Cast Iron L.A. recently opened its doors to the world, and one of the first things they did was join ThinkLA as active members.
In a challenging market and a space which often undervalues experience, two seasoned advertising professionals decided to put their skills to great use and create a digital marketing agency which challenges the norms and shows that, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt: It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the person who is in the arena.
They are a minority-owned agency and operate with Luis Ramirez as Art Director and J. Barbush as Writer (they don’t like fancy titles). On the operations side, Lisette Valladares is CFO and Collette Johnson Ramirez is COO. Together, they bring a broader and more diverse perspective to the work they create.
Cast Iron's Instagram is relatively new and worth a follow. Their daily feed provides some of the most unique and uplifting agency content out there. All images are shot by them on iPhone and serve to inspire a community that extends beyond marketers.
How did Cast Iron get started?
After leaving my last agency, I connected with my old partner, Luis Ramirez, and we started our new marketing agency, Cast Iron L.A.
It’s almost dreamlike to think that less than a year ago, I had left my agency and now was in a tiny craft with my partner. It was considerably smaller, we had to paddle, but ultimately, we were swift and in control.
The anxiety I had previously felt from losing that big, safe vessel and all the people I cared about who remained on board, was swept away by the need to stay afloat. I was now a free spirit, a digital vagabond riding the laptop workplace waves on a small vessel. We were wet, dirty and exhausted. And yet, it was beautiful.
Luis and I had been partners on some of my favorite, award-winning campaigns. He taught me so many things about brands and the need to personally participate in the platforms we were recommending for our clients.
A few years ago, when I took over social and he took over digital, we only partnered on a few projects. Then, he was let go. On his own lifeboat. People come and go all the time in this business, but his exit hit different. Yet, several years later, when I was cast off, he was there to rescue me. The universe put our pieces back together, an old client reached out, and from there, more clients, more work, and our new agency was born.
We struggled with what to call ourselves, as naming a business is harder than naming a child. After many rounds, careful considerations, we ultimately landed on Cast Iron LA. It was the perfect name for a marketing agency started by experienced 50-year-olds. Because like Cast Iron, we get better with age.
So, out of the frying pan, as they say.
Yes. And there are less mixed-metaphoric parts of our origin story that don’t involve pans or ships. Without seed money, we started an LLC, and looked at everything through an efficiency lens. We needed an address but didn’t need to work there. We needed staff, but not everyone all the time. We didn’t want to create unnecessary expenses that ultimately got passed on to our client partners, without any benefit to them. Our decisions would be smart, efficient and scalable. In an early meeting, our accountant said, “Start off the way you want to end.” We live by those words.
We also needed an ethos. What was our path and purpose? We want to share our gifts with the community, so we donate to causes we believe in, and volunteer in the area. We both have mixed-race families and care deeply about issues involving diversity, inclusion, mental health, and women’s rights. As we staff, we give opportunity to all underserved people in advertising, including those of a certain age who have been vanquished by an industry that values youth over experience.
More broadly, we want to help and inspire people on a daily basis. One place that happens is our Instagram. Every day we post ideas and perspectives that add optimism to the world. We don’t brag about the veneered world of #agencylife. We simply present a fresh, humble and hope-filled start to everyone’s day.
What’s the story behind the name?
Cast Iron represents the rebirth of old metal that’s been cast away. It was the brake pad that kept your family safe while driving. The metal bridge that provided a way to work. The girder of a demolished apartment building that fell out of architectural favor. All those metal scraps were collected and melted together in a process that made them stronger than before. That’s why Cast Iron is so versatile and will outlive everything else in your pantry. As kitchen fads come and go, this one will remain. It is strong, resilient, easy to work with, and gets consistent results. The Cast Iron process is a mineral transformation and ours is a digital one.
And guess what. There are thousands of us out there. The old, discarded brake pads, the bridges, the buildings. We are marketing metallurgy. Big, experienced thinkers on small ships that thrive on the open water. Now, our collective wake is shaking up the agency world.
How is Cast Iron different from other agencies?
There are other big agency barriers we are out to break as well. I shoot every Instagram post, even though I’m a writer. And, at times, Luis, an art director, writes. Even at a small company, we didn’t want to be encumbered by self-righteous titles or dusty silos that slow the big agency ship.
Like many others, we got burned out by meandering processes that relied on the cog of the specialists to move forward, or having 25 people in a room, unable to make a decision or look up from their laptops to do it. Instead, we have chosen to be vocationally fluid, venturing into areas that traditionally seem outside the expertise a title may represent.
Please describe the ethos of Cast Iron.
