TAKING THE LONG VIEW: TribalVision CEO Christopher Ciunci, left, and Vice President and Director of Client Services Damien Cabral look at what marketing approach fits clients’ long-term health and align themselves with that.
PBN PHOTO/FRANK MULLIN
By John Larrabee
TribalVision meets its clients’ needs like a key in its keyhole: providing marketing services and expertise exactly tailored to midsize companies without their own internal marketing departments.
TribalVision is not an ad agency or a PR agency. It aims to be a full marketing department for hire, able to take on everything from a media campaign to sales strategy. It serves companies in Rhode Island and around the world.
CEO Christopher Ciunci was the sole employee when he launched the company three years ago. Today, more than 20 people are on staff full time, working in Providence and in another office in Brussels.
It has been able to grow and to succeed because it fills a gap in the marketplace, according to the CEO. “Midsize business owners without an internal marketing department find it daunting to afford the high creative fees of an ad agency, or to pay the salary of a full-time VP of marketing,” said Ciunci, who worked 15 years in marketing before he launched the agency. “As a result, an internal point person wearing many company hats with little marketing acumen has been placed in the role when ultimately it is not their area of expertise.”
The midsize businesses TribalVision works for are often companies that have had some success, but often they’ve reached that point without giving much thought to marketing strategy. “Suddenly they’re faced with new and changing economic conditions, and they need some help,” said Damien Cabral, vice president and director of client services.
“Or maybe they’re companies that have been around awhile, and find they’ve plateaued. They realize they should have some marketing effort, but they can see it’s become much more complicated than it was 10 years ago. They can bring us in to fill the gaps,” he said.
TribalVision also operates differently from most marketing consultants. “Often they’re really ad agencies, and their real focus is producing something that wins a creativity award,” Ciunci said. “But the client, the business owner, is looking at the bottom line. We align our interest with the client’s. Our focus is on generating more business for them.”
When TribalVision takes on a new client, it typically spends a couple of weeks learning about the company. Then it sets about drawing up a full marketing plan that addresses everything from generating leads to retaining customers.
“They came onboard and wrote an incredible marketing plan for us, and then it was up to us what parts we’d choose to move forward on,” said Caity Craver, CEO of DonorTrends, a Washington, D.C., company that helps nonprofits raise money. “If I were to hire individuals to do everything TribalVision does for us, we’d need to have four or five professionals hired. As a small business, we don’t have that kind of budget.”
“That’s one of the big things that separate us from other firms,” Ciunci said. “We’ve found that oftentimes clients don’t have a full strategy in place. They’re thinking: we have a sales force, let’s send them out there to break down doors. What they should do first is figure out how to position themselves so they’re using their marketing dollars correctly.”
The TribalVision staff will often move right into its clients’ offices, rather than work from a remote location. It holds intensive biweekly meetings with its clients’ employees to keep everyone on the same page, and follows up with detailed monthly executive summaries to ensure goals are being met and priorities are being kept in view.
While some ad agencies strive to produce glitzy commercials, the TribalVision team is often focused on more nitty-gritty things. “Most of our marketing has very little to do with paid media,” Ciunci said. “Instead of slick ads, we use guerrilla marketing. You can put on a lunch-and-learn presentation, and you’ll get 20 decision-makers in a room at the Providence Marriott. That’s a great opportunity. And the existing customer base is another gold mine that’s often overlooked. You have to do things to ensure you’re strengthening your relationship with them.”
When TribalVision does get involved in creating commercials or website videos, it relies on a network of freelancers. That means it is not paying for a creative director – and customers aren’t paying to keep that person on the agency’s staff full time. Ciunci called it “the Hollywood approach,” because he’s working like a movie director who assembles a crew of actors and technical pros for each project, and then dismisses them when the job is finished.
For other marketing consultants, a media campaign is often seen as an opportunity to dig more cash out of clients. They’ll make the media buy, and add something extra for themselves to the fee the client is charged. The same thing happens when they bring in freelancers to create commercials; the client is billed at a higher rate than the freelancer charges.
Ciunci says he shuns those practices. “The costs for the partners we employ on our clients’ behalf are not marked up in any way, but merely passed through to our clients, in total transparency,” he said.
While relying on freelancers for creative campaigns, the TribalVision team nonetheless gives every ad or video it produces a distinctive touch. A video for Dave’s Marketplace shows the store chain’s seafood buyer on the dock in the early morning, looking over the day’s catch. Another for LaSalle Bakery shows the husband and wife who own the business talking about their longtime employees. There’s no mention of bargains or specials.
Ciunci calls the approach “storytelling,” and describes it as an effort to create a community or tribe for his client. “It’s about humanizing a business, and showing the owner as someone with a story to tell, one that people will find relevant,” he said. •