Interview with Taro Abarbanel-Uemura: JMSB Marketing Professor and Founder of Fortified Marketing
Edited by: Rivkah Groszman
Name: Taro Abarbanel-Uemura Degrees: MBA & BComm - Marketing
Organization: Fortified Marketing Role: Lead Marketing Strategist and Project Leader
Fortified Marketing was founded in 2013. It is the first firm in the Ottawa-Gatineau area specializing in marketing strategy, and also offers branding, market research, and tactical marketing services. The agency uses its network of some of the best marketing freelancers and firms in the industry to bring its clients’ marketing strategies to the next level. Fortified Marketing believes in quality over quantity and encourages each individual client to invest in the marketing strategies that are right for them. You can find out more by visiting its website, FortifiedMarketing.ca.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m super passionate about learning. More recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living by sharing my knowledge with others, whether with university students or with my clients. I consider myself a life-long learner and one of my strengths is my ability to help others understand what I know.
I completed my BComm at Ottawa University and founded Fortified Marketing when I was 21, right after I graduated. About five years later, I was invited to return to Ottawa U to get my MBA. Right after I completed it, Ottawa U hired me to teach my favourite subject, Marketing Strategy, and then I was hired by Concordia a few years later to teach at JMSB. Since then, I’ve taught about 22 classes and over 1,300 students. I’m super thankful for the opportunity to make a widespread impact through my teaching.
What classes do you teach at JMSB and Ottawa University? I mainly teach Business Communication (COMM 205) at JMSB, but this year I’ll also be teaching Brand Management, which is a 400-level course. I’m trying to give COMM 205 a better reputation because the class gets a bit of a bad rap from first-year students who say it’s boring or not very valuable. I teach a variety of classes at Ottawa U. So far I’ve done Marketing Strategy, Digital Marketing, and a Promotional Campaign class. I usually teach more technical classes at Ottawa U, whereas at JMSB I get to teach first-year students and have an impact early on in their academic careers.
Can you please tell us a little more about Fortified Marketing and what makes it unique? We take a holistic approach to developing strategies for our clients. You can find a specialist for every facet of marketing, and they’ll do a great job, but business owners sometimes only focus on one aspect of their marketing strategy and don’t know about other options that may be more profitable. That’s where we come in.
We know a lot about different aspects of marketing, so we can propose the best tactics to the client and develop a solid strategy for them. But we don’t just create a nice plan that works on paper—we put our money where our mouth is and show the client that our strategy will give them the results they want. Recently, we’ve started shifting our focus back to planning and strategy because I want to position Fortified Marketing to work with larger organizations. These businesses usually have full-fledged marketing departments but sometimes want an outsider’s perspective on what they can improve upon.
You started your business at a very young age. Can you tell us what inspired you to do it?
I graduated in 2013, in the wake of the U.S. housing crisis. The job market was very precarious then and I didn’t want to rely on an employer providing me with a job when I knew I could create my own. I was naturally drawn to consulting because it allowed me to combine my passion for strategizing with my background in marketing. Consulting is like therapy for a business—marketing consultants help solve problems by teaching their clients what they know. Like I said earlier, I love imparting my knowledge to others, so consulting was a perfect fit for me.
How did you put your team together?
I didn’t have the largest network when I came out of university, so it was quite the challenge. At the beginning, I mainly reached out to my former classmates or their contacts. I knew I’d be recommending different strategies to different clients based on their needs, so I decided to have a sub-contractor relationship with my team. I have many different marketing specialists on-call and recruit some of them for each project as needed. This helped my company grow in a very lean way. The team became stronger as we began recommending certain tactics to clients more often, because we worked together more frequently and for longer periods of time.
How did you go about finding clients at the beginning? I created a reputation for myself as a consultant in the Ottawa area by starting a free marketing meetup on the website Meetup.com. Only a few people came to my meetups at the beginning, but it gave me the opportunity to have in-depth, one-on-one conversations with them. I didn’t try to sell people on my services and instead let my knowledge shine through. After a few months, people began telling their friends about me and my seminar started gaining traction. When you see something like this growing so slowly, it’s really easy to give up because it’s not working as planned. But if you’re determined enough and push through, it’ll eventually bear fruit. A year later, I was getting around 40 people at my meetups on a Monday at 10 a.m., which was really cool. One or two people from those seminars would contact me afterwards and ask me to help them with their businesses, and my client base grew slowly. I also got new clients through my network—friends or previous classmates and coworkers would refer me to businesses that needed marketing help.
Your company name is pretty unique. What was the inspiration behind it?
I wanted my company name to sound solid. It needed to evoke the idea of offering effective marketing advice that helps strengthen companies. A lot of marketing specialists will create snazzy names for their agencies like “Lightspeed Marketing”, but I wanted my company’s name to be more substantial and send the message that we’re there for the client and we’ll help them solidify the foundation of their business. The logo is a rook, which is a chess piece. Chess players often use this piece very strategically because it protects their king and queen. In short, I wanted to position Fortified Marketing as an agency that would be there for the client and support them through a sound marketing strategy.
How do you think the world of marketing has changed because of the pandemic? I think that many businesses have had to do more marketing, and quickly, in terms of educating customers on their new COVID-19 safety measures. For example, many essential businesses have had to design and set up a lot of signage to help customers maintain social distancing. It’s been a very challenging time for businesses, but people in graphic design, printing, PR and social media marketing have definitely been getting a lot of work recently. Unfortunately, many businesses are cutting their marketing budgets because the pandemic is forcing them to focus on their short-term financial situations and on damage control. COVID-19 is the first pandemic that has shut down the entire world. I think that people who have experienced it will think very differently about their long-term planning. I hope that more businesses will understand that they need to plan for eventualities like this one and have a better financial safety net.
How has Fortified Marketing adjusted to the pandemic?
Thankfully, we haven’t had to adjust much because we were already working remotely. We’re not meeting with clients face-to-face anymore, so there’s been a lot of teleconferencing and video calls. But everything I mentioned earlier about the types of marketing that businesses are focusing on right now has impacted us because we’ve been offering them those services.
JMSB students definitely know what it’s been like for them during the pandemic. But what was it like as a professor during this time?
It’s definitely been a learning experience, but it’s also been more positive than I anticipated. I was expecting my Zoom lectures to be radio silent on students’ part, but it’s incredible how active they’ve been in the chat as I’m lecturing. They share their opinions or provide links to articles that either contradict or support my claims. I have the chat pulled up while I’m lecturing and can address their questions and comments in real-time, which makes for really dynamic lectures.
What resources do you think JMSB students can take advantage of now to prepare themselves for the real world?
In terms of marketing, I think university will only teach you so much. If you want to add value as a marketer, you need to have both the theoretical understanding and the practical know-how. I’d advise you to make use of software on your own time. Subscribe to a free CRM software and see how it works, just for fun. Do the same thing for email marketing. Try and build your own website, whether you’re actually learning how to code or using a drag-and-drop website builder like WIX. The same thing applies to business students in general. Make use of the tools that you’ll be expected to know how to use when you graduate.
I also think that knowing how to connect with others is a very important, yet overlooked, skill. You’re not going to get hired if you only have the technical expertise—you’ll get hired because people like you and want to work with you. You need to figure out how you can become more likeable. Work on your people skills and learn how to communicate to others that you’re a good person. But don’t be fake—figure out what makes you who you are and try to convey it to people in a way where they see your potential and want to be around you. The business world is competitive, but you won’t go further without having a strong network of allies that you can rely on and that can rely on you.