In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli talks with Cary Hatch, CEO of MDB Communications. Cary Hatch discusses what it took for her to succeed as a female business owner and how difficulties can build up resilience, and the joy of having an impact on people and the entire Greater Washington DC DMV region.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Shelly Lazarus, Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather
Rosie Allen Herring, President & CEO United Way National Capital Area
Lyles Carr, Executive Vice President The McCormick Group
Bob Buchanan, Principal Buchanan Partners
Connect with Cary Hatch:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Cary Hatch. She's the president and CEO of MDB communications and has more than 35 years experience in advertising and marketing communications. Cary has more numerous awards and has been recognized by Washington business journal on their power 100 list.
In addition to helping her business succeed over many ups and downs in the economy, Cary has been really committed to our region and our community.
Thank you so much for all of you that are sharing your feedback on the podcast. Feel free to keep those coming, Mahan@mahantavakoli.com. You can also record a message for me at partneringleadership.com, there is a microphone icon. And for those of you that listened to the podcast on Apple podcast, when you get a chance, go ahead and leave a rating and review that will help more people find and benefit from this podcast. Now here's my conversation with Cary Hatch.
Cary Hatch. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am so excited to have you with me today.
It's totally my pleasure.
You have been such a significant person in this community for decades now. So I look forward to learning more about your journey, your leadership journey, and share that with the much broader community.
Now I know growing up, you moved six times in 12 years as a child. And I imagine that must have had an impact on you and who you have become. So how did that impact you?
Yeah, you might think after that many moves, I could go into residential real estate. I was pretty well-trained by the time I was 12. My father was a very successful executive with a company similar to IBM. And my mom was an artist and myself and my two younger brothers, six and seven years younger than I, you know, advanced every time my father advanced. He got promoted every two or three years.
So I went to so many different elementary schools. Eventually, junior high and then high school. But throughout that entire time, I'm a native Washingtonian,
I'm born in Washington, DC. My father got promoted to California, then we came back to DC and then he got promoted to Florida and we came back to DC and we went to Ohio and we came back to DC and he got promoted to New York and came back to DC. You see the pattern, right?
But each time, as the oldest, it was incumbent upon me to clean up my brother's toys, to make sure the bathrooms were fresh and to show the house.
And if my mom had gone out to get something, I could actually greet the commercial or the residential real estate agent and help show the house. And, you know, so kind of taking charge when you had to, became the norm.
And that's part of what you have done all these years later. Now, it sounds like after you decided to go to college, you also decided you were going to stay put in this region.
I finally was able to call my own shot. What do you think?
I'll never forget. I was in high school. I was a junior in high school and my father came in and said, “Well, I've been promoted again to Chicago.” And I said, “Please let me finish high school here.”
I went to Woodward high school on Georgetown road, and I felt like I'd done my tour of duty traveling around the country.
And so they did, they let me complete. He went ahead and commuted back and forth from Chicago to Washington for quite some time. And I was allowed to complete that. And following that, I applied to colleges and had an opportunity to go out of state. But I said, you know what? I love Washington, I love this region, I'm staying put.
And I went on to go to the university of Maryland. People say, “Oh, well you stayed local.” “Well, kinda.” I really had no childhood friends when you think about it cause we're moving every two years. So I had my high school friends and I went onto the university of Maryland and had a terrific time and quite a run.
Yeah. And you were actually a pompom and you taught disco dancing at the University of Maryland.
Yeah. I had a good time, shall we say. A bit less so as a student, I was paid, but very active in my sorority. I'm a Delta gamma and went on to be president of the sorority. I taught disco music at the fraternity houses because the men wanted to know how to dance with our sisters. And so I helped facilitate that. I was a pompom there for a year and had a terrific time. Really did.
Yeah, that's fabulous. So after you graduate, how did you end up choosing to become an account exec at MDB?
You know, it's interesting. It's interesting how life intervenes in a way that really change your trajectory.
A boyfriend of mine, I was kind of at my wit's end, didn't know what to major in. I, actually, Mahan, I had four majors before I settled into advertising. Everything from psychology, although one could say that advertising is psychology, right? Psychology, early childhood education, can imagine being a teacher, but I don't have the patience that's required that's for sure nor the talent for that, but went on to find advertising, was trained as an art director and went on to start my career as an assistant art director for a Baltimore advertising agency.
