When Google wants to explain innovation and marketing to the top brands in the world, they bring Mitch Joel to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Marketing Magazine dubbed him the “Rock Star of Digital Marketing” and called him, “one of North America’s leading digital visionaries.” Mitch Joel is President of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 countries with over 2500 employees (although he prefers the title, Media Hacker). He has been named one of the top 100 online marketers in the world and was awarded the highly prestigious Canada’s Top 40 Under 40.
What you’ll learn about in this episode:
- Mirum’s unique structure
- Generalists vs specialists: the philosophical and financial reasons agencies should specialize instead of generalizing
- How to figure out if a client is a good fit for your agency
- Mad Men vs Math Men: how to blend creative and data
- Why it’s more important than ever to stay hungry and keep learning everything you can
- Do your homework: how to balance learning time with time spent on client work
- “Algorhythm”: Mitch’s upcoming book
- Tools Mitch uses for consistent learning
The Golden Nugget:“Think about every day as day one. There’s always more to do.” – @mitchjoel Click To Tweet
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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. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. As you know, this weekly podcast is all about helping you be smarter about the way you approach business so that your agency can serve clients better, be more profitable for you and hopefully along the way, be more fun. So I think you are really going to enjoy this week’s guest. So when Google wants to explain innovation and marketing to top brands of the world, they call Mitch Joel to Googleplex in Mountain View, California and have him do it for them.
Marketing Magazine has called him the rock star of digital marketing, and one of North America’s leading digital visionaries. Mitch Joel is the president of Mirum, which is a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 countries with over 2,500 employees. We’ll have him explain a little bit about the structure of that as well because I think you’ll find that fascinating.
He also is an author of many books. I suspect many of you have read. Six Pixels of Separation or Ctrl Alt Delete. He’s got a new book coming out, which we will ask him about as well. So Mitch, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.
Drew, thank you for having me.
Yeah, it’s great having you. So give everybody a little bit of understanding about how your agency is structured because it seems like each office, if you will, or maybe by country, I was trying to sort of figure that out is sort of run almost independently, but that you guys are all interwoven together. So tell us a little bit about that structure.
Well, I have to walk it back a little bit, so there’s some clarity around what it is because Mirum as a brand and entity is still so super new. It’s only been about a year. There was a bunch… I’ll tell you our story and you’ll see how it ladders up into Mirum, but we started a digital marketing agency called Twist Image in 2000. And I say we, because we’re four business partners. We built this agency to become one of the largest digital marketing agencies independent in Canada. About a hundred plus people. Offices in Montreal and Toronto.
And when I say national, it’s because in Canada we have two languages, French and English. So it was fully operational in both languages, which was really unique at the time. And we grew that for about, I’d say about two years ago. At that point, we got acquired by WPP, largest holding network in the world for marketing communications. And the way WPP works is you don’t really report into WPP directly.
You choose one of the larger corporations that have grown within the WPP network. So you would report in through maybe the Young and Rubicam, Y&R angle. You might do the Ogilvy one. You might do the JWT, Walter Thompson one. We definitely had a champion within the J. Walter Thompson Corporation in terms of their chief financial officer. Good strong relationship, was a real great sponsor and thinker and enjoyed conversations with us.
We went in that direction. Part of the reason we wanted to be acquired was because we really wanted to grow. We wanted to add in different products and services scale more beyond the borders of Canada and just North America. And that was one of the promises is of being a part of one of these larger networks.
And what it turned out had been happening tangentially is that the J. Walter Thompson Corporation had been acquiring shops like us, but geographically different throughout the years. Shops like Digitaria, Activeark, CASA, XM, all, all of these shops all over the world. So we had decided together as a unit to bring all of these shops together under a new banner called Mirum. All of us changed our name. All of us became a part of a new corporation beneath the J. Walter Thompson Corporation. So now J. Walter Thompson Corporation owns Mirum and it owns JWT the advertising agency that people know because it’s one of the oldest ones in the world.
Yeah, I’m just agreeing with you. Yep. They’re big and well-known.
And the structure really is, what I love about it is it’s we call it a village model where you’re absolutely right. Every office can operate independently because that’s how they were created by entrepreneurs like you and I, and running their own offices. But where the value is, is actually how we have this global leadership structure and how we work together. So we’re able to pitch and win global clients and have a massive global reach, because as you said, it’s 25 plus countries, 48 plus offices around the world. And it also allows us to work very, very local.
