Throughout the entire process of building your agency, you have a lot on your plate. Depending on where you’re at in the life of your agency, you may be struggling to eat something other than ramen noodles or on the flip side of the spectrum, you’re spending all your time servicing your clients and trying to keep up with the demand. Ideally, you are working towards being able to step away from the day to day and focus on big picture of working on your agency. You may have aspirations to sell your agency some day and really reap the reward of all your hard work. No matter where you are at, my podcast guest Mitch Joel can probably relate.
He has taken his Toronto based agency from a small three-man shop to a global juggernaut by doing all the things that AMI preaches to agency owners every day. He quickly moved his agency to specializing in a niche, he focused on what it took to be acquired – growth and margin, he found his sweet spot client filter, and on top of it all, he kept on learning and growing and gave his team the time and space to do the same.
Try to keep up as Mitch and I take you through all of these phases of agency life by showing you:
- Mirum’s unique structure
- Generalists vs specialists: the philosophical and financial reasons agencies should specialize instead of generalizing
- Building your agency so that it is sustainably specialized
- How to figure out if a client is a good fit for your agency
- Mad Men vs. Math Men: how to blend creative and data
- Why it’s more important than ever to stay hungry and keep learning everything you can
- Do your homework: how to balance learning time with time spent on client work
- “Algorhythm”: Mitch’s upcoming book
- Tools Mitch uses for consistent learning
When Google wants to explain innovation and marketing to the top brands in the world, they bring Mitch Joel to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Marketing Magazine dubbed him the “Rockstar of Digital Marketing” and called him, “one of North America’s leading digital visionaries.” Mitch Joel is President of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 countries with over 2500 employees (although he prefers the title, Media Hacker). He has been named one of the top 100 online marketers in the world and was awarded the highly prestigious Canada’s Top 40 Under 40.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/mitch-joel/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
II. Generalists vs. Specialists in the Agency Space
III. Mad Men vs. Math Men: The Ever-Changing Agency Landscape
IV. Lifelong Learning is Vital to Building Your Agency
V. The Tools You Need to Build a Sustainable Agency
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. As you know, this weekly podcast is all about helping you be smarter about the way you approach business so that your agency can serve clients better, be more profitable for you and, hopefully, along the way, be more fun. So I think you are really going to enjoy this week’s guest.
So when Google wants to explain innovation and marketing to top brands of the world, they call Mitch Joel to Googleplex in Mountain View, California and have him do it for them. Marketing Magazine has called him the rockstar of digital marketing and one of North America’s leading digital visionaries. Mitch Joel is the president of Mirum, which is a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 countries with over 2,500 employees. We’ll have him explain a little bit about the structure of that as well because I think you’ll find that fascinating. He also is an author of many books. I suspect many of you have read “Six Pixels of Separation” or “CTRL ALT Delete” and he’s got a new book coming out, which we will ask him about as well.
So Mitch, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.
Mitch: Drew, thank you for having me.
Drew: Yeah, it’s great having you. So give everybody a little bit of understanding about how your agency is structured because it seems like each office, if you will, or maybe by country, I was trying to figure that out, is run almost independently but that you guys are all interwoven together. So tell us a little bit about that structure you created when building your agency.
Mitch: Well, I have to walk it back a little bit so there’s some clarity around what it is because Mirum, as a brand and entity, is still so super new. It’s only been about a year. There was a bunch…I’ll tell you our story and you’ll see how it ladders up into Mirum. We started a digital marketing agency called Twist Image in 2000 and I say we because we are four or we’re four business partners. We built this agency to become one of the largest digital marketing agencies independent in Canada about a hundred plus people, offices in Montreal and Toronto, and when I say national, it’s because in Canada, we have two languages, French and English. So it was fully operational in both languages, which was really unique at the time.
And we grew that for about, I’d say, ‘til about two years ago. At that point, we got acquired by WPP, the largest holding network in the world for marketing and communications and the way WPP works is you don’t really report into WPP directly. You choose one of the larger corporations that have grown within the WPP network. So you would report in through maybe the Young and Rubicam, kinda the Y & R angle, you might do Ogilvy one, you might do the JWT, J. Walter Thompson one, and we definitely had a champion with J. Walter Thomson Corporation in terms of their chief financial officer. A good, strong relationship with a real, great sponsor and thinker and enjoyed conversations with us and we went in that direction.
And, you know, part of the reason we wanted to be acquired was because we really wanted to grow. We wanted to add in different products and services, scale more beyond the borders of Canada and just North America and that was one of the promises of being a part of one of these larger networks. And what it turned out had been happening tangentially is that the J. Walter Thomson corporation had been acquiring shops like us but geographically different throughout the years. Shops like Digitaria, Activark, Caza, XM. All of these shops all over the world.
And so, we had decided together, as a unit, to bring all of these shops together under a new banner called Mirum. All of us changed our name. All of us became a part of a new corporation beneath the J. Walter Thomson Corporation. So now J. Walter Thomson Corporation owns Mirum and it owns JWT, the advertising agency that people know because it’s one of the oldest ones in the world.
Mitch: So, go on.
Drew: Yeah, I’m just agreeing with you. Yeah, they’re big and well-known.
