Jake Finkelstein, CEO of Method Savvy (Durham, NC), a full-service, data-driven, omnichannel marketing agency working primarily with mid-market enterprise brands, spoke at Atlanta’s 2018 Digital Summit (where this interview took place) on how user experience design principles and human experience design impact SEO performance.
In this interview, Jake talks about his company’s 5-phase core-value-based methodology that ensures strategic focus and tactical efficiency. Method Savvy is not about “doing a particular thing” to ensure client greatness. Instead, the company strives to solve particular problems (e.g., demand creation or customer life cycle management) through the implementation of iterative, scalable processes across a broad range of (increasingly integrated) channels.
Jake provides an example of integrated technology where a customer’s response to one channel (e-mail) triggered an automated activity in another channel (direct mail). He sees a great future in what he refers to as augmented intelligence, where, as happened with the Industrial Revolution, repetitive brain-numbing jobs are done by automated systems, in this case, making it easier for marketers to do the right kind of great (creative and innovative) work. Jake emphasizes the importance of:
- marketing and advertising transparency and accountability,
- aligning marketing activities with what truly creates business value, and
- setting up systems that build predictable and scalable revenue growth.
ROB: I am actually live at the Atlanta Digital Summit, here with Jake Finkelstein, CEO of Method Savvy. They’re based in Durham, North Carolina. I’m excited to have you as a guest, Jake. Thank you for coming on the podcast.
JAKE: Thank you very much for having me.
ROB: You have a notorious “first” here. You’re our first live-at-a-conference recording.
JAKE: Okay, good. I’m glad I can break the ice.
ROB: Yeah, thanks for being game for that. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Method Savvy and what the company is great at?
JAKE: Sure. We’re a full service data-driven marketing agency, and we exist to help good people build great companies. We work primarily with mid-market enterprise brands.
What really makes us different is we have a 5-phase methodology that allows us to be more strategically focused and tactically efficient so we can make sure what we’re doing is really aligned to core business objectives. If it is, we can scale it, and if it’s not, we can stop.
ROB: Got it. What’s a typical client and scope of engagement? Not that every client’s not pretty different, but what’s somewhat typical?
JAKE: Like most agencies, there’s a lot of variability. But the bulk of our clients bring us on either on AoR or on a long-term basis to manage an iterative series of programs. Again, we’re not doing a particular thing; we are trying to solve a particular problem.
Oftentimes the problems that we’re solving are demand creation or customer life cycle management. We’re coming in and saying, “We need to make sure that we can extend lifetime of a customer. Your MRR is getting crushed because you just have too much churn.” How do we do that?
We’re actually doing a series of programs, and the way that our methodology works is it’s circular. It’s iterative. So every time we run our program, we get smarter and better at it, which allows us to continue to move forward with our clients in a productive way.
ROB: Very cool. Being AoR, obviously you’re handling a wide range of channels or a wide range of services. What are some of the common channels where you have to staff up the most?
JAKE: We’re fundamentally omnichannel because we believe the customer experience is omnichannel. We’re talking to humans. We’re not talking to paid search people. We really try to view it holistically.
The channels, though, that we most often touch are digital. About 70% of what we do is digital in one form or another, for really two reasons. One, budgets have been shifting that way for the last decade, so it’s not surprising. Second, it’s the way our methodology works. It’s very customer-oriented and it’s less expensive and faster to do via digital.
With that said, we build systems that are extendable to both traditional and digital. But channels are all forms of advertising. We do lots of digital advertising, paid search, display, social media, video, etc. We do a lot of marketing automation work. Increasingly we’re doing a lot of account-based marketing programs. Again, that goes across channels, so we end up doing a lot of direct mail as part of that as well. Also a significant amount of brand building work, which is really influencing content marketing.
ROB: I think digital marketers who aren’t in the thick of doing direct mail would be surprised by how much direct mail is still a part—almost to the point where, do you feel it may be underleveraged by some people?
JAKE: Yes, absolutely, for a couple of reasons.
