How does an award-winning agency handle the challenging and changing nature of the digital marketing landscape? What it’s like managing a growing team and evolving product offering whilst remaining true to your founding roots?
Geoff Griffiths, Builtvisible’s Managing Director, sat down with Luca Senatore of Genie Goals to discuss where the industry is heading, offer advice for companies choosing a new partner and explore how agencies can provide a more meaningful experience.
Read a condensed version of the interview below or watch it in full here.
LS: So, you’re very much performance driven, and you’re very much ROI aware, you’re very much accountable?
GG: I don’t think SEO as an industry is accountable to revenue. There’s a lot of proxy metrics floating around but we love going on the journey with our clients, challenging them and ourselves to get back to an ROI against the spend. Ultimately, that’s what they’re looking for and that’s what they would expect from PPC or any other channel.
SEO is really difficult to measure, as is content, but that’s why we have an analytics function. We spend our lives justifying our own existence and we’ve just commercialised that into a product and packaged it up as an approach.
LS: When you talk about accountability, when you talk about ROI, when you talk about performance and SEO in content and organic – how do you measure it? Where do you start?
GG: The first thing you have to do is to understand somebody’s business. Again, the SEO industry can be quite superficial in terms of the sort of things that they’re interested in and the level of detail taken. If you don’t understand how a business works, what their margins are, how they generate their revenue, what other revenue streams are coming in, their entire ecosystem within marketing, digital and offline…until you understand all that, then you’re not going to do an excellent job of understanding how to do something that is of value to their business.
We always want to get to revenue, but at the same time further up the funnel, there are different things that you might want. We do some really exciting stuff with people trying to drive traffic slightly further up the funnel but with the KPI of trying to drive email signups, then we work with them on their email and how you can help push those people through the funnel; eventually, we will get to revenue.
LS: I find many businesses get driven by something that is different and perhaps detached from the final materialistic outcome. Money, profit, growth, they’re all great metrics because they allow businesses to survive, to grow and to do extraordinary things. Financial success only takes you so far.
What is your ‘why’ – why do you guys do what you do, what keeps you going when the going gets tough, and I’m sure it sometimes does!
GG: That’s a great question. We very much separate outcomes from processes, that’s a really big part of how we operate. For example, say profit is an outcome but it’s the result of a lot of very complex systems and processes that happen, and our job as an agency are to make sure that those processes work. We don’t obsess over the outcomes because that’s when you lose the direction. What we try to do is separate ourselves away from that a bit and focus on delivering very meaningful agency experiences. The reason that we come to work every day is to give those experiences to the people that work for us and of course the people we work for.
LS: Delivering a meaningful experience for your customers, for your staff, and for your work – that’s amazing. So, I guess that translates in different roadmaps for different actions, right?
GG: A meaningful experience is a hugely personal thing.
I want to make sure that we cater for the person that wants to come in at 9 and leave at half 5 every day. If that’s what they want out of a job, we give them that. We do a lot of work on keeping things balanced, so if someone wants to come in and hammer it because they’re just obsessed with getting to a certain point, again it’s our job to cater for that too.
It’s the same for our clients. I think part of that empathy for a client is if you can understand what someone’s trying to get out of their job. Do they want a pay rise, do they want a promotion, or do they want to get out of their role? If you can understand that stuff at the beginning of the sales process, you’re so aligned with them when you’re working together then all of a sudden the reason you are doing it for them makes more sense. It doesn’t change the actuals of what we do regarding the product offering, that will always be held to those set of values and the service levels we demand ourselves. On a personal level, it connects. ‘People buy people’ is the old cliché, but it’s completely true.
LS: When you speak, I get a sense that you brought a lot of your sport skills into this business, is that fair to say and if so, have you pinpointed how this is?
GG: I was a leader when I was playing, and there are things that I’ve brought from the field. The notion of being a team is huge for me. In rugby, it’s all about 14 blokes trying to put the 15th guy over the line, and that’s a big part of it. We have a very flat management structure, which is a great thing for us and keeps the connections and bonds strong.
LS: Yeah, that’s great to hear, and obviously, within this collaborative and flat structure there must be what I call the ‘non-negotiables’. With clients and with staff. What are those for you as an MD?
GG: The way I look at it is this: be better at the things that require no skill. There are a hundred things that require absolutely no skill that nobody will often notice if you do it, but they will notice if you don’t. Those things are like being on time, being passionate about what you’re talking about and treating people well. There’s no skill involved in any of that, it is just a matter of having discipline.
LS: How about clients? What are the things that you’re not going to take from the client, irrespective of what they pay you? Are there such things?
GG: We have a ‘no dickheads’ policy. It’s straightforward, but I have a duty of care to my team and if clients mistreat people, then I don’t want to be doing business with them. In the same way that I wouldn’t expect someone to want to work for someone who mistreats others. That way the agency relationship is two ways, where someone is invested in us and they expect that we invest back into them and the team.
LS: You know, one of the reasons we do these interviews is to help others avoid mistakes that we’ve already made. In hindsight, everything is simple, right? So, I heard you say, ‘I learned the hard way’, but that’s the way you learn unless you’re watching something like this.
