March 15, 2019 • By Aaron Orlowski
A company hires a marketing agency to launch a campaign to boost lead generation, nurture customers or enhance its reputation. Scenario one: The campaign succeeds, and the agency credits its own proprietary systems. Scenario two: The campaign fails, and the agency blames the client for providing inadequate information, direction or resources.
Ryan Malone, MBA ’98, saw this story play out too many times. He saw that something at the core of many marketing agencies was broken.
Senior agency executives would pitch and sell a client on a sophisticated marketing strategy, then delegate the work to junior designers, copywriters and marketers who often didn’t have the skills to the do the job. In monthly progress reports, agencies would swap out dire data points for rosier numbers. And agency staffers would prioritize their personal creative fulfillment over clients’ business needs and return on investment.
“So I quit and started SmartBug Media,” says Malone, who will speak at Alumni Day 2019. “Our goal is to be on the cover of Inc. Magazine for changing the philosophy of the way marketing agencies are run.”
Gaining the skills
Malone enrolled at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business in the mid-90s, drawn to its Techno MBA brand, technology-focused labs, intimate atmosphere and location near his family in Southern California.
Courses then, like today, focused on how the digital technologies would impact businesses and how data could be applied to make business decisions, such as retail store placement. It was an early education for Malone in how to make business decisions rooted in strategy.
“When you go to business school, you’re not going to actually remember every tool you learn, but if you’re smart, you’re going to remember when to apply something, and you’ll refresh your memory,” he says. “UCI taught me how to think. It taught me how to problem solve and structure and prioritize.”
The Merage School Career Center helped Malone land internships at Taco Bell and Seagate, a computer storage company where he put into practice foundational marketing principles during his six years there.
He then took another job at a startup where he started working more closely with marketing agencies, seeing closely the ways they were broken.
And that’s when he realized he needed quit.
A remote agency
Malone founded SmartBug Media with a particular set of goals.
“I didn’t want to be the CEO who never went to the office. And I wanted to see my kids grow up. I knew if I was in the office all the time, I would never see their first steps,” he says.
So Malone made the company fully remote, with no headquarters and all employees working from home offices. Staffing posed challenges initially. Potential candidates — especially the first few — had to overcome doubt about a non-tactile company. Malone had to find employees who could focus from home and self-structure their days. He had to implement substitutes for in-person communication cues.
Malone’s doubters insisted the company would eventually have to build an office. But today, with nearly 70 people spread across 28 US states and Canada, the company is still growing, built on foundational policies that encourage balance and connection. Last year, it grew 60 percent, Malone says.
SmartBug can hire quicker, and employees stay longer because they can have both a challenging career and the flexibility to create life memories outside of work. Camaraderie is infused from the beginning: New employees have 30-minute welcome calls with every other employee in which they’re forbidden from talking about work. Periodic happy hours bring together 20 people on a video call all having a beer.
And, once a year, all the employees and their significant others meet for the SmartBugapalooza, a three-day event for work and teambuilding, at locations from Pelican Hill to Napa to Las Vegas.
Through it all, Malone has implemented a culture of transparency.
Clients have access to the same data as SmartBug — data that drives every recommendation, from the initial strategic plan, to how campaigns are executed, to how prospects are converted to leads. And the same employees that pitch and report to clients also handle the strategy and execution.
“If you’re really transparent about the performance of things, then you attract better employees who want a chance to hit a home run and be public about it,” Malone says. “You get the fighter pilot people who know they’re smart and want to prove it and aren’t afraid.”
As a result, the culture at SmartBug is thriving. What advice does Malone offer for up-and-comers earning their MBAs today?
“Pay attention to the big lessons because you’re going to need them down the road,” Malone says. “And talk to the person next to you because they could be your closest confidant 20 years from now.”