ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Justin Seibert, President at Direct Online Marketing based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the podcast, Justin.
JUSTIN: Thanks for having me, Rob. Excited to be here.
ROB: Excited to have you here. The name of your agency is tremendously straightforward, but tell us how that points you, points all of us, to your superpower and what you do best as an agency.
JUSTIN: I love it. I realized going into this that I’m really horrible at picking out names for agencies, but the reason that we chose it was I believe in being very straightforward. I just want people to know what we’re good at doing. What I imagined this agency and what my strengths were and what I wanted to be able to offer to clients is about results, and not about being clever, not about being funny or winning awards. It was about how we could actually move ROI in a positive direction for them? So “Direct” was really important to be part of the name, and then “Online Marketing” just being what we specialize in.
If you fast forward to today, what we do really, really well is strategizing on how to drive quality traffic to our clients and then help them convert that traffic into leads that become sales. I hate saying this because it sounds so cliched, but clients see us as trusted partners, and that’s so important in this industry, as you’re aware, just because there’s so much snake oil out there. We want to be able to be that beacon for people that they can say, “Yes, we know that our agency has us covered, and they’re acting as an extension of our team.”
ROB: Makes perfect sense. One challenge that can happen that I’ve seen when you’re setting that expectation with a client who is coming to you because they expect results – that can mean different things to you and to a client unless you align on expectations. How do you set that initial engagement and the expectation that all the leads are not going to show up tomorrow, but they also shouldn’t be waiting a year for something to happen?
JUSTIN: I think it’s really important to get on the same page up front. I speak with a lot of people, our team speaks with even more people, and we turn down partnerships all the time just because we don’t feel it’s a good fit. We have a very long process, longer than some people would like. A lot of times it’s “Hey, can’t you just send us a price list or something like that?”, and we’re like, “How can we do that when we don’t understand what your goals are yet?”
So, we spend a lot of time to understand what their needs are, who they are, to then evaluate to see if we even believe we’re a good fit. Assuming that they still think it’s a match, then we continue down that process. And a lot of times, depending on the particular service we’re talking about, we are even sending them a projection range of what we think is realistic to see if that aligns. Sometimes it doesn’t, so they choose not to go with us; sometimes it doesn’t, and they rethink if this is even the right strategy for them. Sometimes it doesn’t align and they say, “Do we really need to rethink what our expectations are?”
Because when we haven’t done that, Rob, it’s exactly what you’re talking about where we get into it – we know from doing this all the time and knowing the industry and knowing what is reasonable that we may be hitting something really well, but it’s not what their expectations are. So we really try to get that up front as much as possible.
ROB: Totally makes sense. Even within this performance and driving leads market, there’s such a wide range of customers. You can look at anything from the medical profession and elective medical procedures to local services, plumbers and whatnot, all the way through to Software as a Service and almost bleeding into potentially high-end commerce. What sweet spots do you see for Direct Online Marketing? Is there a typical client that you find yourself engaged with?
JUSTIN: There is a typical client in terms of some respects. Number one, it’s a medium size business. A smaller size business, probably for the price of doing business with us, it’s not going to drive the value that they need. If it’s a larger business, we’re not moving the needle as much. We’re not being as impactful as we’d like to be. So, it’s that medium size business, it tends to be a good fit.
The more niched they are, the better. We typically tend to deal with clients that are the leader or the challenger brand within a particular niche, where if you talk to somebody on the street who isn’t familiar with that industry, they have no idea who the client is, but if they’re familiar with that group, they go, “Oh yeah, of course I know who that is.” We’ve worked with some really big brands, but that’s not common for us. What’s common is that market leader or the challenger in a medium size business.
When you’re talking industry, we’re all over the map. We purposefully made that decision when I started the agency that we weren’t going to specialize in one particular area. Again, there’s some common traits, but in terms of industry we do a lot with SaaS, Software as a Service. We do a lot in higher education. We do a strong bit in ecommerce retail. But outside of those areas, anything from manufacturing to finance to entertainment, all the way down the line. We’ve worked in dozens and dozens of different industries.
ROB: When you say higher education, I can’t help but obsess in a little bit on that. I would imagine at the onset of this pandemic and the first year of virtual for many of them, there’s been tactical adjustments. But when they’re looking ahead to 2021, what are you looking at for the education world, and strategically how they are setting themselves up to recruit that next class in such a pool of uncertainty?
JUSTIN: That’s where the partnership really comes in. I love this question, by the way. We have to understand, how are they adjusting? Depending on what they’re looking to do and depending on where they are geographically has a big impact on what their approach is going to look like.
I’m thinking through one client right now. They’re taking students in dorms this year. They are, for the most part, not doing anything but singles, and there’s more spacing. So, they had to find more housing and had to get really creative with what they were going to do there. Or they had to turn those students into virtual, or they had to turn them away. Fortunately, they were able to find some solutions for that.
