For our 12th episode, Crux Founder & CEO Melea McRae turns the tables and interviews our host, Ethan Whitehill, President & CCO at Crux. Ethan shares his entrepreneurial journey, the un-agency’s plans to “communitize” marketing, and why fast-growing companies should take a cue from seafarers.
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Melea McRae: Welcome to our podcast, “To the Point,” where we get to the point with entrepreneurs and business leaders who have transformed organizations by elevating brands and amplifying missions. I’m Melea McRae, Founder & CEO at Crux, the “un-agency” that fuels business growth for our clients and opportunities for our team. Today’s episode is going to be different because we’re flipping the script on our host Ethan Whitehill.
Ethan Whitehill: I don’t like the sound of that.
Melea McRae: Ethan, today I am hosting our podcast and we are turning the tables on you, my friend. We are going to dive into your career, your creative journey, your role at Crux, and maybe anything else that you want to talk about.
Ethan Whitehill: I’m an open book!
Melea McRae: Are you ready?
Ethan Whitehill: I’m ready.
Melea McRae: You’re sitting in the hot seat.
Ethan Whitehill: I am literally sitting in the hot seat. It’s bright red, this chair that I’m sitting in.
Melea McRae: Ethan, you’ve had a long career in marketing, working for brands of all shapes and sizes, wearing the hat, a founder, CEO, Chief Creative Officer, Chief Marketing Officer. Can you tell our listeners how you landed on a career in marketing and some of your favorite roles throughout the years?
Ethan Whitehill: So, I won’t drag you through my childhood, but I’ll start at college because I think college is when I really realized that I was interested in advertising and marketing as a career. And the funny thing is, my college didn’t even offer a major in advertising, but they did have something called committee plan, which was a super cool program where you could design your own major, which that was just kind of giving me the keys to the candy store. I think that’s probably where my entrepreneurial ADD started because I realized all the really cool things I could get into, and I designed a program with three different professors who were my sponsors, and we called it advertising and communications. I got to do everything you would really want to do in college. So I took a lot of writing courses, I took marketing, I took psychology, anthropology, photography—all these things, which, ultimately was the right background for marketing because we do a lot of different things.
Melea McRae: We do.
Ethan Whitehill: And you know, I’m very grateful. My school was Westminster College. I should give them credit for allowing me to do that. But it culminated at the end of my senior year in a thesis on Japanese consumer culture, which is really more of an anthropology paper than anything else. It was a great foundation because for me, I needed a lot of tools. And like we all know, no one day is the same in marketing. It gave me all the tools to jump in, and they had in the program a requirement to do an internship. And I had a few, but the one that was probably most significant in my career was with, at the time, what was called Montague-Sherry.
Ethan Whitehill: Don Montague and Judy Sherry were the founders of that agency. I was a copywriter intern for them over a summer. And at the end of my internship, Don said, “you don’t need to go back to school and get your degree.” And I said, “yeah, I think I do.” Plus I knew I had all these fun classes, too, I wanted to take. So the compromise was to send me back to my fraternity with a fax machine. And every day after school, I’d have a copy assignment sitting on the fax machine. A lot of people, young people might be listening, going, what’s a fax machine?
Melea McRae: People don’t even know what a fax machine is anymore.
Ethan Whitehill: So I would take my assignment off the fax machine and I would fire up my Brother Word Processor, and I would type my assignments, and I was killing it at $10 an hour writing copy for what then became MMG. When I graduated, I became a copywriter for MMG, and I was fortunate to have some really good mentors there on the creative side. And from MMG, I went client-side. Actually, I was recruited by Ferrellgas, worked for another great entrepreneur with Jim Ferrell running creative services for that group. As I was doing it, and this is where I think our stories are very similar, I realized there were a lot of problems with agencies, and the folks that I was working with, they were wonderful people, but the agencies just had issues. I said, “you know, there’s gotta be a better way.” And that’s really where I hatched a plan to start an agency with a couple partners at the time, which became Two West. And that was it. I was 26.
Melea McRae: Amazing.
