Tracy Zaiss has an enormous coffee mug that reads Make Things Happen. It’s a phrase she keeps close to heart even as she prepares to hand over the reins of her 25-year-old marketing company, Zaiss & Company.
That desire to make things happen drove Zaiss to launch her own company in 1989, after learning about a British marketing concept called ‘account planning.’ “It hadn’t really made its way to the U.S.,” Zaiss recalls, “but essentially it’s this concept where there’s a customer advocate at the agency level. So I thought that would be great, I’d be a great planner! Not knowing anything about it, of course.”
Launching Zaiss & Company
The new angle on marketing strategy seemed to bring together her background in creative and marketing research: She’d started her career as a copywriter for a small agency after graduating from Hastings College and then UNO, then went to Bailey Lewis (now Lauerman) as a media director, and finally served at Swanson Russell as vice president of, that’s right, account planning.
She was there for two years before she decided to try account planning on her own. “And the more I thought about it,” Zaiss says, “the more I thought I have two major goals: I wanted to have the opportunity to do really innovative, effective marketing strategies. And second, I wanted to work with really smart, creative people who shared my goal.”
She turned to one such person to help her launch Zaiss & Company. “My attorney, Bob Freeman,” Zaiss says. “The fact that he was willing to take on this somewhat young woman who wanted to start her company—he certainly didn’t need to do that.”
Perhaps it was because the partner at Fraser Stryker saw values worth working with. Zaiss, Freeman points out, doesn’t have a cookie cutter approach. “Sometimes it’s easy to say, this looks a lot like that other project I just did,” he says. “Tracy, I think, is someone who wants to look at everything afresh. She can turn it upside down, look at it sideways, look at it through other people’s eyes…media, employees, and customers.”
Disrupting the Status Quo
Zaiss knew her fledgling company had to be focused on neither her clients nor her creative team but rather on her clients’ customers. “Typically in the agency world, you’ve got two at times adversarial forces: account service and creative,” she explains. “Not always for bad reasons, there’s a tension between the two. The account represents the client, and the creative people tend to represent the product.” With account planning, she explains, you put someone in the mix who represents the client’s customer. “The client may want their logo to be [bigger in an ad], but does their customer care about that? The creative may want to do something different because it’s clever, but does have it meaning for the client’s customer?”
Evidently her client-customer focus worked. Today, Zaiss & Company has 22 employees, serves roughly 20 clients across industries such as education, finance, and family entertainment, and grosses about $10 million a year.
Michael Echols, executive vice president at Bellevue University and a long-standing client of Zaiss & Company, credits Zaiss’ success with her rigorous attention to a changing market. “My experience with her is as a strategic partner,” he says. “Higher education has changed dramatically over the last decade. It’s expensive…people are asking if a college education is worth it. She and I work together to answer that question. She’s very thorough, she’s analytical, and she’s very plugged into the research.”
Zaiss has seen marketing tools come and go, and she’s watched as information processes have slowly shifted from being media driven to consumer driven. And she’s not about to be distracted by any of that. “We always have to ask why we’re doing stuff,” she says. “It’s not to create pretty pictures. It’s to sell a product.”
Overall, this dedication to foundational principles has afforded Zaiss & Company with a steady increase in success over the years, “but there have been ups and downs,” she says. The downs, Zaiss confides, are usually as a result of a decision to stop working with a client.
“I kind of have a reputation for just deciding if I don’t want to work for someone, I don’t want to work for them.” Her goals are innovation, and if a client no longer wants to be innovative—well. “I love demanding clients,” she says. “But as a business owner, we have to have a vision of what we’re doing. If we’re not being allowed to do the best work that we can do, then we’re really not helping the client.”
Zaiss’ tough love extends from clients seeking her service to entrepreneurs seeking her advice. “There are people who may be better at starting a business than others. There’s an entrepreneurial drive. Focus is part of that. And clarity around what you’re trying to do and how.”
A fundamental understanding of business math, she insists, is vital. Have you projected your expenses? Your revenue? Can you read a balance sheet? “There are basics, regardless of how great your idea is. And some people aren’t willing to take the risk,” she says. “And probably shouldn’t.”
Leaving One Company, Starting Two More
But for Zaiss at least, the risk may be addictive. “I read an article in Inc. magazine that said it’s never as much fun as it is the first year. I think that might be true.”
In 2014, Zaiss is handing over management of Zaiss & Company to her sister, Wendy Wiseman, who’s worked with her for 17 years. She’ll trade in her 60-hour work weeks at Zaiss & Company for who knows how many more man hours spread between two new companies.
“They’re both either going to break this year or not,” Zaiss says, but she’s being cagey on the details. She will say that she has a different partner for each project, and both of them have to do with, of course, marketing.
She still plans to keep up with her development work on the board of the Urban League of Nebraska, though that’s the only board she’s currently on. Zaiss was a founding member of the Women’s Fund of Greater Nebraska, where she served as president of the board, but stepped down when her husband Richard’s health started to give way to cancer. He passed away last summer. “Lots of changes,” Zaiss says quietly. “It was a tough year last year.”
She finds solace, she says, in simply going to her home in Hummel Park every night. “I’m surrounded by woods, wildlife. I like to be outdoors.”
Perhaps in 10 years she’ll retire but best not to count on that. “You’d better like owning a company. And be with people you like. And do things that excite and energize you. I can’t really fathom what I would do that would be more interesting.”