The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Jenn Hoffman is the president of Pivot Marketing, an Indianapolis-based advertising agency specializing in brand building grounded in detailed research. She leads her growing team in strategic planning and market research. She also sits on the boards of both the Indianapolis Parks Foundation and IPS Education Foundation.
We recently met at Pivot Marketing’s new office in Fletcher Place and talked about her Indiana upbringing, love of Notre Dame, lessons learned in her first decade as an entrepreneur, and the therapy she gives and receives from marketing.
Joe: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where’d you grow up? Do you have siblings? Let’s get to know Jenn.
Jenn: Sure. I grew up around here. Mostly in Fishers from the time I was seven, but before that I lived in “the Region.” My dad was a stockbroker in Chicago in the 80s, like business on steroids. Then we moved down here, and my parents got divorced. I have a younger brother who’s a financial planner here in town and a stepsister.
Joe: And your mom still lives here?
Jenn: Yep, my mom’s here in the same house I grew up in. She’s a teacher. She’s an incredibly strong person; we hang out a lot.
Joe: Tell me some of your favorite memories as a kid. What comes to mind when you think about your childhood?
Jenn: Food. I was a chubby kid. Every memory I have, I can usually remember what I ate, whether it was blueberry Fig Newtons or apple juice. I just always have very specific food memories.
That and time with my grandparents. We went and saw both of my grandparents a lot. They were very different from each other. My dad’s family was very progressive and liberal and would always talk about academic things or world events around the table in their apartment. My mom’s parents lived in small-town Connersville and were more conservative. They had eight kids, so there were many cousins and aunts and uncles. It was more about relationships and family. It was an interesting mix.
Joe: Did you connect with one pair of grandparents over the other?
Jenn: No, I feel like there were parts of me that each brought out. I had a grandpa that brought out my artistic ability and taught me about perspective and drawing. And I had a grandpa who was always telling stories. One of my grandmas is very independent and kept her maiden name as a middle name before anyone had hyphenated last names. And the other grandma was very nurturing. They each kind of brought something different out of me.
Joe: I read somewhere that you were really interested in genetics growing up. What was your fascination with that?
Jenn: I’m just very interested in genetics and psychology. What makes people the way they are, who they are, the way they think. It’s very fascinating to me. The way the combinations work. The way some things are recessive and some things are dominant. Yeah, it just was really fascinating to me how all that works.
Joe: And are you still fascinated by that today?
Jenn: For sure. I think it’s the whole nature/nurture thing. I’m really interested in what is from genetics and what is environment. It’s a lot of what advertising is. What’s your innate tendency verses what colors your experience?
Joe: I think about that a lot being an adoptive dad, constantly wondering if my son’s picked something up in our house or if it always sat inside his genes. Or both.
Jenn: There’s a physiological component and a psychological component to most things and where the line sits is very unclear sometimes.
Joe: For sure. Did you have any entrepreneurs in your family who you watched growing up?
Jenn: Not when I was a kid, but later in life I learned that both my maternal and paternal great-grandfathers were entrepreneurs.
My dad was kind of an entrepreneur at the companies where he worked. He sold cars. He was a stockbroker. He had to get it done in those jobs. Meaning, his success rested on him, and it still does now as a financial planner.
I remember, after my parents got divorced, he would come and take us out to dinner one night during the week. I might have been seven or eight years old. I remember driving from Fishers to Pike Township, and he would always ask me economics questions. He’d pose these business scenarios and ask me what to do. And I would always ask, “Another economics question!” I just wanted more of that.
And we still do that 30 years later. I just met with him yesterday for lunch, and we talked about my business. Though, now I throw the questions at him.
Joe: Let’s talk about Notre Dame. Did you always have an interest in going there for college when you grew up in the Region, or when did that come about?
