Bastian Grimm is CEO and Director of Organic Search at Peak Ace, a full-service marketing agency located in Berlin. Peak Ace provides organic and paid search, SEO, content marketing, and AdWords services.
Bastian, with an organic search background, and his partner, Marcel Prothmann (now Director of Performance Advertising), with a paid search background, met when they found themselves working on the same projects. They started Peak Ace at the beginning of 2008 with a focus on German, Austrian and Swiss markets and grew to around 15 employees in 5 or 6 years, then added France, the Netherlands, Italy and Holland.
Europe has a high cultural and linguistic diversity. Peak Ace started to add language capabilities for existing clients who wanted to a penetrate additional markets. Key to the success of its program was the understanding that pure translation—extending languages by using freelancers or translation agencies—does not work in communicating messages and the nuances of messages across cultures. It is critical to also understand the culture and the applied marketing technology. As its customers requested more language facility, Peak Ace hired natively fluent speakers to meet their needs and demands. The company wanted the same high level of quality across all languages—from German to French to Chinese and Japanese, and all the varied accents of the Arabic Emirate.
About 3 years back, Airbnb, with one of the top 10 marketing budgets in the world, took note of Peak Ace’s language capabilities. Working with Airbnb gave Peak Ace the opportunity to scale from their 15 employees and original 5 or 6 languages to 130 staff natively fluent in 20 languages in one office. Bastian recognizes that, if his company had not grown in its language capabilities, its clients would have had to deal with its counterpart competitors in other countries. Shortly thereafter, the company found itself doubling every year, with attendant growing pains as its processes and structures struggled to keep pace with the company’s growth. Increased language capabilities increased headcount, which changed the office dynamics and the clientele in a spiraling feedback loop.
When Peak Ace works with multinational clients, it builds a master template in English, and then localizes the message into the various languages. Bastian feels it is important to keep a common structure whenever possible—as this provides one more tool to ensure consistent quality
Bastian finds working in a multi-culti environment to be highly rewarding. But managing a company that, over the past few years, has doubled in size every year creates challenges. In this interview, Bastian outlines the strategic decisions behind his company’s success, and the values he has found to be increasingly important in today’s market:
- Be aware that a growing company will change significantly at different stages in its growth and impact hiring and promoting decisions.
- Create a structured path to guide people in their personal and professional growth within the company.
- Build appropriate scalable software solutions and business processes from the beginning.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am live at SMX East, and I am joined right now by Bastian Grimm, the CEO and Director of Organic Search at Peak Ace based in Berlin, Germany. Welcome to the podcast.
BASTIAN: Well, thanks for having me. Much appreciated.
ROB: Yeah, fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Peak Ace and what makes Peak Ace great?
BASTIAN: Yeah, that’s a good one. What is Peak Ace and what’s special about us? We are a full-service performing marketing agency. I think that’s kind of what it is these days. As you said in the intro, we do organic search, so the classic SEO work that’s out there. We do content marketing. We do paid search, obviously, so paid social, but also AdWords, those kind of things.
We are currently 130-ish in staff. The interesting part of that is that we do serve around 20 languages natively. That’s probably one of the key features that we have. Being based in Europe, we have this massive variety of different languages to deal with, and we figured that it’s a massive benefit for clients that you can deliver the same level of quality just in different languages.
That’s basically Peak Ace in a very short nutshell.
ROB: Got it. Did you start with many languages, or did you start with just a single language?
BASTIAN: The way it usually works in Europe is that you obviously start somehow with your mother tongue. That for us, of course, was German. With German, you serve Austria and Switzerland as well because it’s essentially the same.
So we started with that, but relatively early on figured that it would be good to at least have some of the core markets in Europe in the pocket. That for us is France as well as the Netherlands and Italy, Dutch. That was the core stuff that we started out with relatively early on.
Then we had the luxury that we were allowed to grow with our clients, so we started adding language capabilities based on need and demand, so to say. One of the massive wins for us was, a bit more than 2-½, 3 years ago, Airbnb. They allowed us to really scale from five or six languages up to now we do 16 or 17 for them.
