To embrace and acknowledge the contributions to this country by our diverse population, and to honor and celebrate Black and Woman’s History Month, Peter Bonnell on the Dun & Bradstreet Emerging Business team conducted a series of interviews with minority and women business owners. The interviews can be found on Dun & Bradstreet B2B’s Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Resource pages.
Pre-dating written record, storytelling is a rich tradition that captivates nearly everyone. Stories have been shared around campfires, evolved into what we know as modern cinema, and give structure every person’s life and even even the creation of businesses; we all have a unique story to tell.
Stories are where Erica Warren found her calling.
Erica TG Warren is a story strategist and the Founder of Creation Speak. Creation Speak is a story design agency that helps creators and businesses reclaim their story. When working with businesses, she mainly focuses on business-to-business technology startups and midsize companies who have a great story to tell but are struggling to tell it. Creation Speak helps these companies uncover their brand or product story, and fuel authentic engagement through strategy design and execution. Warren is an award-winning marketer who has led global marketing campaigns for Ernst & Young, Accenture, and Assurant. Her book, “The Creator in You,” guides audiences through how to create authentically, even during challenging periods. She has spoken at Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial fireside chats, and to business audiences about how to tell a story and build brands that disrupt and design the future.
The Spark that Ignited Creation Speak
On the theme of storytelling, we would be remiss not to share Warren’s story and how Creation Speak begun. Warren noticed there was something missing in the marketing landscape and she set out to fill the gap with her own agency.
“After 15 years launching campaigns for top tier brands globally, I realized execution was rewarded over engagement,” she said. “Authentic storytelling melted under the weight of getting it done. People forget campaigns, are offended by being ‘target marketed to,’ and are turned off when brands want something from them. This is typically because a tactical campaign without an authentic story is cold and transparent.”
“I woke up one day and realized that I was a frustrated storyteller personally acquainted with the pain of marketing campaigns plagued by breakdowns between the story and the marketing strategy. Stories are human, and I started Creation Speak to bring the human back to marketing.”
Warren then highlighted that it was authentic relationships that were instrumental to her company’s growth. Tweet This To her, authentic relationships are “not ones based primarily on what we can do for each other, or ones where you know specifically how this will pay off for you, but relationships where you are truly invested in seeing the other person be great.”
She emphasized the pertinence of this relationship fostering, telling the story of her first client.
“My first large client came from a previous indirect boss in my corporate life,” she said. “Working with him, I knew that though I didn’t technically report to him, his success would be my success. So I delivered great work for him, helped champion the things he cared about, provided a new perspective for him and was his ally.”
“Four years later when I decided to launch my agency full time, he was the one championing me and offered me a large contract that fueled my business growth. Ninety percent of the sales I’ve closed since that first contract have all come from people I’ve worked with along my career. People that I was intentional about helping be great. This relationship currency I had accumulated set in motion a momentum that allowed me to grow at five-times the industry average in my first year.”
Warren knew better than to underestimate the power of relationship building, and she used her authentic connections with people to grow her business.
The Road Well Travelled – Challenges at Creation Speak
What’s a good story without a struggle? Or a failure? To Warren, it’s not about the actual failure, but how one defines it.
“I choose to define failures as the ‘entrepreneur’s workout,’ in the sense that you get stronger by failing and learn how to create success from it,” she said. “I recently had a failure working with a large client. It seemed no matter what I tried we just could not nail their story, the message the client needed. It felt like trying to form a house out of cotton candy – the moment you got it set, it evaporated.”
It was a tough experience for both Warren and her client, which ultimately culminated in an end to the project. Like any challenging experience, there is always an opportunity to take advantage of lessons presented in the process.
“I learned an incredible amount from that moment – one that’s changed the whole way I’m developing my products and services,” she said. “I learned about the type of clients I like to work with, the projects my team is best at, and how to identify when a project is set up for failure from the beginning. It was one of the toughest entrepreneur workouts I’ve experienced, but it’s helped me focus on identifying the clients I can make the most impact with.”
A Story of Understanding – Strengths and Weaknesses
There’s a fundamental difference between knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and understanding them. One might say knowing is only half the battle, but understanding allows someone the ability to discern what impact both strengths and weaknesses have on an individual, and in this case, a business.
