A lot of agencies are still trying to figure out how to wrap their arms around digital since the evolution of digital marketing – what it means, how they deliver the benefits of it to their clients, what parts of digital to embrace internally and what parts to outsource. My podcast guest Nick Westergaard has been down that road already and has blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow.  

Nick’s agency transformed from a very traditional ad agency (Westergaard Agency) to the digital powerhouse they are today — Brand Driven Digital. They saw the writing on the wall with the evolution of digital marketing and decided to jump in with both feet and make some big changes to keep moving their agency moving forward. They even went so far as to launch a live, in-person annual event called the Social Brand Forum to bring all things digital to the Midwest.

Nick and I explore all the ways that you too can look outside your box and move your agency forward in the digital space with:

  • How Nick took his traditional agency and transitioned it to becoming a digital powerhouse
  • The evolution of digital marketing versus traditional marketing in the agency space
  • The differences and similarities between traditional and digital marketing and why they really aren’t all that different
  • Social Brand Forum: Brand Driven Digital’s yearly live event
  • The business strategy behind having a live event
  • Why you should get out and attend events
  • The importance of prioritizing your agency as a client
  • Why experimentation is so important for your agency’s success

Nick Westergaard is a strategist, speaker, author, and educator. He is the chief brand strategist at Brand Driven Digital, where he helps organizations build better brands online. He teaches at the University of Iowa in the Tippie College of Business, is a regular columnist on The Cedar Rapids Gazette, and is also the host of the popular podcast, “On Brand.”

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/nick-westergaard/) 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!)

I.     The Evolution of Digital Marketing: Turning Traditional into Digital

II.    Responding to & Resolving Internal Conflict When It’s Time to Evolve

III.   Why it Pays to Experiment in the Digital Space

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, invest in 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: Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. I am your host Drew McLellan, and I know this is going to be an awesome interview. My goal is that every podcast we do helps agency owners fight the good fight and create a great life for themselves, their families, and their employees. And that’s why I’m really excited today about our guest, Nick Westergaard.

Nick is a fellow Iowan who I know and have great respect for, but he’s also a strategist, speaker, author, and educator. By title, he is chief brand strategist at Brand Driven Digital, where he helps organizations of all shapes and sizes build better brands online. He also teaches at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is a regular columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and is the host of a popular podcast called Call on Brand which I highly recommend. Nick, welcome to the show.

Nick: Thank you Drew, thank you for all of the nice kudos in there and all of the recommendations and when you were talking about the kind of focus of this podcast, that sounds like a great thing to be a part of helping agencies and families and that kind of galvanized me on why I love the business.  

Drew: You know, I’m a little older than you are but when I started in the business I think there was a very different attitude amongst agency folks and it was very territorial and proprietary. And I can remember working for an agency and we weren’t allowed to have any of our agency friends, if they worked somewhere else and we knew them through AdClub or whatever, we weren’t allowed to have them in the building because apparently they were going to steal our secrets. Which is crazy. I am so grateful that the tide has sort of turned on that and that agency owners can recognize that there’s ample opportunity for all of us out there and when we help each other.  You know that the tide lifts all boats.

Nick: I totally agree. I think, you probably know this as well, there’s less of it but it does seem like still that attitude of… I don’t know how to best describe it, of not sharing or… It’s like a defensive posture, isn’t it? “Ooh, don’t work over here” defensive versus kind of a more collaborative focus. I mean I think part of it’s… I think it’s easy generationally, but it is tricky when so much of it has been dictated by, you know, you don’t want to let someone else see what you’re work going on or what you’ve got going over there and it’s tricky.

Drew: Yeah, I agree. So one of the reasons why I asked you particularly to be on the podcast is because I think you are a fascinating story in terms of the evolution of digital marketing in the agency that you are a part of. So give us a little bit about your background and how you came to the agency space and tell us a little bit about where the agency was when you started versus where it is today.

