When More than a Little Knowledge Can Be Dangerous

jeff katz

Jeff Katz is CEO of Definition 6, a 20-year-old content marketing and digital agency working with a high-profile, household-brand-name client list. D6 creates content and the technology that allows brands to deliver and measure the effectiveness of those messages and has won both treasured client recognitions and a plethora of EMMYs, ADDYs, TELLYs, and WEBBYs.

Jeff joined D6 in 2000 as president and chief operating officer and oversaw the cultural and functional integration of acquisitions. Jeff feels that one of his company’s advantages is that it can, not only provide creative content (as can many of the larger agencies), but also designs and builds the technology to deliver that content.

What does a company do when it wants to expand its offerings? Many companies, wanting to “do more things,” develop the requisite skills inhouse.

A more dramatic way to increase skills is to buy companies that do what you want your company wants to be able to do: a move that brings both advantages (the company may bring its talent and its customers} and risks (Will the new company be a cultural and business “fit”?) D6 took private equity in 2009 in order to acquire companies with skilled services that would broaden its offerings.

In an effort to smooth operations, Jeff brought new and old employees together so they could learn everything about how the business operated. He discovered that more than a little knowledge was dangerous. Once a specialist in one area of the business learned about the operations of a different functional area, that “newly enlightened” individual would often try to take on the work that was totally unrelated to his or her position. Jeff realized this kind of “cross-training” diluted the strengths acquisitions brought to his company and that functional separation was necessary, so that, when certain skills were needed, people would “call in the experts.”

D6 currently employs 120 artists, musicians, strategists, software developers/architects/analysts, composers, and writers . . . and, unlike many companies, welcomes back the :boomerangs” —past employees who want to come back to D6.

As CEO since 2014, Jeff has refined the company’s focus and is currently working on projects that he feels will change its customer’s industries.

Jeff can be reached at the company’s website at: Definition6.com. by email at: jeff.katz@definition6.com, or on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

 

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Jeff Katz, CEO of Definition 6 based in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City. Welcome, Jeff.

 

JEFF: Hi, Rob. Thanks for having me.

 

ROB: Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Definition 6 and what makes Def 6 great?

 

JEFF: Thank you. I often say the best way to understand D6 is to experience us. Our employees and clients just have a very unique and special experience that drives results.

 

What builds that unique experience is that we truly are a bunch of artists and musicians and strategists and software developers and architects and analysts, composers, writers, you name it, and we all come together to transform our clients. We do it via strategy, storytelling, and transformational services solutions.

 

Some people say, “Okay Jeff, that’s great. I understand you’re a mix of very unique individuals and everything like that. What do you really do?” If you boil it down to what we do, we create content and the technology that allows brands to deliver and measure the effectiveness of those messages.

 

So that’s what we do, and we do it with an unbelievably diverse amount of talent that we embrace.

 

ROB: That’s quite a range of services, understandably, but I think it’s worth clarifying for listeners—D6 is an independent agency, correct?

 

JEFF: That’s correct.

 

ROB: How many people do you have?

 

JEFF: We currently have . . . 120. My pause is because I think in the last 20 days, we on-boarded 15 people.

 

ROB: That’s fantastic. We don’t dwell on numbers a lot, but I mention that just to paint a picture. If you had five people in the company and you told a client you do all of those things, they would understandably be skeptical. But you, I would argue, are providing the range of services that a client would expect from a holding company agency.

 

How is it that D6 is still independent in an era where so many people have been rolled up, acquired, they’re part of this bigger picture, they’ve been pressured so they can be part of an AoR agreement?

 

JEFF: Great question. One is, from our strategy, we did take a private equity investment at one time to do some of our own acquisitions. They weren’t these major organizations, but part of our path in building our services and being able to have this large breadth of offering has been done where we’ve decided to buy it versus build it in-house.

 

We just feel as we continue to grow and the health and the power of our business and the retention of our clients, we continue to grow, and I believe—you hear a lot of people saying, “The agency landscape is changing, what’s the agency of the future?” I think we are the agency of the future.