GG: I like the notion of continually watching my back. I don’t think I’m a polished MD that has everything sorted out. You have to be okay with learning continually. I like looking behind me noticing someone is coming up behind me, these super talented people who could probably do a better job in a few years. That’s the challenge, it’s staying ahead of that but at the same time encouraging it.
LS: So, if you’re a smaller agency starting out and you have two, three, or four staff, what would your advice be for somebody who doesn’t know where to go? What is your advice for them in terms of understanding what the right path for them is?
GG: I think it’s developing products within what you currently do and building out that product and service suite with it. We’ve taken the mindset of an SEO and then applied it to content marketing. It’s still within our DNA. We haven’t betrayed who we are; we don’t do PPC for example despite the fact its search, it’s not us. We’ve become good at that one thing, and then we can apply that same mindset to this product offering of content and this product offering around analytics.
Whenever we’re doing product or service development, and we’re building out new products we can offer our clients and doing loads of R&D, we ask ourselves this intangible thing, which is ‘does it make sense for us?’
LS: When we do these videos, I hope agencies and smaller agencies see them and get inspiration. I truly believe they’ll be interested to know how you feel.
I feel that if every single agency on the planet did a better job, in our case paid media and your case organic, every other agency on the planet will benefit. I think there’s still an awful lot of people and potential customers who don’t trust you, who don’t trust us as an industry. They don’t trust PPC, they don’t trust paid, and they don’t trust us here in terms of using agencies to manage these channels.
I believe that if every agency does well, then every agency would be better. Do you feel the same way?
GG: Broadly, the role of the agency has to move away from being a service (it is a cliché that everyone talks about, but no one does well) and become a partner and an extension of a team. That’s why we focus a lot on experience and what it’s like to work with, or for us.
When I think about your question around smaller agencies, my advice would be to focus massively on the customer service element. You have a greater chance to nail that when you’re very small because you’re grafting. You are clinging on to everything for dear life. So as a tiny company, what you’re looking for are things like stability and long-term commitment, but you don’t get any of that without developing excellent relationships and caring about the work that you do.
LS: How about brands? What is your advice for brands selecting an SEO agency? How do you go about as a brand, to fishing out the good agencies from the not so good agencies?
GG: That’s an excellent question. I’ve recently written an article about this called ‘ten difficult questions you need to ask your agency’ and the approach to that article is very much what you’re talking about. Everyone’s going to come and tell you what they do, and they’re going to give you a lot of processes. There will be stronger processes than others, there will be stronger case studies and others, but getting to the meat of how an organisation runs is massive and a hugely valuable thing a brand can do to qualify and vet their selections. It’s a complicated process, and there are a lot of moving parts. You’ve got reputations at stake, and personal ego comes in – it’s a significant investment.
I talk about things like getting to grips and understanding how an agency falls financially. Are they responsibly run? Is your agency going to be around in a year’s time? Ask sales or the business development person who is dealing with it from the agency because if they don’t understand their own company’s performance, then how are they going to understand your business?
One of the other questions was around staff retention. How do you retain your staff? Agencies typically have a ridiculous turnover. We put so much effort into our staff, that on average we have people here for four to five years and that’s hugely powerful. It means a brand is investing in something solid and they’re not going to go anywhere.
When it comes to work, it’s case studies that kill me. People use the same old and out of date case studies over and over again. Ask when did that happen? Let’s get the dates on the chart. When was that? Do you still work with them? If not, why not? What was the last client you lost, and why? That is a conversation you should be having and developing self-awareness around why it happened. What did you learn from it as well?
I think the final one that’s similar to the case studies is award entries. A lot of people dine out on award entries. I saw this just the other day for awards where SEO agencies are entering for campaigns that they did three years ago that they’ve already won awards for. I would question the legitimacy of the data because there’s no auditing on it. We’ve won awards, and it’s an important thing. It is a credibility play, but I would place absolutely zero weight on it regarding decision-making criteria. That’s just my opinion!
LS: What’s the future? What’s the mission going forward? What’s the vision for the next two or three years?
GG: The future is growing. Growing our client base, growing the number of people in the business, growing our revenue but critically doing so in a scalable and sustainable way. So, we’re not going to exponentially grow and add 50 people in straight away because the model that we have and the specialist approach that we take, will break. We have to have some conservatism around that. Otherwise, if we’re compromising our product and the service we offer, that experience, then we’re doing it completely wrong, and we’re motivated by the wrong things. It’s continued growth, and there’ll be an exit at a point but the process of getting there, where we’re comfortable, where we’re doing the right things that we’re getting as far as we can take it. There is a load more we can do.
LS: What will Builtvisible look like one year from now? Do you have that in mind? Is that a process you’re going through?
GG: One year from now we’ll be around 50 people, which is exciting. We’ll all be in one room which is the best thing. We’ll be moving a lot faster, and we’ll be able to react to situations, we’ll have much better common shared learnings because we’re all in one room. Despite the fact we’ll start to scale, what we’ll understand in a year’s time is first, does the model work? Secondly, can we accelerate? Can we accelerate within those parameters? At the moment we’re working on resourcing, our product and service offering is still evolving, and our client servicing processes are evolving hugely. The sum of all those parts, they should be in place for Q4.
To hear more of Geoff’s thoughts and understand the changing landscape of the industry, you can view the full interview here.