Getting the Picture

Amy Balliett, Founder and CEO, Killer Visual Strategies (Seattle, WA)

Amy Balliett is Founder and CEO at Killer Visual Strategies, an agency that specializes in visual communications design – creating such “products” as info and motion graphics, data visualizations, virtual reality, and interactive content. An Inc. 5000 company for four years in a row, Killer, now part of Material, has won over 30 excellence in visual communication awards. Clients include such Fortune 1000 companies as Amazon, Boeing, the Discovery Channel, Edwards Lifesciences Corporation, and Microsoft.

In this interview, Amy talks about the “spammy” beginnings of infographics, when people slapped up on their websites images that had nothing to do with their brand.  She says, a high-quality infographic visually communicates significant meaning so efficiently and effectively that little text is required. Amy notes that around 10,000 infographics are released daily . . . and 99% fail. The 1% that succeed don’t use much text, use custom (as opposed to stock) illustrations, provide proper data visualization, and clearly show attention to detail and time put into the design. The agency’s services keep evolving to meet changing client needs. The biggest challenge is “to find that one illustration style that won’t go out of style.” 

HubSpot reports that “91% of audiences prefer visual content as their primary, secondary, and tertiary form of information delivery.” A visual strategy would consider the first, second, and third pieces of content a prospective client might see going into a funnel. Amy says, “Content is king . . . visual content reigns supreme, and visual strategy is content strategy, just leveled up.”

Amy recommends a 90-second “motion graphic” as the most important piece of visual strategy content a company might invest in now. That 90 seconds can be broken down into “dozens of visually designed scenes” that can be used on social media, stacked to create an infographic, or paginated to create an eBook. She notes that visual content has to be matched both to channels and to audiences. 

Killer evolved over the years . . . through a pivot that exploded . . . first in a good way . . . and then not. Exhausted from the frenetic pace, the agency had never stopped to consider such core questions as: “What’s the type of client that we want? What’s the type of work we really want to do? What’s the type of person we want to be bringing on to our team? What are the values of this company that are going to drive these decisions?”

Amy hired a business coach for herself and the team (probably the best decision she ever made) and an HR consultant to help establish policies. A new focus on building a values-driven culture and hiring and firing employees and clients based on these values changed “who we were, our level of productivity, and the clients we attracted . . . our revenue went up 50% in one year.” The agency’s values are simple: Keep Learning, Inspire Others, Lead by Example, Love What We Do, Embrace Change, and Respect Others.

Amy can be found on LinkedIn at: Amy Balliett on Twitter @amyballiett. Her book, Killer Visual Strategies, available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Killer-Visual-Strategies-Amy-Balliett/dp/1119680220), was recently awarded “one of the best marketing and sales books of 2020.”

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Amy Balliett, Founder and CEO at Killer Visual Strategies based in Seattle, Washington. Welcome to the podcast, Amy.

AMY: Thank you so much for having me.

ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. You have one of those excellent names for your firm that I think probably tells us what you do, but why don’t you tell us about Killer Visual Strategies and what the firm’s superpower really is? 

AMY: Definitely. To tell you that, the best way to say it is our original name. Our original name was Killer Infographics, so even more focused on what we were doing. At the time, we really focused on developing high-quality infographics for marketing needs and things like that. Over the years, our services kept evolving based on the needs of our clients.

But ultimately, everything still lives on the foundation of what we view as our superpower, which is visual communication design. A high-quality infographic is something that you don’t have to read; instead, you can look at it and cull important information from it without diving into paragraphs of text. So everything we do centers on that. It’s about graphically representing information to efficiently and effectively create meaning and using as little text as possible. That’s really what our superpower is.

ROB: That’s interesting. As little text as possible. What do you recall in your own mind as the emergence of infographics? When did they start catching your eye? When did it become so obsessive for you that it seemed like the business?

AMY: It’s so interesting, because infographics have a very rich history. The very first known infographic was the 1600s, although you could say cave paintings on walls were the first infographics. They’ve been around forever, but around 2008 they started to be used more regularly for SEO needs, for link-building and other forms of content marketing.

I started to slowly get into them because I was heading up SEO at a company here in Seattle and really wanted to use them for the link-building value. But the company I was at never really wanted to use them. So, when I left to start my own company – which was actually a completely different business model than what Killer is today, and which had a bunch of different websites that I was marketing – I started creating infographics to do link-building for all of those websites. That was June of 2010.

