Jason Falls is one of the most widely read and respected voices in digital marketing and social media industries today. He leads digital strategy for Elasticity and he also shares his no-nonsense ideas regularly on his own website, www.jasonfalls.com.
He is the author of some great books, including “No Bullshit Social Media” and “The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing.”
What you’ll learn about in this episode:
- Why social cannot be an upsell
- The benefits of putting your pride aside, admitting you can’t do everything, and partnering your agency up with other agencies
- Why you need to be truly honest with yourself about what your agency’s strengths and weaknesses are
- How to protect your agency when partnering with other agencies
- How millennials are changing the entire landscape of our world and what we need to do to adapt
- The action steps you can take to start partnering up with the right agencies
The Golden Nugget:“The best solution for your client might not be completely inside your agency.” – @JasonFalls Click To Tweet
Click to tweet: Jason Falls shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!
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Recommended books and resources:
- No Bullshit Social Media
- The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing
- Website: www.jasonfalls.com
- Twitter: @jasonfalls
- Website: www.goelastic.com
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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.
Hey, everybody. This is Drew McLellan, and I am really excited to be with you today. As an agency owner, I know all too well the risks we take every day. This podcast is about making sure if we’re going to take the risk, we also get to enjoy the rewards. Along with running my agency for the last 20 years, I also work with over 200 small to midsize agency owners every year, helping them retool their agencies so they get the rewards of their efforts. The podcast is really my way of extending that work and trying to help more agency owners just like you.
That’s why I’m really excited today to have our guest, Jason Falls with us. I think he’s going to really have a lot to say about how we need to retool and reinvent our agencies for the future. Let me tell you a little bit about Jason for those of you who may be unfamiliar with him. Jason is actually one of the most widely read and respected voices in digital marketing and social media industries today. If you have been online at all in the last decade, you probably are very familiar with and probably already following Jason.
He leads digital strategy for Elasticity, and he also shares his no-nonsense ideas regularly at his own website, jasonfalls.com. He loves his hometown, Louisville, sports, and bourbon. He’s also written some great books that many of you are probably already familiar with, but if not, you need to get familiar. One of them is called No Bullshit Social Media and the other is The Rebels Guide to Email Marketing. With that, Jason, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having me, Drew. Great to be here.
Glad to have you. Give everybody an idea. You have an interesting professional history in terms of, you’ve been on the agency side of couple of times, you’ve been on the client side. So give everyone a sense of the breadth of your exposure to the business.
Sure. My first real teeth cutting in the marketing communications world was witnessing it all as I was growing up. My mother was the editor of a local newspaper in a small town, and I was just a fly on the wall in the office. Graduated through that process, and worked at a radio station when I was a teenager. But I spent 15 years as a PR guy in college athletics, they call them… well, they used to call them sports information directors. And so I was really on the client side more than anything else on the brand side, but had very limited exposure to agencies until the early to mid 2000s.
I got out of college athletics when my son was born, and started working at Doe-Anderson, which is a national advertising agency in Louisville, Kentucky. I was on the PR team there, but that was when social media was really starting to blow up. I started offering up ideas to our clients, and before you knew it I was director of social media, then vice president and director of interactive. I was at the agency there for about four years, I branched out on my own and started Social Media Explorer, which was the name of my blog, then became my business. It grew into a small boutique agency that I later sold to a business partner, because I got lured away by CafePress to go work on the brand side of the internet retailer for a few years.
Then about a year ago I made the transition away from CafePress back to the agency side of things at Elasticity. So you’re right, I’ve been on a couple of different sides of the aisle and in several iterations, both at Doe-Anderson and at Social Media Explorer, and then now at Elasticity. I’ve had the really good fortune to partner with a lot of other agencies, so I’ve seen and worked with everyone from the big Omnicoms and BBDOs of the world, to the small one and two-person consultancies, and everywhere in between, so I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to agencies over the years.
So what is it about agency life? Because I believe it is in our DNA. What is it about agency life that keeps luring you back?
It’s a combination of the flexibility that agency life offers, and the variety. You’re not doing the same thing every day. If you are, you’re probably just really good at that one thing and you really enjoy doing it, but you can almost not help to be jumping from task to task or from project to project, and working with very, very different clients, very different strategies, very different executions, and I enjoy the variety. I don’t know that I would blame it on attention deficit disorder, but I would certainly blame it on the fact that I’m not easily sucked into a long drawn out process. I like variety in my day.
