Episode 136

podcast photo thumbnail



Branding has always been a cornerstone of my own agency. We’ve spent a ton of time and effort building brands for clients. We have, like all of you, created what we think of as a proprietary process around brand, and it’s a topic that I have a great passion around.

Many of you are either too polite to ask or have point-blank asked me, “Drew, what is the deal with you at Disney.” Brand is part of why I love them so much. One of the aspects of Disney that I really admire and connect to the most is that I think they’re just about as good as it gets in terms of understanding their brand, building their brand, and evolving their brand over time.

One of the guys in the agency space who I think is really brilliant at branding is an Iowa based agency owner named Nick Westergaard. His new book, Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World, just came out and it is a brilliant blueprint for how to create a memorable, meaningful brand in today’s chaotic time and space.

Nick and I talked about are how building a brand has changed in this digital crazy, crowded, distracted time, and what are some of the elements that we as agencies can really spotlight and offer as a huge value to our clients. How do we use brand as an agency offering to stay sticky with our clients rather than a one and done project?

Nick is a strategist, speaker, author, and educator. As Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, he helps build better brands at organizations of all sizes — from small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to President Obama’s Jobs Council. In addition to his new book, Nick is also the author of Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small.

Nick is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. He teaches at the University of Iowa where he sits on the Advisory Council of the Marketing Institute at the Tippie College of Business and the Professional Advisory Board for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also a mentor at the Iowa Startup Accelerator.



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Working with brands in a distracted, digital age
  • How the world changed our views about how we should be looking at branding
  • Why simplicity in branding is more critical than ever
  • How agencies can help their clients understand what storytelling really is and how to help them construct better brand stories
  • Why “Story” is a buzzword and how we can rescue it
  • Why the main character in the story shouldn’t be the brand and why it should be the client’s end user
  • Why making sure employees understand the brand is so important for your agency culture and the work that they do for clients
  • The role agencies play in building brands and moving the brand forward
  • How to provide real value to clients in this era of distraction and rapid change
  • The opportunities agency owners are missing out on during the brand discovery process
  • Why a brand is everything a company does – and why that doesn’t have to be overwhelming
  • Why it’s important for you to plant your flag for your brand
  • How Nick’s book can help agencies work together on their own brand
  • The value of getting outside perspective on your own agency

The Golden Nuggets:

“We often think that our agency is the main character of our story but it really the client needs to be the hero and we build the story around that.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Employees are your most important brand ambassadors.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Treating your best customers well – treating them differently – is something that’s hard to do. When it’s done well, you stand out.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “If they say, ‘no, no – we just need a logo’ they might not be the right client for you.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Clients who understand the value that your outside perspective brings in terms of their brand – those clients are golden.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “I love quoting you, Drew. You said this on my podcast. ‘A brand is not a checklist. A brand is a flag you plant in the ground.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Brand is everything we do, day in and day out. It sounds scary, but it’s about knowing who we are and what we’re always striving towards.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Teaching and helping are the crux of what I’m trying to do in all my work.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet “Ask questions, and then ask questions behind those questions. And then more with the questions. That’s how you help clients (and your own agency) develop a brand.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet


Subscribe to Build A Better Agency!

Itunes Logo          Stitcher button

Ways to contact Nick Westergaard:

We’re proud to announce that Hubspot is now the presenting sponsor of the Build A Better Agency podcast! Many thanks to them for their support!

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency Podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll 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+ years of experience, as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Today, we’re going to talk about one of my all-time favorite topics. So if we ever are in an airport together or you’re stuck with me for a few hours, raise the issue of brand and I promise you we will not run out of things to talk about.

So branding has always been a cornerstone of my own agency. We’ve spent a ton of time and effort building brands for clients. We have, like all of you, what we think of as a proprietary process around brand. So it’s a topic that I have a great passion around. It’s one of the reasons many of you are either too polite to ask, or some of you have point-blank asked me, “Drew, what is the deal with you at Disney?”

And one of the aspects of Disney that I really love the most, is I think they’re just about as good as it gets in terms of understanding their brand and building their brand and evolving their brand over time. As many of you know, I’ve been to Walt Disney World at least once a year since it opened in 1971. And I have spent many, many days there. In fact, one of my goals … which I am happy to say I am able to accomplish … is to spend at least a month a year on Disney property. So I really feel like I have immersed myself, over the years, in the Disney brand. And it’s really a master’s degree in how to build brand every time I’m there. And so it’s one of the things I love about it, is just it really feeds my curiosity and hunger around brand.

