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Published in Economic Development
Karen Tracey Karen Tracey COURTESY PHOTO

GR brand marketing firm transitions to majority woman ownership

BY Sunday, November 21, 2021 03:05pm

Karen Tracey is set to become the majority owner of The Image Shoppe Ltd., a Grand Rapids-based brand marketing firm she helped form nearly two decades ago. With the departure of partner Troy Best on Jan. 1, Tracey will lead in an industry where she sees a relative lack of women in leadership roles. Tracey will hold a 60-percent stake in The Image Shoppe, a certified B Corp., while her husband, CEO and partner Rob McCarty, holds the remaining 40 percent. Despite the leadership transition after nearly two years of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tracey and McCarty want to keep The Image Shoppe’s small business culture while branching out to new clients. Tracey recently spoke with MiBiz about the firm’s plans and equity in the marketing industry.

How has The Image Shoppe evolved as a company over the past two decades?

It has changed dramatically. After leaving the corporate and nonprofit world, I started The Image Shoppe as a freelancer doing design work and event planning. When I started, it was just me. I really didn’t have the belief that it would turn into a whole lot more than me and another partner. Slowly, as I moved on in the business, it became very apparent that my skills and talents are more creatively driven and not so much on business management. That’s when Rob, my husband, became part of the business. I was more on the creative side, he was more on the strategic/business side. We grew quickly once we had a plan for the future. At one point, we were up to 15 people, but have settled back down to where we are now with about seven to nine people.

What was always important to us was not growing or getting too big but still having control over the company. The big scare of 2008-09 was really tough on us. Then the pandemic was the biggest shift, even more so than the recession. It was scary for all small businesses, but we were nimble, we shifted and took on some work we maybe wouldn’t have otherwise.

What does it mean for you to run a majority woman-owned small business in marketing?

There’s an obvious benefit with times when that works in your favor, particularly if a project is looking for that. I feel like there is just a lack of strong female leadership in the brand marketing space, and I feel this is an opportunity to have a stronger female presence in the branding industry.

Do you feel women are equitably represented in this industry?

The disparity in female leadership that I see in our industry is an imbalance between the large amount of design students and design/support positions held by women versus the number of women in leadership positions such as managing partners, CEOs or owners. We do see a lot of women creative directors, which is wonderful, and I’d love to see more of this as well.

More broadly, how have you approached diversity, equity and inclusion as a small business owner, particularly over the past 12 to 18 months?

That’s something we have put a lot of focus on in terms of our client roster. We have a lot of Black-owned businesses that we work for. Our client book has changed dramatically, and that’s important to us. 

From a staffing standpoint, it’s something that we want to build up, but it can be difficult in our industry. It really is more white-driven in the brand marketing and design firm world. We want to see that change. We’re trying to gain staff and are reaching out to every network we know in the diverse communities we’re in to fill that role so it’s not another white person sitting behind a desk here. We want to grow that in a way that reflects who we serve.

It is a problem in our industry. We need to look at that and ways to make it more welcoming and more safe for people of color to feel they belong.

What has The Image Shoppe taken away from the pandemic?

The biggest thing for me is to be able to have the ability to flex, be nimble and take on different work or projects you otherwise wouldn’t to stay relevant and stay in the game. It’s also important for us to work with companies that have a value system that aligns with us. We can’t do that all the time, but that’s what we look to do. Part of our revisioning (of the company) is to create and sustain authentic brands. We want to work with brands that are authentic. The biggest thing is you can’t always have what you want and can’t always work with companies you want, but you do the best you can to work with companies that meet your values.

Looking ahead, do you see M&A activity or mostly organic growth for the company?

No M&A. We want to keep the company just with the two of us in an ownership position. We do want to grow, but very carefully, thoughtfully, smartly and fitting in this new vision for us: Where do we want to go and what do we want to do, and make sure people align with that.

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