Warren demonstrated this understanding, as she reflected, “I’m not a detailed thinker. That’s a weakness, and the opposite of that is my strength: I’m an incredible strategic thinker. Both of these impact my business. My strength is the foundation of my business, the most valuable thing I can give to my clients is insight, perspective and strategies that illuminate something new for them fueling their growth.”
“Not being detail oriented means I’m not always thinking of the small foxes that can spoil the vine,” she said. “To mitigate this, I bring team members into my projects that are detail oriented and I empower them to own those details and push me when I’m overlooking them. I also find creative ways to stay highly organized around the details; I went through 10-15 tools for project management, email clients and proofing until I found my core stable of tools – DropTask , Inbox by Gmail, and Grammarly– that spoke to my creativity but had the rigor to keep me organized.”
Marketing for a Branding Agency
Though Warren operates a branding agency for other businesses, she still carefully considers her own approach to marketing. Any marketing recipe for her agency has to have three key ingredients: the capability to be technology enabled, the elements of visual creativity, and authentic connections.
“LinkedIn has all three of those ingredients and I’ve used it with great success to date,” she said. “It’s been a simple strategy of spending time each day paying attention to what my former colleagues and friends are doing – finding ways I can connect the dots for them by introducing them to the right people, sharing news with them or just celebrating wins with them.”
“This has paid huge dividends. I’ve been brought into opportunities and referred just by staying connected authentically more than any other marketing tactic I’ve employed.”
A Story of Influence
Naturally, we always want to know what influences the influencer, so we asked Warren to tell us a small story about what has impacted her at a personal and professional level.
“‘Can we pull this off?’ My former CEO was staring intensely at me asking not just can this be done but could I do it,” she said. “It was a gut check. We had to roll out a campaign to activate a largely millennial audience across 11 countries on one day. This program had always been done a certain way, but we were losing engagement and I knew we had to disrupt or fail. I pitched a bold idea – live gamification of something seen as stodgy – integrating social media, mobile, and print at a simultaneous live event. Even after assembling a rock star team, I wasn’t quite sure if we could pull it off. But I looked into his eyes and said ‘I’m confident we can’. Weeks of intense work, dreaming big, team creativity and over execution led to a sales enablement program that received a 90 percent approval rating and increased engagement by 20 percent.”
“That experience taught me how to disrupt something that was already successful and how to be boldly confident with my ideas. These are lessons I carry daily in my entrepreneurial journey. I recall stories like this to remind myself that no matter what’s sitting in front of me I know how to disrupt and boldly execute.”
Be a Nimble and Curious Navigator
One of the best pieces of advice Warren has for prospective minority entrepreneurs is to “find a way or make one.”
“That’s the motto of my alma mater, Clark Atlanta University,” she said. “It’s one I’ve carried with me and it’s the advice I give often. The playing field is not level. But that only matters if you’re playing someone else’s game. When you’re stuck, when the rules aren’t fair, when you can’t see the way, make your own. We often think there is one linear line between where we are and where we want to go. It’s not linear – it’s three dimensional. And if you can navigate the dimensions of being a minority in life, you already have the tools to navigate them in your business.”
Navigating with intention is but one piece of the entrepreneurial puzzle, however. She states another key aspect to success is maintaining an enduring a sense of curiosity.
“I’m insatiably curious about technology, how it enables our stories and the ways we connect together. I’m digging in now to learn more about how I can leverage technologies like ChatBox in my own business, and to enhance our customer experience.”
Community Impact with Creation Speak
Community impact is a two-way street when it comes to both individuals and businesses. The people within a community support the business, and it speaks volumes to a community if the business supports the community in return.
Atlanta, the base of operations for Creation Speak, has a strong community of entrepreneurs. As Warren puts it, “It’s a city where big dreamers come to live. There is a rhythm of dreaming, disruption and dynamic teamwork that is very unique here.”
Warren strives to influence her local community, particularly via direct engagement with the entrepreneurial community in Atlanta. “I’m working to give back to this community by speaking to young entrepreneurs, women in business, and Atlanta business owners on storytelling, being present, and the challenges of entrepreneurship,” she said. “I also try to meet someone new every time I am at my co-working space.”
As is the case with every story, our interview has to come to an end. However, Warren’s story continues, and we wish her incredible success, and appreciate her time in giving us a snapshot of her journey so far.