Greg Brock, CEO of Firefli, a digital strategy company based in Roanoke, Virginia, discusses the changing digital marketing landscape. When digital first started, it negatively impacted traditional marketing channels, but it also “wowed” people?the results were measurable. Entrepreneurs and start-ups flooded into this “magic” niche . . . and huge media companies followed when they saw the potential in that space.
Greg provides an experienced overview of where digital marketing started and key tactics for running a digital marketing agency. He notes that today’s marketing competition has gotten “insane,” but it has also opened a lot more opportunities.
He believes a client’s digital strategy has to be founded on business strategy in order to be effective, and that digital is merely a tool to achieve business objectives. Business analysis has to come first, in order to clarify objectives and avoid expensive mistakes.
When expanding, Greg has found it more important to hire for fit than for talent?and emphasizes that agencies should never scrimp on talent. Great talent and bad fit can destroy company culture.
He also explains how client diversification is critical . . . as is avoiding “bad money,”?clients who do not share your values, demand diamonds on a dirt budget, and/or are financial laggards when the bills come. An agency will be able to work more effectively if it understands the best size and type of clients for its current team and focus.
Greg sees a future where more agencies work together in collaborative partnerships to meet the challenges of digital marketing’s ever-changing scope and complexity.
Greg can be contacted through his company website at: firefli.agency
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Greg Brock, CEO of Firefli based in Roanoke, Virginia. Welcome, Greg.
GREG: Thanks for having me.
ROB: Pleasure to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Firefli and what makes Firefli great?
GREG: Okay, wow. You get the overused term “digital agency/consultancy,” whatever post word you want to put on that term, but, in essence, I feel like we’re a digital strategy company. We are kind of a combination of a thinking consortium consultancy, if you will, that uses digital means to help our clients achieve their goals.
ROB: How long have you been at it? How has the client base evolved?
GREG: That’s a fantastic question. What’s been really cool—that’s a really good question. We could go very deep, depending on how much patience you have. [laughs]
At first, digital, when it started hitting—and way, way back before there was digital anything, I was in broadcast. What was fascinating is when digital first hit, it was like magic to a lot of people because you could put algorithms behind it, you could measure it, track it, have a lot of accountability. It really wowed a lot of people. You could be a neophyte in that space and blow people’s minds, because a lot of people just weren’t exposed to it.
Then you had this huge land rush of all of these players that wanted to get into the space. What was fascinating to me was that it wasn’t just entrepreneurs and startups and that kind of thing, but also you had huge media corporations now realizing there’s revenue to be had in the space. So, they were also now trying to get into it and figure out how they were going to fit into these revenue models.
Needless to say, the competitive landscape has just gotten insane—which is also interesting, because it’s also opening up a lot more opportunities. But definitely the last 5 years especially to me have been breathtaking in the amount of change that’s going on.
ROB: For sure. You mentioned the digital strategy element of what you do. We’ve talked to a number of guests—I feel like this has been a recent evolution for agencies that are willing and ready to position themselves higher in the mind of their clients versus just doing the detailed execution work.
How do you think about that step up from, “Hey Greg, will you do this digital marketing thing for me?” to being a strategic partner to your client?
GREG: That’s a fantastic question. I think the ones that were going to be successful in this space are the ones that are not so much digital strategists first, but business strategists first. Digital was just one tool in the toolbox to solve a myriad of problems, solutions, opportunities.
I think what you’re going to start seeing, and I think one of the things that works really well for us, is that most of our people come from large corporate backgrounds. We’ve had to be indoctrinated into thinking in terms of business strategy. It gives you almost this empathic approach to dealing with your clients because you’re also understanding their pain points and their needs.
For example—this is a great example, actually—just yesterday a pretty large company who do a lot of work nationwide, a client of ours, had a software vendor out of California that had recommended, almost as a sales platform for their people, that they do a native app that they could give their clients. It had a huge price tag, as you would expect.
What’s funny is, as you began to do a deep dive needs analysis with this client, you began to understand that that would be a horrible mistake to solve any kind of business situation they were in from a sales standpoint. As a prospective client for them, one of their potential clients, who’s going to download a sales app?
