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'BUILD YOUR BUSINESS by investing in it':

November 26, 2007

Creative Street Media Group has come a long way-literally and figuratively-from its humble beginnings 23 years ago. The small video production company has become a corporate conglomerate, with 67 employees in five facilities who handle everything from promotional materials to interactive education. Oh yeah, and they also crank out some award-winning TV shows-like the Emmy Award-winning "Vietnam Nurses with Dana Delany." For all its progress, Creative Street is not done growing. Any day now, the company will expand its reach a bit further when it takes over the former Dean Crow Productions studio a couple blocks south of its Washington Boulevard headquarters. And Creative Street has doubled both its employee count and its client roster in the past five years, said company President Steve Katzenberger. He and co-founder Dave Smith won't disclose financial results for their privately held firm, but they are happy to share one of the secrets to their success. "You have to keep investing in your most valuable asset: your company," advised Smith, 56. "It's the greatest investment you can make," echoed Katzenberger, 54. That's a lesson the business partners learned early in their careers and haven't forgotten, despite the inevitable-if hard to measure-impact on their bottom line. Still, they have no doubt their commitment to the company has paid dividends. For all the talk of investments and dividends, Katzenberger and Smith said their lesson is about more than dollars and cents. Sure, it's important to spend money on things like technology and facilities, but they say giving the company plenty of time and attention also is critical. That can take many forms, from making a point of thanking employees for a job well done to slowing down long enough to build relationships with clients. Creative Street strives to do both. With its origins in corporate work-everything from designing sales materials to developing training sessions-the company founders set out to become their customers' partners, rather than another in a long line of vendors. By taking the time to understand their clients' business, they built their own. "We're hell-bent to do whatever we can do for our clients," Katzenberger said. "In this business, you're only as good as your last project." As a result, Creative Street has developed an impressive list of clients, including Eli Lilly and Co., Allstate Insurance Cos., the NCAA and the American Red Cross. That customer-focused mentality also helped the company diversify its service offerings. When clients wanted something, Creative Street found a way to deliver. Now, in addition to the Creative Street Corporate and Creative Street Entertainment production units, the company's holdings include Edit Pointe, a post-production facility; Webize, an interactive media design firm; StreetWise, a promotional-product company; and TutorLink, a collaboration with longtime client World Book Inc. of encyclopedia fame. The Creative Street owners know even the smartest business strategies wouldn't be much without good execution. Katzenberger paraphrased advertising guru Leo Burnett to explain the importance of finding and keeping talented employees: "My inventory goes home every night," he said. "Continuity in this business is so important," Smith agreed. "When you have good people, you want to keep them." To that end, Creative Street offered employees health care coverage even when the firm was so small that the insurance was almost cost-prohibitive. The company culture is relaxed enough that workers are comfortable bringing a child or pet to the office when circumstances require. And the unofficial company cafeteria is a Massachusetts Avenue bar near the Webize offices. Once a month, Katzenberger and Smith gather employees at Webize for a "show-and-tell" session before adjourning for cocktail hour. There, employees share a behind-the-scenes look at four recent projects-many of which involve multiple Creative Street divisions. "We keep it bright and brief," Katzenberger said. "We want people to see what they're a part of and help celebrate the successes." It sure beats the alternative. "We're in a somewhat unique position," Smith said. "We've had the opportunity to see what happens if you don't do some of these things."
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