I’ve randomly met through business that have had a profound impact on Brand Knew over the years. Like all businesses that sustain, we’ve had our fair share of luck. And these two individuals are thought leaders who have made career-changing introductions for us, that have throttled our growth. Their initials are EZ and ST. One actually introduced us to the other. We named a conference room in our offices after them…“Easy Street.” With friends like them, we’ve been presented with some great opportunities.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m of the school of thought that you’ve got no business living if you don’t intend to leave the planet better than you found it. Our client roster is nearly half non-profit organizations. And there are thousands of non-profits that use a Brand Knew platform like Social Press Kit. I spend a great deal of time learning from NPO founders about different issues (cancer, homelessness, recidivism, big game hunting, ocean pollution, the foster care system, lack of access to clean water, youth education, the proliferation of harmful chemicals in everyday products, etc). It’s made me realize that every able-bodied person has a responsibility to choose a cause to be passionate about and dedicate ample time to said issue. It’s been difficult for me to focus on a single issue, so I’ve tried to leverage my resources towards helping as many causes as possible. And I sit on the boards of several of these organizations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I wish someone had told me not to take my company public at age 22. The appeal of prospectively running the first publicly traded social media company far outweighed the logic of how burdensome SEC regulatory adherence would be. We were crushed under the weight of our own ambition, after two years of auditing, accounting and legal reporting responsibilities couldn’t be supported by start-up revenue and turbulent public markets.
- I wish someone had prepared me to live in a constant state of controlled chaos. Perfectionists lose their classification at the helm of rapidly growing businesses. I’ve learned to recalibrate my expectations at the beginning of each day. Something is bound to not go according to plan, and good leadership needs to expect the unexpected, and creatively problem solve with relative swiftness.
- I wish someone had instilled in me the importance of sleep. Email communication doesn’t sleep, so if you live for an empty inbox, you won’t either. There have to be self-imposed parameters to avoid burn-out. Restorative sleep is an essential asset in good decision making, good attitude, stamina and overall health.
- I wish someone had imparted upon me the importance of brevity in emails. I love to write and have often sent dissertations to clients and prospective partners that surely have little time for my novellas. I have learned to email succinctly, but to provide enough information to avoid long email threads.
- I wish someone had reassured me that toxic clients would in time, be healthily replaced by new ones. We’ve on occasion, suffered through ungrateful, verbally abusive, and even crooked clients. The wrong partners can be a drag on the organization. Nearly 9 years into the business, I feel adequately empowered to choose the right partners, but I wish I’d been advised to politely decline certain engagements that presented red flags, before suffering certain storms. The right partners invigorate staff, drive referrals and serve as great inspiration.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
We keep ‘quote cards’ in the office, so whenever someone is looking for inspiration, they can shuffle through the deck. And the quotes don’t always come from expected sources. One of my recent favorites is, “Bad things don’t happen to you. They happen for you.” I think it may be attributed to Oprah. It simply alludes to the importance of perspective. Chris Rock also has one of my favorite quotes of the year, “Pressure makes diamonds, not hugs.” This speaks so astutely to a competitive environment.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I’d spin the question a bit and request a full day of meals with interesting people.
Breakfast with Jane Goodall.
Lunch with Neil Degrasse Tyson.
Afternoon tea with the Queen.
Dinner with Daniel Day Lewis.
After-dinner drinks with Billy Joel.
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.