The construction industry is conservative. The idea that if it is not broken, don’t fix it is prevalent in construction. When someone comes along and professes change in a loud and unapologetic way, you pay attention. This someone is Mark Mitchell, and he is our featured guest on There is a Difference.
Mark jumped into our line of sight a few years ago across social media channels challenging the conventional thinking of building product manufacturers. We began following and interacting with Mark immediately. He recommended Draper DNA as a preferred agency focused on doing things differently within the construction industry. We met in person in Show Village at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas. Today, we meet again.
Tell us about Mark Mitchell.
Wow. Wow. We could be here for days, so I’ll try to do the cliff notes version. I grew up mainly in a little town, Finley, Ohio, and my father was advertising manager of Cooper Tire Rubber Company. And then he started his own agency. I always thought of him as the Don Draper of Finley, Ohio. I grew up around the cuff links, the martini, the cigarette, all that, and the tie and nice suits and things. I grew up around the business of advertising and creativity, and I just always really enjoyed having my father tell me about a problem that he had and how he solved it. And I loved the way that I saw that he used his mind, not just the client’s checkbook. That he would try to, if you will, out flank or outsmart the competition in this situation.
I really liked that. And so I was in college and I think it was after my sophomore year, my father said, “Hey, why don’t you come work for the agency for the summer?” And he had a small five person agency. And I went and went to work for him. And I loved it so much I never went back to college. I was learning so much. And it was a small enough agency where I had to be the account person, the creative director, the copywriter, the media buyer had to do everything, which is great because I had to learn all of that. I also discovered there that I really preferred business to business. We had business to business and business to consumer clients and business to consumer many times really just got down to how much money do you have for your media budget?
Where business to business, you could use your brain. And just having dollars is nice, but you didn’t have to big dollars. The solution wasn’t dependent upon it. I loved getting really to the heart of the matter. Usually a client would call, and still to this day calls, and says, “Hey Mark, we need a new website. Hey mark. We need a this.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s back up. What’s the situation? What are you trying to do? What’s the problem and so forth? We can always do a website or brochure or whatever, but maybe there’s a smarter way to solve this.” And so I found that I just loved that. I went from my father to, I went to an agency in Toledo, Ohio called Widerschein-Strandberg, which had about 40 people and just did building materials.
And so many building material companies from around the Midwest, Eljer Plumbing, Wausau Windows. We did work for Formica, Dow products, a lot of different companies, but the biggest client was Owens Corning. And that was great for my learning because they did commercial, residential, new construction and remodel repair, roofing, insulation, furnace filters, pipe insulation, all different kinds of products. It was really a great way for me to take my interest in B2B and learn building materials. It was also great because at that point, Owens Corning was really believed in marketing and they really invested heavily in marketing. And so whether it was the Pink Panther or they were on television when other building material companies weren’t everything they did, they were looking for excellence in sales and marketing. It was a great company to have as a client and learn a lot from. From there, I then left and started my own agency with three other guys with about as much sense as that old TV showed The Little Rascals, where it’s like, let’s have a play today.
The four of us said, “Let’s start an ad agency.” We had no idea what that meant. We had this skill set, but we didn’t know cash flow. We didn’t understand how to estimate things or how to get paid. Somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow we survived and made it. Probably because we found a really good accountant who sat us down and wised us up about money. And so over time, my three partners went off to other ventures and it was just me. And then I grew that business with a focus on building materials and called ourselves an advertising agency, but did very little advertising. Because I thought if advertising solution, you haven’t thought hard enough, there’s a better way to do it. And then in 2011, I sold that agency Interrupt Marketing to an ex client and a great guy, Bill Rossiter.
And he bought it and then I decided I wanted to become a consultant and of course everybody says I’m going to be a consultant, but none of us know what the heck that means or how to be a consultant. And I had to learn. Took a little while to learn that lesson. But two things, the number one reason that I did it was I was finding that half the time a new client would come and they wanted to spend money on marketing. And before we get started, I would go out and do my research and ride with salespeople, interview customers and so forth. And I would discover, marketing’s not your problem. You’ve got another issue here. Sure. Better marketing can help. But it’s kind of like, we’ve got your hand tied behind your back if you don’t fix this issue. And it could be about customer service. It could be about warranty claims.
