Episode 53

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Greg Verdino is a highly regarded authority on “the digital now.” He is known for his uncanny ability to get ahead of trends, spot the difference between fads and the future, and apply his understanding of the rapidly changing global landscape to solve pressing business challenges.

Greg’s perspectives have been shaped by more than 25 years spent working at the forefront of change, during which time he has advised hundreds of organizations including more than 50 of the Fortune 500; has served in senior leadership positions at a half-dozen technology start-ups; and has launched innovative products, lines of business, and divisions from within traditional companies. Through his work speaking, writing and consulting on digital strategy, transformation and innovation, he helps business leaders build thriving 21st century companies.

Greg is also managing partner and chief strategist at VERDINO & CO, the consultancy he started with his wife to help companies create the content-driven digital experiences their customers demand.

Before VERDINO & CO, he was Executive Vice President at social business firm Dachis Group, where he worked with clients including BIC, Citibank, Fidelity, GE, Michaels Stores, Nestle and others to formulate and execute best-in-class digital strategies. He joined Dachis Group (now Sprinklr) through its acquisition of crayon, the social media consultancy at which he served as Chief Strategy Officer and in which he was the second largest shareholder. Previously he was digital strategist and head of emerging channels for Digitas, and served in media, marketing, sales and general management roles at ROO Group (now Piksel), Akamai Technologies, Arbitron, Wunderman, and Saatchi & Saatchi.

Greg is the author of microMARKETING: Get Big Results by Thinking and Acting Small (McGraw-Hill, 2010), and a contributing author to Reinventing Interactive and Direct Marketing (ed. Stan Rapp, McGraw-Hill, 2009). Throughout his career, he has served as a go-to expert for a wide range of media outlets including Advertising Age, Bloomberg Business, CNN, Cablevision News12, Fox Business, Investor’s Business Daily, the New York Times, Newsday, and the Wall Street Journal. He has given speeches, led panel discussions and facilitated workshops at more than 100 corporate and association events throughout North America, in Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

He lives on Long Island with his wife, tween daughter, baby boy, and the world’s most disobedient cat.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • What has changed since the beginning days of when agencies began to do social
  • Why content needs to expand past “content marketing” and must be infused into every single interaction inside and outside your organization
  • How to help clients understand the value of content
  • The importance of analytics and content metrics that Greg uses with clients
  • Why Greg and his wife decided to go it on their own instead of taking positions inside other agencies
  • How Greg differentiates his agency from other agencies
  • How Greg has been able to recognize trends that matter and ignore the ones that fade
  • Tips and tricks for getting everything done that you want as an agency owner
  • The shift from pipeline business to platform businesses
  • Why it’s so important for agency leaders to stay on top of trends
  • Why small agencies are often the best at adapting to change
  • The rules that agency owners should never break

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Change happens at an exponential rate.” – @gregverdino Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits to? 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 McClellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency where we spend an hour or so talking about the topics that matter to agency owners. And today, I think you’re going to love the conversation. So let me tell you a little bit about our guest and I need to sort of foreshadow this with guests, my guest is Greg Verdino and Greg and I have known each other for almost a decade now. We were sort of on the front end of agency folks and marketers jumping into the social space and blogging and all of that. And I’ll tell you a little bit more about Greg’s background, but we’ve sort of kept track of each other through the years and stayed in touch and so this’ll be a great conversation, I’m looking forward to it. But let me tell you a little bit more about Greg in case you are one of the few who is not familiar with him.

Greg Verdino is a highly regarded authority on the digital now. He is known for his uncanny ability to get ahead of trends, spot the difference between fads and the future and apply his understanding of the rapidly changing global landscape to solve pressing business challenges. Greg is also the managing partner and chief strategist at Verdino & Co., the consultancy he started with his wife to help companies create the content driven digital experiences their customers demand. And we’re going to dig into the structure of that company a little bit and why they built it that way. But before they started their own company, he was executive vice president at social business firm, Greg pronounced that for me.

Greg Verdino:

It’s Dachis Group.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, Dachis Group, where he worked with clients, including Bick, Citibank, Fidelity, Nestle, and all kinds of other companies. And he has also served in other agencies big and small throughout his career.

He’s also the author of MicroMarketing: Get Big Results By Thinking and Acting Small, which was published in 2010 and a contributing author to several other publications. But throughout his career, wherever he has worked, he has served as a go-to expert for a wide range of media outlets, including Ad Age, Bloomberg Business, CNN, Fox Business, Investors Business Daily, all other places, Wall Street Journal. He’s also given a ton of presentations, led panel discussions and facilitated workshops over a hundred corporations association events all across the globe, North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. So Greg, welcome to the podcast.

