The Insider Series: Q&A with Steve James, Stream Creative

Steve JamesSteve James (@steve_james_) is a co-founder of Stream Creative, a Milwaukee-based design and inbound marketing firm. Before establishing Stream Creative in June of 2006, Steve spent seven years at Advertising Art Studios (AAS).

In this Insider Series, Steve shares the Stream story—where they come from, where they are today and where they’re going. He also provides insight into the need for integrated, measurable services. Enjoy!

Q&A with Steve James

MAI: What are the origins of Stream Creative?

Stream CreativeSteve: Stream Creative started in June 2006 with myself, Jeff Coon (@milwaukeedesign) and Brian Brinkman. Jeff and I left our Milwaukee advertising agency jobs and Brian his career at MeadWestVaco in Atlanta.

When we started, our main services included web design, branding and interactive flash development services. The first year, we all worked remotely from home offices as we built our client base. A lot of our customers were referrals, businesses from our personal networks, and a number of local ad agencies. We definitely found that quality web designers and developers were in high demand compared to traditional advertising agencies that didn’t have their own digital departments. 

After our first year, we moved into an office in Brookfield (a suburb of Milwaukee) to make sure we could collaborate more effectively. Shortly after that move, we started growing and ended up hiring my brother (a designer) as our first employee. While developing digital strategies to integrate with our offline efforts for our clients, we started researching CMS platforms with nice blog integrations.

HubSpot became our resource of choice for social media and marketing information. We also were impressed with their CMS software. It became obvious after using HubSpot for our own website that it would be an ideal solution for a number of our clients—at least the clients who were interested in building a web presence that involved more than just a nicely designed brochure website. Most of these clients were looking for results after they launched their websites and help measuring their marketing initiatives. 

In 2010, we became a HubSpot partner and started educating our clients on inbound marketing strategies. Over the past couple years, we’ve grown to a team of seven people who help execute a number of services like media buying, content marketing, social media and, of course, creative. 

MAI: What services do you offer in-house, and which do you outsource?

Steve: Our company currently offers a number of marketing services in-house including: branding, design, advertising, website design, mobile website and app design, social media consulting, inbound marketing services (seo, blogging), video (filming and editing), and media planning and buying.

We outsource PR services, and depending on the scope of the work and our internal production schedule, we may outsource services like copywriting and development. We have a small team with a lot of amazing talents, along with some other strategic partners, to create great results for our clients. 

MAI: How does design work fit into a larger marketing strategy? 

Steve: We’ve always felt design and branding should seamlessly connect every marketing piece you create for a business. Quality design backed by the proper strategy allows you to communicate your message to your customer, reinforce your brand and also get results. The design should connect all of your marketing efforts across a variety of channels.

MAI: What common challenges do you face when working with clients, and how have you overcome them?

Steve: Lack of time and resources seem to be the biggest challenges that we see with a lot of our clients. Most of our clients are CMOs, directors of marketing and marketing managers who have very little time each day to stay up on trends, measure their campaigns or get their fellow employees to embrace an inbound marketing mindset.

To solve that, we work with most of our clients on a weekly/monthly basis and provide continued education to keep them up to date on trends, strategies and measurement of their marketing initiatives.

MAI: What makes a good website? Are there certain features/functionality that all sites should have?

Steve: The ability to speak to the user instantly is crucial in a good website. Knowing your buyers and understanding their needs will help you craft the correct message and design a website that becomes a valuable resource for them. Most companies let marketing run with website redesigns without discussing with other divisions of the company. We’ve found that getting key insights from others in the company (like the sales team for instance) can be very beneficial when starting the re-design process.

As for features and functionality, that really depends on the buyers coming to your site. The best way to analyze your current site is by looking at your web stats first. Those stats might tell you that a mobile site or responsive website design is a feature that your site should already have in place. Most websites will be playing catch-up over the next couple years to make sure a user on a tablet or smart phone can easily use them. Other features like embedded video and simple lead generation forms are something that your website might be missing. 

MAI: What tools and technologies help you do your job better? 

Steve: For the past few years, we’ve used Basecamp from 37 Signals for all of our project management. At first, we were only using it with a few clients on larger website projects. Then, we saw how valuable it was collaborating with our team internally as well as with the end client. Now, every project (print, web, social, etc.) is put into Basecamp at the start. I’ve actually had a lot of our end-clients enjoy using it so much that they end up using it for their marketing teams. is another online service that we use all the time for sales calls, client training/education sessions, and walking through project updates each week with clients. A lot of our clients are across the country, and many times, we have multiple people calling in from different locations to go over projects. Being able to walk through projects and share my screen, with call-in capabilities, is a huge benefit when we show our design and creative campaigns. 

I also use HubSpot every day for either our company or a number of our main clients to analyze campaigns and website performance. I am always using the CMS system, reviewing leads and metrics, and using the email/social tools within the software. It’s such an amazing one-stop-shop for me to review how each of our clients are doing each day. 

MAI: What do you look for in a new hire? What skill sets/traits are the most important?

Steve: We first look at the personality of a potential candidate. We have a small team so each new hire has to be able to work with everyone in the company and will at some point be in front of our clients. We are a service company, and we need to have employees who our clients find enjoyable to work with each day. 

We also look for individuals who use and understand technology, such as social media and website content management systems. So much of our time is spent communicating online that having employees that understand technology helps us to be more efficient and effective for our agency and our clients.

In addition to the above, we look for hardworking individuals who love to learn. With technology and marketing trends changing so rapidly, it’s important to help self-motivated people who are proactively keeping up on these changes. 

MAI: What is the most rewarding part about owning your own business? 

Steve: Knowing each day I am able to work with great friends (and in my case, a brother as well) is probably the most rewarding. The three of us partners were friends in college. To be able to work together each day is really special.

As an owner, I also love to be able to give back and provide our services to non-profits that are close to our hearts. We really enjoy helping programs that work directly with children and currently support St. Marcus School, Lighthouse Youth Center and Fond du lac Boys & Girls Club for various marketing services. All three of these organizations do amazing work, and we are proud to be a small part in their overall focus on helping children succeed in life.

MAI: Where do you think is the future of the marketing-services industry?

Steve: Right now, there is such a shift going on in terms of results-driven marketing. It’s sad to say but so many agencies still just really rely on their creative capabilities. Those campaigns are never measured and only assumptions are made if they have worked.

I think the industry will be definitely be turned upside down in the next few years. The agencies that understand the digital space and how to strategically connect multiple platforms to measure and help their clients will continue to strive. But a lot of old shops will start losing out to smaller, more nimble marketing agencies that can do great creative tied to measured inbound marketing across multiple channels. I think we will see a lot of mergers and acquisitions by agencies looking to build up their digital departments. 

Steve James is the founder of Stream Creative. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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