Fireside Chat with Christy Hiler of

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Fireside Chat with Christy Hiler of

A fireside chat with Christy Hiler, president and owner of Cornett and, a movement focused on increasing the number of women-owned marketing and advertising agencies.

Fireside Chat with Christy Hiler of

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Christopher Penn 0:09

All right in this special episode today talking with Christy Hiler, from coronet about women owned agency.

So Christy, you tell us a bit more about who you are and what you do and why you’re here.


Christy Hiler 0:22

I’m Christy Hiler, president and owner of cornet Cornett has been in business for over 30 years.

It’s an advertising agency based in Lexington, Kentucky.

And let’s see, I have been here, almost 20 years.

And about five years ago, I took over as president and then just over a year ago, I purchased the agency 100% of the agency.

And shortly after I bought cornet I started asking around.

Because I was curious how many other female owned agencies there were in this business, and I was going through the process of getting certified by WeBank.

And that’s a pretty intense process getting certified you.

You have to provide a lot of informations and a lot taxes.

And just, I would say time and money to there is a fee associated with that.

It’s not huge, but I started asking if they had a number.

And I think that because that process is so cumbersome.

I don’t think that that information really is complete.

I think that there’s some factors that hold people back from going through that certification process.

But then I started asking a number of the different associations in this industry, the four A’s, and there’s also an age which has a datacenter.

And just another context, some industry leaders if they knew where I could find this number, and it was really hard to get to get to a number and even I would say the closest number admitted that it’s probably not current, or complete.

And so I felt like, Okay, well, how can we? How can we how can we start building this number because I don’t think that we’re going to see progress unless we have a baseline.

And the number that I got, the closest number that I got to was that was that of the over 20,000 agencies in the US advertising agencies.

Less than 150 are female owned.

Now, again, I don’t think that that is a complete number, I don’t think that there is a source that has a good list a clean list.

And that’s why I’m really excited to talk to you because data is something that you very much believe in.

And I do too.

And I do because if you look at a lot of the progress in our industry, right now, a lot of it has come from looking at data.

And it’s hard.

It’s hard to look at such an ugly number.

For me, I couldn’t turn away from that.

When I learned that, that means that we have far less than 1% of all agencies are owned by women.

And if you look at data just across just general in the US businesses, almost 40% of general businesses in the US are owned by women.

So like how can there be such this incredible discrepancy? It’s not easy for me to turn away from that number and feel good about turning away from that number.

I have to look at that and go okay, wait, that’s not okay.

Have one like let’s get a real number.

And if that is a real number, we got to do something to drive that number significantly higher.

And so if you look around in our business, that has been done a number of times.

So there’s a well known initiative that started about 10 years ago called the 3% movement in the advertising business and that at the time, was the number 3% 10 years ago, the there were only 3% of all creative directors that’s not chief creative officers.

That’s not good.

route creative directors ACD, that that was just creative directors were female in this business.

And since that time, and since they have raised that issue and held conferences, and many other initiatives that are a part of that

Christy Hiler 5:21

that number has grown to 30%.

So again, I think, you know, just being able to have the right numbers to work with, and then bringing people and pulling this community, we can see some progress.

So that’s who I am.

And that is what I came on to talk to you about, which is this initiative called ownit, which is hoping to shine a light on the lack of equality in ownership in the advertising business.

Christopher Penn 5:58

How did that happen? So how did you know less than 1% of ad agencies end up being owned by women? What’s the what do you think are the driving causes behind that?

Christy Hiler 6:09


So that’s what the podcast element of ownit is also talking a lot about, I have started that podcast because I wanted to talk to both owners, industry leaders, and then the other side, which is women who aren’t yet owners and understand what’s holding them back.

A couple of things that I think are very consistent that I’ve heard just even so far, and I’ve only, you know, spoken and recorded maybe 10 interviews so far, but consistently, what you hear and what we know, and what is said about this businesses, you know, it’s called the boys club of advertising, I mean, madmen? Is not.

Yes, you like you think about it being early days of average.

But it’s it’s not the like that is the route, that is how this industry was built.

So the you know, the infrastructure of this business was built like that.

And so until that changes, we’re not going to see a change at the top.

But I also think that there have been a lot of really fantastic conversations and initiatives like 3%, and see her and have her back.

I mean, there’s a lot of really great conversations that have been building that have allowed and put more women in positions of leadership.