As we talked and listened and talked about the business strategy, we said at the end of the day, what do you want your potential customers/clients to do when they see this information? Then we took that information and worked backwards, and we were like, you could probably do this for a quarter of the cost and it could be almost like a web app, if you will. Not necessarily a native app. You could put different calls to actions.
Anyway, long story short, I think being the business strategist allows you to get deeper into helping your clients get where they need to go quicker.
ROB: Right on. Greg, you mentioned you were more in the broadcast world before. What led you to go and start a company? What emboldened you and nudged you in the direction that you ended up in?
GREG: I am in my mid-40s. When I came out of Virginia Tech, there was no internet. I’m starting to date myself. These codgers that are starting to get old in this industry, I am one of them. [laughs]
But it was interesting because when I came onboard, broadcast was king, cable was nipping at its heels, and you had radio and print. After you got past those three or four platforms, that was about it. I remember some of the older people in broadcast, when I came onboard, they kept talking about how it was a license to print money. That was where you wanted to be.
About, I don’t know, late ’90s, here came email and some things like that. I was always the nerd that gravitated towards the new stuff like that.
I remember one day running down the hall and saying I had just had an email conversation with a big agency, Barkley & Evergreen out of Kansas City, Missouri. I was like, “We’re working on a deal right now just over email!” It blew everybody’s mind, and I got a nice feedback loop. That felt good. “Let’s buy more of these cool things.”
Long story short, as digital began to eat at broadcast’s audience share, broadcast companies all across the country were like, “We need to get into this space, and fast.” It was always the unlucky people like me that they just went, “Eenie, meenie, miney—let’s pick Greg!” I was horrified, because now you’re responsible for revenue budgets and things like that.
In essence, what would happen is when I would go out in the field with the account executives, their clients would pull me aside independently and say, “Hey, I heard you talking about search engine optimization. We’re building a website. Can you come talk to me later about it?” I kept saying no because I had a job.
After about the tenth time and then the recession kicked in, I was like, I wonder if I could do those. I remember one time I went to the president general manager of the CBS affiliate and I said, “Do you care if I take one of these clients on?” He said, “As long as it’s not a conflict of interest and you keep it church and state, I’m okay with it.”
I ended up getting a check in the mail from this client. I had reached out to him and I said, “I noticed your site is kind of antiquated and you can’t be found on Google. Do you want to talk?” He was like, “Yeah, come on by.” It was like a beta test.
Anyway, when the check came in the mail to me personally, I was like, oh . . . at the broadcast station I’m only keeping 2 cents on the dollar, but this one I’m keeping 98 cents on the dollar. And that’s how it started.
ROB: Wow. So that started maybe about 8 or 9 years ago?
GREG: Yeah, just about. I was really fortunate—I’ve always been really fortunate to have people so much smarter than me surround me.
I got introduced to a very talented designer/developer by the name of John Cornthwait. He was working for the largest healthcare system in our region, about 12,000 employees strong, and he was their web developer. We just hit it off. We had a good working relationship, and we were doing some freelancing together.
He then found himself in the same boat I had been in, where I was working till 2:00 in the morning with two jobs. We both kind of held hands and brought another fantastic person along, a guy named Matt Sams. John and Matt were working together at Carilion, the big hospital medical company.
The three of us got burned out on corporate American and were like, there’s got to be a better way to live. It’s a lifestyle thing. We felt like we had enough talent between us to basically go off on our own, so we just closed our eyes and said, “Let’s do this.”
ROB: So you had essentially three initial partners and founders. Is that right?
ROB: How did the transition go from the three of you growing and hustling together to—I imagine at some point you may have known your next couple of hires, or did you?
GREG: [laughs] No!
ROB: Did you just end up bringing in total strangers? Talk about that transition from being three people working together to three people working together with these other people around.
GREG: That’s a fantastic question. When I look back on it, I just want to die, because we did not know what we were doing. The next hire we had, who was also incredibly fantastic, she was an SEO/SEM strategist. Just absolutely deadly at what she was good at.
ROB: Did you know her previously?
GREG: We did. Originally from D.C., had been in an SEO agency in D.C. So she had the chops. Now you have four of us.