Understanding what ground rules we have to work with is really important to understand that. I think the bigger thing within the industry is – and this has been coming for a little while now – “Am I getting the value out of the dollars I’m paying for higher education, particularly if I’m taking out student loans, which could be $60,000 per year?” It’s really imperative on the schools to be able to show the value they’re getting and what they’re able to do to help students post-graduation. I think that’s what the universities and the colleges are trying to convey right now, and we’re trying to do in terms of helping more.
ROB: It sounds like a good challenge. But to your point, this is a strategic challenge that has been underway for a while, and like so many things, it has been accelerated during this time. That makes so much sense.
If I believe your LinkedIn a little bit, it seems like you have been in this industry, in this business, for a little bit. Rewind us back to how Direct Online Marketing came to pass and what made you decide to do this instead of going to work for somebody else.
JUSTIN: I started getting my feet wet and really learning everything when I was living in Los Angeles. A company in the financial industry had hired me. This was back in 2001, very much the Wild, Wild West days still of digital. I was there for a few months, and they said, “We’ve been really, really successful in, of all things, long-form radio marketing. For us to grow, we need another marketing leg. We think it’s the internet. Go figure it out.”
I had no background in this whatsoever. This was brand new to me, like it was brand new to most people. What was really awesome – I had so much latitude to try things. If you remember this, for people that know the search engine days, this was back when it was goto.com. It was the first year of Google AdWords at the time. So, everything was brand spanking new.
But what was so instructional for me was that I sat right next to the sales floor. This was all about generating quality leads. If I was sending them bad leads – I’m looking at my numbers thinking, “Hey, I’m doing an awesome job,” but if they were getting bad leads, not only was I not producing and wasting their time, but then they would start to look at my leads as a waste of their time and not put the effort they needed to into those conversations.
So really getting that feedback from them on what I could do to keep the numbers up but also improve the quality of leads – and then really seeing the fruits of my labor, where if you looked at the sales board, I could see by source what was going in there. If we fast forward 4-½ years later, when I moved away from Los Angeles for family reasons, when I started with them, they were a $25 million a year company total in revenue. When I left in 2006, they were doing $35 million a year just attributable to paid search.
I don’t say that to brag. They had a tremendous, tremendous management team, they had an awesome sales force, it was a good market. But I bring that up because if you still remember back to 2006, as crazy as it seems today, people still weren’t sure if Google and digital marketing was really a thing or if it was something that was just a fad, the way that they saw the bubble burst back in ’99, 2000, 2001.
I had that knowledge that this was a real thing, and logically it makes sense. This is direct mail on steroids. I couldn’t have been any luckier to have that as my background for when I moved and then looked at my next opportunity.
ROB: Once you decided to go in on building this business, did you have any partners early on? Or was it just you and a card table in a closet coffee shop early on? What did it look like?
JUSTIN: Absolutely. It was me in my basement, trying to keep the kids and the dogs upstairs so I could do some work and go out there and hustle. I used to blog every day, literally at least five days a week. I had to do something to get us out there and to get known a little bit and build that up. That was in I guess April/May of 2006. By October, I hired my first employee that was part-time at the time, and got some really horrible office space, but it was the only one that was correctly priced. So, it worked out for my needs. Then went off to the races from there.
ROB: Excellent. Maybe from Day 1 you had a pretty good degree of confidence from your experience. At what point did it become evident that you were going to be doing this for a while and with more people involved?
JUSTIN: That’s a really good question. I think there’s two ways to approach it. Some of this is more apparent today with the advent of the solopreneur. I don’t think that model was quite as prevalent back then. But I could do that and be a contractor, or I could hire other people. One’s not better than the other; it’s just what fits you.
I like the idea of hiring people for a variety of reasons. One, when you look back at what my dream was, I really take a lot of pride in being able to employ people and to help them make their livelihoods and to add to the local community and to help support their families. I feel very blessed to be able to play some small part in those things. So that was part of it.
But part of it, too, was there are so many things in life that I am horrible at, or at least not very good at, that by being able to bring in people that are better in those areas than me and to be able to concentrate on the one or two things that I’m okay at was helpful.
And then the final thing was, do I ever want to be able to take a vacation or a sick day? Of course, as an entrepreneur, you don’t at the beginning. But do I want to be able to do those at some point? I really can’t if I’m just doing it on my own, or it’s a harder process. So, to build out a team – we have a tremendous one these days, and really, I’ve been lucky through the years with having really great people – that really was the right model for me and for DOM.
ROB: Along that journey, have there been any pivotal hires that you realize in hindsight really helped you scale beyond yourself?