Ethan Whitehill: I was kind of too dumb to know better, and that was good because I didn’t know what I needed to be worried about as we were starting this agency. Out of the gate, though, we were very fortunate because we worked with a lot of great Kansas City brands: AMC Theaters, Hallmark Cards, Cerner, Yellow—all of those kind of were foundational to us. A year in, we picked up a little tiny spinoff of, of a telecom company called Sprint PCS. That was really where we started to take off because we became—and I think this is kind of unheard of today—a 20-year partner to Sprint. I’m very grateful for what they gave us because they helped us solidify our position in the market. They gave us focus on our business and what we needed to do, and we grew from there.
Melea McRae: I love how the internship led to the launch of your career. That’s what we try to do with our interns at Crux, as well. I think every entrepreneur has said “there has got to be a better way”—has said those words.
So in my episode when you were interviewing me as we kickstarted “To the Point,” we briefly touched on how we were introduced through Grant Burcham, who is my mentor through the HEMP program. I’d love to hear your take on how we were introduced and what drew you to Crux.
Ethan Whitehill: So I’ll fast forward a bit from the time I started my agency, I’ll pass through the 20 years of running it.
In 2016 I was kind of at a crossroads. I saw that—this sounds funny, but—we were almost too small and too big at the same time. I knew that for us to grow in the way I wanted to grow, we needed to either get smaller and niche even tighter, or get bigger and go broader. Our focus at the time was retail and shopper marketing, and we were doing a lot of it. But with the changing kind of landscape of technology and the consumer journey, we needed all those capabilities to kind of tie things together. We needed digital, we needed above-the-line advertising and everything else. So I started to hatch a plan to maybe go acquire a company. I wasn’t super excited about it because I’d done that before, and that’s a lot of work.
Melea McRae: Well, it is.
Ethan Whitehill: We were about 65 people strong, and we were in a good position, but I also had (going back to my entrepreneurial ADD) I had the itch to shake it up and do something else. While I was kind of thinking through this plan, I was contacted by an M&A consultant who I’ve worked with in the past who was basically bringing me an opportunity—another agency was looking to acquire in Kansas City, and they had identified us. And after a few conversations, I realized, you know what? This, this is probably the thing. This is what I’d like to do. So as a result of that, we became one of the founding agencies in a roll-up called Sandbox that was a national organization. And I did that for four years.
Sandbox was eventually acquired by a company called Merge. And one day I woke up and I found myself working as the CMO for the agency that bought the agency that bought my agency, And I thought, “you know what? I think it’s time to get back to my roots” and kind of get back to my purpose. I decided it was probably time for me also to do what I love most, which was working with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and doing that maybe as a fractional CMO. I was hatching a plan that I thought was a good one, and I reached out to my trusted advisor and friend, Grant Burcham, who was also my banker for a long time. And I said, “Hey, let’s have coffee,” and I was explaining my hair-brained idea to him while we were having coffee. He goes, “yeah, that’s a pretty good idea,” he goes, “but I got a better idea. Do you know Melea McRae?” And that was when the next chapter began.
Melea McRae: We met, we hit it off, we started hatching plants. We’re both visionaries, Ethan, so it didn’t take long for those idea bombs to start. And here we are over two years later.
Ethan, I don’t know how many of our listeners know this, but I know this about you: You’re a big car guy, a car connoisseur, let’s say. And I believe the Italian variety is your favorite. I’m very curious, Ethan, will you share with us how many cars do you actually own?
Ethan Whitehill: It depends. There are some countable cars and some uncountable cars, I’ll say. Okay. So the cars that count for me they are about 12—and I’m not counting my wife’s car, and I’m not counting the car that my son owns that I have the title to, right? But yeah, my responsibility: 12 cars.
Melea McRae: I love to come to work today and see which car Ethan is driving, the car of the day. Speaking of cars, we sometimes refer to Crux as the red Ferrari. I’d love to hear your take on what that means and what it represents for us as a fast-growing business.