First, I think just from a customer experience standpoint, we’re all inundated with emails, but if you get a really nice direct mail, it can stick out. You go back 20 years, it was the opposite way. You’re like, “Ooh, I got an email,” and now you’re like, “Oh great, I got another email. I don’t really need that.” So I think that, if used strategically, it can be very valuable.
Also, for certain audience segments—particularly on the B-to-B side—direct mail may be the only way you can really get to them where you can measure engagement. I was talking to a brand yesterday about this, and they were saying, “We know the accounts, but we have a really hard time talking to people in the accounts because we don’t actually know who we should be talking to, or we don’t have a good way to get there.” Sometimes some older, more potentially boring-looking channels can be a really great way to do that.
ROB: How are you closing the loop on direct mail, then? How did you figure out that it worked?
JAKE: Let me give you an example of an ABM program that we ran. This was a fun one. We were working with a national call center operator. They do onshore and offshore, so they work with big telecommunication companies and they’ll end up doing 7-figure deals to manage call center operations.
They wanted to get to the senior level—potentially C-level, but VP level—operations folks that manage these divisions.
The way that we did it is we ended up getting a list of known prospects from what they had, but they just kept banging their head against the wall on. We created an ABM program where the direct mail piece sat in the middle.
The name of the company is Bernard. We rebranded them, so it was kind of like a St. Bernard theme. We ended up running a program where we 3D printed a bone. Inside was a blank area just big enough to fit in a cellphone. We programmed the cellphone to turn on on a certain day and time, and then mailed this custom piece to the target prospects.
When they opened it up, it had a little card that said, “If you answer this phone when it rings, we’ll give you . . .”—I think it was like an Amazon gift card, Apple TV, some type of gift.
Our measurement was actually whether the phones turned on, so we could track that digitally, and whether people were answering the phones. We ended up with like a 40%+ response rate.
ROB: Wow. And that’s a relatively high value customer, so you can make all of that make sense.
The tools for a lot of this have come a long way. How is the tooling for direct mail? Is that up to speed, or is it pretty old school right now? Are you stuffing envelopes? How’s that work?
JAKE: It really depends on how customized the execution is and the vendor that we’re working with. Far on the other side, we had an ecommerce client that had some scale to them. We’ve actually integrated their direct mail with their email. What happens is when somebody becomes unengaged via email or unsubscribed, it automatically triggers a custom printing of a direct mail piece, and the fulfillment center can automatically send it out.
These are certainly not the bone phone quality of communications, but it allows us to try to reengage somebody in a different way. That type of technology integration is pretty slick.
However, there are a number of vendors that are still stuffing envelopes in the backroom. I think that is significantly less efficient.
ROB: Yeah. That certain degree of automation you’re talking about, that’s true in almost every dimension of marketing. The higher the customer value, the bigger the deal, the more bespoke you can be and unscalable you can do.
I suspect that some of what you’re doing on the automation side is—I don’t think they’re quite there yet, but MailChimp is apparently building out direct mail capability integrated with MailChimp.
JAKE: Yeah, Bronto does the same thing. Oracle + Bronto, I guess is what they’re called now.
ROB: You use Bronto a lot? They’re your neighbors?
JAKE: Yeah, they’re our neighbors. We can see them. I’m friendly with the founders. But yeah, we work with them, we do a lot of work with MailChimp, and of course, all the marketing automation vendors.
But there’s even interesting integrations with marketing automation tools like Pardot. We did a program for an enterprise level computer manufacturer where it was what we called a “pizza-nar.” We would send out an email. Somebody could sign up for a webinar, and there was an integration—I believe it was with Papa John’s, if I remember correctly—and it automatically ordered the pizza to be delivered at the right time. It was all integration, all automated. It was fantastic.
ROB: Amazing. Tell me a little bit about how you came to start Method Savvy. How did it come into existence? What’s the superhero backstory?
JAKE: I have a winding road that I’ve traveled in terms of background. I actually cut my teeth in the music business. Back in the ’90s when people went to record stores and bought music on shiny discs, my job was to help promote artists to get them to go buy the shiny discs.
I got tired of working on the label side and jumped ship to co-found an entertainment and lifestyle marketing agency called Universal Buzz. The CEO was this guy Tommy Brunett. He was a guitar player and danced like Modern English, “I’ll stop the world and melt with you.” Great guy, has a fantastic whiskey company now called Iron Smoke Distillery.
