Kevin Planovsky, Principal of Vert Digital in Atlanta, Georgia, discusses how he started his “full stack” mobile- and social-focused marketing consultancy. Keys to Vert Digital’s success include:
- comprehending clients’ business models, problems, and KPIs
- understanding the administrative challenges CMOs face in translating corporate directives to actionable challenges for their marketing organizations and agencies , and
- bridging the creative/technology gap with data-heavy campaign execution.
What motivates Kevin? The thrill of driving change and the opportunity to provide value to clients where others have not. In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica data scandal, he believes the marketing industry should be transparent and inform people of the personal data they may not know they have disclosed.
Kevin selects his team members (Vertbags) based on their self-identified position on a scale of “loving technology for technology’s sake” versus “being a communicator who solves marketing problems.” He knows exactly where his ideal employees will be on that line.
Kevin can be reached at @kplanovsky on Twitter, on the company website at: http://vertdigital.com, and through @vertspeaks on all of the popular social media.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined in person today—our first in-person guest—by Kevin Planovsky, Principal of Vert Digital based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Kevin.
KEVIN: Hello. Thank you, thank you.
ROB: Glad to have you. Thanks for actually hosting me in your office.
ROB: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about Vert and what you’re great at?
KEVIN: Can do. Vert is a boutique digital agency—if people are still using the term “boutique” these days; just one of those things that comes out of your mouth—that I started with two business partners, and actually former UGA grads and college buddies, if you will, just over 9 years ago. We’ve got about 30 people. We’ve grown it organically, entirely independent, entirely owned and operated by the three of us.
We started very early on, really focused on mobile and social, primarily, with a hard mobile slant in terms of being a catalyst device for change and for interpersonal communication. Obviously, there were a lot of tactical things there. We’ve evolved and grown over the years as both mobility and interconnectivity and social have evolved and become legitimate, which is awesome—which was the goal.
Now we’re very much—I like to say “full stack.” I don’t like to say full service, because word on the street is that folks don’t respond well to the “full service” moniker on the agency side. So I like to say full stack, because there are a lot of tactics, there are a lot of approaches. All we do is digital, with a heavy focus on data. The intersection of data and creativity is really the blend of the two.
I’ll tell you what we’re not, and that will help direct what we are. We’re not an SEO/SEM agency. We’re not a sling and display banners agency. We’re not just predominantly web dev and definitely not a software shop. We’re not an ecommerce transactional shop. We are a consultancy and a studio and a campaign execution arm that’s fueled with data and with focus on the mobile and social paradigms.
ROB: How did you decide these conclusions of what you are not? Because it can be hard, I think, to turn down business and say, “We don’t do that.” Were these things that you tried and realized you weren’t good at, or were these things because you’ve had good partners? How did you come to these conclusions?
KEVIN: To be honest with you, it was really what kind of work we wanted to do. I think that’s what set the stage. We were very motivated by fun consumer brands. When we started this, I remember driving around and picking out buildings that had logos on top of them, like the Coca-Cola building, Crystal Springs over there, and wanting to work with those guys. That was some of the ambition and, in the early days, the motivation.
The second thing is we’ve always been kind of hell-bent on whatever’s new and cutting-edge and mysterious, demystifying it and figuring it out and legitimizing it. Early on, that was mobile sites and apps and this mysterious thing called Twitter and Facebook. We’ve continuously worked really hard not to pander to those things, but to deconstruct them and figure out how they translate to, not only marketing goals, but the way that marketing organizations are set up to do marketing, to buy and budget for marketing—because they rarely fit the expectations and the models that current client-side/brand side-organizations have. So we’re kind of this gap-closer. We try to be.
ROB: Nine years ago was basically two years into the life of the iPhone, more or less. How do you translate things that are new without things that are too new? You’re not selling drone clouds at the Olympics, although somebody can do that. There are certain times when VR/AR is going to be appropriate and times when it’s going to be a little bit early and more sizzle than substance. How do you filter through that?
KEVIN: I think that’s a great analogy. The VR/AR equation discussion now, the drone discussion and other things like the voice-activated discussion are very akin to the situation we had with mobile and social 9 years ago. Out of those three, I would say the one that’s ripe for legitimacy is the voice situation—obviously, as we sit here with a voice podcast.
