Using Risk as the Opportunity for Transformative Change

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Moira Vetter, Founder and CEO of Modo Modo Agency (Atlanta, Georgia), built her company with a focus on “marketing for business people.” Modo Modo serves a B to B client base and some larger organizations with B-to-B and B-to-C challenges—leveraging value, developing story, and strengthening brands in the face of company carve-outs, acquisitions, divestitures, and reorgs—times of great potential risk—and great opportunities for transformative change.

 

Moira notes that companies often come to Modo Modo with what they perceive as isolated problems, e.g., “We need to improve our website.” Rather than addressing a discrete issue, Modo Modo uses a broad approach, digging for strategic objectives (not “What do you want to do?” but, “What do you want to achieve?” “What are your strategic objectives?”), analyzes options, and implements connected marketing initiatives—to produce ever-better long-term value for clients.

 

In this interview, Moira addresses crossroads perception (how we see our options), the relativity of risk and how it affects decision-making, and the importance of milestones as motivators. She talks about the difference between using “the community’s filter to assess risk,” falling back on your “parents’ filter,” or, at some point, developing and adopting your own filter; and then explains how assessing progress in one parameter relative to another (e.g., I am this age, and I am here in my career) can provide the needed impetus to inspire change. She illustrates this with examples from her life—when external situations collapsed her rising career trajectory, and she made subsequent decisions that led to even greater success—and with examples of marketing at-risk companies and brands, and positioning them “in a new space.”

 

Moira can be reached by phone at 770.436.3100, ext. 702, on the company website at: modomodoagency.com, by email at: moira@modomodoagency.com, and on Twitter: @moiravetter and @modomodoagency.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by a highly recommended guest, Moira Vetter, Founder and CEO of Modo Modo Agency, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Moira.

 

MOIRA: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

 

ROB: It’s a privilege to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Modo Modo and about what you’re great at?

 

MOIRA: Modo Modo Agency, we’re headquartered here in Atlanta; we serve clients everywhere. We are a fast growth agency, we’re an Inc. 5000 business, and we serve primarily B-to-B clients, but also larger organizations that have B-to-B and B-to-C challenges—reaching both sides and doing some push-pull.

 

One of the things that you had said was, “What is your agency’s superpower? What do you really do well?” The thing that always comes out with our clients is that we don’t think like agency people; we think like businesspeople. Sometimes I’ve couched that as: “We’re marketing for businesspeople,” which basically means strategy. All creative should stem from an advanced strategy.

 

Where we fit in the world—while our clients have gotten increasingly larger over the 10 years that we have been around, what’s really important is that the company has a real, strategic, burning need, and they’re willing to courageously follow it. That’s the thing that leads to strong partnerships. They let us inside the kimono, so we really know what is this work we are trying to do is.

 

Often that can be mission-critical initiatives. Things like launching a company, launching a product, or rebranding a company for positioning reasons.

 

For example, we had a client—private equity—that was purchasing a company. They had been in business for 30 years, but their senior leadership team was under indictment. The challenge was the company was in a critical space. There weren’t many people that offered what they do. They were actually in government conservatorship.

 

They needed to stay in business, and they needed to figure out a way to leverage and extend the value of all of these services they’d provided for 30 years, but they had to somehow separate that brand entirely from that previous leadership team. We helped rebrand that company and then positioned them in a new space.

 

Often it can be things like rebranding a carve-out. Often companies will trade hands or divisions will move around—whether it’s, “We’re acquiring a company” and then, “What does our new combined brand mean to the world?”, or we’re in high-in-value growth mode because we’re in a rapidly growing industry, or even if we’re preparing for divestiture and we want to make sure that we have properly articulated our place in the world so that we can maximize our valuation on exit.

 

That’s where I say we think like businesspeople, because we understand that, whatever the story is that we’ll be telling, whatever the creative is that has to make a connection with those audiences and those stakeholders, it has to stem from that strategy.

 

We always connect around that first. We’ll get around to talking about marketing and what marketing we might do once we really understand your strategic objective as a business.

 

ROB: That sounds very strategic and high-level. It sounds like you’re not just chasing the ability to “we can handle this ad budget and we’ll go spend it for you.” How do you handle a client that comes to you but maybe isn’t ready with a clarified need?

 

MOIRA: It’s important to say that I don’t know that we’ve ever had a client that had the need completely clarified. They don’t have the need clarified, but they have a pain.

 

It could be, “We are wasting money on advertising,” or it could be “We used to do all of this in-house, and now we are without resource, and so how we manage the marketing function or evolve this function so that it can serve the business is changing entirely.”

