Mike Popowski, CEO of Dagger, is The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast’s first repeat guest. In this interview, live at the 2019 South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, TX, Mike explores the direction his company, Dagger, a strategic content agency, has taken over the past year.
Dagger’s trademarked statement, “Content at the Speed of Culture,” reflects the company’s focus. Mike describes content as a rallying touchpoint and lists content strategy, brand strategy, analytics, and media as “flanking disciplines.”
Mike notes that modern brands that appeared to be doing very well and staying culturally relevant almost act like media companies. He gave the example of Red Bull, where much of its marketing content is not about selling cans of energy drink, so much as it is focused on the thrill of adrenaline junkie activities that its customers enjoy . . . but have a Red Bull first.
Flat on his back for six weeks after surgery, Mike conceived of the idea of creating a “differentiator.” He and his team loved what Red Bull was doing and decided to launch a media company, dedicated to the culture of Atlanta, and funded through funneling company profits . . . back into the company . . . and into the community. Mike finds Atlanta’s energy dynamic . . . with an exciting influx of talent and brands. @Butter.ATL features articles about topical issues in Atlanta – from emerging artists and restaurants to repeating episodic features such as SneakHer Heads (covering women sneakerheads) or Atlantipedia.
This project has proven to be the differentiator Mike sought. Now, instead of telling clients what Dagger can do for them, @Butter.ATL shows them. Dagger, a cobbler and a cobbler’s child, has a pair of fine shoes! @Butter.ATL has been quite successful, with about 22,000 Instagram followers in the first 6 months and recent recognition at the ADDY awards. Dagger is already reaping ROI results, which Mike did not expect until 2020 – ROI in terms of @Butter.ATL being a door opener. Unlike similar work that Dagger might do for its clients, Dagger is free to say what it likes on @Butter.ATL, and free of the constraints of client agreements and NDAs. Some of the coverage is not laudatory, but Mike places great value on authenticity.
What Dagger does for its clients, it is now doing for itself with @Butter.ATL serving as a learning lab, a “work sample,” an influencer, and a draw for new brands that are now reaching out to Dagger. American rapper, actor, and activist Killer Mike, a big fan of Atlanta, follows Butter.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today by our first-ever repeat guest, Mike Popowski, CEO of Dagger, based in Atlanta, Georgia. But we are here live at South by Southwest for an update conversation and some new things I think you’ll find interesting. Welcome to the podcast, Mike.
MIKE: Thanks for having me again.
ROB: Yeah. It’s good to be in person, though. You can’t replace that.
MIKE: That’s true.
ROB: We talked almost a year ago now, and we talked a lot about content. Give us an update on how Dagger has evolved over the past year, how your expertise has evolved over the past year. What’s been going on?
MIKE: One, thanks for having me as a repeat. The first repeat. I wish the folks listening could see the setting you have, this back deck of the Four Seasons in Austin. It’s really nice back here.
But, yeah, I think it has been almost a year since we talked, because I remember where I was in our old office in Atlanta. From a high-level standpoint, we’ve grown. We’ve moved into a brand new office space right off the BeltLine in Old Fourth Ward. So, from a company standpoint, we’ve been growing, which has been a lot of fun. A little stressful at times, but overall a lot of fun.
It’s interesting. You mentioned content. That’s definitely where we’re focused. When I talk about us, I talk about us as a strategic content agency. Content means so many different things to so many different people. I think for us, we really run the gamut – everything from in two weeks we’re shooting a 30-second PSA in Arizona with our new client, Boys and Girls Club of America, all the way to doing Instagram stories for Sweetwater Brewing.
Content really is that touchpoint, and we’re rallied around that with content strategy, brand strategy, analytics, and media as flanking disciplines.
But I think one thing that we were talking about offline that’s been interesting with us over the last year is we’ve also launched what was nothing about 7 months ago and now is a bona fide influencer on the backs of the ideas that we talk about, which is really anchored on this idea that the modern brands that we see doing really well and staying culturally relevant almost act like media companies in a way. I always use the example of Red Bull. They almost have their own media company in-house. So much of the work and content they do isn’t necessarily talking about the energy drink. It’s just these amazing activations and experiences.
