Melissa DiGianfilippo, Co-founder and President of Public Relations, Serendipit Consulting, Scottsdale, AZ
Melissa DiGianfilippo is Co-founder and President of Public Relations for Serendipit Consulting, a full-service marketing, PR, and creative agency.
In this interview she talks about the questions she asks to suss out what each client truly needs – as opposed to what they think they need: What’s the goal? Is it storytelling? Is it brand awareness? What’s unique about the brand? Does the company have sales goals? What Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are important? Once needs are established, what services does a client need? Media relations? Digital marketing? Zocial media? Content creation? Do they need everything?
Melissa believes that “all marketing tactics are moving in the direction of measurability.” Serendipit customizes its PR services: strategizing placement timing and geography. Melissa explains that they are “looking for a lift in traffic” at the time a TV segment airs and afterward. TV segments, difficult to track in themselves, are reposted and shared on social media. Trackable links help customers to understand the value of PR placement and the role of social amplification in strengthening placement impacts. Did the placement drive a direct increase in any of the tracked KPIs?
Melissa believes thought leadership and subject matter expertise are the most powerful kind of PR. If one thought leader in an organization is good, “more than one” can highlight a company’s diversity. Being featured on a consistent basis – in national broadcast or news or print, local markets, and industry-related publications – and talking about trends, forecasting, and your personal story may not produce immediate results. But this kind of exposure will, over time, drive influence for your brand, establish you as a credible thought leader, and boost KPI results.
Melissa credits Entrepreneur Organization with contributing to her company’s success. After 11 years in business, Serendipit has over $4 million in annual revenue, high profitability, 30 employees, and a culture she describes as “enviable.”
Melissa is candid about her company’s mistakes. A few years back, when the company decided it wanted to go to “the next level,” they hired an expensive “expert” to lead the charge. BIG MISTAKE. Nine months of BIG MISTAKE. Melissa says that owners need to know that they don’t need to hire a high-ticket “name” to pull an organization up. Employees have the capability, within themselves, to grow their skills and ramp up an organization. A structured commission program has proven to be win-win . . . for employees, for clients, for business partners, and for the agency.
Another mistake? Melissa and Co-founder, Alexis Krisay, love business development. Melissa warns that when agency owners sell to customers, they may tend to sell themselves and not their agencies. Which is what Melissa and Alexis did. Then, when the “unknown” Serendipit team started working these projects, clients were not happy. Weren’t Melissa and Alexis supposed to be leading the initiative? Today, Melissa and Alexis bring the teams in early during the sales process.
Melissa can be found on her company’s marketing-education-content-rich website at: www.serendipitconsulting.com, by following @serendipit on Instagram (or for Melissa’s longform stories, @melissadflip on Instagram), or on LinkedIn.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Melissa DiGianfilippo, Co-founder and President of Public Relations at Serendipit Consulting based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Welcome to the podcast, Melissa.
MELISSA: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Serendipit Consulting and what makes Serendipit great?
MELISSA: Sure. Serendipit is a full-service marketing, PR, and creative agency based in Arizona. We are amazing because, truly, we don’t do anything cookie cutter within our agency. My business partner Alexis and I both worked for other big agencies before starting Serendipit and we saw some major opportunities to do things differently, both for clients and for employees, to make both happier.
We’ve brought all of those things to life within our agency, within Serendipit. Clients get really custom solutions, and we’re super KPI-driven, so our results are amazing and clients keep working with us because of that.
ROB: You are the president of public relations. Does that mean there are presidents of other things within the agency?
MELISSA: Sometimes we laugh about the titles. Alexis, my business partner and co-founder, is technically the president of marketing. The reason we did that is because my background is strictly public relations, hers is strictly marketing. The agency’s really divided into those two subsets. We do have directors, like a director of PR, director of digital, director of account service, and then of course, basically director of operations, who is our controller and manages HR. They run the agency, but Alexis and I are co-founders and oversee our areas of expertise.