I think when you look at the dynamics of what we call today, a digital agency, that is really extremely powerful. So suddenly we’re able to work across the national brands that we’ve always worked on when we were Twist Image and that was Mirum in Canada. I can and have one North American business can run out of our offices here and bolt on geographic offices or teams as needed, and then I can scale up and do global. What’s interesting about global is I can work on global brands, literally stuff and platforms that roll out globally. Or I can also work with global brands locally because we have a knowledge specifically for us up here in Canada.
So it really did allow us to have the scale and size that we wanted while still being able to be entrepreneurial because we’re owned now versus being the entrepreneurs when you’re running your business.
So day in and day out, you now run… Your village is how big?
Well, it’s a big village. We’re still responsible because of where we’re at in the contract from our acquisition of making sure that the offices we have Montreal, Toronto offices are successful as they can be, but they really can’t be as successful as everybody wants to be without the components of the North American global avenues of it.
My personal role hasn’t changed at all. I have a title president, which is very sweet and nice, but the truth is I still do what I always did, which is I go out, I speak, I write, I write books, I blog, I podcast, I network, I connect with people, and I try to create some energy around what it is we’re trying to do. Before I did that obviously to add value to what was Twist Image, and now I’m just doing it with Mirum, and it’s super challenging because it’s a big entity, but it’s still so new. People have no idea what it is. So it’s a fascinating challenge. And that’s the work that I personally do day in and day out.
You have the job that many agency presidents sort of covet, which is the Rainmaker job. You’re out creating thought leadership and you are speaking and creating content in a plethora of ways. And the listeners need to make sure that they go to the show notes and track down all the different things. Your podcast is, I think one of the best podcasts out there. So they certainly need to be listening to that. But back in the day when you started the agency, was that always your role or were you more day to day involved in client business at some point?
No, for sure. Day one, it’s what do you need? You need a business card, you need a logo, you need a… You’re trying to stop eating peanut butter sandwiches is what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to stop being in debt. You’re trying to stop all of the reasons why you started a business and try to grow it. They’re very, very real and they’re financially driven. They’re success-driven in terms of work and output. They’re client-driven with what you want to do.
So early days of the agency, Twist Image and we were three or four people. It was all about not just hunting the work, but it was about doing it. And then there was times where I was doing copywriting and positioning and all that sort of stuff that, for sure had a passion for and an interest in because I wanted us to be successful and I wanted our clients to be successful.
But early days I also realized I didn’t want to be the traveling salesman. I didn’t want to be the person driving down the highway, pulling into every single major corporation and saying, “Do you need a website? Do you know what digital is?” So I felt I knew I had this exhaust valve of blogging, and writing, and publishing because my previous world before that many iterations before that was working as a writer journalist and I actually even published magazines pre-internet.
So I always had that ability to want to communicate and build a brand off of real content versus just positioning and portfolio. I think that that was the big thing. And it sort of seems obvious to talk about now in 2016, but if you go back to 2002, this idea of building an agency off, not just off of the portfolio and the clients that you have was seen as very, very different. They actually taught… And positioning, right? It was just sort of like just your brand tag and whatever.
But this real sort of depth of content was not something that everybody was doing at all, and I think your really was part of the rocket fuel at the time for Twist Image, and I do think that it continues to be to this day something that is acknowledged by people like you and others, this platform of Six Pixels of Separation, which is the name of the blog podcast first book, but it’s the container for our content and how we think about continues to be, I think, a very valuable asset.
Absolutely. So I think a lot of agency owners aspire to get out of the trenches of the work and do the thought leadership development that you were doing. Was that a conscious decision on your part and how did you make it possible for you to step out of that, as you say, traveling salesman role and the day to day serving client role so that you were free to do the very important, bigger picture work that you do today.
When you say it like that, it sounds like there was this sort of mechanical, tactical, plotted strategy. And you’re saying it is if that’s what I wanted to do. I’m not sure that any of that is actually true. I think that while I love to write and I love to create, it was a journey. It wasn’t a sort of tactical because they really focused on this. I think that it became a factor of circumstance where it started working and I had to suddenly become comfortable with that role and position.
I don’t think I was there 100% in terms of what we wanted it to do. And then it was also just based off of the team I was surrounded with. I was surrounded by amazing business partners and amazing players on our team that were just better at things than I was.
