President/CEO of Fry Hammond Barr
On the wall in Pete Barr’s office is a print ad dating back to the early 1960s showing a toddler. The baby is Pete Barr Jr. When you talk about someone growing up in a business, no one fits that description better. But like any other profession, it is a long way from being the son of a well-respected business person, to piloting the company through one of the most turbulent economic periods in our nation’s history, while at the same time leading that company through a transition where the entire industry is being completely reinvented, not to mention Orlando’s exponential growth.
EW: You grew up around the industry, when did it connect and why?
PB: I wish I could say at six years old I knew I was going to be an adman, but that isn’t the case. But I was immersed in it and it was the only thing I knew. My parents came here in 1957 to work for Chuck Fry and Bob Hammon, they formed this agency and brought my Dad in. At that time, Orlando was very small. I would often spend evenings and weekends here, just putzing around.
Just like today, we use our own kids in ads, because it is easy, practical and sometimes economical, and I was the little red-headed kid who often appeared in TV commercials, brochures and print ads. One of our larger clients then was Cobia boats and since we grew up around boats, each summer I was in their new brochures as a boat driver or an extra for pictures. I was surrounded with models at 13 years old.
Though I was around it, I really didn’t understand it. Even when I was in college at FSU, I wasn’t sure what to declare and decided on advertising/marketing. Things changed when I was challenged by a professor, Dr. Ed Forest.
EW: I want to unpack that, but first, you came back to Orlando not to work for your Dad’s firm but the Orlando Sentinel?
PB: Yes, it was the mid-80s and the Sentinel’s business was booming. I was young, ambitious and impatient, I wanted more and I wanted to go to work for an agency, but it took several years before he let me come on. He wanted me to earn the right to work here. When I came in I had to start all over and nothing was given me; I had to gain the trust and respect of the staff. It was also a more collaborative skill set; I had to let others do their job, while living up to the standards of discipline and hard work, especially with what my father set before me.
EW: What was your dad’s strongest suit professionally?
PB: Charisma, energy and a never-ending drive to succeed. That is what he is – always striving for perfection.
EW: What do you enjoy most? I’m sure as CEO you wear a lot of hats from personnel, to managing cash flow, to working with clients. What sparks you?
PB: Walking the halls and interfacing with our people, making a point to personally get to know each one. When I interview, I quickly get past the qualifications. I wouldn’t be talking to them if they weren’t qualified. I want to get to know them; that way I know if they are a fit. I like the people part of this job.
EW: How did your approach to advertising and PR get shaped?
PB: My Dad was a factor, but my professor at FSU challenged me to get in the advertising program at the University and stay with it. It was hard to get in and I had to beg, and he said, “If I let you in, you have to stay in. I’m going to watch you.” Dr. Ed Forest imparted a lot to me at a time when I needed it.
EW: For instance?
PB: Number one, it is what the consumer thinks and feels, not what you think; it is learning to hear the voice of the consumer. We learned to do a lot of market research and focus groups, which we thought we were pretty good at. He taught us how to dig out the nuggets to find what the consumer thinks. He made me want to be successful, to develop the craft at a time when I really needed that.
EW: When you have a client who thinks they know what to do or understands the market, whether it is a new APP or a new beer, how do you give them a reality check?
PB: First, it is important that they are sitting behind the glass during the focus groups that they are watching. Second, you have to demonstrate that your research methodology is sound.
Focus groups are qualitative. It isn’t scientifically projectable, so you have to do enough with the client in the back room. The moderator has to do a good job, along with the pace of the process to give an accurate perspective on the research. If our findings counter what the client believes, if they believe in your methodology, they come around. We also supplement that with qualitative online surveys to support it. When they match up, it is pretty convincing.
The key to the process is client engagement. If the client says, “I don’t want to come, just let me know the results,” that sends up a red flag for us. If you tell them how it goes and it counters their assumptions, then it can go off track.
EW: Your company has been around a long time. You predate Disney and you have had a long tenure personally. What did you anticipate and what completely caught you by surprise?
PB: We saw that this sleepy town was going to be an important center, that it had potential. That is what brought my parents here in the late 1950s. It’s location in the center of the state, with beaches in either direction an hour away. Martin Marietta was here and things were beginning to happen. Some of the early attractions were getting attention and I-4 went right through town, which then seemed like a great idea, and the Florida Turnpike was already built.
