LA Business Podcast

05. Rick Robinson, Partner/Chief Strategy Officer, Billups

Rick Robinson LA Business podcast
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I spoke with Rick Robinson, CSO of Billups, about the art of out of home advertising, the future of advertising with driverless cars, and cannabis brands buying out of home ads.

Intro: [00:00:00] Welcome to the LA Business Podcast, a form for business owners and senior executives to share the experiences about the elements that drive their success. Your host is Robert Brill, CEO of, an Inc 500 company delivering. The power of hyper-local advertising. Robert writes for Forbes Inc and Ad trade publications.

Our goal is to bring you the stories about successes and failures of people who are making big things happen in marketing, entrepreneurship and management.

Robert Brill: [00:00:42] Hey, everyone. Welcome to the LA Business Podcast. Today we have Rick Robinson an out of home, a media executive, public speaker. And partner and chief strategy officer at Billups.

Thank you for being here, Rick.

Rick Robinson: [00:00:58] My pleasure. It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Robert.

Robert Brill: [00:01:00] So, Rick, I’ve known you now for, I don’t know if it seems like, I think it’s actually closing in on a decade. a lot of close over the last few years. What I think is supremely interesting about you is that you have built your career integrating art and business into a singular, cohesive, a stream of consciousness, shall we say.

Can you, speak to like, that seems like you’re living the dream from the perspective of being able to connect both sides of your, of who you are. Can you speak to how, like how you crafted that over the years?

Rick Robinson: [00:01:38] You know, I didn’t think about it too much. I just said yes all the time. and that sounds like a little bit of a flip answer, but the truth is I just said yes a lot.

Look. And, and when I first discovered the billboard business to me, they represented public sculptures. And so I approached them with that mindset, which allowed me to have a different take on it than everyone else and carve out a niche for me in the out-of-home media world. That was a unique to me, and at the same time, what I learned communicating on the streets and out if home media also influenced my artwork, which is more of an intimate one to one level.

So they really went hand in hand, and honestly. You know, whether you’re, communicating on the street with big visuals and colors and shapes and spatial relationships and words, and the context that’s surrounding those messages. Or you’re in an art gallery, you’re using the same toolkit. Colors, shapes, spatial relationship words, lack of words, all the contextual meaning that surrounds those components.

So it’s just a matter of which environment you’re playing it. But. To me, it all comes from the same place.

Robert Brill: [00:02:58] Incredible. And so how long, have you been doing this overall, Rick?

Rick Robinson: [00:03:03] Well, you know, I’ve been an artist my whole life. Started showing my work in the 80s in San Francisco, and I got into the billboard business in August of 1986.

Robert Brill: [00:03:12] Incredible. I mean, that’s, that’s an incredible career. You, speak all over the world at out-of-home conferences, you’re, you’re publishing all kinds of trade publications. And I’ll tell you, I think you are one of the most dynamic speakers that I’ve seen. I’m a, I’m a student of communications and I, what I really enjoy about.

Watching you do your craft is that you know how to make a connection with people in a way that is real and authentic. And I suspect there’s no real question there, but I suspect that comes from a lot of personal power, I think. I think you feel, it seems like you feel strongly about what you do and you love it, and your passion is that that has to be right.


Rick Robinson: [00:04:00] I think that’s with anythin. If somebody feels it viscerally and you know, you see it and it’s like, I know, it’s kinda like you jump up in the air and you stay there, right? You’re in this suspended state of elevation. And if, and if you find that, and if all those dots connect for you and, then the odds are you’re going to be able to communicate about it in a very powerful, meaningful way.

You know, everybody wants to connect to somebody or something. That has a level of authenticity, and it doesn’t matter what it is. You don’t even need to understand the topic. But if somebody’s coming at you from the heart, and you can tell that it’s quote unquote real for them, for lack of a better word, you know, you’re going to like that.

You’re going to look, you’re going to listen. You’re going to want some of that.

Robert Brill: [00:04:48] Yeah. So Rick, I don’t know what type of, metrics you disclose publicly about billup? So it’s kind of a soft question, but for our audience, both of them is a, from my perspective, a massive company. What do you guys generally say about like what you guys do in the marketplace?