But what I am saying is, that can’t be the end, like, let’s not have leadership, be the end goal, but to have ownership be the end goal.

What if we just kick that bar up one more notch.

And we say, instead of getting and talking about getting women in positions of leadership, let’s let’s just keep that going.

Let’s go one more step to ownership.

And I think that’s really important, because at the ownership level, you that’s really when you have the ultimate power, the ultimate power to change your agency, and then collectively change the industry.

But there also is another important piece of that, and that’s wealth, right, like redistribution of wealth, so that there’s equality, in and distribution to women in terms of wealth, too.

So I think both of those things are ultimately what, what I would like to see and I would like for us to talk more about

Christopher Penn 9:01

for folks who are not owners talk a bit about what the difference is between being a leader and being an owner, somebody is not an owner.

What does that look like? And how do they become one? Sure.

Christy Hiler 9:14


So I can tell you, from my experience in what I’ve heard from a number of other owners so far to the difference is having the ultimate responsibility, you know, for me, when I was leading the agency, I was making a lot of decisions.

But honestly, Chris, I didn’t have the full weight of those decisions.

Because I wasn’t financially responsible for the weight of the you know, for those decisions until I was in the position of ownership.

So it’s both like, I think you should have that liability.

But I think you should also have the reward.

So like, if you’re making a lot of these decisions, and you’re building these agencies, and you are driving the vision, then you should also be rewarded for that financially.

Christopher Penn 10:17

Do you need to be a leader to be an owner?

Christy Hiler 10:21

That’s a, that’s a really great question.

Also, I think the difference between leadership and ownership in this I’ve heard a number of times from other owners is there are there are different skills that come with ownership, especially as it relates to finance and just like entrepreneurship skills.

And business.

A lot of if you think it, I think it depends on what kind of leadership you’re talking about to like, if you’re talking about creative department leadership, right? Like the skills that you need to do that job really well are, are vastly different from the skills that you would need in order to own and operate a successful agency.

And really, any, you know, leadership of different departments.

But I think you get closer when you are leaving the agency, I think that you are developing more of those skills to step into the ownership position.

So for me, and for a number of the other owners who purchased existing agencies, a lot of us were running the agencies, you know, Moore’s that President role before taking ownership, I think founders, you know, they jump right in to that position.

But again, I think it’s, it’s different from department leadership, there’s lots of different types of leaders.

And I think that the different and what you graduate from is like, being really well, at strategy, for example, for me, you know, I loved that.

And that was really what my hesitation was, for a long time and taking on the agency leadership role, was, I really love that piece.

And I didn’t want to stop doing that.

Because you kind of do, you have to let go of doing and hand that over to other people and trust and, you know, watch them and cheer them on.

And so it is, it is a different role.

You, you’re managing a lot more people oftentimes too, and but a lot of different parts of business.

But I love that I love the challenge that gave me the opportunity to grow and to learn from the business, but also from other people.

Christopher Penn 13:14

What about other agency types, PR agencies, marketing agencies, management consultancies and stuff? Do they all seem to adhere to about the 1%? As well?

Christy Hiler 13:23

Oh, that’s a good question.

I don’t know.

I don’t have the data on PR agencies, necessarily, although I will say it.

I, I think that there are some agencies that do PR that are a part of this list.

I don’t, I don’t know.


I don’t know the number specific to PR only agencies, or different, you know, specialties within this business.

But I’d like to, I’d like to look at that.

I think that would be an interesting number to see.

If and how those are different.

Christopher Penn 14:09

I think I know the answer to this question.

And it’s going to be the answer is disappointingly small.

But all of that 1%.

How many are women of color?

Christy Hiler 14:20

Oh, yes.

I don’t know the number either.

Yet, because we’re just gathering the data.

And actually, I don’t I think we’ll have to build into the way that we’re capturing data, a mechanism to be able to capture that specific data.

There are women of color that I know are a part of this, this but I don’t I don’t have the specific data or even the field to capture that right now.

But I think that’s an ADD and honestly, Chris, I was really excited to have this conversation.

Because you do this better than I do.

And I would love your thoughts on how I should be thinking about capturing, and also growing the data.

And what I should be looking at in order to see these numbers go up, because that’s the whole point we want to see, we want to get that accurate read, but then we want to grow it.

And some of that is going to come from community.

