An Interview with FrontGate’s Founder and CEO Scott A. Shuford
This year, FrontGate Media celebrates 20 years of connecting YOU to the Christian audience through marketing. Hear from FrontGate founder, Scott A. Shuford on how the agency grew and continues to grow in the face of an ever-evolving industry and unexpected events like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twenty years ago, what made you want to start FrontGate Media?
After establishing my secular market ad agency, I realized that my friends in the Christian industries were behind in learning and adopting the new digital marketing strategies that we were supplying to our clients like Del Taco, SchoolsFirst Credit Union (formerly OCTFCU), World Vision, Krikorian Premiere Theatres, IHOP and others. I saw an opportunity to combine my passion for marketing with my passion for people of Faith, so I started FrontGate to specialize in delivering the Christian audience to for-profit and non-profit organizations.
Have you always had a passion for Christian products and media?
I started my career fresh out of college working in Christian music. Music is another one of my core passion areas. My first job was as the music buyer and manager of the music department at a Berean Christian Store. From there I moved to SoCal to work for Frontline Music Group and then Diamante Music Group. When I thought I might leave the music industry, I instead was hired to launch one of the very first Christian music websites, Gofishnet.com, which was later purchased by Crosswalk.com. The sales and marketing experience I gained from the record label and distribution companies, and even more from launching Gofishnet.com, was invaluable at a time when not many people had intimate knowledge of how to build, market and manage an internet site that was a combination of news, entertainment, and shopping. That experience enabled me to open my own full-service ad agency with extra emphasis on digital. While we had several Christian clients, the majority of our client base was not Christian. Three years later, I was excited to launch FrontGate Media as an agency that specialized in reaching Christians. Both companies grew so much that in 2007 I realized that I needed to choose one of the two to continue forward with, so I merged my general market agency with another agency and focused solely on FrontGate Media.
Now, what sets FrontGate apart from other agencies?
Rather than specializing in two or three verticals as most traditional agencies do, I chose to specialize in an audience: Christians. As a result, we currently work in eight different industry verticals including non-profits, publishers/authors, movies/entertainment, entrepreneurs, and more. Our clients are based in the U.S, Israel, England, Ireland, and Canada reaching faith-based audiences including Protestants, political Conservatives, Catholics, African-Americans, and on occasion Latinx and Asian audiences.
What sets FrontGate apart is our comprehensive yet menu-driven approach to connecting our clients with the Christian audiences they seek. We have more in common with an ethnic agency than a traditional agency. We are specialists in reaching Christians and our team members are leaders in their respective tactical areas. While we can do everything in marketing to help a company or non-profit grow, we know not every organization needs every service, so we offer a marketing menu from which clients can pick and choose the services that fill their unique needs rather than offering an all or nothing retainer-driven relationship.
How has the company evolved since 2001?
Marketing continues to evolve and expand, getting more complicated, and yet, budgets are not ever-increasing. Marketers have to get more from the same size or smaller budgets. I love to innovate. I love to connect people with ideas, and people with people. We continue to expand our services based on testing different marketing ideas, then creating a service program from what we’ve learned. We’ll do just about anything that reaches and influences Christians. Beyond the core agency services of Brand Development, Public Relations, Social Marketing and Media Buying, we continue to develop proprietary programs like our Women’s Blogger Network, Christian Influencer Group, Facebook Launch Team Development, and more. Back in the day, we were on the bleeding edge of marketing when we added text-only ads into text-only email newsletters. Do people even remember the days before HTML newsletters now? Most don’t. Later this year we will be announcing new fundraising opportunities that we’ve pioneered for non-profits. We are always working on something new behind the scenes to develop and test new ideas.
FrontGate has served a huge number of projects over the years. What have been a few of your favorite projects?
After more than 5,000 projects ranging from developing a new brand and taking it to launch, to small ad campaigns for individual books, every project has its own challenges and level of success. Creating success in even a more routine or smaller project brings great satisfaction.
I especially enjoy overcoming challenges, doing something that is not the easiest thing to accomplish, where we have to “figure it out.” I once sat through a case study presentation from a company that built the social following for the #2 soccer player in the world. I thought to myself, how silly is this? Anybody with the smallest modicum of social knowledge and experience could succeed in building a social following in the millions for the #2 player in the world. There are some projects that are just ready for immediate success, and others that take trial and error. I love the satisfaction of working through ideas and errors to refine a campaign into a success.