And so I really think it’s just that variety of challenge, and variety of content that you deal with and certainly the variety of clients. I’ve gone from sitting in meetings with a legal team for a bank to working with alcohol, wine and spirits brands, to working with consumer product good retail folks, and I enjoy having a breadth of experience that encompasses all of that.
Yeah, I think there is, for some folks it is, a little bit of the attention deficit thing, but I also think it’s we enjoy the constant challenge. And you’re right, when you have to run from one meeting to another and one meeting you’re talking about banking regulations and the next you’re talking about varieties of wine, it forces you to use all aspects of your brain for sure.
Yeah. You’ve got to come ready to work because you can’t get bogged down.
Yeah. You’ve also been around for a while, and you’ve seen the evolution of agencies, and I know you were on the cutting edge of when social was a big phenomena that is now just the norm for all of us today. But you’ve watched agencies try to evolve over time, and I’m curious about some of your business building strategies. What do you think that agencies… where do you think they’re missing the boat? What are agencies missing? If an agency is struggling today, where have they missed in the evolution chain? Where do they need to go?
Well, I still think that even though social and digital has become very much the norm for a lot of agencies, I still think a lot are still missing the boat. I think there are way too many agencies out there that are still leading with above the line advertising, and maybe it’s because that’s what they’re really good at. If that’s what you’re really good at, and you don’t have the digital capabilities, that’s okay. I think the disciplines have been even further divided with the digital explosion.
I think it’s okay now to say, “Hey we’re an above the line creative agency,” or, “We’re a branding agency,” or, “We’re just digital,” or, “We really just do email.” I think that division of labor and division of expertise throughout the industry has been good in a lot of ways, because you have specialists now. Whereas, 20 years ago, one agency said they handled everything, and they might subcontract out half the work, but they at least sold the fact that they had every discipline in-house.
But I see so many agencies, especially the big ones, the larger the agency, the more the deficit is on the digital and social side of things. People don’t realize that social is no longer an add-on, social is no longer just something that you can upsell a client on to get a few more dollars in your retainer every month. You’ve got to, most companies these days have got to have some sort of direct connection with their consumers in the online space. And if an agency that specializes in above the line advertising, or public relations, or whatever doesn’t have that capability internally in-house, they’re not only missing the boat, but the overall integrated marketing that they try to offer their clients is going to lose something. It’s going to be missing a critical component.
I still see many, many, many agencies that are missing that. The other thing that I think many agencies are missing are the humility and the ability to say, “Hey, you know what? We don’t have to do everything. We can partner with other agencies that are somewhat like us, but that are stronger in areas that we’re weak.” I’ve had more fun, and have had more successful creative projects go through the agencies that I’ve worked with and the brands that I’ve worked with, when you’ve got multiple agency partners collaborating. Because you take one who does a really good job with point of sale, one that does a really good job with digital, one that does a really good job with above the line, and then another one that does a really good job with public relations.
And if you can somehow, from the brand side, manage those four or five components together so that they’re working together as a team, and not constantly trying to tug business away from each other, you get a pretty damn good end product. And I think too many agencies are still far too territorial in how they approach their client work.
Yeah. I think that you probably just made a bunch of agency owners clutch at their chest when you talk about collaborating with other agencies. We did some proprietary research last summer talking to CMOs about their agency relationships, and one of the things that, like it or not, came screaming out of that research was that most clients want to have multiple agency relationships, and they expect us all to get along.
Yeah. And I’ll be honest with you. In 15 years of working directly with, and or for or with agencies, and 25 or so years broadly in the business, I can still count on maybe both hands, but not more than both hands, the number of agencies that I’ve worked with over the years that were just really good strong collaborative partners that weren’t threatening to me, that didn’t feel threatened by me, and we got along really well. There’s been a handful of collaborative efforts over the years that I’m really, really proud of and have had a lot of fun working on, but there always seems to be a hesitation from the other agency partners that, “Hey we don’t want you coming after our business, but at the same time we’re going to go after your business, and we don’t trust you any farther than we can throw you,” and all that good stuff.
