Ethan Whitehill: I’m Ethan Whitehill, President and CCO at Crux, and this is “To The Point,” a brand-new podcast by Crux, the un-agency that fuels business growth by elevating brands and amplifying missions. Today on “The Point,” we wanted to launch our series by talking to the woman who started it all, our Founder, CEO, Melea McRae.
Melea McRae: Hello, Ethan.
Ethan Whitehill: How are you?
Melea McRae: I’m great.
Ethan Whitehill: You ready for this?
Melea McRae: I am so ready
Ethan Whitehill: Let’s start here. Why have we decided to launch a podcast?
Melea McRae: I think that it’s time that we got into the podcast game. We have a lot of stories to tell. We have a lot of clients, ones that we want to invite to be guests.
We want to hear from a lot of industry experts, and I think that knowing Crux, we’re going to do it in our own unique, un-agency, creative way.
Ethan Whitehill: So, let’s back up a little bit before the podcast, before Crux, why did Crux begin? What was the spark in your eye that started this whole thing?
Melea McRae: Well, there are several. It was a build, kind of a slow burn, if you will. It started with my days of being the chief marketing officer with the KC Chamber. I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet with business leaders and CEOs from all walks of life, and once I really started to get to know them, they started sharing with me their concerns and complaints on having to deal with marketing firms and marketing agencies, and really getting fluff that they couldn’t use or they hired that senior level in-house marketing talent, a VP level or above, who didn’t know how to build a strategy, and they felt stuck with that individual. So, they started asking for my advice on building a strategy, and one CEO said, “could I just hire you for three months? You don’t want to work with us? Because we’re a bunch of boring engineers, but we would get you the next gig and the next gig.” This concept of a CMO on demand, started to germinate in my brain. And not long after that, I was quartered by a traditional ad agency to stand up a new division for them.
I think that really spoke to my entrepreneurial spirit, and it was a great group of people, great entrepreneurs themselves. But when I got in there, I saw red flag after red flag on how I would do it differently if it were my own firm, how I would treat clients differently, because I think like the client. It was while I was at this traditional agency that I wrote the business plan for Crux, and I just saw a gap in terms of small to mid-size businesses needing a different kind of approach, a different model that better suited their needs and their budgets, quite frankly.
Ethan Whitehill: So, did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Melea McRae: I did not always know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I have a funny story that I like to tell on my 40th birthday.
Yes, I’m over 40. I know, I don’t look it. I was in New York having one of those girls’ weekends celebrating birthdays down in Soho, maybe having a little afternoon cocktail. And we went to a palm reader because that’s what you do in New York. Right. And this palm reader told me that I was going to be an entrepreneur.
Honestly, I had never even considered it until she said that to me very definitively. And I thought, huh. And she said you were put on this planet to be your own. We laugh about that, right. Those kind of opportunities and experiences, but I think it did plant the seed that maybe this is a path for me.
And then when I had that experience at that traditional agency, I knew very clearly what it was that I wanted to do.
Ethan Whitehill: Being an entrepreneur is not the easy path, I’m sure you’ve encountered some challenges along the way. What are some of those challenges that you faced?
Melea McRae: Oh, goodness. I think one of the first lessons learned was realizing that I had to have contracts. We had to make these engagements with clients official and legal, just to protect the business. There were a few clients in the beginning that went out of their contracts and didn’t want to pay. You know that story when you start, you’re taking anyone as a client, right?
You’re not selective whatsoever because you just need to build that revenue and validate the fact that this solution is working. So, I have learned to be far more selective, and I have learned that those contracts help everyone, both the client and the un-agency at Crux.
Ethan Whitehill: You used a term there, un-agency.
What is an “un-agency?”
Melea McRae: An un-agency means we are not the status quo. We march to the beat of our own drum. We think much more like a client. We have the business acumen to tie a marketing strategy to the business’s goals. We lead with transparency, transparency in billing, transparency in communication. We really position ourselves to feel as though we are an in-house team, although outsourced in a fraction of the cost.
I love it when our clients list their CMO from Crux on their org chart as their internal chief marketing officer. Nothing makes me happier. So, I think we just follow business language, business acumen, business budgets. I came up with a tagline before I launched the name for Crux- “Everything you need, nothing you don’t.” And that holds true to this day, and I think that’s part of what makes us an un-agency.
Ethan Whitehill: Talking about clients, we work with a lot of different kinds of companies, small and medium sized businesses, and some that are much bigger. Who are they and what’s the commonality across those businesses that we serve?