Mitch: Yeah, and the structure really is…what I love about it is it’s…we call it a village model where you’re absolutely right. Every office can operate independently because that’s how they were created by entrepreneurs like you and I, and running their own offices but where the values is actually how we have this global leadership structure and how we work together. And so we’re able to pitch and win global clients and have a massive global reach because, as you said, it’s 25 plus countries, 48 plus offices around the world. And it also allows us to work very, very local and I think when you look at the dynamics of what we call, today, a digital agency, that is really, extremely powerful. So suddenly we’re able to work across the national brands that we’ve always worked on when we were Twist Image and now as Mirum in Canada. I can and have one North American business that I can run out of our offices here and bolt on geographic offices or teams as needed and then I can scale up and do global.
And what’s interesting about global is I can work on global brands, literally stuff in platforms that rollout globally or I can also work with global brands locally because we have a knowledge specifically for us up here in Canada. So, it really did allow us to have the scale and size that we wanted while still being able to be entrepreneurial as we’re owned now versus being the entrepreneurs when you own your own business.
Drew: So day in and day out, you now run…your village is how big?
Mitch: Well, it’s a big village. I mean, we’re still responsible because of where we’re at in the contract from our acquisition of making sure that the offices we have, the Montreal and Toronto offices, are successful as they can be but they really can’t be as successful as everybody wants them to be without the components of the North American global avenues of it.
My personal role hasn’t changed at all. I mean, you know, I have a title of president, which is very sweet and nice, but the truth is, I still do what I always did which is I go out, I speak, I write, I write books, I blog, I podcast, I network, I connect with people and I try to create some energy around what it is we’re trying to do. Before I did that, obviously, to add value to what was Twist Image and now I’m just doing it with Mirum. And it’s super challenging because it’s a big entity but it’s still so new. People have no idea what it is. So it’s a fascinating challenge and that’s the work that I personally do day in and day out.
Drew: So you have the job that many agency presidents covet, which is the rainmaker job. You’re out creating thought leadership and you are speaking and creating content in a plethora of ways and the listeners need to make sure that they go to the show notes and track down all the different things. Your podcast is, I think, one of the best podcasts out there so they certainly need to be listening to that.
But back in the day, when you started building your agency, was that always your role or were you more day to day involved in client business at some point?
Mitch: No, for sure. I mean, at day one, it’s “What do you need?” Your business card, you need a logo, you need a…you’re just trying to stop eating peanut butter sandwiches is what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to stop being in debt. You’re trying to stop all of the reasons why you started a business and try to grow it and a very, very real and financially driven. They’re success driven in terms of work and output. They’re client driven with what you want to do.
So early days of the agency at Twist Image, we were three or four people. It was all about not just hunting the work but it was about doing it. And then there was times where I was doing copywriting and positioning and all that sort of stuff that I, for sure, had a passion for and an interest in because I wanted us to be successful and I wanted our clients to be successful.
But early days, I also realized I didn’t want to be the traveling salesman. I didn’t want to be the person driving down the highway, pulling into every single major corporation and saying, “Do you need a website? Do you know what the drill is?”
And so I fell…I knew I had this exhaust valve of blogging and writing and publishing because my previous world before that, many iterations before that, was working as a writer, a journalist and I actually even published magazines pre-internet. So, I always had that ability to want to communicate and build a brand off of real content versus just positioning and portfolio. And I think that that was the big thing and it seems obvious to talk about now in 2016, but if you go back to 2002, this idea of building not just off of the portfolio, excuse me, and the clients that you have was seen as very, very different. And positioning where it was just like you’re just a brand tag and whatever.
But this real depth of content was not something that everybody was doing at all and I think it really was part of the rocket fuel at the time for Twist Image. And I do think that it continues to be, to this day, something that is acknowledged by people like you and others, this platform of Six Pixels of Separation, which is the name of the blog podcast for its book, but it’s the container for our content and how we think about it. It continues to be, I think, a very valuable asset.
Drew: Absolutely. So I think a lot of agency owners aspire to get out of the trenches of the work and do the kind of thought leadership development that you’re doing. Is that a conscious decision on your part? And how did you make it possible for you to step out of that, as you say, traveling salesmen role and the day to day serving client role, so that you were free to do the very important bigger picture work that you do today?
Mitch: When you say it like that, it sounds like there is this sort of mechanical, tactical, plotted strategy and you’re saying it as if that’s what I wanted to do. I’m not sure that any of that is actually true. I think that while I love to write and I love to create, it was a journey. It wasn’t a sort of tactical, stay really focused on this. I think that it became a factor of circumstance where it started working and I had to suddenly become comfortable with that role and position. I don’t think I was there 100% in terms of what we wanted it to do.
And then it was also just based off of the team I was surrounded with. I was surrounded by amazing business partners and amazing players on our team that were just better at things than I was. And I think sometimes you assume the role and I think sometimes you go after a role. And I think, in this case, I very much assumed a role that worked. And it was unique because once you start getting paid to speak and paid to write and you see revenue and this revenue is offsetting what is typically an investment of business development, which is very significant to the service based level and the agency based level, it was very unique to us. We’re making all of this money speaking and writing and putting thought leadership out there and it’s offsetting what we’re paying to invest to potentially win clients. And so it became based onto itself and again, you fast-forward now, 15 years later, I’m in a position where I don’t know what else to do.
Generalists vs. Specialists in the Agency Space
Drew: Right, right, yeah. So, one of the things that you talk about is the whole idea of agencies and the notion of generalists versus specialists. Talk a little bit about your philosophy around that concept.