We love that idea, so we actually launched our own what I call budding media company that’s dedicated to the culture of Atlanta. As you know, Rob, it’s super dynamic right now. There’s an influx of a lot of talent, brands. The city is changing rapidly, everything from the BeltLine to Atlanta United to the restaurant scene to everything else.
We are using that as our fodder, and we’ve launched – it’s best seen on Instagram right now. It’s @Butter.ATL. You’ll see we’ve got this mosaic scroll where we release issues about things that are topical in Atlanta. It’s content. All the things that we do on behalf of our clients, we’re doing for ourselves. That’s one way I talk about it. It’s kind of that learning lab, but also doubles as – it’s become an influencer. We’ve got different brands reaching out to us. Killer Mike follows us. We’ve got Lil Wayne’s manager following us. So, we’ve got some high profile attention, and it’s been a lot of fun.
ROB: It’s interesting it’s very attentive to the moment. We seem to be in a time where people in many cities want to be proud of their city, and in particular for Atlanta, it has been a bit of a showpiece of a year between Atlanta United winning the MLS cup, having the College Football National Championship, having the Super Bowl. I think we’ve got the Final Four coming up in maybe a year or so.
ROB: Well-timed on that. How did that start? When did you say, “we’re going to buy the domain Butter.ATL and we’re going to see what we can do with it?”
MIKE: It’s funny you say that. You talked about the Super Bowl and some of the very headline-y type stuff that comes out of Atlanta. One thing that we’re focused on is the nooks and crannies, some of the emerging artists and restaurants that are hot and things like that. We do try to click down, if you will.
But in terms of how it started, the actual inception point was I was actually on a medical leave for 6 weeks. I had a surgery, and I was basically lying in bed thinking about how Dagger can truly be different. Really. I wasn’t working at the time, so I had this question, “How are we truly different? How are we truly different?” rattling in my head.
I thought about us going into meetings with different brands, and it’s the same thing. “Here’s the PowerPoint, here’s our capabilities, here’s what we do, here’s our work, here’s what we could do for you.” I thought it would be pretty interesting to say, hey, we have this belief and we’re actually the cobbler’s kids with the Air Jordans versus the cobbler’s kids with no shoes. I thought it’d be pretty cool to have that be a little bit of a differentiator for the organization.
Inception point 18 months ago, and then about 12 months ago we really got serious. We hired some content creators specifically focused on it and decided to invest in it from a company level. That was 12 months ago. Then I would say for 6 months, fits and starts. We had some big wins. At the time we were trying to launch a cultural brand at a national level, and we finally said we’re going to tighten it to Atlanta, tighten the editorial lens. We felt like there was an opportunity there.
That was 6 months ago, and then it’s been off to the races since then. I think we almost have about 22,000 followers on Instagram. We’re starting up a YouTube channel, so it’s starting to build a little bit of attention in a short period of time – what I say from dust. There’s no celebrity behind it. There’s no brand behind it. It’s just we created it.
ROB: Right. I think that investment would be daunting to a lot of people. How did you get comfortable with bringing people on? That’s not billable, right? [laughs]
MIKE: No, it’s not. You’re right. That’s funny. That’s a great question. I think that’s where we are a little bit unique because we are privately held. You’ve worked with a lot of different big agencies in the holding company environment where your EBIT and your margins are shipped to Paris or New York or wherever.
For us, because we’re owned by marketing leaders and a different train of thought, I think we understand investing back into the company. As soon as we as an agency became viable and profitable, we basically said we’re going to take a part of that profit and just invest right back into this. It’s definitely a 2-3 year plan versus like the holding companies, where it’s hitting quarterly numbers.
When we launched in 2018, I said, “This is going to be before 2020.” It turned out to be 2019 where we started to get some “ROI.” But when we originally launched I thought it was going to be a 2020 thing. So, I think the ROI, it’s not a 1:1 type ratio, but we’re starting to see it in meetings. We’re starting to see it in terms of a door opener, as an attraction-getter.