 

We know what we do really well. It sounds like a large list of services, but also there are things that we don’t do. There’s nothing we can’t do, but I’m not trying to become a point solution for AR. We’re not a media buying company at a large scale.

 

We are very transparent with our customers, and we partner sometimes where we’re leading other agencies. They say, “Definition 6, we want you guys to be the key agency and bring the partners that you trust, that you have long relationships with. We understand that there are things you don’t do, and we appreciate that.”

 

ROB: That’s pretty interesting. Even at the size that you are, even with private equity backing, there are times where you will just straight up bring in a partner who’s better at that particular thing—which I think is probably encouraging for anyone, to realize they don’t have to be good at everything. When did you take on the private equity funding?

 

JEFF: We did that in 2009.

 

ROB: Interesting. You mentioned this idea that the agency landscape is crowded. I would argue, and I think this is perfectly in your benefit, the evidence that the agency landscape is not too crowded and perhaps too uncrowded at times is the consulting firms that are now trying to creep in on the marketing agency world, because maybe the holding companies have eaten up too much of the market.

 

What do you think, and what are you seeing on that? Are you seeing some of the consulting companies starting to pitch for deals?

 

JEFF: There’s no question. Also, when you talk about consolidation. The new serial buyer is more the consulting companies that you’re talking about versus the large agency holding companies. The numbers prove out. They’re very aggressive in the space.

 

You have an example—you know the players, but Accenture and Deloitte, they’re doing significant acquisitions and building out significant teams in our space.

 

For us, it works out quite well because we deliver content, but we also build and create the technology that allows that to happen. So, when we see them at the table, we can speak the technology consulting strategy language as well as obviously the agency creative language. We’ve been doing that really since Day 1, and we believe we have a competitive advantage even against some of those larger organizations.

 

And we’re extremely nimble, and people are surprised at our breadth of both content/delivery that we can do and also the breadth of technology solutions that we implement.

 

ROB: I think you can back it up. If someone listening wants to go and look at D6’s Wikipedia page, you have quite a Wikipedia trophy case. That’s probably not even everything that you’ve done.

 

What are some of the awards that you’ve won over time that you think represent the range that people should think about when they’re trying to build a very holistic and complete agency that can serve very large brands?

 

JEFF: The actual awards themselves, or examples of ones that we’ve won?

 

ROB: Awards that are evidence of the work.

 

JEFF: We’re coming off a very hot awards time. This year also we’ve won 21 awards so far, which includes a Gold Cannes Lion for work that we did with CBS and John Malkovich. We had five different people nominated for 11 different Emmys, and we won I believe three this year.

 

ROB: Wow. Did people from the agency get to hang out on the yacht for that award at Cannes?

 

JEFF: They didn’t do the Cannes yacht, but they always enjoy going to LA for the Emmys. [laughs]

 

But I think your question is—I like the awards like the Effies or the Clios, where you really have to show what you accomplished. Those are the awards that I really like. There are two awards this year that I’m most proud of, and they were awards given to us by our clients.

 

Early in the year we were the Marketing Partner of the Quarter for one of our large customers, and then we had a customer that we on-boarded last year, and we were awarded their Marketing Partner of the Year when they did their vendor awards. These are significant companies. When we’re recognized either in our client’s industry or by our clients, those are the most important awards to me.

 

ROB: That’s fantastic. I saw a venture capital investor this past week talking about email newsletters, and that it doesn’t really matter if everyone else doesn’t read your newsletter as long as your clients do. And even better if they want to give you awards. How fantastic.

 

JEFF: Absolutely.

 

ROB: I think an interesting part of your path is probably what led you to join the company. Did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?

 

JEFF: [laughs] I kind of did, because when I moved to Atlanta, I commuted for the first 2 years. It was during the dot com boom/bust. The fact that I was commuting from Florida and my wife and I weren’t ready to just up and come gives you the hint that I knew what I was getting into in some ways.