But I also want to know what to do with this data in order to make sure that we see it go up.

Christopher Penn 15:38

Are there legal or structural hurdles in the way of women becoming owners? Obviously, there’s the cultural bias, you mentioned already, but the legal and structural hurdles,

Christy Hiler 15:51

I would say, more than legal or structural, it’s going to be financial.

And so there was, there was a woman that was on the podcast a few weeks ago, actually, I don’t think I have pushed that one live yet, but it’s coming.

In two weeks, I think it will go live.

She is more focused on.

She has a foundation that is connected to her agency, and they work to help women secure more funding for their businesses.

Now, that said, she doesn’t only focus on funding agencies actually, when I asked her, have you had any agent, have you had any agency pitches, she, they have pitch nights.

And then they also have grants, because they recognize that so much of the funding is still given to men a largely disproportionate amount, especially anything over $100,000.

So I think financially, we’ve got to get to more equity, a more equitable place.

But I think a lot of that, as she was saying, is just women going after that funding and know how, knowing how to secure the funding, how to pitch their business.

And so that’s why the pitch piece is a part of her foundation, in addition to some of the grants.

Christopher Penn 17:27

Is it easier for someone easier for a woman to try to acquire and purchase an existing agency, or to be a founder and start a brand new one, in terms of becoming an owner?

Christy Hiler 17:43

I don’t know if it’s easier, but it’s certainly different.

So for me purchasing the agency, there’s obviously a more significant financial cost to that.

Going through the process of getting the valuation and determining the value of the company, and then which form of funding you want to, to use in order to purchase the company.

So and there are some, there’s a lot of different ways you can go about that.

I looked at the SBA was one, so you can get one option for me was 100% funding to come from the SBA, but I ended up doing a different path through a bank, and then also a note.

But there’s a lot of different ways you can go about funding if you’re buying an existing agency.

So I would say the cost financially is higher if you go that path.

Starting from scratch, though you don’t have the revenue to really secure some of that funding.

So again, it was easier for me to take on that funding and the debt because I knew that I could pay it because I have revenue and establish relationships.

But if you’re founding it, you don’t necessarily have that.

So I think there is a different challenge in having to build up that revenue.

And also your team.

You know, I had a I had a fantastic I have a big, fantastic team, a team that’s been here a really long time.

I’ve got a leadership team.

And then you know, nearly 50 people here So, I think starting from scratch versus buying an agency, they’re just really different.

Christopher Penn 20:07

Can you talk about the valuation process and how that goes, because there’s obviously been a number of articles talking about how agencies owned by people of color agencies owned by women, companies, owned by both categories, typically undervalued for when they when they do come up for sale.

Christy Hiler 20:28

Well, I wasn’t buying at the time an agency that was owned by a woman or a person of color.

But the evaluation process is pretty straightforward.

And I mean, you there, I would say the most important thing is to get a partner that is going to be doing the evaluation that you trust, and really read through the details of how they value different parts and how they get to the value.

Okay? Because, yes, they can, it’s not.

As much as I say, there is a formula, and there is, there is a range that you can use for each different component of the business that you’re evaluating.

So that’s why you’ve got to have a partner that you trust.

Because you could, you could have a partner that is looking out more for building the value of the owner, or building the case more for the buyer.

So you just want to really make sure that you’ve got somebody that you feel is looking out for both, ideally, right, I mean, even as the buyer, you want to make sure that the that the company like that it’s fair, it’s fair for both parties.

So I would say that is one of the most critical factors is who’s doing the evaluation, and get multiple, and then also have some outside counsel, I had some folks that I turned to, to better understand it from a financial side that weren’t involved in this business, or industry, that could help me understand it and take a look at the valuation as well just as an outside set of eyes and make sure that they felt like it was fair to

Christopher Penn 22:37

it sounds almost like a real estate transaction with a buyer’s agent and the sellers agent and stuff like that.

Just like a real estate transaction, we have the land, the building and all that stuff.

Can you talk more about what those components are of an agency and how they’re valued?

Christy Hiler 22:53

Yeah, well, an agency is is an interesting one, because an agency really is just its people, and also the relationships and the contracts that you have in place.

So for us, a lot of that is it’s the evaluation is based on the business, the business that we’ve had for a number of years, but also the relationships, the How long have we had those? Look, we gotta look at the contracts that are in place.