So one of the guys who I think, in the agency space, is really brilliant at branding, is a agency owner named Nick Westergaard. And Nick was actually my guest on episode number 27. And what we talked about on that episode was … Nick actually came into the agency that he now runs, his dad started it. And his dad started it, as you might imagine, as a very traditional shop. And Nick really brought the agency into the digital age and has completely evolved … with his dad’s support and help … really evolved the agency into what it is today. But it’s always been very brand-centric.

And so Nick’s been a brand guy for a long time. He happens to actually have an agency here in Iowa, so we know each other because we share a physical space in the state. And he also puts on one of the best events, I believe, for any brand or agency, every fall. So, his first episode, we talked a lot about brand. We talked a lot about how to move an agency. How do we evolve an agency that was rooted in traditional marketing, into digital?

And so the reason why I invited him back, is that Nick has written his second book. And it comes out very shortly. And it’s called Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World. It’s a brilliant book. It really attacks the ideas of brand and how to bring a brand to life. And because he’s an agency owner, if you read the book, I think you’re going to see threads of how to think about it from an agency’s perspective.

So some of the things I want to talk to Nick about are: how has building a brand changed in this digital, crazy, crowded, distracted time? And what are some of the elements that we, as agencies, can really lean into and offer as a huge value to our clients? And how to we use brand to stay sticky with our clients, rather than a one and done? How do we really evolve brand into an ongoing work? Because I really do believe it’s foundational in everything we do. And I don’t care if you’re an SEO shop, I don’t care if you’re a PPC shop, I don’t care if you’re a PR shop, I don’t care if you’re a traditional marketing agency, some aspect of brand, and the foundational reality of that product or company differentiation, influences the work we do. So I think every agency has to be brand-centric. And Nick’s book, I think, is a nice blueprint for how to do that in today’s time and space.

So I’m excited to introduce you to him. If you have not listened to episode 27, I highly recommend you go back and do that. But we’re really going to be talking very differently than we did in that episode. So even if you did listen to that one, I promise you, listening to Nick again and hearing more about the core tenets of his book will be fodder for you, good, good practical fodder for you to put into action.

So, without any further ado, I want to jump right into the episode and get into the conversation. Because I have about three hours worth of questions and I know we only have an hour. So let’s jump into it.

So, without further ado, Nick, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us again.

Nick Westergaard:

Drew, I am so happy to be back. Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You bet.

So your book is out this month, in May. And it is a book about brand. And as you and I both know, perhaps not the first book on that topic out. Yeah.

So what made you say, “You know what? There’s room for another book and I’m going to do this a little differently”?

Nick Westergaard:

Yeah. Well, that is a great question, because there are quite a few books. And there’s a lot of thoughts about this branding thing. And the way I realized that was in writing my first book, Get Scrappy, which is all about doing more with less when it comes to marketing. A lot of short, concise, scrappy chapters. And my first chapter in that book was why it’s important to have a brand behind all of your marketing in this digital world that we find ourselves in.

And that chapter bloated very fast. I showed our mutual friend, Ann Handley, an early draft. And she, in that very polite Ann Handley way, said, “You have a lot of stuff about branding up there at the beginning.”

Drew McLellan:


Nick Westergaard:

And she was right. It was easily twice as long as all the other chapters, which just makes for a lumpy book. So I set that draft aside and recast a scrappy way of talking about branding for that chapter. But took some of these bigger ideas and I’ve let those marinate, obviously, with an agency myself, and working with brands and building brands that those thoughts crystallize.

And then one of big proving grounds for some of the branding systems that ended up making it into the book, are teaching in the MBA program at the University of Iowa. So that was where I reworked all of that stuff that was in the first chapter into something that really, I think, looks at how it is different building brands in this distracted digital world that we find ourselves in.

Drew McLellan:

When I think about the history of our shared industry, of agencies, really, back in the day, back in the Ogilvy days and Bernbach and all those guys, it was all about brand. It was really storytelling and brand.

So how, from your perspective, has the world change … all of the changes that we’re all struggling with as agency owners every day, how has that changed the way we should be looking at branding?

Nick Westergaard:

Well, I think you’d look at a few different things. I mean, first of all, obviously the elephant in the room, you see social media. You see that the tools, the media channels that we’re using to build brands are very different. Instead of from those Ogilvy, Bernbach days, where you’re interrupting people to get them to look at something, now we have people actively connecting with brands and looking for messaging, communication, from brands. At the same time, you see data that shows that people understand brands less than ever before.

So we have better tools for communicating, but the messages still aren’t getting through. And I think that that’s to a couple of different points. I think that, because of these tools, everyone’s using them and it is more crowded, more noisy, than ever before. And I also think that, in looking at all of these tools and thinking about how to employ them, we aren’t thinking as proactively as we should about what our ideas are behind our brand and what that looks like across all of these different channels as well. We no longer are in control of what order people experience our brands as well.

