Diversity, equity and inclusion
Central Va. business leaders discuss their motivations for success.
Brought to you by Virginia Business and Bank of America, join us every other month for the Diversity Leadership Series — virtual fireside chats with a diverse group of Virginia business leaders sharing their insights and thoughts on leadership, their career paths, and diversity and equity.
Our series kicked off on July 20 with Brian Robertson, CEO of Mechanicsville-based Marion Marketing Global LLC, interviewing Ron Carey, founder and CEO of Tilt Creative + Production, a Richmond-based agency that produces advertising and promotional content for clients such as Capital One Financial Corp., Walmart Inc. and Audi of America.
Below is an abridged version of their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Brian Robertson: Under your leadership, you have turned Tilt Creative + Production into a global player in the creative space. What do you attribute to the credit of your rapid growth?
Ron Carey: First of all, I’ll make a comment that I didn’t … do it by myself. I had a wonderful set of great partners. Stacy Murphy and Dave Trownsell are my business partners in that venture. First of all, we started with a small plan … to try and find a better way of creating content. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure that we could do it with some of the best people in the world creatively as well as just some people who were just good people at their core. That’s really the foundation of Tilt.
Robertson: Briefly, Ron, explain to us how Tilt Creative + Production even came about.
Carey: That’s an interesting story. … This was 2017 and I had been running a small digital agency called Studio Squared. Studio Squared at the time primarily focused on creating content in-store for Walmart. There were some changes in the business, and we had a wonderful opportunity to step back and think about, “Where would we like the business to go moving forward?” That was November of 2017. At the time … one of my senior creatives said [to me], “Chief, you used to have a conversation with the Park Group. Dave and Stacy, they would be interesting. They’ve got some ideas and thoughts.”
From that conversation, started … this notion of what would happen if we took a creative company, Studio Squared, … and [a media production company like] Park Group and we merged it into one thing? At the time it was unheard of that you would have a creative agency and a production company all under one roof, but … we were anticipating that brands would have a need for a content partner, and a way to more easily develop content [and] develop a strategy around it. That started us on the path. We … literally moved across the street down to Park Group, and in January 2018, we started working together. That’s been almost four years now.
Robertson: That’s amazing — wow! — to have that vision.
Carey: I would like to think that was a vision. Some of it was a bit of luck. I think some of it was a bit about just being able to focus on seeing an opportunity. … We often hear business school professors talk about, “Well, what’s the need? What’s the problem to be solved?” … We believed enough in it that we thought, “Let’s go ahead and take the step.” When you can take the step with people that you trust, and you feel they’re going to hold up their end of the bargain, it makes it a lot easier.
Robertson: What has been some of your toughest challenges of being an entrepreneur in a media space that is dominated by people who mainly don’t look like us?
Carey: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ll say it jokingly, but I’ve been Black 53 years, my entire life. You don’t think about it. … I think you recognize that there’s a transformation that was going on, both in media and marketing and advertising, Richmond, the broader community, as well as the broader business environment. I’m thankful, really, to my parents for this … approach of, “There are just some amazing people in the world. Some of them are going to look like you and some of them won’t look like you.” Some of the folks that didn’t look like me were folks that were incredibly influential on my career.
I look back at … what I learned from the Mars family [of Mars Inc.], because I spent 13 or 14 years working for the Mars family. I walked away with a vast amount of knowledge. … On the surface, we might not have had a lot of things in common, but from that experience, I was able to take The Five Principles away, just as one example.
I don’t think I thought about the racial component [in my own business] as much as I thought about, “How do you make payroll? How do you bring your talent along that you need to bring along? Do you really have something that’s compelling, that a client’s going to want to pay for?” Because at the end of the day, that’s what I want to make sure that we do.
The fact that I’m an African American is important, but I want … our clients to feel like the work that we do is amazing work, it’s smart work, it stands up against the work that anyone else can be doing, and for that, you’re willing to compensate us for it. That’s the path that I’ve gone down. I think along that journey … what I realized is I had been awarded this platform because of the success of the business and some of the things I’d done in the community … to be able to speak out about some things and bring awareness to some things, and also share a perspective back. … Maybe there were obstacles there from a race perspective, but quite honestly, I didn’t feel like I had the time to pause and think about it.
I will say this though, I remember … we had closed on the [Tilt Creative] deal [on] Jan. 31st, . The offices were empty, and I had been so busy that I had forgotten that it was Martin Luther King King [Jr.] Day. My head of finance came to me, and she said, “Wow, this is pretty amazing. You guys got this deal closed. You’ve been able to buy the company, get things started. Oh, by the way, happy Martin Luther King Day.” I was just like, wow. I had been so heads-down that I’ve forgotten what the time was. It was a momentous occasion for me.
