Simms Jenkins, Founder and CEO of BrightWave Marketing, talks about how email, once considered passé in marketing circles, has morphed into a powerful tool for reaching a company’s targeted “warm” audience, enhancing user experience, facilitating cross-channel synchronization, providing measurable results, and boosting bottom-line ROI. Simms is the author of The Truth about Email Marketing, which is available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Truth-About-Email-Marketing/dp/0789737949
For over 15 years, BrightWave enables relationships between brands and customers by synchronizing eCRM strategy with critical customer points of impact. We get data and how to use it to ensure the best customer experience for your subscribers. Expect the very best with the leading email, eCRM and cross-channel agency
BrightWave Marketing website: https://www.brightwave.com/
Email event of the year! EIQ, the Intelligent Email Gathering, Thursday, April 19, 2018 from 8 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Loews Hotel, 1065 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30309 https://www.EiQgathering.com/
Episode Transcript follows:
Rob Kischuk: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m excited to be joined today by Simms Jenkins, founder and CEO of BrightWave Marketing, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Simms.
Simms Jenkins: Thanks for having me, Rob. Glad to be here.
Rob: Thanks for joining us. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about BrightWave and about what BrightWave is great at?
Simms: Sure. We’re a digital marketing agency focused on email and eCRM. We think, over the last 15 years, we’ve built the reputation as the leading agency focused in these areas. What we’re really great at is taking leading and growing brands and bringing their email programs to the next level to really maximize ROI and the overall user experience in this mission critical channel.
Rob: When someone’s email practice is lagging behind, what does that look in 2018?
Simms: It varies greatly. A lot of our clients have phenomenal established businesses—they’re not lacking in terms of brand awareness, sales—but they know they’re leaving a lot of money on the table when it comes to email. Email is not the caliber of, maybe, their in-store experience or the rest of their digital user experience.
So, it might be that creative is not up to par or there might be some issues with cadence and frequency that make the overall user experience not comparable to visiting a store. You want the same seamless experience to be phenomenal in a store, in an email, on social media, whatever it may be. There are often so many gaps. What we do quickly is figure out what those are with a roadmap and then we go to work, always looking for a lot of low hanging fruit—which can be things like building in automations they may be lacking—everything from a welcome series and confirmations to building up sophisticated triggers based on user behavior and different kinds of trigger points. There’s no user email program that we’ve seen that is doing everything right, with everything built out. There are always gaps. That’s part of why the opportunities are pretty significant. From an ROI standpoint, what you can spend on email is pretty minor compared to the dividends that you’re going to see from the user experience and the return on investment.
Rob: What led you to start this company in the first place?
Simms: I started 15 years ago. I don’t have to tell you the world was a lot different then. I ran the CRM for Cox’s divisions. We were spending a lot of money on technology—a lot of it related to email. Email was the number one driver of traffic to a portfolio of websites. It worked—and we weren’t doing a great job. We didn’t know what we were doing, but all the money kept pouring into technology. It used to be all about “the send.” Now it’s about, “How do you make the email experience so much better?” “How do you make it more efficient/effective?” I saw a gap—“How do you do things better?” “How do you do things differently?” “How do you do them smart?”
When I launched BrightWave, I initially intended to focus mainly on consulting. Luckily, I was pushed by clients who said, “Hey, we really like your advice, but we want you to manage these programs, too.” With that, I saw the beauty of recurring revenue without necessarily knowing that I was looking for it. To this day we are a hybrid of McKinsey-like consulting when it comes to email marketing/cloud technology and then we do a lot of managed services—where we are in the email agency-of-record managing these sophisticated programs. That means we’re writing the copy, doing the creative, developing the html, working with different agencies, sending the emails and marketing clouds, looking at analytics, and tying it back to strategy and KPI so that we’re continually optimizing and on target for the business goals.
Rob: Did you have any partners when you started?
