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Get a unified, distinct and relevant branded experiences with HZ

Get a unified, distinct and relevant branded experiences with HZ

Karen Wilson
Website planet speaks to HZ to find out more about their background, company culture and what makes them unique.

Can you please tell us the story behind HZ? 

The story behind HZ is really that we started out as a graphic design agency, a true Mom and Pop effort that was centered around graphic design, and really have strategically evolved from there over time, really based upon what our clients needed. We were always creatively centered that’s always been at the core of what we do. But, we were really growing and evolving from a two-person agency all the way to who we are today, which is closer to 130 people. Really based on listening to our clients, innovating and iterating around what solutions might be necessary, and then starting to build out our capabilities from there.

Given the fact that we were founded in an entrepreneurial spirit, we’ve leaned into that entrepreneurial mentality to empower us to be bold and iterative. So, we sort of have a fail-fast mentality in terms of learning and growing and sort of developing subject matter expertise in depth and new opportunities, but I think we’ve also been very cautious about not being trend chasers. Especially as technology has pivoted and grown and evolved over the course of the last 10 years. We keep an eye on things, but it’s not as though we will go out and develop 10 TikTok subject matter experts the minute we hear about TikTok.  We take a holistic view of where we should build out our capabilities, but we’re also unafraid to try things.

Recently, it has become less popular and unique to call yourself an integrated creative agency. So, we have repositioned ourselves around what we’re calling a brand experience agency. What we mean very specifically by that is everything we do is centered around what our partner’s brand stands for, from that, we can create really unified distinct, and relevant brand experiences across any and every possible touch point. Historically, for 31 years, we said we did everything but PR.

Then about four and a half years ago we were acquired by one of the largest communications agencies in the world called BCW which is a part of WPP. What that did in addition to giving us the credibility and the scale and firepower of WPP. It also gave us depth and helped us develop a muscle in an even more well-rounded way about how to think about a cohesive brand experience, including thought leadership and aspects of media partnerships that we necessarily didn’t have depth in. So that has been a cool outcome in terms of our partnership with our parent company.

We are not a very well known as an agency, but we have an amazing portfolio of best-in-class brands, even before we were acquired by BCW. We’ve worked on Volkswagen after sales for going on 13 years, and we’ve been a partner to Hilton for many years, Rockefeller Center, just to name a few. But, what our partnership with BCW did was opened the door to working on more of those amazing brands that we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do as just HZ. As an example, Dollar General, a Fortune 100 company is one of our favorite clients that we get to work with, we have had some opportunities with Coca-Cola, Colgate, and more.

So, the story has really been one of evolution, but always with creativity at our core, and most recently, digital is just as important to every conversation that we have.

How do you find your clients respond to you not chasing trends? Do you find they want to chase trends and you need to advise otherwise?

The way that we would position it is we evaluate every trend, but we don’t add a whole bunch of investment in depth to them until we really feel like it is worth it. As an example, if we had a client asking us about TikTok several years ago.  We would immediately start leveraging our own curiosity and growth mindset to go learn about it and figure out is the right platform for that client at the right time, but we would be very cautious to recommend it to every brand just because they thought it was cool, and a place we should be.  I think we’re very judicious about evaluating and always taking in what all the new opportunities are from a platform and a tech standpoint, but we’re also not going to recommend something just because it feels flashy, and buzzy if we really don’t think it’s going to have a business impact for our partners.

Can you tell us a bit about your company culture and how to positively impact your clients?

I think we’ve really demonstrated over the course of the last couple of years, especially as we’ve been pivoting into this brand, experience territory that we’re very aware of the fact that we are a people business, our product is the subject matter, there is a consultative nature that we employ, and really the partnership of our people for our clients. Our culture is centered around our people, and we have embraced, just by way of example, the realities of what working in a hybrid environment looks like. We want to continue to make it as easy as possible for all the super-smart people we have at HZ to do what they need to be successful.

Another important aspect is what we call our guiding principles. For us, company culture is more about how we show up as a team. The idea of co-creation is important to us. So, I like to surround myself with people that are way smarter than me. It makes my job a lot easier, and I also recognize that there is way more in the what-I-don’t-know column than in the what-I-know column. We are really trying to encourage this sense of collaboration and co-creation.

We are all also overachievers, so we are always restlessly always looking for the next best thing as soon as we produce it. As soon as we’ve launched something, and we love it- we try to figure out how we can level up. We aim to keep getting better by cultivating a sense of play, this creates a culture where people feel unafraid to take risks because you have to be able to take risks from a creative and an innovation standpoint in order to create something really unique and disruptive.

We also show up culturally as people and something that I think our clients really respect. We foster the idea of true partnership and building on a foundation of trust. It is the same idea where if we are having lunch together, and I noticed you happen to have a piece of spinach in your teeth, I have to tell you because I feel like it’s in your best interest to do so. Even though it’s uncomfortable in the moment. We use that as a relatable example because that’s how we position ourselves with our clients. We show up to be the best, most informed, kindest partners that we possibly can.

Who is your target market?

We tend to think about our target market not only as who are our ideal clients and partners, but also who are our ideal team members. I think it’s worth noting that those for us are completely interconnected. We cannot service and take care of big client problems without the right people.

