Creativity at Speed, Ephemeral Content, and Solid, Long-term Growth

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Mike Popowski, CEO of Dagger Agency based in Atlanta, Georgia, explains the orientation of his strategic content agency, where content is the touch point between brand and consumer and platform placement follows customer behavioral trends. His company focuses on content development, right placement, right timing, and analytics, primarily in video production. Mike notes that content today is far different from what it was 15 years ago . . . more ephemeral and notably less polished.

 

Critical to Dagger’s success in this market? A strong team and an organization big enough to have the requisite manpower . . . and lean enough to be capable of reactive marketing?nimble, speedy responses to marketing opportunities.

Contact information: Dagger has a contact form and their main number on their website: Dagger.agency. The company posts jobs on LinkedIn and actively participates in area industry events.

Transcript:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Mike Popowski, CEO of Dagger, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Mike.

MIKE: Thanks, Rob. How are you doing, man?

ROB: Doing really well. How about you?

MIKE: I’m doing well. It’s Friday and it’s springtime in Atlanta, so being a New Englander, where there’s still snow on the ground, I actually really appreciate this time of year here before July/August hits hard.

ROB: For sure. I’m surprised I can’t hear the birds chirping out on your office patio. You stayed in the office to get us some good sound. Thank you.

MIKE: No problem, man. Glad to be here. Glad you’re doing this. This is great.

ROB: Awesome. Mike, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Dagger and what the company is great at?

MIKE: Sure. We call ourselves a strategic content agency. Content is a pretty broad term, as you know, and it’s very buzzy. The way we break that down is that content is really the touchpoint between brand and consumer. We’re focused on the brand strategy, the content strategy to make sure that that content is right place, right time, but also actual content development and analytics practice as well.

Typically, what I say is, we stay pretty core to those. We don’t have any plans on the roadmap to be a media buying agency, we’re not going to get into PR, we’re not going to do deep development. I truly believe that the idea of the full service agency almost means you’re really mediocre at a lot of things. So we try to stay pretty core around content. Even within that realm, that’s big. Again, touchpoint between brand and consumer can be anything and everything.

We’re very, very focused on where consumer behavior is going. Cisco puts out a stat on, by 2019 . . . the rise of the consumption of video. Within the realm of content, we’re very focused on video. What I mean by that is we really believe that brands need to act more like publishers to maintain relevance. You think about the brands that are doing a really good job—the GoPros and the Red Bulls—they almost publish content much like a media company, and so much of that content is video content now.

You can’t approach content the way it was done 15 years ago where it was, “Okay, we’re going to do a 30-second video.” That used to be a spot where there was preproduction and it was very, very highly produced. We’re of the mindset that brands need to be producing at scale, at a high enough production value to put their brand on it and to have it be creative and everything, but also it can’t be overly produced. I don’t think consumers expect that these days.

So yeah, very focused on content, very focused on video, and thus far have had a great host of clients. Everyone from IHG, Aflac, Choose Atlanta, which is the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s initiative to attract and retain talent. Just started working with Sweetwater.

But yeah, we’ve been growing, man. We were just talking before this started—you and I had a couple meetings a few years back when we were four people in a closet, and now we’re busting out of the seams over here and on to a new office space in early June.

ROB: That is pretty fantastic. You mentioned the consumer a number of times. Are you then primarily, or perhaps even entirely, focused on B-to-C marketing? Or do you mean some of that more generally in that a B-to-B client would also have a consumer that would receive their content?

MIKE: We’re both. I think the theory applies to both. I guess when I say consumer, I mean just largely people. Even when we think about B-to-B marketing, at the end of the day we’re talking with people. I know there’s been a lot of research that has changed the face of B-to-B marketing from being so heavily sales-oriented to having more of an emotional bend because at the end of the day, it’s all P-to-P.

So for us, we do have some larger enterprise B-to-B clients, but we also play in the consumer space as well, just because I do think a lot of the principles between B-to-B marketing and B-to-C marketing do transcend. I think we’re more niche around our discipline and our service offering, less so on industries or verticals that we serve.