JUSTIN: Yeah, there’s been a few things that have happened. One of the challenges with growing the business, especially if you’re not taking outside money, is you’re in this position of “Do I hire now or do I wait?” If you’re basically operating off of cash, you have to wait until you have the business to be there, so then you scramble to fill that position, get there, and then go on to the next spot. As you get bigger, then you’re putting real strains on your people that are already working to the bone as much as they can, and now they have to become less productive because they’re going to train somebody up and then move on from there
It’s been a constant battle for us. It’s been getting better now that we get larger and that we have a little bit more flexibility with the things that we do. But I guess for agency or just business owners in general, what I’d share is that there are stages of the business. There are certain things, like getting our operations in order, that I couldn’t really have somebody dedicated to for a long time. That’s the type of thing where they’re not being “productive,” even though they’re incredibly important to being productive for the agency and for our clients and everything else. Everybody had to take their own pieces of that.
I would say we’ve had a few different instances where it was great to be able to get to the next step. At the beginning of this year, we changed our model up once again and broke out a new department. So we’re always looking at those areas. But I’ve been really, really lucky to have so many tremendous people that work here because without them, none of the success is possible.
ROB: That’s excellent. You mentioned outside funding. Very, very few agencies are able to raise outside funding, and arguably it doesn’t really make sense to, either, in most contexts. You mentioned within that cash flow and the challenge of stressing the team, when to hire. You have some people on the team now; how have you resolved the decision of when it’s time to add people or when it’s time to stand pat with the team that you have?
JUSTIN: If you look historically, sometimes you have your hand forced and sometimes you have that situation for yourself. When I had a little less gray hair than I do today, I remember we were a smaller company – I would guess we were maybe eight people, nine people at the time. I don’t remember the exact number, but I had two key people that were managers of the company. I got notice from the one woman in the afternoon, let’s say on a Thursday, and I go to sit to talk with the other one Friday morning, and she’s like, “Well, I have more bad news to give you.”
So, within 12 hours, I had all of my management team give notice. That was a scary proposition, and we had to learn from that and what we could do, but we got through it. I would say, as tremendous as those people are, we’re better off today because of the learning from that.
We’re at a point now, though, that there’s two classifications. There’s the people that are in some way revenue producers from the standpoint of they’re in sales, in marketing, or there’s some other need that’s not a client-producing function. Maybe a manager of a department, something along those lines. Where I’ve gotten now, I have enough flexibility that when I’ve identified that, I’m no longer scared. I just say, “I need it. This is what’s best for the company. I’m going to go do it.”
On the client execution side of things, that very much is more a function of, what does our book of business look like today? What does our pipeline look like? And then based on that, knowing which functions we need to hire when.
ROB: You mentioned having two managers leave quickly – all of your managers, in fact.
ROB: What do you do in that scenario? You can elevate internal staff, you can try and make a quick hire – although sometimes that doesn’t work out so well – you can just eat the pain for a while and figure it out yourself. What path through did you take, and what would you do differently now, maybe?
JUSTIN: I want to think through what I would do differently now, but let me answer the first part of that, which is a combination of factors. One, leaning heavily on some outside resources, from mentors to HR teams to other people that could give advice and help us get through it. One is putting my head down in the sand and just getting through it until we can get through those different pieces. I think you always have to take a step back and evaluate, why are you there? What do you need to do differently to avoid these issues in the future? Part of it can be through hires.
But really, that was a turning point, along with going through a program with Goldman Sachs and Babsen College called the 10,000 Small Businesses. I don’t want to derail, but I came to this epiphany all around the same time of how important culture was. And shame on me for not understanding that before. I had kind of taken the path of “I don’t want to force culture down people’s throats. I really care about these people in a very deep way, but I don’t want them to feel like work is their life. I want them to have a work-life balance. So, if they don’t want to share things with me or the office, I don’t want to force that on them.” I didn’t understand how much people were looking for that culture and how important that was.
When we look at the things that led to our success and all of our growth in the last 6 years, fixing the culture to now where we have a really strong culture – and it makes hiring easier, it makes retention easier, it makes our outcome better – has been such a huge part of what we do.
ROB: I definitely understand that desire not to overwork people. But also, I think people want to come to work. They want to like where they work. They want to like the people they work with. It sounds like that’s something you’ve been able to form over time. What aspects of culture have shifted during this season of people largely being virtual, and what things have stayed the same, but maybe in different ways you didn’t quite expect originally?
JUSTIN: I was really worried about that. I think there were a couple things that helped us out. One is the fact that we have such a great team already, and we have people that are bought in and interested. The other thing – we added a lot more communication. Everybody was already used to Zoom; we’d been using that with our clients forever, so those things were pretty easy. And we’re a digital marketing agency. We’re not a manufacturer. So, switching to home wasn’t as challenging as it would be for other people.
But I think one of the things that helped us out, based on some comments and some feedback I received from the team – I think they were really appreciative of the fact that they weren’t getting furloughed, they weren’t getting their salaries reduced, and in fact they actually saw that we were hiring. We were growing and adding more people during a very turbulent time when everybody’s world was turned upside down.