Jenn: Nope, I had never been to Notre Dame until I was looking at colleges. I had one uncle who had grown up in South Bend and went to St. Joe High School across the street from Notre Dame. When he married into the family, he was working on all the grandkids like, “Who’s going to go to Notre Dame?” He would bring home programs from the game. He was really the first person to really talk to us about Notre Dame. But I was pretty seriously considering Rutgers, Loyola, Washington University in St. Louis. Then on the campus visit to Notre Dame, I knew it was different. It was special.
I didn’t think I could get in, and we didn’t have much money. (My mom’s a schoolteacher and my dad was selling cars.) But I asked them, “If I apply and get in, can I go?” And they were like, “We’ll find a way. If you apply and you get in, we’ll find a way.”
Joe: Wow, they really believed in you.
Jenn: Or not. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t get in, so they were like, “Yeah sure, go ahead. Apply!” Ha!
Joe: Haha, that’s also true.
Joe: Ok, so I grew up 10 minutes from the school, and I never had a chance of getting in for several reasons. Let me live my dreams vicariously through you. Think about some of your favorite memories when you were in college. Help me live those out, since I always wanted to go there but never could.
Jenn: The football games were great, for sure. But I think for me it was the dorms. They don’t have sororities or fraternities, so you get assigned to a dorm. And that dorm basically becomes your sorority. They have this thing called parietals, where at a certain hour, the opposite sex has to be out of the dorms. And it’s just girls. So you just get to be more casual and laid back. And you get to know other people without the pretense of somebody’s boyfriend staying over or whatever. That was just one of my favorite memories
The dining hall, too. I worked in South Dining Hall. In the movie Rudy, there were several scenes in the dining hall. That’s where I worked, sweeping up at the end of the night, making pizzas, and doing dish line. Those are some of my favorite memories, too, partly because they kept me grounded while I was there. I was working with people who lived in South Bend, so it kept me from ever completely living in the bubble.
Joe: Was Notre Dame a religious decision for you or purely academic?
Jenn: The spiritual component was a big part of the decision. I knew I could practice my faith there and not forget about it. Or get so busy that I wasn’t focusing on it. There are chapels in every dorm, so there was no excuse. There was 10 p.m. mass on Sunday nights in your dorm. All you had to do was walk downstairs and all the girls—even if they weren’t Catholic—usually went because it was a good, peaceful time where you were all praying about something together.
Joe: In your work, do you try to separate your faith or do you try to infuse it in your business? How do you approach that?
Jenn: With Catholicism, the works are important, so you live your faith or lead it by example rather than talking about it so much. Even right now, it’s hard for me to talk about it much. In work, I’d rather have it come through in the type of work we choose to do and the goodness of the people that we hire. That’s more important. We say, we work with people we like and causes we can rally behind.
I think a lot of that came out of the design program that I went through at Notre Dame. My professor, Robert Sedlack, was all about designing for good. It’s a powerful thing to use it for things you believe in.
But we’re all different faiths, or no faiths, at Pivot. It’s more about how we operate and if we care about each other and if we’re grounded. If we’re very curious and just approach things with a sense of interest.
Joe: Diving more into the business, you started Pivot Marketing at 25. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing when I was 25, but it certainly wasn’t starting my own business. What made you think at that age, or at that stage, that it was the time?
Jenn: I knew I always wanted to go upstream from what I was working on. I was working as a production manager at Print Resources at the time. And someone would come to me and say, “Okay, we need you to lay out this postcard.” I would get so frustrated because I wondered, Why are they even doing a postcard? What’s the strategy? Can I talk to the client?
Thank goodness the owners recognized I could explore a marketing strategy for their business, and at some point they asked me, “Do you want to start asking some of those questions about what we’re doing? Who our clients are? What our plans should be? And, oh, by the way, we’re opening an art gallery. Do you want to run that too?”
So they kept giving me these opportunities and I took them. They eventually moved me into a marketing director role, where I pretty quickly started looking at things from a more strategic angle. Planning things and figuring out if the brand is even right. Is it saying the right things?
Joe: That role sounds pretty entrepreneurial in itself. Meaning, you weren’t following the path of the person in front of you. You were defining it as you went along.