From a client standpoint, what we traditionally say is we are looking for brands that are looking to make an impact in some way. It could be a brand that’s looking to make an impact on their marketplace. For example, our client Mockingbird launched a new stroller, and they wanted to totally disrupt the category. It could be making an impact for their employees, perhaps it is a reputation issue, and the brand is looking to communicate more meaningfully where they stand on things, it could be to the community. Ideally, we’re also really interested in developing brands that want to make an impact on their planet as well. So that’s how we think about our clients. The size of an engagement, the size of the business is not as relevant to us, it’s really about brands that earnestly feel like they want to do something, and not just blend in.

We work across a purposefully diverse portfolio. Everything from ESG and purpose work to consumer, sports, tech, destination, and real estate. So, we have a wide range, and we purposefully keep it that way, because we like to think about connecting with target audiences in the way that they consume content. Meaning, if we just specialize in automotive, for example, then we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand how they’re also making decisions about where they want to live, what kind of food they want to buy and what vacations they want to go on. So, we find that keeping diversity in our portfolio helps us keep a more well-rounded perspective of how all of our target audiences are engaging.

Please can you tell us more about your four capabilities?

Identity: This is really about who you are as a brand. Are you successfully positioned and communicating yourself in a unique way? Is it helping you to stand out amongst your target audience? Do you have the right logo? Do you need help with naming and messaging and identity? successfully communicate your brand. So that’s really identity for us.

Campaigns: This is about finding the right platforms where your target audiences are, and being smart about performance marketing planning, but also developing the right ways to tell the story. Historically we might think of that as traditional advertising. For us it is about what you want to express, we can develop the way to express that through any medium, and then we can go place it and make sure that it’s performing in the way that we intend it to perform. So that’s how we think about campaigns.

Digital: Digital is where we’ve seen the most growth at HZ. It is our number one growth category, and it is really because we’re seeing more clients seeing the value in an investment in their digital ecosystem and understanding that it can be an efficient place to invest in their own growth. We have many capabilities within the digital team and what we like to do is put it all together with an omnichannel mindset, by not just thinking about a website or thinking about email marketing or paid search, it’s about how it all fits together. That makes it the most impactful. That’s the marketing, paid, owned, and earn marketing, the website, and app, and then really held together by data and analytics, infrastructure, and how all those things come together to feed an efficient marketing growth engine.

Another thing that’s important to us in our approach, is that we take a pretty agnostic approach to our systems and the tooling that we use. Oftentimes agencies may have expertise in particular systems, and it’s a little bit like: “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We like to really solve problems for our clients to understand what they need, and then based on that, we’ll define and really develop the right technology solutions for them.

Content: What content means to us, and often can be underestimated by our partners, is how much creative messaging, ads, videos, versions, etc, it takes to fuel that entire experience we’re talking about. So based on just the robustness of the digital ecosystem alone, and the frequency by which we need to be updating and testing content.

What are you most proud of as an organisation over the last two years?

There are so many things that we could mention here. There are two that come to mind. The first one is over two years but I think that it plays off the total brand experience that we think we’re excellent at providing.

Hilton has been a long-time client of ours over the course of the last really 13 or 14 years. One of the opportunities we had at Hilton was to build an entirely new brand for them. The only thing we knew about what they needed was that there was an underserved target audience that they had identified. From there we worked hand in glove with their internal team as well as a research partner to develop what ultimately became the Canopy brand.

One of the things that make us the proudest about it is, first of all, we were able to influence and strategically shape the complete brand experience, from the name to the identity to the logo, to all the materials that go along with marketing it, but also to the actual experience of what it’s like to stay at a Canopy and to hear from a Canopy afterward and to make sure that that experience is felt really comprehensively in every possible engagement you have with the brand.

The other outcome that we were proud of is it was meant to be what’s called a conversion brand meaning going into a let’s call it Doubletree and Doubletree decide it wants to not be that anymore, so they turn it into a Canopy. Those are the most efficient ways for hospitality brands to expand their portfolio. What Canopy ended up doing because the brand experience was so unique, they ended up becoming what’s called a new builds brand. Meaning the contractors who came on and the investors to own a Canopy launch a Canopy did it from a greenfield, essentially. So, they built most of the hotels in order to pay off what they felt was a strong brand promise and now they have really expanded globally. So that’s one that we’re really proud of, and we think, it pays off the idea of brand experience before we were even articulating it.

The other one I think that’s really worth mentioning and is within your two-year request, we’re still working with them is Dollar General. Dollar General is a Fortune 100 company that really had a corporate reputation challenge, which is to say that they get glommed in with a lot of other dollar stores, who, in general, tend to have a relatively challenging reputation as firstly, there are 1000s of them. Secondly, they are often in low-income or rural areas.

In Dollar Generals case, they very much have a mission internally that they refer to as serving others, which is to say that everything that that company does, is through the lens of how can we help our target audience who often has a $40,000 or less household income, and often is very far from grocery stores, or Walmart’s or super stores or things like that? How can we help that customer get as many quality food products, things you might ordinarily find in a pharmacy, whatever their lifestyle needs call for? How can we get them as much quality products as possible for the best possible price?

Everything they do really centers around that. What we have been able to do with Dollar General over the last two years is develop a creative platform that we call Here For What Matters. We have really been able to tell the story of how Dollar General cares about its target audience, how it cares about the communities it serves and how it really cares about its employee. The work we’ve done there has been able to touch on everything from their commitment to closing the literacy gap in America, to providing nutritious and fresh food options in communities where none exist. I think that we have tracked over the course of time with benchmark research to really test how perceptions have changed around Dollar General specifically, and we’ve seen a ton of success there. So those are two that come to mind both because they’re meaningful, but also because I think they show off the full spectrum of what we’re capable of providing.

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