ROB: Right. There are some things that would be quite hard to measure because what’s interesting, I think, here – and you know better than I do – quite often you can’t bring all of your work for a client into a new client pitch. In this case, with Butter, you are unencumbered by your client agreements. You are unencumbered by NDAs. You can tell them as much as you want about it.
MIKE: That’s right.
ROB: When did it evolve to the point you were able to start bringing it into client pitches?
MIKE: It’s funny that you ask. I’m always one step ahead of us. I think there’s probably a low level of discomfort among my peers in the team when I’m like, “We’re going to talk about it this time,” when it’s not quite ready for prime time. So, I think I was probably talking about it when it was launched or when it was more of an idea.
I remember us being in a pitch in May after we had an early success at a national level, talking about it then. But we’ve got a pitch on Friday, and it’s a procured pitch. It’s 60 minutes. I think 10% of it is literally dedicated to talking about it. So, I would say we launched 6 months ago; I was probably talking about it in meetings 7 months ago, which is kind of funny. [laughs]
ROB: I feel like that discomfort is what you do in a sales role. You come largely from a sales background? Or more an account side?
MIKE: Yeah, account side, which is sort of a consultative selling role, I guess. But I don’t have a hard “Here’s your number” kind of background. But I think to be a really good – in our business, the agency business, if you come up through creative or strategy or account or project management, those are the macro disciplines. For account people, I think they have to naturally have a knack for growing the partnership, which is ultimately sales. That’s my background.
ROB: I give you good credit on that. A lot of times people from the sales background would have a hard time getting comfortable with investing in a marketing thing. Probably part of the evolution of a CEO is part of the story here.
MIKE: Thanks, yeah. I definitely think very consciously about brand versus sales. I think you need them both, especially for our business. I think you can tell when an agency might be going too hard on sales and not thinking about their brand and then vice versa. We try to keep that one-two punch, and this is definitely a brand thing for right now.
ROB: If people want to get into understanding Butter, are there particular bits of content you think that speak that brand the best? Like your Top 3, Top 5, Top 10 list of Butter content that epitomizes what we’re after here.
MIKE: That’s interesting. I think everybody has their own favorites. We’re at the point now where we’re putting one to two issues out a week, which is basically a block of three that are dedicated to, as I mentioned at the beginning, a variety of things happening in Atlanta.
We just did one on Marta, which used the analogy of the Oregon Trail. I think for a lot of people that brought back nostalgia and they thought that was pretty cool. We have a repeating episodic series called SneakHer Heads, about women sneakerheads. A lot of people gravitate towards that.
Personally, that’s not my – I think about it always from an attention-getting standpoint. I like the ones that have a small scale of virality to them, where there’s a lot of comments and people love them a lot. I think Atlantipedia is a reoccurring series that seems to get a lot of acclaim scrolling through as well. I love the Trap Museum piece that we did. I thought that was really cool. We did a piece on trapping.
There’s one thing that I do like about our approach. We did an issue on traffic, and unlike a chamber of commerce or a tourism bureau, we take a very authentic look at the city. We promote the city, but we’re cool with the blemishes as well, and we’re fine to talk about some of those. We’ve taken shots at some different institutions and things like that along the way, which I think people appreciate.
ROB: Even that is tricky because you could worry about a business opportunity with the city that could come around. You worry, do you lose out on that? Do they say “No, we don’t want to talk to Dagger because they kind of punched us in the face”?
MIKE: I don’t think so. I think authenticity rules. You’re right, it could run the risk of us opening doors to those kind of conversations. But we also get comments of, “Wow, I’ve never been to Atlanta, but…” There’s people outside of the city who are like, “It looks really amazing, I want to check it out.” You look at the charter of Choose Atlanta or something like that, it’s to attract talent.
I think while we’re okay with the blemishes, by and large we’re pretty proud of the city, pretty proud of the culture, and that’s the overall spirit of it.
ROB: That’s also an evolution of the way that cities think about themselves that probably makes it more compatible than it used to be. Cities are a little bit less authoritarian and feel the need to be perfect than a few years ago.
