Gordon Borrell

By Pete Mazzaccaro

Next week the Chestnut Hill Local will sponsor a webinar on marketing a business during a crisis by leading marketing expert Gordon Borrell.

Borrell, whose Germantown roots go back 250 years, grew up in Oreland. After a career in newspapers as both a reporter and editor, he transitioned to the business side and later founded Borrell Associates, one of the nation’s leading advertising and marketing consultants.

The 45-minute session, “The Grand Re-opening:  Marketing your business out of the crisis,” will take place on June 9 at 10 a.m. It will also be offered for free

The Local had a conversation with Borrell about his background in the area and in newspapers and about what challenges and opportunities he sees for small businesses during the current economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

First, a little bit of background: John tells me you grew up In Germantown? Is that correct? If so, where did you go to school? And how long did you live in the area?

My family lived in Germantown for 250 years, from the early 1700s to the late 1960s. I have at least two five-times great-grandfathers who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of whom was baptized in the Wissahickon Creek at age 100 in 1841. His name was Christopher Carr, and he’s buried, oddly enough, about 50 feet from Joe Frazier’s grave in Philadelphia. 

I was born in Chestnut Hill Hospital and grew up in Springfield Township, in Oreland, from the late 1950s to 1971.  It was an amazing time to be alive, witnessing the era of the Beatles, Gene London, Sally Star, John F. Kennedy, the hippie movement, summers at Cape May, and my red Schwinn bicycle with the banana seat and motorcycle handlebars.  I moved with my parents to Virginia in 1971 and have lived in Virginia since, though I still have a lot of family in the Philadelphia area.

You started in the newspaper business as a paperboy for the Philadelphia Bulletin. You later became a newspaper reporter and editor at the Virginia Pilot. What made you want to go into the news business?

I was a paper boy for the Bulletin and the Inquirer in the 1960s and had a route with about 60 subscribers in my neighborhood.  It taught me a lot of things about people and about managing a small business that I didn’t realize until later.  My mother always valued good grammar and good writing, and I had two high school English teachers who saw something in me and encouraged my writing.  I became a reporter first for my college paper at Old Dominion University, then became editor-in-chief for two years. I basically ran the newspaper’s editorial and business affairs, and I loved it.  Upon graduation, I became a reporter and editor for a dozen years but migrated to the business side.

Why did you make the transition from the editorial side to the business/advertising side? And when?

 In 1988 I was asked to become program director for a telephone-based information system. It was a precursor to the Internet, which came a few years later. I made the jump because I believe deeply in the value of newspapers and the media business but felt I could do a lot more helping manage the business and advertising side than being an editor or reporter. Over the years I’ve learned that the advertising side of the business is much like the news side.  Every local advertiser has a story to tell but really doesn’t know quite how to tell it. 

 What prompted you to start Borrell Associates?

I started Borrell Associates in 2001 because I saw an opportunity to provide insight on advertising in a way that nobody else was doing. Through the use of data — which was becoming more available due to digital media — we could track how much businesses where spending and how that was changing.  It’s a $125 billion business, and my company is able to track how and where all of it is spent and how that’s changing.  It’s enormously valuable information to any company that makes its living off local advertising, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, newspapers, TV, radio, and outdoor companies.

Your firm specializes in tracking the marketing and advertising habits of businesses. What happened to those habits when large segments of the country – particularly larger cities that are centers of business and media – shut down during this pandemic?

In the past three months, 52 percent of local businesses have basically gone silent with their advertising. That would seem pretty natural if things are shut down, but those businesses that continued to advertise basically scooped up all the business. An economic downturn is actually the best time to start a business or to grow your business. Few realize that and go quiet. Meanwhile, consumers turn to media for information in very large numbers, creating a bubble of opportunity. The audience is larger, but the ad clutter is lower.

Was that behavior comparable to anything you’ve seen before? Is it similar to prior times of crises?

Yes, this has happened before. The only thing unique about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s a national crisis with large geographic variations. North Dakota never shut down, while San Francisco may be in lockdown until year’s end.  In Williamsburg, Virginia, where my office is, the resorts and amusement parks are shut down and hotels, restaurants, and gift shops are pretty much dead in the water.  But 40 miles south, in Norfolk, things are humming along because of the influence of the military and all the essential businesses that support it. An economic downturn happens every so often, and the results are fairly predictable.  Some businesses understand the phenomenon of constant consumer spending and capitalize, while others go silent and basically turn over their customers to those competitors who continue marketing during the crisis.

We hear a lot today that larger pieces of the business advertising pie are being sucked up by online advertising, particularly Facebook and Google. Is that also true of local and small business advertising?

To a great extent, yes. About 50% of all locally spend advertising is going Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Smaller, less experienced businesses tend to put all their effort and dollars into social or search media, which is a mistake. They are great advertising channels but are more or less an echo chamber that reaches the same customers over and over. Smart businesses will use mass media in tandem, reaching a larger set of potential customers that help them grow their businesses.

If this isn’t giving away too much from your upcoming webinar, what is presently at stake for local businesses? Many are likely more strapped for cash than they’ve ever been. How do they market? And how much should they market?

Advertising is an investment, not an expense. If a business wants to shrink, it should stop advertising. If it wants to remain the same size, it should keep spending the same amount of money on advertising as it has in the past. But if it wants to grow, it’ll have to invest.  The pandemic has created a tremendous opportunity to get even more ROI from advertising because, as I said, half of your competitors have gone silent. There’s a level of creativity and ingenuity that’s required, though — something that can significantly transform your business into something more dynamic and useful to customers. That’s what we’ll talk about on the webinar.

To take part in the webinar, go to https://www.chestnuthilllocal.com/crisis-marketing  (or go to chestnuthilllocal.com and click on the ad in the upper right column) to reserve a spot.  The webinar is offered as a courtesy by Chestnut Hill Local.

...