 

I also had a very unique situation. A little bit about my background is that I grew up in a family business. I came from an industrial background, propane gas business. That’s what I grew up in. That’s what I did when I left school at University of Maryland and came back to Jacksonville, Florida. Ran the business with my dad.

 

Then, we decided that it was time to sell that business. Just like always happens, after you sell the business, you do your three-year earn out and you either go to corporate or you leave. It was a publicly traded company based in California, and I was weighing my options at that time whether to do that.

 

I called a friend for advice, and he was the original founder of Definition 6. He said, “Hey, before you go and move the family there, why don’t you come hang out with me for a week in Atlanta? I have this dot com, and I really need somebody that has business experience.” At that time, I had obviously run a business, and I had my MBA.

 

He said, “I’m working with a bunch of kids that have dropped out of school, written a couple of lines of code, and want Porsche leases as signing bonuses. I need somebody that understands a true P&L and understands how to run a profitable business, to help me.”

 

So, I came to run a dot com that wasn’t under the name Definition 6, and shortly thereafter we moved all of our resources from that dot com into what is Definition 6.

 

ROB: I have to ask, what was that dot com?

 

JEFF: That dot com, great name, and like every dot com, it was phenomenal technology and but the premise is doing great right now. The dot com was Websites For Free. [laughs]

 

ROB: Yeah? You have to look at a Wix or something like that and just wish you could’ve waited a while sometimes, right?

 

JEFF: It was GoDaddy, it was Squarespace, it was Web.com, it was all of those things. I remember in the early days, one of the first projects was we moved 20,000 two-page websites from Inc.com onto our platform, which then gave us the opportunity to market to them. So, you can already see our tech chops background.

 

ROB: And Web.com, not quite as much of an elder statesman of the world as Def 6, but I think many times when someone’s running an independent marketing agency now—you’re talking about companies that didn’t even survive the 2007/2008 recession, much less 2001. It’s quite a testimony to the company to make it through 2000/2001, ’07/’08 when people weren’t even doing Facebook, much less Facebook ads.

 

JEFF: Yeah. There was no iPhone, right? [laughs]

 

ROB: Exactly. That’s quite a shift in things. What did the dynamic look like—it was a few years ago, I think, that you then moved into being CEO of the company—what was that transition like?

 

JEFF: It was a great transition. It was in 2014. We had an interim CEO in between our founder and myself, which was a really good thing. I just had so many advisors and people that I could trust.

 

I was COO of the company for a very long time. Obviously, to move into that position having been there, I really had to evaluate where I was spending my time and work with people to understand how our relationship would evolve—not necessarily change, but how our relationship would evolve.

 

And [I had] to make sure that I was giving my management team and our people the opportunity to really run the business and for me to step away. Because as an operator, you can imagine, I can get into the details. That was the hardest thing, for me to step away from the day to day decisions.

 

ROB: I think one of those interesting challenges—and this is an interesting dynamic, coming to be in charge after being in the business for, what, 14 years?

 

JEFF: Yep, exactly. Especially in a small business. It’s not a Fortune 50 business that you work your career and you work your way up from position to position.

 

I had a lot of big ideas. I wanted to focus the organization in specific areas. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t following different distractions. I wanted to instill a significant sales-driven culture into the organization. I know we had so many opportunities and such a great team that I really wanted to lead them and do some of the things that we’re lucky enough to be doing today.

 

ROB: That leads to what I was thinking about asking here: what did you change, but how quickly did you change it and why did you change it? What was going on in 2014 that—no insult to the people how came before you, but what needed to change in 2014, and how did you decide when to change it and how?

 

JEFF: Not at all, from—I love the individuals that came before me, and people from my team that aren’t there anymore are some of my best customers and they’re all great advisors to me. [laughs] I’m so appreciative for everything that I’ve learned from them and what they’ve done.