Rick Robinson: [00:05:09] Sure. So Billups is the largest independent out-of-home managed services group in the country. We’ve got just shy of a hundred people. We’re across 17 cities now. Most of our effort is towards the managed service, planning and buying out of home media. We also have a very strong data science discipline and software team.

We’re all about being bullish on out of home, and we believe in investing in speed and precision. And the more we do that, the better we get at that, the stronger our offering will be. Our client base is, yeah, look, it’s exciting. Out of home is an exciting space. It’s, we’re, we’re hot stuff right now, right?

The news feed on out-of-home is super positive. There are global forces at work much bigger than the out of home industry that are benefiting the out-of-home industry over the long term. Those are population growth, population density in big cities and smaller markets. We live out of our house all the time.

We’ve got our, you know, mobile retail storefront in our hand with our phone. We are visual by nature. The younger generation likes out of home. And what’s also happening is that the relationship between out of home media and the cities. The medium serves is changing. It’s becoming more essential. The medium is becoming the voice of those cities, and a lot of that has been brought forward by the conversion to digital hardware.

Oh, all over the globe really. And so that affords the out-of-home suppliers to share that space on the fly with wayfinding messages and public service and public safety messaging, art messaging, all kinds of other types of public information that supplement the dominant messaging, which is commerce of course.

And so if you have those multiple touch points with the community. Then the relationship between that messenger out of home media and the people in that city becomes more complex and lives on different levels of utility.

Robert Brill: [00:07:19] So Rick, someone recently came up to me, about six months ago now and said, I have an opportunity to invest in a billboard like a big, I think, I think, what do you call the, the largest billboards that are by the side of the road, like super bulliton’s.

That’s not right. It’s something else.

And, the concern was in the time when cars are self-driving. Are people going to be looking up enough to, to make that investment payout over the long term? Over the next 20 or 30 years? Do you have an opinion about, you know, the day that self driving cars, you know, the five year period that self driving cars goes from its infancy to a regular sort of occurrence in the majority of people are doing that.

Do you think the value of bulltins and other other similar types of digital out of home or out of home inventory remains high, or how does, how does that affect, because the concern is people are going to be looking down at their phones.

Rick Robinson: [00:08:28] Sure. So what you’re referring to is one piece of the out-of-home pie, which are what we call roadside billboards.

Certainly anything in a mall or airport or stadium or train station, anything street-level in a high pedestrian density market like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, etc, any out of home and those environments, I won’t be affected in any way by quote unquote self driving cars. So keep them in conversation to roadside billboards.

At this point, I think it’s unknown. I do believe, however, that the relationship between the automobile and that structure will remain. The question is in what way? Right now, given today’s technology, what we do is we position an ad on the board that’s at the appropriate height and angle to the street. So people looking out their window can easily see the message.

So our goal, if you look at it broadly, is to get the message from the billboard into the car. So knowing the future self driving cars, at least the mockups we’ve seen show people, you know, facing each other, without the need to look out the front window. it also shows different types of digital glass where you can have different types of messaging or different types of interaction.

So my view is, you know, the purpose of that real estate, those, billboards. Well just shift. Maybe it’s part of the navigation system. Maybe it’s serving messages into the car electronically as opposed to visually now on with vinyl or a digital sign. I do believe that that real estate, that pole in the ground that’s positioned adjacent to a roadway where cars are traveling, that real estate will maintain its value and probably increase in value.

It’s just a function of that real estate in its relationship to automobiles will evolve with technology.

Robert Brill: [00:10:33] That’s fascinating. Like it, I love that. So, Rick, the here are two key questions that I want to answer that I want your opinion on, is regard to scaling and building a business.

And it comes from. My own selfish interests because we’re in this growth phase for our business right now, and it’s for the benefit of the listeners. So I want to ask you kind of like the same question, but from two different perspective, from an inside Billups perspective. What are you, what is builds doing to, to grow?

What are, what are the things that you’ve seen prove out over the last few years that is responsible for the growth of your business? let’s, let’s start there. Let’s look at inside Billups. I mean, like it, from what I know about you guys, you guys are taking risks right and left. I think that’s probably part of it.

What’s the secret that business owners and entrepreneurs should know about growing and scaling their business?

