CJRW CEO Darin Gray highlights importance of data, insights in evolving industry

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,311 views 

Darin Gray of Bentonville joined Little Rock-based CJRW as president eight years ago. He was named chairman and CEO in July 2015.

Darin Gray has seen a lot of changes in marketing over the past five years, most of which have been good for the industry.

Gray has led 60-year-old ad agency CJRW through the ever-changing industry since joining the Little Rock-based company as president eight years ago. He was named chairman and CEO in July 2015.

“We now, especially in this industry, are in a constant flux of change,” he said. “Data analytics, data itself, insights, access to that information and monitoring that information keeps it changing on a constant basis.”

Five years ago, Gray said companies would make three-to-five-year business plans that they would implement. Since then, the length of the plans has narrowed, falling from three years to six months.

Now, strategic plans have become nearly real-time.

“As new ways of communication change, with new platforms being developed constantly in terms of reaching a very specific audience with a very specific message that we try to reach through our marketing efforts, it’s constantly changing,” he said. “What that means is you have to constantly be monitoring those things.”

As new communication platforms or apps are released, one challenge is avoiding chasing “the next big thing,” Gray said.

“Especially for the clients we represent, it needs to be out there for a while,” he said. “We have to test it. We have to make sure that it has matured. There’s a communication and a marketing approach so that we can measure the return on investment.”

Gray said the agency monitors its marketing plans like how financial advisers monitor their clients’ portfolios: daily. He said that if a part of the marketing strategy isn’t performing as it should, it can be changed almost in real-time.

“That is a significant change even in the last five years, from a print ad or something that goes out of a marketing piece, and it lives for at least a year at a time,” he explained. “All those things now have the ability to change.”

With social media, ads can be built for a target audience and have custom content. An ad for one demographic on a social media platform can be unique from an ad targeting another demographic on the same platform. As a result, Gray said that clients don’t have to wait as long to see whether their ads work.

“More than anything, the value that’s come out of that is the ability to highly customize the marketing approaches that we’re able to do and to monitor and adjust in a very quick format,” he said. “That, in the last five years, has turned things around.”

Gray said another significant change has been the access to insights and data, noting the number of companies selling information.

“I would caution, though, is that you can get into this analysis paralysis if you have too much data,” he said. “Why they’re so valuable is the ability to take that and turn it into strategy.”

The ability to use data to develop a strategy and implement marketing plans for clients has been “huge,” he said. “The ability to have those insights has been extremely helpful in customizing those marketing efforts.”

The result is improved efficiency for clients, knowing that their investment provides value.

When Gray started in the industry in 1997, he said part of the joke was that 50% of advertising works. The question is which 50%.

“That was an inside industry joke, but the reality is you can tell now what’s efficient and what’s working,” Gray said. “That means your clients’ marketing dollars, efforts and messaging get to where you want it to be to get the best return and results.”

Over the next five years, Gray expects the industry to become more specific on whether clients are receiving the expected results and return on investment as data sources mature and are leveraged strategically. He also said those communicating to each demographic through targeted messaging would do well.

Gray noted CJRW’s employees reflect the various generations with which it communicates and its staff range in age from the early 20s to mid-70s. The company has about 65 employees.

Many of the company’s clients are in the tourism, hospitality and travel industries. Long-term clients include state agencies such as the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a mixed impact on the marketing industry, and various segments continue to recover from it. Gray said that the industry has recovered in some ways but hasn’t in others.

Gray said one of the tools used to understand the company’s value to the state is the 2% tourism tax. Its receipts are used for marketing for the state. So far this year, the receipts are up more than 30% compared to the same months in 2019.

Before the pandemic, the receipts rose annually for almost a decade, reaching $17.61 million in 2019, according to the Department of Finance and Administration. The receipts fell 22.7% to $13.61 million in 2020, but rose by 51% to $20.54 million in 2021. The most recent data shows that between January and March, receipts were $4.78 million, up about 36% from the same periods in 2019 and 2021.

Some industries most affected by COVID included travel, tourism and hospitality. They are recovering uniquely, but travel and tourism have recovered more quickly than others.

He said the pandemic affected events in which people gathered and contributed to pent-up demand for such activities. And when people could get together again, they did.

Additionally, Gray said the popularity of outdoor activities rose as they were seen as safer, and the regions that rebounded from the pandemic faster were those with amenities such as lakes and streams and opportunities for hiking and cycling.

Gray said product development is driving the increase in tourism tax revenue. In Northwest Arkansas, he pointed to the Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company led by Steuart Walton and his brother Tom, investing in area amenities, especially outdoor recreation.

“If you look at statistically the younger generation, they tend to be more in tune with outdoor recreation opportunities,” Gray said. “Arkansas, quite frankly, had a very pandemic-friendly travel and tourism product before we even knew there was a pandemic.”

Arkansas’ amenities are attracting people from surrounding and coastal states. He added that the amenities attract travelers and lead people and companies to relocate here.

“The product development we have now and the offering, it’s a national product,” he said. “It’s in many ways a global product that people want. And I think that’s why we’re doing as well as we are, and I think we’ll continue to do well.”

Gray moved to Little Rock after being named CJRW’s chairman and CEO in 2015. He’s since moved back to Northwest Arkansas and resides in Bentonville.

The Bryant native said he puts a lot of miles on his vehicle. But he travels a lot anyway, and that’s one of his favorite parts of his job. He’s also a private pilot and loves to fly various aircraft. He earned his pilot’s license in 2007.

“Arkansas is a great state to fly around,” he said. “You very quickly get a better understanding of the geographical difference in layout of the state between the Delta, the flatlands, farmlands and agriculture and all the way up to the mountains … You just see it all. You get a little bit of all of it in Arkansas.”

In 2014, Gray joined CJRW as president after he resigned as CEO of Gray Matters, the parent company of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

In 1997, Gray started at the Business Journal as associate publisher. He was promoted to publisher in 1999. In 2004, he formed Gray Matters and acquired majority ownership in the magazine. The company became the sole owner of the magazine in 2013. Natural State Media, the parent company of Talk Business & Politics, acquired the magazine in 2016.

Gray earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a political science minor from the University of Arkansas. After college, he worked for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and spent several years in an economic development role for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. He’s a past chairman of the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.