But anyhow, we started that primarily with a focus on music. What happened is that labels started running out of money, as we all know. So we started moving into television, film, and video games, which ultimately brought us in to work with large Fortune 1000 brands. We were doing all kinds of fun things, from digital activations to publicity stunts, concert tours—you name it. It was a whole lot of fun.
But in 2007-2008 (I started Method Savvy in early 2009), I started hearing from my clients the same refrain. Remember, this is the doldrums of the economy. Their budgets were being cut in half and their teams were being cut in half, and they started demanding higher levels of accountability to where their investments were going.
They didn’t know how to solve that problem, and I realized that I didn’t know how to solve that problem. So the impetus for Method Savvy was really to build transparency and accountability into marketing and advertising so we can be more strategically aligned to what creates real business value.
ROB: So you at that point sort of made a bet on yourself, that you could learn what none of you knew faster than they could—partly through repetition, right? I think that’s one of the themes of the agency world. You’re solving similar problems more times than maybe the client is, and you see more things.
JAKE: Yeah, that’s one of the values that agencies provide. We’re not only working with one brand; we’re working with many brands, so we can take learnings from our experience and apply them to different industries, to different customer segments. History does not predict the future, of course, so not everything’s going to work. But it allows you to inform the strategy in a very different way.
ROB: When did you start to feel like you did know how to solve these problems?
JAKE: I probably shouldn’t say, but I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I guess we’re doing okay. [laughs] No, in all seriousness, it happened probably within the first year or so that I started Method Savvy. Two things occurred.
One is I realized when I was talking to brands that they were leaning across the table, putting their arms down and going, “Tell me more. This is really interesting.” I’m like, okay, I’m onto a concept, so that’s good.
Then I also realized that they didn’t know how to do it, their agencies didn’t know how to do it, but I had a methodology and process that allowed us to build and implement the tech stack in a strategic way. Once we started running the programs and seeing success—not that everything was a homerun, but we could learn quickly enough that we could stop putting good money after bad.
Even that alone was a huge win for brands, much less being able to build truly predictable and scalable revenue growth.
ROB: What have been some of the key hires along the way that have helped you, inflection points in the business where it’s helped you grow beyond your own capabilities? Key hires you’ve made in building the business that have helped you scale beyond yourself—because we all limit ourselves, because we’re people and we’re not superman.
JAKE: I am very lucky that I’m surrounded with people way smarter than I am. Key hires have really turned into department heads. One of the first key decisions I made was I was at a pivot point. I could either focus on operations or I could focus on sales.
At the time I decided to focus on operations, and I found a brilliant sales leader—who’s really turned into a fully-developed consultant—by the name of Devin Kelley. Still on the team, my first hire. That kind of anchored us, because it allowed us to get out of the peaks and valleys of the sales process.
From there, as we made strategic investments in certain capabilities that we wanted to own in-house—advertising, marketing automation, creative—we got key leaders that allowed us to say, “I know I want to do this thing. Here’s the overall approach that we as an agency have, but you give me your vision for how to do this and talk to one another so you can help me understand the way that we should actually be doing this.”
As I got those key players in place, it was world-changing.
ROB: Right on. I think that’s a really freeing thing for any entrepreneur, when you know what you don’t know. Especially once you have confidence that the person who’s in charge of that does know.
JAKE: Yeah. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the last couple years is I was over in Asia for a conference, I went away for 2 weeks and I came back and nobody called me because nobody needed to. I was like, “Holy cow! I did it.” [laughs] In fact, they’re like. “Can you go away again? Things are much better when you’re not here.” I was like, awesome!
ROB: Yeah, you can plan some family vacations.
JAKE: I think to your point, one of the harder things that entrepreneurs run into is at some point they become self-limiting to their team. It takes a lot of self-awareness to get over that. I’ll admit, I was not self-aware until that point where I was like, “Wow, I’m actually holding my team back because I’m holding onto some things that I really shouldn’t.” Since then it’s become much easier for me to let things go.