Ethan Whitehill: Well, first Ferraris go fast, and we move fast. But they’re also these beautiful, hand-built machines that start as daring ideas when they’re designing them. It’s kind of audacious and the finished product isn’t a car, it’s actually an experience. And I think Crux is a daring idea. And I think our own agency model offers clients an experience that no one else can match.
Melea McRae: Wow. This is why he’s our president and Chief Creative Officer—that just gave me goosebumps. Well said.
You have launched, worked for, worked with countless of these fast-growing red Ferrari entrepreneurial companies. What is it about that environment that’s so appealing to you?
Ethan Whitehill: I really dig the entrepreneurial journey. I just find it fascinating. I love experiencing it myself. And I really enjoy the world of “what if” that entrepreneurs live, and my favorite people in conversations revolve around solving problems and finding that white space in the market. The idea is to fill the white space. So that, to me, is really what draws me in.
What I’ve noticed after working with scores of entrepreneurs and founders is that company growth is not linear. It’s actually cyclical. Revenue may be a straight line, but to achieve the revenue, you’re constantly going from the known to the unknown, the certain to the uncertain, one growth curve to the next. And you have to take these leaps and it’s almost swinging branch to branch. I like that, and to do that successfully, you’ve got to have a north star. You’ve got to know where you’re going. You have to have a reason to exist, and you have to be comfortable in the chaos. And the, the best entrepreneurs very much are, and that’s a core value of Crux that I really enjoy is being entrepreneurial.
Melea McRae: I love that. Well, we are wired very similarly. It’s why we work so well together. Leading and working for fast-growing companies is challenging. And we do like to say we’re not for everyone, but we love the people that we are for. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs at the helm of these organizations to elevate to the next stage of their growth, the next stage in their business?
Ethan Whitehill: I like that you used a nautical analogy because before I liked cars, I liked boats.
And if you’ve never been sailing, it can be scary. When the wind picks up and the boat keels way over to one side, you feel like you’re going to slip off. But what you learn, though, is that’s perfectly normal and the boat’s designed to do it. In fact, when you do it right, that means the boat is moving efficiently using the tension between the water and the wind to move fast. My advice is to embrace those external forces and learn to adjust your sails and take advantage of them. So whether that force is new competition, lost customers, technology change, weird economy like we’re facing—they’re not necessarily bad things and they actually can help you move to the next cycle.
Melea McRae: It’s been really rewarding for me to have you by my side as we’ve been on this growth trajectory over the last two plus years. Ethan, how would you describe your leadership style? And then next, what leadership lessons were impressed on you throughout your career that maybe continue to ring in your head today?
Ethan Whitehill: That’s a really, really good one. And I don’t know if I think of it as a style as much as a philosophy. My dad taught philosophy, so maybe I get philosophical about things too much. I think leadership starts with a clear sense of personal purpose and company purpose. You have to know yourself, and then you have to know the thing that you’re creating and what the purpose is. The leader’s job is to align everyone’s personal purpose with the purpose of the company. I don’t care what your title is, but I care deeply about where you find your purpose and how it fits with the job at hand. So sometimes it doesn’t, and you know, we have to figure that out. But it’s my role as a leader to align that personal purpose with where we’re going as a company.
So going back to sailing, we’re not going to get anywhere if our sails are all facing different directions. We need to make sure that everybody is moving toward the same purpose, and I feel most connected with my purpose when I’m creating an environment that connects others with theirs. That’s what I absolutely love.
Melea McRae: We say all the time, “are we rowing in the same direction?” As a leadership team, I really value and appreciate the positivity that you bring to our equation every day and the energy that you bring. It’s fun to work with you.
Speaking of that creative energy: one of the things I admire most about you is that you are a creative visionary. How has that creativity and forward thinking played a role in your career?
Ethan Whitehill: You know, I think whether it’s been in my job title or not, even when I was CEO of Two West, I’ve always considered myself a creative—that’s really foundational to who I am. And one of the things I love most about this industry is that you never stop learning. One day we’re talking about trees. Another day it’s t-shirts and maybe the next, it’s financial services. It’s always different. You have to live with voracious curiosity because there’s no end. I think that’s the fuel that feeds creativity.