I got to tell you Mahan, it was one of those things that I love, the advertising industry, but I came to recognize that I was perfectly mediocre as an art director. And I was at least self-aware enough to say I'm in the right church, but the wrong pew. I love advertising. I will do what's necessary to become an account executive. I know my employer at the time was delighted with my work. I wasn't delighted with my work. I didn't think I was all that talented and I begged them to let me go along with some of the account executives at the agency.
Eventually I found my way to this firm and Michael David Brown. I interviewed with him and was fortunate enough to become an account executive. And then, promoted within the firm and helping hire and shape the future of, at that time, which was a corporate marketing design firm, did a lot of corporate identity for people like CPB and others that you might recognize, but was even more ambitious.
And I went to him one day, my boss, Michael David Brown, and said, “You know, we really should open up a second company, full service advertising agency.” And I said, “You know, delighted to do that.” And we went on to do that together. Then we established a third company because two wasn't enough to try to manage Winterberry publishing.
And we did limited edition, fine art prints. And one day I went to him and I said, “You know, I don't think I'm doing a good job at all three of these.” And he said, “Well, why don't you buy MDB communications?” And I thought, wow, why not? I'm young, I'm single, And if I fail, so what?
So, sure enough, I went to my father and my mother and I said, “Can I borrow some money?” And they lent me, you'll love this, $10,000 to buy my firm. That's in 1987 money. And so I did, I purchased the firm at the age of 30 and moved it downtown because at 30 you absolutely know everything about HR and payroll taxes and everything you need to know to run a business. Right?
And I was fortunate enough and I worked hard enough to make it work. And we were very fortunate to work largely in the commercial real estate industry. Some of the names you've interviewed, I think on your podcast as well, some of the legendary names in this region. And as well as diversifying into telco and the rest is kind of history.
Cary, I'm curious because that takes tremendous maturity on your end and understanding of yourself to know what you are good at and what you are not.
What enabled you to at such a young age, understand your own strengths and weaknesses.
I think. Well, thank you for that compliment. I'm not sure if it was so much maturity as it was fear of failure. I have very sometimes, impossibly high standards. And that includes myself. There'll be many times where I will actually bench myself if I don't feel like I'm the best person to attack a campaign or provide creative direction or strategy, or what have you. But I think fear of failure kind of works for me. It sounds crazy to some people. Fear sometimes makes people catatonic. For me, it inspires me and it gives me tremendous energy. I'm not sure if you find that in your council as well, but that's how I operate.
And that's fabulous. And that's the reason why one of the reasons you have been so successful. But acquiring the firm at 30, you were a young woman leading an organization, what were the challenges beyond not knowing HR and some of the other factors in running a business that you were facing primarily as a younger woman, leading a firm at a time that was a little bit different than today?
You're putting it nicely. I appreciate that.
It's funny. I look back on those days, fondly. I didn't feel that way at the time, but I can remember trying to look older, act older. Command respect when you go into a room, make sure you're contributing in a way that you've earned that respect. Over-preparing.
I can remember, even honestly, we handled one of the larger banking institutions in the region and it was also, happened to be where I banked, kind of unrelated, but I can always remember, being told that I would have to have my boss come in and talk to the manager to make things happen. And when I told them I was the boss, the look, this is in the eighties, you wouldn't believe it.
And I thought I just kind of rolled through that stuff. I try not to let it affect me, but that's the way it was then. I mean, when you think about it, even at that point in time, women didn't really have credit cards. I mean, it sounds like the stone age, when I think about my line of credit now, and you know, you don't think anything of it, but at the time it was shocking.
And it's important for people to recognize that in your leadership journey, Carry, that is through early 1900s we're talking about it's 1980s facing these challenges.
And you did, you have made MDB successful. At the same time, you have also been very committed to the community and involved in the community. What has driven your desire for involvement and contributing back to the community?
First of all, it makes my heart sing. I am happiest when I'm helping. It sounds corny and maybe even insincere. I'm happiest when I'm helping someone with what I know is the power of advertising and marketing and promotion and messaging. So it could be a brand or a cause. It could be an organization that doesn't have a tremendous investment they can make in advertising or marketing, but it’s a deserving organization.
So someone once asked me that we've done a lot of work for heroes and samaritans and a number of other organizations, but they said, “Well, why do you do this? And I said, “Because I can. I know what can help people elevate the profile and stature of their brand or their cause or their organization.”
And I believe in our industry, my industry, advertising and marketing as an economic driver in the world. Even people are shocked when they find out that this industry, my industry, just in the greater Washington area. Just in this footprint is $30 billion, 20% of the jobs. I mean, it's amazing. You don't really think of it, but think about all the causes organizations, brands, that make not just this city run, but as the capital of the free world run, you kind of put it into context that this is a significant force for good.