Rick Robinson: [00:11:38] Oh my gosh. You know, first of all, muster amazing amounts of Uzi ASM every morning. If you don’t believe no one else is going to. Yeah, I think it’s been. A few factors. One of them is just our relentless spirit.

You know, our belief that we can succeed, that we’re always going to stay active, that we’re going to be, tenacious and hungry and you know, opportunistic, curious, accountable, all those things we say yes a lot. So it’s attitude. The other piece is that fundamentally we firmly believe. In the bullish nature of out of home.

We believe the industry is a good place to invest money, and then it will continue to grow. And then if we can create speed and precision, we’ll always have a leg up, and that’s paying off quite well, especially in the precision piece with data science, particularly mobile data. We now have three data scientists working for us.

And so. That’s helping us plan smarter and then also do attribution studies after the buy. And then lastly, and perhaps the most important piece is bringing in talent. You know, we, we’ve curated one of the strongest teams of out of home experts I’ve ever seen anywhere, and they’re all over the country. Our bench is deep.

We keep our good people. And, you know, we have a lot of momentum there. So between the vision and attitude, the people in the organization. And the investment and the things that differentiate us. In particular data science. We’ve been able to maintain our position and grow.

Robert Brill: [00:13:21] Fascinating. And what are you seeing your client’s side, and I know you work with agencies, I believe, you know, right.

That’s a big part of your business. And then you go directly to advertisers, are there any trends that are, or patterns that you, you’re recognizing that you are a part of, in the growth process for different brands. Like, one of the things I’m seeing a lot of is I’m seeing a lot of cannabis out of home advertising.

And every time I see that, I think of you guys, I don’t know if you’re placing all of these, but like a Weedmaps for example, and Med Men and like near my place was a billboard of roadside bulletin for a Cush Alley. And it’s like booming, massive opportunity. Like what, how are businesses growing with the help of, Billups?

Rick Robinson: [00:14:13] Sure. So we see a few things. First of all, everybody loves a great billboard and most brands are intrigued and wanted you out of home. They just want us to prove it better. And so the data science piece is really helping across all categories. In terms of specific areas where we’re seeing increased interest in activity.

One of the biggest is direct to consumer brands or eCommerce brands. You know, it’s one thing to go on Facebook and build a business, find customers. And, you know, create a, a going concern that way and go to your, you know, series B, series C round of fundraising. But it’s a whole nother thing to build a brand that stands on its own, that it creates its own demand.

And so a lot of these B2C brands, if they’re starting to evolve, I realize that they need to go into other media forms to build their brand out of home being one of them. So out of home has become the analog storefront for digital only brands, and we see a lot of growth there and we expect more and more now when it comes to cannabis, you know, it’s cannabis is legal record recreationally and about a dozen States, and several of them you can do out of home media in one form or another.

There are some restrictions. We put some thought pieces out on this earlier this year, essentially, you need to treat it like you would distilled spirits or beer. You know, you want to keep it away from schools and hospitals and playgrounds and things like that, you know, you can’t picture any flower on it and you want to make sure that, you know, it’s a good actor in the public space. There’s a lot of money and a lot of energy and a lot of noise around the cannabis sector, and we’re, monitoring that. We participated in it in some small ways, and we’ll see, you know, we’ll see where it goes.

I’m actually speaking on a panel. Later this week in Portland, the Portland Ad Fed on the very topic of cannabis marketing. You know, it’s early days and you’re going to see a shakeout.

Robert Brill: [00:16:23] That’s fascinating. So, what does 2020 look like for you guys? Like what’s the focus there? I presume you guys, you guys continue to spend a lot of.

Your efforts on data and attribution and analysis. I think for a company as large as you are, that’s, exactly what the marketplace is looking for for you. Here’s a question that I wonder, do you have a feedback mechanism or a feedback loop as to what your customers want from you and don’t want from you.

Do you guys ever think about that or analyze that? Because I think for small companies, especially startups, that’s incredibly important. And when I talk to smaller midsize companies and they’re looking for marketing advice, the first question as well. What’s the message? And the message should really be defined by what your marketplace wants from your business.

So, as a larger company, do you, do you get, you get that feedback and you look at that? Is that important for you guys?

Rick Robinson: [00:17:29] Oh, sure. Absolutely. On a daily basis. I mean, first off, we think of ourselves as a small company. You know, we, we’re hungry, we’re hungry, we’re nimble. We’re, we want to earn it every single day.