ROB: Got it. You mentioned the criticality of the content that is created, and you also mentioned that you’re not doing media buying. So where are all the places that the content you create then dissipates out to and is received? What channels are you active in?

MIKE: It’s a good question. This is really where we follow consumer behavior. We’re not out there creating new forums and arenas and platforms necessarily for consumers to consume within. Consumer behavior is something that I look at as out of our control, at least in terms of the platforms that they’re going to. Like over the last few months we’ve seen Snapchat on the wane.

I think we take a good look on trendspotting where they’re going. If we’re talking about video, YouTube obviously, Instagram, Facebook still. So it tends to be very social. We have done spots; we did a 30-second spot for Mizuno that aired on cable. Podcast, obviously that’s an audio medium. But we typically go where consumers are. Especially if we’ve got a millennial audience in our target, those are increasingly more social channels than what we’ve seen in the past. So I would say predominantly through social.

ROB: Mike, what led you to join/start the company? What did that look like? Take us on that journey a little bit.

MIKE: I could take it back probably 5 or 10 years. My introduction to Atlanta was via Engauge—which I know you know, Rob, but for those listeners who don’t, I look at Engauge as one of the preeminent digital social agencies back in 2010-2011. Ultimately, it was acquired by Publicis, merged with Moxie. A lot of the folks who were teammates of mine at Engauge are still at Moxie today. It’s still, I think size-wise, FTE count, the biggest independent agency—actually not independent, because they’re held by Publicis—but the biggest agency in Atlanta.

Interestingly enough, my career was D.C.-based before I came into Atlanta. I was brought in to be a senior marketing consultant at AARP. It was 2008, and they were looking for a viral marketing consultant, which is kind of funny. I came in to do social and it was very nascent. They didn’t even know how to talk about it. AARP was like, “Oh, just make our content go viral.” So that’s very much early stages of Facebook, and Twitter didn’t exist then. Very nascent period of social.

Through my work with AARP, at one point, I actually wrote the RFP. I was looking for mid-size agencies in the Southeast. That’s how I came across Engauge. One thing led to another and I actually got hired by Engauge in 2011.

I spent 3 years at Engauge, and that’s how I know the original founder of Dagger, Carla. We didn’t work together a ton; we knew each other more by reputation. She was one of the leaders within the Digital Innovation Group at Engauge, which was the discipline responsible for incubating newer disciplines when social was new in 2008, and then mobile. She led what is now Chick-fil-A One, the app—she led that first iteration of mobile ordering back then.

 

My role at Engauge was a group account director-like role. I was the business lead on a group of accounts which were Cisco, Wells Fargo, and UPS. Those were really early content marketing accounts. We didn’t really know exactly how to call or what we were doing, but I think the way we entrepreneurially built that team within Engauge sowed the seeds for what Dagger is today.

 

I left Atlanta. I was in New York. I got a call about this opportunity. Basically, the previous CEO who had partnered up with Carla for different reasons was exiting. The agency was four people big. There were some cash flow [issues]. It needed some help and some work. I just looked at it as an opportunity.

 

I got the call when I was in New York. I love New York and I miss New York, but for me it was a very quick decision because I’ve always had that entrepreneurial bend. I just felt like the team that was in place, some of the board members that I knew—I think Atlanta is very, very ripe for the next best thing in terms of agencies. So many brands are moving here, as you know, Rob. The creative talent with the film industry burgeoning here is pretty amazing.

 

There’s a nexus of a lot of cool things happening in Atlanta, so I’m super bullish on, not only the city and what that’s going to become, but our place in that and what’s possible in the city.

 

ROB: Do you think you were perhaps on a path to starting your own agency at some point then, or was that something you had not contemplated?

 

MIKE: Kind of. I did it once. When I was consulting for AARP, they were one of my contracts, and then I sort of, in an immature way, tried to pull on other clients. I didn’t really fully know exactly what I was doing. I think what I was able to do within Engauge gave me more wherewithal to be able to do it entrepreneurially.