Our values are evident in everything we do. We needed a bank, so we chose one that had diversity and inclusivity. We did our homework, and believe it or not, Bank Of America topped that list. We needed to stand by our values, so we decided against entering a big pitch because of a little-known environmental concern we discovered. We go to Coffee Bean, because of how their employees stood up to a racist. We don’t go to Starbucks, for that very public moment of intolerance.
Zooming back into how we actually put food on the table, being multi-dimensional was the business way forward. Most big agencies struggle with scale, legacy leadership with fixed mindsets and processes that were made when people still smoked in their offices. Small agencies are more adaptable to change, but become highly specialized, and therefore rigid. Generally, there are two types of boutique agencies. A sector that specializes in the science, and another that specializes in the art. Our bootstrap background and growth mindset allow us to be both.
We use our experience to simplify the relationship between brands and agencies by offering direct contact between the creatives and the client. Bloat is our enemy, silos are our battles, so we are building creative teams that can create the work, manage the work and pitch it all to the client. That is our distinction. That is our disruption.
How do you create disruption in the market?
Our renegade past continues to guide our bespoke future. Not so long ago, we were the digital pioneers of the mid-90’s. The disrupters who started when the Internet was born. We were the weird ones, the risk-takers, the misfits. We wore rainbow sandals and sprinted on Razors towards a future most agency leaders didn’t understand. They thought we were a fad. And they made that known. Sometimes expressed, but more often implied. We were never as good as the “traditional” creatives who did tv and print. Digital wasn’t creative. Then, social wasn’t creative. I guess, only a big, immeasurable, expensive TV campaign was creative. Sometimes, we felt like imposters.
And more often than not, we were quietly treated as such. If you were in digital in the 90’s, you know what we mean.
But the digital misfits of the world are now driving the dynamism of the new agency economy because we know how to adapt. We fit, while others retrofit. The big agency ships are not so sturdy anymore. The water beneath them is churning and their course is obstructed by the collective swell of the small boats around them–nimble crafts that can move about quickly. Together, the misfits are looking for a new way. A better way. A way unburdened by the traditional agency model or the wide berth it requires.
There’s a lot to consider in your new environment. How do you navigate?
Uncharted waters require a new path forward. A course correction for some, but simply a new heading for those of us beginning the voyage. All around us are the strategists, the photographers, the virtual assistants, all moored together. We saw the horizon, the storms up ahead. We jumped ship or were pushed off because our payload was too expensive to carry. Dropping weight doesn’t change the trajectory of a ship, though. It merely continues its slow progress until the next time it needs to do it.
The new agency world doesn’t look like Newport Harbor, it looks like Spring Break in Havasu. Experienced people hitching their small boats together to offer better services for less money. It is an attractive and efficient way for brands to stay afloat, as budgets get cut, workload increases, and their agencies can’t figure a way to adapt.
Read the trades. Right now, many agencies struggle to find efficiency and rely on historic relationships and bygone models to keep the lights on. Most holding companies are too large or simply don’t know how to adapt to the new changes, so they pad hours, add unnecessary fees, throw the interns on it, or absorb specialty boutiques which become more overhead and more removed from the work.
What does it look like moving forward?
As we grow, our goal is to find multi-disciplinary creatives who can work beyond their specialty, directly with the client. This helps simplify the relationship between brand managers and agencies by offering direct, efficient connections between experienced, business-minded creatives and in-house marketing departments. The phone game between those doing the work and those pitching the work is inefficient and outdated, so we’d rather not be on that call.
That happens when you have the right talent and are not bogged down by process, size or ulterior motives. We do what’s right for the client, not what’s right for our careers. We are early adopters of the new agency model and are glad to share these waters with so many other castoffs.
Without them, we would be lost. We would not exist.
What has changed in your purpose from then to now?
We’ve had our Lions, Clios, Pencils, Shortys, Webbys, etc. They’re distant relics of our past lives. With age, our priorities have changed. At 50, we don’t care about our books, we care about our client’s books. We don’t want to get rich, we want to make our clients rich. We’re less interested in heading to Cannes on the client’s dime, as we are about heading to get our daughters from school. For us, work and life do not live on opposite ends of a continuum. They live together.
As we self-actualize during our midlife, we realize what got us here today is positivity, purpose, listening and a sense of business acumen. That same law of attraction brings us worthy people and outstanding clients. And it will continue to keep us on this rewarding journey. That philosophy has allowed us to catch, rather than pitch.
We are a small digital marketing agency, with clients in small business, medium business and big, international business. We help them efficiently navigate new waters with flexibility and experience at the helm. 2020 is the year brands should hitch their ship to ours and go with us to the places the big vessels can no longer reach.
We speak the unfettered truth. We invite potential partners to join us on a journey that will feed their spirit, purpose and bottom line.