Greg Verdino:

Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So let’s talk a little bit about, let’s go back in time and when we were all sort of launching our blogs and I think there were 25 of us marketers back then who were blogging-

Greg Verdino:

Think 20, 23.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it was sort of the wild, wild west. And at that point you were working, I think at that time you were working at a small sort of digital agency, right? Isn’t that where-

Greg Verdino:

I think when I first launched the blog, I was actually working at a large digital agency. I was head of emerging channels, which meant department of one focused on something other than microsites and banner buys and Digitas.

Drew McLellan:

That’s right. You were at Digitas then, yep.

Greg Verdino:

Although as the blog took off, I had by that point, I had made the move from Digitas and had become a partner in Crayon, which was a social agency, as you remember certainly.

Drew McLellan:

And really one of the first social agencies that emerged as the bubble started, right?

Greg Verdino:

Yeah, exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So look back over that landscape and talk to me about then versus today. So what’s changed and what are you focused on today that was just a glimmer back then? What has emerged to you as one of sort of the big trends that you’re facing every day now with your clients?

Greg Verdino:

Sure. So, obviously a lot has changed since then. Even if you look inside the landscape of social media alone. Back then social was in effect organic conversation. Today, social is a phenomenal paid channel, but if we all know we’ve seen the organic conversation sort of drip dried almost nothing. So even things that have remained with us over the course of that decade or so have fundamentally changed in terms of where they fit into the overall marketing mix and what the approaches are today versus yesterday. Clearly in that time, I think over the course of that time, we certainly heard that this is going to be the year of mobile. We heard that every year for 10 years. And then all of a sudden mobile, it was no longer the year of mobile, mobile had been here all along and mobile needed to be a core element of every brand’s, I wouldn’t even say marketing strategy, customer and consumer engagement strategy.

And even today, it’s interesting, I know you had Joe Pulizzi a few weeks ago, and I know that he briefly spoke about his intelligent content conference, the one that’s focused on the future of content. And I had spoken at that event when he had it, I don’t know if it was, I guess earlier this year. And I spoke about the mobile now basically and what I even discovered in the course of putting that speech together was how shocking it is that so many brands still approach mobile as an afterthought, and they tack their mobile tactics onto a core digital, or sometimes even analog strategy and think they’ve gone mobile, but end up delivering such a fractured user experience that just misses the reality that content and experience and customer engagement needs to seamlessly flow across devices, and the value you deliver needs to be equal across all devices. It’s not good enough anymore to say, well, we’ve got this subset of what we offer available to our mobile customers because everyone’s a mobile customer.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. We’ll give you the dumb down version on mobile.

Greg Verdino:

Yeah. So certainly that’s something that’s changed over the 10 years. I think the big thing that’s changed certainly, and I don’t know that it’s changed, but it’s become much more apparent is we are used to kind of thinking about change in an incremental fashion when in reality change is happening at an exponential rate. And I think that’s where a lot of brands and frankly, a lot of agencies get in trouble because they either are too slow to act on the changes that are happening around us, or they’re too quick to jump on today’s flavor of the month. And they don’t think about how today’s flavor of the month has larger implications or not, and where it fits into a truly integrated overarching market strategy. So I’m sure somewhere today there is an agency that does nothing but Pokemon Go activations.

Right? And nobody’s thinking about, well, what does augmented reality mean? The big picture they’re thinking about how do I cash in quick on Pokemon Go or fill in the blank, Snapchat, whatever, and I think that’s a challenge that marketers still face is chasing the shiny object. And then obviously I think the last thing I’ll say before I ramble too long is clearly content has gone from something that kind of pecks around the edges to something that has to be at the core of the entire company. I would even say this is something we talk to our clients about in our consultancy is that content marketing in a way only scratches the surface of the power and the potential of content as a strategic asset for the business.

Drew McLellan:

So talk a little bit more about that, about the idea that content marketing scratches at the service. Tell us what you mean by that.

Greg Verdino:

Sure. And I don’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that content marketing isn’t an important piece of the content puzzle because of course it is, but I think there are a lot of applications for content in the company that you might not normally think of as content marketing. So content is an incredibly powerful tool for sales organizations, whether it’s as a vehicle for sales people to build credibility, establish authority and better engage their prospects throughout the traditional sales cycle, content is an incredibly powerful vehicle for a customer support.