ROB: Sure, and some of that probably lines right back up to personal brands, as well as giving customers what they look for. Some customers probably know they are looking for PR, they know they’re looking for marketing – or at least, they think they are. But you want them to come in through the door that they want to come in through.
MELISSA: Exactly. We want to speak their language right away. Alexis and I handle almost all the sales regardless, but oftentimes – I’m sure you’ve experienced this – when clients call us, they usually will say “I need to hire a PR agency” and they rarely actually need PR. We just guide them through to make sure that we really understand their goals and objectives, and then we can direct them to the right services.
ROB: If someone thinks they need PR, what do you think it is that creates that perceived need for them, and what do you find they’re often actually looking for?
MELISSA: I think sometimes it’s partially PR, but that’s the word that people think they mean when they’re talking about maybe anything but traditional advertising. Sometimes they say, “I need a PR agency,” and they wrap all services into that phrase – which is okay. It’s a good starting point.
But I think it’s important, at least from my perspective in doing sales for the past 11 years, to understand when a client says one thing, we have to really spend the time diving deep and understanding their business and understanding what service or services they actually need, and not just jumping to conclusions and giving them a PR proposal for a national PR retainer. I think a lot of agencies do that. They just take what the client says and provide them that solution as the only option without diving deeper.
So oftentimes, when a client says they’re looking for PR, I’ll ask, “What’s your goal? Is it storytelling? Is it brand awareness? What’s unique about your brand? Do you have sales goals?” We dive a little bit deeper, and I can understand, do they need media relations, or do they need digital marketing, social media, content creation? Do they need everything?
ROB: It almost sounds like some of the people who ask for that may have been hiring PR agencies for a couple of decades, even since before a digital marketing agency was a thing. It’s like when you say you want a Kleenex and you want a tissue. They want a PR agency when they want an agency.
MELISSA: Exactly. And they might want a PR service. But it’s so funny; I would say 80% come in the door saying, “I need a PR agency,” but they end up needing many other services. We get to educate them and take them through that process.
ROB: I think that a lot of times, digital marketing gets a lot of the press because it continues to change, but you have had a front and center seat to see how PR has also changed. There’s some people who are still in an older model of PR, but how is PR evolving? How has it continued to keep pace in that balance between measurability and impact and brand awareness?
MELISSA: Great question. It has changed drastically. It drives me crazy when people say – even in forums I’m in – “You can’t measure PR. You shouldn’t do PR to drive sales. That’s not what the tactic is meant for.” While traditionally that’s maybe not why it was created – it was created to drive influence – it can be measurable and it can drive sales.
I really believe that all marketing tactics, regardless of what they are, are moving in the direction of measurability. We don’t recommend that a client spend a dollar of their money on a service that we can’t tie back to some metric, regardless of what that metric is.
With PR specifically, we are actually the first agency in the nation that got certified with this Performance PR certification that was developed by a software that I used for a long time called Iris PR. What that means is we’ve really found ways to customize and understand and dive into what the PR services are providing and what those results actually do for our clients.
And every client is different. We typically start a client when they’re on a PR retainer and we say, “Can we have access to your Google Analytics?” because that’s important. It allows us to dive in and understand, what is every single win doing for you? Is it driving more traffic? Is it increasing organic search? And a number of other things.
We start there, and the reason that’s important is a lot of clients don’t understand – they may say, “I don’t believe in digital media coverage. I really want to be in print.” We’re able to show them the value of that one digital media placement in a big online magazine and the traffic it drove and the organic search it increased and all of the things it did, versus that print piece – which was important because it was a vanity metric for the client. They really wanted to be in that print publication. But did it drive any direct increase in any of the KPIs that we’re tracking? Sometimes no.
So I like that we’re able to dive in and show them what the PR placements are doing. I think that’s new, and that’s the direction that the industry is trending.
ROB: If I think about the methodology a little deeper on that, are you basically looking at the timing of the placement, the geography of the placement, and then you’re able to align that into search impressions, search traffic, that sort of thing?
