By John January, co-CEO, Signal Theory
Why rebrand a business having its best-ever year in profitability, employee growth and employee satisfaction?
That’s what happened earlier this month when our midsized, independent ad agency – Sullivan Higdon & Sink (SHS) – became Signal Theory, a brand development, marketing and design firm with 170 employees and $150 million in capitalized billings.
SHS had worked with industry leaders with household brand names for nearly 50 years. We always held an enviable client roster, earned prestigious creative awards, had strong growth and new business prospects, and routinely won referrals from clients, former clients and consultants.
So why the change?
Our journey began in 2016 when we lost a pitch. It happens. However, in our post-pitch follow-up we were told that: “The other agency’s strategic approach really changed how we looked at the world.”
On the surface, the feedback wasn’t so damning. But it stung because it revealed an unhappy truth: We hadn’t challenged the brief. Worse, we hadn’t challenged ourselves. I still believe what we presented would have moved the needle for the client. But it wouldn’t have changed their world.
At the same time, there was a lot happening in our industry (and there still is). Agencies with digital DNA were consuming massive, iconic traditional advertising agencies. Global accounting and business consultancies were winning multimillion-dollar “digital transformation” projects that often included marketing communications. And big brands were creating in-house “agencies” for efficiency.
Perhaps most important, our clients were facing increasing pressure from all angles, including their own digital transformations, figuring out how to collect the right kind of data (and keep it secure) and deal with customers who were increasingly expecting on-demand levels of service.
These factors made it clear that SHS’s hallmark of kick-ass, breakthrough creative was still imperative for our success, but it was only table stakes for the kinds of clients we sought.
After helping many clients reconsider their own businesses, we took a hard look at ourselves and realized we needed to make foundational and transformational changes to remain successful in this rapidly changing, ultracompetitive world.
How could we, in an efficient and repeatable fashion, generate “world-changing” business and brand strategies? How could we execute against those strategies in deeper, more meaningful and more efficient ways? How could we impact our clients’ businesses and cultures in ways that went beyond just “advertising.”
Signal Theory is the end result of all the things we identified and acted upon to answer those questions in the 2 1/2 years since.
The centerpiece of our transformation is a new, proprietary strategic framework called Resonance Branding. It combines methods and principles from the social and behavioral sciences with data science, cultural systems analysis and design thinking. We see it like this: Through the lenses of culture, data and the social and behavioral sciences, we more completely understand how people think, behave and make decisions. Through the principles of design, we act more meaningfully.
As we researched and prototyped, that new framework quickly became a guiding philosophy for us: We wanted to help brands really resonate with their customers. And we knew that meant helping them understand those customers’ needs, wants, beliefs and intentions in deeper, more meaningful ways.
Enter Signal Theory.
You might have heard about signaling theory in an economics, biology or social studies class. It’s a theoretical body of work examining communication and behavior between two parties (individuals or organizations) that have access to different information. Typically, one party (the sender) must choose how to communicate (or signal) that information, and the other party (the receiver) must choose how to interpret the signal.
Signal Theory is fundamentally concerned with reducing information asymmetry between the two parties.
For us, then, this became a mission. Create resonance in the signals between people and brands. Cut through the noise by decoding, tuning and amplifying the signals that each sends to the other, and create value exchanges that benefit both while building connection, meaning and trust.
We thought Signal Theory sounded interesting. But, more important, it’s an expression (a signal, if you will) of our entire strategic and creative approach.
There’s more, of course. In addition to our new strategic framework, we are reorganizing our teams and transforming our workflow and processes to be more efficient and higher-performing. We are also redefining our solution sets to be efficient and more tightly aligned with client needs.
All of which is to say that SHS is now Signal Theory, a brand development, marketing and design firm that – while retaining much of the values, culture and extraordinary talent that defined SHS – has arrived at a new and different place, with new expertise, new practice areas and new ways of servicing our clients’ unique and evolving needs.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting more about the initiatives driving our strategic transformation. We hope you’ll find them useful.
For now, look and listen for the signals. If you listen, really listen, they can change the way you understand the world.