What’s really cool is all that learning and experience compounds over time. You gain this power to apply things from one area to something completely different. And for me, true creativity is the ability to make new connections between things that may seem completely disconnected. I love that. That’s the “aha” moment for me.
Melea McRae: And when your work is so intricately tied to your passion, it can be all-consuming. How do you continue to maintain and hone that creative energy?
Ethan Whitehill: This may sound weird, but I’m a big believer in negative effort. Not negativity, negative effort. The best ideas usually don’t come when you’re trying really hard. They happen the moment that you let your guard down. I like to do things that downshift my brain from the high attention beta waves that are really busy to the creative alpha waves that are kind of slow and long. That might be something that happens when you’re hiking in the woods or, say, you’re driving a vintage car, just enjoying that moment. And it’s funny because as soon as I said that—one of the cars that I collect is Alfa Romeo.
Melea McRae: It is!
Ethan Whitehill: So maybe Alfa Romeo and alpha waves have something to do with each other. I just think we need to give ourselves permission to have that downtime, to have that sort of discovery, and to allow those ideas to happen.
Melea McRae: What inspires your creativity?
Ethan Whitehill: Everything! I think I find inspiration in everything. The end goal for me though is just creating a vision, and then realizing the vision. I’m inspired by seeing something that maybe others don’t see—kind of making the invisible visible, and then bringing it to life in some way.
Melea McRae: Speaking of vision—thank you for that segue—What is your vision for the future here at Crux, Ethan? And also for your own personal future.
Ethan Whitehill: We’ve been through so much together in these last two years.
Melea McRae: Yeah, we have.
Ethan Whitehill: I think the vision is getting tighter and tighter every day, and I feel it in our conversations. I feel like every day we’re discovering some way to tune the Ferrari. As we’re under the hood tuning the Ferrari, the engine under hood doesn’t change.
So, what’s not going to change is this fractional CMO model. I think that is something we’re just going to continue expanding. And I can see us building even more technology infrastructure to support that at scale. And that’s going to be marketing automation, it’s going to be AI, 100%. We’re going to have to have those tools, but we won’t let technology commoditize marketing. Instead, we’re going to leverage it to “communitize” marketing. Meaning we’ll make Crux a community for fractional CMOs and clients. Just like I said earlier, we learned so much from our team and our clients, and I think our clients can learn from each other. And so how do we facilitate that and, and make it, a multiple-way conversation.
Melea McRae: We’re both connectors at our core, are we not?
Ethan Whitehill: Absolutely.
Melea McRae: So, because we’re turning the tables, I’m going to be Ethan and have the 20-sided die. So you’re going to roll this.
Ethan Whitehill: Right. I’ll show you the question so you can keep me honest.
Melea McRae: Yes, I’ll keep you honest on the question. Let’s get one we haven’t had before … 13.
What Is your favorite urban legend that you believe is true? Oh, wow. This is good.
Ethan Whitehill: This is a tough one. So, I was a big X-Files fan.
Melea McRae: Oh, interesting.
Ethan Whitehill: I kind of dig Loch Ness!
Melea McRae: I kind of do, too.
Ethan Whitehill: And not because I think it’s a dinosaur, but I do think there’s something there. Whether it’s a giant turtle or a whale, I don’t know. I’m excited that I just saw recently they’re deploying all these people to go figure it out, and they’re sending drones into the water and everything.
Melea McRae: Wow.
Ethan Whitehill: I’m going to say Loch Ness. We’ll get some answers finally on Loch Ness
Melea McRae: I love it. Well, Ethan, this has been a delight diving into your story and hearing your vision for Crux. And by the way, no surprise here, we’re in alignment on that vision. So thank you for letting me play Ethan Whitehill today as the host of “To the Point.”
Ethan Whitehill: This was awesome. Thank you for joining us.
Melea McRae: Thank you.
Hosted by Ethan Whitehill
Ethan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.