MELISSA: Yeah. It’s a number of things. If it’s a TV segment, oftentimes there’s no link for us to track back to unless we’re reposting and sharing on social media – which we are doing. But let’s say we’re just looking at the TV segment that we secured on a local or national TV outlet. We’re looking for a lift in traffic over the period of time during and after that TV segment aired. That allows us to understand what impact it had.
After that, we are repurposing and resharing that TV segment on Facebook, on Instagram, on the website, through a blog, through email marketing. We’re repurposing all of that win, and we use trackable links there so we can understand how our social amplification further elevated this placement, and what did that do?
So we’re tracking a bunch of metrics, and it really does help. It is still hard to directly tie PR placements to sales in many cases, but we can tie it back to so many other things that help the client understand the value.
ROB: For sure. That reminds me a lot – I was once working on a children’s game, and we got what we thought was this really great spot in the Today Show’s Christmas Toy Roundup. Our marketing team, our CEO were coming in and telling us, “Get ready. You’ve got to make sure the servers don’t crash. It’s going to be a flood of traffic.”
It was not a flood of traffic. I think if anything, it helped us learn some of those things you think are your dream placements may or may not be. Data can tell you.
MELISSA: It’s so true. We have a client, Robbins Brothers: The Engagement Ring Store. They’re one of my favorite clients. Been with us for probably 6 years. They really wanted to be in Cosmo Magazine. Digital or print, didn’t really matter to them. It took 3 months of work for us to get them – and we track how much time it takes us to get a placement. That’s really important as well, because that’s hours the client’s paying for.
So, it took us about 3 months of back-and-forth to get them in this amazing story in Cosmo. It wasn’t just about them; it was more a roundup, but they were featured quite a bit. The client was super excited. They’re boasting about it, they’re featuring it on their homepage.
The placement did almost nothing in driving referral traffic back to the client’s website. So, it’s interesting for us to show them, “It took about 3 months of work to get this; the placement came out great, but it didn’t do much for website traffic. Are you okay with that?” And they were. But I think it’s good that we’re willing and able to have that conversation.
ROB: Sure. It sounds like an expectation-setting process as well. And some of it you learn after the fact how you feel about it. Through one of our investors, we were able to get on CNBC a couple of times, talking about things that were relevant to our world. In some ways, I would say it felt like it changed how people saw us, even if it didn’t drive a ton of traffic. It’s like, “Oh, you were there. You must be important.”
MELISSA: It’s so true. Thought leadership and subject matter expertise is, in my opinion, the most impactful kind of PR, and it’s what I love doing the most. I think there’s so much to be said to have the thought leader of your organization, or a number of them, constantly featured in national broadcast or news or print, and then local market and industry-related press as well, talking about trends and forecasting and telling your personal story.
That kind of stuff, while it may not immediately result in a new business lead or whatever you’re tracking, over time that kind of thought leadership really drives influence for your brand and makes you be seen as a credible thought leader. And it does increase sales and traffic and all the things that you’re tracking. We’ve seen that time and time again.
And I’ve seen it personally for myself. We don’t do marketing for Serendipit aside from some PR for ourselves, and it works wonders. It truly does.
ROB: That’s such a great point you make also – you kind of slipped it in there – about a number of thought leaders. Some of the best companies I watch as they are growing and scaling go from maybe having that one person who gets out in front of the article, the soundbite, the conference stage, etc., and you see them starting to raise up thought leaders in each division of the company.
I think that’s hard for people to think of sometimes as they grow in scale, to have more than one person who’s out there in front of the industry.
MELISSA: Yeah, and it’s so important for diversity, number one, because you want more than just the person who started the company. You want maybe a female or a male or someone of a different demographic or different race, different ethnicity. That’s important.
But also, people have different areas of expertise. Usually the owner – I’m certainly not the smartest person in my company. I surrounded myself and hired people far smarter than me. It’s really important to elevate them and not be afraid of them leaving you, going out on their own and doing all this press for you. We have to have more of an abundance mindset than that. That’s not the way the world works today, and it is really important to have that diversity showcased on behalf of your company.
