William Mills’ Scott Mills: ‘We have to think about how technology is consumed’

Scott Mills has fintech PR in his blood. Along with his dad and his brother, Mills has built William Mills into the largest independent PR and marketing firm in the financial industry. The 40-year old firm is based in Atlanta and has found a niche for itself by helping companies sell technology into banks.

On this edition of the Tearsheet podcast, we talked about how this class of fintech companies is different, primarily because today’s financial technology is ending up in the hands of the end consumer. In other words, Mills has seen fintech move from business-to-business — where financial technology ended up on inside a bank — to business-to-business-to-customer and that’s created unique challenges for young firms to elevate their visibility and acquire new customers.

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Below are highlights, edited for clarity, from the episode.

The evolving market for fintech
“When I use the term ‘fintech’, it can refer to those companies who provide technology to financial institutions, like FIS, Jack Henry, or Sunguard. Or, it can mean, like the media tends to use it, young innovative companies that want to peel business away from financial institutions with marketplace lending or small business, small dollar lending.

What I find interesting is for traditional fintech companies, they’ve been around for a long time helping financial institutions automate something or do something better, like decreasing fraud or increasing cross-sell. What’s happened is that we’re having to think through this technology because it’s now ending up in the hands of the customer. Where fintech for a lot of us was the B2B industry, it’s now more B2B2C. We have to think about how the technology is consumed.”

How marketing and PR has had to change
“Traditional fintech firms have had to go out and get talent from places like Google and Amazon. Our clients have elevated what they talk about internally and with their customers, with more of an appreciation on user design and customer experience. It’s an arms race in terms of being able to make your stuff easier to use.

Firms need to make sure they’re addressing the different audiences that will influence their success. It could be bank consultants that are often involved in technology buying decisions. It might be ensuring that a firm has enough talent coming in. Do I need to do something local so people know we have a great place to work? Is it industry analysts, like Mercator or IDC, who have influence? Should I work with state banking associations or national ones? All these things are part of the fintech company’s marketing toolbox.”


Defining success with PR
“It’s really up to a specific company and where they’re up to in their lifecycle. Views are easy to measure, but aren’t the most important thing. For example, I can get an article in a really nice publication that few target clients read. I can deliver on a number but not on the impact. Some clients use scorecards, but few do.

Generally, we want our clients to get famous for something. It will happen in a PR program that publishes news that shows we’re consistently making progress as a corporation.

The second area we focus on is thought leadership. Most people in fintech are successful because they sell what’s in between their ears.  We want our clients to get known for solving problems or addressing bigger issues than just the features of their product.

Lastly, you want to capture customer success stories. There’s nothing more important to a fintech than being able to demonstrate how you’ve helped a bank, credit union, or mortgage company do something really well.”

25 years and counting: How one agency has evolved alongside the financial industry

Sullivan NYC and 25 years branding financial firms

When Barbara Apple Sullivan founded branding and communications agency Sullivan twenty-five years ago, agencies typically flew with their financial industry clients at an altitude of 30,000 feet. They focused on building and communicating their clients’ brands, but when it came time to supporting products themselves, that role was left to in-house professionals. The result was that financial services and products were somehow disconnected from the mothership and rarely infused with strong brand and values.

“When I was head of marketing at Chemical Bank, there were literally 6 different brochures for the 6 different types of checking accounts we offered,” explains Sullivan. “Each one looked like it was produced by a different company. No customer or prospect is going to read through 6 different brochures.”

Indeed, when New York-based Sullivan, the firm, began working with clients like Amex, JP Morgan, and TD Ameritrade, it focused on bringing its cruising altitude down to the product level to help make its clients’ cash registers ring. Doing that required breaking down walls. Financial institutions, like Merrill Lynch, for example, have multiple constituencies they have to market to, including internal sales staff (like brokers), outside customers (like brokerage clients) and institutional partners (like clearing).

Sullivan believes financial services is moving away from dealing with the members of the ecosystem as separate properties to manage. Distinctions and barriers between the business lines are melting away as firms work instead on their core messages that resonate throughout their businesses.

“We never though of ourselves as B2B or B2C,” says Sullivan. “We think about the brands for each audience. This distinction between channels is something we believe the financial industry would be better off leaving behind.”

The resulting model is that today’s agencies that work in financial services take a much more customer centric approach. It forces firms to dig deeper to really understand who their end clients are and how best to serve them. For its part, as an agency, Sullivan has honed its chops through its work around customer experience. It uses workshops with clients like Pershing to really understand buyer personas and map user journeys.

It’s precisely here — where individual clients and large financial institutions meet — where new tools can enable increased engagement and sales. But Sullivan cautions that new tools, including financial technology as well as marketing technology, aren’t always a panacea. Instead of using tech to solve all challenges, success comes through understanding when technology is appropriate and when it isn’t by mapping the user journey. Through this process, financial services companies can build seamless experiences across the growing number of communication channels modern organizations must manage.

“We publish a study of investor trust every year and it turns out that people really want a human touch,” says Sullivan. “Even as we get more immersed in new technology, people still want to have relationships.”

As technology has proliferated since Sullivan opened shop 25 years ago, it’s shifted decision-making responsibility more on to the shoulders of  individual clients and prospects. Customers have to do a lot of homework before they even reach out to a financial institution. A longer sales funnel means the deliverables of an agency are changing, too. Whereas agencies used to create marketing materials further down the sales funnel, financial services firms now require educational and editorial content. In 2013, Sullivan created Imprint, the firm’s own content studio, to service the evolving needs of its clients.

Over time, the agency is increasingly working with fintechs alongside the firm’s incumbent clients. But founder Sullivan doesn’t really see the startups displacing large financial institutions. For her, it’s all about options: providing the tools and experiences people want when they’re ready to have them. Digital joins other channels as another option for customers.

“I don’t think the incumbents are thinking about ‘either-or’ — they’re thinking about ‘and’,” explains Sullivan. “They’re saying digital is part of our offering but we’re not undertaking a sea change to make technology all we offer. Financial institutions want to provide options. They don’t assume tech will always be a better solution.”