Perfecting Personas

Justin Ramb, President and Sandra Marshall, VP of Client Services, Bigeye (Orlando, FL)

Justin Ramb is President and Sandra Marshal, VP of Client Services, at Bigeye, a full-service B2B and B2C agency that focuses on audiences, creative work, media and analytics, and data. 

  1. Understand audience: 

  1. Use primary and secondary research to discover who they are, where they consume media, what they look like, and what triggers them to convert
  2. Develop marketing personas that match two or three target audience personas
  3. Test strategies against those personas to ensure activities align with objectives

B2B: 

  • Use current customer data to develop lookalike audience and personas based on existing data
  • Develop personas based on where company wants to head. Is it looking to capture new clients or new types of clients? Supplement data with key stakeholder interviews, additional research, online research, and quantitative/qualitative research.

B2C: Bigeye utilizes specialized tools to learn about a client’s audience and customers

  1. Creative:

  1. As part of persona development, the agency tests messaging, colors, headlines, and photography for optimal audience response.
  2. Rather than resent the parameters of defined personas, the creative team appreciates understanding the target audience.
  3. Media and Analytics 

  1. As part of persona development, the agency explores media usage.
  2. Media develops a persona-based media plan and begins placement in that media
  3. Utilizing Google Analytics and custom dashboards, the Analytics team tracks establishes targets and KPIs
  4. Data 

  1. 24/7 analytics data provides information about how things are performing. 
  2. Data answered the questions: Where can things be optimized? How are conversions going? Do the real audiences align with those targeted? 

Bigeye started in 2002. In this interview, Justin describes the chaos of those early years and the ultimate discovery that the agency’s greatest success was driven by hiring team members who were committed, skilled, and aligned with the agency’s direction. Sandra added that the agency also has to “arm” new employees with “the appropriate support,” foster a sense of collaboration, and avoid over-siloization. 

Justin outlines the updated review and review cycle program (structured through a program called Lattice) the agency uses to keep everything running smoothly. Every two weeks team members submit a four-question online survey that covers how they’re doing, what roadblocks they have, and anything they want their manager to know. Every quarter, team members submit three or four agency- and personal-growth goals. These are used to project the agency’s direction in the subsequent quarter.

Finding a mentor, someone a step or two ahead, can help a startup avoid pitfalls. Justin comments that if you find an outside counsel and can afford that person, it’s probably not too early. He also mentions ways to find such help for free. He says strategic, balanced growth is healthy growth and believes that a company that is not growing is dying.

Justin and Sandra can be found on their agency’s website at Bigeyeagency.com, where visitors will find an “incredibly updated” blog. 

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Justin Ramb, President of Bigeye, and Sandra Marshall, VP of Client Services at Bigeye, and they are based in Orlando, Florida. Welcome to the podcast, Justin and Sandra.

JUSTIN: Thanks for having us.

SANDRA: Thank you, Rob.

ROB: Absolutely. Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Bigeye, and what is your superpower?

JUSTIN: Bigeye is a full-service ad agency in Orlando. We do a lot of different services. Full service, but we definitely focus on four key areas of audience, creative, media and analytics, and then data. We’re very focused on that and serve a variety of clients all over the country and several around the world.

ROB: Very cool. Is there any particular vertical or size of client that tends to be in your sweet spot?

JUSTIN: We serve a lot of different clients. Whether it’s a startup, a D2C, somebody just getting off the ground that’s looking for a really comprehensive strategy moving forward to launch their product or service, or all the way up to very large CPG brands that support lots of different brands under them. So, we’ve got a wide variety.

We have engagements that mostly focus on multiple pieces and customer journey, brand development, execution, media, and then the analytics and optimization. That full spectrum is what we focus on with our clients.

ROB: Right on. Knowing your pillars does provide part of the story, so maybe it’s interesting if we step through those a little bit piece by piece. When you talk about audience, what does Bigeye talk about when they’re talking about audience?

JUSTIN: We’re really focused on audience. We believe that’s the start of almost all of our engagements, all of our initiatives – really looking at, who is the audience we’re going after for that product or service? It’s really important to understand that audience, who they are, where they consume media, what they look like, and what are their triggers to convert. We spend a lot of resources upfront to understand that audience.