Mitch: Well, generalist and specialists, it sort of falls into two areas. And one is financial and I think one is philosophical. And so let’s start off with the philosophy. The philosophy of a generalist versus a specialist in the agency world, to me, is…you have a lot of businesses right now that say, “We want fully-integrated solutions.” And so what they’re doing is they’re going to their traditional ad agency or network and, of course, the ad agency and networks do everything. They’re so great at everything and that’s what they’re selling, and in the US, it hasn’t worked as well as it has in Canada. In Canada, it’s been extremely successful for these fully-integrated solutions and it boggles my mind because if you speak to the best of the best in the States and what I mean by the best of the best are the real pro-search consultants, people who really get BD. What they’re talking about on a business development level is they’re talking about agencies of record. How do we help this brand and surround it with the best people and team so they can get the best results? And it’s a bit of a reverse in Canada where brands are doing fully integrated pitches that have a huge digital component that I can’t pitch against because I don’t have the other mass skills or portfolio to win properly against it.
So it’s a bit of a precarious situation concerning how small North America is but it’s there. The philosophy part of it is…I always say to people, “If you suddenly were going out for a jog and you blew out your knee, would you want to go see your general practitioner or would you want to go see the person in your city who just works on these knees and does it for all the professional sports teams and just knows, does this all the time?” To me, the answer is pretty obvious. I want to go to that specialist and I want to get in as soon as possible. I think that’s the value of what a real specialist agency can do. I think that’s the value of what Mirum brings to the table.
On the financial side of building your agency, because I’m sure in terms of this conversation, it’s people who are building a business, trying to figure out what the values of the business, they might want to sell it, they might just want to better understand the value. What I’ve learned in the process of both being acquired and just generally being what I call an agency nerd, I’m fascinated with this stuff, I’m fascinated with holding companies and I’m fascinated when it comes to acquire agencies and build teams inside. And I’m fascinated with consulting firms like Accenture and Deloitte that are building out these multibillion dollar digital components to them, is there’s a fact and the fact is that if you are looking at all at an exit strategy for your agency and you want it to be acquired, I do say that the metric by which acquisition should be gauged is by who does it the best. And in our industry right now, it is still the holding companies. It is your WPPs, your Publicises, your IPGs, etc., etc., your Densus, you know, down the list.
And I know, not because I did this, but because it’s a fact, that a fully integrated or a general agency gets a much lower multiple than a specialist, a digital agency. So had I made the choice six or seven years ago to say, “Wow, I see this whole fully-integrated thing is really taking off in Canada and I should sell TV commercials and I should sell promotional items and I should do experiential.” That whether we decided to be sold or just was a matter of circumstance, my multiple would’ve been significantly less.
And by staying focused on that specialty of digital, not just because digital is hot, but it is, it does. It demands a better multiple and it’s true of anything, not just digital but that sort of specialist world. So, for me, based off of who I was and what I wanted to accomplish…and people say, “Did you want a big shop, did you want a small shop?” I mean, it was ultimately a small shop in terms of what it is. It’s public, it’s on ad week and when we’re acquired, it’s a $15 million a year shop.
We very much were focused on staying specialist because that’s, to us, was creating a unique set of value and it was value both in the philosophical side that I explained and the financial side as well which, again, for us was important. We wanted to run a fiscally-responsible business that was moving at the pace of which these holding companies or other potential acquirers benchmarking it. It’s not because we were looking to be acquired because we weren’t, but because if that’s what the best of the best is looking at, we should benchmark ourselves in the same way. And for us, it was. It was the two things they look at, right. It was growth, year on year growth, net growth and it was margins. And that’s a reality and it was specialty too.
Drew: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s a conundrum for a lot of agencies trying to sort that out. A lot of agencies that were very traditional and generalist are now competing against specialists and, as you say, especially in the States, that’s really a challenge for them. So I think it’s going to continue to be something that agency owners need to wrestle with and probably think both short term and long term in terms of why am I doing this? At the end of the day, what do I want to get out of it and that wealth and sort of thing through this structure that they need to have?
Hey, one of the things that you guys have done a really spectacular job in over the course of your agency’s history is aligning with great clients and then keeping them for a really long time, which I know is tied to the good work that you do. But in the client procurement process, because I think agencies beg for work rather than being as choosy as clients are choosy, how do you ferret out if somebody’s going to be a good client? What do you look for when you and your team are prospecting that tells you, “These guys would be a good fit for us. We can serve them well and they will appreciate the work that we do.”?
Mitch: Ah, so this is a greater conversation, Drew. In terms of the client fit, we actually look to see if the client actually hits the requirements of what our real positioning is. So let me talk a little bit about my positioning and if I wander too much and you want to draw me back to this, stop me and tell me.
Drew: Sounds good.
Mitch: When we started the company in 2000, it started in 2000, I joined in 2002, at the time it was my two business partners and one employee so super small, closet like office. What we did say is, “We want to work with large, national or multinational brands.” We started there. So, I mean, literally, the day I walked in we actually won this innovation award at this local big interactive awards for a thing we’ve done for Bombardier for their Ski-Doos because they had this thing featured in the James Bond movie at the time and we did this virtual 3D game thing. It was a very, very, very sort of new tech on the web back then, and it won the BIG Innovation Award. I thought, “This is a good first day at the office, take home an award like that.”
But it really did set the pace for the types of clients we wanted to work with. So we were always looking to work with large national and multinational brands. As the years progressed, we felt the commoditization of our industry. We felt the competition and everything else, and we thought, “Okay, what are we going to tell people?” We have better creative, we’ve better technology, we’ve better strategy. It’s a one thing to say that, and I think we do have that and we believe that, but the truth also is that it’s, you know, you’re taking people from another agency. As other agency people are coming here, what does that mean? They came from another agency. What? They weren’t good there? Of course they were good. They’re good people.