ROB: So true. Melissa, rewind us a little bit and tell us how Serendipit got started. What’s the origin story?
MELISSA: Alexis, my business partner, and I both worked for other agencies. In our business partnership, it’s really the first marriage. We were both business partners together before we were married to our husbands. She’s the crazy, big idea person and I’m the conservative, and I can get things done. I can take the big ideas and make them happen. So our personalities worked really well together.
We decided that we knew we could do the agency thing differently. Alexis had the vision initially, and she quit her job when we landed our first client. It was a big student housing development company. I think the first retainer was like $8,000 a month or something like that, and she quit her job and took it on full-time. I supported her in the background.
Like I said, I am way more conservative, so all the “what ifs?” were flying through my head. It was 2008; we were in the midst of a recession. Our first client was a real estate client, which in Arizona and across the country, real estate was not doing so great in ’08. So I was super fearful. But eventually, a short 6 months later when we secured our second client, I officially joined Alexis.
We had no intention of becoming the agency we are today initially. We didn’t think we’d ever have 25 employees. We didn’t think we would buy a 7,000 square foot building. We didn’t think we would exceed all possible revenue projections that we could’ve imagined. But by doing really good work for our clients, we gained a reputation through word of mouth. We slowly began hiring, and before we knew it, we had outgrown our first space and started growing this agency.
Within 5 years, we were just short of a million in revenue, and someone recommended us to join Entrepreneur Organization, so we joined that as soon as we hit the million in revenue requirement. That helped us elevate our business further.
ROB: I was just wondering about that. If my research serves me correctly, you are now serving or have been serving as the president of your chapter?
MELISSA: No, I am the membership chairperson.
ROB: Oh, okay.
MELISSA: I’ve been in that role for 2 years, and then I had another board position before that. I am super passionate about EO. All that it’s done for Alexis and I in just giving us confidence in growing our business – I don’t know how much you know about EO, but the premise is really interesting.
I truly credit that to getting us to where we are today: 11 years in business, over $4 million in revenue, really strong profitability, a culture that is enviable. I mean, we’ve really built a culture that’s alive and well, and I think that’s really hard to do, and I credit a lot of that to EO.
ROB: For sure. We’re in the EO chapter here in Atlanta and actually just had the privilege of releasing an episode – we interviewed Vern Harnish, who is the founder of EO. He had some neat thoughts about agencies. Got to talk to him up at Inbound up in Boston.
MELISSA: Oh, that’s awesome.
ROB: You joined when you hit the million dollar mark, which is the threshold for EO membership in the United States, at least, I believe.
ROB: You said you were chomping at the bit.
MELISSA: To be clear, we actually joined EO Accelerator first when we were at like $750K. We crushed the goal with it quickly, but we paid an EO Accelerator for a whole year. About 5 years ago we joined EO when we hit the threshold of a million. We both joined separate forums, and we literally – it was like drinking from a firehose. We just got so much amazing feedback and heard so many great stories, and it helped us elevate big time.
ROB: You go from those first – you and your co-founder, your partner – and it seems like you can hire the first or second person into the business, and it feels kind of the same. You’re just hanging out with your partner and this other person or two who are helping, maybe in the office, maybe remote. But then at some point you start to realize that you’ve got to grow more. What was it that made you, around $750,000, say to yourself that you needed to find a place to level up your skills and your thinking around the business?
MELISSA: It was a quality of life thing. It was unrealistic. Alexis and I were doing everything. We were the drivers of business development, we were leading all the tactics. We had very junior level people working for us because you’re scrappy when you start out. You hire inexpensive labor. We were moms at that time, married, starting to raise families. We just were trying to do everything, and when you try to do everything, you’re not doing anything well.