We’ve got a whole insights team, led here by our Vice President of Insights, Adrian Tennant, and he leads the team to really dive into that, both in a primary research way, or we’ll grab secondary research as well. That will then also get us into audience personas and developing those personas to have a target of two or three personas we’re going after, and we’ll always match what we’re doing back up to those personas to make sure we’re always leading with that strategy.

SANDRA: And Rob, it’s really been incredible to see how well that’s resonated with our clients. To see them be able to relate to an actual person and some of the persona development that we’ve done has really set a phenomenal foundation for many of our projects. Keeping that person in mind for the duration and the lifecycle of the work together has been really, really compelling.

ROB: It’s truly critical. You mentioned the startup side of the world; a lot of times when startups are asked to articulate their audience, it almost feels like an exercise in creative writing rather than in fact. Helping them dial that in seems like it would vary quite widely by customer. You mentioned that primary and secondary research. I’d imagine on the consumer side, you may have datasets at your disposal that the client might not even have, or maybe something within their data that they don’t know.

But then on the B2B side, are you diving in sometimes and interviewing their existing customers, their potential customers, and going deep on that personal level there?

JUSTIN: Absolutely. On the B2C side, we spend a lot of time looking at that audience and customer with some really great tools that we have at our disposal to get to who they are.

On the B2B side, it is important to grab the current customer data. We can develop a lookalike audience and really develop that persona based on existing data, and/or there may be businesses that are looking to capture new clients, new types of clients, and that’s where we’ll go through quite a few exercises with the client to understand those and develop personas based on where they want to head. We’ll supplement that with key stakeholder interviews, additional research, online research, quantitative/qualitative research. We always want to make sure that we’re matching it back up to solid data.

ROB: You put creative second in that list, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. It sounds to me like given that focus on audience, the creative has a deep, deep link to the audience that’s being targeted. Number one, how do you think about creative? And number two, how do you help the creative types to view that audience information as a useful constraint rather than maybe a limitation on their creative juices?

JUSTIN: We find that a lot of the work that we do actually arms creative to produce better creative. They love to understand exactly the customer, the audience that they’re designing for. After we define those personas, we will often then go to another step before we get into creative of researching and serving audiences to make sure that we’re creating creative for them. We’ll test messaging, we’ll test colors, we’ll test headlines, we’ll test photography, and we’ll find out what those audiences most resonate with.

We have all that data; we will then turn that over to our creative team, and then they’ll match that up to what they’re envisioning to create for them. They absolutely love it. It probably initially was like, “Wait, what’s going on here? We’ll design what we want to design,” but now they’ve come to really appreciate having some solid information before diving deep into what they do.

ROB: That definitely makes sense. Stepping through, you talk about media and analytics. Those are both words I think that have known meanings, but they mean perhaps different things to different people. What do media and analytics mean within the world of Bigeye?

JUSTIN: We will continue the journey with our customers and clients. We’ve now created the creative; it’s all matched back up to the personas, and in that persona development, we’re also understanding where they consume media. Where most can we get in front of them? Obviously, in today’s world, it’s a lot of different places. Yes, it’s Facebook, it’s Instagram, but it’s also driving down the road. People still commute. Out of home is still important. It may be a lot of other platforms.

So, we will develop a media plan, again based on the personas, and then begin to place that media and watch it through the analytics team.

ROB: Got it. Then analytics in that case is useful as part of the planning process, whereas data is probably completing that loop and tying the results back to the business objectives?

JUSTIN: We watch that data, those analytics, nonstop. It is so important in the 24/7 world to watch how things are performing. Where can we perform optimizations? How are conversions going? Are we matching up to the audiences that we’ve outlined? It’s really important that we’re looking at those analytics. We create custom dashboards. We go beyond just relying on Google Analytics and we create those custom dashboards specifically for the targets and the KPIs that have been outlined early on in the process.

ROB: That entire story makes sense. Tell us a little bit about the origin of Bigeye. How did you end up starting this thing in the beginning?

JUSTIN: We started back in 2002, pre-internet, pre a lot of things nowadays. Frankly, it took quite a few years to figure out what the hell we were doing. It was a lot of trial and error. Figured out what we did best, what we did worst, and ultimately what we ended up finding was what caused the most success was to hire properly. Bring on team members that were not only committed, not only skilled, but really were part of where we were headed as an agency.

We brought on Sandra in the client services and account department and we brought on Seth Segura, our creative director. Still here today, and really defined, where do we want to go? That’s what has led us to the focus of audience, creative, and media.

ROB: Was one of those practices more prominent in the earliest of days?