So it’s like someone’s taken the messy closet apart and you’re looking at all the contents on the ground. And you have to think about how you can organize it in a way that, regardless of where someone encounters it, they’re getting a cohesive message about who you are and what you stand for.

Drew McLellan:

I think one of the key takeaways that I took from the book was this idea that because a) we have less control over the communication of the brand, that a lot of that is happening outside of our controlled environment, and b) because of the speed and the attention span of the average human being, that just the volume of content that is barraging us and all that, that simplicity around brand becomes even more critical.

And as I was reading your book, I was thinking about … I saw a meme somewhere where it said, “A brand is no longer what we tell the marketplace it is, it’s what the marketplace tells each other it is.” And I thought, “That’s really true, that we have to give people a much simpler message because we are now counting on them to be the carriers of that message.” True?

Nick Westergaard:

Absolutely. And I think that that’s the right way of looking at the importance of simplicity too. I think that, especially as we try to think and create more decisive strategies, sometimes that gets us into this more is better thinking, where we’re trying to layer more messages and supporting messages and all these other things, instead of thinking about one core idea that we’re reinforcing a lot of different ways.

Drew McLellan:

So the book’s structure is interesting. After reading the book, I think about it in two parts. One is: here are the mechanics of branding, here’s some of the key elements of branding. And then the second part you call the toolbox. And it literally is: here are the tools that you can use to communicate the brand.

But one of the parts … and I think this is the part about branding that a) we both love, as agency people, but b) I think we struggle with helping clients understand it, is this idea of storytelling. So I think there’s something romantic about the notion that we’re going to tell these stories and people are going to be engaged in them. And let’s face it, most brand stories aren’t really stories, they’re just, “You’re telling me what you want me to know. And you might be starting with a once upon a time or something else, but it’s not really a story.”

So how do we, as agencies, help our clients understand what storytelling really is? And how do we help them construct better brand stories?

Nick Westergaard:

Yes. And I’d say this with the full awareness of someone who’s written a book, over the whole chapter, about story. Stories is a buzz word. I think there’s a lot of questionable work in the world of business being done around story. But I think it’s important, because at the end of the day, as brand builders, as marketers, we are about communicating a message to an audience and getting that audience to remember that message and to share it with others.

And if you look at story and the science behind story, stories stand out, stories are how we make sense of the world around us. So if you think of a story that you’re able to tell and can cast your brand as a character in that story, it stands out in a way.

One of my favorite examples … and I talk about this in the book … for us frequent travelers, we see a lot of random ads in the airport. And talk about crowded, distracted marketplace. Which is why I think it’s a great example. But I was in Boston, and there was a wall sized ad with a big Oreo splashing into a glass of milk. And at first I glanced at it and I thought, “Ha, Oreo ad.” And then I looked and it was an ad for Accenture. And it had one headline above it, I think in a drippy milk font, that said, “We helped Mondelez International save millions, billions … lots of money.”

So it was an ad for Accenture. And I think that that’s a great example, a very visual example. But there’s a story. There is a main character: Mondelez International. There is a supporting character: that is the brand. And there was a conflict in the world of business, because always being effective and efficient is key. And Accenture was able to help Mondelez do that. So I think that’s story at its most basic.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. And I think people struggle with … and I think we blame it on the clients, that the clients are trying to shove five pounds of story into a one pound story bag, right?

Nick Westergaard:

Right. That’s a very nice, PG way of saying that phrase.

Drew McLellan:

Yes, that’s right.

Nick Westergaard:

I think I’ll keep using that.

Drew McLellan:

[crosstalk 00:15:23].

Nick Westergaard:

I usually use that other four letter s word.

Drew McLellan:

Yes. Right. Yes.

So I think one of the challenges for us is to help clients understand that the story isn’t the only story. I think one of the shifts in brand is that now we have to tell these little mini stories, because people will pay attention to us for about 60 seconds at best.

Nick Westergaard:

Well, and story has also gotten somewhat complicated to define in a marketing and media context, because now we have these features called stories in most of the more popular platforms, on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. So stories … as if it wasn’t hard enough to get our arms around, there’s another added layer there too.

But I also think, to your point, that a lot of times, “Oh, what’s our story?” we go to the about page. “We were founded in 1930-whatever, by the founder’s grandfather. He did this, this and this.” And that may be a part of your story, but really that core story of what you’re helping people do is key. That’s why I point out that, so often, in telling brand stories, we think that we, as the organization, as the brand, is the main character. And many times, it