I think part of it was a little bit of luck. I always say we were very lucky. One of the things that we always try to make sure to instill and hold as a focus is that we’re very fortunate. We’ve grown steadily for 9 years. We’ve never had to take on debt or investment. I think we’ve fired two people in 9 years. “Fired,” let go. It wasn’t even a firing. So I always tell people we’re very lucky, and then some people are like, “No, there’s no luck! You make your own luck.” I’m like, “Well, sort of.”
To some extent, seeing that mobile and social were going to be important was making our own luck, but I think it was how legitimate and how big they were, the magnitude of it, which is the luck piece. I think we’re fortunate in that they’ve both become very well-embraced by the public, and therefore have become very valuable to marketers.
So those new things, we don’t do that because the viability—we were very early on the mobile/social thing. The first 3 or 4 years were slow going because of that.
Sorry, I know I’m very verbose, as you look at the time. [laughs]
ROB: No, I always look at the time. It’s just usually my guests don’t get to look at me looking at the time. Trying to figure out how to make it fit right but respect people’s time in 30 minutes or so.
Early on you were very heavily all-in on mobile, and that served you well for a time. To an extent, you could likely build an entire agency around serving mobile even to this day. What were the signals that made you start thinking and processing and saying, “We maybe need to be a little bit less all-in on mobile and start broadening; maybe this other thing is a better fit for where we can serve a client in a new technology area”?
KEVIN: It’s two things, in my opinion. [One is] the strengths and weaknesses and knowing what you want to do and what you’re good at and how you want to employ it. The other one is not doing this because you want to make a buck. Doing this because you’re excited to change the marketing game and provide value where others are not or there’s opportunity to kind of write the book on it. That’s a big motivator.
There are plenty of businesses that knew that their strengths were in, for example, mobile app development. If you’re familiar with a company called Mutual Mobile out of Austin, Texas—very similar story. Three or four young dudes. (Unfortunately, a lot of young dudes in this industry. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, it’s just the situation. We were just talking about that beforehand.) But they went massive. They zoned in 100% on that, 300-400 people. Big, big enterprise mobile app clients. Heavy mobile software dev.
We just didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to build something that would balloon overnight. We wanted to be a little bit slower and meticulous, but also build something from nothing. At the end of the day, we knew we were marketers, we were brand folks, and that we weren’t transactional or technology folks.
That’s one of the litmus tests. Whenever I’m interviewing, one of the things I’ll do—this is one of those stories I’m just going to dive into—on their résumé, I’ll flip it over, and on the left side I’ll write “technologist” and on the right side I’ll write “marketer,” and then I’ll draw a line across the two and put a little hash mark in the center. I’ll flip it around and say, “Where do you fall on this spectrum of being motivated by technology for technology’s sake or being a communicator who solves marketing problems?”
I know where—I’m not going to say where, for those who want to interview.
ROB: This is the cheat for the interview. [laughs]
KEVIN: Right. But I know where successful Vertbags—which is what we call ourselves—land on that spectrum. Self-awareness is important. That’s what made us both diversify and specialize in more campaign brand activation-oriented stuff and then diversify across tactics.
ROB: How did you come to this conclusion 1) that you’re marketers and 2) that what you wanted to do with that was start an agency together? How did Vert come to exist?
KEVIN: Those are two very different answers. I’ll answer the second one first, how we wanted to start an agency. I won’t even say “agency”; I’ll just say we didn’t want to have bosses. We wanted to build something from nothing. We didn’t want to go find investment. We didn’t know any of that stuff, we didn’t have a bunch of money, limited skills, limited experience. We just wanted to hustle and start tinkering with this cool new emerging stuff that we felt we had a leg up on pretty much everybody, most people.
So that was the motivator. Funny enough—you mentioned it was 2 years from the iPhone—the day the iPhone was released, I was sitting there at my desk at Ant Farm Interactive (which became Nurun, which is now part of Publicis Groupe), and my business partner, Michael Lentz, was also there. It was our first job out of college, and we’re AIM chatting each other, because that was the official method of chat communication at Ant Farm. We’re like,“Oh my God, it’s happening! Look at this. We’ve got to do something.”
Essentially what we knew was—it’s so funny. There are so many offshoot stories here. You can stop me at any point.
ROB: Go for it.