JUSTIN: Hiring was just so important. Again, it took us a number of years to realize it was all about who was going to be on the bus with us. We knew that we had to get the seats filled, and frankly a lot of what we do can be taught. There is some skill to it, but a lot of it can be taught. So, understanding the aptitude and attitude of people that we were hiring, and was it part of the culture that we wanted to build at Bigeye?

SANDRA: I think to add to that, too, one thing that we identified early on was not only did we have to look for those good cultural fits and those amazing skillsets, but we also had to make sure that we were arming the people we were bringing in with the appropriate support and other members of the team to make sure all the wheels were continuing to run smoothly and there was an incredible sense of collaboration with everybody. We did not want everybody to be working in silos. We wanted to really make sure that there was the appropriate amount of department building that was also occurring while we were looking for this incredible talent.

JUSTIN: One of the big “ahas” for us was doing better reviews and review cycles. It was really interesting to me. To the fault of our own, we were doing a really bad job at performance reviews. We’ve done it multiple different ways through the years. We’ve done annual reviews, we’ve done anniversary reviews, we’ve done 360 reviews. Oftentimes we’d forget about it until somebody said, “Hey, can I get my annual review?”

I do think that’s pretty common in agencies. We’re running hard, clients are demanding things, things are changing, so the review cycle and performance reviews was something we realized if we were going to grow, we needed to make sure we put something in place that could help that. So we did.

Now we’re on a great schedule. We do two-week sprints where we do updates every two weeks. Team members will submit a four-question online survey – how they’re doing, what roadblocks they have, anything they want their manager to know. So, we’ve got these pulse checks with our team members. Two weeks in agency life can feel like a year, so we wanted to make sure that we were touching base.

Then we do quarterly reviews. We ask our team members to develop three or four goals for the quarter, all aligned with the growth of the agency, but also personal growth. We meet with them on a quarter basis, we review the quarters, and then we project where we want to head for the next quarter.

And then we’ll do the annual review, which obviously is the bigger one and more extensive, but critically important to continue to check in on the growth and the development of our team members, but also of the agency.

ROB: Right. I think people coming from some agencies would perhaps be a little bit shocked by that level of regularity, if you’re able to actually keep it in sync. How did you come to that degree of structure? Do you have a disposition towards structure and you just had to form the idea, or were there some tools that came into play to help you arrive at some of those conclusions?

JUSTIN: The “aha” was when a team member came to Sandra and I and said, “Hey, can I get my annual review?” and we said, “That’s not right. We need to put something in place and we need to stick by it.” We did a lot of searching and we ended up with a tool called Lattice. Lattice is an online tool that allows such great structure, but a lot of flexibility. You can customize what works best for your agency. We have found it to be incredibly successful.

SANDRA: It’s helpful to not find ourselves in an annual review where surprises are being uncovered about not only employee progress, but as a manager, how we could’ve helped them better through the past year. So, these reoccurring checkpoints really help us as leaders to be able to know where we can step in and either coach better or help to refocus energy. I think it’s definitely a two-way street in all of these reviews.

ROB: That definitely makes sense. You said the agency started in 2002, and that was certainly one “aha” moment. What are some other things, when you look back at the journey, that you see that you might have done differently if you were starting from scratch that you learned along the way? Maybe some lessons learned?

JUSTIN: I’d say two things. One, looking back, I would’ve been quicker to bring in outside counsel, somebody that can give us wisdom, that can consult with us, can look at our business, can look at our processes. Bring them in and really allow them to take a look at everything.

We did that about two years ago. We brought a gentleman in from Boston and allowed him to look at every single thing of the agency and to give us his feedback and his thoughts and his perspective about what we were doing – what we were doing well and what needed to be tweaked. I wish we would’ve done that much earlier. There was so much wisdom that came out of that. It was critical.

Secondly, I would say really defining our focus. What are the services that we really want to focus on moving forward over the next couple years? What are the industries we want to focus on? I do think agencies are prone to take anything and everything as long as it pays the bills, and yes, that’s important – but to really internally know as a team, “this is where we’re headed, both in an industry focus and in the services that we want to offer,” and then align everything with that.

ROB: When you mention that outside counsel, I imagine this sort of person can go by many different titles – some sort of a consultant, perhaps a coach, that sort of thing. I think there are some people you’re not sure if you can trust, so how did you identify someone that you could trust to speak into the business in that way?

