Selling stuff is never easy, but Kerry McClenahan’s challenge is particularly steep.
“We’re trying to reach people who hate marketing,” says the 52-year-old majority owner of McClenahan Bruer. The specialty at “McBru,” which is, in fact, a marketing firm: business-to-business technology products and services. As McClenahan puts it: “We’re trying to convince engineers and programmers to buy stuff. Anything pandering, offbase, or—god forbid—wrong isn’t going to fly.”
Even the Don Drapers of ad lore might struggle to devise clever campaigns for semiconductors and human-resources analytics software. Yet McClenahan has not only survived in this niche, she’s thrived. Her firm marks its 20th anniversary this year, and seems to be doing it in style. Gross revenues rose from $1.76 million in 2010 to $3.5 million last year, with double-digit growth so far in 2013. The 18-person shop bagged two prizes at this year’s Summit International Awards, an industry competition that drew entrants from 25 countries. The winning pair of witty videos for Intel showcased McBru’s approach to “difficult” material.
“We have to understand why a product is relevant to the people we want to buy it,” McClenahan says. “We don’t need to know everything. We need to know how to tell the story. An engineer needs to know how a product will make his life easier.” (The gendered pronoun is apt, McClenahan explains. “Tech is a funny space. It’s an interesting sensation, being the only woman in a room with a dozen men.” McBru is about 50/50.)
“It’s more fun to be on an elite team than to be an average player.” —Kerry McClenahan
McClenahan also plays in wider circles, sitting on the boards of both the Technology Association of Oregon and the local branch of Social Venture Partners, a tech-rooted philanthropic organization. She says she views her role at TAO as a “civic responsibility”—the group works to burnish Portland’s tech reputation in order to lure more businesses here. As for SVP, the group’s investment in local kindergarten-readiness efforts speaks to her as a public-school mother.
Meanwhile, McBru’s cheerful headquarters in Johns Landing achieve a grown-up version of start-up-style fun: one afternoon, Led Zeppelin plays and red wine flows in the kitchen. “This is an office where people talk food instead of sports,” McClenahan says. The relaxed vibe masks a rigorous culture. She describes her team as a band of “relentless overachievers.” And that tough target audience? She says McBru has turned it into its decisive advantage.
“We know what motivates them,” she says, “and what compels them to take action.”