Nick: Sure. My bad joke that if I put that in front of it will maybe hopefully make it a little less bad or at least self-aware, is that I literally grew up in the agency business. My dad started what is our agency in 1981 in our house and it was back before having a home-based business was a cool little thing, that’s done all the time. It was just sort of what my sister and I knew growing up. But, outside of that, it wasn’t that I was some sort of a child advertising protégé, which I’m sure there has to be those out there. But that was not my area of interest and I never thought I would be a part of the family business.  It wasn’t until after college when with a degree in psychology and theater arts, I was looking for getting full employment and theater jobs aren’t super easy to come by and psych jobs, social services jobs aren’t a lot of fun on the day in day out.

So I had this one other job interview that was for an entrepreneurial educational publishing company and it was literally starting in their mail room working on direct mail, direct marketing for this publisher and it was right around the time that the Internet was growing in access and availability.  And I got to be responsible for one of those first kind of business card websites and eventually overseeing the larger E-commerce website and really email marketing overtaking that direct response, direct mail. And that’s really how the chocolate got in the peanut butter of me being a digital marketer and I had other jobs those familiar in the educational test prep space. I worked at A.C.T. doing something similar. Got started moonlighting for my dad on things digital, that being an area in which the agency needed some support that I could offer. And over time he said, “You know what? You should come into the business and move back to Des Moines.” And I said I’d like half of that because I did want to have an agency business where beyond being full time at a brand, at a company where you are… I always likened it to being like a carpenter. You’re doing a lot of things, going to a lot of meetings but you’re not actually building. And I like time spent building things.

So I thought I’d like to do that for many different clients, and that’s how I ended up kind of writing an alternative business plan where I said I think that I could stay here and live in Iowa City and we could grow the business a different way. And we’ve started on a deep as opposed to an industry vertical expertise which most smart agency types recommend, where we pursued something horizontal going deep on the digital side of things. And we really kind of gravitated to that sharp end of this bigger with our own brand renaming ourselves from what was once Westergaard Advertising and we locked off the advertising. And then we’ve rebranded ourselves as Brand Driven Digital. So I think I got us mostly to today without a lot of detail on what’s happening today.

 

The Evolution of Digital Marketing: Turning Traditional into Digital

Drew: That’s where I want to dig in some more. I want to talk a little bit about how you evolved the very traditional, from what I understand it, ad agency to the digital, sort of powerhouse agency that you guys are today, and kind of the bumps and bruises that you got along the way and sort of the lessons learned, because I think there are a lot of agencies out there that are still struggling with trying to figure out how to wrap their arms around digital and what parts of digital to embrace and what parts to partner up with other folks to do. And so I know that you probably went through a lot of those kinds of discussions and decisions and I just want to probe that a little bit.

So, talk to me about the early days of how did you take a very traditional agency in the middle of the Midwest which is, of course, as we know not always the first ones to the new trends, and how did you introduce the idea of bringing digital in? And what was that like with the existing staff and the existing clients and all of that?

Nick: Well, the first thing… I mean, I think another good point to make especially in the timing of all of this is, it wasn’t that I appeared on the scene and had a magic wand that brought about a bunch of change fast because I think change like you said is tricky and takes some time. I would say that for the first… I’m trying to… I’m making weird groany noises because I’m trying to get an approximation on the dates but I want to say for a couple of years, it was like we were really the same business. This is sort of like the bad slammer on the product packaging now with more digital.

Drew: That’s right.

Nick: So really it was kind of the same brand, the same way of doing business but with more digital. And this was… I came into the business in 07 and if you think back to social media, it was really just kind of rising out of Harvard there, in that window so it wasn’t all that big yet especially anything from a business perspective. But I’d really say as that kind of gained steam, we started doing more and more digitally. And then just in observing, just like what you would talk about it any business, I think as agencies we sometimes struggle with the ‘”physician heal thyself” but like we’re all good at doing this. We’re all good at seeing our clients, customers and saying well, “Listen to what they’re saying.” And I think that by doing that with our own clients, we are saying, “Wow, we do all of these other things still very well,” all of the brand development marketing communications. But that digital stuff seems to really be what people value and the bigger piece, just like you’d say in any business is, “What do people have a lot of questions about?” And I think that that’s still something that people have a lot of questions about.