That was the turning point for us. If we’re actually going to treat this like a business – we’re not playing anymore and we’re growing this – we need to level up. We need to hire the right people. We need to figure out, what is our unique ability? What should each of us be focused on? And then drive forward this vision from there.
ROB: That’s a very exciting journey, and it kind of runs against the grain. I think a lot of people come to some point in their business where they realize that growing is going to be hard, and it’s easier to be boutique and profitable, but not growing. Was there something maybe in your partnership that made you push through and decide to go the bigger route?
MELISSA: I still think we’re boutique, but I know we’re a little above that. I don’t know why we decided to keep pushing. There was never a moment that was like, “Okay, we’ve hit this revenue goal. We have 10 employees. Should we stop here?” That’s not our personality.
We just kept going. We kept taking on new clients. We kept doing great work. We made a lot of mistakes, we made a lot of bad hires, we learned through it. I think there still isn’t a point – I know people have these crazy revenue goals, like “I want to get to $20 million and then I want to sell” – we don’t even have that number. We operate every day like, are we happy doing what we’re doing? Do we still love it and wake up with passion? Do we love managing this number of employees? Does it feel like a home, still, or does it feel like we don’t even know our employees?
When it gets to the point that any of those questions become “no, this is not what we want,” then we probably would hit the pause button. But we’re not there yet. We’re good, and we’re enjoying it. We’ve elevated talent.
I’ll tell you something that’s really interesting. We made the mistake a couple years ago of thinking if we want to level up, we have to hire some really expensive person who has so much more experience than us and is almost double our age to come in and lead the company to the next level. That was the biggest mistake we’ve ever made. We didn’t trust ourselves to do that, which is crazy to me, and now looking back, I can see right through that.
So we brought in this person with all this experience, moved from another state, spent way more money than we’d ever spent on an employee, and it killed our culture, killed our biz dev – it just killed a lot of things, and it took us 9 months to decide that that person wasn’t a good fit, even though we knew much earlier than that. It ended up being a lot of drama.
That kind of thing is something that I think is so important for a business at any stage of growth to learn from and understand that you don’t need that level of talent, or that perceived level of talent, to grow your agency to the next level. You have the capabilities within you as long as you just keep doing what’s worked for so long.
ROB: So, this was a person in a business development/customer-facing role?
MELISSA: Yeah. We hired the person to be a director of client service. What we ended up finding was it’s better for us to grow our leadership from within the agency. After that unfolded and we were past it, we ended up really looking back and deciding that Alexis and I still needed to be super involved in the day-to-day, but only to grow some of our leaders who have been with us for 5 to 7 years into mini – into us, really. Into operating the agency the way that we felt it needed to go, but with their own twist.
And it’s working. We’ve grown one of our leaders, Andrew – he’s been with us for 7 or 8 years. Now he’s operating as director of account service, and it’s working. That’s the way that we’re shifting now. If someone amazing from the outside comes to us and it makes sense, we’ll certainly consider, but we’re really looking to move people up internally.
ROB: That’s a mistake I’ve definitely made as well: hiring someone to solve a problem that our organization didn’t know how to solve and hoping they could just figure it out. I’ve heard plenty of war stories where that just didn’t work out.
One thing I think I hear pretty often – I think I’ve heard it a little bit in your story as well – is in a creative firm, there’s an unavoidable primacy of the founders and owners when it comes to bringing in new business. How do you think about, whether it’s being able to delegate some of that work or whether it’s really just streamlining the tip of the spear that you’re involved in so you can scale yourself better in that role?
MELISSA: I think your question is twofold. In our opinion and in the way we operate, Alexis and I love business development. We would prefer 90% of our day to be spent on sales. It’s not like we’re cold calling or doing anything proactive; we’re just taking inbound leads, vetting them, and closing them. We love it and we’re passionate about it. So, we are okay being the primary drivers of that.
I think it’s important to have some kind of commission structure – at least on our end, it’s been very impactful for our employees and for just friends in our network, like in EO, we have other agencies that we’re really close to who don’t service certain industries or don’t take on the kind of clients we do, so we refer each other business. By giving our employees and our friends in our network that understanding that we have that referral bonus, they end up naturally sending us really quality leads.
