Understanding Customers During Economic Instability

Today is a big day for us as we’re starting our Discovering Customers series, and we couldn’t have asked for a better guest than Paige Arnof-Fenn.

Paige Arnof-Fenn


She is the Founder of marketing and digital agency Mavens & Moguls and has extensive experience at companies like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Launch Media (a start-up acquired by Yahoo in the early 2000s).  

Paige talks to us about the art of making tough business decisions and what starting her own business in times of economic disarray taught her about finding & maintaining your place on the market.

Thank you so much for finding the time to speak to us! For starters, could you tell us what your company does and what’s your role?

At Mavens & Moguls, we are a global network of seasoned marketing experts who can do anything a marketing department, market research shop, public relations firm or ad agency does on an “as needed” or outsourced basis.

We have resources in major metro areas across the country and around the world. I started the firm 18 years ago in Cambridge, MA, and have held the position of CEO since.

Could you shed some light on how you shifted from a career in Corporate America to finding your own agency?

This might come as a surprise, but I did not plan on starting a company. I always wanted to work for a large multinational business and be a Fortune 500 CEO.  

When I was a student, I looked at leaders like Meg Whitman & Ursula Burns as my role models.

I started my career on Wall Street in the 1980s and had a successful career at companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. I also worked at 3 different startups as the Head of Marketing.  

I took the leap right after 9/11 when the company I worked for cut their marketing. I had nothing to lose. Running my company provides me a platform to do work I truly enjoy, with and for people I respect. I know every day the impact that I have on my business.  

Before, when I worked at big companies, I always felt the ball would roll with or without me; that if I got hit by a bus someone new would be in my office right away.

Now my DNA is in everything we do and I can trace every decision and sale to something I did or a decision I made and that is incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. I am working harder and longer than ever and I have never been happier.  

Inspiring leaders

I knew I had made it when Harvard wrote two case studies on my business a few years after I started it. We were very early to pioneer sharing resources on the marketing front (before my company it was really only done with HR, legal, and accounting/finance).

What does your day normally look like?  

A mix of networking, conference calls, meetings, strategy sessions, computer time and white space to think and exercise. Never a dull moment!

What are some of the biggest challenges in your role?

Getting rid of bad clients and weak team members is critical, but tough to do. For instance, I fired a client in my first year of business and it couldn’t have been a better decision!  

On a personal level, our client was mean, unappreciative and had terrible manners. He never paid on time and was rude to my team, who was doing amazing work for him.  

Initially, when he first hired us to do PR for his firm, I thought it would be a great opportunity for getting good press. I imagined that people who knew him, and knew how difficult he was, would want to hire us too, thinking: “Hey! These PR people are doing an amazing job, and I’m not as difficult as this guy.

Just imagine what they could do for me!”. In the end, though, I did not want to risk attracting other bad clients, so even though he signed a year-long contract, I ended it after 3 months.

How did this decision impact your business?

First of all, it sent a signal to my team that the money was not worth an unappreciative client who was a jerk and treated us poorly. We replaced the income and more within a month with a much better client. I have never looked back.

It’s so important to attract the right people as clients and colleagues for the ecosystem I am trying to build. As a leader, you need the best talent, and getting the right people on the team is key to being successful.

And, though it’s hard to admit, oftentimes the people you start off with are not the ones who grow with you. The hardest lesson I learned in the first years of running Mavens & Moguls was not getting rid of weak people earlier. I spent more time managing them than finding new customers.

discovering customers

I knew in my gut they were not up to snuff, but out of loyalty to them, I let them hang around much longer than they should have.

It would have been better for everyone to let them go as soon as the signs were there. They became more insecure and threatened as we grew which was not productive for the team.

As soon as I let them go, the culture got stronger and the bar higher.  “A-Team” people like to be surrounded by other stars. It is true that you should hire slowly and fire quickly. Lesson learned though I wish I had known it earlier!  

We’ve already discussed the types of clients you don’t wish to attract. Now, what about the opposite? Who is your marketing persona, and what steps did you take to identify it?

Our clients range from early-stage startups to Fortune 500 companies, including non-profits. We help organizations find the right words and pictures to elevate their profile, build awareness, and to get their story out there – both offline & online – in compelling ways.

We help solve their toughest marketing challenges, and we’re the right team to do so as we bring real-life experience to every project. You see, we used to be the client earlier in our careers, so our heads and our hearts are more aligned with theirs than a traditional agency or consulting firm.

We spend their money the way we would have when we sat on their side of the table. Unlike many traditional firms, everyone on the team has decades of experience.  What we know about our clients has shaped and matured throughout the years.

How has your perception of clients’ goals & challenges changed over time?

As mentioned earlier, I started the company right after 9/11 when the economy was in disarray.

I put a stake in the ground targeting organizations who no longer had marketing departments and could not make a full-time commitment but still needed help on a discreet basis.

The economy rebuilt, social media became pervasive, capital markets reopened. Everything seemed like it had come back to order, and our target group seemed well defined.

But then, during the Great Recession of 2008-11, the market had shifted once again. Clients needed to show more ROI, and so we needed to rethink our target group’s goals.