So it became apparent to us that we could compete with everybody else as a general Midwest agency or we could still do the other things because our current clients know we do them and kind of move to the edge, go to the sharp end of the spear and say we’re going to really lead with a digital expertise. I would also say that before we just did a marketing makeover and said, I believe your words were “the digital powerhouse,” which that’s what we should, that’s what the tagline should be.

Drew: You go right ahead and steal that.

Nick: I’m going to. You send your bill over.  

Drew: Of course I will.

Nick: But I also think it was a while before that became a part of our sales message, because before the selling piece of that, even predating my entry into the business, I was blogging and seeing your great blog out there and actually I remember when everyone first started reading blogs and making lists of blogs, yours was one of the first and by someone nearby. So that was always something that I was very close to, but we really approached it from a content perspective and eventually that blog that I had externally got brought into the agency website.

And that’s interesting because it’s kind of more like an amoeba because for a while it was a separate thing. And then we tried to put it too squarely inside the agency website but the agency hadn’t made the shift to digital as fully. So, it almost seemed like this level of conversation couldn’t happen from within the agency. We all had the little sleek agency Flash website for a lot of creative agency things. And then you tried to have some helpful content that was, I think, packaged poorly from inside the agency at that times mastheads. So, I think really our contents suffered a little bit. But then we kind of rebranded first the blog on its own, pulled it back out of the agency website as Brand Driven Digital and built up really that content platform that we liked. And then it kind of went the other way, now that I think about it and we kind of brought the agency into that. So it was content first and then we’ve gotten I think over the past few years made that a better part of our business development message as well.

Drew: Well, I think for a lot of agencies that sort of where they’re at now, that they sort of bolted on some sort of content whether it’s a blog or any newsletter or whatever but it feels still a little bolted on to them and I know internally they struggle because they have sort of a mixed marriage inside the agency. There are some people who are full on embracing the digital world and then you have some employees, in some cases they’re longtime employees, in other cases they’re just people who don’t sort of see that as viable an option. And there’s an interesting level of sort of in fighting going on. You know, when I speak to agency owners what I tell them is you know all of a sudden the data kids and the nerd people are the cool kids at school and the traditional creatives are struggling with that in a lot of agencies a little bit. Did you guys run into that at all where you had some culture clash issues inside the agency and if so, how did you resolve that?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I mean the blessing, the curse of the small business, the small agency is, we can make some of these pivots but you really have the same problems that anywhere has but they’re often, like you minimize a storm to a smaller environment, and it gets more severe. It sounds more troublesome than it actually was, but it was obvious exactly what you said. That point that I talked about, where we pulled the blog back out, rebuilt the content platform, started our events the social brand forum. And for a while, we’re positioning that Brand Driven Digital is like…all sorts of weird brand-focused growing pains, because it was like, “Oh, that’s a division of the Westergaard agency. And we have people that work on that.” “Well, which people work on that? Well, I want this. I want that.”

And then I think anywhere you could see this happening at a big business, but, you know, we are a small team, but it was even happening with us that, “Oh, we’ve created two things.” So then we realized, in response to, “What did you do about it?” we realized, if that’s the way we go, then that has to be all of us. And, actually, you’d think in a small family business and especially the agency one where you have big personalities and names on the door and one was the name on the door in the senior partner, but it was actually Dean, my dad that said the business does not need to be called Westergaard, it does not need to have that on it. And I wonder if maybe some of us were concerned that he thought the other, but I think that that was an important… if it was a larger business you would say this is the buy-in from the C-level executive, but it was important I think.

Drew: Well, and that it speaks volumes about your dad as a leader in terms of sort of being able to hold the business out away from himself and see what was best for it, separate from himself or his ego or anything else that makes a great business decision.  

Nick: Yeah. Well, because again I think that’s… when marketing is changing as rapidly as it is and we have these little discrete businesses built around them, we have to build something that’s I think a little bit different than it used to be.

 

Responding to & Resolving Internal Conflict When it’s Time to Evolve

Drew: No doubt about it, I’ve been in the business for 25, almost 30 years and it’s staggering how different the agency business is today from you know how it was back then. So, when you had sort of that internal conflict during the evolution of digital marketing, how did you resolve that amongst your staff, was that just a matter of waiting for some folks to leave, did you counsel people through it? How did you get everybody to the point where you were all unified in both under one brand and sort of rowing the boat in one direction?

