“We are used to thinking about change in an incremental fashion when in reality, change is happening at an exponential rate.” So says my podcast guest Greg Verdino and he should know. He’s been at the forefront of most of the changes in our industry and is one of the best at solving business challenges that arise from an ever-changing global landscape. From the beginnings of social media (when he was one of only 23 bloggers out there) to today’s blur between the physical and digital, Greg knows about the changes that are happening and more important, what is coming next.  

Greg and his wife Amanda (Verdino & Co.) are a small niche agency that focuses solely on content. They are constantly evolving and staying a step ahead of their clients and their client’s needs so that they can continue to be of value to their clients. We had a great conversation on how agencies can see the forest for the trees and discover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://www.agencymanagementinstitute.com/greg-verdino/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. The Early Days of Digital in Business Compared to Digital Today  
  2. How to Differentiate from Other Agencies
  3. What to Look for in the Business & Global Landscape
  4. Solving Business Challenges Based on the Landscape

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

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

Greg: It’s Dachis Group.

Drew: Yeah, Dachis Group, where he worked with clients including Bic, Citibank, Fidelity, Nestle and all kinds of other companies. And he has also served in other agencies big and small, throughout his career. He’s also the author of “Micromarketing: Get Big Results By Thinking And Acting Small,” which was published in 2010 and a contributing author to several other publications. But throughout his career, wherever he has worked, he has served as a go-to expert for a wide range of media outlets including AdAge, Bloomberg Business, CNN, Fox Business, Investor’s Business Daily, all other places, Wall Street Journal. He’s also given a ton of presentations, led panel discussions and facilitated workshops at over a hundred corporations and association events all across the globe, North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. So, Greg, welcome to the podcast.

Greg: Thanks for having me, Drew.

 

The Early Days of Digital in Business Compared to Digital Today

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

Greg: Twenty three, I believe.

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

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

Drew: Right, that’s right. You were at Digitas then, yup.

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

Drew: Well, and really one of the first social agencies that emerged as the bubble started, right?

Greg: Yeah, exactly.  

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

Greg: Sure. So, I mean obviously a lot has changed since then. I mean, even if you look inside the landscape of social media alone, you know back then social was in effect, organic conversation. Today, social is a phenomenal paid channel but, you know, if we all know we’ve seen the organic conversation sort of drip dried to almost nothing. So even things that, you know, have remained with us over the course of that decade or so have fundamentally changed in terms of where they fit into the overall marketing mix and what the approaches are today versus yesterday. Clearly, in that time, over the course of that time, we certainly heard that, you know, this is going to be the year of mobile. We heard that every year for ten years then all of a sudden mobile, it was no longer the year of mobile.

Mobile had been here all along and mobile needed to be, you know, a core element of every brand’s…I won’t even say marketing strategy, customer and consumer engagement strategy. And, you know, even today it’s interesting. I know you had Joe Pulizzi on a few weeks ago and I know that he briefly spoke about his intelligent content conference, you know, the one that’s focused on the future of content. And I had spoken at that event when he had it, I don’t know if it was like earlier this year. And, you know, I spoke about the mobile now basically. And what I even discover in the course of putting that speech together was how shocking it is that so many brands still approach mobile as an afterthought.

And they tack their mobile tactics on to a core, digital or sometimes even analog strategy and think they’ve gone mobile.  But end up delivering such a fractured user experience that just misses the reality that content and experience and customer engagement needs to see mostly flow across devices and the value you deliver needs to be equal across all devices. It’s not good enough anymore to say but we’ve got this subset of what we offer available to our mobile customers because everyone’s a mobile customer.

Drew: Yeah, we’ll give you the dumb down version of mobile. Yeah.

Greg: So certainly, that’s something that’s changed over the 10 years. I think the big thing that’s changed certainly…and I don’t know that it’s changed but it’s become much more apparent is, you know, we are used to kind of thinking about change in an incremental fashion when in reality change is happening at an exponential rate. And I think that’s where a lot of brands, and frankly, a lot of agencies get in trouble because they either are too slow to act on the changes that are happening around us or they’re too quick to jump on today’s flavor of the month. And they don’t think about how today’s flavor of the month has larger implications or not and where it fits into a truly integrated overarching marketing strategy.

