CEO to CEO: Omnicom’s Stacey Hightower Talks to Fluent360’s CEO on Founding an Agency as a Woman of Color

Danielle Austen opens up about the role multiculturalism plays in her business model

Danielle Austen poses on the red carpet
Danielle Austen is the founder of multicultural-focused agency, fluent360. Getty Images
Headshot of Stacey Hightower

I interact with the C-suite of many agencies. That’s how I met and came to know Danielle Austen, founder and CEO of fluent360. What’s interesting about her story is the multiple diverse intersections represented: an African-American female founder and CEO whose agency has a unique partnership with a holding company and who possesses a long track record of success. In honor of Black History Month, it felt like a great time for her story to be heard.

Stacey Hightower: Danielle, there are as many origin stories as there are businesses operating, but your agency’s origin story is very interesting for many reasons. You saw a gap that needed to be served, but were also offered a partnership with a holding company if you could prove your thesis. Can you tell us that story?
Danielle Austen: I actually started my career on the corporate side, working in marketing for brands like Sony, Nordstrom and Jaguar. I held various marketing management positions, and at one point, had a global role.

Having been a client myself, I felt I understood the challenges our clients were up against. They needed a trusted resource that would help them prioritize their multicultural marketing efforts, efficiency in the process and an integrated brand message. The brand shouldn’t mean different things to different people based on race or ethnicity. A new business pitch came along for a single source multicultural agency solution. I went to the svp of Latin America and multicultural agencies at Omnicom at the time, and said, “If I win this account, will you partner with me on a new agency?” She said yes. We won the account, and here we are. We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary.

Congratulations on your anniversary! What have been the benefits of having a holding company as a partner? And why have those benefits proven so successful?
Honestly, the greatest asset to fluent360 in partnership has been the access to its global network of agencies. As a specialist agency focused on multicultural marketing and advertising, we’ve been able to tap into that network in a few ways.

First, for the benefit of our clients. For our clients, having the ability, when necessary, to complement our own expertise with that of our partner agencies is invaluable.

Another very important way we tap into the network is for growth to our agency business. Multicultural marketing is a critical yet specialized field within the larger integrated marketing ecosystem. We have become a resource for other agencies that are seeking a trusted partner to assist their clients in specifically reaching multicultural consumers. Currently, nearly half of our new business has come from these types of collaborations.

So diversity of perspective has been a contributor to delivering brand/client success when combined with the total market solution?
Very much so. If a brand is to stay relevant with the dynamic nature of culture and its impact on consumers then it must understand that a consumer group represents a wide array of identities, cultural groups, backgrounds and perspectives. Gone are the days of simply addressing a general market and thinking that will achieve the brand’s growth potential. Today, with 42 percent of millennials identifying as multicultural and an even higher percentage for Gen Z, the diversity of the marketplace demands that informed, multifaceted stories are told to honestly reflect the lives of the consumer. We see daily how consumers are calling out brands for missing the mark or ignoring consumer truths. Ignoring this diversity dynamic is not only impossible, it’s just bad business.

What’s also interesting is the model that was used to create this partnership has become a more mainstream solution for servicing brands. Can you talk about that?
Again, one thing I know for sure [is that] clients have and will continue to demand ease, efficiency and efficacy in every agency relationship. With this in mind, 10 years ago we created an agency model for fluent360 founded on the principle of being a true multicultural agency in the sense that we would offer seasoned expertise across the U.S. Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American and LGBTQ consumer segments. We knew this model would deliver on the promise of ease and efficiency for our clients, especially in terms of process.

However, the strongest value was in the efficacy. Bringing seasoned experts to the table, on one team ensures that we’re bringing the best ideas forward for the brand. It ensures an unbiased approach to how we address the business. When once, a client would have to bring in multiple multicultural experts with their own perspectives, approaches, processes and budgets. … Brand growth drives recommendations, not agency revenues.

We hear so much today about data and the use of data in our industry. How has data been a source to add value to your clients?
While data has made the headlines of late, data has really been fundamental to the marketing process and industry for quite some time. Obviously, the data has become more ample and rich, but it remains key for effective multicultural marketing that we go beyond the stats and interpret the numbers into an insight that shapes the story about our particular consumer. Sure, we now have more access to a rich set of whats, but it’s imperative that we have the right experts, analysis and cultural understanding to explain the whys. It’s these whys that give us a more empathetic understanding of our consumers and the cultural influences that drive their behavior. It’s this critical process that turns data into actionable intelligence that then fuels great ideas across strategy, creative and media selection.

What advice would you give other women of color looking to start an agency or any business?
Do it! If you have a passion and an expertise, bring it to the world. We need that unique perspective. Sure, as a woman of color, at times things may be a bit more challenging. However, the sooner you acknowledge this truth, the sooner you figure out how to work around it to get what you need and what you want. Also, be sure to ask questions, speak to experts, ask for help. Build a network and support system that includes people who understand your business and your unique perspective.

Stacey Hightower is the CEO of Omnicom Specialty Marketing Group.
Publish date: February 26, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT