Carlos Obregon, Co-founder at Bloom Marketing, Vancouver, British Columbia
In 2006, Carlos’s fiancée (now his wife) was approached by a client to do SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and PPC (Pay Per Click). Carlos got into the agency in 2008 when the economy “tanked” and the funding for the startup where he worked dried up. From 2008 forward, the agency has been “tapped” on a regular basis by traditional (radio, print, TV) agencies needing digital services for their clients. Bloom works with a variety of different industries – retail, B2B, government agencies, and some non-profits. Hospitality, which is big in British Columbia, is currently challenged because of the pandemic. Over the years, the focus of needs has become more complex – from a “We need to be on FaceBook” to “We need to be on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on Instagram.”
When asked why these traditional agencies did not develop their own digital services in-house, Carlos explained that many digital marketers who started in the mid-2000s were self-taught. They learned the craft by “reading blogs, by attending conferences, by networking with other marketers.” He says, “It takes time to build expertise and a skillset where you’re able to run big-enough campaigns.” Partnerships with Bloom meet larger agencies’ needs for solid, experience-based digital expertise and have given Bloom the opportunity to work with larger clients than they might otherwise have had.
Carlos gave a nod to Converge’s marketing performance reports by relating that the number one complaint that he hears from clients coming from other agencies is, “We get an invoice every month, we don’t know what our agency is doing, we don’t know what they’ve been working on, we don’t know what the next steps are.” Carlos notes, “You can save so much time and deliver so much better quality and end results using the proper tools.” Communication with clients is critical.
Carlos commented on the problem that good digital marketing people are hard to come by and even harder to retain. He says, “Once somebody becomes skilled at running campaigns with six-digit budgets every month, they get poached.”
In this interview, Carlos discusses how Covid has changed his business and how the marketing industry has “always been on the leading edge of change.” He is looking forward to a disrupter in the digital marketing industry because there are no barriers to becoming an expert, no licensing, and the service is becoming commoditized. What that new model will look like . . . and who will do it . . . who knows?
Carlos can be reached on his agency’s website at bloommarketing.ca – (.ca for Canada), or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Carlos Obregon, Co-founder at Bloom Marketing based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Welcome to the podcast, Carlos.
CARLOS: Thank you very much, Rob. It’s great to be here.
ROB: I’m pleased to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Bloom Marketing and what focus areas the firm excels in?
CARLOS: We started Bloom Marketing back in 2006. Initially it started as a result of my then-fiancée, now wife. She was approached by a former client, and she was invited to become a contractor doing SEO, doing PPC. That was the first client. I joined the company two years later as a result of the 2008 financial problems. I was working for a startup, and at the time all their funding dried up as a result of it, so the staff was laid off. We were then expecting our first child. There is nothing to light up your entrepreneurial fire like having a mortgage and a baby arriving soon. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Yeah. So, you started off in that SEO, pay-per-click; where has that path taken you in terms of the specialties of the firm now? What does a typical client engagement look like?
CARLOS: We started our agency and organically, we started getting approached by traditional media agencies wanting to build up their digital marketing expertise because invariably – we’re talking about 2008-2009. This is when they were doing radio, print, TV. They were asked by their clients, “We now need to be on Google, we need to be on Facebook, we need to rank better on organic searches.”
That led to us developing several partnerships with traditional media agencies. That became our social growth. By having access to larger clients than what we would have had otherwise, we were able to nourish and develop these partnerships. That happens still today. We still maintain most of these partnerships. That has allowed us to tap clients that we probably wouldn’t have access to because we don’t have a radio department, we don’t have a print advertising department.
So more or less, that’s been our path. We didn’t really plan it that way, but that’s how it’s been working out.
ROB: That’s an excellent path. I’ve definitely seen a lot of these traditional media purveyors – they’re used to selling TV ads, they’re used to selling radio ads. Actually, some friends of mine were involved in a company that was acquired by Gannett, who was one of these big old school media companies. They tried to equip the sales folks to go out and sell digital, and it didn’t go very well. What do you think it is in these organizations – by now they certainly could have built an in-house practice and an in-house capability. What do you think has made it hard for them to turn that corner? They really do need these partnerships. They need you.
CARLOS: I think in part it’s because those of us who started mid-2000s with digital marketing, we’re all self-taught. There were no programs in universities or colleges for digital marketing. So, we just learned as we went by reading blogs, by attending conferences, by networking with other marketers. It takes time. It takes time to build expertise and a skillset where you’re able to run big enough campaigns, where you’re able to communicate with the client. That’s a crucial part of the business, communication.
I know you’re involved in the reporting side of the tools. That’s probably the number one complaint that we hear from people coming from other agencies, from past experiences. Communication. So many times we’ve heard, “We get an invoice every month, we don’t know what our agency is doing, we don’t know what they’ve been working on, we don’t know what the next steps are.”
I think it takes time to build the marketing expertise. Once somebody becomes skilled at say running campaigns with six-digit budgets every month, they get poached. We’re all trying to make a living, so understandably.
ROB: Right. That training effect is challenging I think also, especially where you started out in some of that SEO and PPC world. I had some friends who ran an online marketplace for building products, essentially, and these two guys are running this $20-30 million a year business, and the founders are still doing a lot of the PPC because every time they get somebody up to speed, they get poached.
CARLOS: Yeah. I’ve seen it over and over again. At one point I remember one of the biggest agencies here in Vancouver, a traditional agency, their entire digital marketing team was two people. They were both entry level, and here they were running gigantic companies. [laughs]
ROB: Yeah. So, you had those beginnings in certain areas, and the marketing world has changed quite a bit since you started the firm. What are some of the more services you offer now? What different expertises are you working with clients on? You mentioned where the clients are coming from; what does a typical client look like?
CARLOS: We’re actually involved in several different industries. Hospitality is pretty big here in British Columbia. At the moment it’s going through challenges because of the pandemic. We’re also involved in retail, B2B, and we have also done some nonprofits as well as government agencies.
One key difference now is before, we would be approached and they’d say, “I need to do SEO because I need better rankings.” What I think now is the needs of the customers encompass more. Right now we get approached and they say, “I need to be on Facebook, I need to be on Instagram, I need to be on Google, Microsoft ads, on LinkedIn, on Twitter.” There’s a lot more of a whole vision of what the needs are and all these different channels the business needs to be visible on. I think that would be the main change. More than one channel, now it’s multichannel.
ROB: When someone comes to you and they want to order everything on the menu, how do you help them in that decision process? They still have to choose where they’re going to allocate more of their effort and budget, and also maybe some channels aren’t quite appropriate for them. How do you think about that guidance?
CARLOS: Again, we go back to the communication. We have an onboarding process where we meet with the prospective client or client and first we try to understand, what are the goals? Usually you get an answer like, “I want more business.” Well, yeah, but what does that look like? Do you mean more subscribers initially? Do you want more people signing up for a trial? Do you want more people ordering a sample? Do you want to get appointments? Do you want to get viewings for real estate?
When we start narrowing down the goal, we say, “You’re a business-to-business company, so perhaps Facebook is not the ideal channel if you’re selling industrial equipment. Why don’t we explore LinkedIn first, where you can target people based on which companies they work for and their job titles?” For the most part, it’s a back and forth. We agree on what the goals are, we agree on how we’re going to measure, what kind of timelines we have – because as you know, some products have a really long sell cycle, so it makes it tricky to measure sometimes.
But again, it goes back to making sure you align and you understand what the client wants and they understand what you can deliver and how long it will be. That would be more or less how we approach it.
ROB: That certainly makes sense. On this journey, you already gave us a little bit of a picture of the origin of the firm and how it sounded like your wife started the firm and then a couple years later she let you into the business.
CARLOS: [laughs] Pretty much.
ROB: How many people were on the team? Were you Employee #2, or were there some other people that had come in between the two events?
CARLOS: We had contractors from the start. I was not Employee #2 per se. I was “Person on the Payroll #2.” Up until today, we continue to work mostly with freelancers and contractors who are part of our team, but they’re not under contract. They’re not just working for us. So I was #2 on the payroll but not necessarily #2 in the company.
ROB: That’s an interesting thing. I’m going to pull on that a little bit. When you talk about contractors, what percent of your team would you say is full time versus contract?
CARLOS: I would say full time is about 40% and contract about 60%.
ROB: That’s a strategic choice, right? I know people who say that their target is 30% contract, but at the end of the day they can’t help themselves and they end up being much more towards 100% of it being full time, or maybe 10% on contract. How have you reached that decision strategically? What led you there?
CARLOS: We didn’t really choose it; it just kind of happened. People we found that were really good at what they do usually wouldn’t want to commit to working full time for any one firm. I think it comes down to quality and reliability. The contractors we work with, we know they’re never going to come and work exclusively for us just because they’ve achieved a certain level of success and they want flexibility. They want to be able to turn down work occasionally. So it just happened that way.
Now, looking back, I think it was a good thing that we learned how to work with contractors early on and how we maintained those relationships, given the changes that we’re undergoing right now. A lot of people are working remotely. Those who already have practice in working remotely, it was an easier transition. Some other ones were more abrupt. But I feel like the days of huge agencies and huge offices are probably behind us.
ROB: Is your team in any office right now or is everybody completely remote still?
CARLOS: We’re a hybrid. We do have an office, and I go about three times a week or so. But we have contractors who live 2,000 miles away from here, just as an example. We’re never going to have them in the office, and that’s fine.
ROB: In that sort of environment, how are you thinking about people knowing each other, working together, team-building? What do you think that looks like right now, number one, and then number two – suppose we’re in full regathering and getting together mode, but you’re still distributed. How are you thinking about team?
CARLOS: I’m a really social guy. I miss being able to hang out with groups of people. I really, really miss it. In some instances it’s possible to have most of our team in any one place, especially at certain times of the year or if there is something happening in Vancouver like a big conference or some reason for everyone to be together.
But I think moving forward, we’re going to have to do a hybrid where those of us who are close by might be able to meet up and be physically in the same boardroom, but I think from now on we’re always going to have people remote conferencing.
ROB: It’s definitely something I’ve been trying to sort my way through. Before, we had an office. I liked having an office. I wanted people who wanted to be in an office. And then I just kind of changed my mind. In February, we made a hire who’s an American, but in Santiago, Chile. We just hired someone in Sacramento. We’re looking at people in Chicago and Tucson, Arizona. I’m thinking a lot about how we get together, whether we have some sort of annual team event or what it looks like. I don’t quite know yet. So I’m asking a little bit for myself as well.
CARLOS: Yeah, we’re definitely in – none of us were planning for this to happen, for these drastic changes. Who knows? Perhaps next year we’ll be somewhat back to some normal, but I think especially in our industry, we’re always at the leading edge of change. Things were changing rapidly in our industry to begin with, and now with the work from home revolution, perhaps we’re going to have team members that we never meet in person.
But I don’t know if it happens to you – to me, I have people that I work with remotely and have for years, and even though I don’t see them physically very often, I feel like I know them really well. It’s like we’re buddies. So, I don’t think we’re giving up that much by not meeting everyone in person frequently.
ROB: Really interesting. It’s good to have thoughts on that. It’s good to talk to each other about that. Carlos, as you reflect on the path of the business so far, what are some lessons you have learned along the way that, if you were starting over today, you might do things a little bit differently?
CARLOS: Definitely. You know what the number one is?
ROB: What’s that?
CARLOS: I wouldn’t accept every client that comes through the door. I learned that initially because I started working in the firm in 2008, and there was a lot of uncertainty. Huge banks were going under. Huge insurance companies were going under. Everybody was kind of in panic mode. So, I started getting customers and I would say yes to everything and everyone because I didn’t know when the next one was going to be. I had bills to pay, I had a mortgage, I had a kid on the way.
Looking back, I could’ve been pickier because with some of those projects, I had no alignment. I didn’t really connect with the client. Perhaps I didn’t understand their goals, they didn’t understand me and how I wanted to deliver. Although we never really had any frictions or difficult breakups with clients, there were a lot of projects that I did not enjoy.
We’re in a free market and we obviously need to make a living and grow and prosper, but we also need to enjoy what we do as much as possible. So that would be my number one learning. Don’t accept every gig. I put it down on paper here in front of me for our chat today. That would be my key takeaway.
ROB: It’s draining on your energy, those things that you take on that maybe don’t align. There comes a point – and you probably have realized this at different times – there comes times when you’re at capacity and you end up almost having to say no to something you’d rather do, or at least scramble to figure out how you’re going to do it. It can be hard to keep the quality level high when you’re scrambling for a solution.
CARLOS: That, and obviously the contracts and the projects that you enjoy, we all do better. We’re more creative. We come up with better ideas on projects we enjoy rather than something like, “I don’t even know how to sell this product. What does the end customer want? Do I really want to be promoting this? I don’t believe in this product or this service.” So yeah, definitely a learning.
ROB: I think we all need reminders of this. It’s so easy to get off track so quickly, and then you get into the mode where you’re just handling the decision that you’ve made. Are there any tools you have found that have helped you think ahead and think about working on the business? Because you have a lot going on and a lot of people involved.
CARLOS: Yeah. I love finding new tools and experimenting, whether it be marketing automation, reporting, or analytics. You’re an expert in this industry. You can save so much time and deliver so much better quality and end results using the proper tools.
Now, as you’re fully aware, it’s a highly competitive industry. There are so many new tools. It’s hard to keep on top of it. You have to do a lot of reading, which I happen to enjoy. But we definitely love using and finding and testing new tools. I remember when I first started working in-house, running a huge technical company, I was doing the SEO for this company, for this startup here in Vancouver. It was comparison shopping. I was doing the SEO, and from one day to the next, the person who was running the Google Ads left.
The CEO approached me and said, “Can you take care of this, at least on an intern basis, while we find somebody else?” I was like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” It was a six-digit budget in Google Ads. And this was in 2005. The days of Google Ads Editor were not around yet. [laughs] We had to download all the data to spreadsheets. The campaigns were so gigantic – we were bidding on over 100,000 keywords at the time – that Excel kept crashing. Whenever we tried to do any analysis of bids and conversions, it would always freeze up.
Thinking back, if I had the tools we have now back in the day, oh my God, I would’ve done a full day of work in one hour.
ROB: [laughs] Wow. If only you could travel back in time with tools, you could take over the world. One thing I think that’s interesting that you have uncovered in your story – we’ve had guests before whose spouse is involved in the business, but they were very vague. They wouldn’t really admit it on the audio. It’s really interesting that you brought it to the forefront. What have you found makes it work well to work on a business, on an entrepreneurial venture, with your spouse?
CARLOS: We can go back even further than that. I’ll give you a little bit of background. I actually met my now wife at a marketing conference here in Vancouver. She was working for an agency at the time; I was working as in-house SEO at another company. So, we met, and that’s how it started. We actually met because of digital marketing. Then we got engaged, and that’s when she started working freelance. Then I joined in 2008. It’s been 14 years and we’re still happily married.
I can’t deny that there have been difficult times where we don’t agree and I want to do things one way and she wants to do things different or vice versa, but for the most part I think we complement each other really well. There are areas of the business – a lot of guys will agree with this – I don’t get involved in the finance. She’s the treasurer. [laughs] I like to socialize and meet people. I do a lot of the business development. It’s something that she doesn’t enjoy. We’ve made it work that way. I keep my hands off the money and the checkbook, and then whenever she gets a new lead or someone that needs more information, I usually do the communication.
We’ve made it work. Just for mental health, we work with different clients. She looks after some clients, I look after different clients. Occasionally we work on the same project, but we keep some things separate.