I think some of those things played in our favor and didn’t really have anything to do with me figuring things out. But the big one was really just increased communication.
I will tell you one of my big worries still is I believe there’s benefit to people being in the same office and bumping into each other and overhearing conversations, and that’s gone right now, for the most part. Our offices are open; some people are choosing to come in. We’ve left it to them for now to decide whether they feel comfortable with that or not. We have a few people coming in. Most are staying home. But I look forward to getting to a point when we can continue to have some of those in-person conversations.
ROB: Absolutely. Likewise. I definitely miss that camaraderie and the knowing each other in that casual way that comes from being in the office.
You mentioned a little bit the lessons learned from that management shakeup that you had, but what are some other things as you reflect on your time running Direct Online Marketing that you might consider doing a little bit differently if you were starting from zero?
JUSTIN: Looking back, January 1, I always say “I can’t believe how stupid I was last year.” I am constantly on the move for how I can get a little bit better and how I can learn a little bit more. The one that I’ll say from an agency – and then I’ll give another one that I talk about typically with entrepreneurs – from an agency perspective, I really didn’t get how important operations was, which I sort of touched on before. It’s “We’re marketers. We’re so smart. We just figure this stuff out.” That’s a really good recipe for letting things fall through the cracks and not being consistent.
I would just say understanding what that process is going to look like – start out with it from the beginning. If you’re not one of those people, like me, that is – I’m not the person that likes setting up processes. I can do it, but it’s not what I’m naturally attuned to. But spend the time and do that. Very much the Marcus Lemonis’s “People Profit Process.” That’s the process part of that.
The other one that I talk about frequently is I wish I would have done sales training earlier. What people don’t realize when they come from another office, they worked for someone else, to then starting their own endeavors – whether you like it or not, you’re a salesperson now. You are out there building the business. Sales has such a dirty connotation in our world. People don’t like sales. They think of used car sales. But sales is really, ideally, just providing value and providing aid to somebody and being able to match that.
We don’t do hard sales. If you’re a good fit, we’d love to talk with you. If you’re not, good luck. I hope you find somebody that’s a better fit for you and hope you are going to be there. The process of sales training is just learning some techniques that work for you to make sure that you’re aligning with the person, you’re understanding what their challenges are and how you might be able to help. The business could’ve grown much faster had I done sales training earlier.
ROB: Was there any particular sales training that you went through that you found effective, or is it really almost anything is better than almost nothing?
JUSTIN: I would say the latter. I’ve gone through a few different ones. I’ve had my team go through some different ones, and I think you pick the pieces of things that you like out there. I think Sandler is a pretty common one that I got a lot out of, that my team has gotten a lot out of.
But if you look at it, I think there’s an emphasis of finding the pain, and to me it has more of a negative connotation when you think about it that way. It’s true you have to have the person understand what their challenges are and how you can help them, but I’m more of a positive person. I try to be. So I’d rather orient myself around what’s my solution to help them. That’s why I say, again, I think it’s great – some people are diehard advocates. It’s a wonderful system. For me, I take about 95% of it and just tweak a few things.
ROB: Sandler does come up a lot. I think what you’ve hinted at – a lot of marketers find themselves much more relational sellers rather than the process and pain. It can feel a little bit more formulaic than maybe an entrepreneurial marketer.
JUSTIN: Sorry to interrupt, but on that front, I think the formulaic part is really important because there’s certain things you need to do. My sales process has become much longer than many other agencies out there, but I’ve found that it’s really important for me to do because when I skip those steps, I’m not getting the right solution that the person needs or we’re not aligning on it.
So, I do think it’s really important to develop your formula, whatever it is, and practice it enough that it’s natural. I understand why people don’t like that idea, but I think that if you’re doing those things, it still can really help.
ROB: Absolutely, yeah. Feeling natural versus unnatural is perhaps one of the bigger obstacles that people do have. Justin, when people want to find you and they want to find Direct Online Marketing, where should they go to track you down?
JUSTIN: Easiest thing is to go to our website, directom.com. I’d love to connect with people on LinkedIn. That’s where I’m most active on social media. If you look me up, it’s pretty simple. I’m sure if they’re listening to this, they’ll see the spelling of my name. It’s S-E-I-B-E-R-T. I would love to connect with people there.
ROB: Sounds great. Justin, congratulations on the journey so far and the success so far and, heck, even staying in business through one and now arguably two recessions. That alone is something, but to do that with a team around you is quite a thing, and to go through so many transitions, starting from the world of Google ads being surprising to people to having to master so many more channels just to serve a customer well. Congratulations on everything so far, Justin. Thank you for sharing your story.
JUSTIN: Rob, thank you so much.
ROB: Be well. Thanks.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.