Business Success in 2020? Renee Singleton Tells Her Story
- Develop partnerships with other businesses to help reach milestones quicker.
- New media platforms allow for marketing to very specific audiences.
- A multicultural marketing approach helps to reach all audiences interested in your product or service.
Sometimes, the best inspiration and the most thoughtful business advice can be discovered by connecting with those who have traveled the entrepreneurial path before us.
One business owner with insights to share is Renee Singleton, founder and multicultural marketing pioneer of the Cleveland-based marketing firm Singleton & Partners, plus the newly opened collaborative workspace S&P Work Lab.
This spring, Singleton received a Women of Note Award from Crain’s Cleveland Business in honor of her commitment to the citizens of Northeast Ohio. She also recently took her growing business to the next level, moving into the new building she renovated over the last two years, equipping it with a full production studio and commercial office space.
Singleton has also added another accolade to her name: knowing what it takes to keep a niche business running and launch a startup, all while the nation was gripped by quarantine and a global pandemic – and, while standing up as a guiding force urging a swift response to the social and racial injustices spotlighted by the May 2020 death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Through these experiences, Singleton knows what it’s like to create and nurture a startup business as a minority business owner. She understands the value of developing partnerships with other organizations and experts to help business owners reach milestones that they may not be able to reach alone.
Early Roles Defined Her Vision
Singleton got her start as an events planner for May Company, the department store chain, before building a 20-year career in radio. She started out at Cleveland radio station WZAK, and over the years rose through the ranks as a promotions and sales manager.
With two decades of radio experience in hand, she branched out on her own in 2002, founding Singleton & Partners, a multicultural marketing agency that focused primarily on specific market segments, using targeted media to reach them.
"We marketed ourselves as a multicultural marketing agency reaching diverse communities," Singleton said. At that time, she added that many other agencies in the region were not equipped to create culturally sensitive campaigns. I had traveled to New York City and Chicago in the early days and saw the trends for diversity. It was clear that our advertising community needed to do a better job in reaching Black consumers with campaigns that were relevant.
"Now," Singleton added, "that circle has widened to include the LGBTQ+ community." While she acknowledges mass advertising campaigns have their place, in many cases, marketing needs to go further. "In today’s marketplace, with the segmentation that we have, we need to be very specific about who we’re reaching with our messaging and what platforms are available to us." Singleton refers to the explosion of targeted platforms like media and television services, such as Hulu, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video.
Platforms like these allow for very specific campaigns with far less waste. By comparison, just decades ago, available local platforms consisted of far fewer options beyond a handful of TV stations, one newspaper and some cable. "Marketers placed ads, but it was difficult to know if your messages were reaching your target, and what percentage of waste you were paying for," she explained.
In Singleton & Partners’ early days, Renee said, her firm held the distinction of being able to select and purchase targeted media for clients, at a time when that capability was just beginning to grow. "Beyond media, we also have the relationships to bring experts together who can help serve our clients and get their problems solved," Renee commented.
Renee says being a minority-owned business helped the company to grow initially, thanks to Ohio’s Encouraging Diversity, Growth and Equity (EDGE) business certification program. "Having that certification helped my business, and others like it, explore new opportunities and grow quickly," she said.
Opening S&P Work Lab
One of Renee’s proudest achievements in recent months has been her purchase of a 7,000-square-foot building with commercial office space near downtown Cleveland, plus the creation of a second business, S&P Work Lab, a full-service production studio and co-working space housed in the building.
The new business is designed for makers and creators, and filled with the latest production technology, including a 25-foot infinity wall used for video shoots, as well as a green screen and workspace that creators can rent as needed.
Renee says the decision came out of a desire to refresh Singleton & Partners’ business model to create and produce content on a larger scale. "I wanted a building where I could move the agency into and create my own production studio," she says. The production space was more than Singleton & Partners could fill, but that led to more opportunity. "We could help other small businesses and creators by allowing them to use state-of-the-art technology and equipment to do their own work," she says.
In addition to Singleton & Partners and S&P Work Lab, the building also houses additional office space and is now home to Spectrum News 1, an Ohio cable news platform.
Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic
The global COVID-19 pandemic may have dampened some of Renee’s plans, but not by much. While the traditional ribbon-cutting on S&P Work Lab was delayed from its April plan, that didn’t prevent word getting out about the new space. In June, violinist Humble G requested to use the facility for a virtual concert that was livestreamed on YouTube.
One of Singleton’s goals of transitioning her business was to highlight the skills of its entire team: "I’m trying to build a business that’s more institutionalized, that doesn’t just support my lifestyle, but that supports many lifestyles," she said. "I have a lot of great people who can still run things when I’m not here."
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused Renee to make some business shifts, but she says both entities have been well-positioned to ride out this storm. "While social distancing curtailed how I could open S&P Work Lab, I had fortunately planned for a lot of new technology. Built into the building are all of the tools we need to meet virtually," she said.
As for Singleton & Partners, Renee’s main concern has been keeping her 10 employees safe. "We created a schedule where my team is crossing like ships in the night," she commented. "They’re not spending a lot of time with each other, but we’re still able to get the work done."
Having a client roster that includes state contracts, and notably the Ohio Department of Health, also has benefited Singleton & Partners during these unprecedented times. "When it was time to quarantine, as the agency of record for the Ohio Department of Health, we are as busy as ever, working with their communications and media team to get messages out," Singleton said.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic led the agency to rethink the client’s COVID-19 messaging strategy, as Renee pushed for more clarity on why Black and Hispanic Americans were contracting the virus at higher rates. She decided to commission research to better inform the messaging strategies they were recommending.
The resulting research report, "Culturally Speaking," provides insights to help understand the disparities in Black and Hispanic American communities in Ohio, and provides insights on creating messaging to address these disparities.
Standing up for Social Justice
The social demonstrations of late May – occurring at about the same time S&P Work Lab was slated to open – also made their mark upon the businesses. Singleton says the heartbreaking events inspired a creative outcry to respond by calling for Americans to speak out about racial and economic inequalities in their communities.
The resulting "Be the Change" video campaign included a poetic message written and performed by filmmaker and artist Chris Webb, and produced at S&P Work Lab. Singleton spearheaded the project in collaboration with her friend and former WZAK colleague Lee Zapis. "We used that video as our opening to showcase S&P Work Lab," she said. "That project proves that you don’t have to spend a lot of money. You can look within your own circles, your own environment and implement a strategy of change."
Paying It Forward
As a minority-owned business enterprise, Renee is also doing her part to pay her successes forward to other minority-owned businesses. One of the ways is by reminding others to find and utilize all of the resources that are available to them: from programs like being certified as a minority-owned-business with the state, county and city; to Ohio’s EDGE business certification; to participating in membership groups like Key4Women®. She also credits the help of her personal banker at KeyBank for connecting her with federal government funding and working with her through acquiring the building and planning for renovations. And she notes, having that connection with a financial institution can prove especially helpful for small and minority-owned businesses trying to secure federal assistance.
"My advice to entrepreneurs is to take advantage of networking with your peers. Also take note of the many resources that are available to you," she said. "As a small business owner, these might be resources or training that you may not have included in your business plan."
Renee also recommends that women business owners connect with someone whose experience has similarities to your own. "In talking with another female business owner or C-suite executive, you’ll see they have some of the same issues, and some of the same challenges, and you can learn from them."