Mercury Rising

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Becky Arreaga and the women of Mercury Mambo take their creative business to the place where creativity and culture collide.

For Becky Arreaga, timidity hasn’t resulted in a lack of aspiration. Overcoming her shyness in favor of lofty ambitions was never necessary; she simply found ways to allow the two to work in concert with one another. And she learned how to do so from a young age.

“I actually consider myself extremely shy. I always have, even though, growing up, I did want to be a publicist. I just thought they had really cool jobs, and, for some reason, I was really drawn to marketing,” said Arreaga, president, partner and founder of Austin-based Hispanic marketing agency Mercury Mambo.

As a high-schooler, at an age when many teens haven’t even been exposed to the many career options available to them, let alone chosen one, Arreaga crafted a letter to comedian and publicist Marty Ingels, the husband of Shirley Jones from “the Partridge Family.” She wanted to know what life as a publicist would be like. Ingels even wrote her back, offering encouragement and positive feedback.

Her curiosity had already been piqued, and it would only be a matter of time before she would dive headfirst in to the world of publicity and marketing.

SMALL-TOWN SANCTUARY

Arreaga was born in Waco, just a short trek from where she would eventually settle. But her father’s adventurous golf-pro job meant the family moved several times during Arreaga’s childhood, first to the community of Gatesville, the “Spur capital of Texas” when she was in kindergarten, then back to Waco by the time she had entered fourth grade. The modesty and simplicity of small-town living was comfortable for the reserved Arreaga. But by the time she was beginning her junior year in college, her father’s career had taken a change from golf pro to the insurance industry, and that meant a move to one of the fastest-growing and largest cities in the country: San Antonio.

“That was an incredible shock for me,” Arreaga admitted.

3-1“The school that I grew up going to in Waco was small and safe. I had a real Norman Rockwell kind of childhood there. San Antonio was very different. We moved to the north side and I attended Clark High School, which was very affluent. I didn’t consider myself to be a very good fit there; I felt like a fish out of water.”

Despite feeling like a little fish in a big pond, Arreaga excelled in her studies, and her interest in promotions and communications began to become even more apparent. However, when it was time for her to choose a college, she once again shied away from larger schools like the University of Texas in Austin, longing instead for the soothing comfort and ease of life she found in small towns. Knowing Texas Tech University offered not only plenty of good friends but a great mass-communications school, as well as an unparalleled combination of sophistication and quaintness not often found in small towns, she packed her bags and headed to Lubbock to pursue her college degree in public relations and advertising.

“I really liked Lubbock. It was a cool place, I thought. And Tech has such a beautiful campus,” said Arreaga, who has served on the school’s National Board of Advisors for the College of Mass Communications for the past year.

Attending a college in Lubbock enabled Arreaga to come out of her shell a bit: She joined a sorority, landed a job at a record store and thoroughly enjoyed her classes. Though she had long been drawn to her field of study, she confessed she didn’t really have her career destiny worked out in her head.

“I didn’t have a lot of internships or anything like that. Looking back, I guess I didn’t really have my act together,” she laughed.

STARTING SOMETHING BIG

After graduating from Texas Tech, Arreaga began looking for a job that would allow her to thrive in her chosen industry without requiring her to conquer another big city. But fate, with a little help from her older sister, Liz, had other plans in store for her. Liz, who was working in the marketing group at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, had been offered a PR job with what was then a small Hispanic marketing agency in San Antonio led by celebrated ad-man Lionel Sosa. But instead of accepting the position, she referred her younger sister. So, against her inclinations, Arreaga headed to San Antonio to interview for the position.

“It was a small but growing agency, and the Hispanic market was about to explode,” Arreaga said. “I was hired as the PR coordinator, but basically, I was making it up as I went along!”

Her first assignment was to manage the planning and publicity for a Hispanic Hall of Fame event that included appearances by such Hispanic luminaries as Elizabeth Peña and Esai Morales. The event was a success, but a week later, after the agency’s contract with the U.S. Army wasn’t renewed, Arreaga became the victim of one of the company’s several layoffs. But her tenacity and desire to finish the job made all the difference in the world. She asked her boss to allow her to wrap up the event before she left, even offering to complete her work without pay. He agreed, and in the interim the agency landed a new contract with Domino’s Pizza, a win that allowed Arreaga to keep her job. She transferred to account services, where she was able to get a better idea of every aspect of the agency.