Nick: Yeah, as I think about it, we didn’t have any personnel changes at that time and it was just… like I said, I think I made it sound more troublesome than it was because it was like.. because I think my surprise in tone here comes from I guess that it did go well. You know usually you have the “physician heal thyself” problems and we’ve had those but I think we realized “Oh, we have a sickness, we need to treat it with that,” so it was a pretty… Usually you know the “physician heal thyself,” we’re not able to operate on ourselves that effectively, it’s hard to do your own stitches.

And I think, in that case, we might have because I think probably because things were, the current was moving that direction. It was as much clarity, it wasn’t that I think that was the thing if there was any struggle to it wasn’t like there were fightings and this side and that side. I think the bigger thing was even those, I don’t want to say the other side, we have these two brands, I think more than anything people wanted clarity. You know I think when people have more info they get less stabby. I think it was actually that point of in-between when it was hard to end, where do you work now? What’s the deal with the Brand Driven Digital people? Are they… And I think the other big thing when you get back to culture is it didn’t feel culturally right for us because we are at our best, I think when we feel like a small scrappy business and it was like “Oh we don’t have that division of this and of that and you know we’re one thing.” So we’re not going to create hierarchy where there is none.

Drew: Well I suspect too that, although I’m sure you didn’t think of yourself this way back then, you know you were a big change agent who introduced that sort of the right time and brought about a lot of what you had been learning in your other jobs and sort of brought a whole new skill set and discipline into a shop. So I’m sure that also energized folks too.  

Nick: Yeah and it was an exciting time to, I think, be in marketing. I mean, I love all of these shifts and I think it’s fun to be a change agent at a place where you can actually make some change both for yourselves as a business but also for clients too.  

Drew: I agree I think it’s probably the most exciting time in our industry in a long time I think probably. I’m sure the Mad Men days were awesome as well but in terms of just every day being fresh and different and having to learn something new every day, I don’t think it’s gotten any better than it is today.  

Nick: Yeah.

Drew: So, as you think about… you look around, and you look at your agency peers and you know I see several hundred agencies a year in my work with A.M.I and I think some agencies are still struggling with trying to figure out how to define what digital means and how they want to bring that to bear to their clients. And so talk to us a little bit about if you were prescribing to an agency that, let’s say has very traditional routes and is looking to become more digitally savvy. What roadblocks or bumps in the road should they watch out for and how would you suggest they go about that?

Nick: Well, I think if you think about the relationship between all of these tools, I mean I think that more than “Oh there’s this new digital thing,” there’s a way to unpack it that really sets up digital as just the kind of the latest version of the tools you know our strategies underlying it and I think are most important. I mean I think regardless of what form of media, I think only confining yourself to a couple different types of media is selling yourself short. One of the biggest things that we can sell which is our brand development skills, our brainpower there, and grounding that is in this strategy. And then all of these other things whether it is what we’d call traditional media, digital, things like that, they’re all applications, they’re all means to an end. And I think, kind of getting back to that basic thinking and remembering, that our business wasn’t just about selling air time or space or all of these other things that it’s hopefully. I mean I think the most fruitful agency-client relationships are not based on the ad you make as the widget, but rather the strategic insight that you’re providing.

Drew: Well, you know I think of this as, I’m sure there are agencies back in the day that all they did was print and then all of a sudden voila, radio showed up and they died. “Oh my gosh this is a game changer I have to completely reinvent myself,” and the truth is we’ve sort of always been about the story and about connecting our clients to their customers in a way that’s meaningful for both of them. And this is just yet another way. And by the way this won’t be the way in ten years.  

Nick: And when I speak, you know, in a lot of my talks I lead up with kind of a timeline of marketing starting back with the 500 years that we had really nothing but print and then most of the last century of radio and T.V. and then you take a look at the last 20 and it’s changing constantly. So we’ve always had change. We just didn’t notice it as much and I think that’s the bigger difference, not that, “Ah, it’s this point by which digital is fracturing everything.” It’s just, like you said, it’s the latest wave and I think more than what this wave is all about is the fact that we all have to kind of ready ourselves. We have to kind of get in better shape to be able to handle these things because it seems like they’re only happening more often, these shifts and faster than before.  