KEVIN: At one point in the summer of ’08 I had lunch with Adam Blitzer and David Cummings, the summer that they were hiring eight interns to build the core product for Pardot. David Cummings just looked at me and was like, “Listen, whatever you do, just do B-to-B.” I was like, “All right.” Because we were kicking around a bunch of ideas. We knew we wanted to do something.
So we focused in on services to businesses around these mystical new areas. There was a wave. There was hype. A lot of agencies fell off the Social and Mobile 1.0 train when they started to legitimize and then they couldn’t—because they were chasing the dollar, they didn’t really understand it, or they weren’t putting the time in. We evolved and are thankful for it today.
ROB: That’s a good background. And deciding you were a marketer?
KEVIN: Yeah, deciding we were marketers. I don’t think that we knew that right out of the gate, because we were dabbling in mobile apps, we were trying to do things that we didn’t know if we had the strengths to do.
It was probably 2 or 3 years, as we started to get real, tangible—I think the game-changer for me personally and for our organization has been business knowledge: Understanding our clients’ business problems and business models and the two or three KPIs at the business level that we serve, and how we tie those to various digital KPIs that are correlated and aligned with that.
Let’s face it: a CMO has business administration problems that rain down on them from their suite of executives, and then they’re the trading ground and the translator to turn them into marketing challenges and problems for their marketing organization and their partners and agencies. So we serve to help bridge that gap for CMOs and Directors of Marketing and you name it.
Once we figured out that it was business problem, then the whole communications and marketing thing—as opposed to pure technology—and partly because of the experience that we had early on with some consumer brands and very marketing/communications, storytelling-centric case studies. We threw that behind us and leveraged that to spin out more work like that.
ROB: Nice. I think you’ve constructed this interesting theme around this conversation.
KEVIN: Subconsciously. [laughs]
ROB: Yeah, and filtered through some other conversations that we’ve had—almost any trend you can chase outside of your own strengths and convictions for maybe a couple of years. Whether marketers or technologists, to play into that theme, you can chase a new technology for a couple of years and build a company and sell it. You can sell a bunch of marketing in a particular area for a couple of years outside of your strengths and passions.
But if you’re going to do this thing for 9 years, you have to settle in to who you are. You have to find your strengths.
KEVIN: You have to find a lens or a layer that’s bigger than the tactics or the platforms themselves that you can hang your hat on.
ROB: One trend that you’ve been able to identify—it really doesn’t sound like a trend unless you’re down in the weeds of marketing—is multi-location marketing in the era of digital. It’s strange I say that, because McDonald’s has been franchising for a very long time, but I think for a season of social and digital, the parent brand just did brand marketing, carpet-bomb the world. What has changed that has made it so that individual locations of different types of business, now there’s a marketing play on a per-store basis?
KEVIN: Almost nothing’s changed. The only thing that’s changed is the way that algorithms and platforms close the gap between the two things that have not changed. The two things that have not changed are marketing organizations and operations that have finite resources and humans. This would be like the McDonald’s corporate marketing team and even their field marketing team, which would be the old school version of local store digital marketing or LSM or whatever.
You’re inclined to simplify because there are so many details between locality and the weather and this city versus that city and the pricing here versus the pricing—it’s complicated. You don’t have unlimited people and resources to cover all those details. The thing that hasn’t changed is the limitations and the simplification, the wanting to move toward more broadcast messaging, to solve for that.
On the other side is the relevance of proximity and timing, that is, effective marketing for customers, for people. It’s been proven time and time again, and these are two of our—if you can have two North Stars at the same time.
ROB: It’s a binary North Star.
KEVIN: It is a binary North Star or some four-dimensional North Star. The whole equation of send the message at the right time to the right person is really just about proximity and time. If you can send a type of message, whether that’s paid, earned, owned, whatever, to a human within a close proximity and/or close time that they have done or you know they want to do business with your type of product or service, that is, what wins from a marketing relevancy standpoint.
Then in the middle you’ve got, for those who do have a physical footprint, particularly a brick-and-mortar footprint, there are massive sets of infrastructure to give you a leg up to leverage that physical address. That PIN, those keywords in those local areas, managing your paid budgets inside of the bubbles in those local areas, categorizing your different stores by level of brand awareness or affinity in each of those types of markets, price. There are so many dynamics to it.