But the fifth hire was a train wreck. [laughs] Because—and I think this is the big lesson for a lot of us out there—we hired for talent, not fit.
And the next two hires after that were for talent, not fit. We felt like we were a talented group at first, the initial founders, and we were like, this must be the model. We have to get extreme talent, and we’ll get these really great clients. We were getting great clients, but we were killing our culture.
We had some toxic hires in the very initial stages that I will never repeat, because you learn how damaging that is from the inside out.
ROB: Was there a difference in even maybe what they were expecting from the company? Were they coming from a brand background, from another agency, from another industry? What was their experience?
GREG: That’s a great question too. I think a lot of responsibility lies on our own shoulders for—I wouldn’t say overpromising, underdelivering, but I think it was on both sides not vetting each other and what we both wanted.
It’s kind of funny; I think a couple of them just thought “This is a really cool gig. They’ve got unlimited vacation and I could hook into this.” I think we were more focused on trying to grow the agency in the wrong way by chasing talent and clients instead of looking internally.
Long story short, after doing this a while we had basically planted a flag and said, “We’re employee first, not client first.”
ROB: I’d imagine the people you’ve hired since learning that, it’s been a little bit happier all around, then?
GREG: Yeah. In fact, the last 2 to 3 years, we have had the most amazing run. I literally love my team. It’s a great fit, they’re all great talent. They work together well, both as one big team and also as microteams. A lot of crosspollination.
I get so nervous because it’s so good. I don’t want it to ever get messed up like it used to be. We’ve just learned a lot on how to manage that, I think.
ROB: That makes sense. I think that’s a great lesson. I joke—running our own business, people say, “How are things going?” Ultimately the responsibility falls to me. If I’m not happy with what we’re doing, then it’s both my job and my fault to fix that.
Part of that I think is working with people that you like to work with, that you’re proud to work with, that make life generally a little bit better and, dare I say, easier (although many things are not easy) rather than harder.
GREG: Yeah, very well said.
ROB: What did your first couple of clients look like in terms of what you did for them, and what is maybe an example of a very recent client that is a full articulation of what you have become?
GREG: I’m going to use an analogy. I’m a very big analogy/metaphor kind of guy. I’ve always looked at this in some ways also like a rock band. When you get started you’ve got a friend in school, or two or three that you guys run around with, and you’re playing in a basement. You get some bars, you get a couple small size clubs, and you have to take the gigs when they come.
We’ve got a list of clients from the very early days. Some of them were fantastic, but some were just hilarious when we look back at some of the work we used to do. But like a band, you start getting better gigs and you start growing.
What’s been the most fun/frustrating thing is that we went from Mom n’ Pop Main Street stuff right out of the gate to now we’re working with Fortune 500s. That’s a quick adjustment, as I’m sure you know. It’s a different stratosphere of how politics work and bureaucracies and purchasing agents and laws. It’s not just a nursing home down the street. [laughs]
ROB: Is there something you think about that more enterprise client—is there something that makes it a better fit for you and your team? People find interesting places in the market all over the place.
GREG: Yeah, that’s a very easy answer. What I have found is that the larger clients can be more challenging mentally because they’re very, very demanding. They definitely have the attitude that, “If you can’t do it, we’ll go somewhere else.”
However, they also get it. They get what you do. I think that’s been the most frustrating thing in our space, is that so many of the smaller clients have little budgets and they don’t really get what we do. They question everything that we do because they can’t see it. You can’t see SEO. You can see the effects of it, but it’s hard to quantify. It’s like taking your car to a mechanic; you hope they’re fixing it the right way.
But the larger corporations, because their Chief Marketing Officers have gone to school for this stuff, they’ve been around the block two or three times, they’ve been through several web builds, they’re great to work with because you can talk to each other.
ROB: That makes sense. You mentioned one learning; what are some other things you’ve learned from your experience building Firefli that, if you were starting from scratch tomorrow, you might do differently?
GREG: There’s probably two things. We’ve definitely learned that you have to pay for talent. Never, ever skimp on that. Stretch, stretch, stretch to pay for good talent.