 

That’s a quick evolution. It’s not like we spend months on this kind of discovery. But most people come to us for something like, “We don’t like our website” or, “We need a plan for next year” or, “we’ve got to launch this thing.” But the questions that we ask are what help us uncover the real strategic rub in there.

 

We don’t go about every day saying, “How will we strategically impact Company X?” We’re often engaged to do marketing initiatives, but it’s by connecting all of them across a strategic thread that we create long-term value.

 

For instance, I had a breakfast meeting with agency owners—there were six or seven of us, I think—a few months ago. One of the owners was talking about client attrition. I said, “What kind of attrition are you having? How much turnover are you having?” He said, “It’s just been a bad couple of years. We’re losing 40-50% of our clients each year.” You’re in constant rebuild mode of this customer base and you don’t have the traction with what you know about your customers.

 

I went back and did some math, and our client attrition rate last year was 12%. When you’re retaining that much of your customer base, you have a much deeper, broader understanding of all the different things that have befallen them, the different cast of characters that they have trying to affect their brand in the world, their story, their message. It enables us to be strategic.

 

Often, it will be that client that says, “Hey, we need advertising support. We’ve got this kind of budget.” But we’re always going to follow that with: “Why are you emphasizing advertising as the primary mix? Is it because that’s where your competitors are? Or is it because advertising has been deemed as the most effective with this particular audience? Have you looked at the overall mix?”

 

If they say, “We don’t want to talk about all that. We just need somebody to spend our advertising dollars,” we might not be the right fit for them, in actuality. We do have clients that come to us and really are looking for a very specific function/task/production.

 

Some of those clients really aren’t the best fit for us. Sometimes they can get it done cheaper or there could be a specialist for them that’s only going to look at that one slice of the mix for them. We’re more generalist. We certainly have a lot of specialists on our team; we’ve got about 25 people, so we have a lot of specialists in what they do. But our approach into the client’s challenges is always from a generalist approach.

 

ROB: I think that’s pretty interesting, to be willing to tell people that maybe you’re not the choice for them for reasons that serve them well. Tell me a little bit about what led you to start the company, Moira.

 

MOIRA: I’m going to do a very quick “go back in time” and run you forward.

 

I did a talk at Georgia Tech. They have an Impact Speakers series. I did this talk on the relativity of risk, how you look at all the crossroads that you find yourself at along the path, and how you make decisions, whose filter for risk you use. Are you applying your community’s filter for risk? Is it your parents’ (because that’s the first place that we learn risk)?

 

And then when do you really adopt your own gauge? That might’ve been somebody else’s packaged-up, “this is the definition of risk,” but for me, I’m wired differently and this is what will be risk for me.

 

In that talk I step through these major milestones in my development that took me along my path to agency. It starts with the family business. I was raised in a family business and I started working in my parents’ pharmacy when I was seven. I was too short to reach the cash register, so I had to wear roller skates to reach the register. So you had this crazy little curly-haired blonde roller skating around the pharmacy.

 

It was an amazing experience because I really got an understanding of business early. My father was the pharmacist and my mother was the manager.

 

But I also got a sense of a very connected community business. It was an independent pharmacy. We delivered prescriptions to the nursing home. We would open the pharmacy on a Sunday night at 9:00 if somebody need medication. We really had a strong brand. It was Westside Pharmacy in Dover, Delaware. We were the store of personal service. I still remember the phone number. It was really a staple in the community.

 

That’s where I really think I got my first understanding of brand, and brand in a meaningful way.

 

Then I came to Atlanta to go to college, and I was a wonderful college dropout—but I loved Atlanta. So I said, I’m going to stay here. First I worked at the gas station on the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur Road. That was $3.45 an hour as assistant manager at the Gulf BP.

 

I took a temp job and I got placed in a tech startup. I spent 3 years at that tech startup wearing every hat. I did administration, I did customer service, I did finance, I did sales, and then I tried my hand at marketing. I got to work with an agency. It was the first time that the company had worked with an agency.

 

I always make a joke about it that here I was, 20 years old, no college degree, no marketing experience, didn’t know anything about agencies, and I was made the primary contact for marketing with the agency—which today I would shoot a client that did that. [laughs]

 

But it was really amazing. We did a tremendous amount of advertising and direct response. I really got to see agency, and I fell madly in love with it.

 

I then came up through other agencies. I worked for Folio Z for 8 years and came up from working on the desk as a Customer Service Rep all the way up through Vice President of Account Service and Operations. They sold during the dot-bomb nightmare, and the acquirer decided to shut the company down. They decided they were going to pull out of Atlanta.