Simms: No, there was no one that wanted to touch an email business 15 years ago. I could tell you that. So if I went looking, I probably wouldn’t have found it. I was a naïve, newly-married guy. My business plan was: I needed to hustle to make some money. I didn’t know if this was a long-term business. I didn’t have a business plan. I was really out there trying to figure it out all by myself—for better or worse. My wife, who worked at Bellsouth, and I excel as crucial behind the scenes people. I was the sole founder and there weren’t many people interested in the email side of things, particularly in Atlanta because this was all post dot com. You had everyone that left all the dot coms and went back to real estate. I think that was probably a blessing and curse on a couple of fronts, but it helped me figure things out quickly. There are a lot of advantages to have having co-founders, but I think in some ways I learned things a lot faster because I had no choice.
Rob: When did you bring on your first full-time employee? What did they do for you? And what have been some of the other inflection points along the journey?
Simms: Sure. Brent Rosengren, who’s now our chief client officer, has been with BrightWave for 13 plus years as a full time employee, which is pretty amazing in today’s environment. It’s been unbelievable to watch him grow with the company. He was a really sharp email guy who worked at Web&D when he and I met. I knew that he was the first employee I wanted to hire, but to come work for this one-person email agency—plus he was also a newly married guy—so it took us some time to get there.
I had a lot of contractors in that first year/year-and-a-half. They helped me with a lot of the design and html and things like that, but I was really doing it all because I had no choice. When Brent came, we tag-teamed it. He has been crucial throughout this ride. We’ve had a lot of different inflection points over 15 years. What’s amazing is our most significant growth has really come over the last four or five years, with five years in a row starting in, maybe, 2008. In our last two years, we’ve blown it out of the water. We haven’t applied for Inc. Five Thousand for a lot of different reasons. We’ve had growth spurts and now, as a 15 year old company, we’re experiencing unbelievable growth, especially for a mature company that’s really very much a focused agency? We would be able to grow a lot more if we said, “All right, we’re going to get into a lot of other channels.”
We’ve been able to grow while being focused on email. Publishing my first book was one of the really big things that helped launch us to the next level. My first book was The Truth about Email Marketing. At that time, I had to sell email more than I had to sell BrightWave. That book helped provide a lot of credibility and got us in front of a lot of people. Companies like Chick-fil-A and ACS, which became part of Xerox, were early clients and gave us the confidence to go to the next level. There are so many different kinds of ups and downs along the journey.
Probably the next most significant thing was when I brought on Raj Choudhury, who you know well. He is one of the most experienced ad tech marketing agency guys in Atlanta. We brought him on as president about two-and-a-half years ago.
We also brought on a head of talent, probably well before we needed to from a number of employees. Usually you don’t hire a head of talent when you have 25 or 30 people. We did—because we knew we needed to make that investment, being in the services business—along with a lot of other smart people. We’ve been able to really take the business to the next level and scale it in a way that . . . I was a little unsure of whether we would get to the next top of the mountain, and what that mountain looked like. Raj is a guy who certainly has that experience.
Flanking all of that, email services have become even more important. More people are investing a lot in marketing technology. They’ve got to be able to drive that fast car, not just pay the lease off every month. We’ve seen spend increased significantly in our area of email services. Our capabilities have grown alongside of that. We’re doing much more sophisticated technology work—in addition to our historically sweet spot of strategy, creative, and email production.
Rob: Would you say we’re in somewhat of resurgence or a renaissance in terms of what’s possible and what’s happening with email?
Simms: Absolutely. I think we really have the last couple years and people have finally stopped trying to say, “Email is going to die.” I’ll read a mainstream article with the headline. I’ve seen it countless times over the last 15 years. I think people have tried to say, “All right. Email’s not going anywhere. How do we make it better? How do we make it better for the user experience? And how do we make it better from a marketing standpoint?” There’s been more innovation in the last two or three years than in the preceding 12, 13, 14 years in our industry, which is fantastic. It’s really exciting. There’s definitely a resurgence of energy and emphasis on email and its impact. There’s an unbelievable amount of new talent that has just come up the pipeline—of these awesome people who actually love email. That was one of the things I certainly had wondered a few times. When social came along, I’m thought I would lose a lot of my potential employees to social because it’s “sexier” than email. I think email has had that renaissance period over the past few years and I don’t see it slowing down.
Rob: So how much of this shift do you think is maybe the email itself is becoming more digital and how much, I don’t know if I’m expressing that correctly, and how much of it is maybe disillusionment with some of these other channels that people, particularly social, realize they don’t own nearly so much as they might actually own their email relationship with their customers?