I think sometimes you assume a role, and I think sometimes you go after a role. I think in this case, I very much assumed a role that worked. It was unique because once you start getting paid to speak and paid to write and you see revenue, and this revenue is offsetting, what is typically an investment of business development, which is very significant to the service based level and the agency based level, it was very unique to us like, “Oh, we’re making all of this money speaking and writing and putting thought leadership out there.”
And it’s offsetting what we’re paying to invest to potentially win the clients. So it became sort of based unto itself. And again, you fast forward now 15 years later, I’m sort of in a position where I don’t know what else to do.
Right, right. Yeah. So one of the things that you talk about is the whole idea of agencies and the notion of generalists versus specialists. Talk a little bit about your philosophy around that concept.
Well, generalists and specialists, it sort of falls into two areas and one is financial and I think one is philosophical. So let’s start off with philosophy. The philosophy of a generalist versus a specialist in the agency world to me is you have a lot of businesses right now that say we want a fully integrated solution. So what they’re doing is they’re going to their traditional ad agency or network. Of course the ad agency networks do everything. They’re so great at everything. And that’s what they’re selling.
In the US, it hasn’t worked as well as it has in Canada. In Canada, it’s been extremely successful for these fully integrated solutions and it boggles my mind because if you speak to the best of the best in the states, and what I mean by the best of the best are the real pro search consultants, the people who really get BD, what they’re talking about at business development level is they’re talking about agencies of record. How do we help this brand and surround them with the best people and teams so they can get the best results?
It’s a bit of a reverse in Canada where brands are doing fully integrated pitches that have a huge digital component, but I can’t pitch against because I don’t have the other mass skills or portfolio to win properly against it. So it’s a bit of a precarious situation concerning how small North America is, but it’s there. The philosophy part of it is I always say to people, if you suddenly were going out for a jog and you blew out your knee, would you want to go see your general practitioner or do you want to go see the person in your city who just works on these knees and does it for all the professional sports teams and just does this all the time?
To me, the answer is pretty obvious. I want to go to that specialist and I want to get in as soon as possible. I think that’s the value of what a real specialist agency can do. And I think that’s the value of what Mirum brings to the table. On the financial side, because I’m sure in terms of this conversation, it’s people who are building a business, trying to figure out what the value of the business is. They might want to sell it. They might just want to better understand the value.
What I’ve learned in the process of both being acquired and just generally being what I call an agency nerd, like I’m fascinated with this stuff. I’m fascinated with holding companies. I’m fascinated with companies that acquire agencies and build teams inside. And I’m fascinated with consulting firms like Accenture, Deloitte that are building out these multi-billion dollar digital components to them is there’s a fact. And the fact is, is that if you are looking at all at an exit strategy for your agency and you want it to be acquired, I do say that the metric of which acquisition should be gauged is by who does it the best.
And in our industry right now, it is still the holding companies. It is your WPPs, your publicists, your IPGs, et cetera, et cetera, your Dentsu’s down the list. I know not because I did this, but because it’s a fact that a fully integrated or general agency gets a much lower multiple than a specialist. A digital agency.
So had I made the choice six or seven years ago to say, “Wow, I see this whole fully integrated things really taking off in Canada and I should sell TV commercials and I should sell promotional items, and I should do experiential that whether we decided to be sold or just was a matter of circumstance, my multiple would’ve been significantly less.” And by staying focused on that specialty of digital, not just because digital is hot, but it is, it does. It demands a better multiple.
It’s true of anything, not just digital, but that sort of specialist world. So for me, based off of who I was and what I wanted to accomplish and people say, “Did you want a big shop? Did you want a small shop?” I mean, it was ultimately a small shop in terms of what it is. It’s public. It’s on ad. When we were acquired, it was a That’s a $15 million a year shop.
We very much were focused on staying specialists because that, to us was creating a unique set of value. And it was value both in the philosophical side that I explained and the financial side as well, which again, for us was important. We wanted to run a fiscally responsible business that was moving at the pace of which these holding companies or other potential acquirers benchmark against.
Not because we were looking to be acquired because we weren’t. But because if that’s what the best of the best is looking at, we should benchmark ourselves in the same way. And for us it was. It was the two things they look at. Right? It was growth. Year-on-year growth, net growth and it was margins. And that’s a reality and it was specialty too.
Yeah. I think it’s a conundrum for a lot of agencies sort of trying to sort that out. A lot of agencies that were very traditional and generalists are now competing against specialists. And as you say, especially in the states, that’s really a challenge for them. So I think it’s going to continue to be something that agency owners need to wrestle with and probably think both short term and long term in terms of why am I doing this and at the end of the day, what do I want to get out of it? And that will help them think through the structure that they need to have.
