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Speakeasy ‘We have to think about kindness’

Monica Smith says female leaders have to worry about four things: Business, family, giving back and themselves.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

SpeakEasy is a running feature in NJBIZ in which we recap presentations given by key business leaders around the state. This report is based on a speech delivered by Monica C. Smith, CEO of Marketsmith Inc., i.Predictus and Brushfire, at an Executive Women of New Jersey event at Marketsmith Inc.’s headquarters in Cedar Knolls.

Monica C. Smith is responsible for creating one of the fastest-growing integrated marketing agencies in the country.

That has not and will never be enough for Smith, CEO of Marketsmith Inc., i.Predictus and Brushfire in Cedar Knolls.

“I believe that, for me and for those that participate in the Marketsmith world, that we have to think about kindness in a persistent and constantly impactful way,” Smith said.

Her companies act together as a well-oiled machine: Marketsmith leads in data-driven, multichannel, direct marketing strategy; i.Predictus organizes and automates media, sales and consumer data for actionable insights; and Brushfire uses both to create award-winning advertising campaigns.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else.

“I think for women, especially, time management and where we put ourselves in that process is hard,” Smith said. “If we all had more time, we probably would be giving a lot more.

“We are natural caregivers, so we either care for our families or our parents, or both. Then, we are employees, or running a business, or trying to start a business, while taking care of others.”

Smith, speaking last Tuesday to more than 30 women executives at the Executive Women of New Jersey’s “Breakfast with the CEO” series, described how she has learned to balance as best she can over the last 26 years of her career.

“At some point, I took a step back and said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m going to bring these four parts together — the business; the family; giving back; and me,’” Smith said. “I’m going to give them all equal time.”

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Smith started her career upon graduating from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in 1990, as a direct marketing coordinator for Waldenbooks.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll probably do something in advertising, but I won’t sell fur or cigarettes or alcohol,’” Smith said. “My father said, ‘Well, you don’t get a choice.’ I said, ‘Oh, I will have a choice.’”

Smith said she spent the first nine years of her career trying to figure out which company she truly belonged in.

“It wasn’t hard to realize that I didn’t really belong in other people’s businesses,” Smith said.

Perhaps, she said, this was compounded by the fact that she was a gay woman — now married for over 20 years — who wasn’t as willing to be “out.”

“I wasn’t comfortable with how gals treated gals, how guys treated gals and how things moved slowly,” Smith said. “So, I started my own business.”

Smith founded Marketsmith, a direct response marketing firm, in 1999 to improve clients’ return on investments by at least 25 percent.

“It was during the first five years that I’d have lunch with a few men — I had almost all male mentors at the time — who would ask, ‘Do you have a job or are you building a business?’ ” Smith said. “I was so horrified by them saying that, but when I look back, they did me a huge favor.

“I don’t think they were trying to be mean — they were simply trying to say that the difference between being a business and owning a company is that, if I weren’t there, it didn’t exist.”

Smith said this spurred her to spend more time focusing on Marketsmith’s product offerings and clients, her relationships with the banks, creating the proper accounting system and the growth of the business model.

“The business then started to cement, take root and grow,” Smith said.

Her efforts landed Marketsmith a spot on the Inc. 500 list for multiple years afterward as business continued to thrive — but Smith said she still felt unfulfilled.

“It wasn’t until I realized that I wanted to have children that I felt better,” Smith said.

Smith and her wife, Amy Smith, adopted five African-American siblings in 2008.

“They all came at one time on one day, ranging in age from 6 months to 5 years old,” Smith said. “The next day, the market started to crash and fall apart.

“The kids got there and the world went sideways.”

After a rough 30 days — “as opposed to a rough couple of years,” Smith said — Marketsmith began experiencing tremendous growth once more.

“Our headcount got really high,” Smith said. “And I now knew what my employees, especially women with children, felt like. It is very hard to know until you’ve walked in our shoes. That is just the reality of it.”

Raising her children taught her that if her business were to be sustainable, it would also have to be more modern.

“It has to be a mandate and an initiative from the top,” Smith said. “Executives need to say, ‘X percent of our company time is going to be dedicated to ensuring that this happens.’ ”

Smith established flexible hours (when it was not popular to do so) and created a patented analytics-based technology platform, i.Predictus, to increase automation in 2011.