Simms: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think there’s been that—my email database, I own its media, and that is incredibly valuable. These people are raising their hands to receive advertisements and special information from you—that’s unbelievably powerful. I think there’s been the, “Gosh, I can hit my email list of several million people for a fraction of the cost of other marketing channels. I know what that response rate is going to be from a pretty consistent manner.” I think people have realized that email drives social, social can complement email . . . everything is about mobile users these days. Email is still one of the top two or three things that people are doing every hour of the day, so email is that much more omnipresent.
I think that certainly plays a role. There are a lot more things you can do—I think you were alluding to the more dynamic capabilities of email these days, where you can actually have transactions in the inbox. Before, email’s job was to send you to the next piece of digital real estate. Now, you don’t have to go to a landing page, you don’t have to go to an app, you can actually do a lot of that stuff in the inbox. That’s not for everyone, but email’s job of lighting that match is still stronger than any other marketing channel, in my view. Which may be a little biased.
Rob: But, it also keeps you excited. Now it may have been, that seems a little bit counter intuitive to some. Where did you get the conviction that a book was something that was important for you to do and put your time into?
Simms: That’s a great question. I was not somebody that necessarily wanted to write, or even thought about writing, from a professional standpoint—or even made the connection that it could help me with my business. I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend who worked for iMedia Connection, which is still a pretty strong digital publication. She knew what I was doing. She’s like, “Oh, you should write some articles about email for us,” and I was like, “Okay,” The very first one I did was about the email campaigns of the presidential campaigns. Gosh, this was . . . George W Bush. I think it was the first time he won. This was 12, 13 years ago. I wrote an article which took me, it was scary, three or four weeks. Everything about it was intimidating. When the article went live, my phone started ringing. I started in this for social media where you can post it on LinkedIn. I was like, “I wrote it . . . but how are people going to actually find it?”
That was the beauty of having an established platform like iMedia Connection. I just thought, “These guys are not going to pay me, but I am going to get a lot of value out of it, and I can see how that works.” I started becoming their email marketing columnist, writing every two or three weeks. Then I realized the same about speaking at conferences, “They are not going to pay me to speak at conferences, but I’m going to get my name out there and become the email expert.” This is the path I went down.
Financial Times approached me about writing a book on email for one of their series of technology books. That came at a time when I was gung-ho on the thought that leadership was absolutely the path for us. I knew that we would really never have a traditional marketing budget. Our marketing budget was going to be in sweat and hustle. It was going to be writing and speaking, going out and talking with people about why email works and best practices and things to make you rethink email—which was definitely a challenge 10 years ago.
It was a big, big project and it was a gamble when I wrote that first book because certainly it was a distraction, took a lot of time from running the business. I think I knew the process a lot better, had more confidence, and was able to do it a little more effectively, but that book was probably almost as important because it discussed, “How does email work in this social and mobile world?” It was somewhat of a defensive book—arguing that email is not going away and why email is even more important with social media and mobile. It again helped lead our story to the next level. When a lot of budgets were being considered: “Hey, I’m going to move some of my email budget to social.” We helped redirect that a little bit and the book certainly cemented us as being the premier email thought leader on many fronts.
Rob: And you mentioned that you’ve evolved a little bit beyond traditional email, you mentioned eCRM. So, first of all, help maybe those people who don’t know as much what eCRM is, how it’s different from email and how you decided the areas where you’re going to evolve a little bit beyond sending to lists and how you’ve sort of perhaps resisted the temptation to become a full service digital agency along the lines.
Simms: Yeah. ECRM is the whole modern database marketing package, where, very similar to email—it might be through push-notifications or sms or other areas of notifications and messaging—emails sits in the middle of digital and ECR, but, if we’re going to be able to deliver a message to the right device or at the right time for any of our clients, that’s where we’ll go outside our comfort zone. We may be doing some cross channel advisory services where we’re the email agency of record for one of the largest financial services companies in the country, but we’re also their lead cross-channel advisory company. We’re not managing their social or their search or their direct marketing, but we are informing their direction, advising them on the strategic front. That’s a pretty significant opportunity for us to make a bigger impact than, I hate to say, their email program—but we’re that specialist that can flex a little bit up and down and across the aisle as needed. We’ve gone where our clients have wanted to go. That led us briefly to do a little social years back and then we realized, “Gosh, we’re not as good at social as we are at email and we really want to stay true to this specialized best to breed model. We’ve doubled down on that in the last five or six years. Our clients hire us because we are specialized and because we are the best at email. I think most of our clients, if we started to do different services, they’d be like, “You’re less special that way. I already have an agency that does four things for me and they’re only good at one of them. So I don’t need another agency that’s OK at two things. I’d rather have four agencies that are awesome at four things.”