Content is incredibly powerful for engaging the employees in your organization or for connecting with the partners in your ecosystem. Content is essentially every piece of every story that comes out of CEO’s mouth. Right? So we almost in a sort of half joking way, we’ll sometimes say here, we talk about companies creating content and how important it is for companies to create content but we’ll sometimes flip that when we talk to our clients, companies don’t just create content, content actually creates companies because content, the story your business tells must be infused into every single interaction with every single person inside and outside your organization.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and in fact, we create content whether we mean to or not. So it’s also about intentional content versus the consequences of unintentional content too, right?

Greg Verdino:

A hundred percent. And that’s where getting serious about content strategy, whether you’re an agency or an agency’s client and not just getting kind of opening up your wallet and just start creating stuff, but getting serious about your strategy for content is critically important because saying owning a content consultancy, this almost sounds like an anathema, but the world does not need more content. Right? Nobody’s asking for your content, what they’re asking for is better information, education, or whatever to help them make better decisions or be better at doing what they do.

Drew McLellan:

When and where I want it thank you very much.

Greg Verdino:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So when I hang out with agency owners, one of the challenges they’re having, and I’m curious if you’re having it too, is getting clients to value content in the broader scope and getting to allocate budget. So I’ll have agency owners say to me, I know this client needs more content and we could do it in customer service, we could do it in sales, we could do it in marketing, but I can’t get them to pay for it or what they’re willing to pay for it I can’t produce anything other than crap because I’m hiring a ghost writer for $40 to create some generic content. How are you guys helping your clients understand the importance and value of content so that they are willing to invest? And by the way, I don’t think it’s just money. I think one of the other challenges agencies are having is getting clients to give them the time that they need to produce good and meaningful content. How are you getting around that?

Greg Verdino:

So, I can answer that in a few different ways. I can give the short answer, which is going to sound kind of flip, which is that-

Drew McLellan:

Start with short and then we’ll dig in.

Greg Verdino:

Yeah. So the short answer for us quite frankly is we don’t go after everybody and we don’t pitch content to everybody. We are a specialist agency. Content is all we do. And we tend to either attract clients who already have somebody in charge of content who’s already beating the drum and or somebody with a budget for content. And at our stage and our size attracting the right people is plenty enough. We don’t necessarily need to preach to the unconverted. That said, there is a struggle between kind of what I guess I would loosely call quality content, selling the stuff that’s actually excellent against a perception that either a client can do it themselves, which sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, just because they have subject matter expertise doesn’t mean that they have storytelling expertise and against the $40 blog post or the $70 white paper. And I think the thing that we use to distinguish that kind of commodity content from what clients and core companies should be created really is strategy.

And when we’re working with or even speaking to a new potential client, we really kind of sell this idea that, and which is true, of course, that strategy needs to come first. And we know from studies from Content Marketing Institute, there’s another organization called Ascend2 who released a study on content marketing recently that the vast majority of companies producing content are doing so without an effective strategy in place and surprise, surprise, the companies that are doing it without strategy are finding their content to be increasingly ineffective and the minority of companies who are taking the time to actually set content strategy are finding that their content is getting more and more effective. So if we can sell the client on this notion that we need to start with strategy, not with stuff, we can be effective in kind of getting out of that commodity content get up.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. So in terms of getting them to value it enough to invest time and money, what kind of metrics, or what kind of outcomes are you talking about with them in the strategy? What are you tying the strategy of content to that makes them recognize the value of it?

Greg Verdino:

So, a lot of our work is with B2B clients and there are some soft goals and there, or objectives, and there are some hard objectives. Certainly some of these B2B organizations are looking to establish a thought leadership position in their sector and they’re looking to stake a claim. In instances like that, and usually there is a content champion in the organization, it can be almost enough to tie content effectiveness to those sort of softer kind of content consumption metrics. I don’t want to say engagement, but engagement might be among them-

Drew McLellan:

But being invited to speak at conferences and other things like that.

Greg Verdino:

Exactly. Next step up or down the funnel, I guess, would be a fair enough way to say it is subscriptions. So, as I know you certainly believe and understand, and I know some of the other guests on the podcast like Pulizzi, and I’m sure Anne Hanley said it too when she was on, the consumption of content one time isn’t incredibly valuable, but getting somebody to become a subscriber to content is incredibly valuable. In this day and age with all of the channels and choices we have still to this day and probably for every day for the rest of our careers, if not lifetimes, the ability to grow a customer database, that customer database is one of the most valuable assets your company has.