 

I found myself—at 30, thinking I was on this huge trajectory up—totally overextended and without a job with 2 weeks’ notice. And no college degree, by the way, so that was going to be a bit of a challenge.

 

I started my own agency, and I was able to make that work for 3 years, but it was in the dot-bomb. I was doing marketing for technology at a time that technology companies were going out of business, and if they were staying in business, they certainly weren’t doing marketing. It just wasn’t a good time.

 

So I took a job at another agency here in Atlanta that was owned in part by North Highland Company. Over 4 years I became president of that company, and we scaled and I learned so much through that partnership. I had access to much larger clients than I had worked on before. I was working directly with the CEO of AmerisourceBergen. Just unbelievable contacts and experience that I gained.

 

But I was not passionate about the way they positioned the agency. I was approaching my 40th birthday—and this is a big thing for me; I always talk about milestones as motivators.

 

In the first case of the company being shut down, I had just turned 30. This is huge. Thirty. You’re part of the establishment. You’d better figure out what you’re doing with your life. Similarly, 40 was coming racing at me.

 

I decided all this experience that I’d gained, the firm of my own that I’d tried to build, the other two companies that I had helped scale, all these things were fantastic, but I wanted to do it for myself. I remembered standing in Westside Pharmacy and putting the keys in the door and turning the alarm off when I came in, and that additional feeling of pride and “This is mine, this is ours.”

 

So, in 2007, I founded Modo Modo. The thing that I love specifically about agency—because I have been on the client side, I have been a marketer in a company—but what I love about agency is the greater impact. I have been able to work on enormous brand challenges for hundreds of companies, as opposed to—“I have spent 15 years working on this brand and all the different machinations with that brand.”

 

So for me, and for somebody entrepreneurial in particular, I think that an agency setting is wonderful because you get to do so many different things. You get to experience so many different industries and environments and people. That’s always appealed to me. I don’t ever get tired of it. Every day is entirely different.

 

ROB: That’s quite a journey, and quite an interesting one. It seems that recently things have been going quite well for Modo Modo. You’ve been on the Inc. 5000 list. I think you were also one of the Best Places to Work in Atlanta. Is that right?

 

MOIRA: Yeah. We’ve had a couple of really strong years of growth. There are several different things that I attribute this to.

 

We’ve just had our 10-year anniversary, and I feel like we have gotten to a place where we’re very balanced in considering all of the things that are important. Culture is critical. Retention of employees and how we develop them is critical. How you’re positioned in the market and what your name represents to those around you is critical. Being able to give back in your community. All these things are critical.

 

So it’s always been important to us to ensure that acknowledgments were well-rounded and all the way across that spectrum. It wouldn’t matter if all we had were these five awards and they were all for one thing, but all the other things we did were awful.

 

In our case, I have been acknowledged for awards, our work has been acknowledged in every category of marketing. We have over 260 awards. We sit on boards and give back to educational organizations. We have a do-gooder program and we’ve donated over 3,000 hours. We were a Best Place to Work.

 

One of the things about the Best Places to Work that I will say: the last few years in agency, particularly as we often work heavily on brand development and brand story, the importance of the culture to the brand and the intersection of marketing communications and internal communications, so that your people understand and live that brand, has really heated up a lot. You can’t separate them. We really do have to eat our own dog food.

 

One of the things that people often think of when they think of agencies is a revolving door of talent. It’s a sweatshop. They’re going to bring in all these junior people, they’re going to squeeze them for a couple of years until they either burn out or decide to go corporate and then they’re gone, and with them goes all the information they’ve gleaned about your business and you have to start over again, and now you’re training the agency. I’ve just heard that time and again for the almost 25 years I’ve been in agency.

 

I’ve heard different industry averages, and obviously it may be different on the creative side of the house than the account service side and digital in the mix and paid search—all of these, people have different opportunity timelines, let’s say. But I have frequently heard that most agencies retain their people for a year and a half or 2 years.

 

Our average employee has been with us 4 years, and everyone on our management team has been with us more than 7 years.

 

When you think about when our clients talk to us—and I guess this circles back, too, to the thing about “How are you strategic for people?” and “What do you do really well in the world?”—one of the things I often say is we aren’t just a collection of talented individuals. We are a really well-performing team, the whole team. And the way you get that way is the whole team practices together all the time.