So yeah, that was a massive help for us, obviously, as well. We could prove that we can do it in this handful of seven or eight that we had, and then we were able to add other languages at the same level of quality, basically.
ROB: So your customers almost dragged you there. You weren’t so much trying to target new customers in a different language. It was a lot, it sounds like, about expanding with your customers. Would you have lots some customers if you hadn’t been able to broaden your language support?
BASTIAN: I think yes and no. Especially what the bigger corporates don’t want is to deal with that massive amount of different agencies because to synchronize them, to manage them is almost like a full-time job.
So I think, yeah, if we wouldn’t have grown in language capabilities, then clearly we at least would have had to deal with indirect competitors within the same clientele. We thought, okay, as long as our core expertise, be it in paid or be it in organic, that it makes sense for us to expand that rather than we don’t do it.
Even though there’s always the challenge of – I mean, European mainland is relatively easy in a sense, but it gets way more tricky if you have to deal with like curalate and we have to deal with Chinese, we have to deal with all the different accents in the Emirates. That’s really tough because obviously there’s not only left to right, but right to left. It’s all of those details that makes it really tricky.
But it’s also an interesting challenge. Also, I think company-wise, it’s really cool for us because we have so many different nationalities in the office. It’s really nice because you have this multi-culti environment, different people and different views on things. I think for us as a company, it creates a great work atmosphere, this community feeling of having likeminded but different people in one room.
ROB: Yeah, that’s kind of crazy. You have 130 people, that’s amazing. You have Airbnb as a client, that’s fantastic. And you have people who are fluent, completely indistinguishably, natively fluent, in 20 different languages in one office.
BASTIAN: Yeah. It’s one office location, let’s put it that way. It’s three different offices, but in one building because we have been outgrowing – which is also an interesting challenge. We literally doubled every year. I mean, we’re bootstrapped. There’s no external money, nothing. It’s quite interesting. When you grow with clients, then you have to add capabilities in terms of location, etc., etc. It’s this crazy growth path where you have to deal with all of those funny challenges.
But yeah, we always believe that it’s not a feasible approach to extend languages just with using freelancers or translation agencies. It’s localization, at the end of the day. It’s not translation. I think you can only do that if you have people that are, as you correctly said, fluent in the language – mother tongue – but also understand their channel, their expertise, paid or organic or whatever it is. Just extending it and translating it, is not going to work usually.
ROB: Do you have languages where there’s just one person that is fluent in that language?
BASTIAN: Yeah, of course.
ROB: How do you handle quality control issues? You don’t even know.
BASTIAN: Exactly. It’s a really interesting one. We try to have at least two people in every language that we do, one definitely being mother tongue native, and then at least, for a very minimum, someone else who speaks it fluently. Even though, in the core languages, we have more than two or three.
It’s also from an agency side. At the end of the day, what we do, of course, we all sell time to clients. You have sick leaves, you have vacations. Normally you can’t handle it with just one single person. So it’s usually duo that we need.
However, from a work perspective, what we do mainly is that when we work with multinational clients, we build master template approaches in English and then localize it into the languages so that you at least have kind of a common structure wherever possible.
ROB: Who speaks the most languages in the office?
BASTIAN: That’s a good question. I actually don’t know, but I know that we have at least two or three people that have more than five languages, like basic knowledge. I’m really bad with languages, honestly. And it’s those crazy languages – like one girl speaks Chinese, Japanese, and a really weird mix of crazy languages. It’s really interesting.
ROB: Wow. That’s quite an interesting environment, and amazing, all of the growth in recent years. But if we go back to the beginning, how did Peak Ace start?
BASTIAN: That’s totally true. In the very beginning, myself and my partner who founded the company in the end of 2007, beginning of 2008, I believe – he comes from the paid search background, so that was also how we ended up meeting 5 or 6 years ago. Basically I was always doing organic search and he was always doing paid search, and we met along with some projects.