 

Prior to 2014, we were chasing shiny things from time to time. Sometimes in a business, your customers can dictate where you’re headed, and I felt like we went a little bit off-course in that area. We were having this challenge around going all content, all technology, and based on how well clients were doing. That’s how things were going.

 

At the same time, we had done an acquisition in 2012; part of that acquisition was a Software as a Service platform that was based in London. That was taking our focus, as you can imagine. We had done fantastic things with the Software as a Service business. We took the platform to the cloud, we made it truly self-service, no more swivel chair, we changed the design of it.

 

It’s a fantastic platform called TheNewsMarket.com, and it connects journalists with brands. Brands pay to be there so that their content gets picked up by journalists.

 

But with that said, every decision was, “Do we invest in the agency and in our talent, or do we invest in the Software as a Service business?” So, very early on, I started working with my board to get approval to figure out if I could find a buyer of that business—which we closed at the end of 2016.

 

In addition, we had a little bit of our story. We did a meaningful acquisition that opened up our office in New York in 2009. We did another acquisition that I was just talking a little bit about in 2012 that added to our approach with content, which was a great acquisition as well.

 

But we had to really treat this business as a separate business unit for a fair amount of time. When I came in, I wanted to make sure that they were performing phenomenally as individuals, because then I felt like we could start to bring them together.

 

Now we are what I call a 1D6. We’ve brought all three of those businesses together under one roof so that our people and our clients can experience everything D6 has to offer under one roof.

 

ROB: That sounds like a tremendous opportunity to bring clarity and focus, and I think there’s some learnings there.

 

What are some other things you’ve learned from your experience in building and leading D6 that you would do differently if you were starting over?

 

JEFF: We’ve made acquisitions that were great and we’ve made small ones that were not so great. [laughs] So down that road, I wouldn’t have made the ones that didn’t work out. Sometimes you fall in love with the deal. You know in your heart that there might be a people issue or there might be something there, and if you think it, it usually is. No matter how great the deal is, go with your gut on that, even though it’s hard and it’s exciting to bring in people.

 

As the COO, a big part of my life was when we would do these acquisitions. I would be in charge of bringing them together.

 

One thing I learned with that is we bought this company, or these groups of companies, and I thought I had Harvard Business Review figured out. “This is going to be a Harvard case study. Bringing all these people together and having everybody learn everything about the business—that’s the way we’re going to do it.”

 

What I learned is that it actually watered down the entire offering. Because people are new to the company, and people are hopefully very competitive, and they want to do a great job. So, what would happen is we would have an opportunity in PR, but the person that was a digital account director or strategist would sit in a couple meetings around PR and learning and some training, so they tried to do it on their own.

 

And same thing, people on the PR side of the business or entertainment side of the business were all of a sudden trying to figure out enterprise architecture. [laughs] It doesn’t make any sense, right?

 

So, when we separated that and stopped trying to do that, they said, “Okay, I’m not expected to know everything, so let me bring the experts in.” It’s just helped the company phenomenally and allowed those integrations to happen much faster by not trying to train everybody on everything.

 

One of the others is that I spend a lot of time with our people. I spend a significant amount of time with people that have left the organization to understand why, and also to celebrate them. I’m not happy when somebody leaves our organization to go to a company just like ours for the exact same position. I think I let them down, they let me down.

 

But man, if they go client side or they go follow a dream, start their own business, whatever they do, I am so proud of them and so happy, and I feel like we did our part.

 

The other thing is that I’m very proud of what we call our “boomerangs.” Our boomerang rate is quite high, and we have multiple people across the board at all levels of the organization that have worked for us in the past, and it’s great to see. We’re appreciative that people really want to come back, alumni want to come back.

 

And then obviously, your alumni is a great way to grow your business. [laughs]

 

ROB: I love that perspective and the contrast of not wanting to lose somebody to the same role in a parallel organization, but also the perspective of understanding that this virtuous cycle, agency to brand to vendor and back again, is normal. You love it when you get them back, and it’s not weird when someone gets a little wanderlust for the brand side or a little wanderlust for the vendor side. I think that’s a neat cycle there.