So we’ll often tie even an individual content asset to its ability to trigger a subscription event. And then because we do a lot of B2B, we also tend to work at that blur between marketing and sales. So we’ll also work with our clients to make sure that they have the right tracking in place so that they can actually attribute marketing qualified leads to the consumption or the download or the subscription to some kind of content program or asset.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I’m surprised both on my agency side of my life and also on the AMI side, when I talk to agency owners, I’m both surprised and now used to the fact that most clients, no matter how large they are, really have inadequate tracking internally.

Greg Verdino:

It’s incredible. You don’t like to badmouth the clients, but it’s shocking in 2016 how poor the implementation of analytics is in so many of these organizations. And I feel like in some ways, even though content is held to a high ROI standard and digital, of course, is held to a high ROI standard, and even social in many organizations is held to a high ROI standard, but there’s still this hangover from traditional advertising, where if you ran an ad, then it must have been effective. And I think that still colors the way a lot of organizations are approaching data, which is obviously a big achilles heel for those organizations.

Drew McLellan:

So you’ve worked for large agencies, small agencies, you’ve been a partner in other agencies. What was the sort of tipping point for you of deciding to go out on your own, as opposed to, I’m sure you’re often courted, both you and your wife, are often courted by agencies, so why take the risk of doing it on your own?

Greg Verdino:

So I feel like this sounds dopey, I suppose to say it this way, that would at least it in my head before it comes out of my mouth it does, but I’m much more of an entrepreneur than I am an employee. So that’s sort of at the core. So I’ve been in and out of big agencies, right? I’ve been at Sachi, I’ve been at Wonderman, I’ve been at Digitas. Those are 800 pound gorillas in traditional direct and digital, right? But I also spent seven years inside venture backed technology startups in between sort of before Digitas, which is kind of what I think what attracted Digitas to me was that I didn’t just have an agency background, but also had a tech startup background. So I think having been bit by the startup bug during the essentially the dot com bubble, it was actually very difficult for me to make the choice to go back to a big agency.

But what I liked about the role at Digitas was that it was essentially an entrepreneurial role and even so I think the grind of sort of big agency lifestyle and work style wore on me very quickly. So it was very easy for me to make the choice to join Joseph Jaffe as a partner in Crayon. So to me that was almost the best of both worlds because I was doing agency work, and I love agency style work and marketing and working with clients in that way, but inside a startup. And as you may know, I’m sure you know, but your listeners for the most part probably wouldn’t, we sold Crayon to a company called Powered and then Powered was acquired in turn by Dachis Group, who you mentioned when you introduced me. So we kind of went through this double acquisition.

And by that point I had felt that what I loved about being a partner in Crayon, the ability to kind of control my destiny and build a firm that was doing work I believed in with clients that I believed in and that believed in us and all of the stuff that kind of every agency lo owner loves about being a small indie agency, over the course of two acquisitions, we became a tiny piece of a 300 person management consultancy basically. And there were good things and bad things about that, of course. But by that point I felt like, you know what, it’s time to go out and do it myself again.

And when I left Dachis, I kind of could be frank made a number of missteps so I left and I figured I’d go it solo for a while and I turned myself in a way into sort of a digital Jack of all trades and found myself for probably three years or two years of time doing everything from social media strategy to digital marketing strategy, to digital transformation, to innovation, helping a large company set up an accelerator, doing lean business canvas work with another client. And I was kind of all over the place, all with the running thread of digital, but it was kind of like the solo consultants equivalent of the full service integrated agency of two. So to the extent, and believe me, I was making money, but it was very much that sort of up down rollercoaster ride and it got to a point where I almost couldn’t explain to the next client what it is I do and why they should hire me.

Drew McLellan:

Because you were too much of a generalist.

Greg Verdino:

Exactly. And of course content had always been a piece of what I was doing. So there were some content strategy projects and content marketing projects and certainly even at Crayon as a social agency, content was the fuel to that fire. And I had even at Digitas way back in the Digitas days, I blurbed Joe Pullizi’s original content marketing book. So I had been connected to the content community and I believed in the power of content and I liked the idea of the focus of content. You can clearly explain to a client what it is you do, where you do it, what value you bring to the table and it’s something that they either do or don’t have a line item for.

