Episode 27

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

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

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

 

The Golden Nugget:

“A live event is a very big piece of branded content.” – @NickWestergaard Click To Tweet

Click to tweet: Nick Westergaard shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!

 

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Speaker 1:

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.

Drew McLellan:

Welcome to another episode of Build A Better Agency. I’m your host Drew McLellan, and I know this is going to be an awesome interview. My goal is that every podcast we do helps agency owners fight the good fight and create a great life for themselves, their families, and their employees. And that’s why I’m really excited today about our guest, Nick Westergaard. Nick is a fellow Iowan who I know and have great respect for, but he’s also a strategist speaker, author, and educator. By title, he is chief brand strategist at Brand Driven Digital, where he helps organizations of all shapes and sizes build better brands online. He also teaches at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is a regular columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette, and is also the host of the popular podcast, On Brand, which I highly recommend. Nick, welcome to the show.

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

So I had this one other job interview that was for an entrepreneurial educational publishing company. And it was literally starting in their mail room, working on direct mail, direct marketing for this publisher. And it was right around the time that the internet was growing in access and availability and got to have to be responsible for one of those first kind of business card website, and eventually, overseeing a larger e-commerce website and really email marketing overtaking that direct response, direct mail. And that’s really how the chocolate got in the peanut butter of me being a digital marketer. And I had other jobs, those familiar in the educational test prep space, I worked at ACT, doing something similar. And I started moonlighting for my dad on things digital, that being an area in which the agency needed some support that I could offer.

And over time, he said, “You know what? You should come into the business and move back to Des Moines.” And I said, “I like half of that,” because I did want to have an agency business where beyond being full-time at a brand, at a company where you are… I always liken it to being like a carpenter, you’re doing a lot of things, going to a lot of meetings, but you’re not actually building. And I like time spent building things. So I thought, “I’d like to do that for many different clients.” And that’s how I ended up writing an alternative business plan where I said, “I think that I could stay here.” I live in Iowa city, “And we could grow the business a different way.” And we’ve started on a deep, as opposed to an industry vertical expertise, which most smart agency types recommend, we pursued something horizontal, going deep on the digital side of things. And we really gravitated to that sharp end of the spear with our own brand, renaming ourselves from Westergaard, or what was once Westergaard Advertising, and we locked off the advertising and then we re branded ourselves as Brand Driven Digital. I think that got us mostly to today without a lot of detail on what’s happening today.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and that’s what I want to dig in some more. I want to talk a little bit about how you evolved a very traditional, from what I understand at agency, to the digital powerhouse age agency that you guys are today and the bumps and bruises that you got along the way, and the lessons learned. Because I think there are a lot of agencies out there that are still struggling with trying to figure out how to wrap their arms around digital and what parts of digital to embrace and what parts to partner up with other folks to do. And so I know that you probably went through a lot of those discussions and decisions. And I just want to probe that a little bit. So talk to me about the early days of how did you take a very traditional agency in the middle of the Midwest, which is, of course, as we know, not always the first ones to the new trends? And how did you introduce the idea of bringing digital in? And what was that like with the existing staff, and the existing clients, and all of that?

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

That’s right.

Nick Westergaard:

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

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

Drew McLellan:

You go right ahead to steal that.

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

Of course, I will.

Nick Westergaard:

But I also think it was a while before that became a part of our sales message. Because before the selling piece of that… Even pre-dating my entry into the business, I was blogging. Had seen your great blog out there. And actually I remember when everyone first started reading blogs and making lists of blogs, yours was one of the first and by someone nearby. So that was always something that I was very close to. But we really approached it from a content perspective. And eventually, that blog that I had externally got brought into the agency website. And it’s interesting, because it’s morphed like an ameba because for a while it was a separate thing.

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

Yeah. As I think about it, we didn’t have any personnel changes at that time. Like I said, I think I made it sound more troublesome than it was because it was like… Because I think my surprise in tone here comes from, “I guess that did go well.” Usually you have the physician, heal thyself problems and we’ve had those. But I think we realized, “Oh, we have a sickness. We need to treat it with that.” So it was a pretty… Usually, the physician, heal thyself were not able to operate on ourselves that effectively. It’s hard to do your own stitches. And I think in that case, we might have, I think probably because things were… The current was moving that direction. It was as much clarity. It wasn’t that… I think that was the thing.

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

I agree. I think it’s probably the most exciting time in our industry in a long time. I think probably… I’m sure the [inaudible 00:20:35] days were awesome as well, but in terms of just every day being fresh and different and having to learn something new every day, I don’t think it’s gotten any better than it is today.

Nick Westergaard:

Yeah. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

So as you think about… You look around and you look at your agency peers… And I see several 100 agencies a year in my work with AMI… And I think some agencies are still struggling with trying to figure out how to define what digital means and how they want to bring that to bear to their clients. So talk to us a little bit about, if you were prescribing to an agency that, let’s say, has very traditional roots and is looking to become more digitally savvy, what roadblocks or bumps in the road should they watch for and how would you suggest they go about that?

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think of this as I’m sure there are agencies back in the day that all they did was print and then all of a sudden, well, our radio showed up and they thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is a game changer. I have to completely reinvent myself.” And the truth is we’ve always been about this story and about connecting our clients to their customers in a way that’s meaningful for both of them. And this is just yet another way. And by the way, this won’t be the way in 10 years.

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

You need to write that down.

Nick Westergaard:

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

Drew McLellan:

Well, and in fact, ironically, you, the digital powerhouse, you made a decision-

Nick Westergaard:

  1. TM.

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

Well, thank you very much. And I, like you, was… It was part of this time of creating all this content, and, like you said, this window of when everyone emerged here and you would go to a lot of live events and eventually you get to speak at some of them. And I was fortunate enough to do that. And over time, I joke that it took me too long to realize this, but they were all in Boston or San Francisco. And there was nothing really close to the Midwest. And I love our neck of the woods and I think there’s all sorts of thriving businesses here. And my hypothesis was maybe there are a bunch of people here thirsty for social media, digital marketing content. What if we put an event here? And we did that. First year was 2012, and that’s how the Social Brand Forum was born. 2015 is our fourth year. We kept it small and single track and started for budget reasons. But that’s really one of the things that people enjoy most, is that you hear a consistent through line and I’ve worked to curate those talks more and more each year.

But it also, you talk about the unheard of thing. And the other kind of unheard of [inaudible 00:28:03] is I also think that sometimes, to your earlier point about agencies and getting together and sharing ideas and we’ll learn together. I think that if you look at how you grow your business and you look at really what business you’re in, I mean, that’s why instead of digital powerhouse, we’re about building better brands online, which is probably a less assertive version of the same thing.

Drew McLellan:

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

Nick Westergaard:

I did too. And I didn’t know about the other one. Now I can’t get the other one out of my head. But we have that moment. You talk about one of those moments in the life of an agency, when we realized… When you had that