But the company, being founded as a paid search agency basically, for 5 or 6 years it was up to 15 people, maybe. But at some point we decided on the language capabilities, and then obviously that increases head count, that changes clientele.
So yeah, we started out as this boutique specialist company and then tried to expand it beyond that, really.
ROB: Were you freelancing before that?
BASTIAN: Yeah, I was actually doing consulting work and Marcel was like, “Yeah, I want to do agency.” I never wanted to do it, funnily enough. I was always like, “I don’t want to build or do an agency” kind of thing. Yet here it happened. So it’s an interesting journey, to be honest.
Also, if you look at growth and the challenges that it brings in terms of processes and structures and just things that are not there or that you don’t need if you’re just 20 people, and then all of a sudden if you’re 50, it just doesn’t work anymore – it’s quite interesting. We spent quite a bit of time on that in the last years.
ROB: I’m sure the first hire that you made was probably not that overwhelming. It was probably just a little bit of, “We need some help. We need a little bit of different capability here.” I’m sure there was some point where you realized that the growth was a little bit overwhelming, at least from where you had come from.
BASTIAN: Yeah, absolutely.
ROB: What was the moment where you were like, “Whoa, who are all these people and where did they come from?” Or is that still every day?
BASTIAN: It’s true. It’s a bit sad, to be honest. When we became over 50 people, I think at that point you realize that you don’t know everyone. I was – and Marcel as well – we were involved in the hiring process obviously, especially in the beginning. We did all the hires.
But at some point 3-½, 4 years ago, we completed the second level management. We introduced a head of SEO, a head of content, those kind of things, and now they do that. So obviously it can happen that I walk into the office and I honestly don’t know that person, which is quite interesting.
And then again, it comes back to what I said. Then all of a sudden you start doing those processes that someone from HR walks that person through the office and introduces him or her to whoever is there or not there – so I think it’s one of those things that’s evolving and that you need to learn over time.
ROB: You still keep the organic search capability in your job title. It’s on your LinkedIn, it’s on your nametag right here. How do you balance the needs of the leadership of the agency with I guess both a need and maybe a desire to keep your skills sharp?
BASTIAN: That’s a very, very good question. I’m a strong, strong, strong believer in this, “Practice what you preach,” kind of thing. I honestly think if I would only be doing leadership types of work, I think I would get bored, to be very honest. I really thoroughly still enjoy doing SEO. I learned software development back in the day. I’m a very, very technical person, and I honestly do enjoy it.
The way I manage my day-to-day work is that I usually try to keep a day during the week – not a full day at once, but the time of a day – free to get involved in some of the client work, to get involved in some of the pitches that we do, to sit down with my teams and have sessions on specific topics that not only interest me, but I think where they can all benefit from the work that I’ve been doing in the years.
So it’s a bit of both, but obviously you’re totally right. With growth there comes eventually work and/or tasks that you not necessarily do enjoy.
I also learned at some point, or we learned at some point, that you just need to hire the right people. We invested heavily at some point into a great HR department. You need, obviously at some point, capabilities in the back office, those kind of things. From an agency perspective, it’s not really great because it creates this overhead cost. It’s non-client facing staff. You can’t charge that onwards. All of those challenges – do I need one designer, do I need three designers? Those kind of discussions, you need to have those at some point.
But then again, it comes back to branding, it comes back to whatever image you want to have outside. So I think there’s a bit of this challenge on where do I invest, in which volumes – which then again, makes it exciting again. Not only is it like, “Oh yeah, I need to take care of my back office team,” but it’s always connected.
ROB: One thing I have noticed, and this seems to be true with you, is that a lot of the SEO and pay-per-click agencies that have really thrived . . . at some point realized that paid social had become (surprising many of us) a performance marketing category instead of experimental budget.
ROB: How did you realize the need to make that transition, and when did that tip for you?