For our employees especially, it’s great because they’re going after things to increase the amount of money they’re taking home every month, but also clients that they really are excited about. So, it ends up being a win-win for everyone.
The other part of your question that I don’t know if you asked directly, but I want to answer, is the challenge with agencies is when the owners are doing the sales, they end up selling themselves, not the agency. That was a major issue for us, definitely up until maybe 2 years ago. We’re phenomenal when we sell because we’re authentic, we ask the right questions, we listen, but then the clients get hired and they’re like, “Where’s Melissa and Alexis? Aren’t they running my account?” That was a major mistake we made.
Now what we do is we are very clear when we talk about the agency, we talk about the teams that will work with them. We introduce the teams in the second or third meeting during the sales process. We talk about their capabilities. It’s much more about the entire team and less about just Alexis and I, and that’s really helped.
ROB: That’s really solid thinking there. I think if people are listening and hearing you about this referral, they’re wondering probably a little bit more about how you structure that. How do you structure a referral system for employees and for people who are not employees – outside friends, partners, etc.?
MELISSA: For employees, it’s standard. We do 10% of the retainer or project for the first term of the agreement. If it’s a retainer, let’s say it’s $10,000 a month. They would get $1,000 a month for, if they sign a year contract, for that year. There’s definitely opportunities for them to get commission if they sell other services to the client within the middle of the campaign. If they’re a leader and they’re a project manager, they can maybe add on another service and they can get more commission that way.
For referral partners, it just depends on the relationship and the agreement with the partner. It’s between 5% and 10%, and it’s the same kind of thing. It works really well. Some of our referral partners, we refer so much back to them and they refer to us that we end up just agreeing we don’t need to do anything for each other. But more often than not we are paying just because we think it’s the right thing to do.
ROB: Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but at some point maybe the math back and forth just feels like “don’t worry about it” a little bit. Really helpful. Melissa, when you look ahead for what’s coming up for Serendipit, what are you excited about?
MELISSA: Gosh, I’m excited about so many things. I just said to someone in EO the other day, “I never want to forget the way I’m feeling right now in this moment.” The way I’m feeling in this moment is Serendipit is top of their game. Our reputation is amazing, among the best in not just the valley of Arizona, but in the nation. Our employees are happy. We’re exceeding our goals, and we’re having fun. I never want to forget the way that feels.
But I think it’s important to also know to never be comfortable. There’s something about discomfort that makes you work really hard and keep striving for the next level.
What’s ahead is we want to really elevate our digital marketing. We know the way that agencies are moving and marketing is trending, everything, every service line, is moving digital. We really want to grow that digital team. We have an amazing director of digital, but we really want to grow that team to be able to do much more digital media buying. We’re now working with Centro, which is a platform that allows us to buy digital media a lot more effectively and efficiently and give our clients great prices.
So that’s first and foremost, and then we’re now at a point where we’re going to start pursuing some of these ginormous brands that we had on the back burner for a long time. For the first 10 years, we just took what came to us and that’s been great, and it’s been so much fun. But now that we have these proven results for clients in a number of industries, we’re going to start actively pursuing some really big accounts that we’re excited about.
ROB: Very, very exciting. Melissa, when people want to find you, where should they go to find you and the company?
MELISSA: You can always visit www.serendipitconsulting.com. You can read about our story and see more about us. Definitely follow @serendipit on Instagram. And then I’m on Instagram. I’m super active, I’m a big storyteller, so I usually have some longform stories to tell along with my photos. I’m @melissadflip. That’s a lot easier than my full last name. That’s my most active social platform – of course, along with LinkedIn.
ROB: Perfect. Melissa, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing your journey with Serendipit. I think there’s a lot we can learn, and if we follow you, we’ll get some good stories, too.
MELISSA: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
ROB: Thank you. Take care.
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