CJRW CEO Darin Gray stresses the importance of data and insights into industry developments
Darin Gray has seen a lot of changes in marketing over the past five years, most of which have been good for the industry.
Gray has led the 60-year-old advertising agency CJRW through the ever-changing industry since joining the Little Rock-based company as president eight years ago. He was appointed Chairman and CEO in July 2015.
“We are now, especially in this industry, in a constant flux of change,” he said. “The analysis of data, the data itself, the information, the access to this information and the monitoring of this information make it constantly evolve.”
Five years ago, Gray said companies would draw up three- to five-year business plans that they would implement. Since then, the duration of the plans has shrunk from three years to six months.
Now strategic plans have become almost real-time.
“As new means of communication change, with new platforms constantly being developed to reach a very specific audience with a very specific message that we are trying to reach through our marketing efforts, that is constantly changing,” he said. declared. “What that means is you have to constantly watch these things.”
As new communication platforms or apps are released, one of the challenges is to avoid chasing “the next big thing,” Gray said.
“Especially for the clients we represent, he has to be there for a while,” he said. “We have to test it. We have to make sure he has matured. There is a communication and a marketing approach to measure the return on investment.
Gray said the agency monitors its marketing plans like the way financial advisers monitor their clients’ portfolios: daily. He said if any part of the marketing strategy isn’t working as it should, it can be changed almost in real time.
“It’s a big change even in the last five years, from a print ad or something out of a marketing piece, and it lasts at least a year at a time,” he said. he explains. “All of these things now have the ability to change.”
With social media, advertisements can be designed for a target audience and have personalized content. An advertisement for one demographic group on one social media platform may be unique from an advertisement targeting another demographic group on the same platform. As a result, Gray said customers don’t have to wait as long to see if their ads work.
“More than anything, the value that comes out of this is the ability to highly personalize the marketing approaches that we’re able to do and monitor and adjust in a very rapid format,” he said. “That, over the last five years, has changed things.”
BENEFITS OF DATA
Gray said another big change has been access to information and data, noting the number of companies selling information.
“I would caution, though, that you can get into this analysis paralysis if you have too much data,” he said. “Why they are so valuable is the ability to take that and turn it into a strategy.”
The ability to use data to develop strategy and implement marketing plans for clients has been “huge”, he said. “The ability to have this information has been extremely helpful in personalizing these marketing efforts.”
The result is increased efficiency for customers, knowing their investment is delivering value.
When Gray started in the industry in 1997, he said part of the joke was that 50% of advertising worked. The question is which 50%.
“It was an inside industry joke, but the reality is you can now tell what works and what works,” Gray said. “That means your customers’ dollars, efforts, and marketing messages go where you want them to get the best return and the best results.”
Over the next five years, Gray expects the industry to become more specific about whether clients are receiving expected results and return on investment as data sources mature and are leveraged. strategic. He also said those who communicate with each demographic through targeted messaging would do well.
Gray noted that CJRW’s employees reflect the different generations it communicates with and that its staff range in age from their early 20s to mid-70s. The company has about 65 employees.
Many of the company’s clients belong to the tourism, hospitality and travel industries. Long-term customers include state agencies such as the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, as well as the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a mixed impact on the marketing industry, and various segments continue to recover. Gray said the industry has recovered in some ways, but not others.
Gray said one of the tools used to understand the value of the business to the state is the 2% tourist tax. Its proceeds are used for state marketing. So far this year, revenue is up more than 30% compared to the same months of 2019.
Before the pandemic, revenue grew every year for nearly a decade, reaching $17.61 million in 2019, according to the Ministry of Finance and Administration. Revenue fell 22.7% to $13.61 million in 2020, but increased 51% to $20.54 million in 2021. The most recent data shows that between January and March, revenue was $4.78 million, up about 36% from the same periods in 2019 and 2021.
Some industries hardest hit by COVID included travel, tourism and hospitality. They are recovering uniquely, but travel and tourism have recovered faster than others.
He said the pandemic has affected events at which people have gathered and contributed to pent-up demand for such activities. And when people were able to come together again, they did.
Additionally, Gray said the popularity of outdoor activities grew because they were considered safer, and the areas that rebounded faster from the pandemic were those with amenities such as lakes and streams and opportunities. hiking and biking.
Gray said product development was behind the increase in tax revenue from tourism. In northwest Arkansas, he pointed to the Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company headed by Steuart Walton and his brother Tom, which invests in area amenities, particularly outdoor recreation.
“If you statistically look at the younger generation, they tend to be more in tune with outdoor recreation opportunities,” Gray said. “Arkansas, quite frankly, had a very pandemic-friendly travel and tourism product before we even knew there was a pandemic.”
Arkansas’ amenities attract people from surrounding and coastal states. He added that the amenities attract travelers and entice people and businesses to locate here.
“The product development we have now and the supply, it’s a national product,” he said. “It’s in many ways a global product that people want. And I think that’s why we’re doing so well, and I think we’ll continue to do well.
Gray moved to Little Rock after being named president and CEO of CJRW in 2015. He has since moved back to northwest Arkansas and resides in Bentonville.
The Bryant native said he gets a lot of miles in his vehicle. But he still travels a lot, and it’s one of his favorite things about his job. He is also a private pilot and loves to fly various planes. He obtained his pilot’s license in 2007.
“Arkansas is a great state to fly,” he said. “You very quickly get a better understanding of the geographic difference in the state’s layout between the delta, plains, farmland and agriculture and up to the mountains… You see it all. You get a bit of all of that in Arkansas.
In 2014, Gray joined CJRW as president after stepping down as CEO of Gray Matters, the parent company of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.
In 1997 Gray started at The Business Journal as an associate editor. He was promoted to publisher in 1999. In 2004 he formed Gray Matters and acquired a majority stake in the magazine. The company became the magazine’s sole owner in 2013. Natural State Media, the parent company of Talk Business & Politics, acquired the magazine in 2016.
Gray earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in political science from the University of Arkansas. After college, he worked for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and spent several years in an economic development role for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. He is a past chairman of the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.