We’ve been fortunate to grow up with that modern, digital, LSM, multi-location capability set, both the data that fuels it and then the tactics that make it possible to execute. Across the board, whether that’s managing across clients who are managing thousands of individual Facebook and Instagram pages, social pages for each store—on the paid front, all of our paying campaigns have hundreds and hundreds of individual pockets of money that get rained down in various regions.
We have governance and strategy and operations to make sure that that goes off without a hitch and it’s really valuable to brick-and-mortar businesses.
ROB: Interesting. Do you think the tools have evolved in ways that are helpful to that as well?
KEVIN: Absolutely. If I can give a shout-out to one of our longtime partners, MomentFeed, they were kind enough to invite us out to their conference and speak there. We’ve been 6-year-long partners with them, since they started early on.
We just saw this shift where all of our competition was like, “delete all of your franchisee’s pages and we’ll just handle this from the top down,” and as that was happening, Facebook and even Pinterest started having the geographic layers. They all started building these tools, and Google (Google My Business) started building all these tools to better manage that and take advantage of what they knew and what they were seeing in their data, which is, our users are most responsive to things that are in close time or proximity to their need.
So we shifted, and MomentFeed has become a key software partner and they’ve continued to evolve dramatically, as have the various paid tools that our paid media team leverages. A lot of good partners there. NinthDecimal is one that comes to mind that we have a lot of success stories with, with our client Racetrack and a number of others.
ROB: It’s a little bit hard to remember—once upon a time, when you wanted to manage social, you were going to buy—here in town we had Vitrue that sold out to Oracle for a ton of money. The only software you could buy to “manage” social was tons of money. It was something you probably wouldn’t be real eager to buy here. You couldn’t pay $1,000 per local store per year for that sort of software. So some of that has really changed in interesting ways, I think.
KEVIN: Yeah, one of the biggies early on, like 2010, was all about, “can we just find an affordable software that lets you schedule posts to Twitter and Facebook?” We found one, and it was out of the UK, flew under the radar. They were good partners for a long, long time, and they allowed us to offer a really valuable thing, which was this time-shifted content planning. That was a big thing in 2010 when all you had was one brand-level feed to really worry about.
Now it’s very fragmented, and we’ve set up our teams and operations to rise to that occasion between first party data, third party data, remarketing, retargeting, all the different audience profiles—which obviously Facebook is in a world of hurt on right now, but we’ll see how that plays out. But that being there isn’t going to change—maybe the way Facebook deals with it will change.
ROB: What are some things you’ve learned in building Vert that you would consider doing differently next time?
KEVIN: Me personally?
KEVIN: Just get out of the way. [laughs] That’s kind of what I was alluding to before we started. It’s really about a replicable model, an operating model, a mantra, a culture, a strategic belief system that you can hire the right folks for, and then just constantly lead that macro level vision. Read the market so that you can provide more and more opportunity for those folks.
It was our first foray into entrepreneurship, and we were riding the early wave and then forced to legitimize. The last 2-3 years have been really awesome in terms of scaling and operationalizing. We’re very thankful—shout out to folks like Kelsey and the Laurens and Justin, who have been with us for 5 and 7 years, who have enabled that amount of trust and loyalty to do that as well.
ROB: Is there any role you wish you would’ve hired sooner?
KEVIN: No, there’s not, because we’re very focused on doing this our way. The traditional roles—there are a lot of agencies like us that, once they get to the growing pains phase of 18-22 people, they’re like, “We’ve got to get a consultant in here . . . We’ve got to hire some senior leadership.” We said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to talk to a bunch of people who’ve been there and try to learn from them.”
Those were, for me, Dave Williams and Jeff Hilimire (who I know you just had a great podcast with) and others. I picked their brains—they were extremely kind paying it forward—and then tried to transform that into our own way of emulating those successes and learnings, and then promote from within.
Lauren Harber, who is my business partner, Michael Lentz’s right-hand person on the media team, is an amazing, nurturing people-leader and media strategist who, 5 years ago, was an intern on our social team writing tweets. She’s phenomenal.
That’s been our focus. Do it our way. We kind of want to be the anti-agency, a little bit.
ROB: Right on. What are some things that are coming up for you and for marketing in general that you’re excited about?
