Sullivan Higdon & Sink Avoids the Flock in Advertising

Co-CEO Ali Mahaffy knows hating sheep isn’t enough for industry success—it has to start from the inside

When an advertising agency uses the web address wehatesheep.com, it tells you something about the company’s commitment to non-conformity.

“We hate sheep because they follow the flock. They don’t stand out,” says Ali Mahaffy, Sullivan Higdon & Sink’s (SHS)co-CEO. The fluffy creature of habit is a metaphor that Mahaffy says is bad for business, and the symbol evolved into a philosophy that’s integral to the Kansas City-based agency’s identity.

BRANDING THE BRANDERS

Ali Mahaffy shares these tips for branding your company:

  • Don’t try to be everything to everyone. There are a lot of agencies in the world. Many do great creative work. Many are smart. So why will a client come to you?
  • Focus on a specific target, industry, or offering, and be the best. Ask yourself, “What do we do? Who do we do it for? Who’s the end consumer?” Focus on those answers, find a passion, and be the best at it.
  • The first step in standing out from the flock is to determine the very essence of what your brand is all about. You determine that, and then everything else comes from there—who and what you want your brand to be. It guides decisions from HR to pricing to branding to packaging to the website and the service you provide your customers.
  • Keep reminding yourself every day about what the essence is and why you’re striving for that.

The catchphrase achieves its desired effect—SHS certainly stands apart from its competition in the industry. “It’s our way of saying, ‘It’s important to be remarkable,’” Mahaffy says. “Stand for something you believe in and that sets you apart, and customers will follow.” That credo has guided SHS toward accolades such as Advertising Age’s “Small Agency of the Year” in 2013 and the Business Marketing Association’s “B2 Midsize Agency of the Year” in 2014.

Part of SHS’s success derives from how it expertly applies its differentiating principles to its clients’ companies. “If you are making decisions regarding your brand and your marketing like your competitors are, you’re not showcasing what makes you different,” Mahaffy says. “Consumers won’t choose you for anything except, likely, price.” SHS’s kind of creativity spurs laughter with thirty-second spots for Blue Rhino propane tanks as easily as it does thoughtfulness with social media campaigns for ULCERGARD, an equine ulcer prevention medication.

The latter, in fact, garnered 35,000 Facebook shares in its first week online. “Horse owners and trainers are a highly competitive group. They love to show their animals, and they love to win,” Mahaffy says. “We really locked in to this strategy that this product is not just helping a horse feel better . . . it’s helping the horse owner and competitor get that win.” The ability to pinpoint a brand’s most effective identity and end goal is what has fueled SHS’s success for many years.

Indeed the sheep-hating at SHS has gone on for quite a while—it’s been the agency’s motto for two decades, according to Mahaffy—and the agency itself has been around much longer. It started in 1971 in Wichita, Kansas, focusing predominantly on the aviation industry that has long played a critical role in Wichita’s economy. But with one founder of SHS coming from a background in advertising and the other in public relations, there was an early decision to combine the two fields to bring what Mahaffy calls “integrated thinking” to clients. “It became one of the guiding principles through the years,” she says.

But even the most successful advertising campaigns and strategies are only as good as the people who come up with them. That’s what led SHS toward its “Why Statement” culture initiative. “We decided to think not about what we produce as an agency, but why,” Mahaffy says. “Why do SHSers want to come to work here in the first place? And what motivates them to do the best work for our clients?”

The ensuing Why Statement provided an answer: to help people and brands make transformative changes to become the best version of themselves. Creating a company culture that consistently brings the best out of its staff physically and creatively is SHS’s cornerstone nowadays. “That’s what makes us different than other places—that level of respect for one another,” Mahaffy says.

Physically, SHS staff got a boost when everybody was given Jawbone activity trackers to use free of charge for logging a certain number of steps in a twelve-week period. On a personal level, they’ve enjoyed the services of a life coach as each SHSer strives to reach his or her own work-life balance.

Creatively, a team-based approach prevails. For example, all of the staff who work on Sonic Drive-In—a large account SHS acquired in 2013—sit and work together, uniting brand management, project management, media, and creative teams. “They’re creating better work because they’re talking about the clients’ business all day, solving problems in that way of integrated thinking that our founders instilled in us years ago,” Mahaffy says. “We all know we bring something different to the table, and I think the way we’ve structured the agency really showcases what makes every team member valuable.”

For Mahaffy, growth also applies to her professionally. She started at SHS as an account supervisor back in 2001 and was named co-CEO in 2015. But she knows better than anyone that now is no time for resting on her laurels. “What is the legacy that I get to help leave fifteen years from now? That’s the looming question,” Mahaffy says.

From nationally known clients like Sonic to clients with a cult-like following such as Shatto Milk Company, SHS knows what makes each brand tick—especially its own company culture. Yet Mahaffy is already contemplating how to write the next chapter of the company. “How do we redefine the culture and still make it the place we know and want it to be?” she says.

True to SHS’s sheep-hating philosophy, Mahaffy refuses to settle for the status quo when it comes to cultural development. Looking ahead, Mahaffy and her team have already started an open dialogue to identify the agency’s next steps. “It won’t just be us pushing down on what culture we want,” she says. “It’ll be inviting the agency to talk about what they want as well.”