So, you know, I’m sure somewhere today there is an agency that does nothing but Pokemon Go activations, right? And there’s, you know, nobody is thinking about what is that really, you know, what does augmented reality mean. The big picture they’re thinking about, how do I cash in quick on Pokemon Go? Or you’ll fill in the blanks, Snapchat, whatever. I think that’s a challenge that marketers still face, you know, chasing the shiny object. And then obviously, I think the last thing I’ll say before I ramble too long, is clearly content has gone from, you know, something that kind of pecks around the edges to something that has to be at the core of the entire company. You know, I would even say this is something we talk to our clients about in our consultancy is that, you know, content marketing in a way only scratches the surface of the power and the potential of content as a strategic asset for the business.

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

Greg: Sure, and I don’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that content marketing isn’t an important piece of the content puzzle because of course it is. But I think there are a lot of applications for content in the company that you might not normally think of as content marketing. So, you know, content is an incredibly powerful tool for sales organizations. You know, whether it’s as a vehicle for salespeople to build credibility, establish authority and better engage their prospects throughout the traditional sales cycle. Content is an incredibly powerful vehicle for customer support. Content is incredibly powerful for engaging the employees in your organization or for connecting with the partners in your ecosystem. Content is essentially, you know, every piece of every story that comes out of your CEO’s mouth.

So, you know, we almost in a soft of half joking way, will sometimes say… we talk about companies creating content and how important it is for companies to create content. We’ll sometimes flip that when we talk to our clients. Companies don’t just create content, content actually creates companies because content, the story your business tells, must be infused into every single interaction with every single person inside and outside of your organization.

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

Greg: A 100%. And that’s where getting serious about content strategy, whether you’re an agency or an agency’s client and not just getting, you know, kind of opening up your wallet to just start creating stuff. Getting serious about your strategy for content is critically important because, you know, owning a content consultancy, this almost sounds like anathema but the world does not need more content. Nobody’s asking for your content. What they’re asking for is better information, education or whatever to help them make better decisions or be better at doing what they do.

Drew: When and where I want it, thank you very much. So, you know, when I hang out with agency owners, one of the challenges they’re having, and I’m curious if you’re having it too, is getting clients to value content in the broader scope and getting clients to allocate budget. So, you know, I’ll have agency owners say to me, you know, “I know this client needs more content and we could do it in customer service, we could do it in sales, we could do it in marketing. I can’t get them to pay for it or what they’re willing to pay for it I can’t produce anything other than crap. Because I’m hiring a ghost rider for $40 to, you know, create some generic content.” How are you guys helping your clients understand the importance and value of content so that they are willing to invest?

By the way, I don’t think it’s just money. I think one of the other challenges agencies are having is getting clients to give them the time that they need to produce good and meaningful content. How are you getting around that?

Greg: So, I mean, I can answer that in a few different ways. I can give the short answer which is gonna sound kind of flip, which is that…

Drew: Start with short then we’ll dig in.

Greg: Yes. So, I mean, the short answer for us quite frankly is we don’t go after everybody and we don’t pitch content to everybody. You know, we are a specialist agency. Content is all we do. And we tend to either attract clients who already have somebody in charge of content, who’s already beating the drum and/or somebody with a budget for content. And at our stage and our size, attracting the right people is, you know, is plenty enough. We don’t necessarily need to preach to the unconverted. That said, there is a very real…there is a struggle between, you know, kind of, what I guess I would loosely call, quality content, selling the stuff that’s actually excellent against a perception that either a client can do it themselves, which sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.  Just because they have subject matter expertise doesn’t mean that they have storytelling expertise. And against the $40 blog post or the $70 white paper.  

And I think the thing that we use to distinguish that kind of commodity content from what clients and, you know, core companies should be creating really is strategy. And when we’re working with, or even speaking to a new potential client, we really kind of sell this idea that, which is true of course, that strategy needs to come first. And, you know, we know from studies, from Content Marketing Institute, there’s another organization called Accenture who released a study on content marketing recently, that the vast majority of companies producing content are doing so without an effective strategy in place.

