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South Carolina School of the Arts

Marketing agency founder: Anderson University provided skills for success

Ben Pettit believes every one of his clients has a compelling story to tell. He credits the guidance of his professors and critical thinking skills he learned at Anderson University as ingredients for his success in crafting effective messaging for a variety of companies to reach their target audiences. Visible on the wall of STORY’s office is a marketing slogan that became words to live by: “Do great work, with great people, for great people.”

How did you find out about Anderson University?
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church… I wanted to continue my education in a Southern Baptist school. I toured quite a few of those, and to be honest with you, it was simple when I got to Anderson, because I really felt like the Holy Spirit was there, and the staff and the people there—it was just such a great place. It still is. It’s an amazing place.

What is your favorite memory about being a student at Anderson University?
I had a great experience at Anderson. I minored in business and had a lot of fun. I realized that music was not something I wanted to do for a career and so marketing was kind of that second part that became my love. I had Dr. Joe Spencer; he was over marketing, and I guess he helped spark my love for it. He was probably one of the best teachers I ever had, I was not his best student (laughs), but he definitely made an impact in my life. My fondest memories were those classes and it inspired what I get to do for a living.

When did you know that you wanted to do something like you’re doing now?
I kind of fell into it. Honestly, my bride, Stacy Pettit (Beinhorn, 2010 Interior Design), is also an Anderson graduate, and so I knew I wanted to marry her and that I’d better make some money. Honestly that’s kind of where that started and then it evolved. You get in there and you figure out… you gain confidence and you’re like “I’m really good at this. Wow, people really enjoy what I do here.” So that’s really cool. I would say to a student, “You’re not going to know right away. Be patient with yourself. We live in the instant gratification world and evolving as a person is not something that happens instantly.

Tell me about founding STORY.
I have been doing this for quite a long time. Right out of college, I was gainfully employed three times in about the first 12 months. I don’t know if you remember 2008. It was not a good time for the country and, as a graduate, it was a very dark time for me. After gaining these positions—I was laid off from all three. The last layoff was the most eye opening one. Equally that one was the most discouraging. I think 750 people lost their jobs and they literally closed the division of this company I was working for. And so, I was pretty discouraged as a young kid.

I had rigorous critical thinking skill development at Anderson, especially in the music program, and I knew how to work hard. You could not be a student of Dr. Williamson and leave the other side without becoming a rigorous thinker and researcher. And so, it was kind of at that time that I decided I can’t work for someone else, because they are controlling the variables and it doesn’t seem like they’re making smart decisions. Every time I go to work for them, they end up having to lay me off!

In 2009 I started my own company, and worked on my own until about 2011. In 2011 I partnered with another Anderson grad. We’d been friends since middle school and we merged our companies together in 2011. In 2016 he made an exit and I rebranded our company. We started afresh. It was a new company but it wasn’t a new company because we still had a book of clients that we were working with. In the beginning it was very focused on being the best web experts—web design, development. We did the big design projects for important people and then in ’16 it was my kind of heartstrings of moving to this new brand, which is to be all about STORY. The way the STORY name came up is twofold.

First - we believe as a company that every organization has a unique story to tell. I’ve always been turned off by gurus. The business world loves to have a framework that says “if you do it like this, you’re going to have success.”

I’m like “wait, wait, wait!”

My famous story is I was in a packaging company here in the Upstate. I was in their facility. I’m looking around and going “this is really not that big a place. They don’t have any communication, any marketing.” The place is kind of dilapidated and I’m looking around thinking this probably isn’t a place where they’re making a lot of money.

I’m early in my career when I had this experience. I said, “tell me about your revenue.”

“Yeah, we do about 55 to 60 million dollars a year.”

My mouth dropped, and I realized that every company has a unique story and they’ve figured out how to make money, obviously in the marketplace to be competitive, but also they have figured out a unique way to thrive.

I look at businesses like trees. God created every tree. I’ve never gone into a forest and said “why don’t all of the trees look the same?” They don’t.

Second, we’re made unique and the inspiration for me comes from the greatest story ever told. That’s how we do business and we’ve grown year over year over year. It’s just been an exciting journey. Last year we grew 60 percent. This year we will double our revenue, which is incredible, and I’m blessed to be the leader stewarding it.