But it showed me that there was a commoditization happening in terms of creativity, technology and strategy and so we realized, we started to think, “So what is it? Why would somebody come to us as Mirum?” And we realized that it was, yes, large national and multinational brands. Because for 10 years those are types of businesses we always wanted to work on, but there was something else, and we honed it all around this idea that we call the Big Delta. And the Big Delta, for us, is our ability to work with these large national, multinational brands that they are typically very, very complex and have a lot of internal things because that’s what large and multinational has, and our ability to take them from where they’re nascent in the components of digital or all of digital to being a powerhouse within the organization.
So that became the positioning and then that positioning becomes the filter by which we know if we’re going to work with a client that’s going to be good for us. So, a startup will come to us and say, “I’ve got this amazing idea and this and that.” And we’d look at him and go, “Look, you’re not a large or multinational brand. There is no Big Delta here because you weren’t anywhere before and now you need to go somewhere. And because of your structure, you want it to be nimble and work side by side. It’s not, you know, because you’re not large and not multinational.” We work with client service teams and these client service teams cost money and not that it’s a waste of money. It’s just they work with other marketing managers and marketing directors to build these programs. And so just structurally we can tell in the early days what it is. Also, because of the nature of that, when a client comes to us, we say things like, “Well, what’s your budget?” “Well, my budget is…well, what’s it going to cost?” And you start getting into these weird conversations where we know that budget and having an understanding of your budget is actually a very, very good indicator as to the level of sophistication and our ability to be a good partner to them. I’m not holding them to that budget. I just want to know rails and if they have no idea or it’s the “Sky’s the limit. What do you guys think?” I can tell that there’s a lack of sophistication in terms of working with an agency like us.
So our filter, because of that, is unique and it’s troubling. It’s unique in the sense of it allows us to really focus and work on it. It’s troubling because budgets like that and opportunities like that aren’t like, “Give me a 20K project. Let me build and build and build.” And that it’s harder for us to do that. We do that. We do a lot of that still but it’s harder versus, “We have a mandate and we want to see if you guys are the ones for that mandate,” which we do better with I think.
Drew: Yeah. What you’re professing is exactly what I am always preaching and asking agency owners to do, which is to have a little swagger about your work and be really clear and confident about what you deliver to clients and then build out, it sounds like you’ve done this, what I call the sweet spot client filter, which is, “Here’s the criteria that makes somebody a great client.” And if they don’t hit at least 80% or better of those criteria, we need to just walk away rather than waste our time chasing after a client who, at the end of the day, even if we win the business, isn’t going to be good for our business.
Mitch: Yeah, I mean, the only thing that I would…I think there’s another filter on that because it’s a bit of a platitude, Drew, and I’m not demeaning what you say. It’s just it’s a bit of a platitude because at the end of the day you’re hungry and you need…
Drew: Yeah, you’ve still got to pay rent, right? Yeah.
Mitch: And so I’m always like, “Listen, all things being unequal and you’re running this business and it’s hard …two metrics. Manage your growth. Make sure you’re growing 8%, 10%, 5%, minimum 5% every year, net, and watch those margins and get those margins up to a nice, sweet spot.” Typically, for me, I like to tell people well over 20% because if 9%, 10%, 11%, 12% is the network sort of standard, I don’t know if it is anymore, I’m not sure. You know, being double, triple that is … you can’t make margins like that. Trust me. No one’s going to say it publicly but they are. There are margins like that and it’s not because you’re manipulating the client. It’s just the nature of being a specialized business with a very, very good quality product and then it does. It commands those types of, I think, better margins.
So I think you’re right, but none of my positioning in Big Delta works unless I can get margins.
Drew: Absolutely. At AMI, what we talk about is always shooting for at least a 20% profit margin but also recognizing that…I think all consultants and, in this case, that would be the role that I am serving, talk ideal world and that you also have to have real world implications. And so I think you shoot for what you shoot for but sometimes you have to make compromises to make sure you can pay the rent and all that. I don’t disagree with that but if you don’t have any standards and you don’t have any metrics by which you push yourself to get better and to work with clients who are really going to serve your business, then you become beholden to those clients rather than it being a partnership. And so, I don’t disagree with you. I think the real world always forces us sometimes to compromise. I think you have to have some rules of engagement to begin with. Otherwise, you’re going to lose the game every time, right?
Mitch: Yeah, it’s a harder slog when you’re in the early phases or struggling phase. So when you start breaking out of that gap of year on year margins and growth, and everyone has their troubling years. Certainly, the service market is not easy. We’re victims of the market. We’re victims of clients’ changing needs. It’s a tough business. I’m not here to make it sound like …this is a tough, tough business like any other business. Your choices change and the desperation is normal. I’m demonstrating more of a perfect world scenario which very rarely exists.
Mad Men vs. Math Men: The Ever-Changing Agency Landscape
Drew: Yeah, agreed. One of the things that you write about a lot and talk about a lot is the whole evolution of the word creative and big creative and big idea and one of the blog posts that you wrote that I loved was the whole idea about Mad Men versus Math Men. Talk to us a little bit about your viewpoint on that whole changing landscape.
Mitch: Yeah, I’m not an advertising guy. I’m a marketing guy and advertising to me has fundamentally been the 800-pound gorilla in the marketing sphere of getting the message out there but I think that what digital did and continues to do is to change that paradigm. I think. Where marketing becomes more about marketing and advertising becomes back to what it was, a subset of that. And it’s hard for people to think of because the real output, I think, in most people’s brains is the brand or the ads that the brand pushes out in to the world.
