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Small business Q-and-A: Steve McKee, McKee Wallwork & Co.

7 min read

Small Business

SmartBrief is talking directly with small and medium-sized businesses to discover their journeys, challenges and lessons. Today’s post is a Q-and-A with Steve McKee, president and co-founder of McKee Wallwork & Co., an integrated marketing firm in Albuquerque, N.M. McKee is also an author and a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Are you a small-business owner and would like to share your story? E-mail me jdasilva [at]

McKee answered my questions below, and also used his company’s video studio to deliver an on-camera version of those answers.  Both are below.


What is McKee Wallwork, and how did it come to be?

McKee Wallwork & Co. is an ad agency that specializes in revitalizing stalled, stuck and stale brands. We’ve conducted significant research to understand how companies can grow consistently, why they stumble and what pitfalls we all must avoid.

We’ve lived on both ends of the growth spectrum ourselves, having once made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America followed by a two-year period of drift and decline. That’s what led to our original research, and it’s the subject of my first book, “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck and What to Do About It.”

We help companies understand that as important as external factors like the economy, technology and competition are, most companies are their own worst enemies.

Why choose to go this path instead of working for someone else?

I was with my previous firm for seven years and rose to the position of president. When it became clear that it was time for me to move on, I had enjoyed so much autonomy that I felt going to work for someone else would actually be more risky than striking out on my own. My friends thought I was either courageous or crazy, as I had four kids under the age of eight at home at the time. But I really thought that starting a company was the least risky option I had. I guess I was right, because 17 years later we’re still going strong (and my youngest son just left the nest and went off to college).

To reveal my East Coast roots, why Albuquerque?

I get that question a lot, because most people who haven’t been here have a mistaken impression of Albuquerque. Professionally, this part of the country has drawn creative types of all stripes for centuries due, among other things, to its magnificent setting, multicultural mix and the fabulous light that comes from being a mile high. We do business all over the U.S., so no matter where I live I’m going to have to travel; I might as well live somewhere that feeds my soul. I think everybody here feels the same way. Living here makes our work better.

On a more practical level, the climate in Albuquerque is as close to perfect as anywhere I’ve been. Combine the altitude of Denver and the latitude of Phoenix and you have Albuquerque. We get a wonderful variety of seasons, with neither extreme heat nor bitter cold. And the lack of humidity makes being outside comfortable year-round. And, of course, there’s the food: New Mexico is the green chile capital of the world, and New Mexican cuisine is as exquisite as it is unique. Add it all up and it’s a wonderful place to call home.

McKee Wallwork is an integrated marketing firm, so I wonder, have you had any surprises or unexpected lessons learned in marketing the company itself?

That, believe it or not, is a side benefit of being located where we are. We don’t exactly run into prospective clients at the deli, if you know what I mean. (I’m not sure I could find a deli around here.) What that means is that we’ve had to take our own medicine and develop a smart, comprehensive and consistent integrated marketing program for ourselves.

We have to advertise in a smart and targeted fashion. We have to develop lots of helpful and compelling content. We have to generate leads through our marketing automation program. We have to have a sales funnel that moves those leads along. We have to continually track our close ratio. Sure, we get our share of referrals from happy clients, but we don’t get a lot of business over the transom, as they used to say.

What do you value, or aspire to, in communicating at work, whether with clients or employees?

I wish I could take credit for this turn of phrase, but a counselor friend of mine once defined communication as “the meeting of meaning”. That’s what we aspire to in every situation. Everyone knows that it’s not enough to blurt out what you think or feel, and it’s not even enough to actively listen. If “the meeting of meaning” doesn’t happen—whether between colleagues, among our staff and clients, or even in the marketing messages we sow into the marketplace—then communication isn’t achieved. It’s a task that can’t be mastered, only practiced, and it requires not only communication expertise but a finely tuned sense of empathy. And a steady dose of humility.

What aspects of communication do you consider yourself best at? Is there something that you’ve had to work on?

Personally I think I have the empathy thing down. What I need to work on is the conflict piece. One of our corporate values is to speak the “kind truth” in every situation, whether working through an employee conflict or advising a client on what may be wrong with their marketing, operations or staff. Most people tend to have one of those down pat—they’re kind but struggle with telling hard truths (that’s me) or they have no problem telling the truth but forget that if it’s not presented with genuine kindness it’s likely to go unheard.

How do you define “success” with the business?

We believe that business, like life, is first and foremost about relationships. Not only is establishing and maintaining successful relationships where we as humans get our greatest satisfaction, that’s also how business gets done. So our goal is to do everything we can to create, build and invest in successful relationships—internally with each other, externally with our clients, and through our work, which enables their companies to have better, deeper, richer relationships with their customers and prospects. It all adds up nicely and neatly when our focus is right, and we really work on that a lot.

Of course there are many metrics that we watch — we want to do truly outstanding, original work, we’re very keen on demonstrating ROI for our clients, and our own growth and profitability are essential. But we believe at a fundamental level that if we take care of relationships, we’ll inevitably take care of business. That’s success.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders

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