What are some other things you’re involved in?
I would say that the biggest thing we do as an agency that’s really cutting edge and neat is programmatic advertising. These are banner ads, video ads, audio ads… The backbone of that is we partner with over a hundred data providers… We have the most sophisticated data on the planet available to us. We are able to show ads to people all around the world, in as small of a target as 20 feet. We have over 300,000 data points where we can target people by almost any demographic, interest, title, you name it.

I think what’s really unique to us is, it is not just about telling an organization's story, crafting it, helping hone it, but making sure that we deliver that story to the right person at the right time.

At the end of the day, what gives you the biggest sense of accomplishment?
Leading our team. There are a couple of things that are unique to us and one of those is on the wall in the conference room. “Do great work, with great people, for great people.” It was a marketing slogan that became a mantra for us, but there are three parts and they’re all important.

The first part is for us to do great work and starts with having a great culture. Our employees don’t work more than 40 hours. Your typical agency rat race—and I have friends that left Anderson and did this, going into agencies working 50, 60, 70 hours. We call it “The Best 40.” We only work 40 hours a week. It’s a huge thing for us, making sure that we’re leading people to be productive individuals, not only when they’re here but when they leave here. We want every employee at STORY to win at work and win at home.

We’re very intentional with our environment. We’re even toying around with a four-day work week in the future. Some Danish companies as well as English companies are trialing this right now. I just gave a talk to a business group a couple of weeks ago about anxiety in the workplace. Why are people so anxious? Why is half the world depressed or on medicine? The American culture we live in is so stressed out.

One thing that I’m passionate about is leading our people to be healthy individuals who can be healthy fathers, healthy mothers, healthy spouses. So that’s the thing for me that it all goes back to is first leading the team and making sure that’s what sets us apart. That probably means down the road we won’t grow as fast as some other agencies. I’m okay with that. It might mean our margins are tighter. Totally okay with that.

I’ve lost two grandparents this year. They both left an inheritance, because you can’t take it with you. You just can’t. They left legacies that had a much bigger impact than money.

I think that’s the thing, is that we’re given this amazing opportunity to make an impact on people while we’re here. And so that’s what I’m about.
Building that within the American market is really difficult. We’re doing it, but it’s harder and I think it’s such a worthwhile journey to be on.

Is working virtually a big thing for your employees?
That’s a great question. We’ve actually moved to a very unique model. We’re virtual Monday and Friday and in the office for three days. Every Monday and every Friday everyone works from home and then we come together for three days as a creative agency and a marketing agency. We do need that synergy, we do need that crosstalk, especially as we grow. We will add three to four positions before this year is out. We’ve evolved really from a consultancy to a firm. I think it’s a good thing. We grew kind of kicking and screaming and now we’re continuing to grow smart.

What are some ways your Anderson University education continues to benefit you in your work?
I was taught critical thinking skills—it’s everything. And that’s what I’m looking for, is to hire people that have critical thinking skills, who can think outside the box, but also can think through a process. I think Anderson, especially the music program, taught me to become an expert researcher. Not everyone has that. The marketplace we sit in every day, it’s not about having all of the answers, it’s about knowing how to get the answers. You don’t walk into the library and say “yeah, I know what’s in every one of these books.” It’s knowing how to find the right book, how to find the right research and information so you can gain that critical information that will help take you to the next level.

What advice would you give someone interested in having a marketing career?
My advice is to ask more questions and get as much knowledge out of your professors as possible. Anderson has some wonderful people who have led some incredibly successful careers. Ask questions. Be curious. Have an attitude of humbleness and gratitude. The more you can learn about the world the better. It’s not just about the business world—let’s say you have a passion to go work for a nonprofit or a passion to go into ministry or a passion to go into a missions organization. There are people all over Anderson that have that experience. What’s really cool is I’ve never had an experience where they weren’t eager to share with me. That’s the advice I would give: Be curious, ask a ton of questions. Be that squeaky wheel in college. Ask for clarity and try to garner as much knowledge as you can. Knowledge is power.

Pettit Ben
Ben Pettit
Graduated from Anderson University: 2008
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Music with a minor in Marketing
Title: Founder & CEO, STORY, Greenville, South Carolina