And the feedback loop is constant, organically through our teams at the point of attack with our clients on a daily basis all over the country. And we’re always talking about and always trying to better understand where we’re performing and where we’re not. Or we have done some surveys as well.

There’s, I think it’s called net promoter score. There’s other things you can do, and I’d recommend that, you know. Ultimately, you can never expect it to be static. It’s always shifting and changing and moving. We’re always asking questions and sharing that as a group and a team and trying to evolve.

Additionally, your clients will tell you whether or not you’re on the right track. If they stay with you. And they spend more with you, you know, there, I mean, the proof is in the pudding.

Robert Brill: [00:18:25] Right?

Rick Robinson: [00:18:25] And so you should always listen to that. You know, one thing that I’m always cautious of is to avoid forcing our will on a certain situation.

So, I’m always trying to be aware of this, and I know that I’ve been guilty of it a few times in my career, probably many more than I’d like to admit, where you’re in a certain situation. Either you’re pitching a piece of business or you’re in the middle of a relationship and there is an opportunity that comes up and you come out of your way, which you think is the right way, and you end up.

Either not realizing that opportunity to fully its fullest extent or it goes away and go somewhere else and you wonder what happened. And almost every single time when I look back on that and do a postmortem, it’s because I just didn’t listen well enough and I thought my solution was their solution.

And, and either I didn’t communicate well enough or I just didn’t listen and realize that no, the way they saw it. was there answering what was working for them and I was too rigid and tried to force my methodology into their paradigm. And you see this, you know, cause agencies think one way, a brand think another.

You talk to a startup in San Francisco that, you know, just getting off the ground and it’s very bootstrapped. They’re going to have a very different approach to how they look at spending their media dollars and let’s say institutionalized brand at a bigger agency that has a lot of legacy and a lot of, you know, sacred cows and you can’t approach one like the other.

So you’re always shapeshifting and you’ve always got to be aware of that.

Robert Brill: [00:20:06] Do you have an opinion about which one is doing better? The institutionalized cows or the startup that’s trying to still figure, figure things out. I’m sure. I’m sure you probably see good in both.

Rick Robinson: [00:20:21] Yeah. I don’t know. I, I don’t know if one better than the other, you know, it’s what works. You know, there’s a lot of conversation out there. About what’s happening in the big holding company agency world, what’s happening with big brands? You know, the struggle for clarity, the struggle for focus, you see a lot of movement going on.

So certainly if the average life span of a CMO is less than two years, you know, something’s not quite working right. when you see all the movement of big brands from one holding company to another. You’re wondering why that’s happening with such frequency. So there’s something appealing about the nimble, you know, on the fly quick decision, shotgun approach that you get from startups and smaller challenger brands and things like that.

And sometimes you can really pull off something special that way, but, I wouldn’t discount the value of the rigor and legacy. And learning that is accompanied with, you know, a more historical brand. So you probably want the best of both. I know I kinda heads on the answer there for you, but I wouldn’t point at one is better than the other, in an absolute way.

Robert Brill: [00:21:36] Sure. I, I think most absolutes are probably wrong.

Rick Robinson: [00:21:42] Sure.

So, Rick, I’m changing topics a little bit as we wrap up the interview the episode. I’m a, I’m a big foodie. what’s your favorite food in Los Angeles or anywhere? Really? Like where, do you like to go eat?

You know right now my favorite place is called Manuela.

It’s in the arts district. It’s right next to a hammer and worth galleries. It’s on third street. Terrific setting, incredible food. And they have a flank steak with eggs. Can get anytime of the day that is chimichurri sauce. It’s outstanding.

Robert Brill: [00:22:27] Okay.

Rick Robinson: [00:22:27] It makes me want to go there right now.

Robert Brill: [00:22:30] I do want to go there right now.

All right, Rick, this was great. I listen. I appreciate you taking the time. Tell, tell our listeners where they can find you.

Rick Robinson: [00:22:41] B I L L U P You’ll find us there, or [email protected] happy to field any inquiries.

Robert Brill: [00:22:55] Thank you, Rick. Have a good rest of the day.

Rick Robinson: [00:22:57] Take care of Robert. Bye bye.

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