ROB: That sounds like a good tip in general. That’s good for division of work, I think, in any company. You want people who work on some clients and not others. You want some people to work in their area of strength in finance, and others in business development. We do that, but I think there can be maybe this pull as co-owners to have your hand in a little bit of everything. It sounds like being able to split that up a little bit has served you well just to not be all in each other’s business literally every day.
CARLOS: Yeah. When we’re at home, we have a rule of no business discussion. We talk about the kids, we talk about dinner, and we talk about vacations. We try to stay away from work because otherwise you end up working 16 hours a day, one way or another.
ROB: That makes sense. Carlos, when you look ahead at what’s coming up in the marketing world, what’s coming up for Bloom Marketing, what are you excited about?
CARLOS: I think the digital marketing agency world is ripe for disruption. I don’t know who’s going to do it, but if you recall, real estate was revolutionized by Re/Max. They completely put the business model on its head by giving realtors a lot more control of their commissions and how they split costs. I think this industry is ripe for disruption somewhere along those lines where perhaps rather than having an owner, a founder, and account managers and strategists and business development, I wonder if it could be pooling a partnership of frontend developers, backend developers, usability experts, web designers, SEO experts, PPC experts, and put them all in one company, split the costs, and somehow share revenue.
I don’t know what that would look like, but I’m hoping there’s disruption because we’re becoming commoditized. Every week I run a search on Google for “digital marketing agency Vancouver,” and every week I see new names coming up. There is no barrier of entry in this industry. You just put up your website and you say, “Okay, I’m a digital marketing expert,” and you are. It’s unregulated. It’s not like you have a license.
ROB: Huh. That’s interesting. It’s interesting to think about the different ways that we get clients and the different ways that realtors get clients. The real estate industry is set up to equip the realtor to focus on a few things and other people in the process – different people are – let’s say most real estate firms, for instance, don’t have handypeople on staff to fix up the house before listing it. They just don’t. It’s all parceled out.
ROB: So, it’s interesting. What’s possible, what’s not possible? I wonder, what are the next couple steps that would prove that to be more possible and more true?
CARLOS: I’m sure there’s going to be a better way of creating a digital marketing agency business model, different than what we have right now. But if you come up with it, remember me. Call me, okay? [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Yeah. One thing I have seen – I’ll share this; it’s been a little while since we talked about it on the podcast, but it’s come up a couple of times here and there. There is one firm that we’ve spoken with that was a co-op. They were structured as a co-op, where they were owned by their employees, and when the employees left, they gave up their ownership in the company. Soze was the agency there, out of Brooklyn. It sounds like a very Brooklyn kind of thing.
But I just swapped emails with Michael Skolnik, who’s their – I don’t know what you say – he’s the founder, I guess, but I don’t know what his official title is within that mix since everybody owns the business. But he’s going to look at open sourcing the local documents once they’ve got all that ready. I’ve got him on commitment to check in with in the new year. That may not be exactly where things go, but it is an interesting model because it does feel strange.
I guess as a founder, you take the risk. Some people would look at it and say, “Fine, you take the risk, you get the reward.” But there’s other times, I think, where you have a business that’s doing well, but its service is revenue, so there’s only so much of it you’re going to reinvest in the business. And when it’s going well, maybe it feels like it flows a little bit too much to the owners.
CARLOS: Yeah. You’re saying the co-op models – yeah, that’s one way. I’m sure some smart guy will come up with a really good business model for the 21st century.
ROB: [laughs] Perfect. We’ll keep our eyes out and we’ll keep talking about that here. Carlos, when people want to find you and when they want to connect with Bloom Marketing, where should they look to connect?
CARLOS: Our website is bloommarketing.ca – .ca because we’re in Canada I’m also active on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. That’ll be the easiest way to find us.
ROB: Excellent. Carlos, thank you for coming on the podcast. Best wishes to you and to Bloom Marketing going forward.
CARLOS: Thank you. All the best, and thank you very much for the invite.
ROB: Thank you. Be well.
CARLOS: Thanks. Bye.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.