These were the things that Walt Disney looked out the window of his Lear Jet and saw in the 60s. They flew over the state back and forth and when he saw the intersection of I-4 and the Turnpike, they landed to check it out. Orlando has the ability to grow 360 degrees. That is unique; most major cities have geographical boundaries. Of course, when Disney announced, that put us on the map to the world.
What has surprised me is the incredible diversity of the region, which is very exciting, whether in origin, ethnic and high-tech diversity. The space program started that and it has become a major factor in our portfolio.
EW: Your business has become more complex. Can you break that down for us?
PB: The evolution of the digital age has changed everything. When I started, we set type and pasted it with wax. We did television spots, radio, print ads and billboards. Now everything begins with the consumer, which has completely shifted the power. It is the consumer age, and they are smarter than ever before. Though you have to do all the traditional things you have done, there is so much more.
PB: There is what is called “Lean-In” media and “Lean-Back” media. Lean-Back is to sit on the couch, relax and watch TV. We all still want that since content and messages are delivered to us passively. With Lean-In, you are engaged, you are actively searching for something, and sometimes Lean-In and Lean-Back happen simultaneously. For example, I often watch TV with a mobile device.
Brands are defined digitally, so when we work with a client on Brand launches or Brand refreshing, we start with the digital presence. We try to get into the head of consumers on the research side to determine how they engage with a brand.
EW: How has it impacted how you do research?
PB: It has completely changed it. We do surveys online and we do usability testing on websites, apps and more online to see if people are navigating the way we think they are. We also measure Net Promoter Scores to fin out, would they recommend that brand?
EW: How do you build brand loyalty?
PB: The brand has to be magnetic to the consumer; it has to satisfy some need and perform the way they expect it to. You have to take the consumer seriously and listen.
EW: How has consumer behavior changed?
PB: You have to open up a two-way conversation with the consumer. No longer is a company’s communication one-way. You have to listen, be authentic and respond. If you are going to play in the two-way conversation, like Facebook, it has to be a dialogue, not a monologue. Companies have to be responsive, especially when there is a problem.
EW: How does a smaller company manage that, since they don’t have a budget to pay someone to monitor it?
PB: First, the good thing is that online, a little brand can look big, and a local brand can be international. You can also have a feedback button on your website to see if your products and services are on target. Getting that feedback isn’t difficult and most of it is positive. Even with a small staff, it can be done.
EW: What are the first questions you ask a potential client to see if you are a fit?
PB: Are they realistic with their goals? Do they have funding and backing to do it right? Who is their competition? Is the market flooded or do they truly have a niche that has opportunity? We have refined our exploratory process pretty well to see how much due diligence they have done. However, we are working with startups more and more, and though it is more risky, it is also refreshing. This company was a start-up once, so it’s fun to work with founders and entrepreneurs. Much like a venture capital group, we have to probe to see if they have potential for success.
EW: Small or large, what clients stand out in your mind?
PB: We always look at potential for growth and one of the filters we look at is: Are they nice people? Are they going to be a partner? Businesses become so competitive and with this economic recession, we have been in difficult times and it can really cause people to morph. The posture of the relationship can be really challenging and if we don’t feel like we will be treated with respect, if it isn’t going to be a fair balanced partnership, day to day, we walk away.
EW: How long does that take to identify?
PB: A month or two, but you get signals in the first couple of meetings. I have become better and better at spotting it. There are four or five questions we ask. Is it a category of strength for us? Do we have a connection or know people there? Do they have a budget, are they realistic about their goals? Can we make a difference? Do they want to have fun? Are they nice people?
EW: What are your categories of strength?
PB: Healthcare, travel, tourism and hospitality, retail restaurant and now high tech. As we have become more digitally savvy, the connection with high tech companies is a natural extension for us.
EW: In your career, what would you say caught you most by surprise?
PB: Honestly, I didn’t see this Great Recession coming, not with the length and depth that it has had. My brother is a very successful banker and he talked to me about it several times, but the gravity of it I just didn’t grasp until it was well on us.