 

But the first agency that I ever worked at out of D.C., which is now a defunct agency, I was the first employee, and we grew and we ended up on the Inc. 5000. Early in my career, I got front-row exposure to how to build a business, and that gave me that entrepreneurial bend early on.

 

So I’ve had that benefit of both small agency, startup-like mentality, but also being in big agencies as well, having worked with big clients. I’m grateful for that variety in my background.

 

ROB: Not that you can know perfectly, but what do you think was different about joining Dagger as a small agency that would be distinct from having been there from Day 1? What are some of the things to think about for someone entering that situation?

 

MIKE: I came in and the agency had been in existence for about a year. It felt very new and startup-y. Wasn’t here literally on Day 1. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I didn’t have that experience. [laughs] But we were very much in startup mode when I came in.

 

I think you know this just from being an entrepreneur: in many cases, you’re faking a little bit until you make it because you don’t have the proof points. We didn’t have case studies, so a lot of times we were dipping into our older case work from previous agencies and things like that because we were new. So those early days were still very much intact.

 

I think the one difference where I felt like we had a little bit of tailwind—or at least I saw it as not being a complete ground zero when I joined—was that we’d done some work with a Fortune 1000 client. We’d done some work with Carter’s, and actually won an OMA Award for our work with Oshkosh. You almost need that first break with a bigger client. That was it for me, and we ended up leveraging that case into, not only more work with Carter’s, but as a proof point as we started to go to market more with our newer value prop.

 

ROB: That’s a key moment, I think. You allude to, within your story, I kind of have this narrative in my mind about there being a circle of life for agencies. You mentioned the defunct agency you worked for before, you mentioned Spunlogic, Engauge growing, being acquired into Moxie, being acquired even further—I think I hear in what you’re saying that with the acquisition of Moxie, some of those opportunities that would have been filled by a local independent agency start to come back to local independent agencies that can execute.

 

How do you suggest thinking about that acquisition of an agency and the opportunities that start to filter down into a market and a region after it starts to look more like the agencies that acquired it?

 

MIKE: You’re basically saying we’re the antithesis of a big holding company agency, but at some point we may end up becoming that, and how do we stave that off? Is that what you’re asking?

 

ROB: I think that’s a question. I think there’s also a question that’s perhaps more near-term for you in terms of spotting the opportunities. How do you think about spotting the timing of the opportunities that start to emerge as that acquired agency starts to become a little bit more like its acquirer? Because that seems to be part of the opportunity that you’ve been able to seize on.

 

MIKE: So spotting market opportunities based off of bigger agencies’ downfalls. It’s a good one, man. The market here—I don’t want to say it’s small, but everybody knows who the big brands are in town. If a bigger agency fumbles an opportunity or they’re no longer working with them, we typically will find out about that. I think those are just opportunities to partner with those brands, quite honestly.

 

I think where we’re different now, and where we can authentically say we’re different, is speed is such a big thing. It’s not just like “work harder, work faster.” As marketers, that’s driven by consumer demand. Brands, as I said at the outset, almost need to be putting out—like, Villanova wins the national championship on a Monday; you’re a sports brand, how are you talking about that on Tuesday morning? How are you part of culture? I’m not necessarily just talking an Oreo moment or real-time, but understanding the nuances of the conversation and the culture.

 

Speed is very, very important. I’m big on what I call reactive marketing. Yeah, there’s a lot that’s going to be preplanned. There’s campaigns, there’s brand work, and I think that’s all essential. But in order to put out provocative content that’s naturally part of the conversation, you need to have a beat on culture. And that requires moving pretty fast, man. We’re looking at how we truncate our content production cycles down to 48-72 hours. That’s video for big brands.

 

I think it’s very, very difficult for a big agency to do that. So speed is one. Because we’re 40 people bigger, because our leadership is involved in the work, inherently we move faster. We’re big enough where we’ve got the requisite manpower, but we’re small enough where we just don’t go through layers and layers and layers. If we want to make a hire, if we want to pull somebody in or we want a freelancer or whatever, those are things that move very fast.