“I learned a lot about how horrible and unfair that process is and why women don’t do it,” Smith said. “Technology is hard, especially when you are not a technologist. Technology is hard in New Jersey. Technology is hard for women. But it was the best thing I ever did, even though it almost killed me.”

Marketsmith’s growth exploded. Ranked No. 69 on the NJBIZ Top 100 Privately Held companies last year, the agency — identified in 2014 as the fastest-growing female-run company in the New York metropolitan area and the fifth nationwide by Inc. magazine — has maintained an annualized growth rate of 3,420 percent over the past three years and has achieved over $103 million in revenue.

“That’s when I first said to myself, I can’t do this anymore on my own,” Smith said. “I need help.

“I started to look around at the types of talent I was bringing in and forced myself to relegate down, around and up to those who are much stronger and smarter than I am. That, plus the technology, allowed me to say, ‘What haven’t we done yet? Acquisitions.’”

Marketsmith acquired the creative agency Brushfire last year, just before Smith received unsettling news about her health.

“I was extraordinarily unhealthy,” Smith said. “But like most gals, I couldn’t really share it. It’s just one more thing that women can’t talk about. I was afraid that our clients, our employees, the bank and our investors would get nervous.

“After it was all said and done with, and I got myself taken care of, I said, boy, the one thing over all these years that wasn’t getting taken care of was me.”

Smith’s solution — seeing as her “desire was to make this world a better place; to have a company that does good over evil; and for her family to thrive” — was to essentially bring everything that mattered to her under one roof by enacting global citizenship at Marketsmith.

“We still work hard, but now we play equally as hard,” Smith said.

Smith had co-founded One More Smith, an animal sanctuary for stray and rescued animals, and Bring Dinner Home for Camden Street School, which serves hundreds of Newark families by cooking holiday dinners and providing families with grocery store gift cards and donated items such as coats and books, in years prior.

Today, Marketsmith now also supports One Simple Wish, which empowers individuals to support foster children and at-risk youth; CASA of Morris & Sussex Counties, which provides mentorship and advocacy for children in crisis; the Cedar Hill Community After School Program; and Jersey Battered Women’s Services.

“I have eliminated as much evil as I possibly can, and have really thought hard about how we treat others and about how we hire talent here,” Smith said. “You simply have to figure out what’s best for others and move them into the right place.”

Marketsmith today has about 65 employees; at the end of 2017, Smith said the company will grow to 85.

“I had gone through a significant phase in which I believed I was unworthy of tremendous talent — who would want to work for me?” Smith said. “I handled that by hiring people who were out of work for a very long period of time that needed a hand up. I had the ability to see strengths in people that they didn’t see in themselves.”

Smith said she would like to devote more time to helping women become entrepreneurs, get on boards and achieve active leadership roles.

“We are not really moving the needle at all for women, not only in the C-suite but also in executive levels,” Smith said. “As a matter of fact, we are taking steps backwards. And, more importantly, women of color are nowhere near where they need to be.”

Smith said the enactment of several committees within her companies has not only allowed more women the opportunity to take on leadership roles, but has allowed her more balance.

“We have an employee action committee; a strategic committee; a humans committee; a technology committee; a management committee; and an executive committee,” Smith said. “The institution of this is hard — but it makes the place better. The committees have been essential in people being able to act, create, participate and have a voice.

“Some people might find this chaotic, but the management committee essentially allows people in their roles to act on what it is they need to do.”

Smith said these committees act without her approval or disapproval.

“I’ve entrusted them to run that aspect of the company with complete faith — and it’s working,” she said. “The committees are absorbing also some of the day-to-day stuff, so I have more time to be more considerate in my counseling.

“I also sleep. I eat better and I exercise.”

Smith believes now that accomplishments should also be celebrated as often as possible.

“Every Monday morning, before we start the workweek, we gather as a team to recognize folks for things they are doing at work, at home or for how they are giving,” Smith said. “We go over things we have done well, things that could be better and things that we want to accomplish. Everybody is on the same page at the same time.”

That has provided not only her employees but also herself with an increased sense of gratitude and happiness.

“Happiness is being who you are, where you are, when you want to be there,” Smith said. “And fulfillment naturally comes from that.

“My recommendation to everybody is to choose happiness in the workplace, in giving, in faith, in friendship, at home and with yourself as an individual as much as you possibly can.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry