See all Insights

Profiles in Successful Firm Leadership: A Conversation with Sonia Greteman

Aviation Experts Flying High

The Greteman Group is an aviation marketing firm based in Wichita, Kansas. Since their founding almost 30 years ago, this small-but-mighty group has grown a big reputation for breakthrough creative that leads to action. Awards rained down and clients bubbled up. They grew in both size and stature. The question is, how?

In this episode of Expert Marketing Matters, Mark O’Brien interviews Sonia Greteman, CEO of The Greteman Group, on what has made her firm successful…

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Mark: Hello and welcome to Expert Marketing Matters, my name is Mark O’Brien and today I am joined by Sonia Greteman of the Greteman Group from Wichita, Kansas. Sonia, how are you?

Sonia: Hey Mark, I’m great thanks.

Mark: I’m so excited to have you on the show here, thank you very much for being willing to join.

Sonia: Well thanks for having me.

Mark: Yeah, so, I’m excited about this for a lot of reasons. We’ve known each other for many, many, many years, we were in an agency peer group together for, I guess, close to six years. Got to know each other and the associated firms really well, we’ve done a little work together over the years. I want to start off by saying that you are one of the two most successful agency principals I have ever personally known.

Sonia: Well, wow!

Mark: It’s the truth, it’s the truth. Your firm just does incredibly well year after year, after year, after year, after year. It’s just so wonderful to watch it and I’ve been to your firm a number of times, the culture is great, your people adore you and they adore their jobs. You spend so much on making your office just an incredible atmosphere. Your love of Wichita is just massive and outdone by nobody. There’s so much pride in everything I’ve ever witnessed associated with the Greteman Group, and there’s a real magic there and it’s a magic a lot of firms chase but it’s elusive. You can’t just make it happen, you can’t buy it, it just happens sometimes and you and the firm have it. It’s resulted in just incredible success that a lot of other firms I know are very jealous of.
If you could just start. How did this happen? Where did Greteman Group come from? What’s your story?

Sonia: Well thank you Mark. This year I will be celebrating 30 years in business.

Mark: Wow.

Sonia: It’s mind-boggling that I’ve been doing this that long, and I still love it. I still love coming to work every day and hanging out with my team, and trying to figure out what the new thing we’re gonna be doing is, and staying involved in the community. All the things we do that I think make us successful.
I had a really great start in life, my father was a photographer for Boeing and my mother was a librarian. I had words and images fired at me at rapid speed my entire life. But my father was also very entrepreneurial and he actually worked our butts off. We had a family job at 81 Speedway where he photographed the cars, and I sold the photographs in the photo booth. I was a little salesman for him and-

Mark: How old were you?

Sonia: I was about ten.

Mark: That’s great.

Sonia: Yeah, ten or twelve. During the week I would print those photographs in our downstairs basement. Later, when I started my first job, I went to design school at WSU and started working at Boeing because of course that’s where he wanted me to work.

Mark: Was he still there?

Sonia: Oh yeah, absolutely, he was chief photographer for them. But needless to say working for the man in corporate America was not for me.

Mark: Right. How long did you last?

Sonia: I lasted a year and a half.

Mark: Oh, pretty good.

Sonia: I never looked at the clock so much in my life.

Mark: Yeah.

Sonia: When I was leaving, one of my co-workers put on a card for me that, I was fuchsia silk in a gray flannel world. I’d always thought that was the sweetest comment, and I’ve always thought, wow that was really a nice thing to say.

Mark: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.

Sonia: I left Boeing to the dismay of my father, he was very disappointed at me because I went to work for these two rather flamboyant men who owned an exhibition design firm. I went, I took a pay cut, it was $5 an hour but I loved it. Some weeks we worked 24/7 it seemed like, and I met my husband there, and we built all these outrageous Christmas displays across the country.
But what I learned from those guys was that you really could be a non-conformist in this world, and have a business, and make your stamp on society. It taught me a big lesson that I could probably do that some day.

Mark: Right, that you could just approach whatever vision you wanted. If you had the vision it was something that could be attainable if you had the drive and the courage to match.

Sonia: Yeah, it’s so true.

Mark: Right, right, right, right. Okay and was this all in Wichita?

Sonia: Yes it was, yeah.

Mark: Right.

Sonia: Later I joined AIGA and I met a couple of other designers, and that’s when we started our first design firm. Basically we were just designing logos at that time. I enjoyed it but one partner left really early on to be a mother, kind of broke my heart.
Then the other partner lasted five years and he came in one day about three o’clock in the afternoon, I’ll never forget it, and said, “Hey Sonia, I’m leaving. I’m going to work for one of our clients to start an in-house firm, and my last day is today, and my last hour is now. I’m walking out the door.” He basically stripped the office of everything he wanted, he left me with five employees and I was broken hearted.
I went home, and I’m not a big cry baby, but I went home and I was full of tears and I was full of fear. I thought what the hell am I going to do? I do what I always do, and I decided pretty quickly that I was going to rename the firm, Greteman Group, that I was going to march back in the next day and inform everyone they had their jobs, and we were going to move forward as the Greteman Group. I knew I couldn’t do it alone so I asked them to come with me, and they did, and the rest is history.

Mark: Wow. So that was ’88 roughly?

Sonia: ’89.

Mark: ’89. Oh my gosh. What was the name of the first version of the firm?

Sonia: It was Gardner, Greteman, Mikulecky.

Mark: Oh, wow. How many years did that last?

Sonia: That one lasted five years.

Mark: Oh, wow, okay, so quite a while.

Sonia: Yes, yeah, that one lasted five years. Yeah we-

Mark: You were invested, wow. Okay, it wasn’t as if you had just started it up and they took off, you were going.

Sonia: No, but I did learn a huge lesson about partnerships, and that is don’t start a partnership with people who have the similar skill set, find somebody who has a different skill set. Because we were all too similar, we were all graphic designers.

Mark: Right, right, right, right, right, right. Yeah let’s talk about that for a minute, because that’s a topic that doesn’t really come up often enough on this podcast, is that what’s your thought on that, on partnerships? Not just the Greteman Group, but big picture. You’ve seen a lot of agencies come and go, you’ve been on the national and at least continental scene for a long time now, you’ve seen a lot. How do you feel about the idea of partnerships inside of an agency?

Sonia: Well I think it’s pretty rare that they last, and I think if they do they have some kind of magical chemistry and they don’t overlap. Maybe one person is more analytical, and one person’s more creative, or a numbers person and a sales person, or complementary skills.

Mark: Right.

Sonia: After buying out two partners I realized that partnership wasn’t for me and I was never going to do that again.

Mark: Right. Did you make that decision, was that the case at that point and that was the end of?

Sonia: Oh yeah, that was the end of that conversation.

Mark: Now over the years have you had different people approach you about wanting to become a partner inside of Greteman Group?

Sonia: You know I really haven’t. I think people are basically risk adverse, and so I think they really don’t want the responsibility. But I do have to say I do have a succession plan now.

Mark: Okay.

Sonia: It’s kind of in the early workings, and I do have a small team that I am putting in place to take over Greteman Group …

Mark: Right.

Sonia: … or some form of it.

Mark: Right, right. That’s another interesting topic, is this idea of succession and retirement. You’ve been doing this for 30 years now and the first thing you said in the first ten seconds was you love it, still every day you love it. As you know I attended that strategic coach program which I’ve talked about way too many times in our conversations, but the very first thing they said on the first session that the whole point of the first session was never sell, never retire.
Their point was if you do sell or retire you’re going to end up wanting to recreate the firm you had. I’ve actually watched number of people who have sold their firms, and had gone into retirement, and I’ve seen that pattern play out again and again. But their point is, it’s not about working nine to five, or six to six, or whatever it is every day. It’s about over time just changing your role in the firm so you can still be very involved but maybe your role changes as time goes on and other people step up into different areas of leadership.
What is your thought on that idea?

Sonia: Well I think it fits perfectly into what I’m thinking about now. I could see myself working for another ten years, but not at the pace, and not in the involvement that I am right now. I’d like to step back a little bit. I have a smart group that wants to take the reins.

Mark: Right.

Sonia: So I probably wouldn’t sell completely, I think it’d be a little expensive for them.

Mark: Right.

Sonia: But I think that they could have partial ownership, have a little skin in the game. We’re training them now in a traction team, and I know you’re a big believer in traction Mark. I just love the discipline, and [crosstalk] the lessons that this younger generation is learning from making all the decisions we are making collectively in our weekly traction meetings. I think it’s giving them a great foundation for what we face every day in running a firm.

Mark: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. Again for listeners who might not be familiar, which will probably be very few at this point, but Traction is a book by Gino Wickman and he created what is referred to as the Entrepreneurial Operating System, EOS. And it’s a system through which entrepreneurial organizations can bring a certain level of business rigor and measurement without killing the entrepreneurial spirit.
Have you found that? That’s the promise of traction, right? It’s going allow you to organize things and set goals and set really clear achievable paths toward those goals without crushing the creativity of the organization. Is that true in your experience?

Sonia: Oh, I love the discipline. I love the weekly IDS, which is just solving a problem in a 20-minute time period. I love setting rocks and knowing what we’re facing each quarter. I love having that quick snapshot of analytics and looking at all of our numbers, our pipeline, our Facebook, all of our proposals out, our leads generated, just everything that we’re doing. And we all have a really good feeling for what we need to work on and where we’re going.

Mark: Great, great. And from you, especially, that means a lot because your firm has been and always will be really a creative first firm. It’s all about the creative. And you yourself are very, very, very creative and driven by the arts. And so hearing CEOs such as yourself validate the promise of traction, that’s helpful, because I think some of the pushback that people have at the outset is that, “Oh, that’s too businessy, and that’s going to restrict me too much,” that kind of thing. But to hear you say that’s not the case goes a long way.

Sonia: It’s really great to have other people and other ideas solving your problems, too, you know. We have five people on our traction, and there’s five points of view. And somebody was always coming up with something a little different and a little different way of seeing it than I might. And, you know, I’ve run this firm for a long time, and it’s fun to be more we than I. So I’ve enjoyed that.

Mark: I completely agree. And this happens out at Newfangled all the time. It just happened a week and a half ago, where we were looking at a new technology. And I’m a Quick Start. In the Kolbe thing I’m a 4392, and 9 is for Quick Start, and that’s about as high as it gets. There are no 10s, so that’s as high as it gets. I’m the highest Quick Start that you can have in that system, which means-

Sonia: I would agree with that.

Mark: I see an idea and if I like it, I like it, right, and I’d want to go for it. And there was a new technology we were looking at, internally, and I said, “Okay. I think this is it.” I was really, really excited about it and ready to make the jump as a firm into that technology.
And Lindsey Barlow, here on staff, she said, “You know, this does not make …” She’s on the traction team, the leadership team. She said, “No, this does not make sense for these five reasons.” And it was a smackdown. She was exactly right, exactly right. And thank God she was there just to put it to me in the way I needed to hear it.
And that’s the other thing, too. You know, one person could tell you something, but the next person could say it, almost the same words, but they say it a little bit differently. The delivery’s a little different when you have a number of people involved. The opportunities for someone in the group to say something the way the other person can receive it. And there’s different people for different things is … It increases dramatically. So yeah, I, too, share your love of traction.

Speaker 3: You’re listening to Expert Marketing Matters, a podcast about generating ideal new business opportunities by creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on your bottom line.
This podcast is brought to you by Newfangled, a digital marketing consultancy, focusing on empowering experts to do better digital marketing.
You can learn more about Newfangled’s digital marketing method at

Mark: So 30 years history, right? And you’re very focused now. I’m not going to say what that is. Why don’t you tell us the story of that? Did you start as a generalist, or were you a focus expert right out of the gate in ’89?

Sonia: Well, the funny thing is, is things were going pretty well with my new fantastic client, which was Learjet. And, you know, of course they’re based in Wichita. And I’d always liked aviation because of my dad. And then I started going to airshows. In fact, I’ve been going to NBAA, which is the big airshow now, for 28 years.

Mark: Oh, wow.

Sonia: And then I kind of just put two and two together, living in the air capital of the world. And I had realized that there was a lot of other diverse aviation companies like insurance and gas stations for jets and interiors and engines and a lot of just affiliate companies that would also feed a kind of an aviation niche.
So about that same time, I hired your friend and mine, David Baker, to help me grow my business. And together we quickly realized, after doing the business audit, that I had a just natural built-in specialty, and that I had a natural vertical and that I should specialize.
And I really never looked back. He encouraged me to do that, and it helped me grow my business. We landed a big magazine for Bombardier after that. We traveled the world interviewing owners and photographing and telling the story of how business aviation helped grow their businesses.
And it was just a really exciting seven years of my life. I was never home. I was always on the road. But I completely learned the target demographics, the profile of the owners of business aircraft, what makes the pilots tick, how to talk to a Chief Maintenance Director. So I really, really learned the business, and I just loved all aspects of it, actually.

Mark: Yeah, and that’s always come through. I mean, you’re as passionate about aviation as you are anything else. And you’re passionate about a whole lot of things, which is really great and contagious. And, yeah, it’s not just something you chose and you went with because it was good business. You just really do actually love it. And the fact that it, too, is tied right into the fabric of Wichita, just … I love it.
That’s another thing about you. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any firm and, especially, principal I know, who is as committed to their place, their town, their city, as you are. Wichita plays such a big role in your personal culture and your firm’s culture. And it’s quite interesting to see, especially now when all these teams are distributed. Sense of place has kind of disappeared.

Sonia: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I agree. Wichita is kind of at the axis right now of really becoming a really groovy little, the next Austin or something. And so I think for my people to want to stay here and stay in Wichita, Greteman Group is trying to help make that happen.

Mark: Right. Right? Of course, of course. Yeah, why wouldn’t you? And so you hired David. What year was that, roughly? Do you recall?

Sonia: Oh, it was probably about ’95.

Mark: ’95, okay. So from ’89 to ’95 would you consider yourself to have been more of a generalist firm?

Sonia: Yes, except that I had already started working with Learjet, and I’d already realized they were my favorite client pretty quickly, although I did have a couple of other clients I really loved. And health has always been another one I really loved. And the other one was the Kansas Health Foundation.

Mark: Okay, okay. Got it, got it. Now do you ever do work outside of your specialty?

Sonia: If it walks in the door in Wichita, we do. But all of our marketing is centered around aviation. And our SEO was also aviation. So if I’m looking at national or international business, that’s all driven by aviation.

Mark: Great, that makes a lot of sense. And that’s something that comes up a lot in our conversations with different agency owners, is that when they’re thinking about positioning, the fear is that they’ll never, ever do anything again outside of that positioning. And that’s really not the case.
But, yeah, as long as the marketing, the marketing effort is solely focused on a reachable target, however vertical, horizontal, or both, that makes a lot of sense. So what can you tell us about the journey of Greteman Group in regard to your marketing and how you market online, offline, whatever? What’s the story of marketing inside the Greteman Group?

Sonia: So our aviation vertical allows us to just be experts in the knowledge of aviation. So we’ve made it our business to know all the reporters and publications by name. We keep in touch with them. You know, our bedside reading is Aviation News. We attend all the shows, and we do cold calls at the shows but we introduce ourselves as aviation marketing specialists, really understanding the target markets. We’re on the Aero Club board of directors. We write for an international digital magazine called Blue Sky, and we support charities surrounding aviation like STEM initiatives.

Mark: Wow.

Sonia: So we try to really encompass the full aviation space in all of our marketing.

Mark: Wow. That’s actually quite thorough.

Sonia: Thanks.

Mark: Yeah, and what is nice is it’s such an identifiable industry. There’s an industry around it, and I’ve heard you mention many times that they’re a little bit behind the times in terms of digital. And so they really, unlike many industries, are going away from trade shows and that kind of thing. They’re not as prominent as it used to be. But it seems like that whole culture is alive and well inside of aviation.

Sonia: It is, and we have a lot of opportunity. We’re doing a lot of training now for some of the in-house departments and helping them kind of use more digital tools and increase their social media presence and really trying to teach them about new ways of measurements and SEO and some of the things that we’ve all been doing for several years now. I think that aviation is just starting to kind of explore.

Mark: Well, that’s a nice place to be because yeah, you have been very intentionally pursuing that for a quite a long time now. So the fact that you’ve really got your chops down in that regard is going to be fortunate. When they finally come knocking for those services, you’ve got it covered.

Sonia: Yep. I think that’s right.

Mark: Cool. Cool. So at the beginning I had talked about you being successful and the firm being successful and how I’ve always marveled at that and have been so impressed over the years on what you’ve been able to do and create. Where does that come from? This is a weird question to ask. I mean, just trying to throw humility out the window. Just not worry about that. I’m putting you on the spot here. I’m asking a direct question. Our audience will most benefit from the most honest answer, and so if you need to brag a little bit, brag a little bit. But what’s the truth? Why has this worked so well for so long?

Sonia: As you know, Mark, it’s never really one thing, and thank you, by the way. But it’s many things, and I think relationships is one of the first things. A lot of people have taken us with them when they’ve changed jobs. One of our largest clients has been at three different places, and each time he’s moved, he’s taken us with him. And we genuinely become friends with our clients. So it’s always about the relationship with me. The other this is it’s about learning, and I just really dig learning our clients business. And so even when I was talking about the Kansas Health Foundation, the way I landed that account is they called me in for an interview, and I read their annual report from cover to cover the day before the interview. So I was able to quote all of their programs, all of their initiatives and I think the president was kind of shocked that I knew that much. But I do my homework. I don’t just show up and think I can wing it. It’s never been my modus operandi.

