Marketing a Masterpiece1 Aug, 2014 By: Thomas Haire Response
Mitch Bader and Nick Nichols are using digital and direct response to push art marketers New Era Portfolio and Gallery Direct to new levels.
“For our business in particular, the synergies that direct response provides are immense,” says Mitch Bader, CEO of New Era Portfolio and its consumer-based subsidiary Gallery Direct, global leaders in providing fine art solutions, based in Austin, Texas. “Every person who is a consumer works for, or is associated with, a business of some sort. Every person who runs a business is a consumer. When we’re doing consumer marketing for Gallery Direct, we find that a lot of the orders coming to that site are small businesses buying buying for their company. Those companies have employees who are consumers, so the more exposure we get, the more cross-channel synergy we get.”
Bader, an executive with extensive experience with major marketers as well as direct response industry service providers, joined the company as chief financial officer in December 2012. New Era Portfolio was founded in 2000, with Gallery Direct joining the fold in 2008, and company founder Nick Nichols remains its director of design — its master curator of the works it offers and the artists with whom it works.
For the most part, the company has relied extensively on a mix of online direct marketing tactics since its beginning — and really honing in on those concepts since the founding of the consumer-facing Gallery Direct side of the business. New Era — a privately held company — publishes, manufactures and markets limited-edition artwork and custom image-based products. When the company added the Gallery Direct business, the idea was to bring art to life for consumers, allowing them to access a myriad of fine artwork from talented artists.
Bader says, though, that the company is beginning the work of creating a television campaign aspect to add to its direct response and digital marketing assets for Gallery Direct. When will that concept come to fruition?
“We are working diligently to maximize consumers’ on-site experience, by improving site navigation tools, as well as our social media and E-mail marketing capabilities,” Bader says. “When will be ready to tell our story via television? We expect to get there by 2015.”
A Trained Eye
The idea of such powerful consumer reach wasn’t likely in mind when Nichols brought his distinct eye and knowledge of art to businesses by forming New Era Portfolio with partner Joe Garcia in 2000.
“I’d learned the art business by working for Winn Devon, a group that publishes prints, posters and works of art,” Nichols says. “I developed an instinct and learned that I had an ability to understand art trends. It’s about being able to read what consumers’ tastes will be. I’ve been able to anticipate that.”
To this day, Nichols uses his nearly 20 years of experience in the industry to hand-select artists and images for the company — as well as ensuring the business side of each relationship reaches its fullest potential.
That dual expertise has been crucial to New Era Portfolio’s success in delivering current and vital artwork to corporate and hospitality design areas, as well as a prestigious collection of retail clients. “I consult with artists and clients to commission works that are — and will be — relevant,” Nichols says. “When we contract with an artist, we have all editorial rights, which allows us to edit and modify works to make them commercially marketable.”
The company launched Gallery Direct in 2008 as a counter to the real estate recession and its effects on New Era’s profitability as its business clients’ interior design projects came to a screeching halt thanks to the economy’s instability. “Through a combination of search engine marketing (SEM) and optimization, along with a powerful E-mail component, the business grew pretty rapidly during the next few years,” Bader says. “The company has never compromised on the customer experience when they open the box — real wood frames, artist-grade canvas, non-glare museum quality glass and more. It’s created organic word of mouth marketing for our quality.”
Bader’s time as CFO lasted just a year before he was elevated to president in December 2013, and then CEO just two months later. His commitment to each customer enjoying what the company calls a “five-star” experience is clear — and his background is a perfect fit for the company’s two-pronged business.
“My career has been a blend of consumer-facing marketing companies and B-to-B relationship management companies,” Bader says. “My experiences with direct response marketing methods really started at Dell — I saw Dell.com explode on the scene. I understand consumer touch points — the complete interaction and experience, from pre-sale to post-sale.”
During his career’s first two decades, Bader spent time with major marketers including Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), Dell, Coors, PepsiCo and Walt Disney. But he made his initial deep dive into the direct response world when he was hired by Steve Pittendrigh at InPulse Response Group in 2003.
“I was the CFO there and worked with Steve to shepherd the company through its sale to West Corp. (in 2006),” Bader says. “We went through a lot of private equity meetings. Financiers were constantly asking, ‘What’s your differentiator?’ And while they all expected me to say our agents sell better, my answer was, ‘We manage client relationships better than anybody else.’”
Bader’s key measurements for success in his current role are reflective of that InPulse experience: customer and employee satisfaction, combined with the company’s advancement. “Managing relationships is one of most important skills in running a company, whether it’s B-to-B or consumer,” Bader says. “That’s a key philosophical attribute to how I am approaching running New Era.”
Those philosophies are also crucial to the company’s five core values, listed on its website: “We’re here to help”; “Just the way you want it”; “Best-in-class quality at a great value, made in the U.S.A.”; “Remarkable turnaround”; and “Exceptional experience.”
And Bader says that working with Nichols reminds him of his experiences at Disney, where he once headed the company’s Hollywood Records subsidiary. “In music, you have to have an ear for the business. In art, you have to have an eye for the business,” he says. “Nick knows what’s commercially viable, whether it’s for consumers or for an office or hotel project.”
Expanding Marketing Horizons
But knowing your business and marketing your business are two separate things. How has the New Era Portfolio/Gallery Direct team found consistent success in getting the word out?
“On the Gallery Direct side, it’s been a classic Web strategy — our agency buys keywords and does great search marketing work,” Bader says. “We’ve also had a very successful social campaign. We have more than 92,000 likes on Facebook, and we’ve run a series of contests as well as what we call a ‘blog ambassador program.’ We plan to re-launch that later this year.”
