Industry Watch

Lili Hall

Knock-on effect

At creative agency Knock, nearly all new business is repeat or referral — and for good reason

By Erica Rivera
Sunday, July 27, 2014

Early in her career, there was little to suggest that Lili Hall would launch and lead an award-winning creative agency. Yet the president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Knock has done that and more.

A self-described “Chicago girl” who lived in Brazil for several years as a child before coming to the Twin Cities for her secondary and college education, Hall spent 14 years in brand-building and business development with adidas America, B.U.M. Equipment, and other international brands. In those roles, “I always gravitated toward the marketing end of the business,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in the creative industry.”

In 1999 Hall joined Kilter, a design firm of 25 people, as the director of business development. But in 2000 the firm laid off half its staff after its biggest client filed Chapter 11. Hall stayed on an additional six months, but ultimately left the company. “It was at the point where you start to jeopardize your beliefs and your ethics because there was a lot of desperation going on,” she says. “I didn’t want to be put in that position.”

A strict non-compete agreement prevented Hall from moving on to another agency. Others suggested she fight the agreement, but she decided to reassess her path instead. In a journal, she reflected upon what she liked and disliked about previous employment experiences. Hall envisioned doing business differently and eventually decided the best way to do that was to start her own company. She chose the name Knock because she’s superstitious and because “I didn’t want my name on the door,” she says. 

Knock launched in November 2001, just two months after 9/11. “My timing was not the best,” Hall admits. “It was probably one of the hardest times to start something. The world was in a very interesting place: a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty.”

Still, within a few weeks of reaching out to her network, a contact recommended Knock to Target. That partnership endures today, with Knock’s accounts spread over multiple Target departments, including beauty, entertainment, licensing, apparel, accessories, toys, sporting goods, grocery, and holiday. 

“Our relationship is highly collaborative,” Katie Boylan, director of public relations at Target, says of Knock. “They have a firm understanding of Target’s brand, and their work helps create a truly unique shopping experience for our guests.”

Boylan appreciates that Knock has the creative and account staff to support a high volume of work and that the agency provides project management from concept through production.

Hall credits Knock’s success to being agile, flexible, and having a “get it done” attitude. “Retail is fast and it’s demanding,” she says. “We’re passionate about it. It’s in our blood.”

That retail-rooted identity has attracted such clients as Caribou, Levi’s, and Handsome Cycles. A good reputation and word-of-mouth also helped the company further expand its client base. Now, 97 percent of Knock’s business is repeat or referral.

Among the repeat customers is New Jersey–based CQ fluency, which provides culturally relevant language translation and interpretation services to organizations throughout the world. President Elisabete Miranda sought out Hall when she wanted to rebrand her company, formerly called Translation Plus. Hall recommended the name change to better encompass what the communications company is capable of.

“They did an amazing job of understanding our business and incorporating our brand strategically,” Miranda says. “Every time that I hand out my business card, everybody reacts to it. It’s bold, fashionable, innovative, and fun. We get so many compliments.”

While Hall relied on experienced contacts to work as freelancers in Knock’s infancy, she now has 55 employees on staff, in addition to contract workers and some of those same freelancers. “I really wanted the right people on the right job,” she says of her hiring methods. “Agencies tend to put people on who are available. I never liked that strategy.”

The company, which operates out of Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York, has received a slew of industry awards from the likes of AdFed and AIGA

“It’s not all pretty,” Hall says. “We have our moments of dysfunction, but we’re committed to having a healthy workplace.”

Interpersonal problems are addressed head-on before they have the chance to escalate. Hard work is rewarded with perks like weekly visits from a chiropractor, birthday lunches, and an annual trip to the Children’s Theatre Company followed by an after-party. “We like to entertain and keep people happy,” Hall says. “We want people to feel supported.”

Knock’s office culture hinges on collaboration, respect, and transparency. Hall believes that listening and delegating are keys to effective leadership.

At no point were those skills more necessary than on March 13, 2009, when a fire started at Knock’s former offices in the Northwestern Building. An agency across the street tweeted about the fire, sending Hall into damage-control mode. After ensuring everyone was out the building and the client’s files were secure — Knock has a policy about backing work up onsite and off — Hall opened a Twitter account to let everyone know they were OK. 

“A client had called and said ‘I heard your agency burned down,’” she recalls. “I had to stop it.”

Much of the office and Knock’s equipment was damaged. Target and another agency offered Hall temporary space, but she wanted to protect the business she had built. She had the computers and office furniture replaced, and 60 hours later had Knock up and running again. “It was the first time I felt like I earned my title,” Hall says. 

In 2010, Knock moved into its current space on Glenwood Avenue. That same year, Hall received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women National Award, an accolade given to only 11 women in the U.S.

Knock also believes in giving back. The agency regularly does pro bono work, such as the campaigns it has created for the Children’s Theatre Company over the past nine years. “Helping other businesses out is exciting,” Hall says.

“Besides being smart, Lili is one of the most generous people,” says CQ fluency’s Miranda. “I don’t know anybody who has helped entrepreneurs so much. She gives and that’s why her company is so successful. She’s paying it forward.”