Here at South by Southwest, Atlanta opened up their Choose ATL House with Killer Mike – who you mentioned follows Butter as well, to bring it full circle. Killer Mike is not the representative that many people would choose for their city. He is super real and he loves the city, but he’s also talking about women and weed from the stage of Atlanta. It’s an interesting trend overall in authenticity.
MIKE: I agree. I think “consumers” know that every city is going to have its pros and cons. Might as well know the cons early. We’re fans of him. I actually saw the first episode of Trigger Warning on Netflix. He’s cool. I haven’t met him, but…
ROB: That is a very good episode. That is a hilarious episode. That’s the one where he is trying to buy everything within the black economy and he can’t buy marijuana because it’s all in, his own terms, low quality Mexican weed or grown by people in California. [laughs]
MIKE: Yeah, it was good. It was very well done.
ROB: Two-part related weird question – is there a second city office for Dagger in the future, and/or is there a second city for Butter in the future?
MIKE: Great questions. On the Dagger front, ideally. As we’ve scaled, we’re having more conversations with brands outside of Atlanta, and I think for us an office would just trail partnership or an engagement with one of those brands. I think once one of those is critical mass and warrants an account team or a satellite office, I’m definitely not opposed. I think that’s just in due time as we grow and as we have more clients outside of Atlanta. That would be a definite yes.
In terms of Butter, that’s a really interesting question. We talked about that as well. What is the scaled version? I think there’s one of two ways that I see it going. One is, what about Atlanta has created an opportunity for Butter? It’s not a New York, LA, Chicago type Tier 1 city where there’s a lot of that partying happening, but it’s also this really dynamic culture.
I think like a Nashville, Austin – coincidentally enough – and New Orleans are all right for that. We have thought about, is there a Butter Austin?
The other option is, does Butter drop the ATL and still own Atlanta, still be from Atlanta, still speak to Atlantans authentically, but have more national appeal? If you look back at some of our issues, I’d say you can start to bucketize them as, “This one’s only relevant to people in Atlanta, and then this one with just slight tweaks could be relevant to somebody in Wisconsin,” making it up.
I think those are the two avenues. I’m of the mindset of you’re driving across the country in the dark with headlights that only extend a certain amount of distance, and that’s how far I’m looking at this. The name of the game is capture attention. We know where we’re going with it. Once there’s the logical point in time to make that decision, whether we start to post up other cities or have it be a more national brand, we’ll get there. But I think we’re still months, plural, from that.
ROB: That’s interesting. It has this potential, and you wonder how it articulates itself, of a Thrillist, Eater, Curbed, that sort of local take on different places.
ROB: You do things at a pretty high level of quality now. You were just recognized with Butter at the ADDY Awards. If someone is not as deep into the content game as you are, how can somebody think about doing content well if they don’t have the budget? How do they get started so they can get the flywheel spinning to get to where you are and beyond?
MIKE: I think the name of the game is start spinning that flywheel. To me – this is like Gary V 101 stuff, right? Just start creating. Put the phone up, be authentic, start putting it out there and start going. Even with our own Dagger Instagram, for example, we were always putting stuff out from the beginning as an extension of who we were creatively.
It just depends on how finished you want it. There’s different gradients of that. You and I after this could put something on a story that’s just the two of us talking, and then there’s the version that goes to an editor who puts sound to it and overlays and animation and things like that. So, I think it’s pretty personal, but the bottom line answer is start spinning. Start spinning the flywheel and go and build it from there.
ROB: It sounds like you staffed up recently. Are there parts of the production process that you found, even at your current size and scale, are pretty reliable to farm out to outsourced or contract or something like that?
MIKE: One thing I say about us is we take work all the way from knowledge and insights all the way to market in-house. I think from a consumer standpoint, from a brand standpoint, that kind of tightness and speed is necessary.
We will – for example, we’ve got a shoot in two weeks for a 30-second PSA. Because it’s in Arizona, we’re hiring a crew that’s in Arizona and working with them. So I’d say maybe 60% to 70%, maybe 75%, is in-house production, but we’re not averse to production partnerships for some larger scale shoots, whether it’s in a different geography or needs a certain kind of production lens to it that we might not be able to bring to the table.
