By Travis Pollert, Filmmaker & Founder of The Cleveland Film Company
Starting a small business is both exciting and terrifying. But for me, building a company around a niche skillset whose production process is slightly different every time has presented particular challenges in terms of marketing. By trade, I’m a storyteller, not a marketing expert. But as an entrepreneur, I’ve had to find ways to intentionally market our small business that fits the specific culture of our company.
I started our company in 2008, in the throes of the recession. I learned a lot really quickly and had to adapt even quicker. Early on we did it wrong in so many ways. As we got going we focused on what worked and built on those successes. While that may be simple, this approach has led us to where we are today.
I mentioned that I’m a storyteller, but to be more specific I am a filmmaker who has spent the last 13 years building a film production company who uses storytelling to create documentary and commercial films for our clients. Our films utilize intentional messaging expressed with an authentic voice. We have a more strategic and soup-to-nuts approach than “camera for hire” production companies, but are not a full-scale agency. Agencies tend to offer more services, for example, things like media-buying and ad-management services. We serve a niche in between, and we’re really good at it.
Many of our clients are local to Northeast Ohio, but many are not. Our projects have ranged from simple stories for local nonprofits to nationwide commercials for household brand names, and everything in between. While this range may seem significant, it’s all been accomplished inside of our focus, and each of our clients have been won using the same basic marketing techniques.
Our early successes were built on very simple things: Caring for relationships, earning and maintaining trust, and good word of mouth. As we developed, we built our company and our brand around those qualities. Over time we’ve also learned that some clients are a better fit for our business model, while others are not. When I started the company, I didn’t realize exactly what our market was. I knew that we could use filmmaking and storytelling to create value for clients, but developing the approach we have today took time to figure out. We eventually learned to identify when potential clients were really looking for someone closer to a “camera-for-hire” company, or when they were really wanting a much larger agency approach. This took us a while to recognize, but as we have it’s made for much better relationships and higher quality products.
The key here is that our focus is on whether or not our offering will create value for the client. When we center the client’s needs we engage them in a way that prioritizes that value. While it may seem obvious to take on projects that create value for clients, the hard part is to be willing to avoid or turn down work that, in our best assessment, does not seem like it will do so. A business mentor of mine would tell me often, “pass on business before taking bad business.” This strategy is about caring for the client and protecting your promise to deliver what you say you will: which in any business is value.
To bring this back into practical terms: our business focuses on reputation, trust, and our ability to deliver quality product. That led us to develop a strong brand. We all know that brand is more than a marketing function, it’s a business asset. It’s the character, reputation, trust, and expectation that the market has in it. More than just a name or a mark, it’s a promise that we are very intentional to keep. Every interaction the client has with us is an interaction with our brand. If we do that well, we win more trust and encourage more good-will in terms of word-of-mouth/referrals. We also try to exemplify that in our branding assets, specifically our website which is designed to be a simple expression of who we are, and a strong portfolio of our work.
Finding new clients then became a practice of engaged conversations with people in our expanding network, using local SEO practices to make ourselves digitally visible in our geographic market, and developing a culture that champions relationships in order to center the client’s needs and prioritizes creating value. Our goal with every new relationship is not to win their business, it’s to understand the client and determine whether we can create value for them. Sometimes we are not the right fit, and that’s OK! If we think we can serve them well, we’ll propose an approach to do just that. It’s that simple.
Now, while this has evolved over the course of our company, the basics have stayed the same. We value and center relationship, focus on our brand promise (reputation, trust, and quality), and determine whether we’re a good fit to serve the client. Outside of the services that encompass most of our offerings, we have recently added a new product to our business model. Not long ago we completed our first feature-length film, a documentary called Open Hearts about pediatric heart surgeries in Haiti and the dramatic difference between “doing good deeds” and truly empowering people. It’s a story that we were very passionate to tell and feel it’s our responsibility to share. Trying to set the film up to have an impact with audiences has forced us to reanalyze our marketing approach and strategy. The tactics we’ve used to find “clients” for our services were not sufficient to promote this new product. Feature films work best when they are distributed, and attracting a distributor is a very niche market. To do this, we had to generate buzz and hype around the project, stimulate market interest with direct audience engagement, and ultimately show that the film itself was something that the general consumer market had a taste for.
Many things we had learned before absolutely carried forward: developing a strong brand for the film itself, identifying the promise and value offer the film was making, creating conversations around the film that intrigued people, but this was ultimately something different. So we asked for help!
Our culture is relational by design, so we reached out to professionals in our network, and assembled a strategy team of PR and Marketing experts in order to help us reach the goals of the film. The media coverage and critical response we’ve garnered since launching those efforts only a month or so ago have already paid dividends. Recently screening at a notable film festival, we were able to stimulate many touchpoints of media coverage, appear on podcasts and social media interviews to talk about the film, and in the end, took home an audience-selected award in our category! This was a big win and has changed the conversation we’re having with distributors.
All of this is to say: I’m not a marketing expert, I’m a storyteller who has built a business around a niche skillset and followed very simple strategies in order to find clients and nurture a healthy culture that encourages organic growth. Clearly defined product/services with a good understanding of who your customer is and how you create value for them allows you to actively engage in relationships that centers the client’s needs. We’ve done this in only very simple ways, and even they have worked. This can be done using much more sophisticated marketing approaches than we’ve deployed, but the basics are the same. Knowing when you need to ask for help is also critical!
Companies that create value and attract relationships who benefit from that value tend to stick around. Being able to keep this simple idea in focus has gotten us to where we are today, and I firmly believe will help us grow into the company that we’re becoming.
About the author:
Travis Pollert is a documentary and commercial filmmaker, as well as the founder of The Cleveland Film Company, a film production company based in Cleveland, OH that serves clients all over the world. He is also the Co-Director of the feature documentary film Open Hearts, about pediatric heart surgeries in Haiti, and the dramatic difference between “doing good deeds,” and truly empowering people. Travis lives in Cleveland, OH with his wife Elizabeth, a career modern dancer, and their son Brighton.