Q&A With Kelton Founders Tom Bernthal and Gareth Schweitzer
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Q&A With Kelton Founders Tom Bernthal and Gareth Schweitzer

June 26, 2019

From childhood friends to co-founders, Tom and Gareth give the inside scoop on how they started Kelton Global and future plans for the business.

  1. When was Kelton founded? What motivated you to create the company?

Tom: We founded the company in 2003. We had been journalists, and felt there was something so valuable and fascinating about deeply understanding people. And we thought there was a chance to do that for companies and clients and brands, and help bring the voice of the customer into the board room.

Gareth: And as journalists, we had an interesting angle – we were always good at telling stories. So the data and charts and presentations that had traditionally been dry and dull could be brought to life in a way that made clients really want to take action.

  1. What previous work experience did you bring to the table?

Tom: As funny as it sounds, we brought almost none. We’d both been journalists, but journalism isn’t a business. In fact, journalists are told not to think about revenue and profits. But we were curious, and as Gareth mentions we were storytellers, and I think both of traits were too rare in the consulting world.

Gareth: We were also opinionated – we were really willing to apply our judgment and sensibility to the work we did. In insights, people are raised to believe that extrapolation and interpretation are the enemy; that if you can’t validate every statement with a number, you shouldn’t say it. We felt the opposite – the data gave direction. But it still required interpretation, and eventually someone to put a stake in the ground and proffer an opinion on what should be done.

  1. What surprised you the most about founding your own company?

Tom: Wow. Where should we start? So much was surprising. Perhaps the most surprising was pretty obvious in retrospect. And that is that these enormous brands – some of which we’d revered since we were kids – were run by normal, smart, everyday people. So, we could go in and have real conversations, and use common sense, and combine that with data and insights and analytics, and genuinely change the thinking of these big, iconic brands.

Gareth: I think Tom is spot on. I think the other surprise – again in hindsight – was the need for constant reinvention. Every second of complacency was a bad moment for the business. You actually need to condition yourself – and dedicate time – to always thinking about what’s next.

  1. What challenges did you face as you grew your company, and how did you overcome them?

Tom: The biggest challenge was definitely getting big brands and highly sought-after employees to take a chance on us. We were kids when we started the company. We were pretty smart, and very hard working. But we were unproven, and had nothing more than a vision and some hustle. Getting big brands and people with options to take a chance on us was tough. But I think people saw fairly quickly that the risk/reward was in their favor. If they tried us out, they were going to get truly creative thinking, and real dedication. And they’d be a part of building something. Even for clients, being a part of building something is exciting.

Gareth: New challenges arise at different phases of a business’s life. Tom’s accurately depicting the early phase ones. Then, you realize you need improved financial management, and actual talent and retention planning. Then, you need process scalability and structure to support growth. It’s exciting, and fascinating, but there’s a new challenge at each phase.

  1. What’s one thing a lot of people don’t know about you?

Tom: I think a lot of people don’t know that Gareth and I have been friends since we were little kids. We’ve known each other all our lives. There’s an adage about not going into business with friends, and I’m sure there are many solid reasons it’s true. But both of us are sure that Kelton wouldn’t have succeeded without either one of us.  Our partnership made it work.

  1. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned that has made you a better leader?

Tom: We both know that there’s so much we don’t know. And I think, ever since the beginning, we’ve tried to create a platform and an environment that let people contribute, lead, grow, and help us build. We try not to tell anyone what to do. We’d much rather hire great people, trust them, and build together.

Gareth: Humility, honesty, accountability. Arrogance isn’t attractive. Conflict avoidance or dodging issues isn’t leadership. And at the end of the day, people need to believe you’re going to step up (and in) when times get tough to do whatever you need to in order to make the business better. Those things sound easy, but they’re not – we’re still learning.

  1. What do you think makes a strong company culture and why?

Tom: See above. It’s all about the team, and the team approach. This doesn’t happen without every single person at Kelton.  And we wouldn’t want to do it without this group, even if we could.

  1. What’s your favorite thing about working with the brands you partner with?

Tom: It’s funny. Even now, 16 years after starting Kelton, I drive down the street or walk down the aisles of a store, and look at how many of the businesses and brands I see that we’ve worked with. I’m not sure it’s accurate, but it often feels like we’ve been hired by more than half of all of the big consumer brands out there. For a kid who grew up wanting to be a part of marketing and strategy for the brands that surround us, it’s still pretty surreal.

Gareth: That piece of this makes us a really interesting place to work. A lot of consulting requires an absolute focus on one industry, and in some cases one company. I think that’s stifling over time. People don’t live in a vacuum; we often talk about how your experience ordering a pizza online impacts your expectations for how you sign up for healthcare, or enroll in school. Those shared experiences are fascinating for clients, and they keep our team engaged.

  1. What are some of the challenges you see brands face during a rebrand or in the process of launching a new marketing campaign?

Tom: Brands are too inwardly focused. They think they can get to the answer by talking and strategizing. We just don’t believe that. The answer is always inspired and directed by a deep understanding of what your customer thinks and feels. Yes, you need to know what you stand for, and it’s vital not to lose that. But most board rooms are filled with people who don’t think like the customers they are trying to serve. We hope to bring that into the conversation.

Gareth: There’s also a trick to future-proofing your brand. Understanding where business is moving, where people are moving, allows you to construct a brand that doesn’t require a reinvention every two years. What’s timeless? What’s shifting? What is it about our business that can endure those hard changes – that speaks to something innate in what human beings need or want? That’s the secret.

  1. What are you most proud of about what Kelton has accomplished?

Tom: Again, what a long list. But I think the biggest thing is really the people who are attracted to working with us, and give their professional lives to helping us build. We are humbled by the brilliant, insightful, committed colleagues that make Kelton special. All of us are only the team around us.

Gareth:  I’ve always said that I want to make this a place where people are excited to come to work. Our most disappointing days are the ones where they’re not. Our most energized days are the ones where we can see people clearly are. There are too many people in the world who don’t like their jobs; I’d hate most for Kelton to ever become one of those places.

  1. What are you most excited about for Kelton in the next year?

Tom: We are in the midst of a real growth and evolution phase. We’re acquiring and building out capabilities that only make Kelton’s core offering stronger. A year from now we will have insights-inspired and data-driven branding and communications and customer experience. To have those offerings, truly grounded in insights, is a real differentiator in the marketing services world. We’re so excited to continue to lead and evolve.

Gareth:  Ditto. And that means more options for our team to learn, to grow, to collaborate. We’ve dabbled in these services for years – with the right acquisitions and partnerships we can translate the insights and strategy work we do so well into real world applications.

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