KEVIN: The voice stuff is super exciting.
ROB: Where do you think that’s going to go? What are the opportunities people don’t realize, but they’re staring you in the eyes like the Geico pile of money?
KEVIN: I’m not 100% sure. I was a real early adopter to the Amazon Alexa platform when they were offering it to early Prime members. So I’ve had the original Echo tube for like 3 or 4 years and seen it go from “What time is it?”, “Set a timer,” It’s two lane—now—setting up all this automation stuff.
I know that one of them is named Cortana as well—it’s like having that, if you’re a Halo player. [laughs] You probably see the ads or whatever, the virality of the article about the woman, “Somebody hacked me using API to . . . get into your car.” I’ve found myself many times sitting in my car, wanting to say “Alexa.” So I think it becomes a dispensable in so many ways.
And let’s face it, the way that our brains are trained as humans is language. Our brains go from thought to speaking way quicker and more efficiently than typing. We adapted by coming up with little short emoji things and shorthand for things because we wanted to say it even faster than our fingers could. This then closes the gap for that, too.
It creates a lot of new problems, but from a human experience standpoint it just makes it easier to get what you want quicker and interact with technology more like a human instead of having to transcribe your thoughts into a syntax that computers will understand. Your voice becomes that, and that’s really powerful and becomes really addicting once you see how much easier it can make [things].
I mean, there’s nothing better than lying in bed at 3 a.m. and it’s cold in January and you just say “Alexa, turn the thermostat up,” and then your heat kicks on in the crawlspace and you just turn over and sleep like a baby. [laughs]
Then on the flipside of it is the privacy and data thing that we’re going through right now. I’ve been a big proponent for years that the industry needs to just hit it head-on, whether it’s an Ad Council thing or whatever. Just literally tell our customers and human beings—not consumers, I don’t like calling them consumers—that, “Hey, there’s a whole bunch of information that you give us. We don’t think you know it. We don’t think you realize it, but to protect you and to protect our relationship with you, we just want to tell you straight-up. We’re not out to harm you. Here’s what we know about you.”
There’s not been a concerted effort to do that. I’m not nearly powerful or connected enough to make that happen. And now chickens are coming home to roost a little bit. I like, in the Cambridge Analytica stuff, even though it’s not as economically tied to the housing situation—agencies like mine ran away with whatever Facebook said they were capable of doing with blind trust. Trust in that Terms of Service, trust in regulations and oversight on Facebook Corporation. Our livelihood was tied to it.
So, yeah, we were selling the hell out of Lookalike Audiences and still want to, because guess what? They work and they actually provide value to humans in a marketing capacity. We just need to get better about being transparent about it. I’m excited about the upheaval so that we can get to the part where people are like, “Okay, I’m cool with that.”
ROB: I’m really curious whether people would want to settle into—I don’t think people, to your point, know nearly what is known about them.
But to me, the major flaw with Facebook is they actually handed out the data, too. It’s one thing to target an advertisement based on things when it’s not telling me everything about you. It’s another thing when you’re telling me as an advertiser everything about you and all your friends. But even everything about you is still a little bit gross, if they’re just handing out that data to anybody who can make an app.
KEVIN: Right. It is a slippery slope, clearly.
ROB: That could be an episode in and of itself.
KEVIN: It probably should.
ROB: Perhaps we need to put together a roundtable on that topic. I think that’s a format that would be fun to tinker with.
KEVIN: I’d love that.
ROB: Kevin, when someone wants to get in touch with you and Vert, how can they find you?
KEVIN: Me, I’m elusive—because I have two daughters, and I like to go snowboarding and there are no good mountains nearby.
ROB: Find you on the slopes.
KEVIN: Yeah. I’m @kplanovsky on Twitter (good luck spelling that last name without looking at a screen where Rob typed it out). Our company resides on the web at vertdigital.com, and we are @vertspeaks on all of the popular social media. We’re over here in the Emory/Morningside area if you want to pop by and pull a pint from the Tipsy Unicorn, which is our little beverage center in the middle of our office. Yeah, that’s where most of the stuff happens online.
ROB: That’s great. Kevin, thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing. It’s been great to have you and great to talk.
KEVIN: Thanks, man. Likewise. And right at 30 minutes, look at that.
ROB: You know it.
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 email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.