 

We don’t just have a couple superstars or prima donnas in here. We have a collective of people who do what we do well and know how to play with each other well. That has been something that, as we continue to grow now, we’re getting much better on the recruiting and the development. We’re adding five positions right now, I think. By the end of the year or early next year we’ll probably be at about 30 people.

 

It’s just so important that you get the right people in there with you, particularly when you’re long-termers. We are very long-term focused. We don’t like transitory things. We’re not doing anything for quick wins. It’s one thing to get some quick exposure for a client, but we’re just always long-term thinkers about everything.

 

That’s a very specific kind of person. Not everybody that agency appeals to is a long-term person that wants to be a part of something for a long time. So that’s another thing that we look for.

 

I think there are parallels between the clients that we serve and those employees. The people that just want something really exciting to shake things up for a year or so? Probably not where we’re going to be, either on the client side or the staff side.

 

The people that really want to make a difference, to impact big ‘I’ Innovations, big ‘M’ Marketing, and have partnerships (not vendor relationships)—that’s the sweet spot, and that’s why I feel we can deliver on strategy.

 

Everybody says they’re strategic, and to some extent every exercise is strategic in one regard or another. But it’s connecting those dots over time that I think adds to our strategic value, and we get more valuable over time rather than less valuable.

 

ROB: You can definitely hear throughout your conversation a consistency of this focus on strategy. It sounds like you’re very intentional in so many of the things that you do, and it sounds like this momentum is really building on itself.

 

You have this growing brand that people are recognizing more and more. You have a team. You’re now at a size where you’ve at least been able to hire for some of the weaknesses the company may have had earlier on, so I’m excited to see this intensity on the strategy continue to build.

 

What are some things that you’ve learned, other things you’ve learned in building Modo Modo that you might do differently if you were starting over now, 10 years in?

 

MOIRA: I feel that being able to scale faster and move through uncomfortable periods, bumpy periods of growth is really important.

 

In our case, in growing the firm, there was a period where I became calibrated to risk, having had my first business in the dot-bomb and then having the 2008 economy crash right after launching. I think I began the posture of the firm in a more cautious state, whereas I think that a lot of people start their business and they’re taking all their early risks. “How big can we make it? What can we do?”

 

It’s not to say we weren’t successful out of the gate. We absolutely were, but we continued to be very intentional, very cautious about certain things—and it has certainly paid dividends. But I think there are several inflection points we may have missed where we could have scaled more quickly.

 

But again, the road you travel is what makes you who you are, and the mistakes that we have made on our way to the growth that we’ve achieved now are making us smarter every day.

 

As you said, we absolutely are picking up steam right now. There’s a lot of momentum. The Atlanta Business Chronicle Top 50 Agencies came out this morning; we’re up 7 spots on that. We’re shooting for Inc. 5000 again, so if we achieve that, that’ll be second year in a row.

 

There’s a lot of things happening for us. Obviously adding five positions right now—there are plenty of people that aren’t adding any positions. So we’re very excited about this stage of growth.

 

I feel that too often, people get into “one or the other” mode when they’re entrepreneurs. You are either absolutely risk-taking at all costs, all the time, without stopping to apply logic or feeling that any sort of slowing down or being cautious is appropriate, that it would be counter to an entrepreneurial instinct—or you are so risk-averse and intentional that you have this lovely almost-flat line over time.

 

I really started looking at calculations and growth and looked at this very long, slow, gradual growth out into the end of time, and I just felt it could be bigger. It could be better. So we did, 2 years ago, change a tremendous number of things to get ourselves ready.

 

We upgraded our accounting package. We changed our project management software that we use as a firm. We changed the way we present creative with clients. We have certain clients that like to be on text, and it’s easier to reach them, so we found a client that allows us to email directly to text and still capture that, but be able to more quickly reach clients. We just did so many things in every aspect.

 

Also, one thing I should throw in—this is interesting—three of our team members are remote, and they work full-time in our office on an iPad. It’s a head on a stick. [laughs] We have one team member that is in Virginia, we have one that is in Chicago—was Philadelphia, going back to Chicago, but will be Mexico City in a week—and we have one in Kentucky.

 

Our ability to keep the face but provide certain flexibility is one of the things that’s enabled us to keep growing the management team and retain people that might want to begin some new phase of their life, but absolutely could continue contributing where they are. So I think that we are very willing to try new things and to experiment.

 

I feel like I have this—again, maybe it’s the milestone of 50 coming at me, but I have a renewed appreciation for taking bigger risks. We’re taking more of them. We will make the hires. We will try to do new types of engagements. Zoo Atlanta is having their “Art in the Wild” coming up; we’re the premiere sponsor of that event. We’re just going to do more of the things that maybe we haven’t in the past and try to maximize what we’re doing.