 

Those are things that move very, very slow at big agencies because you end up going through finance, sometimes you end up going to a holding company, you go through multiple layers. You know how that goes. So I think speed is a really big advantage for us.

 

And we’re not beholden, and we can invest ahead of growth. I’m not beholden by reporting to France a certain margin every quarter. That’s a big difference. That has a massive impact on my business because I’m able to say, “Okay, Dagger shareholders,” or whatever, “Let’s invest here. Let’s make this move” because it’s right for the business, not because we’re just arbitrarily holding a percentage point out there.

 

I think that’s going to be the challenge for us as we grow, man. How do we stay that nimble? How do we keep that Day 1 mindset? I think as you grow, it’s easy to become comfortable, it’s easy to become complacent, and things slow down. But as marketers, it’s speeding up. Bigger sometimes does equal cumbersome, and I think that’s a big advantage for us right now.

 

A lot of times you get into smaller agencies and you get into situations where maybe they haven’t worked at bigger agencies or haven’t worked with bigger brands, so there’s some learning curve there. I think what’s also unique about us vis-a-vis the big agencies is we come from those big agencies, so we get that as well, but in a smaller, less encumbered package.

 

ROB:  That sounds like a tremendous challenge, this creativity at speed that you’re talking about. Even at the size that you’re at, I imagine you’re at a point now where you can’t just have—if you have a five-person job, you may have one ingenious creative director, somebody who has the ideas, but I imagine you have to source those ideas from more people, but quickly. What does that look like in practice?

 

MIKE: Disclaimer: we’re constantly building out the process. I don’t think it’s ever going to be completely formed. I’m always looking at our processes for everything, because as we scale it’s going to need to change. I like to say processes are works in progress.

 

Where we are now, if we’ve got let’s say a batch of content that we want to turn around in 5 days, the creative team will get together and have an idea-sharing session and end up with the winning ideas against a brief, and then we’ll go out and shoot. I think the way we shoot is a leaner production style. We’ve got in-house what we call a “preditor,” which is basically producer/editor. Sometimes our project manager will wear the producer hat. Sometimes you’ve got people who can be shooters but also quickly flip and be editors as well.

 

So I think the more that you pull people away from the spoke and the wheel type process, where “I only do this”—in a bigger process, you break that down and you have smaller teams that can play on a couple different disciplines and do that well. I think that’s where you can build some advantages of speed.

 

But creativity, you still need the ideas. At the end of the day we’re not just making stuff to make stuff. It’s got to be smart, it’s got to be fresh, it’s got to be clever, or whatever that is. So it still needs creative oversight as we build out different ideas.

 

But every client is different, every campaign is different. Some are on a slower cadence, some are a little bit more real-time, some want their content in batches. We do end up acquiescing to how the brands are already operationalized from a content standpoint. But in a perfect case scenario, we’ll pull all together to have an idea session, sift through those to pull the best ideas, make sure those are on brief, and then we go out and shoot.

 

I feel like sometimes our best work ends up being the pitch work because that’s the work that’s typically not sanded down, where the ideas are still original and the work is still strong.

 

ROB: I hear a little bit of even when you’re lean, you can probably shoot a little bit more. You can overshoot and throw a few more ideas out there and let them come together, versus if you were maybe shooting really highly-produced—you have to get it right. You can’t spend an extra hour with a heavy production perspective.

 

MIKE: I agree. There’s two things that I think are happening, especially in social, that back this approach. If you’re on Instagram and you look at a polished 30-second spot, it feels kind of weird. It’s almost like consumer expectations within the platforms are actually lower. It’s almost counterintuitive from a consumer standpoint to see something highly polished.

 

What I would say, too is, this is ephemeral. A lot of times these content pieces come and are gone within 48 hours because the cycle of culture, the cycle of news, the cycle of fresh content comes fast. So I think if you’re looking at hyper-producing or “does this work, does this work?” and you’re overly analytical about it, you’re actually just doing yourself a disservice.

