Tom Wilkins of Mortgage Media spoke with John Seroka, a Principal at Seroka Brand Development, a branding and strategic communication firm, earlier this month at the California MBA Innovators Conference in San Diego, about the origins of the family business, going virtual, and handling clients.
Seroka began his career as a mortgage loan originator in the Los Angeles and Orange County markets before joining the family business in 1996. Subsequently, he has taken the lead in growing the agency and its key mortgage vertical. He also serves as the Chairman of the California MBA’s Mortgage Technology and Marketing Committee.
The business, started by Seroka’s father 32 years ago, began serving the financial industry and then quickly morphed into mortgage after his father met some people through one of his clients – Freddie Mac.
“We did some work for them and then it just kind of launched us into the stratosphere from there,” he said. “And we’ve pretty much stuck with it the whole time, except for that little dip that occurred in 2008.”
The dip he’s referring to was an attempt to diversify beyond the mortgage space. “That didn’t work out so well. We came right back to where we belong,” he added.
Since then, the company has continued to focus on the mortgage industry by helping companies develop their brands, unique selling points, key messages, their look and feel, and how they are going to go to market.
“We do a lot of research and competitive research and things like that to help them discover that,” he said. “So basically, we develop their brand, their core, and then we take them to market by developing strategies that include marketing, communications, and a whole bunch of other tactics, media relations, PR, awards, nominations, conference, speaking engagements and everything else that you can imagine. Social media and paid, organic, everything.”
Part of Seroka’s continued success is a result of going virtual about five years ago.
“It allows us to be able to hire people that are industry-specific, that understand the industry for writers, creative people, PR, stuff like that. And they can be anywhere and it’s great,” Seroka said. “Imagine if all we could do is focus on where our original headquarters, which is in Milwaukee, a suburb of Milwaukee. If we could only focus on that, it would be very difficult to be able to get talent like that when you need it.”
As Chairman of the California MBA’s Mortgage Technology and Marketing Committee, Seroka is excited about the California MBA’s inaugural Innovators Conference and the solutions that were being presented.
“I think that a major goal of this conference is to help your target audience develop preferences,” he said. “The better these companies can do at presenting themselves and presenting what they’re all about and what exactly the solutions they solve for and everything else, then at least that will give lenders clarity, absolute clarity in terms of how they can potentially implement something into their stack and make it work for them.”
And when it comes to making things work, Seroka noted that, like an agency, he’s faced some challenges with clients.
“I like just be honest with them right off the bat,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t like what I tell them that they have to do. And because maybe they’re not ready for it or it consumes too much budget or what have you. And I have some ideas and tricks or things that I can do to help them, to work with them to help them hopefully, make the most of the budget that they have available very quickly so they can see very quick results.”
Even if a client wants to go in a different direction than the one recommended by Seroka, he avoids telling them “I told you so” when it doesn’t work out – which happens often. Instead, he comes up with a more diplomatic response and an alternative (and palatable) solution.
“I always know how things are going to go down when somebody wants to take one track versus the right track or track that I recommend,” he noted. “So basically, what I like to say is, “Look, instead of stretching your budget over X number of months, let’s shrink it to a smaller number of months and spend more money each month so that we can accomplish the actual goal, which is the new client acquisition goal that you have,” A lot of people, they talk about awareness. “I want to get awareness out there,” and, of course, they might get awareness, but what they really want is they want more leads and so you have to have an ROI-type of discussion with them because I don’t want people to be like, “Oh, wow, we have awareness.”
Seroka is adamant that “awareness has to translate into something for the bottom line otherwise there’s going to be some upset stakeholders.”
Working out almost everyday and being an avid cyclist not only helps Seroka keep fit, but it also frees up his mind to process new ideas and do some problem solving.
He’s also devoted to staying informed and keeping on top of new technology and trends by reading a lot of blogs, newsletters, industry trade publications and national mortgage news. While it can take a significant amount of time, he feels it’s important.
“I read a lot and I’m always tying it into something that’s happening in the mortgage industry and what people should be thinking about going forward in 2020, 2025. People need to be thinking that far ahead.”