ROB: You’re in Austin; it is a lovely day. It’s the tail end of South by Southwest Interactive. New things always seem to emerge here. What are you seeing, learning, thinking about after having been here for a few days that you’re going to take back with you, thinking about things differently?
MIKE: That’s a good question. This was probably the least engaged I’ve been. I’ve been to South by Southwest five times. This is probably the one that I went to the least amount of programming. I did some different networking at a couple meetings, and I just haven’t been here that long. So, I think my epiphanies probably would be underwhelming to share. [laughs]
We were just talking about this as I showed up, because I told you I got about 90% of the way here via car from my Airbnb, and then the last 10% was on a Bird, coming through traffic.
I’ve always felt like South by Southwest in earnest launches some sort of disruptive technology. I can remember – I think it was 2009-2010, when Twitter was coming about, it was really a big phenomenon here at South by Southwest. I remember when I was here in 2011, Foursquare and Gowalla were going at it and people were all over those platforms because you could see which parties had the most amount of people at them. This year it’s Birds, man. It’s the scooters.
ROB: Yeah, Bird and Lime and Jump and Lyft.
MIKE: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It’s just cool to see. We have that in Atlanta, so it’s not foreign to us. We’ve seen it. But it is interesting to see it in a microcosm where there’s a lot of people using them. So that’s been the moment to me. You came here in 2018, those didn’t exist. In 2019, they’re everywhere. That’s, to me, just fascinating.
ROB: Thematically, it’s similar to a lot of these other technologies that have emerged. There’s something about the scooters that are everywhere that just feels a little bit messy and a little bit not figured out, but in a way where Austin and Atlanta are willing to figure it out. Places like Boston and New York have just said “heck no.” New York arguably doesn’t really need it except maybe to get around Hell’s Kitchen or something where there’s not good train service. But it feels like we’re exploring. We’re exploring this digital/analog technology combination.
MIKE: I agree. It’s super interesting. I totally agree with you. I feel like Atlanta and Austin are very much cities in beta with a lot of technology and creative talent moving there and open to experimenting and trying things. That’s one thing I’ve always said about Atlanta which I think is really interesting. If you look forward 10 years, you don’t exactly know what the city’s going to be like, but you go to New York or Boston, you have a pretty good sense of what it’s going to be like.
Part of that is exactly what you just said, the tolerance for incubation and exploration and things like that. There’s also – it’s just straight up Thunderdome. [laughs] It’s also just that. I’ve actually wondered and worried if anybody is going to get injured on a Bird – as I knock on wood.
ROB: Yeah, I scraped my hand when I hit a pothole yesterday. Full transparency. [laughs] I have been mildly injured, but not seriously.
MIKE: Actually, my cousin-in-law, he’s out of Nashville; he works for Tim McGraw. He was on his first one yesterday. Took him over to the Atlanta House from the Fast Company event, and I made him get on one. He’s got three kids, so he’s like, “Please don’t make me die.” It was good, it was good.
ROB: [laughs] As we’ve been looking at this physical product in the world, these scooters and bikes that are also advertisements for themselves, it strikes me that with Butter, you’re also involved in some tangible things. It’s not just a brand, it’s a place. Are there ideas germinating around physical presence that marketers should be bringing into play?
MIKE: Two things. One, we talk about that a lot. Personally, I’m fascinated by the digital/analog blend, like the Foursquares, which has a digital/analog blend, and the Birds we just talked about. I think from a marketing standpoint – we even talk about social media. The physical world is also social media, right? With everybody walking around with one of these guys in their hand, that’s content. If you post up on the BeltLine on a Saturday that’s really interesting, next thing you know that’s on social media. I just find that personally fascinating.
From a Butter standpoint, it’s funny you mentioned it – as we went into 2019, we had some strategic priorities, and it’s all content-related, but one of them is physical event activations. Too soon to talk about on here, but we’ve got some brand partnerships we’re working on, some bigger brands you’ve heard of, that I think you’ll see “Butter by [insert brand]” doing some events and activations and fun stuff this year.