We’ve had many unique projects over the years, including current work for the world relief and evangelism organization Advancing Native Missions, and for PraiseWorld3D––a virtual world for Christians. Some of my favorite past projects include doing the brand development for a Christian cryptocurrency, the branding and launch of GodsGreenery.com––a CBD oil community, and now product line, the ground-breaking movie work we’ve done starting with the part we played for The Passion of the Christ and most of the major film releases since then up to and including our work right now for Roe V. Wade, and perhaps my most favorite, working on Pope Francis’ album project. This was a very challenging project as just saying, “the Pope’s album” brings a confused look to people’s faces. As part of the marketing campaign we created, I curated the “Wake Up!” devotional featuring some of the leading voices in Christendom. It is as ecumenical as the Pope, crossing Christian and racial lines. Years later, the devotional is still generating new readers today in YouVersion’s The Bible app. I’ve also really enjoyed working with an author named Welby O’Brien. Her books are helping veterans, women, and other people who are suffering through grief and loss. She’s the real deal, and a gem to work with.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
Emotion Drives Everything. The more we can tap into emotion, the more success we’ll have in connecting with our target audience. It doesn’t matter which marketing discipline we are working in. This applies to all tactics across the board. When we can combine the client’s USP (Unique Selling Proposition) with an ESP tied to Faith (Emotional Selling Proposition), something powerful occurs, and even better if we can combine ESP’s like Faith & Family.
Second, you have to Build & Own Your Audience. One of the great travesties I learned from the music industry is that artists who sold millions of albums were left with no way to reach their fanbase. Retailers owned the consumer lists. Labels owned the radio connections. The artists had to start over from scratch when their career matured or if the label dropped them. When you build your email list, your texting list, and in some cases your mailing list, these are all assets you own. Remember that you are renting your social media followers from Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and so on. I love the social outlets, and you should be participating there, AND you should also be harvesting your social followers into additional connection points, using the frequency concept to build consumer engagement.
Third, you have to Embrace Your Learning Curve. Too many people have and develop their idea to bring to market, then stumble by being underfunded for marketing or struggle as they encounter market realities as their audience responds to their messaging. Overnight success is almost never overnight and is built more on failure, partial failure, and wrong turns as you work your way to success. Marketing is most often more about base hits than home runs.
What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the market?
Historically, this “new” thing called the Internet created an entirely new ecosystem that seismically shifted marketing. Marketing used to be mainly PR and Media Buying across Radio, Print and Television with a few other solid opportunities. Digital came along in the form of banners and then emails. Then more fragmentation entered as Social Media debuted. It was digital but not the same as a website. Then Social fragmented into Content Marketing, Advertising, Influencers… Oh, and we went all-in for video along the way. There are some marketers today who think that marketing is basically working Facebook and Google advertising, and managing their Social Media pages. Each marketing discipline has its advantages and working the combined synergy of PR, Advertising and Social generally yields the highest level of results.
What are the biggest challenges to marketers?
The biggest challenges for marketers lead off with, “How do I allocate my budget effectively?” No client has ever uttered the phrase, “I have more budget than I need, so go big.” Creating the right marketing mix across the various tactics is something we’ve become very good at achieving.
As of this writing, one of the major concerns in Christian circles is Big Tech Censorship. Marketers with Christian or Conservative messaging need a back-up plan in place ahead of the possibility that they wake up one day and find that their Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and/or Amazon services have been shut off without recourse or with recourse on a turtle-esque timeline.
Many organizations are too dependent on one or maybe two marketing tactics and need to be active across more if not most of the marketing disciples in order to mitigate risk and maximize their success. Some marketers are struggling to accept the different ROI costs and values that come from various marketing tactics. Not everything marketers do will match up to the cost per click we can generate through Facebook, and yet Email Marketing, PR, Social Influencers and other tactics do have their place and can yield excellent results of their own.
What does the future hold? How is FrontGate evolving?
Marketing is ever-expanding. What worked yesterday will still work in the future, but probably to a lesser degree. There is also a consistent barrage of new opportunities for marketers to evaluate. When do you decide to jump on a new trend? Is it fad or fact? I’m looking forward to the restart for live events in 2021. Events continue to provide excellent marketing opportunities and should boom when COVID is under control. I’m excited about mid-length video content and mini-series. I am still excited about podcasting. I’m waiting for voice to take over search. It feels like it’s time for something brand new. I am eagerly watching for what will come next after social media!