Because I’m not an ad guy and because I started blogging and podcasting and getting into digital so early and being so influenced by people like Seth Godin and Tom Peters and the Hughtrain Manifesto, my excitement over marketing was in the fact that suddenly you really can’t have real interactions between real human beings. And if you’re going to go down that avenue and believe that that is true and that is the direction, I think it is to this day, you then have to understand that you can’t just do the model of before of, “Here’s the big idea and here’s how the big idea works on TV and in newspapers and in radio and billboard and on the internet.” And that is what was happening and, by the way, I still believe it’s continuing. What’s happening, in fact, I see it almost more than ever even on places now like Facebook and Snapchat, which blows my mind. I want to invert that and I want people to go, “Yeah, we have a brand platform.” We’re going to take this brand platform, though, and adjust it and make each channel have its own “Big Idea.” And so it’s not a one big idea that’s rolled across but rather multiple big ideas within each platform to make it all work and it ties up to a brand that’s cohesive.
So, the example that I use is we did work for many years and continue to work, one of our big clients is TD, the bank. And up here in Canada, the TD ads were these two grumpy old men and the whole story is they’re all curmudgeon-y but when they realize TD has later hours and all this stuff, it’s like, “Oh, TD, it’s great.” And a lot of it had to do with comfort and the whole comfort idea was brought up and pressed. And that’s big, the brand is green, the colors that they use. It was this big company chair and it was comfort. And I was like, “Well, yeah, two grumpy old men and a comfy couch. That’s going to play well on the internet.”
It just didn’t work. But if you could do platforms that revolved around comfort and creating more comfort, you can win. And so while some of the creative may have had the chair sort of zip in on a banner ad at the end, or whatever it might be, the actual execution was more in the realm of just making sure you’re still playing in the world of comfort. So, it was multiple ideas, big ideas that all connected pieces well. So then it’s more the connection model, which I like very much. And again, that’s just my own personal opinion.
The Mad Men versus Math Men concept for building your agency was just more about me having a visceral reaction to this idea that either you’re super creative or you’re super data driven, and they don’t work together. And, obviously, since I wrote that blog post, which was a while back, I think that that ideology has become more pervasive in agencies where they do understand that it’s not just about the data. Because it’s what you can do to take that data and turn it into real, actionable insights as my friend, Avinash Kaushik, at Google would say. And it’s not just about having a great idea and having a gut or test group say yes because you can take that great idea, plop it on YouTube and just see right away whether or not it’s going to work or not against other creative. And that’s something Google did with their own brand in ads prior to launching campaigns.
So, I think that it was just more about how do those two worlds come together. I don’t think it’s about data centricity and I don’t think it’s about ideation overall. I think that there’s a very happy medium and the agencies that can bring that to a client, even in this crazy day and age, are the ones that win.
Drew: Yeah, I think so too. I do think it’s better, but I still think a lot of agencies struggle with it, though, so, and I think it’s still on.
Mitch: It’s hard.
Drew: Yeah, it’s very difficult, agreed. How do you infuse into your team…you and I have been in the business for a while and I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the pace of change and how much more we have to learn as marketing people is not less. It’s more. I’m studying, and learning more today than I ever did when I was a young pup in agency life. How do you infuse that hunger to learn and how do you encourage shared learning inside your shop? How does that…because I’m assuming with the work that you guys do that’s a mandate. You have to be always learning.
Mitch: I think it’s part of the culture. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of what we do. I’d love to know how many people within the organization read the blog and listen to the podcast every week but it’s there for them and I think it’s a misnomer to think that, “Oh, that’s public. It’s not for us.” I don’t agree. I think it’s available for everybody and I think it’s as much internal as it is external. The fact that it’s published doesn’t make it nonproprietary or non-valuable to anybody.
I love to test what I’m doing on the road, in terms of speaking, with the teams here. So they typically get previews of a lot of that content. Being part of WPP and JWT, you get access to a lot of really interesting training opportunities and things you can take part in. The tools are baked into what we do, for people to share ideas and talk about ideas, and I can click on my email now or hop onto a Slack Channel and see all the stuff being shared all the time. I think it’s just a part of who we are. The tagline for Mirum is “Never lose your sense of wonder.” It would be very disingenuous of us to tell clients that and at the same time, we’re not living and breathing this. And I think the people that do well in our organization are the ones who have a very similar approach to their lives as mine, which is I’m an infovore. I’m just constantly looking for information.
Now, all of that being said, Drew, I feel exactly the same way you do. I don’t know if it’s my age, I don’t know if it’s post acquisition, but I feel more than ever in our industry – super overwhelmed. I go to Inbound, the Hubspot event and I’ll see 20,000 people there and in my brain I’m going, “This industry was 400 people at best a couple of years ago.”
And all of these people are doing amazing things for amazing brands or amazing startups and they have all this technology and there’s…again, just the tech side of our business, we’ve got ad tech. There’s ad tech, there’s marketing tech, there’s marketing automation, there’s machine learning, there’s the physicalness of this technology whether you want to go as extreme as drones and virtual reality back to wearables and connected homes. All of these things impact marketers and so even when I say them, my anxiety starts rising because I realize that what I used to know about the space, right, how you just take a brand and make it work online is, it’s antiquated.