Rob: When it comes to staffing up, as you have needed to, particularly over the past two to five years, how do you go about it? Do you find that you’re mostly able to pull in talent with a strong background in email, where, I would imagine, you would have an advantage in poaching talent? Or are you finding you’re also having to onboard people, maybe coming from different disciplines and how do you help them through that?
Simms: Yeah. I think, as we’ve added a lot of employees, particularly over the last couple of years, it depends. In an ideal world, I’d love to have every single person come in with five years email experience and five years agency experience, but that’s not going to be the case, particularly for certain positions that, maybe, junior project managers are more junior designers. Anyone who’s a senior strategist or somebody who is going to be driving the execution and the strategy of a program is going to have email experience and be a subject matter expert, but we’ll make compromises. It’s easier to learn email than it is to learn the right fit for BrightWave. as well as the intangibles that we look for.
Some people come in and they don’t have the email experience, but we make sure that, by the time there was an offer to them, they completely know what they’re walking into. That “Why do you want to work for an email agency?” “What are you going to think in a year about doing, spending 95% of your time coding emails?” We want to make sure that people aren’t saying, “I’m really just looking for a job and I like your offices in Buckhead.” We want to make sure that they’re all in on working for a very specialized agency. I think we usually get it right. Sometimes we miss, but we do a lot internally to make sure that we’re exposing people to a lot about our industry and then get a lot of opportunities to move through the agency for additional layers of exposure.
Rob: That is pretty interesting, filtering for that commitment. Now with your specialization as well as your growth, I would imagine that, to certain people, BrightWave becomes an interesting acquisition target. So you don’t have to get in too much on the details, but I’d be surprised if you said, “Rob, nobody has ever offered to buy us.” So how have you als conviction to keep going as an independent entity?
Simms: I think I’ve been doing this for 15 years and we’ve never had outside capital. I like and I think our entire agency benefits from being a private, independent company that’s not beholden to a holding company in New York or we’re just an Atlanta office of a bigger agency or marketing cloud or a subsidiary that’s trying to do a roll-up. For me to pass the keys to somebody else, it would have to really be an amazing situation for our employees and for our clients, to take us to the level that we otherwise couldn’t achieve. Now, that could be out there, but we’re really rocking and rolling without the need for any additional money, resources. Opening an office in San Francisco tomorrow doesn’t make us a better firm or isn’t needed from a strategic standpoint. We’re really happy with the path that we’re charting right now.
The independence level is, to me, really important. We’ve certainly seen a lot of people who have come from those agencies—it can be soul-draining to be in the Atlanta office of a New York agency. We know it’s important—from a recruiting standpoint, from a retention standpoint—that we’re very transparent in how we run the company. There’s no one else calling the shots other than the folks here. We’re focused on the short- and long-term success of our clients, not on what our parent company says we need to do this quarter.
Rob: That makes sense. I’ve had one conversation—I spoke with Eric Heller from Marketplace Ignition and the insight that he shared was his decision to be acquired in 27PP hinged largely on when their clients, who probably, at the time they were acquired looked a lot some of your clients, were starting to ask and say that they needed to incorporate what they would do their AOR agreements.
Rob: I would imagine as long as you’re not running into that, then it’s really not a restriction on your growth.
Simms: You’re absolutely right, but things change every couple of years. We have a lot of conversations with people smarter than me in terms of, “Here’s what you want to do to prepare yourself to control your own destiny,” because that’s really ultimately what I want to make sure that we’re able to do. I’ve seen a lot of really smart entrepreneurs who have had to sell because they hit the top of the mountain and the only way they were going was down. I want to make sure we keep on going the right way, that there are better opportunities for our clients, that it’s for the right reasons versus our hands are tied we’ve reached the end of the road.