What are the terms of those contracts? And then also, just yeah, the stability of the of the business? And terms for payments, there’s a lot of different factors that they’re looking at.

And honestly, I’d have to, I’d have to go back and refresh my memory on all the different parts of that evaluation.

But it is it is, it’s, it’s detailed, much like that, you know, we bank, I mean, they’re going to they’re, they look at everything, and they verify all of that information.

And it’s also a really interesting and important piece, when you’re taking on the ownership to to really understand all of that and to make sure that you know exactly what you’re buying and all parts of it.

So it is it’s a big undertaking, but it should be.

Christopher Penn 24:32

So let’s say you’ve got a new woman owner, she’s just starting out her agency, if you would have to counsel her on building an agency that has strong value based on all those different components that you just talked about, where should she be investing her time, you know, where should How should she be growing her agency for maximum sustainable value?

Christy Hiler 24:56


So I think The biggest thing is just is to focus on your team, the team that is working to secure and build those relationships, making sure that they know where you’re going, what your vision is, and the values of the business.

For me, I am really open, you know, it’s really important to me that every person here knows what this agency is about and where we want to go, right, we’ve all got to be going towards the same thing.

And so I build a business plan, which is also part of the requirement as you’re going to get any sort of funding.

So that’s really helpful, too.

And you have to know, where’s the business? Like, what is the growth path? And where is it going to come from, and then sharing that and make sure people are behind you.

And they are committed also and really bought in to being able to, to grow in that way and see the agency and participate in that vision and the path.

So I share the business plan.

Every year, I update it, and I share it with the leadership team, the folks that are going to be a part of or whether or not we get there.

Christopher Penn 26:32

Can you talk about so you were a leader for a long time before becoming an owner? How did your relationships with other leaders within the agency change when you became the owner?

Christy Hiler 26:47

That’s a great question.

You know, I think I have said a few times that I felt like it would be I felt like it before I purchased it like it felt like such a big deal.

You know, and in my mind, and honestly, I think that that is going back to your question like What is really holding people back? A lot of it is that women don’t, you know, they don’t know what if they can do it.

You know, they doubt themselves.

If you look at some of the data, there isn’t any data that supports that women own agencies are less successful than men, in fact that there’s the opposite.

You know, there is data that supports that, that they can be more successful.

But there is data that shows that women don’t believe they will be as successful.

If you ask women, if they can do it, and you asked men, if they could do it, the percentage of men who say they can do it is is greater than the percentage of women and that.

And that was true for me.

So I wanted to make sure that I could do this well, because I love this agency.

And I love this business.

And I love the people here and I love the clients that we have in those relationships, and they’re really important.

And I didn’t want to take over anything that I couldn’t do well, with.

So I felt like in my mind, it was like this huge, like, you know, it was going to be this big difference.

But really, I think, at the others on the other side of it, I was like, Oh, it doesn’t feel that difference.

And I would tell you, I feel the weight for sure I do.

And I knew that and I wanted that I wanted to feel the weight of the decisions, but and the responsibility for, you know, 50 people and their families, and they’re like, You should feel that.

But I don’t feel like I became a much different person.

You know, I mean, I feel like you could ask a lot of the team.

And the way that I was leading it before is still the way that that I’m leaving it in many of in many ways.

Except, I would say that I continue to be even more transparent and even more forward thinking and here’s where we’re here is where we’re going and just constantly keeping my eyes ahead and making sure that everybody knows where we’re going.

And as things change, because in this business, they change a lot.

Every day our business is changing, and we’ve got to be able to adapt and so constant communication is a key is a really important piece of that.

So they’ve got to trust me and a lot of that trust is built a little bit, you know, one step at a time and one little piece at a time.

Every decision I make can either build or You know, really lose trust.

So I try to really stay connected and open in a lot of different ways.

And that’s from from the leadership team all the way down, you know, I really want to make sure that I know how the team is doing, too, that they feel like they can share with me anything that they feel can be improved, because as an agency, I want every year for us to be significantly better than we were the year before.

Because we’ve got, we got big goals to be at the top of our business, and we only get there if, if we know what’s going on within our agency and how we can get better.

Christopher Penn 30:41

What changes, if any, have you made as an owner, that are different from what previous owners? What decisions they made as owners?

Christy Hiler 30:53

So a couple of things that I would say, off the top of my head one is, I started profit sharing program.