ROB: That’s a key learning. What are some other key lessons you’ve learned along the way building Method Savvy that you would do perhaps differently next time, if you were starting your third agency?
JAKE: I’m going to answer that question directly, but there’s actually one thing that I would definitely encourage anybody to do: no matter how hard you sell, whenever you get a client that represents more than 20% of your revenue, sell harder.
Every client is going to transition out at some point, and one of the big problems I’ve seen agencies run into—and I’ve been guilty of this in the past—is becoming too reliant on one client. Then you start working for them instead of having a productive overall working relationship.
But to your question about what I would do differently, I think one of the mistakes that I made early on in hiring people is I was hiring good people, but I hadn’t really fully thought through what I was hiring them for.
We adapted the topgrading hiring methodology. We don’t do 100% of it, but we’ve adapted it to what we do. What I really like about that is it forces us to have crystal clarity on what we want somebody to do and how they fit into the organization before we even open the position. Then it gives us a really good model as we’re interviewing people to compare them against, to see if they’re actually there.
As we’ve implemented that over the last few years, I think the quality of our hires are much better. Not necessarily because our interview process is better; I just think we know more about what we want. I wish I’d come to that earlier than I did.
ROB: For folks who aren’t as familiar with topgrading, dig in a little bit to how that plays out. What are the key takeaways? It’s hard to do everything in that sort of methodology, but what’s actionable?
JAKE: Topgrading, for those of you that may not have familiarity with it, is a really strict process that a consultant developed. The book is hilarious because it’s like 200 pages, and 40 pages of it are good and the rest of it is this guy trying to sell to you. You can actually skim through it. But the 40 pages are awesome.
It gives you a structured methodology for writing what they call a job detail, which is really just a job description. You look at not only functions, but capabilities and competencies that make somebody a likely candidate to be able to fulfill those functions. It’s not just “if you’re a programmer, can you program?” It’s “do you have the right point of view of the world that you can fit in with the team?”, etc. I find that extraordinarily valuable.
There’s also a piece of the hiring methodology which they call TORCs, Thread of Reference Checks, which is used to basically get people to stop lying on their résumés. All of us are taught to polish our résumés in a way that makes us look really good. What I find is that the Thread of Reference Checks—the way it works is from the very beginning you say, “We have this detailed process, and we are going to ask you to set up reference conversations with us.”
It’s a very detailed interview process. For our senior level people, we’ll put them through 4 or 5 hours of interviews in one shot. Junior level people, we’ll do an hour, 2 hours. It can scale up and down. But the interview process and Thread of Reference Checks I find really strip the bark off people. By the end of it, they are fully exposed and we are fully exposed, so they understand us and we understand them in a way that I’ve never found another interview process can effectively do.
ROB: Very interesting. It sounds like having some of those decisions of what you’re looking for made upfront helps protect you from making an emotional hiring decision.
JAKE: Oh, absolutely. A really good example of this is we were hiring for a role last year, and we had narrowed it down to two candidates. After the first interview we were like, “This is the person. They’re fantastic.” We did the second interview and we’re like, “Okay, this is really interesting. I’m not sure they’re better than the first person.”
But one of the steps in topgrading is to write an executive summary. You basically go through all your notes—and you have a tandem interviewer in this process, so they go through all your notes—and individually, you write the story of the person from high school forward. When we compared our notes on our story, it became absolutely clear that the second candidate was infinitely better than the first candidate.
Never would’ve come to that if I didn’t have this process, because it forced me to really clarify my thinking. I think that’s why I like the process. It’s guidelines for me more so than guidelines for my team.
ROB: Very, very cool. You mentioned you’re deep into lots of marketing automation, lots of omnichannel—what’s the next few things, either in the marketing world or specifically for Method Savvy, that you’re excited about?
JAKE: That’s a really good question, and I’m going to give you a somewhat terrible answer because it’s the same answer you’re hearing from a lot of people: AI is going to change everything.
The way that we’re approaching it is that marketers are tasked with trying to figure out the right thing to do—they have this blue ocean problem—and then to execute it. The problem is that much of the execution, humans really shouldn’t be doing because it’s rote and it’s boring, and they’re probably not as good at pattern matching anyway.