JUSTIN: We wanted somebody that knew our business, was not in our business, but that can consult with us on the business. We found a gentleman who does search consulting, works with procurement departments for agencies, and allowed him to come in and really pick everything apart. He was a part consultant, he was a part coach, mentor to me and to Sandra and the leadership team. He was just really critical as we moved forward with the incredible growth that we’ve had over the last couple years.

ROB: That part is exciting. It sounds like you’ve more than gotten your money’s worth for whatever the arrangement was. I think sometimes when I talk to folks who are earlier in their agency journey, there comes a point where they’re not sure when they should start spending what could be a significant amount of money on this type of help. How would you think about when is too early to start squeezing that outside counsel to help you get outside your business and grow?

JUSTIN: Great question. I don’t think it’s ever too early if you can afford it, but I also think there are some ways to get some counsel that may not be so expensive or structured.

I know, early on in the agency, we sought out people, other agency owners, to connect with. We didn’t feel like there was some sort of competition there. We could have lunch with them and really talk shop and get some wisdom from each other. It wasn’t a formal thing, but we got together to at least have some counsel because we were young, we were small, they were larger, they had already been through the ups and downs. I think that was really important to have as well, which a lot of people can do if they search, especially nowadays where you can jump on a Zoom call or something like that.

ROB: That’s a good way to frame the current environment in terms of the opportunity as well as the constraints. I think it’s really helpful what you said there. It’s twofold – one is finding the people a step or two ahead of you and looking to them for some ways to move forward, and also, I think what you said about if you can afford the person, it’s probably not too early – I think that creates something a lot of businesses may want to find earlier than they do, which is a lens of profitability, a lens of healthy margins. How have you thought about healthy growth, especially as your team has grown?

JUSTIN: Healthy growth to me and to the leadership team at Bigeye is strategic and it’s balanced. We want to grow. If you’re not growing, you’re dying, so we want to make sure we continue to grow. We’ve been blessed and fortunate over the last couple years to grow rapidly, but we will continue to do that strategically, and we’ll do it in a balanced way. We’re not here to drive our team to burnout. We’re going to have a work-life balance. We’re going to make sure folks get out of here on time to go to their families and other things.

Now, everybody’s going to be available and be able to communicate, and afterhours, because clients will need something, but we’re going to do this growth in the right way. We’re not here to drive everyone to burnout to then go sell the agency. That is not the focus for us. We’re going to continue to grow and develop a really great agency in the U.S.

ROB: Then you also mentioned the importance of focus as one of the lessons that you’ve learned. Have there been lines of service or particular types of work that you have shut down? If so, what did you shut down and how did you realize that you needed to?

JUSTIN: Sandra, correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t know that we’ve shut down any services. We have fine-tuned our services in the sense that we know the ones that will be a win-win for both us and the client. There are services or engagements where if it’s maybe a one-off engagement, that’s probably not the right fit for us. We’re looking for multiple initiatives, a longer-term engagement than just doing a website or something like that.

SANDRA: In addition to that, too, I think we’ve identified through that when we need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily our expertise per se, or if we know of someone who may be doing it better than us, we’re not shy to admit, “We want to make sure this is achieving the ultimate goal that you have, so let’s bring in either a partner or some outside help and counsel to be a part of this project together.”

ROB: That makes sense. A lot of times when it comes to partnering, you see a spectrum. Some agencies have a strong preference towards white-labeling their partnerships; some of them have a strong preference towards always surfacing and strictly saying “this is a partner,” and some of them tend to go somewhere in between. How have you thought about that decisioning process about if it’s explicitly always a partnership, almost always a white-label, or in between?

JUSTIN: Most of the time nowadays we’re comfortable in our own skin, and we’ll do a partnership. I think most clients nowadays have multiple agencies that they’re working with. They understand that not every agency can offer everything. They’re okay with having those partnerships as long as the agency is managing it; they don’t want another thing to manage. And they appreciate the fact that we say, “That’s probably not our most expertise, and we’d like to bring in this partner to walk alongside this journey with us.” They definitely resonate with that and appreciate that.

SANDRA: And actually, I’d say a good majority of our current clients were working with other partners and all playing in the sandbox together. So, it’s been interesting the shift that’s happened over the last couple years where that’s almost become commonplace. I think really making sure that we are not only developing that relationship with the client, but really being appreciative of others involved, has also helped to create seamless, great projects.