Jenn: Yeah, I have a huge debt of gratitude to Tim [Browning] and Kurt [Ellinger] because they didn’t just say, “We hired you to do this. Could you please just do this?” Instead, they said, “You seem to be good at this. Why don’t you try doing that for us?” That they were flexible enough to recognize that, point it out to me, and ask me to do these different things is a huge credit to them.
So I started doing that and had good success. They were growing quite a bit with this new marketing program. They started letting me do that for seven, eight, 10 of their clients, and we were having good success with these different clients. Then they said to me, “Do you want to spin this off? You’ll run it, and we’ll own 90 percent of it? You can take this book of business and a designer with you.”
And so my designer Brian Pennington and I got to share office space with them. They owned 90 percent of the company and I took a book of business with me of about a quarter million annually, at the time. Then grew it and purchased additional shares over time.
But if they hadn’t offered me such a nice arrangement, I probably wouldn’t have started a business at 25. I might have gone and worked in-house somewhere for a while in corporate marketing or gone to another agency. I’ve never worked for an ad agency other than my own, but I might have if that opportunity hadn’t presented itself.
Joe: So when they suggested that idea, was that the first time you thought about owning your own business or had you been thinking about that for a while?
Jenn: I had been thinking about it. I recently found something I wrote when I was 16 that said I’d one day own an ad agency. I don’t remember ever writing that. Then in college, my good friend Liz—who has gone on to work for a lot of consumer brands—and I would always talk about businesses that we we’re going to start. We’d come up with different plans.
Joe: I read this quote in an Indy Star article: “Jenn Hoffman set out on an ambitious journey to change the face of marketing here in Indianapolis.” I’m curious, what did you think was missing and what did you want to add to to the marketing landscape in Indy at the time?
Jenn: Sure, I wanted to do work with a lot of depth to it. Work where we’d really taken the time to understand the problem…no matter what that problem was. Whether it’s how to attract people to live here, or how to make sure people know that our client empowers people who are blind? How do we do that? Those are big, complicated questions, and they’re not just this quick, easy thing. I wanted the work to have a lot of depth and emotional power.
And I wanted to push what was safe. I think there was a lot of—it’s gotten better—but a lot of safe work being done in marketing.
So I wanted our work to have depth and to come from a place of belief in it. Or that we’d actually researched it and done our due diligence. That we’d actually asked the people who it affects. Where we’ve actually gone out and asked people who interact with that brand or who are going to be affected by it.
Joe: Not just from a quantitative perspective but from …
Jenn: … no, very qualitative. Very qualitative. I’m a cancer, that’s my sign. We are emotional creatures. My business partner’s the same way. We have a lot of ups and downs emotionally. We just wear it on our sleeves. That allows us, I think, to tap into that and do work that people feel something about when they see it. It’s not just manipulative for the sake of that or using some trick to make you cry or laugh. It’s based on some truth. We actually had to do a lot of work to figure out what that truth was.
Joe: What gets you most excited about the work you do?
Jenn: I like learning about different things. I like problem-solving and free associating and seeing the connections between things. I like taking a strategic brief and turning it into something that is actually interesting.
I like the magic that happens between when you know what the strategy is and what the creative output is. That’s really magical. That’s like the Don Draper moments. That’s the addictive part of what we do. When we figure out strategically what makes sense and then figure out what that sounds like, looks like, how to make it.
Also, there’s a little bit of therapy on the front end with each individual client. What are you going through? What can we help with? What’s going on? It all starts with someone sharing something with me. That’s really powerful when someone shares something with you and you can say, “Thank you.” Being that open. Let’s do something with that because that was raw. There’s something in there. Let’s figure that out. That’s what I love.
Joe: Are you still involved in those “therapy sessions” with clients?