There is a drive to zero cost on the execution side. What that’s going to do over time is free up marketers to be better abstract, creative thinkers and to become even better at emotional storytelling.
The real future for marketing—and this is going to happen over the next 10-20 years—is about augmented intelligence. It’s about the armor that we as marketers can strap onto ourselves that allows us to jump over a building in a single bound.
Right now what we have is really pinpoint AI, and it’s not nearly as interesting to me. That’s where you get into automation stuff or programmatic buys. It’s useful, but programmatic buys is doing 50 billion experiments as cheaply as possible to figure out what works. When you get to augmented intelligence, it’s really going to make marketers superheroes.
That’s where we’re headed as a company. We’re building tools that allow us to do better pattern matching, to understand opportunities better, and then to execute as ruthlessly efficiently as possible.
ROB: Got it. To you, a lot of the opportunity with AI is getting rid of overhead and noise and manual labor, if you will, of digital marketing.
JAKE: Yeah. I think it is a complete and utter waste. It’s going to be really hard for certain marketers, but it’s basically the same thing that’s happened in other industries over time. Where humans add the most value is not in building 1,000 emails.
You can have software, a ticket design system, and build out every single email—and there’s great companies like Automated Insights that you can feed data and they’ll actually do all the writing for you anyway. All that stuff is really rote. If you’re not adding high level strategic value over time, you’re going to be out of a job. You’re going to be working for the machines instead of the machines working for you.
But what’s really exciting for marketers is that anybody that is focused on strategic value, it gives them the time and the toolset to do things that they just simply can’t do. How many marketers have you talked to on the brand side where they’re like “I really want to do that, but I don’t have the time” or “I don’t have somebody that can do it.”
Well, you know what? You’re going to have tools that can do it much, much more cheaply than any human you can hire, and now they’ll do it at 10 times the speed.
ROB: That makes a ton of sense. Nobody really brags about doing the digital marketing manual labor, but I think it’s a good thing for people to think about. They may be doing it without really thinking about it.
JAKE: Yeah, but from the agency side, that’s where most agencies actually make all their margin. It’s the person that they’re paying thirty grand a year, who they can make $200,000 a year on. That’s not going to exist anymore.
ROB: Right. And doing those things sometimes even decoupled from results, not accountable for results from that. The job is “Spend this money in this manual way, and maybe tell us what happens. If it didn’t work, we’ll try again next month.”
JAKE: Yeah. Like I said, marketers don’t do bad work; they oftentimes do the wrong work. So make it easier for them to do really great work and make it really easy for them to do the right kinds of really great work.
ROB: Very cool. Jake, when someone wants to get in touch with you and with Method Savvy, how should they find you?
ROB: Jake is here at Digital Summit as a speaker. What did you share with people today? And what are you learning here?
JAKE: My talk today was about search engine optimization in a user-verse world, so really looking at how user experience design principles and human experience design impacts SEO performance.
What I found really interesting about some of the other talks that I attended this week was really around the artificial intelligence and automation side. It’s something I’m particularly interested in right now, so I made sure to include myself in those.
ROB: Awesome. Probably to the point of your talk, I think one thing that is interesting—it’s kind of always been this way, but Google used to chase giving people the answer they wanted in very blunt instrument ways. I think the trend now is that the cheats are going away. There are fewer and fewer ways to cheat. You really have to help people.
JAKE: That is exactly right. The whole thesis of my talk is that audience is more important than algorithm, because the algorithm is the mathematical expression of positive user experience. The positive user experience, like the definition of user experience, is the emotions and attitudes that an individual has about their interactions with your company, product, or service.
It’s about how people feel. You’re dealing with humans. If you create a really positive user experience and a customer experience and then make it easy for Google to understand you’re doing that, you’ll beat the snot out of every competitor.
ROB: Good stuff. Thank you for your time, Jake. It’s good to meet you here at the Summit. Thank you for sharing your talk, and thank you for sharing this conversation with my listeners.
JAKE: Thank you for the opportunity. Appreciate it.
ROB: Take care.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.