I mean, I often joke on my blog. I don’t tell people I’m joking but I’ll talk about traditional online advertising, you know, email banner. Search is traditional online advertising at this point because it’s been well over a decade and the stuff is there and it’s baked in. It’s not like I found key words on Google that don’t have a…I mean, Google has got its own massive sales force. They know exactly what they should be charging for a keyword. So it is. It’s hard and I just think that, again, to quote the tagline of the agency, you’ve just got to never lose your sense of wonder and always come into work and say “What more can I learn? What more can I do?”
It’s amazing to me that even if you don’t have the resources that I have and you’re listening to this going, “I don’t have that.” What does it cost to join Skillshare or Lynda.com, which is now owned by LinkedIn? I think now, if you do a premium account on LinkedIn, you get free access to Lynda.com. I mean, just that, every lunch you could take a course on something. It’s amazing. So it’s not even about what we have or how we do it or how anybody now can do it. I mean, Google News Alerts. You want to learn about a topic…I’m very interested right now. I’m doing a whole new presentation on virtual reality and augmented reality for businesses and whether or not it’s too early, what it’s going to look like, what is it. Even just doing Google Alerts on VR augmented reality, which again is a very old-school way of thinking. I’m sure most of the agency listeners have more sophisticated listening tools. It’s amazing in a couple of days how much information and free webinars and white papers and videos on YouTube you can take in and I’m not saying you’re going to become an expert in that. You’ve got to do more than just watch, but the ability to do it is very much there. I think it’s cultural and I think part of our culture is there are people to learn from. There are people to talk to, and there’s a lot of content assets that are both public and private that are available to everybody.
Lifelong Learning is Vital to Building Your Agency
Drew: Yeah, I think, as you said, that it’s overwhelming, how much information we have at our fingertips that we can access. I think what a lot of agencies struggle with is the…and this gets back to our real world versus ideal world conversation, but everybody wants their employees to be learning all the time and to have that sense of wonder but they also want to make sure they’re billable and they get the client work done and I think a lot of agencies struggle with how to weave that learning and that curiosity into a day that is already overburdened with client work and all of that and how do you encourage your people to carve out the time to do it?
Mitch: It’s a fair question. The only story that I have, and by the way, it’s a very hard question to answer because I’m the boss and it’s the expectation of the boss and the leader that they’re doing this and it’s very hard to force and demand. But the story that I tell people and I say, “Forget that I am a president. Forget that I started my own business. I’m not even a boss anymore. I’m an employee now, but put all that aside.” And the story that I tell people, the story that I was told by Jeffrey Gitomer, very well known guy with the “Sales Bible” the go to book on selling and a bunch of books like that, a person that I love, admire, respect. I think he’s an amazing guy. I spent some time with him and we were talking about that learning and putting in the hours and how hard it is and how stressed out we all are etc., etc. And he said, he was recalling that his father would come home from work when he was a young boy and, again, this is very generational, but imagine back then and Jeffrey’s older than I am. I don’t know how old you are, Drew, but he’s different generation than I am and this was a very different generation, his father’s generation. They came home, put in a hard day, took off the shoes like you can imagine the whole bathrobe with the pipe and the dog and the newspaper and the wife giving the husband their meal and the husband sitting down in his captain’s chair that nobody else sat in but dad.
But he said “I remember I’d be doing my homework on the floor or whatever and I’d look back and I’d see my dad have his meal, look at the newspaper but he had a pen and paper always there taking notes, taking notes.” And when he got older he’d say, “Dad, what are you doing?” And his dad said “I’m doing my homework.” You know, doing his homework. He was thinking about people he had to call, thinking about the meetings he was going to have tomorrow, thinking about things that he saw. He wasn’t the owner. He was an employee.
And it’s hard. In a Netflix-binge-watching world to tell people that you’ve got to do your homework and even calling it homework can be off-putting and the nature of what that is. But when I didn’t have a company…and I’ve been telling this story a lot lately because it wasn’t that long ago when I was living in a very small, three and a half apartment that I could hardly make rent. And I was working for people and I wasn’t, I didn’t feel I was getting by and my friends were all getting their first homes and kids and cars. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I was doing my homework and whether I was an employee or not and I think about…back then, I was guiding my life with very much the same rigor that I do today. It didn’t change. So is that just because it’s me and it’s Mitch and you were always driven and that’s why you are where you are today? I don’t know. But I don’t know how many people really do homework and I understand it because there are days when I go home and I just want to play a little game of bowling on my iPhone or watch Netflix and Daredevil Season two, or whatever it is. I don’t beat myself up for it because I know, in general, I’m spending a lot of time doing homework and I think homework’s important.
Drew: Yeah, I do to. I think a lot of agency owners struggle with how to infuse that into their staff because you’re right. Once you’re the boss, then it feels like a mandate but I also think there’s something to be said about people who are naturally wired or are willing to rewire themselves to do that. One of the things when I…I teach some AE boot camps and one of the things I talk to the account execs about is continued lifelong learning is something…yes, you can and should expect from your agency to support and help you do, but it’s also your responsibility and some of it happens on your own time.
Mitch: Yeah, and it’s funny. I mean, I usually build my presentations in a very different way than I am right now. I’m doing this new one on augmented reality and virtual reality for brands and businesses and I sat down with our head of HR and I said, “I want to present this to the team” And he was like, “Oh, they’re going to love this. This is great. When do you want to do it?” And my brain was like, “Well, I don’t want to take away from their lunch” because that’s their lunch and it’s this weird thing. That’s why I say as a leader…I don’t want to call myself an owner anymore. I default to that because that’s been so ingrained in me for over a decade but as a leader, I’m also like, “Okay, so I don’t want to impede on their lunch. It’s not fair. Do I want to take the whole staff away from a billable hour or two in the afternoon? Do I want to break them away? They might be in flow.” Even for me, it becomes this awkward, like I don’t even know when to do it. “Let’s do it at eight in the morning.” Do I want to force people to come to work early to…and it’s very hard. We live in a very different world where I think, again, in another generation it was TFB. You know what that stands for?