BASTIAN: I would say we’ve been playing with paid social at least 3 years, and that was mainly driven – it’s funny that you say it, because it’s totally true; money was there to just experiment with it, but no one really took it seriously. Then we tried some things and honestly, they didn’t work in the beginning. Like we tried to sell hotel rooms on paid social like 3 years ago. It didn’t work. It just didn’t convert. Now we’ve figured out a way how we can even do that. So you need to try and retry. To be fair, let’s take Facebook for example – they invested a lot also in platforms, which made it a bit easier.
The other thing, too, it’s literally the same as with the language stuff. Clients were asking for it, so at some point you just need to probably try and try again until you make it work. Now we do the classic paid social on Facebook, on LinkedIn. We have some European platforms that are not that relevant in the U.S.
And then, again, due to another client – we do the market entry for a brand that’s well-known in the States, Sephora. The beauty brand. They were not in Europe up until like 2 or 3 years ago. So they started out in Germany, and that is quite interesting because it’s added another capability to our skillset, all this stuff around Instagram.
For example, what we do is when they open a store and they have video coverage, they want Insta stories. You combine that with community management.
So I think sometimes it’s just based on the client’s needs, and if a client trusts you just because you have done some other awesome stuff before, I think chances are that they might ask you. And if you feel confident, then my advice would be to at least give it a proper try and see if it works for you.
Then, on the other hand, we always stayed away from stuff where we’ve felt that it’s not us. We don’t do any email marketing. We don’t do any affiliate marketing, because honestly I think fundamentally A) it’s very different as a discipline, but B) it’s also very different types of personality that you need in terms of staff.
We like to tweak numbers, if that makes sense. I think that’s a bit different than those other channels. So yeah, that was our jump into paid social.
ROB: One glaring omission, at least in my mind when you’re talking about paid social, what you did not mention is Twitter. Has it been problematic getting Twitter to perform at a level commensurate with everything else?
BASTIAN: Yeah. The other thing – and I left it out on purpose – it’s simply almost not relevant in Europe. It is relevant in the UK, but if you look at Germany, the only people in Germany being on Twitter are SEOs and eventually some tech jobs. But that’s about it.
So we do paid social on Twitter. It does not really work well in Europe. It’s more like a branding exercise, as a supportive. But it’s not great. If you compare that even to LinkedIn, LinkedIn works way, way, way better than Twitter does. For us at least.
ROB: You have me curious because you mention some platforms that are more relevant in Europe that we might not be familiar with. But now I’m curious. What do we not know about over here in the States that is more relevant in your world?
BASTIAN: If we take LinkedIn as an example, LinkedIn is incredibly global. It’s mainly English speaking. Obviously most of the German professionals are there, but for example in Germany, we also do have a business network that’s called Xing (Crossing). They were around longer than LinkedIn, actually. If you want to reach the German-ish speaking professionals, they’re all on there.
They have the same ecosystem. It has less reach, but they have an app platform, they have paid job advertisements, all of that stuff is in there. So if you truly play the local approach, then that’s something that you can’t ignore.
We have some of those in all the European countries. Some more into one direction. Some are more like directories, as you guys have Yelp over here. In the Netherlands there is something called Dobhohina. I’m not sure if I pronounced it correctly, but that’s I think how the Dutch pronounce it. Same story. If you would miss out on that, it’s not going to work in the Netherlands.
So that’s this challenge that we have. We need to, as an agency, understand not only the language, but also the environment in the market and what are the relevant players within those environments to optimize economy, really.
ROB: Very, very interesting. Sounds like you’ve done a lot of things at least right enough to grow.
BASTIAN: [laughs] Yeah.
ROB: But if you were starting from scratch today, what are some things you would consider doing differently in the building of Peak Ace?
BASTIAN: That’s a good one. First off, thank you. I appreciate the kind words. It is true, but a growing company – probably not only us – it’s always a bit of a struggle, right?
Some of the interesting observations that we have, or had – my former Head of SEO was at the company very early on. He was like the sixth or seventh hire. He started as a senior and then became Head of SEO. He left when we were 30-ish people, just because he realized that it’s not the same environment anymore. It got bigger. It was not him. He wanted to work on his things and not manage and deal with that many people, which I can totally understand.