Hey, one of the things that you guys have done a really spectacular job in over the course of your agency’s history is aligning with great clients and then keeping them for a really long time, which I know is tied to the good work that you do, but in the client procurement process, because I think agencies need to get… I think agencies beg for work rather than being as choosy as clients are choosy. How do you fair it out if somebody is going to be a good client? What do you look for when you and your team are prospecting that tells you, “Yep, these guys would be a good fit for us. We can serve them well, and they will appreciate the work that we do.”
So this is a greater conversation, Drew. And in terms of the client fit, we actually look to see if the client actually hits the requirements of what our real positioning is. So let me talk a little bit about my positioning and if I wonder too much, you want to draw me back to this, stop me and tell me.
When we started the company in 2000… It was started in 2000. I joined 2002. At the time, it was my two business partners and one employee. So a super small closet like office. What we did say is we want to work with large national or multinational brands. We started there. So some of the… I mean, literally the day I walked in, we actually won this innovation award at the sort of local big interactive awards for a thing we had done for Bombardier for their Ski-Doos because they had this thing featured in the James Bond movie at the time, and we did this virtual, 3D game thing. It was very, very, very new tech on the web back then. And it won the big innovation awards.
I thought this is a good first day at the office, take home an award like that. But it really did set the pace for the types of clients we wanted to work with. So we were always looking to work with our national, multinational brands. As the years progressed, we felt the commoditization of our industry. We felt the competition, everything else. And we thought, okay, what are we going to tell people? We have a better creative. We have better technology. We have better strategy.
It’s one thing to say that. I think we do have that and we believe that. But the truth also is that you’re taking people from other agencies. As other agency, people are coming here. What does that mean? If they came from another agency, they weren’t good there? Of course, they were good. They’re good people. But it showed me that there was a commoditization happening in terms of creativity, technology, and strategy.
So we started saying, so what is it? Why would somebody come to us as Mirum? And we realized that it was yes, large national, multinational brands because for 10 years, those are the types of businesses we always wanted to work on., but there was something else. We honed it all around this idea that we called the big delta, and the big delta for us is our ability to work with these large national, multinational brands that are typically very, very complex and have a lot of internal things because that’s what large and multinational has and our ability to take them from where they’re nascent in components of digital or all of digital to it being a powerhouse within the organization.
So that became the positioning. And then that positioning becomes the filter by which we know if we’re going to work with a client that’s going to be good for us. So a startup would come to us and say, “I got this amazing idea,” and this and that. We’d look at it and go look, you’re not a large or multinational brand. There is no big delta here because you weren’t anywhere before and now you need to go somewhere.
Because of your structure and want to be nimble work side by side, it’s not because it’s larger and not multinational. We work with client service teams and these client service teams cost money. And not that it’s a waste of money, it’s just, they work with other marketing managers and marketing directors to build these programs.
So it’s just structurally, we can tell in early days what it is, also because of the nature of that when a client comes to us and we say things like, “Well, what’s your budget?” “Well, my budget is, what’s it going to cost?” And you start getting to these weird conversations where we know that budget and having an understanding of your budget is actually a very, very good indicator as to the level of sophistication and our ability to be a good partner to them.
I’m not holding them to that budget, I just want to know rails. And if they have no idea or the sky is the limit, what do you guys think? I can tell that there’s a lack of sophistication in terms of working with an agency like us. So our filter because of that is unique and it’s troubling. It’s unique in the sense of, it allows us to really focus and work on that. It’s troubling because budgets like that and opportunities like that aren’t like, give me a 20K project. Let me build and build and build on that. It’s harder for us to do that.
We do that. We do a lot of that still, but it’s harder versus have a mandate, and we want to see if you guys are the ones for that mandate, which we do better with, I think.
Yeah. What you’re professing is exactly what I am always preaching and asking agency owners to do, which is to have a little swagger about your work and be really clear and confident about what you deliver to clients and then build out what… It sounds like you’ve done this, what I call the sweet spot client filter, which is here’s the criteria that makes somebody a great client. And if they don’t hit, at least 80% or better of those criteria, we need to just walk away rather than waste our time chasing after our client who at the end of the day, even if we win the business isn’t going to be good for our business.
Yeah. I mean, the only thing that I would… I think there’s another filter on that because you it’s a bit of a platitude, Drew. I’m not demeaning what you say. It’s a bit of a platitude because at the end of the day, you’re hungry and you need revenue.
