How to Succeed in the (Competitive) Business of Smiling

They’re like the great “Oz” of the dental industry: the tireless dental laboratory, working behind the curtain, crafting the beautiful smiles of everyone from celebrities and pro athletes to (relatively) average Joes like you and me.  A good smile conveys good health, confidence, competence, and attractiveness. Who doesn’t want that? So you’d think there’d be more than enough work to keep dental labs in business. But check any issue of Dental Economics (a good read, by the way) it’s a very competitive and complex industry. Quality is what can set you apart, but quantity is what makes you money. Hand crafting each tooth is a differentiator, but you also need the latest technology for things like case planning, diagnostics, and milling. Dentists can be very loyal when they find a great lab, but then they won’t refer you because they don’t want their competitors in on their secret. Add this to a more discerning and cost-conscious customers (dentists and their patients) and the “business of smiling” is a “grit-your-teeth” kind of industry. That’s why Valley Dental Arts (VDA), one of the premier cosmetic and restorative dental laboratories in the country, decided it needed an agency partner to help identify and grow its competitive edge. In 2014, they selected PadillaCRT to help map their path forward.

Coming up on our second anniversary of working together, I sat down with founder and CEO, Chuck Maragos, to learn more about what businesses like his look for in an agency (I promise its not entirely self-serving), whether the partnership was making a difference, and what if any advice he would give to his competitors.

Chuck Maragos, Founder and CEO, Valley Dental Arts

First a little background. The Maragos family founded Valley Dental Arts in 1974 to “create a new standard of aesthetic dentistry: one of exceptional craftsmanship, artistry and premier technology that results in teeth that look and feel like natural teeth.” From implants, crowns and bridges to removables (dentures, overdentures and partial dentures), VDA does it all. They’ve evolved from a small shop with a vision into an industry leader, with a reputation built largely on word of mouth. But Mr. Maragos wisely realized that in order to remain competitive, that world of mouth needed to be amplified; and that their existing “amplification vehicles” – website, trade show booth, brochures, etc. –  no longer represented the industry leader VDA had become.

Old Website

Back to the agency selection process. When I asked Chuck what he was looking for in an agency back in 2014,  I expected him to list  communications capabilities, industry experience and references (that’s what we put on our PowerPoints, right)? Surprisingly, none of those were at the top of the list. “We didn’t know what we wanted, or needed, at that point. We knew we wanted to be more proactive, but we didn’t know what that should look like.”  Since they didn’t know exactly what they needed, he said, they focused on the “who:” the partner they wanted to work with, no matter what the “what” turned out to be.

The first “interview” turned out to be one without warning: the initial phone call. Chuck and his team had no contacts to introduce them at various agencies, so they cold-called to set up appointments. Some agencies didn’t call back right away, or at all. Others wanted a laundry list of information and materials ahead of meeting with them. One required an upfront payment. “Why would we do that?” Chuck said. “We don’t charge potential clients a fee just to meet with us to see if we’d work well together.”

When he called us (again, without warning), “the gentleman we talked to made it so easy to come and meet with you. He was friendly, he scheduled a meeting with the right people and during a time that worked for us. He just made it easy.” For a company new to the world of PR, this “ease of entry” made a big impression (which I’m sharing with the wonderful gentleman here who took that important call.)

The second (and even more important) “test” VDA gave potential agency partners was the in-person meeting. Again, for them it was more about the “who” than the what. The first agency, Chuck said “wasn’t a good fit.” They dazzled them with a presentation about how good they were and all they could do. “They didn’t gather enough information about us. It was all about them,” Chuck said. By the time he and his director of marketing hit the elevator following the meeting, that agency was out of the running.

Another agency they considered “was very good. Had all the capabilities. They may have even been lower priced than you guys,” Chuck said. Still, he and his director of marketing felt something was missing from that visit: a connection, “like we didn’t have congruent values.”

“We met with you guys,” Chuck said, and “when we were done, we were like, “Wow. We found a place that will listen. We can communicate with them and they can take our thoughts and put them together into a plan.” That simple act of listening, and making it about the client – not us – led to a complete rebranding of all their assets: a new logo and visual identity, new website, tradeshow booth, marketing materials, and most importantly, according to Chuck, the updated VDA story. “What Padilla did is they got our story,” and wove that through everything we did for VDA.

You can see the results of our work here, on VDA’s new website. We created it from scratch – design, enhanced user experience, visual look and feel, and all the content. “It exceeded our expectations,” Chuck said. “Did it make a difference? Absolutely. We are very recognizable in the industry now.” Chuck says not a week goes by without someone making a positive comment about their website, and their work that is showcased there. It has given Chuck and his team the tools to share their vision more broadly and stand out from their competitors. Because of this, Valley Dental Arts has invited PadillaCRT to present a workshop on “Strong Brand, Successful Practice” at their annual Amara Institute workshop for dentists in January of 2017.

It occurred to me after interviewing Chuck about their experience with us that what VDA was really seeking was an agency that treated them like they treat their own clients. They listen, they build trust, and they decide on a path together. That’s what turns out the best work. “Who ever you use,” he says,”you have to build a relationship. You have to look at the long term, not just the short term. If you’re going to create a marketing effort, it’s got to be the result of a long term synergy with a company,” which leads to smiles all around.

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