And that profit sharing program is it is there’s a team that is a part of that.

And we have goals for the agency.

And if we hit those goals, and we exceed those goals, then we all share in that.

And again, that kind of goes back to really making it more of a team effort, and that we’re all headed and working towards the same thing.

So that’s one and then another piece right away.

And I have four kids, I’m done having children.

But I changed our maternity and paternity leave policies right away.

That was really important.

And yeah, I mean, I think I just fair compensation, I did an audit of how every every person is compensated and, and building and continuing to evaluate and make sure that people are paid fairly and an even get them, you know, paid well, that’s a really important piece.

And we have gone after a number of things like best places to work.

And we do that, not as much.

Although I do love being able to say we are best place to work in Kentucky, we were named a best place to work in Kentucky last year.

And then we’re recently named it again.

So two years, both years that I’ve owned the company, but but we do that because you also get a lot of data it gives you we work to you know, have as many people in the agency submit their information.

And we do that because that helps us know how we’re doing across a lot of different parts of our business.

How do our people feel they’re compensated? How do they feel? Do they have everything they need to be successful here? And if they don’t, we’ll we’ll have a better understanding of of what they don’t feel like they have.

And then let’s work to get it.

So it helps us get even better too.

So those are some of the things but I’m sure there’s more.

Christopher Penn 33:40

After you became a women owned business, did you pursue any of the state and federal certifications as a women owned business? And if so, did that change the kinds of customers and business you were able to win?

Christy Hiler 33:52

Great question.

Yes, we are certified by WeBank.

So and like I said, that process was cumbersome, but it’s important.

I do want to be a part of that community and and there are some contracts where that is important for us to be able to show that certification.

But in terms of going after additional business, and that being a I would say contributor to wins i i Really i can’t show that yet.

But it is a piece of how we communicate about who we are.

As an agency we do say in every introduction and capabilities presentation we make we say that we are proudly independent and female owned

Christopher Penn 34:58

for a women who want to go the founders route, how do they go about getting funding, given some of the issues that that are in the funding space, when, for example, when Trust Insights was getting started, Katie and I were approached a number of investors and two of the investors told us to our faces, they would not invest in a company that had a woman CEO, that just flat out said that to our faces, and we’re like, it’s 20.

You know, 2018, at the time, given that culture, how should aspiring women founders be going up to looking to fund their businesses?

Christy Hiler 35:41

That’s hard for me to say, because I didn’t.

I’m not a founder.

But I would say, talk to other women founders, that would be step one.

If you want to purchase an agency, if you are currently leading or considering buying an agency, talk to me talk to other women who have done that, if you are thinking of starting your own agency.

That’s part of why I’m building this community too.

Because every per every one of these women that I have talked to, they would think they want to help, they want to see more women come into these positions, and they want to see them be successful.

So they’re there and they will give their time.

Reach out to them there are there are women that are on the podcast that our founders, Valerie Moselle, she would she, it would be a great resource.

And as this community grows, we’re going to have more so identify some of them come to this group come to me and I’ll you know, help you find somebody to that you can talk to and that can help you and like I said Kim Lawton with enthuse Marketing Group, she’d be another great resource, because she not only found it, but she is also working with other entrepreneurs, and she would be a far better resource, then, like I said, than I would but get connected, get somebody who has done it, and also believes in what you’re doing.

Mentorship is, I think, absolutely critical.

Having a community around you, when you step into a position of ownership is really important.

Christopher Penn 37:38

Terrific, where can people find out more, learn more and hear more about all of this?

Christy Hiler 37:44

Sure, go to until you own

That is our site where we want to hear and are capturing information about current owners.

But we also want to hear from women who are not yet owners what’s holding you back.

So as you go through, there’s a there is the homepage, which talks about where we are currently as an industry.

And then it says stand up and be counted within there.

At first, it will ask if the agency is what percentage of it is female owned.

And if it’s not, if it’s zero, or if you are not currently in a position of ownership, you can say what’s holding you back.

And we’d love to hear from you.

I would also say reach out to me on LinkedIn.

I’d love to connect with you or connect you with somebody else who could help.

And yeah, be be somebody who can come alongside of you and as you build your dream and see it come to life.

Christopher Penn 38:52

All right.

Thank you very much.

Christy Hiler 38:54

Thanks, Chris.

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