Rob: Right. What are some things you’ve learned? You’ve shared some lessons already. What are some things you’ve learned along the journey of building BrightWave that you would perhaps consider doing differently next time?
Simms: It’s 15 years. You can imagine the things that I would do differently and the mistakes that I’ve made, but I’ve certainly learned an awful lot. I think I would probably fire faster and hire slower in some cases. Right now, I think we’re very much \ being aggressive in acquiring the right talent, but when you’re at that 10 to 25 person stage, one person can really disrupt your culture, your potential success. So you’ve really got to get it right, every hire at that stage. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of fundamental things that I would change. I’ve always viewed every stage of the company, where a few really important people that we’ve hired have launched us to the next level.
I know that we will continue to do that. Every two years, people might not be the right fit for the next phase of the company. You’ve really got to keep things dynamic. You’ve got to make sure you’re really looking at, “Do I have the right people in the right seats?” I feel incredibly confident that that’s where we are right now. But, you’ve got to revisit it in the next couple of years. All right, how do you, for this next stage of the company bring in new blood, bring in new energy and probably most importantly, make sure that you’re delivering what your clients want today and tomorrow, not just today and yesterday?
Rob: Simms, what are you excited about this coming up for BrightWave or even in the future of email marketing in general?
Simms: I’m incredibly excited about our second annual event called EIQ, which is April 19th at the Loews Hotel in Atlanta. It is going to be an epic day for anyone who touches email or cares about email or wants to know more about email. We’ll bring 350 digital marketers and go deep in terms of where email is going, what is innovative on email . . . really provide that community where we put together nine awesome sessions and make it an incredible day. We launched it last year and we’re back for the second year, which is going to be bigger and better. It’s a really big deal for us and it’s become, I’m incredibly humped to say, a big part of the email community. We decided to do it, not to get into the event business, but we decided to do it because it’s really lacking some dialogue about the most innovative things. Like I said before, email really has changed dramatically the last couple of years, but most of the email-centric events, we’re rehashing ideas and best practices that are tired and not necessarily relevant to today’s email marketer. So EIQ was all about them, all for them. It’s going to be pretty amazing. We put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it. We do it with a lot of great partners. Looking forward to that is certainly at the top of my list.
Second would be, we’re moving into a new headquarters next month, probably a few days after the EIQ in Atlanta. So we’ve got two pretty significant milestone events for us that are very exciting.
Rob: That’s exciting on the headquarters. I did have the privilege of spending a little bit of time at EIQ last year. For a first year event, I think it was tremendously well put together. Even as a non-native email marketer—I obviously send and receive email, so I obviously think about it sometimes and we sometimes even measure email marketing for our clients, but I don’t think about it as deeply. Even as someone who doesn’t do this stuff every day, I found EIQ very thought provoking in terms of who you are able to bring in. This year, I see you’ve got such a broad reach again, folks who worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign, Pinterest—really quite a lineup.
Simms: Thank you. Hopefully you can come again this year. It’s going to be even better. We think the one day of awesomeness is the way to go. A lot of people really liked that format. We layer in a lot of really fun things to do before, during, and after. Our team does an unbelievable job of putting together a fantastic event.
Rob: That’s really exciting and people can find out more about that. It looks EiQgathering.com, is that right?
Simms: That is correct.
Rob: That’s April 19th, 2018. Simms, when someone wants to get in touch with you and BrightWave, what’s the best way for them to find you?
Simms: I spend a lot of time on social media. Twitter: Simms Jenkins is my handle. Same with LinkedIn, S-I-M-M-S and you can go to the BrightWave website and probably track me down. I look forward to lots of good conversations with smart people listening to this today. So I’m sure that the quick Google search will be able to provide a lot of different avenues to connect with me on.
Rob: Excellent and the best way to connect with you is to go to EIQ and find you, right?
Simms: Exactly. I will be there all day. I’ll be hard to miss and I will promise that I will talk to anyone who comes up to me.
Rob: Thanks a lot, Simms. You shared some good insights and some good convictions on what you’re doing at BrightWave and I’m grateful for your time and wisdom. Thank you.
Simms: Thanks for having me, Rob.
Rob: All right, talk to you soon. Thanks.
Simms: Take care.
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