Two, we have learned that diversification of our book of business is critical. I know there are some players—and I even have some dear friends in this space—where they get vertically niched. That’s scary to me.
I read an interesting article one time where they were comparing industries that do that to what they call remoras. You know the fish that follow the shark around? If the shark dies, you die with it. So instead of getting tethered to the automobile industry or healthcare or whatever, where you are a victim of their ebbs and flows, much like a stock portfolio, we try to have a pretty diverse book of business. From an industry standpoint it’s business-to-business, but it’s diversified.
ROB: It’s interesting because the person who connected us for this conversation is Zach Williams from Venveo, and they are very interestingly specialized, if folks want to go back and listen to that conversation.
You also talk about revenue diversity across clients. What does the worst and perhaps scariest revenue concentration look like to one client, and where are you today and how have you managed your way there?
GREG: Good question. I think one of the golden rules for us is something we call bad money. For example, on a regional level here, there’s a very, very large company in the market—actually, it’s a university. Their brand is nationally known. They are well thought of. They are a status client to have on your bling, if you will, all the client logos you have on your site.
They’re awful to work with. They don’t pay their bills. They’re very low spending with anybody they ever work with. It’s very bureaucratic and it takes 90 days to get paid.
So we have learned to stop chasing the bling, if you will, and have enough courage to say that’s going to tie you down, take up your time. It’s better to go after the dollars that are more meaningful and that people want to grow with you.
ROB: That’s a little bit also about knowing yourself. Some people, for better or for worse, don’t mind building a business predicated on chasing down old invoices and also having large ones. But I think you also mentioned that you operate with this “team first” mindset, and I think a willingness to fire clients is part of a team first mindset.
GREG: It is. Here’s a great example of this. This is a fantastic story. One of the partners had a father who had gone into a rehabilitation center. He had an absolutely horrible experience with their staff.
Then as the months went by, it became known—this is a client of ours, too—as the months went by, it started to hit the news that they were doing some very dangerous things where people were actually dying. Not monitoring medicine the right way and doing some unethical things.
Also, now that it’s a client, and we were technically helping to push business towards this client, and that a partner had a father who had just had a horrendous experience there—they were spending quite a bit of money. We had to hold hands as a team and just say, “It’s time to fire these people.”
I took the marketing officer out to coffee and literally fired her. [laughs] It reminded you of a movie where you’re breaking up with a girlfriend. She started crying. I think it was more symptomatic of her environment where she was working, and she kind of knew. It hurts, but to your question, culturally it was the right thing to do.
ROB: As you’ve leveled up your clients, I assume at some points along the way you’ve had even maybe good clients that were just a little bit on the small side for where you have gone. How have you gone about carefully managing them out of the business as well?
GREG: Yeah, that’s hard because you do love them. They’re a lot of times the most fun. I think one of the best examples is that we had one client basically come to us and they said, “You’re too big for us now, aren’t you?” It was painful, but we said, “Yeah, but we love you guys. We want to be here for you, but it’s probably not a good fit at this point.”
I think to me it’s more about managing the public relations part of it so you don’t look like you’re thinking you’re all that. We really did try to find them another partner. But it is hard, because unfortunately, compared to the larger clients, they do just beat you up every day. The smaller ones, there is a nice symbiotic connection there that unfortunately I think you do lose when you don’t work with them.
ROB: Sure. You mentioned finding a partner. Quite often, whether directly or indirectly, we see agencies we talk to partnering either for clients that are too big/too small for them, or even serve functional areas, different lines of service that they’re not great at. We’ve seen quite often partnerships let’s say particular to PPC campaigns or email marketing.
How do you think about partners, and how do you think about whether you work with freelancers and do those as part of who Firefli is versus where you might actually just hand someone off to another partner?
GREG: That’s probably the best question of the day, because I think that’s the future. I think everybody started off being generalists. “We are full-service digital,” whatever. That’s really hard to do in this day and age, when you think about it. Unless you’re really enormous, and even then I think you get into issues if you’re too big.
We’re finding this pain point right now all across the country. There is a shortage of SEO/SEM—like good, experienced SEO/SEM people. Seriously, I give anybody the homework: try to find them. They’re really hard to find right now.