However, he says most of the key activities that built Gallery Direct happened or were launched between 2010 and late 2012. The company is now working on some “very targeted E-mail campaigns, and measuring how they interact to build brand awareness,” Bader says.
On the New Era side of the business, the challenge is different. “As our online retail business has grown, we find ourselves competing with our own clients,” he says. “For instance, One Kings Lane is a very important B-to-B client, and they buy both exclusive and non-exclusive imagery which may be sold on Gallery Direct. Their consumer could be a Gallery Direct consumer.”
But instead of shrinking from the challenge, Bader says the company has built from it. “We have several clients in the E-commerce space, but our experience in attracting consumer business with Gallery Direct has given us the ability to consult with those E-commerce outlets. We’ve allowed our consumer business to grow our commercial business.”
He cites the launch of Photos.com, in partnership with Getty Images. “Getty chose to monetize its vast trove of great photography because of our experience in reaching consumers,” Bader says. “We built and host the site for them. It’s a great partnership.”
Bader says Gallery Direct primarily remarkets to its consumer base via E-mail. “Art is a different product, not a consumable,” he says. “We’re trying to get a better understanding of purchase patterns — how consumers buy art. Pricing is interesting, because — frankly — in our marketing, we’re always experimenting with the best way to convey our quality. But, on any given product, if the net price is the same for a product not on special as another product on a ‘50%-off’ offer, people will buy the special offer. That’s why we always have special offers on the site.”
What the company learned prompted it to join a heavily growing facet of the online art business — large-scale prints of consumer-uploaded photos. “People will change family photo walls more frequently,” Bader says. “The purchase pattern for that business allows more repeat business.”
Bader also points to social media as another place that his team is looking to glean consumer interest. “We’re looking at expanding our team to be more active on social media,” he says. “We’ve been very active on Facebook, but we’ve underutilized Twitter and Pinterest. Pinterest, especially, is something art folks use more frequently.”
All of this work has led Bader and his team to begin the work of creating a television campaign that would supplement the other facets of its direct and digital efforts. “The goal with TV would be brand awareness,” he says. “It’s easier to convey the quality of our product in a video than in a picture on the site. But our videos currently on the site are hard to access. We’re looking to experts to help us craft the right message for TV, but the demo of our product quality would come through more clearly, it would drive more traffic, and it would help gain greater market traction.”
Maintaining a Gold Standard
As an executive, Bader is one who clearly isn’t afraid to let his employees and vendors bring their expertise to the table to create a better campaign and a better product. And when he talks about experiences that have shaped his management style, it’s easy to see why.
“I’ve learned so much from every business I’ve been in,” he says. “For example, very early in my career, I was with ARCO. This was in the days when oil company credit cards were really popular. The company made a decision that all of the finance people were against — eliminating our card and going ‘cash only.’ The head of marketing observed that the finance folks didn’t understand that if we took the savings from getting rid of cards and moved it to a TV campaign telling consumers that ‘We’re cash only and we have the lowest prices on the market,’ we could drive a huge increase in business.”
The campaign, well known in the annals of advertising, showed a pair of hands pushing down a plunger in an old explosive device to “blow up” and a credit card. “The decision drove a 40-percent increase in business. Then, when the consumer’s driving pattern got reestablished to driving to an ARCO station, the company slowly started moving the pricing back up to the lower end of the range other stations were charging. It was a hugely profitable move and it showed me that you have to have an instinct about your business,” Bader says.
He had a similar experience during his time with Taco Bell. “The president of the company decided we’d let pricing get out of hand, and that we should roll back the price of tacos to 79 cents — from 99 cents,” Bader recalls. ”It was a very risky move — he could have lost his job if it failed, but he read our consumers correctly and it was a great success.”
But it’s not all about pricing, Bader believes. “There’s quality component, too,” he says. “When I was with Pepsi, I learned the notion of standard and degradation. If you lower the quality of your product, most consumers won’t notice just that little bit of a difference. But if you do it again and again — too many times — the consumer will notice. That gold standard notion has stuck with me.”
Bader also carries a “gold standard” for the service providers he brings on board to New Era and Gallery Direct. While the company does all of its site design in house — a “home-grown platform,” Bader says — key vendors are used to round out the company’s marketing capabilities.
“For search, we work with Austin-based 360 Partners,” he says. “They’re doing all of our SEM work, and we may expand their scope to optimization work. We’ve not had an agency do that. I came into this business new to E-commerce, so I’m learning how SEO and SEM integrate. We are learning a lot about the nuances to create the site that we need to drive organic and paid search.”
Bader also mentions Sailthru and Gigya as partners helping to drive the company’s E-commerce and social media platforms. And, when it comes to putting all of these pieces together, especially when considering adding the TV component, he speaks glowingly of New York-based THOR Associates, which the company began working with recently.
“What THOR has done is help create a much more comprehensive roadmap — more than for just digital,” Bader says. “They’re helping us create a true branding, positioning and consumer presentation strategy. It will take time to implement all components. We expect to keep working with them as a partner while building the team internally to put the strategy in motion.”
Circling back to where Bader began, creating and implementing a clear strategy continues to become more and more crucial for New Era and Gallery Direct. That roadmap will be crucial as the company works to handle the business it’s driving due to the quality of its offerings.
“I came into the office one morning last year to see a $50,000 order on Gallery Direct — from a hotel,” Bader says. “They’d found Gallery Direct, placed a test order to see how our service and quality were. Then, two weeks later they placed this $50,000 order. That’s the perfect example of lines being blurred between the two sides of our business. It’s a great problem to have. Now, how can we maximize both sides?” ■