 

Again, it’s not for us alone. Our ability to scale enables our people to become bigger and better professionals and make a greater impact. For the clients that we serve, particularly the ones that we work with now that see us as partners, it’s tremendously rewarding to work with people who—I’ve got an email that I keep that I got from a client who was in China.

 

[The client] sent me an email in the middle of the night from China and said, “I’m sitting here in China on the other side of the world, and I’m astounded at the contribution that your team has made to nine product launches that we’ve done. You are truly an extension of our team. It’s not even an extension; you are our team. I see no difference in the critical measures we would place on you, but the absolute value to the end product that you’ve contributed.”

 

When you’re growing and you have those kinds of relationships, bigger is better because you can help them do more.

 

ROB: There’s such wisdom in what you said there in the middle. I think you had some great advice about thinking through your own psychology and not letting that limit yourself, not getting stuck in those uncomfortable places. Also the appreciation to not resent that part of your past, to actually embrace it and also treat that as a place to learn from. I think that’s a great thing to think through in that section.

 

Now, what are you excited about that’s coming up for Modo, or perhaps marketing in general, even?

 

MOIRA: I think I’ve covered what I’m excited about with Modo. It’s growth.

 

This may sound weird—I know everyone is in love with technology and digital things and social and AI and VR and all of those things, but I have really lately noticed a tremendous amount of focus back on story, authenticity, and meaning—connecting meaning between a brand and the people that it engages with, whether it is a customer, an employee, a shareholder, or whoever they are.

 

For us, the channels—we’re very media agnostic. You could use smoke signals if it was effective at reaching your audience. That would be fine with us. We’d love a project—if anybody wants to do smoke signal marketing, they should call us.

 

I suppose I find it tiring when a buzzword takes over all conversation for a year’s time, like “Big Data.” Okay, so we’re all going to talk about Big Data for a year. I know MarTech has nine million branches to it, but I just can’t have another MarTech conversation for an hour.

 

These certain ideas that are usually platforms or tools or something, so dominate the conversation that people get away from, “Do we even know who we are? Are we growing? Do we matter to people? How could we matter better? Should we stop selling that stuff and sell this stuff instead?” These really fundamental questions.

 

And then, “How do you say this stuff in English?” Getting out of the marketing speak, consulting speak, internal speak, and just really speaking English to the people that care about whatever it is, in the way that they care about it.

 

So I’ve just noticed a big swing back that direction, and it’s refreshing for me because that’s the place that I like to be. Yes, we can make it anyway and we can make it better and you can measure it and you can monitor it and all of these things, but I really do enjoy that.

 

What is the point? What is the purpose of the brand, of the offering, of you in the world, as a business, as a leadership team, as a brand in the space? And how do we improve that? I’m really excited about that.

 

For instance, we have a relationship this year we started with Gartner. Gartner has a tremendous focus on MarTech, and they have a really deep reservoir of CMO-oriented content. It’s very interesting because what I find is, yes, there’s an awful lot of research and content around the MarTech aspects, but it’s what is working and not working and what is not being addressed around those issues.

 

It’s these age old, universal human problems that still befall marketing. You know, “Marketing and sales are not aligned. If we cannot have alignment, it doesn’t matter what channels we use because we will be working at odds with one another in the organization.”

 

Certain things that, again, when you have been in an industry for 25 years and you’ve had a team that’s worked together for the most part for 10 years, you really start to see these patterns and you see these age old human problems that are in the way of the marketing problems and the technology problems.

 

That’s another place that I think we get strategic lift. I’ve just really appreciated lately how much more of the conversation with our senior clients, CEOs or CMOs, has gravitated towards that.

 

ROB: That’s some awesome advice there, Moira. When someone wants to get in touch with you and Modo Modo, how should they find you?

 

MOIRA: I love people that pick up the phone. [laughs] Picking up the phone, if you want to reach us, it’s (770) 436-3100, ext. 702. That’s for the old fogies in the crowd.

 

Of course, we are online at modomodoagency.com. We’ve got a web form there. And I’m moira@modomodoagency.com, and on Twitter @moiravetter and @modomodoagency.

 

ROB: Thank you for that, Moira. Thank you for sharing your story and some learning along the way.

 

A special thanks today to Danica Kombol of Everywhere Agency for this introduction. Great introductions help us share great content, so keep them coming. Thank you so much for joining us, Moira.

 

MOIRA: Thank you. You have a great day.

 

ROB: You too. Thanks.

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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