I think if you can get past that and just realize that, “Hey, we’re here to work on behalf of the brand and do what’s best for them. You’re going to benefit, I’m going to benefit and if we work together then the brand’s going to benefit. Let’s get all that nonsense out of the way and actually do some good work together.” I don’t see that very often still to this day. If we saw more of it, I think we’d have a lot happier relationships with each other and the brands that we work with would be a lot happier too.
Well, and my guess is that agencies would hang onto clients longer, because they would be part of that collaborative team that’s bringing them solutions that are delivering the results, right?
Absolutely. I don’t know what the number is now, but a few years ago, the average lifespan of a CMO was somewhere in the neighborhood… south of 23 months. It was less than two years. And part of that is because you have, it’s not the main reason, but part of that is because you have someone who has to go in and completely change or turn around the marketing, so they fire everybody that’s involved, all the agency partners that are involved with the brand, they clean house, they get their own people in there, and they’re given a very short leash with which to move and maneuver and make a difference.
And then when they get new agency partners in there, the new agency partners come in and contribute to the problem by saying, “No, we’re holistic, we’re integrated, we do everything.” Even though secretly and quietly they’re going out and sub-contracting out half the work, because they don’t do everything, they’re just not brave enough or smart enough to admit it. Or another agency comes in, and it’s territorial, and there’s in-fighting and nobody trusts each other, and then the work suffers. The work suffers, the CMO gets fired again.
Yep, yep. I think the CMO tenure has extended a little, but I think it’s past 24 months, but it’s certainly not to 36, so still the problem exists. I think post-recession, a lot of businesses are expecting very fast results, and when they don’t get them it’s pretty easy just to go, “Well, you know what? We’re going to make the board of directors or the leadership team happy, we’re going to cut the CMO, and we’re going to start all over again.” So CMOs are under an incredible amount of pressure, I believe, to deliver results and in a very tangible metric-driven way.
And I think that’s one of the things that a lot of agencies are struggling with, is how to get to that more measurable metric-driven model. Again, part of that is, I think when you are playing outside of your sweet spot and you’re trying to do things that really aren’t in your core expertise, it’s pretty tough to deliver that level of quality that’s going to drive results for the client.
Yeah. When you talk about areas of communications and marketing like public relations and things of that nature, you’re looking at areas that until the digital age exploded, they have been very, very hard to measure. And so when you have boards of directors and CEOs and executive teams coming and saying to the CMO or even to the agency partners, “Look, we have to know what our return is. We’ve got to be able to measure everything infinitely.” And then you have 30 and 40 and 50-year-old PR firms coming to the table with, “Well, here’s your ad equivalency value.”
Today’s modern CMO looks at that and says, “Okay, you’re fired because that’s useless. That doesn’t tell me anything.” So you’ve got this combination of problems of short CMO tenures, agencies not working well with one another, old school thinking where they have not adjusted to the fact that the media landscape and the ability to measure and whatnot has changed, and the old school thinking that digital is just a fad or it’s not something you need to lead with, and that leads to a whole heck of a lot of problems for agencies that if we all sat down and just had a few more conversations as friends, colleagues and partners we could probably figure out.
Absolutely. If an owner is listening to this podcast, and they are reluctantly recognizing themselves in the description you just gave, what’s your recommendation or recipe for getting on the right path? What do they need to do first to ready their agency for the future, do you believe?
I think the first thing you’ve got to do is be really honest with yourself. You’ve got to say, “Hey, we’re a full service advertising agency.” There’s a pretty good chance you’re not. There’s a pretty good chance you’re just lying to yourself when you say that. What you need to do is say, “Okay, where are we strong? Are we strong with media planning and buying? Are we strong with creative? Are we strong with digital? Are we strong with public relations? Where are our real strengths? What are we really good at? What’s our sweet spot?”
And then conversely, be really honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are, and then look to agency partners, look to people maybe within an agency network that you belong with. Maybe there’s another small boutique agency in town that doesn’t typically compete with you on the types of accounts that you go after, but they have a really good set of professionals and a really good approach to an area that you’re not strong in, whether it’s partnering with a digital marketing firm, or a PR firm or even a media house.
Find those partners that are not really that big of a competitive threat, and reach out to them and say, “Hey we could both do a lot more business if we work together rather than apart. So let’s just do that as a partnership. Let me pitch your services when I’m out there going after business, you come to the table with me. And then you can pitch our services, and we’re probably going to be able to get more business together than we could apart.” I think being really honest with yourself on your strengths and weaknesses and then identifying those people who are not really competitive threats but can be helpful to you, it’s really an enlightening eye-opening exercise.