 

From a consumer standpoint not needing that high production value, and from the fact that—look, experiment—What is the worst that’s going to happen? In 72 hours it’s going to be at the bottom of your feed or you can delete it. I mean, as long as we’re not getting into offensive territory. Point being, these are places to be highly, highly experimental and push the bounds.

 

And consumers want that, too. Think about the things consumers are sharing or talking about; they’re a little more provocative, a little more compelling, a little more disruptive.

 

ROB: That’s an amazing point. I think you’ve got Dagger positioned very well. Video is very now, but the production value you’re talking about is also very present and now. Kind of front of trend, but mainstream.

 

Moving on a little bit, what are some things you’ve learned in this experience of building Dagger that you would do maybe a little bit differently the next time? What are some learnings?

 

MIKE: Oh man. There are a lot. [laughs]

 

I think the first one—it sounds so cliché, but you probably know this: with me being out of commission with the bad injury last year, health is paramount. This is always here, and I’m super passionate about what we’re doing. My stresses are positive stresses. But at the same time, there’ve been moments of this entrepreneurship journey where I felt like, “I’m needed now, I’m needed today, this needs to happen today,” and therefore I ended up exerting a little more pressure on myself, and I would say I deprioritized health. I think I paid for it, quite honestly, last year.

 

That’s honestly my biggest lesson. I’m trying to find that balance. My injury was a back injury and I ended up with a herniated disc, and I think a lot of it was postural and not paying attention to good—not doing yoga or the things that I’m doing now that have helped a lot. I know that sounds very basic. It’s not in the minutiae. But for me, that’s honestly been the biggest thing.

 

If I were to do it over again, I probably would’ve said, “Let’s try to grow this agency—Instead of doing what we’re going to do in a year, do it in 14 months but also preserve my health in the process.” [laughs] Because 12 months, 14 months, what’s the big difference, right?

 

I’m pretty goal-driven, pretty ambitious, so it’s countering that with making sure that I think about it from a marathon standpoint, it’s not just a sprint.

 

ROB: It sounds like there’s some habits of self-care and pacing that have stayed with you from that time. You probably had to do that in the moment when you were dealing with that issue.

 

MIKE: Yeah, it’s because it was required. That’s the reason it stayed with me, because it forced me to do that. I learned the lesson the hard way.

 

I’m learning a lot, man. That’s a big thing about this job. You definitely have success and failure. It ends up being on me. At the end of the day, in this role, what ends up with Dagger is ultimately—I’m accountable for.

 

The biggest thing for me—and I think I knew this coming into the role—is hiring people that I trust and building a world-class culture. We can get into that if you want to, but that’s something that’s been very, very different for us. Over the last 15 months through all of this growth, literally we’ve had nobody leave the agency.

 

So for me, I think what I’m learning and continuing to learn is that culture and the team—people say this, and I think at one point in my career I probably said it and didn’t mean it, but now I do—I think if we take care of the team and if we build a world-class culture, then they take care of our clients. And then our clients say good things to our new clients.

 

I think a lot of people have it flipped, where they’re focused on, “Let’s get more revenue, let’s get more revenue, let’s get more revenue,” and the people start to churn through. If you look at agency turnover rate, it’s more than 20-30%. If you have a 100 person agency, 20 or 30 are going to choose to leave in that year. To me, the business implications—that’s all we are, right? We’re a service-based business. All we’re selling are our processes and our people at the end of the day. If those people are hemorrhaging, then we’ve got a problem.

 

I’ve taken a big, big focus on our culture. We invested in that early. We’re a big, big, big team here. I know you said, “What have I learned and what would I do differently?” I think just staying true to that is critically important. It is very easy to be like, “This pitch is more important” or “This is more important,” but having a team-first mentality and staying with that is probably key.

 

ROB: Right. Any time someone has clarity on culture and part of their culture that’s important, I do like to dig into that a little bit. You mentioned the team-first mentality. What are the other elements of culture that you really try to articulate to the team and reinforce through habits and really everything that you do?

 

MIKE: A couple things. Just the term “business development,” in the agency world it has the stigma of new clients, new revenue. But if you actually look at developing an agency business, it’s two sides. There are two “funnels” to the business. One is revenue. That comes from either current clients or new. The other is the people.