And surprise, surprise, the companies that are doing it without strategy are finding their content to be increasingly ineffective and the minority of companies who are taking the time to actually set content strategy are finding that their content is getting more and more effective. So if we can sell the client on this notion that, you know, that we need to start with strategy not with stuff, where we can be effective in kind of getting out of that commodity content ghetto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Greg: I feel like…I mean this sounds dopey. Am I supposed to say it this way? Whenever I say it in my head before it comes out of my mouth, it does. But, I’m much more of an entrepreneur than I am an employee. So that’s sort of at the core. You know, so I’ve been in and out of big agencies. I’ve been at Saatchi, I’ve been at Wunderman, I’ve been at Digitas. I mean, those are 800 pound gorillas in traditional direct and digital. But, you know, I also spent seven years inside venture-backed technology startups, in between, you know, sort of before Digitas. Which is kind of what, I think, what attracted Digitas to me was that I didn’t just have an agency background but also had a tech startup background.

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

You know, so we kind of went through this double acquisition. And, by that point, I had felt that what I loved about being a partner in Crayon, the ability to kind of control my destiny and build a firm that was doing work I believed in with clients that I believed in and that believed in us and all of the stuff that, kind of every agency owner loves about being a small indie agency. Over the course of two acquisitions, we became a tiny piece of a 300 person management consultancy, basically. And there are good things and bad things about that, of course. But by that point, I felt like, you know what, it’s time to go out and do it myself again. And, you know, when I left Dachis, I kind of, to be frank, made a number of missteps.

So I left, you know, when I figured I’d go with solo for a while and, you know, I basically ended up… I turned myself in a way into sort of a digital Jack of all trades. I found myself for probably three years or two years of time doing everything from social media strategy to digital marketing strategy to digital transformation to innovation. You know, helping a large company set up an accelerator.  Doing lean business canvas work with another client. And I was kind of all over the place. All with the running threat of digital but, you know, it was kind of like the solo consultant’s equivalent of the full service integrated agency of two. To the extent… believe me, I made money but it was very much that sort of up down roller coaster ride. And it got to a point where I almost couldn’t explain to the next client what it is I do and why they should hire me.

Drew: Right. Because you were too much of a generalist.

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

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

 

How to Differentiate from Other Agencies

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

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

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

So, you know, we’re able to talk the client’s talk. We’re able to really kind of, you know, we’re able to build a lot of rapport because we’ve walked in the client’s shoes. The other thing that we…I think some of the other things that we use to differentiate in, you know, content is a very big space. And I think for us, the fact that we focus, I would say more than half of our business is in content strategy.  And we know from the research that I was talking about before certainly, content strategy is a big Achilles heel of most organizations even those who are investing heavily in content marketing.

Drew:  Absolutely.


Greg:  So the fact that we are strategy specialists and we approach content strategy, not from the perspective of marketing strategy but the perspective of business strategy, gets certain clients to kind of raise their eyes and go, “Wait a second. What’s that all about?” But at the same time, we’re different from a lot of the content strategy shops who, frankly, over-engineer the strategy process and are so divorced from the production process, that they don’t really know what’s practical in a lot of cases. So we have this sort of this…it’s almost like we’re a two person consultancy with two lines of business. You know, one is around strategy and the other is around what we call “strategic content creation”.

We’re very clear with clients, “You’re not gonna hire us to write your tweets and do your Facebook posts. You probably won’t even use us to write your blog posts. But when you have an evergreen strategic asset that has to kick ass, that’s us.”

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

Greg: That’s exactly right. And I know obviously that’s a key theme, a common theme across all of your podcasts and your AMI work. And it’s not just because of your podcast obviously but, you know, that’s something that we believe in firmly. I think that was one of Crayon’s key advantages in the early days of social was, you know, we were an early social agency back before agencies were brave enough to say social is all we do. And we were predominantly a social strategy shop as well. So, again, we were kind of mopping up after a brand had, you know, had gone tactics first at social media and had been disappointed in what they got out of it. Crayon could come in and mop up and bring order to the chaos for some pretty big clients. So it allowed us to punch well above our weight.

And, you know, to an extent, I mean there’s a lot of lessons I learned through the process of being part of and then selling Crayon that I would certainly not want to repeat. But there are certain things that I would repeat over and over and over again which…and that one of those is the importance of being as tightly niched as you feel comfortable with.

 

What to Look for in the Global & Business Landscape

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

Greg: So I mean, I think there were, you know, there are a couple of sort of overarching themes I think that I can provide that wouldn’t, you know, tell you how I cut the lady in half, I guess. But also some specific things that I think are, you know, very practical and actionable. I mean, one of the things that