It could be about shipping, many things. And I thought I really want to help the company grow. I don’t want to be tied to just, it has to be a new website or something. And also, I wanted the freedom to be able to speak bluntly and speak my mind and not hold back because I don’t want to upset the client because they might leave me. I liked the idea of being a consultant where there’s an end to this. I’m going to come in and do this and then I’m going to go away. And then that led me to two other real quick things. One person advised me, “Mark, you need to start a blog and you need to write 30 blog post the next 30 days.” And I said, “You met my high school English teacher, because I don’t know that’s going to happen.”
But somehow, I did it. He convinced me, “Mark, if I said ask you, how do I sell a home builder, could you tell me?” He goes, “Oh of course I can.” “Well write that.” And then another advisor said, “Mark, write a book.” I go, “Oh no, that’s never going to happen.” But after six months of writing a blog, I realized I had half a book written and I thought, what are the missing chapters? And I just took the next six months and those blog posts became the chapters in the book. I ended up publishing the book, “Building Material Channel Marketing,” which has been quite successful mainly because there’s no competition. It’s done very well. And I’m in the process of doing the next version of it because so much has changed in the last 10 years.
I now live in Boulder, Colorado. I moved here from Ohio because of the sun and it’s just a bright, sunny place. And there’s so many smart people here. I just love running at people that are smarter than I am that I can learn from. And Boulder is full of that. And so right now I’m consulting with companies. I speak at events. Twice a year I do a workshop and I love also just to share information with my newsletter and blog posts and podcasts and any way I can help people to do a better job. Now, that’s me.
What’s the origin of The Whizard with an H in it?
Well, The Whizard came from, I just have… My mind… Well, one, I think I’m ADHD. And so constantly there’s a hundred channels going on. There’s just constant, all this information coming in my mind all the time. And I have an ability to connect dots. I see connections that other people don’t see. I could be walking through an airport and notice something and say, “Wow, that is going to have an effect on this building material company.” Or read something in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or something. And I’m an avid learner. I’m constantly reading and learning things or going to conferences or any way I can soak up information, I am. People give me a problem or they describe something.
And I am usually very fast. I see very quickly the issue and the solution and what the problem is. And so people from early in my career would say, “Gee, Mark, you’re like a wizard how fast you see what the issue is.” And it wasn’t like I see this beautiful poster with this headline and this photo of a beach. It was more like, okay, the issue is your sales people are calling on the wrong people. Or the issue is they’re walking in with the wrong message. They’ve managed to create the wrong image in the customer’s mind about who you are. That’s our problem. That’s what we got to fix. And they’d be like, “Whoa.” That’s where The Whizard came from. And then when I went to start Whizard Strategy, someone had already grabbed all the wizards and URLs. And if I stuck an H in there, then it worked. I thought, okay, that’s close enough. That’s The Whizard.
Do you find building products manufacturers slow to change or innovate? And if so, why and what can we do about it?
Well, they’ve historically been extremely slow to change and one of the biggest reasons is their customers are very slow to change. If you’ve ever gone and talked to a carpenter, a builder, a contractor in New England, they’re going to talk to you about how their grandfather built things this way. They worked fine. Their father did, they did. There’s no reason to change. And so the building material company’s customers have traditionally been very set in their ways and very slow to accept new products. And in some cases, you can see, wow, they’ve been fooled before. We take a product like a shingle, roof. If you screw that up, there’s going to be a big cost.
If you sell somebody some new windows and they’re a little leaky, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not a nice thing, but it’s not the end of the world. You try a new kind of dry wall, new kind of paint, it doesn’t work. Either it doesn’t install right or it doesn’t stand up. And no matter how well something’s tested, until it’s been out in the real world, people like contractors are not going to believe it. And so that’s historically been. Then unfortunately, because of that, we have companies who they have a factory that makes a product. And so they look at capacity utilization. The worst thing I would want to do is in any way hurt the capacity utilization of this plant. If I make vinyl siding, I don’t want another kind of siding. Could, because if I look at fiber cement, or I look at another kind of compressed wood or something like that, well, that could hurt my vinyl business.
