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7 ways startup thinking can make you a better marketer

Examining the creative ways smaller marketers have outmaneuvered the big firms.

Two years ago, a Canadian startup stole Microsoft’s thunder.

On the very same day Microsoft introduced a business collaboration app called Teams, it was completely upstaged by Slack, an upstart rival founded in Vancouver. Though now based in Silicon Valley, Slack still has a large Vancouver office.

Slack took out a full-page ad in the New York Times titled “Dear Microsoft.” Written in the style of an open letter to the software giant, the ad cheekily congratulated Microsoft for (finally) creating a product to compete with Slack’s.

Slack takes out add in New York Times to promote it's app“So welcome, Microsoft, to the revolution,” Slack declared in its ad before taking this final dig: “We’re sure you’re going to come up with a couple of new ideas on your own too.”


What the ad really did, of course, was highlight the features of Slack’s own app. It also drew attention to the fact that Microsoft, a 40-year-old behemoth with 120,000 employees worldwide, introduced its collaboration tool three years after Slack, a small startup founded in 2013.

“The ad really highlighted the things that made Slack different and it got them a ton of press on a day that should’ve been about Microsoft,” said Erin Bury, Managing Director at Toronto marketing agency Eighty-Eight.

Bury recounted the Slack story during her keynote at the QuickBooks Connect conference in Toronto. She also highlighted three tips during the session, which focused on marketing hacks your small business can learn from superstar startups like Slack.

1. You don’t have to spend a lot

Slack’s full-page NYT ad probably cost US$150,000. That may sound like a lot. But when you consider that one ad in just one newspaper garnered Slack free media coverage in dozens of media outlets like CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Wired and Huffington Post, that single ad was incredibly cost-effective.

Bury’s own agency scored a low-cost coup by promoting itself with a cheeky online quiz called Agency or Porn? (Although the name is more suggestive than overtly NSFW, still consider holding off on clicking this at work.) The quiz asked whether certain phrases were actually the name of an adult film or a real-life ad agency.

It was a quick, quirky, shareable hit on social media. The quiz generated more than 600 Tweets and 78,000 unique online visitors from 165 countries within the first month, plus free editorial coverage mentioning Eighty-Eight in 50 media outlets like Adweek and Ad Age.

How much money did Bury’s agency spend on the campaign? Almost none. It simply created the quiz, pitched it to media outlets and fellow ad agencies, then teased it by putting up a few posters and stickers around the neighbourhood near its office.

“You can’t buy virality,” Bury said. She believes the quiz generated a buzz because it was “simple and fun and people really loved it.”

2. Solicit ideas from everyone

In 2007, the Toronto office of global ad agency Ogilvy & Mather held a brainstorming session on its Shreddies cereal account. A 26-year-old intern named Hunter Somerville picked up a piece of the shredded wheat, held it on an angle and joked, “It’s not a square, it’s a diamond.”

Instead of sending Somerville out to fetch coffee, his bosses encouraged him to develop that one-liner into a fully baked campaign. Months later, the agency served up ingenious ads introducing the ‘new’ Diamond Shreddies, spotlighting the Shreddies brand while spoofing the marketing industry at the same time. One commercial featured a hilarious hidden camera test to see if Shreddies 2.0 tasted better than the ‘original’ ones.

The campaign boosted Shreddies’ market share by 18 per cent during its first month and won Ogilvy & Mather a 2008 Grand Clio Award for advertising.

Was Ogilvy & Mather a startup? No. But as a young intern, Somerville probably brought a fresh, fearless, agile type of startup mentality to the agency’s experienced in-house team.

Erin Bury said Diamond Shreddies are a shining example of why you should cultivate creative contributions from everyone in and around your company, including employees, customers, partners — and interns.

Shreddies' creative marketing campaign

And don’t forget to listen to customers. Bury said they can provide valuable marketing ideas and insights if you ask them to give regular feedback or sit on your advisory board.

She noted that one of the most successful startups ever, Twitter, adopted some of its most popular features after they were suggested by users, including hashtags, retweets and lists.

3. Take risks the big guys can’t

Slack definitely took a gamble with its full-page NYT spot. By blaring Microsoft’s name in the headline of the ad, Slack broke the rules by drawing attention to its biggest competitor. It also put all its eggs in one basket by running a single ad — in just one media outlet — for only one day.

Yet Slack could afford to take those risks because, as a startup, it had much less to lose than an established company like Microsoft. Smaller businesses like Slack can take marketing risks that huge companies either can’t or won’t, said Bury.

"Nasty Woman" tattoos “A bigger company probably wouldn’t have got approval from its legal department to run an ad like [Slack’s],” she said.

Startups and SMBs also don’t face the bureaucratic speed bumps that often crop up at large corporations, she added: “As a small company, you can really move a lot quicker.”

Bury’s client, Inkbox — which makes temporary tattoos — certainly proved that in late 2016. During the final U.S. presidential debate, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” igniting an Internet firestorm.

Inkbox jumped on the news by rushing to sell temporary tattoos bearing the phrase “nasty woman.” The tattoos gained even more exposure (no pun intended) when thousands of female Clinton supporters declared themselves to be “nasty women” during the January 2017 women’s march in Washington, D.C.

If you’ve already got a billion-dollar marketing budget — great. If you’re still working on that one, however, these low-cost hacks could help your small business punch way above its weight.


Up Next: Using Snapchat to grow your SMB.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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