Forbes recently named Billups one of America’s Most Promising Companies.
We caught up with Ben Billups, the ever busy and well-traveled Founder/CEO of Billups. Founded in 2003, Billups is the nation’s largest independently held, out-of-home media specialist agency. Forbes recently named them one of America’s Most Promising Companies. Billups is headquartered in Portland, Oregon with 13 offices spanning the US. Independent. Effective. And like its Founder, Successful. Driven.
Originally released in as a series in 3 posts over 3 days, this is the full conversation.
BBoard: Ben, you are one of the most elusive, least public Agency leaders of the OOH planning and buying shops. Yet, I personally know you to be a warm and charming person who loves people and genuinely is passionate for OOH. Why the low profile? Is there a contradiction we are not aware of?
BBillups: Elusive? Low profile? That certainly makes me sound mysterious! I agree, though, that I’m likely the least understood public agency leader of the bunch. Personally, I believe that teams and relationships are much more important than individual visibility. I’ve always said that I started the story, but it’s being written by our people. Privately, my team knows me very well and that’s good enough for me from an industry perspective. As a leader, I deeply value the traits of humility, kindness and modesty. When you get down to it, I’m only interested in delivering amazing and moving the world. The rest of it I can live without. If all that makes me low-profile, but nourishes me personally, I’ll take it.
BBoard: Speaking of team; some past employees described you in the exact same words, yet with completely different tones. “He is intense and laser-focused, driven hard for our objectives.” I hope you have heard it before. We have heard the comment in a critical manner, as well as a very positive attribution of your leadership style from both. And we’ll add, of the previous employees, more were positive in tone with conviction, much more so, than the few who were not. How do you respond?
BBillups: Yeah, I’ve heard this, or some version of this, my entire working life. It makes me laugh because it’s mostly true. In response, I think I’d say, first, that I appreciate the candid analysis and the authentic feedback from any employee, past or present. I sincerely value that. I’d also say that life’s journey is as much about successes as it is failures or disappointments. That includes me. I’ve never pretended to be perfect, and I know that I will miss the mark sometimes. But all of those failures change us and help us grow, right?
BBillups: The truth is, I’m not interested in mediocrity or compromising at all. I’m also not afraid of failure. Sometimes that type of mentality scares people or can make them a tab nervous. But I believe in having hunger, urgency and obsession as the building blocks for an enterprising company. Sure, we’ll run into failures along the way. As long as we remain driven and learn from those failures to create future successes, we’ll continue to take major steps towards our vision of becoming the most inspired, innovative and influential location-based company in the world.
BBoard: What did your father do?
BBillups: Believe it or not, my father actually drove for UPS. Funny coincidence, I know. I’m proud of him and very thankful for my upbringing.
BBoard: You would look good in Brown. Why Outdoor Advertising?
BBillups: Why Outdoor? Great question, Bill. I love the freedom of expression with OOH. There’s so much about OOH that energizes me. It’s the bright colors on a dark day. It’s the sheer unlimited creative opportunity. It’s the public nature of it that makes it part of our cultural fabric. At the same time, I love the business. I love the dance of supply and demand, the commercial real-estate wild-westness, and the incredible technological challenges (and opportunities). The elements within and surrounding OOH are just too juicy for me to pass up.
BBoard: Ben, speaking of too juicy to pass up, you have acquired some top small indie OOH agencies: SOS, Generation Outdoor, Heed Media in Minneapolis. What did these three shops have in common to make them attractive to Billups?
BBillups: It comes down to alignment. Alignment of the people. The DNA. The heartbeat. Everything qualitative and, obviously, some quantitative. In all three acquisitions, it was the opportunity to bring together like-minded individuals and their respective teams. Jason Kiefer, Matt Leible and Tony Stoering are all representative of our six core values in their own unique way. They’re authentic, collaborative, empowered, inspired, innovative and relentless. I value and respect all of these individuals immensely and am grateful that they agreed to stay and make a difference.
BBoard: Speaking of people and DNA, some refer to Billups as Posterscope II- because you have many former Posterscope employees. We are not suggesting that is a bad thing, but it is a thing.
BBillups: Posterscope II. Ha! I’ve actually never heard that. Actually, I really respect Posterscope and especially Michael Palatnek. He is the consummate gentleman and a good friend. Not sure he wants Billups to be referred to as Posterscope II, but I get the historical comparison (laughs). Perhaps your comment may be in reference to our hiring of industry stalwarts like Scott Blair, Brent Baer, Heather Armstrong and a few others that were part of our ascent in the early 2010s. Posterscope, at the time, had really rolled out an indie initiative and I saw an opportunity to align with some great people while securing a promising business opportunity for all involved. Honestly, that’s my best guess, Bill. The gossip in this industry that eventually finds its way back to me in Portland makes me chuckle. Again, I’ve never heard that.
BBoard: You mentioned ‘hiring of Industry stalwarts’, you have arguably, the brightest and most well-respected people in OOH working for you in, Rick Robinson, Jason Keifer, Matt Leible, Jennifer Lombard, Julie Nelson, Kristin Carlin, and Greg Taylor. How do you attract top talent and how do you keep them?
BBillups: We have outstanding people, no doubt. They’re the very reason we exist and thrive today. What we’re doing in the independent space is unprecedented conceptually and it’s absolutely because of our people, not me. And it’s not just the big names. There’s other elite talent that might be less well-known to the industry folks: Shawn Spooner, Muneer Mubashir, Alex Baker, Jeff Jan, Juan Garcia and Jordanna Howard to name-drop just a few. I could name everyone on my team and would feel it’s appropriate. I believe it’s ultimately the culture and environment we’ve created where failure is accepted and “going for it” is the only option. It’s our willingness to serve one another respectfully that creates a healthy, competitive situation.
BBoard: You just mentioned some of your technology/software team. We listened in on your webinar last month of the introduction of Boohma. It was very impressive. OOH Today has sat in demos with 12 different OOH Industry software products. Your’s may be the most capable of all. Tell us about Boohma.
BBillups: Now, why would I do that with all of my competitors reading this? I’m kidding. We’ve been at it a long time — longer than anyone else, to tell the truth. And I’m very proud to say that Boohma is now its own entity. It’s been successfully peeled off from Billups. The combination of data science and software has grown beyond a simple internal tech project to the point where it’s creating its own revenue streams and opportunities.
We have a lot of experience understanding the OOH process gaps and client needs thanks to the daily demands of Billups. Boohma takes that experience and builds on it in a way that’s unleashing the power of OOH at a new level. Shawn Spooner and Muneer Mubashir have improved on my original vision dramatically in a way that’s incredibly exciting and speaks to the future of OOH. There’s more to come for the industry here. Stay tuned.
BBoard: Obviously you’re out of town right now. Where are you? Where will you be for the holidays ?
BBillups: I’m currently in London. As for where I’ll be for the holidays? All I can say is that I love spending time with my family and am looking for something warm in December.
BBillups: I really enjoyed speaking with you Bill. Bill Board? Is that your real name? I dig the initials and the illustrated man. Is that you?
BBoard: Thank you Ben.