Dallas Morning News, ad agency partner on content marketing business

Editor’s note: Two years ago this month, The Dallas Morning News and ad agency Slingshot partnered to create Speakeasy. Here’s a look at the challenges and successes of the endeavor from its president, Mike Orren. 

INMA: What was the greatest challenge in creating this agency?

Orren: The biggest challenge in creating Speakeasy was in figuring out how a newspaper could leverage its assets in a business – running a service agency – where it had no background. By partnering in a joint venture with Slingshot (a traditional ad agency), the DMN was able to create a company that could leverage its sales force, relationships, and content without getting bogged down internally. 

Our model wouldn’t exist without the relationship between the DMN and Speakeasy, but it was critical that the agency be independent and housed separately. Once we got everyone inside the newspaper OK with that idea, we were able to start moving and growing quickly. 

The traditional agency brings us crucial management background and understanding. Just as the DMN wasn’t experienced in running an agency, most of our team came from a content or client-side marketing background. 

I meet with our agency partner weekly and am able to get a lot of wisdom around avoiding mistakes they’ve seen in their 20 years. And with the DMN providing most of our business development and the agency partner providing CFO, billing, HR, IT, and management expertise, our team can spend most of their time just serving clients. That’s a big competitive advantage.

I’d also say that having a scrappy, entrepreneurial agency in the drivers seat creates a lot bigger focus on profitability – and that’s kept us lean. 

INMA: What is an unexpected positive outcome youve seen in the last 15 months? 

Orren: Finding an additional business model around emergency problem solving and last-minute launches. While that’s a smaller piece of our client base, it’s highly profitable business that also makes for great case studies that further encourages our traditional content-social-promotions client base.

INMA: How does content enable a client to move forward in marketing?

Orren: I can’t see how else a client moves forward. Today’s consumers are savvy, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, they don’t want “a crummy commercial.”

By educating consumers with content that’s valuable regardless of buying intent, brands build trust high in the sales funnel.

Even more fundamentally, if you are doing social media without pointing back to content in an environment you control, you are just sharecropping on Zuckerberg’s farm. You have to give a value-laden reason for a consumer to follow you on social, and then for them to follow to a site where you have a chance at inciting some sort of conversion. 

INMA: If you had to give three tips to anyone looking to build this type of success in this timeframe, what might that be? 


  1. Don’t even try this unless you have an endemic feet-on-the-street sales force with great relationships.

  2. The biggest pitfall is failure to manage client expectations. This is farming, not hunting. If the client doesn’t get that, they are the wrong client.

  3. Hire senior people who know how to drive consumer action, regardless of tech- and social-savvy, then support them with digital natives.

INMA: What do you see in the future growth for your agency?

Orren: We’re continuing to grow regionally and have half a dozen national clients. We see ourselves potentially partnering with media companies in other geographic markets to replicate with Speakeasy offices in their towns. 

INMA: If you had to tweet a 140-character description of your agency’s best success what would it be?

Orren: Build culture, serve clients, stay nimble & focused. Relationships = opportunity. ROI = renewals. Have fun every day.

About Dawn McMullan

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