I’ve done it a couple of times now, and it’s really interesting to see those people that you know work across town at that competitive place. You start to see them in a different light, and you start to appreciate their work a lot better too.
Absolutely. As you know, part of AMI are the owner peer networks, and I see agencies from across the country, when they get to know each other and they’re in a safe space identifying, “Hey, you know what? You do PR a lot better than we do, and there’s an opportunity for both of us.” I see the partnering. Actually, what I see is both of their AGI’s going up, both of their pressure for new business going down, and the client relationships are stronger.
Absolutely. It’s funny. I’ll try to do this as diplomatically as possible. I was in on a bid for client work not too long ago, and it was for a combination website design and build and then content strategy. So I put together a proposal and we did jump through all the hoops to do the pitching and all that good stuff. I’m not sure exactly what it came down to, it was that recent, I haven’t had the full download from the client yet, but we didn’t get the work. A little disappointed, but at the same time, part of what they were leaning for was more of an agency that could do some digital branding work on the website aside of the project, and the content piece of it was secondary, and we would probably be stronger on the content piece.
Well, it turns out that two days later, I happen to have a conversation with a friend of mine who works at another agency in town. They won the work because they’re really strong with digital branding. I said, “I know you guys won the work and congratulations. You actually beat me out for it.” He said to me, “You know what? I was actually thinking we’re not real strong on the content piece, you guys are. I’d like to take you back to the brand as a partner.” That’s exactly the kind of relationship you should be looking for.
Those are the kind of relationships between what I call coopetition, competitors that you can cooperate with and collaborate with. Those are the kind of fruitful relationships that are going to add to your bottom line and your top line as an agency, both yours and theirs, and you’re going to have a lot more fun, and do a lot better work.
I could not agree more. Let’s say that an agency is open to this idea. Are there some ground rules when you are either being approached by another agency or you want to approach another agency for partnership? You’ve mentioned that you’ve had several that have been successful. Were there some ground rules or some common understandings that eased both owners’ worries, or the pressure of, “Oh, I’ve got a fox in my hen house” kind of a thing, that made that work better for you guys?
Well, just in my overall professional experience, you want to try to get as much of the relationship in writing as possible, because when it comes down to it, if there’s the possibility that that fox in the hen house is going to eat one of the hens, then you need to be able to have some formal policy and paperwork to turn back to and say, “Well, you messed this up, so we’ve got to fix it.” And there’s ways to put in those fixes. Getting things in writing is always advisable.
How it normally happens though is you just have a level of trust in your relationship built up with the principal at the other agency, and you can do the agreement on a handshake. Again, I don’t recommend that all the time, because having things in writing will cover your butt and theirs. But I think the key important piece of it is to include the brand, include the client in the conversation, because if all three parties are very clear on where the lines are drawn, who’s responsible for what, and who’s not responsible for what, and the brand agrees and says, “Hey, we like this relationship because agency A is really strong here, here and here, agency B is really strong there, there, and there, and working together you’re going to be able to collaborate to produce the best possible end product for us.”
If everybody’s aware of all the components, you’ve got that brand person there for checks and balances, and it typically features a lot less teeth grinding and worry throughout the course of the relationship, because you’ve got that third party there to balance it all out.
Yeah. I think that’s a key point that again, this is where a lot of agency owners make their mistake. You have mentioned a couple times kind of try and do it in the skulk of darkness that you’re bringing in another partner, or that you’re farming some of the work out. That’s when it gets easy for misunderstandings and for people, on purpose or not, to cross the line. I think you’re right. I think when you are willing to bring the client into the conversation and be very clear about your expertise and where you have… you’re wanting, but yay for you, because you’re all about the partnership and the client, so you’ve brought a great partner to the table who balances out your weakness. I think that’s when it gets to be a much more collaborative environment, as opposed to a secret you’re keeping.
Exactly. Exactly. Think of it like this. If you’re the owner of an agency, just put yourself into the role real quickly of being a strategic consultant. Let’s say you’ve retired, and you’re just going to be a strategic consultant. When the client comes to you for that strategic counsel, what’s your job? Your job is to give them that counsel, and then help them find the components that will execute on that council the most effective and efficient way possible. So look at the resources inside your agency as your preferred vendor set.