As clients could no longer approve retainers, my work shifted to project-based relationships in smaller chunks, even though they spent the same or even more with us on an annual basis.

At this time, our tagline, “Because Marketing Matters”, became even more relevant, as we’ve truly become a one-stop shop for all things marketing. We knew that if we own the real estate in our clients’ brains for marketing services, they will think of us first when they need help.

Bottom line – people had a lot of other things to worry about, but marketing did not need to be one of them.

We’ve repositioned ourselves from an alternative agency to a strategic partner that adds bandwidth to your team and can solve problems quickly.

We help our clients justify bringing us in to save time and money by focusing on quick wins that show a return. As a result, they can invest longer term in more strategic initiatives.

We are problem solvers and business builders more than a vendor.

How do you validate, in this dynamic economy, if your marketing personas align to your clients’ profiles?

Firstly, we utilize everything from social media to qualitative market research, and site analytics to decades of marketing experience. We also look at our sales conversions and results. We pay close attention to referrals and customer feedback from satisfied clients, as well as repeat business, as valuable indicators.

Given your experience in the corporate world, would you say that the process of creating a marketing persona varies greatly depending on the size and maturity of the organization?

While I left the corporate world in 1997, nowadays even big businesses have to move more quickly to stay relevant. No one has the luxury to spend 6-12 months doing market research on customer habits and practices the way we did when I started my career.  

The market changes too quickly and new competitors enter the game all the time. But, even though big businesses move faster than they did, they still cannot move as quickly as startups and small businesses like mine.  

With the advent of social media and the fact that we are all online 24/7 on our mobile devices, everyone has the power to be real-time responsive and pivot as market conditions change.  

As personas come in and out of favor, the brands that incorporate data into their messages early will have the first mover advantage.

Budget size does not matter as much as being timely and relevant today. The company with the best tweet can now have more impact than the advertiser who officially sponsors the Super Bowl or Olympics for millions of dollars.   

How about your lead qualification process? Do you use any specific criteria to qualify prospects?

I do not use any formal process to qualify leads, as I am more opportunistic than strategic, to be honest. As a small business with low overhead, I tend to have a lot of irons in the fire at all times and just see where I get traction.

In my experience, it is better to pull than push so I regularly follow up with all prospects via phone, email or networking. This way, when they are ready to get help, I am there to step in.  

And how do you fill any information gaps about your potential clients?

I have had success doing online research, leveraging my network via LinkedIn, and by going on a Listening Tour!

Politicians do it all the time and it is great for business, too. Make a list of the movers & shakers, people you admire and prospects, ask a few smart open-ended questions; then sit back and take notice.

People will be more than happy to tell you what is on their mind! If you listen to what they share with you, there will be plenty of opportunities to help them through your services. Start listening with no strings attached, and you’ll be amazed at what you find. It does not cost much, for the price of a few coffees and meals you will get an earful.

And how about marketing tools? Are there any you can’t imagine working without?

There are no silver bullets in marketing. Lots of things can and do work when they are done well. For instance, I have clients who have grown their business using online marketing, direct mail, PR and social media.

Now, you can call me old-fashioned, but for me, it is email and Skype. It is fast, convenient, cheap and effective. For me, you can’t beat it.  

I also leverage social media for Thought Leadership and spreading brand awareness. They are the most cost-effective activities one can use. All in all, what’s great in our day and age is that you do not need to be a big multinational company to have powerful tools at your disposal anymore.

As we near the end of our conversation – what one piece of advice would you like to share to empower fellow marketers?

Technology helps advance the conversation, but it will never replace the human interaction that builds trust over time. So, my advice is that you disconnect from technology and focus on cultivating human, face-to-face relationships.

Meeting for coffee or lunch can accomplish so much more than email exchanges, social media posts, etc. It is a great way to get to know people better, their interests, hobbies, and dreams.

I plan lunch meetings ~3 days a week and invite clients to events I think they might enjoy attending to spend time together.  I have found that building relationships drives my business, and technology supports it once customer relationships are solidified.  

Networking may sound old-fashioned in these high tech days, but it works. Prospective customers and jobs can come from anyone anywhere anytime so you should always be on your best behavior & make a great lasting impression.  

Whether your business is B2B or B2C, everything is really P2P – person to person. People do business with people they know, like and trust, so you have to get out there to build your reputation online and off!

Inspiring leads

Be nice to everyone & make friends before you need them, you never know who is or will be in a position to help. Learn to love it or find a buddy to go to events with – bottom line, you have to get out there!

I also think what makes someone effective at networking happens to coincide with things that just come more naturally to them. I have been told I am good at networking.

In my case, the traits that work in my favor include being naturally curious (and so, asking a lot of questions), being a good listener, as people like to talk about themselves, as well as being warm and friendly.

Here are some other ideas that may inspire you: be the first to introduce yourself; send a hand-written “thank you” note or email referencing something you’ve discussed.

You can also share an article you think they might enjoy right after you first meet, or introduce them to someone in your network whom they might find interesting.

To sum up – people tend to put too much emphasis on trying to be interesting, instead of being interested in the other person.

When you stop trying to sell, start listening, and just share what you know, you’ll realize networking can determine your business in more ways than imaginable.

Anna and Kasia

The invincible content team at Survicate.

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