 

JEFF: Yeah, it’s something that I really enjoy about this business. Some people get quite frustrated with it. [laughs] But I enjoy that part of the business.

 

ROB: For sure. I think people should also listen very carefully and realize that—I feel like this is more the case in marketing than other industries, but maybe it’s just true everywhere—the diaspora of people who have worked with you before really is this rich base of customers eventually. Not in this cynical or opportunistic way, but just because you trust each other and you come from a common perspective and even a common era of what marketing was like at one point in time.

 

JEFF: It just short-circuits the relationship, and you’re already there, and the speed that you can go to market with solutions because you speak the same language and you have common background. That’s what we’re all trying to do, right?

 

ROB: That’s a tremendous perspective. Jeff, what are you excited about that’s coming up for D6, or even more broadly in marketing?

 

JEFF: For D6, we have some fantastic opportunities with our brands and TV networks. There’s so much change going on in the marketplace. As I said, we just brought on a significant amount of people for us. That’s a large percentage of individuals that we’ve brought into the company, and at an extremely high caliber.

 

Also, I can’t talk about them, but we’re embarking on some projects for customers that are really changing their industries. We love all the work that we do, but when you get that special opportunity where you truly can change an industry, it’s special. So, I’m excited about that on the Definition 6 side.

 

As far as excited about things that are happening in the marketing space, it’ll sound funny, but I’m excited about machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) actually disappearing. [laughs]

 

What I mean by that is back in the early, early days of the internet, people talked about TCP/IP and they talked about the technology, and then it disappeared. We touch it every single day, but we don’t talk about how the World Wide Web works and the internet, how that works. It’s just there.

 

That’s what’s going to happen in my opinion with things like blockchain and artificial intelligence/machine learning. It is just going to be there, and it’s going to give us the opportunity to create solutions for our customers’ customers. That’s what I’m excited for. We have some exciting platforms and opportunities that are going to be built based on those technologies.

 

But it’s when you talk about what you’re doing with them, in my opinion, not talking about what’s next with AI or blockchain. [laughs]

 

ROB: Right. [laughs] It sounds like you’re not making a strong bet on being worried about a blockchain or AI agency disrupting you and taking your business, and I’d be inclined to believe you on that.

 

Is there anything you think that Def 6 will be doing in 2 years that you’re not doing now, from a scope of work perspective? You probably will be, but if you were guessing what it will be, what might that look like?

 

JEFF: I’m 100% positive we will be doing many things in 2 years that we aren’t doing today. I can’t tell you where voice interface and what’s happening with voice is going, but that’s another area I’m excited about and curious to see. That interface is so powerful.

 

To me, I believe it’s what’s going to lift our society’s head back up. I look forward to us building those applications, content experiences, moving our customers, utilizing that interface. We’re only starting to see the basic activities that you can do.

 

Also, I believe that the generations after me—I never thought, what’s that point where you think you can do everything, you think you’ll adapt to every technology, everything, always, and it’ll never pass you by.

 

The things that the younger generations are doing with voice and multitasking because of voice and type, it’s unbelievable watching these people interact with your systems. We really have to adapt for that user. It’s unbelievable, again, how they multitask with what’s going on between their ears and with their hands. [laughs]

 

ROB: And here we are talking between people’s ears because they don’t want to listen to the radio in their car.

 

Jeff, when someone wants to get in touch with you and with Definition 6, how should they find you?

 

JEFF: Definition6.com. You can reach me at jeff.katz@definition6.com. LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, follow Definition 6. Reach out to us. We’ll respond very quickly.

 

ROB: Fantastic. Jeff, thank you for sharing your perspective from joining a digital marketing agency that is now 20+ years old and the experience of taking over the joint and so many other learnings along the way. It’s been a pleasure to hear from you and learn from you.

 

JEFF: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

 

ROB: Have a great one. Bye.

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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