When Jay Wilkinson, founder and CEO of marketing, printing and website-development company Firespring, was 15 years old, he attended a leadership summer camp with his high school’s student council. While there, he learned about Stephen Grellet, a Quaker missionary whose words would change his life forever: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” It was this quote that motivated him to become an entrepreneur.
Since launching Firespring in 1992, Wilkinson has worked with clients in 50 states and 14 countries, growing his staff to 180 and revenue to $25 million in 2019. That’s not to say the Lincoln, Nebraska-based business hasn’t seen its fair share of struggles: In 2002, Wilkinson was fired as CEO by the investor-led board of directors after refusing to lay off employees amid the economic downturn that followed 9/11. But four months later, with the help of family and friends, he bought out the venture capitalists, and within two years, the business was profitable again. “We climbed out of it, and we survived,” Wilkinson says. “The culture that we have today was forged in the fire when we were just trying to save the company.”
That tenacity has proven essential in the current economic environment, not to mention it’s propelled Firespring onto Forbes’ annual Small Giants list. The 25 companies that make up the 2020 list all value greatness over fast growth and are weathering the coronavirus crisis in their own way.
While much of corporate America has been affected by Covid-19, small businesses have been especially hard-hit, with 31% stopping operations as a result of the crisis, according to Facebook’s State of Small Business report. And in the marketing and advertising world, where global ad budgets are expected to drop 36% in the first half of the year and eight in ten marketers have delayed campaigns as a result of the pandemic, according to a report from the World Federation of Advertisers, many businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
Firespring has seen an increase in demand for its quick activation marketing programs, such as creating digital fundraising campaigns, as well as virtual strategy sessions, of which it has done more than 200 over the past couple of months. It has also worked with clients to adjust their campaigns so that they are reflective of the times. “We’re very mindful of making sure that we are messaging everything with the Covid-19 restrictions in place so that we don’t come across as being tone-deaf and that our clients don’t, as well,” Wilkinson says. “It’s going to be critical for marketers moving forward and out of the pandemic to understand how different things are going to be, in terms of the way people connect with brands.”
The firm primarily serves purpose-driven organizations and nonprofits, which Wilkinson says are uniquely positioned to navigate the changing marketing landscape, as they always keep clients at the center of their work. But the pandemic has disrupted many nonprofits’ fundraising events, hurting them financially. In an effort to help its nonprofit clients during this challenging time, Firespring partnered with GivingTuesday, a nonprofit known for its advocacy of its namesake charitable holiday for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The initiative, called Giving Tuesday Now, raised $3 million for nonprofits over the course of May.
In Birmingham, Michigan, Brogan & Partners, another full-service marketing agency and 2020 Small Giant, has been supporting its surrounding community by working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to produce an ad spot promoting the wearing of face masks to flatten the coronavirus curve. Thanks to the ad and accompanying hashtag—#MiMaskChallenge—Brogan & Partners was able to get the word out to more than five million Michiganders, including celebrities such as musicianKid Rock. “I don’t want to make money off of Covid-19. That’s not my business,” says Ellyn Davidson, owner and CEO of Brogan & Partners. “I want to help and be part of the solution. As much as possible, we want to give back.”
An hour south, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jim Hume, founder and principal of 2020 Small Giant marketing advertising agency Phire Group, has also been working with clients to craft their coronavirus messaging. He believes the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of trends such as authentic storytelling. “True authenticity includes vulnerability and putting yourself out there and just becoming more human as a brand,” Hume says. “Everything that we do has to be pointed toward making companies, organizations and brands more human, more accessible, more real.”
That authenticity, he says, is important in every aspect of Phire Group’s business, including how it communicates with clients. “It’s an important time to reach out to customers to let them know you’re there for them, but also to just be transparent with what’s happening,” Hume says. “Just let them know that you’re doing fine, you hope they’re doing fine, and you’re there for them.”