In her 10 years with the pioneering company, which would later become Bromley communications – the nation’s largest Hispanic marketing agency – Arreaga had graduated to vice president of account services and helped land the company’s most sought-after account, Coca-Cola USA, a move that essentially made her sister, Liz (who by now was working for Coke in Atlanta), a client. For Arreaga, it was a fitting outcome.

WHERE COMMERCE AND CULTURE COLLIDE

Later, the agency – home to the only professional job Arreaga had ever had – experienced two buyouts and started down a path of exponential growth. But feeling there were few growth opportunities available to her at the company where she had cut her teeth, collected an immense amount of industry knowledge and amassed an impressive rolodex of contacts, Arreaga began dreaming about something even bigger, something that would propel her marketing and advertising career well beyond her account-services position.

“At that point, Liz and I … began talking about doing our own thing, opening our own company,” said Arreaga, adding that her desire to learn even more about her chosen profession was insatiable.

So, nearly simultaneously, the sisters launched their consultancy, the Back Shop, and Arreaga headed to grad school, this time tackling her master’s degree in advertising from UT, a move that brought her to Austin. Though it took her about three years to complete her degree because of her double duties as student and business owner, Arreaga loved every minute of her studies, feeling like a kid in a candy store.

With the Back Shop, launched in 1997, the Arreaga sisters hired themselves out to area ad agencies, offering marketing and promotions services, and gravitating toward sales promotions and in-store marketing opportunities, in particular. Though they often spread themselves thin in order to gain enough work to pay the bills, the sisters had created a business that, if not yet thriving, was sustaining them.

“We knew we needed something more,” Arreaga said. “We either needed to work more hours or sell our services to more clients. We were basically looking for the ‘widget’ that would help us grow.”

That’s when the Arreaga sisters met Lynn Currie . The trio met while Currie  was working as a freelancer with Austin advertising agency TKO. Likewise, the Back Shop had been contracted to perform some work for the agency. After developing a great working relationship while tackling the creative assignments for the agency’s Anheuser-Busch account, the women decided to combine forces, the idea being that in order to offer their clients the promotional and marketing ideas as well as the execution. While at an industry tradeshow in Chicago, they toasted cocktails and brainstormed their new agency: Mercury Mambo.

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“We knew it would be Hispanic-market driven because that was our expertise and there was a lot of opportunity for that,” Arreaga said. “We decided to rebrand because we wanted our focus to be on sales promotions. And we came up with the tag line, ‘Where commerce and culture collide.’ We knew pretty instantly that it was a really good plan.”

Since its inception, Mercury Mambo has experienced a lot of highs and much growth. From the beginning, Arreaga and her partners wanted to remain true to one of the company’s core values: transparency. Though Mercury Mambo was only a three-woman business, the trio’s industry contacts enabled them to bring on freelancers for client work that required specific specialty knowledge of a market or product, and by communicating to their clients that they could tackle any type of job by hiring such experts when needed, the business really began to thrive. Liz Arreaga was stationed in Los Angeles, growing the business from afar while Currie and Becky Arreaga worked first out of a small office space in the garage of Arreaga’s duplex and later out of another home. By 2004, the company upgraded and purchased a funky, colorful office space at the Pedernales Lofts in East Austin, and had grown their offerings to include sales promotions, research and planning, brand advertising, online and social-media expertise, and experiential marketing. By then, the company’s client list had also blossomed to include such giants as Dr. Pepper, Anheuser-Busch, J.C. Penney and Cadbury Schweppes.

Two years ago, Mercury Mambo upgraded again, moving into a 9,500-square-foot building in South Austin, essentially quadrupling their office space. By that point, Liz Arreaga had moved to Austin to work in-house with the company and Mercury Mambo had added as clients the Smucker Co., Moet-Hennessy, Mission Foods, Nike, Carl’s Jr. restaurants and Barilla Pasta, just to name a few. Additionally, the company had ballooned from a $1.5 million business with 17 employees in 2006, to a $10 million company with 23 employees.

The economic downturn certainly took its toll: Mercury Mambo is now back to 11 employees and has leased out some of its office space. While fostering responsible growth for the company, Arreaga has also maintained a great attitude. That, said her sister, is part of what makes her a great boss and businesswoman.

“Becky is an amazing leader,” Liz Arreaga said. “She shows sincerity and integrity in all she does. She is intelligent, a great listener and has the ability to motivate the people around her. … I love working with Becky. She is everything I would want in a business partner and it’s just a bonus that she is also my sweet sister.”