And I think harnessing that for causes that I believe in is the thing that not only makes my heart sing, but it confirms really the power of what communications can do.
And one of those causes for you has been building the brand of greater Washington. How did you get engaged in that process?
I was fortunate enough. Bob Buchanan, engaged us to help elevate this region. Now, this is pre-Amazon, which was an interesting time. So this is about maybe not two years before, but a year and a half before, when it became very evident that not only were a number of large metropolitan organizations across the country, but the world were really uniting as regions to come together and make their destination attractive to organizations and companies and university systems and what have you, the entire ecosystem.
And he reached out to us and working in tandem with our PR talent within the firm to see what could we do to help facilitate a regional discussion about everything that you and I know as the DMV, really the crown jewel I think of the country in so many ways that hasn't hadn't at that time been marketed as a region.
It was more about, Maryland did their thing, and Virginia did their thing, and the district did their thing, and neither the two would ever talk or three, would ever talk with each other, but bringing everyone together around the idea that we can compete better together as opposed to separately.
And I was all in on that. And we'd also done for seven years, the DC cool campaign for destination DC. So it was a match made in heaven as far as I was concerned.
And that's fabulous. You've done great work toward building that brand. Where do you think that is headed and should be headed as this region works together? Both in terms of the infrastructure that is needed, but in terms of the branding of the region.
Yeah, I would love for us to reconvene and rally around that once again. I mean, it's different during the current climate due to COVID, but I think that it's an opportunity once again to tap into the collective assets and resources that each jurisdiction puts to the greater whole to make us again, more competitive on a world stage, not just a national stage.
So, you know, you don't want to think that it takes another Amazon RFP to have people rally together. There's so many people I admire that have really continued to push this forward, including Chuck Bean of the council of governments and many others, but we need to come together and rally to compete.
We need to have a strategic partnership, a real partnership, where there are no winners and losers. We all win as a region when somebody like an Amazon chooses us to be their home.
And you have advocated very well on that behalf. And I look forward to seeing you lead that charge forward.
Now, at the same time you have been running your organization for many years, it's been very successful, but we've had four recessions, including this one. I love that you told me that setbacks are temporary learning opportunities, and would love to get some of your perspective obviously, advertising, business marketing business is somewhat cyclical and is impacted, but you have been able to manage through all these downturns.
How have you been able to do that, Cary?
Again, back to fear of failure. I believe in what we do. And I just don't accept, I guess I don't want to accept defeat. I will do what it takes, what's necessary to win in the marketplace. In preparation for this, I made my little roster of all the downturns.
This is the head parade, according to Cary. Well, actually when I purchased the permit 87 app, following three months after that, the October 87 black Friday happened. Then the 1990 recession where we lost 40% of our revenue in the first quarter of 1990. And I had just gotten married in December so that was a delightful conversation.
Then there was Y2K, which was a little creepy. Then there was the.com boom and bust. Then there was 9/11, and then there was anthrax. And that was at a time when we were handling a tremendous amount of direct marketing for national geographic. So, and we all know that the Washington DC post office was the hardest hit by that.
Then there was the great recession in 2008. And then there's what I call the garden varieties sporadic government shutdowns, which are many. We won't go into those. And then there's the pandemic.
So when I say they're momentary setbacks, I can't look at these as being catastrophic because I would lose my mind and many people do. I guess I just always believed that there's a will and a way to get through some of this. And I learned long ago couple of things, you can't beat up on yourself because that's wasted time and energy. I did that on my first recession, by the way, it was awful. You know, why can't I do this better? Why can't I change this? Why can't I make this happen? Well, guess what? Stop whining, let's roll. You know? And I think you can choose to be bitter or you can choose to be better.
And I choose to be better.
When this pandemic hit, honestly, and this is a sad remark, but it's an honest comment that I'm about to share, it felt very familiar. And that's kind of sad to have to say that because I've been through so many downturns in so many things that affect my industry, not just my firm, but my industry.
I have friends that do total tourism and hospitality and travel. They're down 80%. We're more diversified. We've been extremely fortunate, but I know it for what it is. We've been fortunate. We've worked hard, but we've been fortunate.
I learned the importance of diversity in your client mix. So we don't get hit as hard. Being in Washington certainly is a plus, we don't generally experience things, but we do work nationally and internationally. So there's no perfect rhyme or rhythm, but having that built up resilience because we have been through so many things, oddly enough, became familiar. And I said, all righty, here we go. We need to do this, this, this, this, and this. And you rally the troops. You get the numbers around you that you need, you help the people you can help. And you've just got to hunker down.