ROB: For sure. If you’re listening and you do pay-per-click, just email me or email Greg and he’ll put you to work. [laughs] That’s probably the biggest ask I get nonstop. It’s something along the lines of paid search, SEO. It’s just hard to find. I don’t know if it’s at any price or if it’s at a price that clients are willing to pay. I’m not sure.
GREG: Yeah, good question. I think what you’re going to start seeing, as the diversification of agencies becomes more the norm—because they’re going to have to, to survive—you’re going to start seeing a lot of partnerships evolving, maybe agencies that are either going through consolidation or you’re having to outsource a part of what you do to stay viable. It’s happening, and I think it’s going to continue to go that direction.
ROB: Makes all the sense in the world. Greg, what are you excited about that’s coming up for Firefli, and more broadly for the future of marketing for your clients?
GREG: I think for us, the first question, you go through these spurts of growth and you level, spurts of growth and you level. We are getting ready to get into the next spurt. We’re looking at new space and we’re looking at doing sort of a brand dust-off. That’s always exciting because it keeps everybody’s work fresh and focused.
I think as a team, we’re just really, really proud of the work we’ve been doing and the current clients we have. I don’t want to say lovefest, but we’re having a really good time right now.
As for the industry—this is going to seem maybe kind of wild, but what excites me the most is that I think we’re starting to see people who are moving into the decision-making space get it. They’re digital natives now. It was so hard to propose and to talk about and discuss what all of us do in our industry with people who never got it.
Imagine 10 years ago, you’re talking to somebody that’s 55 years old about digital strategy. I’m not trying to stereotype, but statistically speaking it was challenging.
We’re now able to have healthier conversations on the ground level with people who do get it, and that’s making things really fun because now there is this true conversation that’s happening in the marketing/advertising promotional world about this stuff actually does work and this is how it works. They can talk to you and tell what they’ve learned. It’s really cool, and I think it’s going to increasingly get more so.
ROB: You’ve been along for a lot of the digital journey, if you will, but also the fits and starts along the way. We had “oh, everybody wants a website,” huge recession. And then right around the time some of the social platforms were germinating, another recession.
Then this kind of crazy rotation in digital marketing towards things aren’t free anymore, and by things I mean social media is not really free anymore, unless you hit some sort of crazy homerun. So people thinking about social as a paid marketing channel as well—these are all interesting transitions. You’ve had a front row seat for all of it.
GREG: I’ll tell you, we’re not done yet, obviously. I think the current climate talking about social media, to piggyback off of what you just said, I think the industry conferences on social media in the next year or so are going to be fascinating. Almost you have to attend these, because it is upside down.
It’s not like it was 3 or 4 years ago where they were talking about sharing, how to share. Now it’s about privacy and the shutting down of posts and authentic content and all of these things, this myriad of stuff that we now have to really think about. It’s not like it was in the old days.
ROB: What do you think people might miss in the next year if they’re not staying current on their knowledge? What are they going to not learn and then start falling behind on?
GREG: I’m scared to answer that one. I don’t know, that’s a great question. I will tell you this, though. My dad says to me all the time, “I bet your industry changes every day.” I’m like, well, it’s not really every day. But I think what we have found is it’s about every 3-½ months. About every 3-½ months there’s some slight nuance to what we do.
To your question, I think if you let a year go by, if you do the math, you basically have lost multiple iterations of our industry. It’s so important to stay connected and stay educated, especially as things are continuing to evolve.
ROB: Very good. Greg, when someone wants to get in touch with you and Firefli, how should they reach you?
GREG: The website is firefli.agency. There you’ll find our website and all the contact information. We are kind of in the shadows of Virginia Tech in southwest Virginia. We really do work more mid-Atlantic, but also have clients from LA to New York to Atlanta and so forth.
ROB: Fantastic. Greg, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing our journey. Special thanks, as we mentioned earlier in the episode, to Zach Williams, one of our former guests with Venveo. Go back and listen to that episode if you haven’t. He gave us this introduction to Greg, and we are super glad for it.
Thanks for your time, Greg. Great talking to you.
GREG: Thank you, Rob. Take care.
ROB: Take care.
GREG: Bye 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.