Drew: Well, actually that’s… I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it’s really about what the burden is on us, it’s not about being digital. The burden about us is being more responsive as agencies to deal with the cultural shifts that are happening faster and faster.  

Nick: Well, I also think… it sounds like sacrilege from the air quotes. Well what was it you said? The digital powerhouse.

Drew: You need to write that down.

Nick: I do, I do. Digital powerhouse. But it would sound odd for a digital powerhouse like myself, I’m saying very tongue-in-cheek, to say that it’s not always digital either. I think you get back to the back to the… I think you see digital agencies too that are falling prey to the old Maslow quote, you know, “When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail”. And I think we could do that with any form of media. It’s easy to get in a rut and this is all we do, we’re big on… And I think it used to be that way. I just think we noticed it less you know, this agency is really good at data driven direct mail campaigns. This one is really good at impactful T.V. brand advertising. And I think we do it with digital and I think we’ve got to watch ourselves to not sell ourselves short to become the latest, greatest Snapchat agency.  

Drew: And in fact ironically you, the digital powerhouse, you made a decision….

Nick: T.M. T.M.  

Drew: That’s right. You made a decision a couple years ago to go very old school and start and create a live in-person, God forbid, face to face event. So that’s crazy talk for a digital shop. So talk to us a little bit about how that came to be and what the strategy is behind that event, which I will also say for the listeners, that event happens usually in the fall September, October. So if you’re listening to this before mid-October 2015, you want to get there. If you’re listening to this after mid October 2015 and you want to find out when the 2016 event is because it is a spectacular event.

Nick: Well, thank you very much. And I, like you… it was kind of part of this time of creating all this content and like you said kind of this window of when everyone kind of emerged here and you would go to a lot of live events and eventually you get to speak at some of them. And I was fortunate enough to do that and over time, I joke that it took me a while too long to realize this but they were all in Boston or San Francisco and you know there was nothing really close to the Midwest. And I love our neck of the woods and I think there’s all sorts of thriving businesses here and my hypothesis was maybe there are a bunch of people here thirsty for social media digital marketing content. What if we put an event here and we did that.  First year was 2012 and that’s how the social brand forum was born, 2015’s our fourth year. We kept it small and single-track. And it started for budget reasons but that’s really one of the things that people enjoy most is that you hear kind of a consistent through line and I’ve worked to curate those talks more and more each year, but it also you talk about kind of the unheard of thing and the other kind of unheard of … I also think that, to your earlier point about agencies and getting together and sharing ideas and we learn together, and it’s like… I think that, if you look at how you grow your business and you look at really what business you’re in, I mean that’s why instead of digital powerhouse, we’re about building better brands online. This is probably less sort of version of the same thing.

Drew: I don’t want to hurt your feelings but I think that’s a mistake.

Nick: I do too and I didn’t know about them and I can’t get the other one out of my head but you know we kind of had that moment, you talked about one of those moments in the life of an agency when we realized, when you have that first registration that’s from another agency and you know someone that maybe you’ve even competed with for business before you’re like… and you do have that kind of that gut check moment of “Oh, hey! So we put on this event, they pay.” We try to keep the event pretty affordable. And they pay for access, they come they hear all these things same things that theoretically you’re hearing and then what if they’re going to go out and get business and you help them do that.  

Drew: We better uninvite them.  

Nick: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, well you do. I mean I don’t want to make it sound either like that we are some sort of digital utopians that don’t have those thoughts, because I very much understand where those kind of insular where, “that’s our stuff, these are our toys.” And it’s like… We ultimately have to believe in “high tide raises all ships,” you know, more digital marketing competencies in our region going to lead to better agencies, better brands, and hopefully, everyone’s raising the bar, and more people are getting off the bench and into the game.  

 

Why it Pays to Experiment in the Digital Space

Drew: So the strategy for you guys behind that event, because, you know, I can’t even imagine what an undertaking an event like that. It’s a two-day event, lots of big name speakers. You pack the room. That’s a lot of work. So what was the business strategy behind doing it?