And I've been fortunate to not only speak with you, but a number of other organizations where I've shared some insight into what it takes as a small business to survive. Because many people, many people spend too much time blaming themselves for things they can't change.
And that's a fantastic perspective Cary. A perspective that has helped you succeed in the previous downturns and will help you and your organization succeed as we move forward.
It's important for leaders to hear. Both some of the challenges that you have faced, but how you have been able to tackle that.
So, in addition to that, if you were to give advice to a younger version of yourself, starting out your career or younger leaders, as they aspire to build a successful business as you have, and be impactful on the community as you have, what advice would you give to leaders?
I wish that I had told myself to be more patient. This is something I'm still working on because I don't think that is a quality that I really can say that I've mastered at all.
I would say one of the things that gives me joy, particularly from a volunteer standpoint is exactly that volunteer, volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. It will enrich your life, the people you meet, the impact you can have, mentoring, all of those things people will reciprocate. Not that you're doing it for them to reciprocate, but giving and receiving are truly the currency I believe in as the value of life. And it has by far enriched my life beyond anything, any recognition, award, trophy, billings, body count, anything else, any other metric that you might apply.
Now, you also do mentor and develop others who are some people that you consider to have been some mentors that have been influential in your growth journey and leadership journey in greater Washington.
Oh, wow. I feel like I collect mentors. There's so many people I admire. I don't know that I could call them all mentors because I don't have a personal relationship with them, but you've interviewed some of them Lyles.
I met Lyles over 30 years ago. I think that was the first board of trade committee I was ever on, which was the membership committee. I know that’s shocking that Lyles was head of the membership committee, but there's people in the industry I admire as well. Shelly Lazarus, and any number of particularly female led organizations, whether it's the former chairman of Ogilvy Mather, or Y and R, and there are so many people that I would look to. But even, you know, regionally here, talk about curating leaders that you admire. Rosie Allen herring. There's some yourself, I mean, leadership greater Washington is really leaders amongst leaders, right?
It's the who's who of people that I admire. And people that are generous. That to me, that is the consistent theme in many of those people that I've just mentioned
And you have been very generous yourself with all of your involvements Cary, including this conversation.
So when people also ask you about leadership, are there any resources that you find yourself recommending to them when they want to become more effective and better leaders?
You know, again, I'm kind of a sycophant when it comes to autobiographies of great leaders, because I look to leaders for my own inspiration. Think about it. I've been with this organization since I was 24 years old. So I have to look externally for role models. You know, people that inspire me.
So everything from famous football coaches to people like Steve Jobs and many others. David Rubinstein, Ted Leonsis, Don Graham. I mean, all those people, there are things that show such humility, particularly early on people that funded their companies on their own personal credit cards, John Hedrick, you know, so many people that I think to myself, would I be as good as that? Would I have that in me to do that. And I love listening to their life stories.
Well, and also your life story added to theirs. Now I know you have a book that you also reference a lot in guiding others.
Yes. My friends, my closest friends, I've shared this book with, it's going to sound crazy, but this is a book I discovered in college. I've used it throughout my entire life. It's called Winners and Losers by Sydney J. Harris. And he's no longer living but, for me, it's my Bible. It's how to conduct yourself. And it's forthright, it's straightforward, it is tough love. And you either see yourself as a winner or loser. Let me just share two quick things with you.
A loser feels cheated if he gives more than he gets. A winner feels that he is simply building up credit for the future. A winner seeks for the goodness in a bad man and works with that part of him. A loser only looks for the badness in a good man and therefore finds it hard to work with anyone.
So those little things you can read this book and you will see yourself on one side or the other. And believe me, I have seen myself occasionally on not the winning side, but it makes you evaluate your decisions, your behavior, your own self control sometimes, and how you interact with people and particularly as a leader, it's a high bar and you need somebody to hold you accountable. And this is what holds me accountable.
That's fantastic. And Cary, all of us strive to become better. All of us have updates and down days, things that we do well and things that we don't do well. It's having those values and knowing what true North is to try to stay directed toward that true North.
Obviously through your involvement for many years and commitment to this community and this region, you have shown that you have your true North straight and are marching toward that, which is why I thank you for the leadership you've shown and for the conversation today on Partnering Leadership.
Thank you Mohan. It's truly been my pleasure. You're such a delight and such a gift to our region.
Thank you, Cary.