Interview by Aaron Collins
eriodically, Lifestyle Magazine interviews regional influencers. This month, longtime contributor Aaron Collins sat down with Eric Riley, co-founder of the newly branded marketing agency Topograph (formerly 4Creeks Creative). They discussed Riley’s vision for the new venture and the challenges in achieving it, as well as what changes Lifestyle readers can expect since Topograph recently acquired Visalia-based DMI Agency, which published Lifestyle.
AARON COLLINS: Please tell our readers about your vision for Topograph. What do you want it to be known for?
ERIC RILEY: Boy, you’re not wasting any time here, I guess we’ll jump right in then. Topograph exists to guide businesses into clarity and confidence in their marketing. Our vision is based on the belief that high-quality design is nonnegotiable for businesses today. Think about the difference between a beautiful website that’s easy to use compared to a website that looks like it came straight out of 1996. It’s a no-brainer, right? Which company would you trust and want to work with? We want our clients to be excited to share the website, social media campaign or logo we’ve created with them.
AC: Yes, seems obvious. But why is there still so much bad design out there?
ER: Business owners often don’t connect the investment in high-quality design with a return on investment. I can understand that, and the fact is, beautiful design isn’t enough. If the only thing a website does is to look pretty, it is more akin to art, which won’t help the business owner’s bottom line. At Topograph, we want to be known for beautiful, high-quality design and brilliant strategy that helps businesses grow and thrive. I like to think that we work at the intersection of eye-catching design and effective strategy.
AC: What is Topograph about in terms of market focus, specialization, talent and capabilities?
ER: Topograph is focused on three core services: Brand strategy, website design and social media. In our experience, these services align with the areas most businesses need help with. Those areas serve as a solid foundation for any marketing efforts that a business or organization undertakes.
AC: If that’s what Topograph is about, what’s it definitely not about?
ER: We purposefully do not do everything in marketing. We’ve chosen to focus on the parts we think make the greatest impact. And it just so happens to be the stuff we love to do. In the areas that we are not experts, we work with an excellent team of pros to help meet our clients’ needs.
AC: With DMI now folded into Topograph, I guess that’s one less competitor locally, but there are still numerous regional marketing and advertising agencies. How will Topograph distinguish itself, both as a resource for local and regional business as well as in terms of any distinction from its acquired and rebranded predecessors? How might it be similar to its forebears? Do you see it having legs beyond our region or do you see it remaining firmly planted in local soil?
ER: I’d say that both DMI Agency and 4Creeks Creative had a long history of providing excellent service and great design. It’s a reputation that we’re proud of and will strive toward. But we know those things alone will not set us apart. Frankly, you’re right: There are many highly skilled and qualified options. And running a business or organization can be a daunting task. We understand business stresses and pressures, so I want every encounter with our team to feel like a shot of encouragement. We want Topograph to be contagiously optimistic. We want to be the people you’re excited to work with when you need help in your marketing.
AC: And about your aspirations and empire building? Can we expect you to be taking on Doyle Dane Bernbach or Wieden+Kennedy any time soon?
ER: Right now, we’re focused on our region. Marketing as an industry is becoming disconnected from a regional focus to serve a wider geographic market. As a result, our industry is becoming detached from the source that makes it work well: Its connection with the audience. I want to sit across the table from a client and connect beyond business. I love when I get to know a client and realize that our kids are classmates or we grew up in the same church. That human element makes Visalia and our surrounding area so wonderful. So while we have the ability to work with clients and audiences well beyond our region, helping every business in Tulare County would be a truly fulfilling endeavor.
AC: What led you to want to run your own marketing agency in an area that is widely considered to be well-removed from California’s media capitals?
ER: My family and I recently returned to Visalia from Sacramento, primarily to be close to family and friends. I absolutely loved living in a metropolitan area. Countless times, I was inspired there when discovering some business, event or restaurant where I thought, “This would be so great to have in Visalia.” As we weighed returning home, I was compelled by this idea of helping businesses grow and stretching their possibilities. We work with a lot of innovative people and I love it when their visions and dreams come to life; it changes
a community. When business thrives, it unlocks resources and opportunities for cultural growth, particularly in media and the arts. So I want to help cultivate and inspire business, culture and community here.
AC: What gives you encouragement, given our sputtering post-pandemic economy? Or is the glass half full?
ER: I’m stoked to see so many amazing things springing up around our area. Whether it’s the Darling Hotel, Elderwood restaurant, Woodlands, Lakebottom brewery or the upcoming 1852 Visalia Soccer complex, I continue to be excited about new businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues, breweries and other signs of life.
AC: The general perception is that we have a brain drain problem and that eventually the sophisticated talent pulls up stakes for L.A., the Bay Area or elsewhere. Tell us about the kind of talent you find in the San Joaquin Valley. How do you attract and retain ambitious creatives?
ER: The unfortunate reality is that the bigger stage often pulls talent away. Honestly, I have a small chip on my shoulder when it comes to people looking down their noses at Visalia or Central California. I want to change that sentiment. As a team, we’ve recently pondered creating a magnetic community of designers, writers, filmmakers, photographers and artists that would be compelling enough to stay. A direct correlation exists between the amount and quality of opportunities — jobs, money, etc. — and an area’s talent pool. Where there is more opportunity, talent migrates. Our problem is that local businesses often don’t know how to find local talent, or don’t understand their need for marketing assistance. This is an
area we are passionate about seeing change.
AC: Let’s talk about Lifestyle Magazine since you’re now the bearer of its legacy and future prospects. What do you see
as its strengths?
ER: Lifestyle has been a staple around Visalia and the region
for as long as I can remember. It has shone a light on the many amazing people, places and things that are happening here. Karen (Tellalian, executive editor) and her team have consistently delivered a quality publication that brings a deeper
sense of connection to our community. Whether it’s local histories, the home tours, our contemporary artist features or the community calendar spotlighting local events, Lifestyle’s elements contribute to our unique sense of place. And I love that it comes together through the work of local writers, photographers and designers. It comes from quality people here in Tulare County. I’m truly proud to be a part of the
legacy and future of this magazine.
AC: What niche and role does Lifestyle occupy in the regional media market, and what do you think is its role in our region’s society?
ER: Much has changed in Lifestyle’s era. The media landscape has transformed monumentally in its 18 years. Social media was not on anyone’s radar, and the conversion to digital-first media was only beginning. “Print is dead” was a common phrase, but though it was pronounced dead, recently it has seen a subtle resurgence. In our oversaturated “always-on” digital environment, I’ve craved holding something real. I don’t think I’m alone. Local magazines and newspapers are a tremendous resource to a community. Lifestyle focuses our attention on the beauty and possibilities all around. It also connects us to each other, helps us see each other and helps us see that we live in a pretty special place. I think that’s worth continuing.
A Lifestyle Magazine contributor going back to its beginnings, freelance arts and culture writer Aaron Collins has had his work published by McClatchy, Gannett and numerous others. By day, he serves as marketing and communications director for Visalia-based conservation organization Sequoia Riverlands Trust, owner of Kaweah Oaks Preserve and other regional treasures.