Nick: That’s interesting. I say in that way that a small business does when you realize, sometimes, we just do things, and we don’t plan them in like make a budgeting plan and strategy like other organized larger businesses would. We thought that it would be something worth trying. We thought that it would position our expertise by context, you know, that we are convening this. That was actually… It’s funny where you get advice, because one of our clients, A.C.T. at a time when we were working with them on their workforce development division, their Chief Operating Officer at the time, they had a conference, an industry conference. And we helped them with the marketing side of that and I remember that C.O.O. saying when describing the event to someone he said that we are, I forget if he said positioning or branding, by convening and I thought that was a really interesting idea because it wasn’t… that it was here’s a bunch of A.C.T presentations from staff that were product focus. They brought in thought leaders from the world of workplace skills. Real diverse offering but that was that was what he said it clicked and really now that I think back on it, I remember borrowing that since it was around that same time I thought you know that’s a way that we could build our brand too in a very similar way, because A.C.T. has been known for college entrance and this was focusing on workplace skills, workforce development. So a new space, a brand extension and in our case you know it was really kind of around the time when we were doubling down more on things digital in an outward way. So I would say as much as anything it’s really the positioning, it’s very big. I think I heard one of the other bigger events like Joe Pulizzi at Content Marketing World. It’s a live event, is a very big piece of branded content.

Drew: Ain’t that the truth. But you know what? So many agencies and businesses too are chasing around the idea of thought leadership throughout the evolution of digital marketing and I think creating content and speaking at conferences and all of that, it tends to be some of the go to tactics but you kind of went all in on the thought leadership and said, “No I’m not going to fly somewhere and speak at a conference. I’m going to take both the financial risk and invest the time and money into putting on a whole day conference myself.”

Nick: Well yeah. I mean I still try to speak at other things too. And it’s like we have the emails going back and forth between the five families, coordinating a time when… because nobody wants to put their event on top of the other event.

Drew: Of course, it’s not right.

Nick: So I’ve got all the 2016 dates in my inbox now and I’m looking at the form one now because I think it’s valuable to get… because I think you also, you can get to insular too. So I still love getting out and learning from others and listening at events that’s still one of my favorite things to do. But yeah I mean I think that… plus I think now that I can look back and pretend like it was an idea going into it.  You talk about all the things that you kind of have as the go to things like “Oh, a bunch of white papers,” and I’m not knocking white papers or any of that but there’s kind of this checklist.  Stuff that it’s like “Okay, we’ve got a blog, we’ve got my papers, we’ve got a lot of cases,” all these things that like are on the professional service firm’s checklist. And some might work but I think this one has worked well for us. I think that’s a good way to say it is that as opposed to all those other things that you can do.  That it’s important to try new things and to see what does work for you.  

Drew: Well, I think one of the ways that this is brilliant and I know you did it on purpose is that you know a lot of times when you go to conferences you’re a duck talking to other ducks. You know, you’re sort of talking to your peers which is fun and great and you learn a lot and like you, I enjoy speaking at and attending those conferences but what’s really smart about your conference is although, yes some of those other sneaky agencies show up, you have a lot of prospects paying money to come hang out with you for two days.

Nick: You know, actually, you remind me of another kind of reason why we did it too.  And that is I think everybody knows in the agency business that works on things digital, talks to all sorts of small businesses out there about what they could be doing. And a lot of these people aren’t what we’d think of as agency clients, especially for small agencies. It’s hard to get that offering crafted in a way that there’s something that you could sell them that’s a win for them, that they actually have a budget for. So part of the thinking was also we’ve got all these people, all these hand raisers that aren’t going to be a good fit. What else could we offer them? And I do think that by coming to an event like this, I think it’s a great way to learn more and maybe some of those do convert and become clients. But the bigger thing is that hopefully this is something else that we have that can help people.  

Drew: Well you know whether they convert while they’re at the business that they’re in now or they move on to a different job or whatever or you just end up helping them, you know and kind of what goes around comes around. So I think it was a brilliant strategy and it clearly is working because you sell out every year so you’re obviously doing something right with it.