At that point, infographics were this big trending thing, and everybody was questioning how long that trend would last. Everybody really thought this was something that was going to be a one-and-done trend, and by 2011 we were going to move to something else for content and content marketing. So I got on it at a time that I thought was the very end of a trend. [laughs] And it turns out it was the very, very beginning.

ROB: How has the use of infographics evolved? There was a point in time where it felt like a well-designed and executed infographic targeted at the right audience really extensively lived as a life of its own, but the fad didn’t end as a fad; it just integrated into the visual language of the internet.

AMY: That’s exactly right. The thing is, at first infographics were so spammy. People would put out content that had nothing to do with their brand, nothing to do with their website. They just really wanted to put out something controversial that was driven by visuals because today’s audiences crave visual content. They were really trying to use infographics to hook somebody and get backlinks primarily.

After that spammy part of the fad started to die down – which happened because Google kept changing their algorithm, and when Google did their Penguin and Panda updates back in 2010 and 2011, all of a sudden the big content farms that were really being fueled by infographics started disappearing from Google. As a result, infographics stopped being as spammy.

The market stopped being flooded with these really spammy designs, and instead large brands started to take notice and said, “Oh wow, this is an amazing way to connect with my audience and really get them to understand our brand, our service, our products without having to give them a big long whitepaper.” The trend was moving away from whitepapers and moving more and more towards media as a form of entertainment and education in all forms.

ROB: That’s a really fascinating evolution there. If we look at today, is there still that link-building aspect to it? Or is it more broadly about brand at this point, and about speaking to an audience coherently with your brand attached to it?

AMY: It’s about speaking to your audience coherently with your brand attached to it. Links definitely come with infographics – not like they used to. In 2010, I put out some awful infographics because I was still learning, and they’d get thousands of backlinks. Anybody would celebrate anything with the word “infographic” attached to it, whereas today, we have far more discerning eyes.

If you jump back to 2010 versus today in 2021, the fact is, media within the internet has evolved so much. There’s so much more of a wow factor in everything we see. That also has led to a heightened expectation for what a good infographic is. There’s still about 10,000 released a day, but 99% of them fail. The 1% of them that truly succeed are the ones that don’t use a lot of text, the ones that use entirely custom illustration, proper data visualization, and the ones that clearly show attention to detail and time put into the design.

But if they’re slapped together, they’re using stock imagery, or if there are paragraphs of text next to a small illustration, things like that, they’re going to fail. People are still jumping on the bandwagon because they think they’re going to get a bunch of backlinks, but if they don’t actually execute them properly, they’re not going to get backlinks, and they might even hurt their brand on top of it.

ROB: It’s good to know the danger there. In the evolution of your firm, you can see this evolution where the infographic is part of a broader visual strategy, probably with a much more expanded vocabulary. What are the elements you see now as the language of visual strategy as you think about it?

AMY: It’s so interesting. There’s this really great stat from HubSpot that 91% of audiences prefer visual content as their primary, secondary, and tertiary form of information delivery. When we think about visual strategy today, we think about the top of the funnel and we say to ourselves, what’s the first, second, and third piece of content somebody’s going to see as they’re going into that funnel?

Then we start to identify what channels those people are living on to deliver that content, and the channels and the audience define what type of content we choose to put out into the ether for the visual strategy of the brand. Sometimes it might be short form social media images with at most 6 words on them. Sometimes it’ll be a visually rich eBook where each page has at most 200 words. Other times it’s a motion graphic.

I always say to anybody who’s thinking about getting into visual strategy for their own brands, the most important piece of content that you can invest in right now is a motion graphic. That’s going to give you so much to work with. It’s usually about 90 seconds. It should never be over 90 seconds. It’s usually about 90 seconds of content that breaks down into dozens of visually designed scenes that you can pull out and use on social media. You can stack the scenes up and create an infographic. You can paginate the scenes and create an eBook. You have so much more than just a motion graphic if you invest in one. You have dozens of other pieces of content you can produce out of it.

It’s really about identifying the right content for the right channel for the right audience. I know that’s kind of the answer to all contact marketing, really, but with visual content there’s definitely different types of visual content that work on different channels. You really have to understand that landscape and choose what’s going to connect with that audience the best.

ROB: Sure, and there’s a distinction in there. Much like the graduation from infographics to visual strategies, when you’re referring to a motion graphic, what I’m picturing is that explainer video, is what some people would call it. Some people would come to you saying they want an explainer video, but I think what you’re saying is that’s not really what they want. If they just got an explainer video that didn’t consider this trend that comes and goes online but is always true, this atomization of content where you can take something and pull it apart into individual pieces that are bite-size and put them lots of places – just asking for an explainer video doesn’t get you there.