 

We’ve looked at that. We actually engineered and took almost as much intentionality around building out the process—from a talent, a person who doesn’t know Dagger who’s interviewing with us, to staying here and doing some of the best work in their career. How do we make that life cycle as best as possible?

 

It’s getting the right people on the bus—so there are a lot of things we’re doing in terms of filtering people out, and a lot of it is value-driven. It’s less hard skill. We’re very focused on our core values. We have an interview in the process that’s devoted to culture to suss out how people act against those four core values.

 

We constructed the core values when we were about 12 people big. We said, “Who are the stars of our company, and if they didn’t bring any skills, what are the intangibles that those people bring?” So we looked at those people and said, “Let’s distill out what our values are and then make sure that we’re finding ways to suss those out in the interview process.” That’s getting the right people on the bus.

 

Then keeping those people on the bus, I think it’s respect. There are a couple things to keeping people on the bus. I’m a highly transparent leader. I think that helps, and I’ve gotten feedback that that helps. Other than telling them each other’s salaries, I’m very, very open with anything that I can be. What are our [inaudible], what are our open reqs, why are we making these decisions? As open as we can be without it being a complete democracy, because that would—talk about slowing things down. We’re very, very, very transparent once people are in the company. We have an incentive program that we incentivize folks—webinars, health, riding bikes to work, doing things like that.

 

Then we have a lot of different—what I would call cornerstones within the agency, just things that we do that bring us together. We’ll do a town hall. We’ve got Waffle Wednesday where somebody gets up every Wednesday and shares either something they’re working on or even something personal. At the end of every week we get together and have basically a 10-minute all-hands acknowledgment session, where we just go around, pass the ball around, what you’re most proud of for that week and acknowledging somebody else.

 

At the end of the day people want to be part of a team, and they want to clearly know and trust the vision. I think that’s where we win. Everybody is rowing in the same direction, which I think is important, and trusting each other to row and pull their weight.

 

So yeah, it’s definitely twofold. It’s definitely the recruiting and the hiring, and we’re very intentional and meticulous around that; and then once people are on board, it’s making Dagger a place that people will want to come to work to. It’s pretty simple.

 

I’ll just say one last thing: early on, our sixth hire—you know this from the agency world. When you’re bootstrapping an agency, you want to pull people on who can do the work. So you’re very choosy on having billable resources. We made a decision early on that our sixth hire was going to be completely non-billable and completely dedicated to that side of the business, which was hiring, filtering, and retaining some of the best talent in the city.

 

ROB: Good stuff, Mike. When someone wants to get in touch with you and Dagger, what are the best ways for them to find you?

 

MIKE: A lot of different ways. Dagger.agency, we’ve got a contact form there. We’ve got a main number on the site. We’re very active on LinkedIn. We post a lot of our jobs there and some of our thought leadership, where we’re showing up in different events, so communicating with us through LinkedIn. We show up at a lot of different industry events and are pretty present around town, so obviously walking up to any of those people. And then we do have a Head of Recruiting, Maggie O’Connor. You can find her information through LinkedIn in terms of jobs. That’s how you get a hold of us.

 

ROB: That’s great. It sounds like you’re hiring, so if you want to work at an agency that knows some things about the culture they want to build and this sounds good to you, definitely reach out to Dagger. I’m sure you’d love to have some more clients, Mike.

 

MIKE: That goes without saying. But seriously, both sides, man. The business is built on both sides, so I appreciate the plug. We’re obviously always looking to talk to talented people who are interested in our vision. Even if we’re not hiring at the moment, it’s good to be building those relationships. And then obviously, if what I’ve said about our approach to content and our approach to market is resonating from a client or brand side, it goes without saying—feel free to reach out.

 

ROB: Fantastic. Great to have you, Mike. Thanks for sharing your story and your wisdom.

 

MIKE: Thanks, man. I appreciate the time. Bye, Rob.

 

ROB: Take care.

 

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.

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