Katherine Hollar Barnard is a force, a dynamo, a badass. She’s the founder and CEO at Firesign in Kansas City, which offers “enlightened legal marketing” to its clients. We became friends two years ago and I want to mention why that is. This lady is fierce. I admire this in her, and in others. Katie is also brilliant and funny. Plus, she’s a straight-shooting Midwesterner who loves sports and barbecue. In other words, she is the kind of person—complex and real—who is easy to like. I am thrilled that she chose to participate in this series, because Katie is someone you want to know, and when you work in the legal profession she is someone you must know.
Q. How does living and working in Kansas City shape your point of view?
A. Blame it on my roots, I showed up in boots…
Kansas City has an informal air and a frontier spirit, and I think both of these traits shape my point of view and my agency. We value straight talk and straight prose. We mean what we say. We back it up.
Q. We met in a coaching class in 2018. What was your one big takeaway from the class and coaching experience generally?
A. Our class aimed to teach agency owners how to build online courses. I launched one, and while it’s certainly not a mainstay of my agency right now, I appreciated the exercise a lot. I think so many of us get caught up in starting every single project from scratch, every time, and it’s helpful as a business owner to think about productizing.
Q. What’s the difference between an expert and a coach?
A. With an expert, you get a monologue; with a coach, you get dialogue.
Q. Why and how did you start your own agency?
A. For 12 years, I worked inside the marketing departments at large corporate law firms; I served as chief marketing officer at Lathrop & Gage (now Lathrop GPM) and Shook, Hardy & Bacon. I had the privilege of leading the rebranding at Shook, which won “Best Identity” from the Legal Marketing Association – Midwest. I loved it, and I was so proud of it – and then profoundly sad that I wouldn’t get to do a project like that for another 10 years.
Long story short, I launched my agency in February 2017, and I’ve done three branding projects this year.
Q. Blair Enns and many other small agency consultants believe in an extreme focus on the one thing you do best, so you’re the only one doing that? What’s your agency’s one thing?
A. Our one thing is the legal industry: We are solely focused on serving law firms, legal technology companies and the like. I was a two-time law firm CMO; our vice president ran PR inside a law firm; our creative director had a short stint as a paralegal before she went to design school.
Lawyer jokes aside, it’s a great demographic to work with: Attorneys have high standards, and it’s inspiring to work with smart people doing big things. I’m working right now with a law firm that does a lot of Innocence Project work, and another focused on helping veterans. The legal profession is crucial to protecting justice, civility, and innovation, and it’s fulfilling to be a part of that.
Q. When you hire someone new, what’s the one thing that you need to see in them?
A. What I’d call “light in the eyes.” Hustle. Spirit. Levity. Scrappiness. I can teach you how to write a press release. I can’t teach you how to care.
Q. Are law firms male-dominated and how do you navigate that when working with legal clients?
A. Law firms are male-dominated. That’s changing, but slowly. It makes it a little extra exciting when we work with women-owned firms, but throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to work with some truly outstanding gentlemen. I’ve also bought myself a pair of boots with my earnings from a firm basketball betting pool.
Q. What elements make for a great client?
A. It is gratifying when clients respect that marketing is an expertise. It is fun when clients are enthusiastic and when they want to actively participate. And it is rewarding when they keep you posted and let you know how your work impacts their business – weeks, months, and years later.
Q. Is it important for your business growth that you win awards?
A. I’d fall back to what I tell my clients: It’s unlikely that an award is going to win you business on its own, but it may nudge a decision. It’s like USDA-approved on meat: You were hungry, you were going to buy a steak, but the badge makes you feel a little safer about it.
Q. What about PR? How critical is PR to your own marketing mix and how important is it for your legal clients?
A. I have a model of marketing tactics that I present to clients. It’s the solar system, and the client is the sun – the source of warmth and heat and billable hours. Each planet represents a different tactic, and the closer they are to the “sun,” the more of an impact you can expect. Mercury is the in-person meeting; Venus is a speaking engagement; and so on. Perhaps PR is Earth – a great place to live, but cold half the year if you’re not trying anything else!
In legal, I’ve seen no substitute for meetings and presentations. I liken it to Costco samples – lawyers, in particular, like to see how you operate, see that you’re a safe choice.
Q. What do clients not understand about content and social media marketing?
A. We can’t just take website copy and regurgitate it. The best, most effective content has a personality and stands for something. Two of my favorite examples of legal content – neither of which we did, but man, I wish we had:
- Ford & Harrison launched a blog called “That’s What She Said,” which analyzed every episode of “The Office” from an employment law perspective. While the show was running, it published a recap each week – including a litigation value. It was light, it was helpful, it wasn’t just a dang client alert.
- Huston & Harris, a criminal defense firm, recorded a great song, “Don’t Eat Your Weed.” It makes a criminal statute easy to understand (“Tampering with evidence/doesn’t make any sense”). It’s warm and not accusatory. And damn, it’s catchy.
Q. What was the last live concert you attended?
A. I had a baby last June, so my concert-going was somewhat limited even before the coronavirus….but last summer I had the pleasure of seeing two old favorites, Chris Isaak and The Old 97’s.
Post-COVID, I watched Rhett Miller of The Old 97’s stream a performance of my favorite album, Too Far to Care, from his living room. Weird times.
Q. Do you like to read business books? Which ones?
A. No. Nothing against them, but I’m a raging insomniac. If I read books that get my business gears turning at night, I get no sleep.
I have recently enjoyed the podcast “2Bobs,” specially geared toward the principals of creative firms.
Q. Kansas City was a launching place for so many pioneers…tell us more about the pioneering spirit that’s alive in KCMO today.
A. True to its frontier roots, Kansas City is an open and unassuming place where we aren’t afraid to take chances – whether it’s on The Next Big Thing or a scrappy young quarterback out of Texas Tech. It’s a place where it’s easy to build a network and a place where so many people want to help you; your destiny is not linked to where you went to high school.
Kansas City has been so good to me as an entrepreneur. I hope to return the favor.
Q. How does Texas Barbecue compare to Kansas City barbecue?
A. Not even close.
Joe’s KC, one of Anthony Bourdain’s “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” is seven blocks from my house. As he wrote, “It’s the best barbecue in Kansas City, which makes it the best barbecue in the world.”
Q. Who are your creative heroes?
A. I started out as a newspaper reporter, so I will always love writers who work in column inches. I just read Bad Blood from The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyou. I’m excited to read Joe Posnanski’s book on Houdini. I loved Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters. I don’t agree with her politics, but Peggy Noonan can turn a phrase like nobody’s business.
The hero may vary from day to day, but I keep this quote from Joseph Pulitzer handy: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”
Q. What does “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” mean?
A. “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” is the signature cheer of my alma mater, The University of Kansas, most commonly associated with the men’s basketball team. We do it at the end of games we’re winning, which fortunately is most of them.
Legend has it, a KU professor made up the phrase “chalk rock Jayhawk” as he rode a train – it mimicked the engine’s huffing and puffing. “Chalk rock” was another name for limestone, which winds through the Kansas landscape. Upon returning to Lawrence, he changed it to the catchier “rock chalk”…and pretty soon old Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it the best cheer he’d ever heard.
Q. Who is your favorite fictional agency owner?
A. Olivia Pope from Scandal. Smart, savvy, effective. Dedicated to her craft, her clients and her team. If only I could have her coat game and a Motown soundtrack to my life.