Arreaga makes sure that her employees are well taken care of and happy; always the optimist, she saw the change as an opportunity to bring into her office a group of people with whom she shares a much-valued connection and organizations with likeminded goals. Businesses sharing the Mercury Mambo office space include Latinitas Inc., a nonprofit focused on empowering young Latino girls through exposure to media and technology (Arreaga is also on the group’s board of directors); Wright Property Management, a homeowners- association management company run by a former neighbor of the Arreagas’; Cevallos Brothers Productions, a film, commercial and video production company led by a former schoolmate of Arreaga’s; and EDCO, an economic development company focused on supporting tech start-ups on the Texas-Mexico border.

“At first, we were apprehensive about sharing our space because we’d never done that before,” Arreaga said. “But we found the right people who fit well here. It’s really enriched our Mambo family.”

A MAMBO KIND OF LOVE

6-1The Mercury Mambo success story is a success for more than one reason; it’s also a touching love story. In addition to creating, building and maintaining a booming marketing and advertising business, two of the business partners – Becky Arreaga and Currie  – fell in love along the way. Arreaga tells of the couple’s first meeting while they were both contracting business from TKO.

“Apparently, I had on some really cool new Balance tennis shoes and that’s what first caught Lynn’s eye,” Arreaga said, blushing a bit as she recounts the incident.

Currie ’s memory is somewhat more matter- of-fact.

“Oh my god,” Currie said, laughing at the prospect of her longtime partner sharing the anecdote with a magazine reporter. “When she told me she mentioned the shoe story to you, I just rolled my eyes and was like, ‘Why did you do that?’ it actually wasn’t anything major. It’s just that I had been talking to somebody about those particular shoes and she walked in and was wearing those shoes, so I pointed it out. I don’t know what it was that I initially saw in Becky. She’s just so easy to be around. There are so many qualities she has that if I were rebuilding myself, I would pull from her DNA. She’s smart, humble and she has a quiet happiness about her; she’s always happy.”

Though neither of the women can pinpoint the date they actually got together as a couple, they count New Year’s Eve 2000 as their anniversary, which, at a conservative estimate, puts them together for more than a decade. And while there may be many couples with a much longer track record, the remarkable significance of Arreaga and Currie ’s relationship is that they spend nearly every waking and sleeping hour together. Whether at work, at home or out on the town, one is rarely seen without the other; they truly complete each other and have no difficulty in pairing their personal relationship with a working one.

“Long ago, we stopped trying to separate our work lives from our personal lives. As a couple living and working together, it either works or it doesn’t, and we got lucky that it does work for us,” Currie said. “I think that’s a tribute to how our personalities work together. I’m more hotheaded and she’s kind and humble. We’re alike yet different in enough ways. And the longer we’re in our relationship, the stronger it gets. Becky is really smart and well-spoken. I don’t think we could have gotten any luckier by having such a face for the company.”

Currie said the couple’s strong tie has enabled them to weather rough times in the business, such as during 2009, when Mercury Mambo was forced to downsize due to the withering economy.

“When the business started suffering and the economy was declining, we always knew that it was not going to hurt our relationship,” Currie said. “Becky’s a believer; she always believes things are going to turn out well. I’m not like that, but she takes me in stride.”

Arreaga agrees, noting that the qualities that make the two women different are precisely what make them a successful and happy couple.

“Everything with Lynn and I just works,” Arreaga said, a smile easily playing across her mouth. “I just love her strength and conviction. We really complement each other. Plus she’s cute! And she’s got plenty of qualities I want in myself. She inspires me, and we both just really get each other.”

While Arreaga and Currie can often be found at the Mercury Mambo office (and rarely without their beloved 17-year- old dog gizmo, or gizzy, for short), sipping margaritas with friends and coworkers, or barefoot running (a hobby Arreaga recently picked up and can’t get enough of), they are also fond of dreaming up future business ideas, and both are self- confessed serial entrepreneurs. But, for the most part, they are content with their life together as it is. And Arreaga, who draws inspiration from the tiniest of personal interactions, said she wakes up looking forward to what each and every day brings.

“There are so many inspiring people in Austin,” she said. “There are even people in this office I’m so inspired by. Lots of people go through life with blinders on. But there are so many things to be inspired by. The key is just opening your eyes to it.”

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