And then look at the forces outside your agency as other vendors that you can choose from to take the best possible product to your client, because ultimately, that’s your job. Yes, from an internal standpoint, you’re there to worry about the bottom line, business growth, percentage growth, revenue growth for your agency, but when you really get down to it, your job is to take the best possible solution to that client at the end of the day. And the best possible solution more often than not is not completely included within the walls of your agency.
Yeah, absolutely. As I listen to you talk, I think about why wouldn’t every agency embrace this, and I think it’s a couple of things, I’m curious for you to add to the list. I think one is, agencies are so worried about the bottom line and things have been tough for agencies over the last few years. I think they’re getting a lot better, but I think we still have that aftershock of the recession and agency owners are still very conscious of making sure that they can hit the monthly nut and make payroll and do all of those things. So when they think about a strategic partnership, they see dollars going out the door as opposed to a bigger pot of money for everybody.
And I also think there’s ego involved. I think you have to have a healthy ego to own an agency. I think you have to believe in yourself and be confident. But I also think that every agency owner likes to believe their shop is the end-all-and-be-all as opposed to, as you say, being a little more honest with themselves and recognizing, “You know what, we are great at some things, but there are other things where, A, we could either use some tutelage or we could have a good partner with us.”
That that’s true. And if you think about it, almost everybody that owns an agency, almost everybody that certainly is on the creative side of any agency, what do we do when we’re together with our colleagues? We look at our competition, we look at other agencies and we tear them down. We say, “Well, that’s a stupid strategy, that didn’t work. I don’t know what those guys were thinking.” Well, that to me is like a bunch of junior high cheerleaders sitting around the lunchroom table, making fun of the girl with glasses.
That’s what we’re doing in that situation. When you grow up and you get out into the real world, you realize “You know what, she was actually pretty girl and I should have been a better friend to her back then.” We should be better friends to each other now because when you peel back the bullshit, you get to the core of what these agencies really are and can do, and you realize that there’s a little bit of good in all of them somewhere, and if you find the little bit of good that maybe you’re missing, now you’ve got something pretty cool.
Absolutely. Yeah, you’re right. I think anybody who’s still standing today after ’08 probably has a pretty good job.
Yeah. So you’re back in the agency world, so you’re now thinking, you’re taking care clients, but you’re also thinking about the future as part of the leadership of that agency. What’s on your radar screen for what’s coming down the pike?
Well, we are getting ready to enter a very interesting era in the history of marketing, and I don’t know that very many people are thinking about it and talking about it quite in the way that I am, and I’m not saying I’m necessarily some big innovative thinker here. I just, I’m putting a slightly different spin on it. We’ve been talking about marketing to millennials for a long time now, but what you’re starting to now finally see is millennials are gradually becoming, the buying power is shifting into their hands and their pockets. If you think about it, the presidential election that is coming up will be the first election that most millennials will have the opportunity to truly vote in, or most millennials, and then just a half a generation beyond the folks who were born around 2000.
It’s really going to be the first time that they’ve been able to vote and make a real impact in the presidential election. It’s also for the gen Y folks and the front end of millennials, it’s really the first time in their lives that they have true buying power, that they have savings account, that they have discretionary income. And so the next five to 10 years is going to be very interesting for many industries, particularly those who are like financial services and health care and insurance that are behind everybody else by a half decade or so in the use of technology, in the use of mobile, in the use of digital, because this group of people that’s about to start to own a lot of power, not just from a buying perspective, but from a political perspective over the course of the next decade, these people consume their information very, very differently than the boomer generation or generation X even.
They get their information differently, they share and spread information at different rates than the previous generations that came before them, and so if you’re not already starting to adjust how you communicate with your audiences, what channels you choose, the frequency with which you get in front of them, you’re going to start to see declining returns I think, because you’ve already needed to start to have made that shift, and it’s only going to become amplified in the next few years. There are warning signs and I keep going back to the political spectrum, there have been warning signs for the last few years in congressional races, in gubernatorial races and whatnot, that I think are interesting.
You’re starting to see more and more independent, moderate, and middle of the road candidates garner more and more of the vote, and it’s because the democratic and the r