Mark: Right. Right. Hustle.

Sonia: Yeah, I do hustle. I work it. I work the idea, and my whole team knows if I don’t think it’s good enough, we work on it some more. When I’m at a party, I work the room. I don’t just stand in a corner talking to somebody that I enjoy. I really try to get around and talk to everybody. I work the new bus pretty hard. I attend those boring chicken, rubber dinners, and I’ve been involved in the community, and I show up for those kinds of things. And you know me, I work the fun. I try to make everything fun, and I also I work the wardrobe.

Mark: Yes, you do. We finally get to wardrobe. I can’t believe it’s taken 25 minutes to do so.

Sonia: I just had to put that in there because it’s pretty funny.

Mark: I’m glad you did. It’s part of your brand. It’s a big part of your brand. You take that very seriously. You always look amazing and you always stand out, always stand out. I love it. I love it. It’s wonderful.

Sonia: When I’m talking to my designers about showing up, I tell them to look the part. They need to look like they know how to spend money, that they have style, that they believe in quality, and all those things come through through your wardrobe.

Mark: Yeah, no. That’s true. And that’s the kind of thing that can sound really superficial, but no, I think that’s really what you’re selling, right? You’re selling design.

Sonia: Our taste. Yeah, our taste.

Mark: Taste, right. Right, right. Exactly.

Sonia: And then probably the kind of final thing is obviously it’s the people you surround yourself with, and early on I was smart enough to hire a really, really amazing number two — Deanna Harms.

Mark: She’s amazing.

Sonia: She is. She came to me looking for a home. She’s been my right hand for 22 years. She brought PR and media relations and kind of copywriting and strategic thinking into the office. So we were very ying yang, and that was a good balance … If I was going to have any partner, she would be it. She is a partner but without the risk.

Mark: Right, right. Right. Yeah, I understand that. I understand that for sure. That’s just great. That’s great. Now, in terms of the services you offer, you can take a pass on this if you want. But what do you consider to be the most profitable work? Then what’s the most fun work?

Sonia: Oh. Well, the most profitable work is probably not the most fun work. It’s the implementation right now, and the most fun work is any new, big, creative project that we get to brand and create new messaging. In fact, we just did a voter registration this weekend, and it was Stand Up, Be Counted. And we developed messaging around that, and a whole Facebook, social media promotion. We registered almost 100 people yesterday, which was really cool.

Mark: Thank you.

Sonia: Yes. Yeah. And so I really like getting our arms around new campaigns, and campaigns that assign goals and analytics to and that we push out different forms of media have become actually very profitable for us and fun. So that’s where the profit and the fun cross.

Mark: Media. Interesting.

Sonia: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, we’ve never bought a lot of media in this agency. We’ve always, like you said earlier, we’ve always been a creative agency.

Mark: Right.

Sonia: But we are buying a lot of social media and boosting and Snapchat, and we’ve been running some pilot recruitment campaigns that have been amazingly successful for an airline. There’s a pilot shortage, and so we really do know how to reach them, connect with them, and get the resumes into the airlines. So that’s been fun.

Mark: Okay. Well, Sonia, this is wonderful and you’ve been really generous with your thoughts and telling the truth about what went on starting from being a salesperson at 10 years old. I would love to see 10 year old Sonia selling photos. Oh my gosh. If you have any pictures of that, you have to send that to us. I’d love to see that. Thanks again for doing what you do, for being a leader of the industry, for inspiring a whole lot of other firm owners. I know when we joined the ENC Network we were part of, I remember you telling me you joined because of another person who had started on this road before you, was part of the group, and you wanted to learn from her. You, in that group, I saw many, many times such an example for all the rest of us, and I know you continue to do it throughout Wichita and beyond. So thanks for you contribution to the art of the industry and for being who you are and just being a really awesome person. You do a lot of extraordinary things in the business and also outside of the business. I, and I know probably hundreds ad thousands of others really appreciate that very much.

Sonia: Well, Mark, thank you for all the help Newfangled has given my firm over the years. You guys have really been there for me a couple of times when I was needing new technology and just needing good, solid advice on just things that I wasn’t as well versed on. So you guys have been great partners.

Mark: Thanks,Sonia. I appreciate it. Well, all right. I hope you have a good afternoon, and I look forward to our next conversation.

Sonia: Okay, thanks, Mark. Ciao.

Mark: Bye.