Yeah. You still got to pay rent. Right, yep.
Right. So I’m always like, “Listen, all things being unequal and you’re running this business and it’s hard, two metrics. Manage your growth. Make sure you’re growing eight, 10, five. Minimum 5% every year net and watch those margins, and get those margins up to a nice sweet spot. Typically for me I like to tell people, well, over 20% because if 9, 10, 11, 12% is the network sort of standard. And I don’t know if it is anymore. I’m not sure. Being double, triple, that is pretty good people. You can’t make margins like that. Trust me.
No one is going to say it publicly, but they are there. There are margins like that and it’s not because you’re manipulating the client, it’s just the nature of being a specialized business with a very, very good quality product. And then that it does. It commands those types of, I think, better margins. So I think you’re right, but none of my positioning in big delta works unless I can get margins.
Absolutely. At AMI, what we talk about is always shooting for at least a 20% profit margin. But also recognizing that I think all consultants in this case that would be the role that I am serving talk ideal world, and that you have to also have real world implications. So I think you shoot for what you shoot for, but sometimes you have to make compromises to make sure you can pay the rent and all that. I don’t disagree with that. But if you don’t have any standards and you don’t have any sort of metrics by which you push yourself to get better and to work with clients who are really going to serve your business, then you become beholden to those clients rather than it being in partnership.
I don’t do disagree with you. I think the real world always forces us sometimes to compromise, but I think you have to have some rules of engagement to begin with otherwise you’re going to lose the game every time, right?
Yeah. Just it’s a harder slog when you’re in the early phases or struggling phase. So when you start breaking out of that gap of year-on-year margins and growth, and everyone has their troubling years. It’s a service-based industry. It’s not easy. We’re victims of the market. We’re victims of clients changing needs. It’s a tough business. I’m not here to make it sound like SMK. This is a tough, tough business like any other business. Your choices change, and that aspiration is normal. I’m sort of demonstrating more of a perfect world scenario here, which very rarely exists.
Yep. Agreed. One of the things that you write about a lot and talk about a lot is the whole evolution of the word creative and big creative and big idea. One of the blog posts that you wrote that I loved was the whole idea about mad men versus math men. Talk to us a little bit about sort of your viewpoint on that whole changing landscape.
Yeah. I’m not an advertising guy. I’m a marketing guy, and advertising to me has fundamentally been the 800 pound gorilla in the marketing sphere of getting a message out there. But I think that what digital did and continues to do is to change that paradigm. I think where marketing becomes more about marketing and advertising becomes back to what it was a subset of that. It’s hard for people to think of because the real output of marketing, I think in most people’s brain is either the brand or the ads that the brand pushes out into the world.
Because I’m not an ad guy, and because I started blogging and podcasting and getting into digital so early and being so influenced by people like Seth Goden and Tom Peters, and The Cluetrain Manifesto, my excitement over marketing was in the fact that suddenly you really can’t have real interactions between real human beings.
And if you’re going to go down that avenue and believe that that is true and that is a sort of direction, I think it is to this day, you then have to understand that you can’t just do the model of before of here’s the big idea and here’s how the big idea works on TV and the newspapers and radio and billboards and on the internet. And that is what was happening. And by the way, I still believe it’s continuing what’s happening. In fact, I see it almost more than ever, even on places now like Facebook and Snapchat, which blows my mind.
I want to invert that and I want people to go, “Yeah, we have a brand platform. We’re going to take this brand platform though and adjust it and make each channel have its own, quote-unquote, big idea.” So there’s not one big idea that’s rolled across, but rather multiple big ideas within each platform to make it all work and it ties up to a brand that’s cohesive.
So the example that I use is we did work for many years and to continue to work with. One of our big clients is TD, the bank. And up here in Canada, the TD ads were these two grumpy old men. And the whole story is they’re all curmudgeonly, but when they realize that TD has later hours and all this stuff, it’s like, “Oh, TD, it’s great.” A lot of it had to do with comfort. And the whole comfort idea was brought out and press in this big brand and is green. And the colors that they used. It was this big comfy chair and it was comfort. I was like, “Well, yeah, two grumpy old men and a comfy couch, that’s going to play well on the internet.”
It just didn’t work. But if you could do platforms that revolved around comfort and creating more comfort, you can win. So some of the creative may have had the chair sort of zip in on the banner at the en