JUSTIN: That was probably a big “aha” of several years ago that the days of Agencies of Record are pretty much gone, from what I can tell. Clients have multiple agencies that they’re using or vetting or working with, so they understand the partnership aspect and definitely appreciate it.

ROB: That’s a great point in serving the client well. Sometimes it may seem that what a client wants is a one-stop shop, but it’s really worth clarifying. It’s not that they want you to be superhuman. They may want you to be a trusted guide to help them find someone to do everything. They may not want multiple points of contact. They may not want multiple billing relationships. Or they may want all of that. It sounds like you can serve them well by figuring out how they want to be served and what it is that they’re asking for, which is probably not for you to be Superman.

JUSTIN: Absolutely. Almost everything we do, we do in-house. We’re pretty control freak, so we like having folks here under one roof. We like to offer those services. Most of the clients that we work with understand that. They like that and really resonate with the fact that we can offer all those services to them, but also to work with other agencies as well.

A lot of the clients come to us because they’re just overwhelmed. There’s so many things on their plate, there’s so many platforms they want to be on. They want to stay ahead of the curve, but they’re just trying to keep up with what’s on their plate currently. So, they’re coming to us to really help backfill a lot of the work that they know they need to be doing.

ROB: That clearly makes sense. When you’re looking ahead, what is coming up in either the marketing world in general or particularly for Bigeye that you’re excited about?

JUSTIN: I’m going to continue to say and double down on the idea of audience. Everything we do is going to tie back to audience. I believe for us, it is resonating. We will continue to do the persona development and tie it to creative and media. There’s so much opportunity to understand and segment audiences. We can drill down to very, very micro levels of who we’re trying to reach. I think we’re just beginning that, and we’ll continue to dive deeper into it.

SANDRA: And because of that, too, I’ll just add onto that, we’ve been able to engage with some really incredible brands. My hope and my outlook towards the future is that we build on those relationships with those incredible brands and we start to work with even bigger and larger brands as well, doing innovative projects and really working on incredible marketing strategies and initiatives for some really cool people.

ROB: When you say audience, I can’t help but think one of the audience platforms that is a little bit more in the news lately is Facebook, and some brands opting out of advertising on Facebook, and probably some other brands stepping in and maybe claiming some cheaper inventory there. How are you seeing clients think about Facebook in terms of what marketing they put there?

JUSTIN: From our team and from clients, they’re cautiously watching it. We’ve not had any clients or any recommendations to make major shifts in their media budgets because of what’s going on there, but we are watching it. There are several things like that that we need to be mindful of and we need to be watching for our clients and making appropriate recommendations as we move forward with that media.

We have not seen a dramatic downtick in the cost of that. It’s still an expensive platform because of the targeting that Facebook has, but we’ll continue to watch it.

ROB: Got it. One thing I’ve seen, at least on the brand side, is some brands have maybe not shifted their overall budget, but they’ve shifted how they spend it. Some of them are scaling back on the brand advertising and drilling more into let’s say driving ecommerce or some sort of online conversion, or more outcome-based and less of the potentially risky brand marketing.

JUSTIN: Yes. Conversion is key, and everything we’re doing leads to conversion in some way. Now, that doesn’t mean that brand awareness is not important; it is, and placements like on YouTube, which tend to be more of a brand awareness play than a direct conversion – most people don’t click the ad on YouTube – but you need to be there. That’s where the audience is. It’s the #2 search engine in the world.

We know our brands that we work with need to be there, but we’re focused on conversions along with making sure the brand stays relevant, stays top of mind, and all matching back to, where is that consumer going to consume that media?

ROB: Super solid. Justin, Sandra, when people want to find you and Bigeye, where should they find you?

JUSTIN: Bigeyeagency.com is where you can find us. There’s a lot of information there. We keep our blog incredibly updated. A lot of great information there.

ROB: Sounds great. Any last words you want to leave with our audience before we get on with your day?

JUSTIN: Appreciate your time, and look forward to hearing feedback from folks.

ROB: Sounds great. Thank you, both of you, for joining today. It’s great to get to know you, and we’ll all look forward to being down in Orlando for some fun things at some point, once we get through this whole pandemic thing.

SANDRA: I hope so. Hope to see you, Rob.

ROB: Sounds great. Be well.

JUSTIN: Thanks, Rob.

SANDRA: Thank you.

JUSTIN: Bye.

ROB: 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 info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.