ROB: That’s smaller than what someone might do here at South by Southwest, like buying out a block. Without necessarily being specific, how do you think about garnering attention in a relevant way in a physical place without just burning off a huge budget?
MIKE: I think there’s a lot of ways to do it. There are spaces that are prime for pop-ups. It could be an office space that’s got a down month where they’re waiting for the next tenant, and you can talk to the landlord and say, “Hey, can we run this for a month and do this pop-up thing?” I think there’s ways to get “remnant” physical inventory and make something cool happen creatively.
Again, it’s what you do with the space. It’s who you invite from an influencer standpoint, it’s what you’re doing from a cool factor standpoint that creates more of a splash from an attention standpoint.
ROB: That’s a fascinating phrase you’ve used there, “remnant physical inventory.”
MIKE: I just made it up. [laughs]
ROB: I hadn’t thought about it. We’ll keep it. It strikes me, in many cities where these scooters are, the sidewalk is remnant physical inventory. The sidewalks are not full of people, so why it’s kind of crass to have a bunch of bright-colored scooters sitting there, mostly nobody would be walking there anyhow. Even in very busy cities, even in New York, they have storefronts that are closed looking for a long-term opportunity that would be open to a short-term opportunity.
ROB: It’s not just for pop-up costume stores at Halloween anymore.
MIKE: Right, exactly. Pop-up for an influencer event with a great DJ and a party on a Friday night. Why not?
ROB: Yeah. This is kind of a trend. Christmas bars now is a thing. It’s a pop-up remnant physical inventory thing. It’s a fascinating phrase you bring to the table here.
MIKE: We dually coined that. Nice.
ROB: This episode will be called “Remnant Physical Inventory.” [laughs]
ROB: It all started here.
MIKE: Yeah. This is technically remnant physical inventory in a weird way, right? On this couch in the corner of the Four Seasons in Austin.
ROB: Yeah, when everything else is crowded, this is a pretty chill hang. It’s good.
ROB: We’ve talked a lot about what’s coming up next. What else should we be looking forward to with you and Dagger and Butter and marketing in general?
MIKE: That’s a good question. On the Butter side, any listeners, give it a follow, honestly. Especially if you’re living in Atlanta. Give us feedback. Tell us what you want to see, what you want to hear. I think other than some of the other strategic initiatives that I talked about happening on Butter for 2019, it’s just expect more and better. That’s the theme for Butter for 2019. More content, more creativity, better production, etc.
One thing that’s enabled us to do better this year is we actually just hired, early February, a Chief Creative Officer, our first of this role in the company’s history. We’re super excited about that. Al Patton. He was most recently at 22squared but spent most of his career in New York, did about a decade at RGA, and has been around some really great agencies. He’s been a phenomenal addition.
I think in terms of the implication of adding a player like that to our ecosystem, it’ll be a game-changer. Our current clients are beneficiaries of that, and then in terms of what we’re able to do for work in the future is exciting on the horizon.
ROB: That’s a good get. 22squared is notably probably the most significant independent agency in Atlanta.
MIKE: For now. [laughs]
ROB: Yeah, you just put a target on their back. You’re like, “we’re coming for you.”
MIKE: Dude, there’s a target on everybody’s back. One thing about me is I took – I joke with my team internally, on StrengthsFinder, my number one is competition. So I am highly competitive, but it makes it fun. But yeah, there are a lot of great people that work over at 22squared.
ROB: That you’re going to hire if they’re good?
MIKE: [laughs] Exactly.
ROB: [laughs] Very good. Mike, always a pleasure. Good to have you back on the podcast.
MIKE: Yeah, thanks.
ROB: Thanks for the update, thanks for new insights, thanks for “remnant physical inventory.”
MIKE: Yeah, this was awesome, man. I’m glad we made this happen, especially doing it live.
MIKE: It’s fun.
ROB: Thanks so much, Mike.
MIKE: Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Take care.
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