Courtesy of David Mullen
41 | president, partner, The Variable
Mullen’s experience at The Variable is proof that Winston-Salem attracts talented people. When he arrived at the marketing company in 2013, the business founded by Keith Vest and Joe Parrish had about 13 staffers. Now, it employs 81 and has a client list that includes Procter & Gamble, Nestle, BASF and Electrolux.
Local businesses including Winston-Salem-based Lowes Foods and Greensboro-based Biscuitville signed on as initial clients. More recently, major international brands, such as Switzerland-based Nestle’s new business ventures unit, chose The Variable after hearing pitches from larger agencies.
The key to the growth was winning recognition by AdAge magazine, which named The Variable best small agency in the nation three times between 2015 and 2018, says Mullen, a University of South Carolina journalism and communications graduate, who became the agency’s third partner in 2017. “A lot of brands and marketers looking for a new partner start by looking there,” he says. “So we’ve had a lot of inbound reaching out to us based on that recognition and the way we approach problems.”
What has set The Variable apart is combining the traditional skills of an ad agency with a management-consulting strategy, Mullen says. Many marketers make similar claims, but the company’s recent success offers credibility. “If you talk with chief marketing officers today, you find that the landscape from a business and consumer perspective is significantly more complex than it ever has been. Brand strategy and campaigns are probably a fifth or less of what they have to think about to drive their business. They really want someone who can understand their business and drive growth, which is something we’ve been pushing hard.”
A native of Green Sea, S.C., Mullen was working in Chicago when his fiancee took a job at Lowe’s Cos.’ headquarters in Mooresville. He followed her to Charlotte, working at a local brewpub before landing at the Winston-Salem office of MullenLowe, which is owned by ad giant InterPublic Group, where he worked for seven years. Ready for a challenge, he joined Vest and Parrish as a business development officer. The duo had started The Variable in 2011, and he quickly realized “Joe and Keith and the team had big ideas and real talent.”
Delivering on promises to clients requires talented people, and Mullen says recruiting industry pros from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and other big cities hasn’t been a challenge. “What I hear is that they think Winston-Salem is where they can do professionally amazing work and also create an amazing quality of life,” he says. “They often walk away from their first visit stunned with what is really here and what they had perceived about Winston-Salem before they showed up.”
In addition to the agency, The Variable’s three partners joined former Army cavalry scout and investment banker Dan Driscoll to start Winston-Salem-based 100Watt, a business accelerator that commercializes ideas for products and services. Among the project’s success stories is Sunshine Beverages, an energy drink company started by Vest and Parrish that has gained widespread distribution in the last year. Winston-Salem-based Teall Capital Partners is now Sunshine’s majority owner.
— David Mildenberg