AMY: Exactly. Today’s marketers are using 12 to 14 types of visual content just to accomplish singular goals. It can never be one-and-done. You always have to consider all of the different ways you can use that content. You can create derivatives to develop even more campaigns and strategies around it. It is really content marketing. The concept that content is king, which comes from a Bill Gates article in 1999, is still true. Content is king. But visual content reigns supreme, and that’s really what we have to focus on when we think about visual strategy. It’s content strategy, just leveled up.

ROB: Right. One thing I think about in this category that maybe isn’t thought of this way when it comes out is Mary Meeker annually puts out this internet trends deck at the turn of the year. Have you run into that before?

AMY: Yes, definitely.

ROB: It’s hundreds of pages, hundreds of slides in a PowerPoint deck. If you said, “Do you want a 200-slide deck from a venture capitalist?”, I don’t know if you do. But then you look at the pieces of it, and each slide – you know better than I do – seems like it has pretty good value. It seems like it tells a story as a whole, and it seems like it builds a brand for her in whichever firm she’s with.

AMY: Exactly. That’s so spot-on. That’s the entire point. If that were 200 pages of paragraphs of content, do you think it would be given the same level of attention it gets today? Not even at all. Not close.

ROB: Nobody anticipates that one.

AMY: Exactly.

ROB: Amy, you alluded a little bit to the journey, your own journey in starting the firm. It looks from your LinkedIn like, as you mentioned, you were working in SEO. You had a job. You had someone else who was responsible for your paycheck. What led you to turn that corner and go into this process of being responsible to kill what you wanted to eat and then to eventually be responsible for an ever-growing – or maybe not ever-growing, but in many cases a payroll of people who depend on you, and it’s a lot of responsibility? What caused that transition?

AMY: It’s so odd because it’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact time. I owned my first company when I was 17. I actually owned an ice cream parlor and candy store in a summer vacation resort. It was open only during the summer, so it didn’t compete with school. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship – and I hated it, I’m going to be honest with you. I loved it and I hated it. I was working 80+ hours a week during my summer breaks my junior and senior year of high school. That gave me a sour taste in my mouth.

But then about – jeez, I don’t know how long later; maybe it was about 6 years later – I came up with an idea for a social network. This was before Facebook had opened up to non-.edu email addresses. I didn’t even know that Facebook existed yet. I came up with this idea for a social network, but all I had was the idea. I could not execute on the idea because I had zero coding skills. At the time, I was a video editor; my degree is in film, so I was doing video editing and motion picture marketing and really couldn’t bring much to the table for this idea.

I had my cousin join in on the idea, and he could bring everything to the table. He’s a full stack developer and the best designer I’ve ever met. So here’s this guy taking on the weight of the world, basically trying to make my idea come to fruition, and all I can do is try to market the idea, try to build a user base. It failed really quickly because you can’t just come to the table with an idea. You have to be able to execute on that idea. We got to a point after 6 months where it became clear that this was just way too much to put on one person.

During that 6 months, I started to learn SEO and online marketing, so I decided to pivot my career into SEO and online marketing. In that part of my career, I learned web development as well. It really just came down to I had started to stack up a series of skills – nothing that I was fantastic at; everything I was good enough at. If you’re trying to be too many things at once, it’s like trying to learn 10 instruments at once. You’re never going to master one instrument. But I was good enough at enough skills. I was good enough at graphic design, good enough at animation, good enough at development that I was finally in a place where I felt like I could do all of this on my own.

I had tested a few proofs of concept within the last company I worked at, really seeing if I could create new revenue streams for that company. Once I did, I realized, crud, I’m bringing in millions in revenue streams to this company; why can’t I do this for myself?

You get to a point where you have the confidence in your career to take that chance, but I also got to the point where I had enough in savings to take that chance. I’m not going to lie, that was incredibly important to me. I think I would not have taken the risk at all if it weren’t for having a nice safety net of cash just in case everything failed. 

ROB: Amy, a lot of people have that interesting stack of skills, but they may not recognize it. They may not know how to apply it. To your metaphor, they may still be trying to be the best at a particular instrument when it’s really the intersection of several skills that is where they can be truly unique in their world. How did you come to understand that concept of the stack of skills and see it in yourself? 

AMY: It was really just every idea I came up with, I started to realize, “Crud, I need a designer for this, and I need somebody to develop this.” I just started thinking about all the things I needed for somebody to execute on the work. I’m a control freak. I really am. So I started to say, “I need to learn these things myself because I can’t really give away trust too easily and put that work on somebody else’s plate.” For me, that’s really what made me realize I needed that stack of skills: wanting to execute on so many ideas, but not having the capacity to do it myself.