And Amanda had been working inside a large corporate managing a content operation. So when she made the decision to leave that organization, it was just an obvious choice to take her expertise in content, my somewhat lesser expertise in content, but all of the sort of the, I don’t want to call it baggage, but I guess it would be experience in business strategy and marketing strategy, plus my work with content and the fact that I had been through that agency kind of life cycle, build a shop up and then sell the shop, not that we’re looking to sell this shop just yet for sure, but I guess it was a good opportunity for us to kind of join forces in more than just life and become business partners as well.

Drew McLellan:

If you were talking to a prospect and they were talking to you and a couple other agencies, how would you differentiate yourself from other agencies? Because I think one of the things that all agencies struggle with is how do I stand out from my competitors? How do I look and sound and smell different so that I am either the right choice or the wrong choice in terms of buying.

Greg Verdino:

For me and for us, it’s still very much a work in progress as I think it is for many agencies but to me there are [inaudible 00:25:07] full elements. And it depends on who we’re going up against. I think today we still find ourselves more often than not going up against more general agencies. And I don’t mean general as in traditional advertising, but the full service integrated agencies, whether they’re truly a large entity enterprise level agency or the small shop that says they’re full service. So in instances like that, we have a very simple and specific value proposition, which essentially I wouldn’t necessarily say it this way to every client every time, but yeah, sure, they quote unquote do content, but content is all we do. And we essentially play the specialist card.

If we’re going up against other content agencies, we’re going to probably trigger a set of other value proposition points. So one of our key value proposition or our key differentiators within the universe of content agencies is sort of the further specialization. Certainly we have clients in other sectors, but our core sectors are B2B technology and even probably more specifically FinTech. So if a client is in one of our sweet spot sectors, we probably have better experience and deeper expertise in those sectors than any other content agency, despite our small size. And to back that up and support that we’ve got my seven or eight years inside technology startups, running both sales and marketing organizations, and the fact that Amanda’s actually built a content operation and content program inside a FinTech company. So we’re able to talk the clients talk, we’re able to build a lot of rapport because we’ve walked in the client’s shoes.

I think some of the other things that we use to differentiate is, content is a very big space. And I think for us, the fact that we focus I would say more than half of our businesses in content strategy, and we know from the research that I was talking about before certainly content strategy is a big achilles heel of most organizations, even those who are investing heavily in content marketing. So the fact that we are strategy specialists and we approach content strategy, not from the perspective of marketing strategy even, but from the perspective of business strategy gets certain clients to kind of raise their eyes and go, well, wait a second, what’s that all about?

But at the same time, we’re different from a lot of the content strategy shops who frankly over-engineer the strategy process and are so divorced from the production process that they don’t really know what’s practical in a lot of cases. So we have this, it’s almost like we’re a two person consultancy with two lines of business. One is around strategy and the other is around what we call strategic content creation. We’re very clear with clients, you’re not going to hire us to write your tweets and do your Facebook posts. You probably won’t even use us to write your blog posts, but when you have an evergreen strategic asset that has to kick ass, that’s us.

Drew McLellan:

Huh. So what I’m hearing in that is couple things. One, that you have a specialty in terms of industry. Two, you’ve got, even though you’re small, you’ve got a broad base if we come at it with experiences from working on the client side and the agency side. And three, you’re very specific about what you do and don’t do, which allows you to be brain surgeons versus nurse practitioners.

Greg Verdino:

That’s exactly right. And I know obviously that’s a key theme, common theme across all of your podcast guests and your AMI work. And it’s not, just because of your podcast obviously, but that’s something that we believe in firmly, and I think that was one of Crayons key advantages in the early days of social was we were an early social agency back before agencies were brave enough to say social is all we do. And we were predominantly a social strategy shop as well.

So again, we were kind of mopping up after a brand had gone tactics first at social media and had been disappointed in what they got out of it. Crayon could come in and mop up and bring order to the chaos for some pretty big clients so it allowed us to punch well above our weight and to an extent, there’s a lot of lessons I learned through the process of being part of and then selling Crayon that I would certainly not want to repeat, but there are certain things that I would repeat over and over and over again, and one of those is the importance of being as tightly niche as you feel comfortable with.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. Right. Absolutely. I think one of the gifts that you have and I’ve had the good fortune of reading a lot of your writing and reading your books and hearing you speak, but you have an uncanny ability to look at the landscape and go, that’s going to be important in a year or five years, and that’s just a blip in time, ignore it. I know it’s sort of like asking the magician to show you the trick, but how are you able to do that? What do you look for, or what information do you gather to sort of make that sort of determination?

Greg Verdino:

So I think there are a couple of sort of overarching themes I thi