Nina Hale

First, tell us a little about yourself: Name, Title, Company, How you got there, Family, Extracurricular Activities. We want to know your story.

I founded Nina Hale, Inc. in 2005, and we're now at 50 employees. I've been married to musician and writer Dylan Hicks for 20 years, and we have a 14 year old son Jackson. I'm a cat lady, a hobbiest upholsterer (I'm damn good), and a reluctant exerciser. I studied folklore and popular culture at Brown University and didn't find many jobs for folklorists when I came back home. So I got an MBA from the Carlson School. I've been surfing the web since 1983, when it was a prototype network in a few corporate labs around the country. Imagine, if you will, working late at night at the IBM labs in Poughkeepsie NY, and a message comes up that says: "Hi, I'm a 15 year old girl in Minnesota, anyone want to chat?"

Nina Hale, Inc. was/is known best for search engine marketing, but we now are a full digital media agency focused on lead gen and eCommerce. In 2014 I turned the agency into a 100% ESOP, which means that over time all employees will become partial owners of the company; those who stay for the next 4-5 years will probably make a lot of money. This year I turned over the CEO role to the incomparable Donna Robinson.

What's your personal and professional mission statement(s)?

  • Professional: Put the client first and good things will follow.
  • Personal: This is the best job I've ever had so don't screw it up.

What's your definition of what makes a "MPLS MadWoman"?

A MPLS MadWoman loves the challenge and pace of agency life. She wants to solve new problems and forge new paths. She loves meeting new clients, helping them get promoted, and seeing her friends succeed.

How do you strive to embody what it is to be a MPLS MadWoman, in both your professional and personal life?

I'm living the dream! I love learning new things, and I want to convey what I've learned to help others. I want everyone to be doing something that makes them happy and I see it as part of my role in Minneapolis to make things easier for everyone I meet, to advance the role of digital excellence, and to represent the advertising community on the boards I serve on. When I'm really on my MadWoman game, I'm helping people connect with others and writing think pieces. When I'm not, I'm hiding in my house reading mysteries and cruising the alleys for old chairs to upholster.

What led to your decision to go out and launch your own business?

Truthfully, I had a spiff with someone at work and I quit in a huff. However, I had been planning to be a solo consultant, but not quite on that timeline. I am — or was — a lightning rod for office politics: too willing to die on every sword, too outspoken in meetings, and sometimes too excited about changes on the horizon. That makes me a great agency person, and I've gotten much better about understanding that it's my job to recommend the best option, then to adjust to what is possible within the client's organization and budget.

How would your team describe your leadership style?

I used to be a swooper: I would assume people were fine, but then swoop in and sometimes micromanage. In the DiSC profiles, I'm a Di, meaning that I prefer to have a vision and plan and then trust that others can implement and keep up. That can be hard for people who need a lot of direction. But I believe in the ability of people to problem-solve and achieve excellence.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

  • Network!
  • Care about your clients even after you aren't working with them (they'll be back in one form or another).
  • Get a revolving loan in place BEFORE striking out. (note the bit about quitting in a huff above)
  • If you're partnered, make sure they are supportive — really supportive — because you're going to be working 70 hour work weeks for about 5 years.
  • Understand what your motivation is: money? fame? mission? freedom? (freedom, hah!).
  • Make sure you like what you're doing because it will be your entire life for awhile.
  • It's helpful to be a specialist in something—  it can be easier to be known as the best at _______ than swimming in a sea of strategic consultants.
  • This is hard for Minnesotans, but you need to really sell your successes—  a client of mine says she's going to give me a horn so I can better toot it. We've been caught describing a 13% M/M growth rate as "flat"

What are key characteristics that you believe every entrepreneur should possess?

I feel that a large part of my success was being able to both sell the work and perform the work. That way you are able to keep things very compact when you're just starting out. You need to be really good at what you do (seems obvious, but it's true). If you can't deliver what you sell, you won't get any repeat business.

How has the agency business evolved since you started Nina Hale, Inc.? What changes do you anticipate in the future?

In the past 10 years, digital has dramatically changed from being a single tactic to being a complex consumer journey where multiple touchpoints align in the sales cycle. Agencies have and sometimes still are struggling with adding digital media and big data to their DNA. But more and more clients are (rightly) demanding measurable results from their agencies, not just beautiful creative. This sets up NHI very well for our direct client work as well as agency partnerships. I like to imagine the world where agencies won't hire internally for digital media but partner with us for fantastic results and happy long-term clients.


MadWoman of the month is a monthly series of interviews highlighting an amazing woman each month in our community, voted for by the community, and published on the Egotist. We’re thrilled to shine a light on inspirational women. Nominate the next MadWoman of the Month on twitter.