And that would make my plant not run seven days a week, three shifts a day. And so they’re stuck in that mindset and they’re allowed to, I guess. You look at so many other industries. We look at high tech. You could have the world’s greatest cell phone, but if you don’t have the next greatest cell phone, that’s going to come out in 12 months, you’re going to be gone. Other companies, they don’t care about the factory. They don’t care about the utilization of the factory. I’ll get it made somewhere. Where we are still tied to, we have a factory, this asset that can make things, so we have to use it. Where other companies go, I’m a brand. I’m innovative.
I don’t have to make anything. Does Apple make anything? I think we’re seeing new products being accepted faster. I can remember when DuPont first introduced Tyvex and builders looked and went, “What? Are you kidding me? Why am I going to wrap a house in paper? What?” But they stuck with it. And they convinced builders. They changed building codes. They educated people about what they were trying to do, what the product would do. And it probably took them 20 years, but they stuck with it. And it wasn’t just advertising. They covered all the bases. And then along comes the company from Australia called James Hardy. I got this crazy product called fiber cement siding.
Are you kidding me? Who would put fiber cement siding on the side of their house? It’s heavy. You can’t leave it out in the rain. And if you cut, it’s got this silica dust. Oh, it’s a horrible product. The vinyl siding industry just laughed at it. Well, I’m going to say, I don’t know the exact thing, but it took them, I’m going to say, seven years or something to gain widespread acceptance where they have a huge chunk of the market and they’re still going. Then along comes Huber with Zip. And as we all do I think, when I’m traveling, I’m always looking at construction sites or are there houses being built here? Are there buildings being built? And used to seeing Owens Corning pink or Dow blue foam or yellow DensGlass, those colors. And all of a sudden, overnight, I just saw green.
I just saw green, at least residentially to start with. What’d that take? Maybe two years. If you have a product that offers a true benefit and you can clearly communicate it, I think that customers are changing or they’re much more rapidly accepting change. The other big reason that’s driving it is because of offsite construction, penalized or modular, that it was just accepted that buildings cost 30% more than they have to, or take 30% longer to build than they need to. And that’s being proven wrong. Now the money people are saying, “Wait a minute, okay, you want to build this new hotel. I’ll lend you the money, but how are you going to build it? Oh, you’re going to build it the old fashioned way on the job site.”
“Gee, here’s this other guy, when he’s going to build it modularly, and he’s going to have his hotel done a year ahead of time before you, and he’s going to be making money. He’s going to stop paying low interest on his construction loan sooner, and he’s going to have money coming in.” And so that is that’s going to be driving change where even the people that have traditionally been resistant, like contractors, are going to have no choice. It’s just going to be, this is how we’re building this building. Would you like to be the labor? I think it’s speeding up and a lot of our industry’s not prepared for this pace of change, but a lot of senior management has been around a long time and is not used to this pace of change that we’re seeing.
What makes you different from other consultants?
Well, what I find is that I’m not wedded to a solution and the other is that… Many consultants, they’re very good at a specialty. And so it could be sales development, it could be digital marketing or something like that. Well, that then presupposes that is the solution. The client has made the choice about the solution and based on just their own biases, history, what they believe, and they might be right, but many times I find that it’s not that improving anything isn’t good. It’s that, are you improving the thing that with the least effort will get you the most return? And the other thing is that while I’m brought in for a very specific assignment, I can’t help myself, but I just see other areas that the company should improve.
It’s not part of my assignment, but I point them out. Not with a thing about, well, that’ll turn another project for me. Most of the time it’s about, okay, we have this product and this is the people we sell it to, and we want to grow our sales. And then I’m sitting there looking at, okay, this really isn’t going to have a big effect on improving your sales, but let’s look at your social media presence. Not part of my assignment, whatever, but, oh my gosh. None of your people are on LinkedIn. Your VP of sales has 30 connections, not 3000, but 30. Really? It is like an offshoot. I can’t help myself. If I see some other thing that they should be doing or not doing, I point it out to them as part of my process where I think a lot of other consultants, and it is just a different process, they’re very focused. Hugh, this is my assignment. I’m putting on these blinders. I’m only going to do this. And they do a great job of that.