So I think one of the advices that I would like to give people about growing generally is that the company changes significantly in different stages. This is something to keep in mind also when hiring people and taking people from one to the other level.
Which leads me to the second topic. We invested early on, but maybe not even early on enough, into a very, very structured approach to personal development. What happened at the time was someone came to my office like, “How does my traineeship look? How do I get from a junior to a manager title or to a senior title, even?”
I think it’s fundamentally important to have a structured approach to really give people guidance on what the expectation is in the next 12 months and what you need to achieve as your milestones, personally as well as from the professional side. Really take them and bring them from A to B to C and give them this guidance.
I think in the industry where we are, where we have lots of young people, they want that. They require that, and I think they require it for a good reason. So that would be one of my advices. We should have even started that a bit earlier.
Lastly, I think what we realize now is that – again, it comes back to growth – software solutions that might have worked in the very beginning do not necessarily scale if you’re 50 or 100 people or whatever. We did not invest enough time, I guess, into building a very proper CRM solution for having to deal with all the contacts and clients.
All the departments organized it a bit for themselves, which worked, but it was not great. So I think that’s something – those processes, left and right, that are kind of annoying because it’s not really – it excites me to do SEO. It doesn’t excite me to roll out Salesforce, if that makes any sense, or whatever CRM that is.
ROB: Right, and pay for Salesforce.
BASTIAN: Exactly, right. It’s super necessary to do that, and there’s no way around that. I think sometimes it would be good to just do that even earlier in the process, not just at a point when the other one already broke. I think that’s a general observation that we had. Some of the stuff, it worked well, but we could’ve tackled it earlier. I guess that would’ve been a thing.
The last thing that wasn’t necessarily a mistake, that’s something I would always do again, is we really trusted a very data-driven, very technical approach on all the channels that we do. That meant that we early on hired full-time developers to build out scripts, build out tools, take away the monkey work from the team, reporting, which is just annoying. But it has to be done, right? We believe massively in transparency, which is my last point in a second.
So the stuff that’s just annoying, automate it as much as you can. I would not advise you to rely just on some freelance solution, but rather get it in-house, get it done, get it done properly.
Last point, that’s something that we did also relatively late, I realized when I thought about it again. I think having corporate values written down properly, split into different areas with examples of what that means for your employees, is insanely important. We only did that I would say maybe 1-½ years ago. We were 70-ish people already.
I mean, of course I can explain how I see Peak Ace and what we stand for and what we believe in, but not necessarily everyone knows that. We made this now part of our recruiting process and put it on the website and get people familiar with it. If you say you believe in transparency, I think that should be something that everyone lives. So I think that’s something I would be doing earlier next time.
ROB: Transparency is one of those values. What are some other values that are critical to you?
BASTIAN: Yeah, transparency is probably the biggest one. Obviously that breaks down in very different areas. But it can be transparency facing towards clients, or we report all the hours that we work. We’re 100% transparent in rates and everything else. I think that’s one thing. But it’s also transparency towards our employees, so it has different angles.
But other stuff, we do care about environment, so we try – for example, one of the things that we did early is we decided it would be good to have our own chef in the office because then people would not order in food all the time. That takes trash off the environment. Those kind of things.
It goes back to agency business is people business, and we really, really believe in the fact that it is about your team and how you treat them. The chef is a good example. We have flex work hours. There’s free food and all of that stuff.
I think that’s probably the tagline for it – creating this work environment that I would, as an owner, work in and like working in, is insanely important. We try to do that, and I think that comes with this. Then on the other hand, people that actually like to come to work or like to work for you/with you, however you want to put it.
ROB: Right. You mentioned being able to show people that career progression. Particularly the people that you’re hiring, a good SEO person, a good pay-per-click marketer, they are very much in demand.
BASTIAN: Crazy, yeah.
ROB: Having a career path combined with growth, then, has that helped you in keeping talent around? Because that can be a very hard thing to do.