Jenn: Yeah, that’s what business development is for me. That’s how I can stomach it. I don’t want to be a salesperson, but I realized it’s not really about that. It’s more like, “Let’s have a conversation about something. If you feel comfortable sharing things with me, I’m going to do my best and my team is going to do their best to figure this out.”
Joe: You’re now 10 years into this thing. In that time, have you had experiences where you thought, I wish I had more experience under my belt?
Jenn: I like learning as I go. I’ve been smart about getting the right coaches, advisors, and hiring people who are better at all of these things than I am. Better designers than I’m a designer. Better writers than I’m a writer. Better strategists than I’m a strategist. Maybe it slowed me down a little because I didn’t have some of the experience. But at the same time, I think it’s allowed me to create something that’s different because I wasn’t operating on a model that I’d been brought up in.
Joe: In hiring better writers, better strategists, better designers than you, was that a problem for you at all? Did you have some pride to swallow?
Jenn: Yes, every time. It started with Brian at Print Resources. He was the first one where I had to accept that he was a better designer than I am. And Tim and Kurt pointed it out. They said, “We think you’re better at the strategy piece than design and you have more potential there.” It was hard for me to hear that
So design was the first thing I gave away. Writing was next, purely as a capacity thing. Writing takes so much time. And even though I’m good at it, I’m not terribly fast at it. You need to be good and fast to be in advertising, I think.
The one that’s been the hardest to give up is strategy, and our strategists will tell you that. I’m the most involved in what they do, and that is where we start with everyone. I still feel that I need to know—even if I’m not coming up with the strategy—I need to know what it is. I need to be able to weigh in on it and just be aware, because that’s the most foundational thing for my clients.
But now, giving up all that, I’m free to work on the business. After 10 years, I’m finally able to think about that part of it.
Joe: If you could go back and talk to your 25-year-old self, what would you tell her?
Jenn: Don’t sell yourself short in terms of what you can do or what you can ask for what you do. And don’t forget to have a life. Don’t stretch yourself so thin. Take vacations. Turn it off. And don’t be so hard on yourself. I still need to say that to myself everyday.
Joe: You just changed addresses. What is it about Fountain Square that makes you want to stay here?
Jenn: Well, we’re actually in Fletcher Place now, but we really wanted to stay very close to our old office in Fountain Square. It’s a culturally relevant area. It’s still rough around the edges. We like that.
We like having a storefront and history. We like when there’s a lot of layers to something. Whether it’s in our work or where we are physically or the people we bring in—very layered and interesting. We were looking to stay in the neighborhood because it’s layered and interesting, and we want a retail presence.
And it’s a chance to people watch. Wherever we are, I never want to take an elevator to my office because it quite literally removes you from the street and what’s actually going on and the people who are moving around out there. I don’t want that. We looked for two years to move two blocks because it was that important that we stay street level.
But it’s why we’ll never have a storefront in Carmel either. Sorry, Carmel, but it’s got to be culturally relevant and interesting and gritty and all those things. It’s got to be that or the work won’t be as good. It won’t be as in tune with what’s really going on in our city.
Joe: What are some things away from work that you’re passionate about?
Jenn: When I turned 35 last summer, I decided I’m going to have a life again. And so my interests outside of work have largely been my boyfriend, Jeff. He’s been a force for good in my life. A good relationship that is very healthy, spiritual, and all those things. That’s been huge for me. And that’s the first time in a very long time—maybe in my life—where what’s going on in my personal relationship is as fulfilling as my work, if not more.
And I’m on the board for the Indianapolis Parks Foundation. Parks (and schools and churches) are the cornerstone of neighborhoods. I’m really interested in strong neighborhoods…are we taking care of people young and old and providing something that is free and nice and meets everyone’s needs and is fun? Are we doing that? Parks are really important to me.
I’m also on the board of the IPS Education Foundation, which makes for an interesting match-up: parks and schools. Two private foundations that benefit our city. Those are really where I dedicate most of my time.
That and I was teaching Sunday school for like 10 years and just recently switched parishes. I’d like to get back to teaching kids about faith and understanding.