Drew: Right, yeah, yeah.
Mitch: Too bad. It is what it is and someone has spoken and you will and so I don’t know. I struggle with that too because I want…I do. I want them to learn. I want them to be as billable as possible. And is that a conflicting philosophy that I want you to be as good as possible but I want you to stay focused on being billable? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s conflicting. I don’t know if it’s my own wrong way of looking at it. It’s hard to tell.
Drew: Yeah. Well, I think you share that struggle with many other agency leaders. I think it’s tough for all of us to try and figure out how to find the balance and to model that for building your business and also encourage the learning that has to happen because of the world that we live in but also being very pragmatic from a business sense. And so I think for most agencies, it is about making a commitment to a time and a place, whatever that may be, and culturally it’s probably different for every agency. But trying to figure out a way to model it and then teach it so that people go out and do some of it on their own time to try and find the balance.
Mitch: Super tough. It’s always…and again, there’s some people who just are like moths to a flame and they can’t get enough.
Mitch: And then there are others who are like, “Why is he putting this burden on me?”
Drew: Right, right. “It’s 5:30 and I want to be home with my kids,” or whatever, yeah. Tell us a little bit about your next book.
Mitch: That’s a great question. It’s also a generational thing. Sometimes people are like, “Don’t put the title out there because then you’re feeling the pressure to write it.” My ideology has always been put the title out there because then if someone tries to write a book with the same title he’s like, “Hey, come on. Look, do a search.” I timestamped this bad boy.
So, you know, recently I put out the title, which will be called “Algorhythm.” A-L-G-O-R-H-Y-T-H-M. I think I spelled that right which is a play off of the word algorithm but has that more musical rhythm word to replace the traditional computer word. I mean, candidly, “Six Pixels of Separation,” “CTRL ALT Delete,” I’ve sort of taken technical terms with cultural relevance and that’s how I built my titles over the years. I’m continuing that with “Algorhythm.” The real crux of it, right now, as I’m working out the contents on the road, because I do 50 to 60 public presentations a year, it’s really about how brands look at business transformation as this massive endeavor that’s going to change everything. But if you flip to see what consumers are doing, their adoption of very nuanced technologies that change the way they actually buy and engage with brands has been very subtle and nuanced. And it’s just minor changes that create these big, massive effects but ultimately are very small. So, understanding what some of those small nuanced changes are might help you as a business leader in your transformation to not look at it like we’re trying to swallow the whole elephant at once.
And I’m trying not to be too ambiguous but it sort of still is because I haven’t really nailed it yet. So I have the examples. I think it’s a great keynote. It’s been getting amazing reviews from book clients and associations as I do it. I think the meat is there. I just don’t feel yet, the idea of the book being 100% ready. So, I jokingly tell people that I’ll walk into my business partner’s office and tell him, “Hey, I’m writing my book.” And they’ll be like, “Well, let’s look at the timing, and is it the right … And I’m like, “The water broke, the baby is coming. This isn’t time to start talking about whether or not we should’ve had sex or whether or not I’m pregnant.”
And it’s not their fault. It’s the way that I operate and I’m just not at the point where the water has broken and I’m like, “This is it.” And it does come, it does happen. I don’t hold myself to strict guidelines of book publication because I create so much content that I feel like it’s not like, “Well, what happened to Mitch Joel?”
Drew: Right, right. It’s not like you went silent, right.
Mitch: Yeah, and it used to be that way. I’d sit and wait with bated breath when the next Seth Godin book was going to come out and then he started blogging and I was like, “Oh, this is great.” So now when he writes a book I’m like, “Oh, I could spend more time with him.” I think that that’s the paradigm shift in it. So book’s important, love to write books, I do consider myself a writer at my core. It’ll happen when it happens. I’m not putting any pressure on it.
Drew: So in terms of the book’s content, can you give us an example that you’ve used in some of your presentations that creates, for us, the understanding of, “Ah, I get what this book is going to talk about”?
Mitch: Sure, sure. So a nuance change would be Snapchat. So we look at Snapchat and go, “Oh, this is a massive thing. It’s exploding with huge valuation. They said no to $3 billion from Facebook in 2012. What’s going on here?” I look at Snapchat and if you look back on my blog, on Six Pixels of Separation, and you’ll see in 2012 or ’11, I wrote a blog post called the “Impermanent Internet.” What I found was interesting about Snapchat is that the interactions between people is very replicative of what happens in our everyday life. We don’t shoot selfies all the time and take pictures and post things. We have these conversations with people and they go away and it’s not part of this archive that is googleable and searchable and findable.
And so for me, it was really fascinating that, “Wow. Snapchat is very much more aligned with how we are in our day to day communications than anything else I’ve seen before.” And so why this is interesting is because, as a digital agency, I’d go to brands back in the day and say, “You need to be on these channels, you need a website, you need to be in social because if someone Googles or searches for you or asks for you on social media, if you don’t have that platform, Google is like an elephant that never forgets.” And that first page of search results, those results from people saying good, bad, neutral is the brand impression. And suddenly, you have this platform where people can communicate and connect in a very private way that is then gone once it’s over. And what’s interesting about that is it’s created a new type of a nuanced way the consumers can connect.