BASTIAN: Yeah, 100%. This is one of the things that we show also during the recruiting process, and people love it. It’s a very, very clear understanding of what we think should happen, what we believe is necessary for a certain area of expertise. That helps not only to hire, it also helps to retain, because you can tell people what’s going on in the next year.
Fundamentally, I think it’s shifted a bit now. Let’s say 2 or 3 years ago, obviously you would mainly hire staff that you then train and educate yourself. Now that doesn’t scale as much for us anymore, so we’re hiring literally on any level.
But then again, coming back to this transparency point, when I have different hourly rates or day rates for a senior versus a junior person, which totally makes sense, then I also need to have on the backend, someone like, what does it mean to be a senior? Because if I sell that person as a senior, then I want to have the same skill and the same expertise for all the seniors versus all my juniors.
It’s a bit of self-need to do that, but also it’s important to be able to show it. But yeah, from a recruiting perspective it’s super, super important, I believe.
ROB: Recruiting is probably front and center for you a lot because you’re hiring, loosely, at a pace of about one new person a week. Maybe more sometimes.
ROB: Other than hiring all of those people and those new people who join your team, what’s coming up either for Peak Ace or in the marketing/search marketing world that you are excited about?
BASTIAN: What I’m really excited about is – we’ve installed, or merged is probably a better word, a new team, which is a bit of an extension to the existing ones. Basically we always had some people dealing with analytics, three people doing conversion rate optimization, and we had in another team someone who did some AdWords scripts. So we combined those all into this big MarTech team, basically.
I think one of the things that we see is, especially in Europe – and again, Europe, we’re a bit – I wouldn’t say behind, but the U.S. being forefront and center, and then we see stuff swapping into the UK, and then it’s the rest of Europe. In the U.S. and also in the UK, it’s a relatively well-known practice right now to have analytics, for example, as a retainer service. In Europe right now, it’s early on. We mainly have analytics as projects or implementation, building out dashboards, but that’s about it.
What we see is that obviously in Europe, those things are coming. I think that being a very data-driven agency, the necessity of automation is more and more important. If you deal with accounts of the size that Airbnb is, being one of the top 10 spenders in the world, the only way to manage that is automation on almost every level. Like settings, checking, anomaly detection, those kind of things, that needs to be there and that needs to be top-notch.
We really invested a lot, again, into building out that team and then having an excellent setup to roll out, to maintain analytics, to implement and get scripting up and running. If you combine that now with some of the first steps of machine learning, I think that’s really interesting. Machine learning, for example, is more paid then organic in this case. Take the search query report. You can do loads of intelligent things on that.
So I think we’re at this point where yes, we have all of this data, but I think intelligently handling that data and coming away with actions out of that is really exciting right now. I think we’re going to do quite a bit on that front.
It’s also true, the other challenge that I’m seeing that we’re trying to solve for our clients is that there are so many different data sources. If we take SEO for example now, we have all the crawling tools that are out there. We do have the search analytics providers out there. We do have things like and stuff. It’s all those different pots, and then people are dealing with this and that.
But what is fundamentally missing is this one unified layer where you have it all at one glance. And even better, if you have also access to paid search data – which, when you have clients in multiple channels, then you want to overlay all of that.
I think with Google pushing a lot in terms of A) Data Studio, which is really, really nice for reporting type things, and B) giving with BigQuery the capability of just getting loads of data for almost nothing at a centralized spot – we built a solution that we can just aggregate loads of different sources, get it there, get it merged, and get this full picture depending on the client, what we’re serving them for and what channels they’re using.
I think that’s really, really exciting because it gets easier in a sense to do that nowadays, with all the tools that are out there, than it might’ve been say 2 years ago.
ROB: Really cool. Really interesting. Bastian, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing some of what you’ve learned on this really exciting journey for Peak Ace. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and learn.
BASTIAN: Thank you. Most appreciated. Thanks for having me.
ROB: Fantastic. Take care.
BASTIAN: Take care. 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.