Robertson: You work with a lot of global brands like Hellmann’s, Walmart, Audi. Tell us about a rewarding campaign that you worked on for not so much of a big brand.
Carey: I think that’s a really interesting one. A business partner, she thought highly enough of us to reach out to us. It’s a fairly small thing, but again, there were moments in times, there are pivotal moments, when things happen.
She brought us an opportunity for VCPI, Virginia Center for Policing Innovation. They were really looking for assistance on how to think about speaking to diverse communities, and not just African American, but Native American, so they wanted to have a very broad conversation about that. It’s been our pleasure, over the last several years, to find that voice of those communities, to be able to articulate and create a dialogue between the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation that they were working on and this broad set of communities. That’s just one that we took great pride in.
I love the brand work that we have a chance to do, but I also think about …. ChildSavers. It’s [a nonprofit] organization focused on mental health and child development services. We had the opportunity to develop a long-form piece of content to help tell the story around the work that they’ve been doing for almost 100 years, which is just amazing. It was our pleasure to just really get in and be able to tell an emotional story and help during a time where they’re going through a significant capital campaign.
Those are the two things that resonate with me as you start to think about how you take the art of storytelling and then have it impact the world.
Robertson: Tilt mainly creates content for online digital space as well as for television, repurposing it all over the place. Where do you see Tilt growing in the next five years?
Carey: I’ll get to what I think the growth is … [but] I feel like as the keeper of the culture … I think the intent, first and foremost, is let’s make sure that we continue to have a positive impact on the world. That’s the most significant thing. I often tell people, when we started the company, it wasn’t just purely about the profit that could be generated, it was not only about the opportunities, but it was about having a broader impact on the world, in our communities. Providing our folks a living and being able to invest in the things that we feel like make a difference to people, that would be a key driver for us.
That should ground where Tilt is over the next several years, but I see a really bright future. I feel like Tilt and the model that we’ve put together is something that certainly can grow across North America. You mentioned globally, we are already working globally. I think with the right opportunities that present themselves, I could certainly see another presence someplace else in North America … as well as outside, in perhaps Europe. … What’s happened over the last year and a half is we’ve all learned how to work remotely. We’ve made investments in technology. … Now we can shoot and record things out of our production studio and then have clients sit almost virtually anywhere in the world and provide feedback on cuts and edits and things that we’re doing. The business model has shifted dramatically and may not require nearly as much physical structure because you can work from anywhere in the world as long as you’ve got the right connectivity.
Robertson: Absolutely. With a staff of over 40 people, how do you find all of these great creative minds, first of all? And how do you keep them all engaged and happy?
Carey: That’s an interesting challenge, right?
Creative people are really interesting, as you know, and unique and special. It’s like harnessing a bunch of superpowers together. It’s like getting a team of the Avengers and trying to get them to all work together, move in the right direction, but I think we do it well. … How do we do that? I think it [goes] back to that bit around the culture that I was talking about — truly being a culture that cares about people, that seeks people who are really good to their core, that’s massive. I can’t teach you that. I can’t give you that gift. I can model it for you, but I think if you have it inherently, then we should attract those kinds of people.
When you look for good people, and you find them, and you treat them well, it starts to attract other people. I think that’s the most powerful talent model that we’ve got. … Once that radiates to the world, there are others that then want to say, “Gosh, that’s something I want to be a part of.” That’s literally what I think my role is: to make sure that we can set up that type of environment and model that behavior, such that others say, “That’s something I want to be a part of.”
Robertson: For my final question, what motivates you each day? What makes Ron Carey care in Tilt?
Carey: It’s something that I would challenge anyone who’s looking at this to think about, and that is understanding what your purpose is. Several years ago, I came to the conclusion that my purpose was to leave this world better than I found it and have a positive impact on the lives of people that I come in contact with. Some of those interactions may be big, some of those interactions may be small. … It’s not about the words you say, it’s about the feelings that you leave people with, and that’s what I want us to continue to do.
What motivates me is looking at my three daughters, two of which are grown now, and putting people into the world who are resilient and thoughtful, and hopefully wanting to have an impact.
Then I look with great pride [at] the 45 employees that we’ve got, that are doing things in the world and being thoughtful and having an impact on both clients and the broader Richmond community. That’s what keeps me going, man. I’m an optimist to my core. I will continue to be optimistic about the opportunities both for Richmond and our business and the broader community. That’s just how I roll. ν