067: Boston Speaks Up with KingFish CEO Cam Brown
Cam Brown is the founder and CEO of KingFish, a Boston-based marketing agency set to celebrate its 20-year anniversary in November 2021. Brown has developed a hybrid agency model which combines a full-time staff of strategists, account executives and designers with a database of hundreds of subject matter experts (SMEs) to create custom content solutions for its clients. Perhaps most impressively, Brown personally oversees the relationships with the majority of KingFish SMEs.
He brings over 30 years of marketing, digital, video, virtual & live events and advertising experience with industry leaders such as Ziff Davis Media, Arnold Advertising (Havas) and The Robb Report. While at Ziff Davis, Brown founded and headed their launch custom media business unit at the company.
Brown also serves as a volunteer with the Cummings Foundation Sustaining Grant division, working to understand the issues local communities are facing, identifying the most promising and effective nonprofits to fund, and strengthening relationships with beneficiaries. He is also on the Advisory Board of Give Us Your Poor, an organization that brings together the latest research, multimedia, celebrities, citizens, homeless people, and partner organizations to help end homelessness. And recently, Brown was elected onto the Topsfield Select Board for a three year term.
Brown is also a sought out strategic advisor to the investment and venture capital community, advising emerging companies on their business models and communications strategies.
Where did you grow up? Outside of Philadelphia near Valley Forge.
What was your childhood like? It was fantastic. My family was a positive force and values-driven. Our area was a reasonably affluent part of the Philadelphia scene but that part of it glanced off of my parents, brother, sister and me. My energy was focused on being outside and spending time with friends - many of which I keep in touch with and continue to visit today. I wouldn’t trade it.
What was the first career you remember wanting to pursue? I wanted to be a journalist, and my first interview was with National Geographic. The position was to write captions for images that accompanied features in the magazine. Small stuff but I would be part of the travel team. Pretty much blew that one by not taking the position.
Who were your role models growing up? I have always loved music, politics and learning from the stories of generations above me; given the lifestyle of musicians in the 70s and 80s it is better not to refer to them as role models...but they were absolutely inspirations in their artistry and creativity. Thoughtful world leaders who listened and negotiated with intelligence. And my grandfather, who was wise, kind and had a great sense of comedic observation. He wasn’t funny per se, but observed humor out of everyday situations and that’s been part of my take as well.
Where did you go to college and what was your first job upon graduating? I attended Hobart in upstate NY. Fantastic experience; brought me lifelong friends and my wife of 31 years. That’s college doing its job. My first job was building houses with a small team of people. The adage “measure twice and cut once” is a real thing.
What’s the biggest lesson you took away from your time working at Ziff Davis? That’s a great question. Ziff was all about training and structure. I still follow their approach to building a compelling sales presentation which is about being prepared, knowing your prospect’s business and the market they serve. By following guideposts you determine whether the services you offer provide real value to the prospect, and make it easy to pull-out and leave if ultimately there is no value prop for both sides.
J2 Global is resurrecting the Ziff Davis brand with a mandate to make deals. What sort of investments do you envision they’ll be making? Digital transformation and martech are cornerstone’s of Vivek’s vision. He’ll invest / acquire companies in that space. Also of interest are entertainment, shopping...underpinning to all being emerging technologies.
What gave you the courage to start your own company? I don’t know that it was courageous - it was confidence that in 2000-2001, traditional media was changing fast. And the knowledge that credible, independent content was what people craved. I built an agency that matched client’s business needs with expert content producers over bullpen generalists. 20 years has proven the approach is supported by the market.
How would you describe your leadership style? I believe that you hire well and empower your team to make decisions. I am not a micromanager; in my opinion, that brings little value and demoralizes smart co-workers. We all have a role in the process, and they are far better at running their piece of the deliverable.
Who are some of your more notable clients and what type of work have you done for them? We’ve been fortunate to partner with F500 notable brands, mid-market up-and-comers, and start-ups with incredible vision. The work we do has applications for companies of any size because we start with business challenges, and understand why they exist and what we can do to help our clients overcome those challenges. That may translate in a rebranding effort, creation of an enhanced website, ongoing asset creation (ebooks, webcasts, infographics, social and digital campaigns, videos)...all strengthened by SME-generated content.
How has KingFish managed to not only survive but thrive during a pandemic that hurt so many businesses? I’m not sure we did more than anyone else. For 18 months, we’ve all been in the same place, with the same realities. We adjust as needed, and remain focused on the needs of our clients. And while we took some hits (and they hurt) we focused on the human side of what our clients were going through, and remained respectful of each of their realities. They knew we’d be there when they were ready to resume growth-oriented work together.
What are you doing to future proof the KingFish business against industry disruptions? (IE, Is your business model changing at all?) It’s always evolving - our job is to bring fresh eyes and future-facing strategies to our clients. We’ve identified areas of strength for the agency, and are working with outside consultants to bring new products to market that as you say, will future-proof the business but more importantly, address what we see as areas in marketing that need to be fixed. With over 600 SMEs in our network, we have some interesting critical mass to leverage for the benefit of the industry.
What’s your advice to young people breaking into the media industry? Find a company, product or service you believe in. Do your homework, be honest about what turns you on and don’t fall for the brand-of-the-minute. You should be bouncing off the satellites when you leave an interview that clicks with you. And be prepared to commit at least 2 ½ years to that first company.
What are you most excited about heading into the future -- personal or professional? So much about the future hinges on the next generation. I have three kids in their 20s and each is powering through their lives on very different tracks, with purpose and conviction. My wife and I have done our part to instill the morals and values we think are important, and now we get to watch them listen to some, and make better changes to other pieces of advice we’ve shared over the years. I get a real kick out of watching their progress.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the world you’d like to see addressed? In the last decade, information and the distribution of information has had some negative consequences: people can get answers immediately, which can be good. But if the trade-off is lack of understanding of a situation for immediacy, that’s not healthy. To understand an event or philosophy or geo-political happening is to read and study and form an opinion. Independent thinkers are far between - agenda-driven content is prolific. We all have to be careful and whenever possible, take the time to make up our own opinions versus amplifying someone else’s soundbite. Thinking matters.