I just see, there are things that you hadn’t even thought to ask about, because you didn’t know they were wrong, and I like to be identifying those. As well as the other thing I like to do is I want to find out what’s the hidden asset that every company has assets and liabilities. And so you could have an asset such as we answer the phone. That your customers really appreciate, but you go, well, doesn’t everybody? No, apparently not. You need to make a bigger deal. You’re doing something you’re getting no credit for. Identify things like that. Because I’m also a big fan of in today’s world with the internet, there are so many things that you can do, I’ll say, for free. And not totally for free, but if you write a blog post about your product or a problem of your customer or something like that or you pay somebody to write it for you, and you put it on your blog and Google likes it, you don’t write a check to Google to show up in organic search
It just sits there until somebody writes a better thing or nobody has that question anymore. It just sits there. And then putting stuff on social media doesn’t cost you any money. Yeah, it takes a little bit of your time. You could do that, but it’s not, oh my gosh, we’re going to the builders show. And we have a 20 by 20 booth. And so we have the cost of the booth space, the cost of the booth, taking all the field out of the field, flying them in, all the T&E and all that stuff that’s going to go with it. Whoa. Yeah. We’re very comfortable writing checks for all that stuff, but there are all these things that you can do today that literally, I view, that relatively don’t cost any money. And so I’m always looking at, are you doing everything you can in this area? And then we can layer on top of it spending.
Well, also the other thing I find, Shawn, is that the larger the company is the more risk averse they are. They’re playing defense. They look and say I have more to lose than to gain. And so I work best with companies that have more to gain than lose and really want to make a difference. And the bigger the company, the more you run into we’re not going to do that.
What would you identify as your source for this consulting knowledge?
Wow. Everywhere. I had a young man two weeks ago. Never met this person before. On LinkedIn, he’s not on my newsletter subscription list. We’re not connected on LinkedIn. Just on LinkedIn, I get a message from this young man from Indiana who was in Denver at some sort of concrete show at a distributor or something. And he just reached out and said, “Mark, I’ve read your book. Your writing’s been very helpful to me. I just thought just on the chance, would you have time for coffee or a meal or something?” And so he came over, he drove 45 minutes to Boulder from Denver, and we went to dinner together. And like everybody I talk to, I learned as much from them as I hope they’re learning from me.
I had an independent rep yesterday morning call me. He can’t afford to hire me. He just out of the blue said, “Mark, do you have a few minutes? I got a couple of questions.” Sure. And we got on the phone and I helped him out. But at the same time, I was like, “Okay, wow.” I’m constantly learning. And I would say that I learn one, by just being observant of what’s going on in the world. This idea of the inflation and recession doesn’t really concern me because I look back at COVID and COVID affected a group of either less fortunate, lower income people, or maybe younger people, just out of college working at Starbucks or something. That’s who it really affected.
If you had a job, you actually were doing pretty good and did better. And so you had money that you couldn’t spend on travel and vacation, so you spend it on a new deck or a new kitchen or whatever, or a new house. Well, that same group of people that are doing quite well are still there. They’re not slowing down. And they don’t really care that gas is $5. They can bitch because the newspaper tells them, but they don’t even notice. They fill up the gas and they drive away. They don’t look and go, “Oh my God, Martha.” I’m watching what’s going on in the world. And then also every chance I get to talk to somebody in the industry, whether it’s an architect, a builder, a person that’s a president of a company, or a salesperson or a technical person, the shipping clerk for a lumber dealer. I don’t care. Every one of them has some knowledge that I can learn from, by just asking them, learning about how they see the world and what’s going on in their business.
Thank you, Mark.
Each month and sometimes more, we feature professionals in the building, design, and creative fields that embrace doing things differently in their work. The “There is a Difference” series is a platform to share and learn a different point of view and its success. We invite you or someone you know to share how you approach your work differently and the success it brings. Simply send a note to Shawn@DraperDNA.com.
You can watch our interview with Mark and more “There is a Difference” interviews on the Draper DNA YouTube channel or by visiting us at DraperDNA.com.