Melea McRae: When I first launched Crux, our focus was really on that small to mid-market B2B company, and since we’ve added so much talent to the team and value to our offering, it’s really expanded more to larger B2B companies as well as B2C. So, companies like Burns and McDonald, they’re an 1898 and company division is a great longstanding client of ours. RX Savings Solutions- they really have a large in-house marketing team, but they needed some bench strength and some gap fillers for various projects from time to time. On the other side of the coin, sometimes we are the marketing department with those small to mid-market companies, they might have a junior level marketer on the team, somebody that does graphic design or social media.
We come in and wrap our arms around those individuals, and they become part of our broader team enabling clients to outsource their marketing department with Crux. We have some wonderful, longstanding clients like Copaken Brooks, Dialectic Engineering and Financial Advisory Services. We deal with a lot of companies in specific industries as well, like the AEC industry, commercial real estate, FinTech, higher-ed nonprofits.
But I will say that we are industry agnostic. Post COVID, we’ve had a lot of interest in more consumer facing brands, local strong legacy brands in Kansas City, like Q39, Charlie Hustle and Lifted Spirits.
Ethan Whitehill: Is it fair to say that one thing they all have in common is the fact that they’re growing, they’re dealing with growth and change and transformation?
Melea McRae: Absolutely. They’re similar, but different inflection points. We like to say we deal with entrepreneurs and those business owners and CEOs that are looking for marketing to fuel their business growth, they are at that inflection point, that growth trajectory, where they find that they need to further invest in marketing to take their businesses to the next level.
Ethan Whitehill: Clearly, we’re helping a lot of other companies grow and transform and succeed. We’ve experienced some of that ourselves. What is the secret sauce? How do we not lose ourselves in all the work we’re doing for others and apply our own medicine to what we do?
Melea McRae: I love that question, Ethan, what is our secret sauce?
I really attribute our secret sauce to our talent and me being in the role of chief collector of talent here at Crux, I’m blown away with the talent that we’ve been able to attract and retain that want to be a part of this red Ferrari journey and be along for that ride. I would also attribute much of our success to the awards that we have received.
We call it award season at Crux, and we have been very fortunate to have been the recipient of so many over the last few years with the most recent being, Inc. 5000, Champions of Business, a top 10 small business with a Greater KC Chamber. It all works. It’s what we do for our clients and we’re doing it for ourselves.
One of the things that I’ve been very blessed with is having a a long list of mentors, very influential business leaders in Kansas City, many of whom serve on the Crux Advisory Board, many of whom have served on that Crux advisory report since the inception of. It’s been so wonderful to have their brain trust as a sounding board, as I’ve really worked to grow and scale this business.
Ethan Whitehill: Melea, what is next for Crux?
Melea McRae: Ooh, that’s a great question, Ethan. We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing. Continue delighting our clients. Continuing to capture market share here in Kansas City. In other markets that we have talked about dominating in, like Dallas and Denver, we’re really following our clients and where our clients are standing up new operations, and we’re realizing that any size business in any city can benefit from this in-house team, outsourced approach. It’s fractional, it’s affordable, led by strategy, followed by execution. And I believe it’s something that we can do from anywhere. So, I think that, you know, that rise of the business life cycle and that growth stage is really taking off for us at Crux, and I’m really excited to see how far we go with this.
Ethan Whitehill: Awesome. So that’s what’s next for Crux. I’ll tell you what’s next for Melea. You get to answer my 20 questions now for all our podcast guests moving forward, I want to get off the point with a totally random question. I have in my hand a 20-sided die, and I’m going to roll it. The number that comes up is going to be the random question.
Okay. You ready?
Melea McRae: I’m ready.
Ethan Whitehill: I rolled a five. Ah, this was a good one. If you could only bring three things with you on a deserted island, what would you pick?
Melea McRae: Oh Lord. Coming from somebody that just had to go back into her closet this weekend, and I have way more than three. Let’s see. My cell phone. Would I have cell service?
Ethan Whitehill: Let’s say you do. We’ll give you that.
Melea McRae: My cell phone. If there’s cell service, a boat, and a case of red wine.
Ethan Whitehill: Excellent answer.
Melea McRae: Maybe vodka.
Ethan Whitehill: Sounds like a pretty good, deserted island to me! I wouldn’t mind joining you on that island. Thank you so much for your time on the show.
We’re looking forward to producing more episodes just like this, but also inviting others in. What’s next for the podcast I should ask?
Melea McRae: Oh, my goodness. Well, with this team piecing it all together and organizing it, I’m excited to see what’s next. I know we’re inviting clients to share their stories on our podcast.
It’s kind of going national, Ethan!
There you go. Thanks for getting to the point with us. For more information about Crux, you can find us at CruxKC.com and on social at Find Your Crux.
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.