And now, if you look at the pervasiveness of private messaging apps, which is bigger than social right now in this day and age, it was a very salient point. But I don’t know how many brands have stopped to say, “Wow, that’s true. There’s this impermanent internet that’s really important to us and the other internet that we’ve been pushing for about 20 years now, that changes how consumers connect with a brand.” It’s very nuanced, but as we look at Snapchat, it’s the excitement and the coolness of it, not what and how it changed consumer behavior.
The Tools You Need to Build a Sustainable Agency
Drew: Right, what does it mean? Right. I’m curious how you, as an agency leader, how do you keep up and learn and apply that to building your agency? Are there certain tools or tricks that you employ to stay plugged in? I’m sure you’re constantly, you know, looking for content, you’re creating a lot of content and so, obviously, there’s new ideas coming into your head all the time that you’re mashing around and then making relevant to the folks that you talk to. What’s your methodology for doing that and managing the sense of being overwhelmed?
Mitch: I don’t know if I do it well. I don’t know if there’s a method to the madness. There is a lot of physical note taking. There’s a lot of saving to pocket. There’s a lot of talking to people. There’s a lot of creating. I think the best way that I sum it up is in three buckets. One is I read a ton and by reading, I am learning. Two is I produce. I produce because I write and I produce because I have conversations whether it’s one like this where I am being interviewed or whether I’m flipping the tables and interviewing somebody for my podcast. When I’m producing content, I’m not reading and researching. I am writing and teaching. So that creates another way in which I learn and then the third output is…it blends together with speaking and client work, where just being on the ground with the people who are doing it. Whether I’m speaking or whether the client is telling and dictating or partnering, there’s another component there where you pick up stuff.
And again, I don’t think it’s ambiguous. I actually think that’s a very detailed answer to your question but if someone were listening to this they’d want to know, “Well, what type of notebook or what type of software and what’s your tagging system?” And, to be honest, I don’t know that I’ve cracked that nut or I solved it. It’s a bloody mess as I’m sure it is for everyone else and I just…for me, it’s more about…all these ideas happen during the day. At the end of the day, what’s the one thing that’s the exhaust valve? It should be a blog, it should be some of my contacts, I want a podcast with them, it’s something I learned in this conversation. That part I can’t explain. I don’t know what it is.
Drew: Well, I think it’s about being intentional, right? I mean, so the tools are the tools and there’ll be new tools and different tools but it is about your intent and it’s a daily intent that allows you to keep learning I think.
Mitch: Yeah, I don’t look at my email and go, “Ugh, I don’t…there’s a lot of email.” I look at my email and go, “There’s going to be something interesting in here, I hope.” I just come at it from a different…I don’t dread any of that stuff and it’s almost like my lifeline to the rest of the world. And the other thing is you have to remember I come from a world that didn’t have the internet and I come from a world where I loved media, especially magazines and newspapers. I really did love them and I don’t take for granted any day, the fact that there’s streams of information coming to me from all these different sources all over the world and individuals. Even something like Medium, and I don’t take for granted every day that publish button. Whether it’s a tweet, whether it’s a Facebook post and whether it’s a blog post or a podcast, and maybe that’s to my detriment because I just won’t tweet and putting anything out there and be like “Yo, what’s up?” It’s not my style. I’m very intentional as you said about that content because I respect the fact that I come from a world where if I wanted to publish an article, I got told no 9 times out of 10.
Drew: Right, it had to be good.
Mitch: Not good. Somebody else had to say, “I’m interested,” which was terrifying and hard. Now someone says no, I just go, “Okay. Copy, paste onto my blog. Publish. Let’s see if you’re right or wrong.”
Drew: Right, right, yeah. Yeah, it’s a fascinating world we live in. Hey, I could continue this for a long time but I want to be mindful of both your time and the listeners’ time so I want to wrap this up. So, one last quick question and then I want to get your contact information so folks can track you down in all the various places that you live out on the internet but if you were starting your agency over today, is there one thing you would do different?
Mitch: I mean, I think there is, like tactically. When did we bring this service in or when did we do that? But, philosophically, no. No, there really isn’t. And I say this with a lot of…not because I did so great and it’s questionable. I say this out of reverence for what we managed to accomplish as partners and as a team. That I think we did what we had to do in the market we were given and I think that we’re on the journey to try and amp that up, which is really complex. And also the reason I’m hesitating is because it’s almost been posed in this way if you’ve done it and I feel like it’s just begun. I have no desire to not be here or just finish up. I just feel like we’re just, just getting started. And for every moment where I’m given the accolades of being successful or the guy who’s done it, I kind of have that internal imposter syndrome person, ”Well, they don’t understand how I really feel.” I feel like it’s still, again, to steal a term from Jeff Bezos and it’s a word that a look at, it’s a phrase I look at every day. He’ll always say, “It’s day one.” And I always try and think about from that perspective. It’s day one. There’s a lot more to do.
So no, because I feel like we haven’t done what we need to do yet.
Drew: Yeah, it’s interesting. My agency, we celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2015 and…
Drew: Thanks, and somebody said something about that and I said ,”Yep. You know what? I’m pretty confident that it’s working.” But I feel like you do that every day is a new day and if you’re not constantly reinventing and learning and evolving, we don’t get a lot of grace in that anymore. And I think the world is asking us to move very quickly and as agency owners we have to be not only up for that challenge but excited about it. Oth