I’m really glad that over the years, I learned to release the reins, because every single employee I’ve hired is 20 times better than me at any one of those skills. And that’s really important. You always have to hire somebody who’s much better than you. But the fact that I’ve been able to play every single role in my company and that I have played every role, that I’ve sat in their shoes – it’s so much easier to manage everybody because I know what they’re going through. I know how long it would take me to do a task, so I can judge how long it would take somebody on my team to do that same task. I know what expectations to put in front of them, and I also know when to pull back and let them take the lead and run the show.

ROB: Right on. I’ve certainly experienced, at least in my perception – and you never know whether you’re wrong in your perception at the top; it’s always worth questioning. But when I’m hiring people within my stack of skills, I feel like I can get to a decision faster, and I feel like I almost get to be the Pied Piper a little bit. There’s a sense of trust and safety that they may feel where they felt wary. I tend to hire software developers for a lot of what we do, and there’s almost an unspoken bond that moves quickly when you can send the right signals, I think. 

AMY: That’s so, so true. That’s exactly how it’s always felt. I remember when we brought on our first developer to the team and I sat down with him and I was talking about a couple of lines of jQuery. He looked at me and said, “Wait, I haven’t had a boss who knows jQuery before.” It was just this weird “aha” moment.

ROB: It’s such a good discussion, the skill stacking thing. I think I have often heard of it spoken of on – there’s a podcaster, James Altucher, and I think he talks about it a good bit. But I don’t know – have you had any good sources for these concepts? Because I think it’s underexplored, and maybe there’s a book or something that I’m less familiar with.

AMY: I haven’t necessarily dove into any books related to this specific concept, no. It really has more come through networking with the right people, getting to know more people who have faced the same types of challenges, but also, again, surrounding myself with such a curious team, a team that will never rest on their laurels. One of our values at Killer is “keep learning,” and it’s probably the most embraced value in the company because everybody’s just trying to stay on top of trends and stay ahead of trends. I think that’s also a part of it. There’s a bit of a competitive attitude where all of us want to be in the know of what that next big thing is.

ROB: It’s such an interesting through line. You mentioned that Google’s obviously changed algorithms, and it feels like they’re a lot closer to trying to provide the result you actually wanted. But there was an era of SEO that was very competitive; it was very much about tactics and how ethical those tactics were. Kind of secret knowledge. But some of that transitions well, probably, into process around visual strategy. There is always something to learn. There is always a new cutting-edge frontline of what’s working and what’s not. You have to keep learning, just like you did in SEO.

AMY: Exactly. It’s so true. What’s interesting is with SEO, you’re trying to game Google’s algorithm, for lack of a better phrase. It is really what you try to do in a lot of ways, whereas with visual strategy, you’re trying to consider so many disparate audiences. What’s going to trend for one audience isn’t going to trend for another audience. There’s not one universal algorithm to break. Instead, it’s really identifying all of the different aesthetic directions that could impact Audience A over Audience B over Audience C and so on.

ROB: It’s an infinite game, too. You can’t just go for the moment. You could position the whole thing as being there to hack the human brain, but in the context of a brand, you also have to consider how people feel afterwards and in the long run. It’s not a short game. It’s not “look at this graphic,” right?

AMY: Exactly. And you also have to consider the timeline of that campaign, because sometimes we’ll have a client where they want a visual language and aesthetic look and feel to uplevel their brand, but something that’s going to last for decades to come. That’s a whole other feat to accomplish, trying to find that one illustration style that won’t go out of style. That’s been an interesting experience.

ROB: Absolutely. Amy, as you reflect on building Killer Visual Strategies, what are some things that you’ve learned along the way that you might do a little bit differently if you were starting from scratch?

AMY: The biggest thing I’ve learned is about being proactive versus reactive. Killer was a pivot from a completely different business model, and because it was a pivot, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking proactively about what we wanted the business to be. Instead, we just lived in a reactive state for about 3 years. We basically went from our very first quarter of work being 14 orders to the first month in our second quarter being 40 orders, and it just kept going up and up and up and up.

The first 3 years or so, we were just so exhausted by reacting to the demand that we didn’t take the time to say, “What’s the type of client that we want? What’s the type of work we really want to do? What’s the type of person we want to be bringing on to our team? What are the values of this company that are going to drive these decisions?” All of those things that seem corny initially – when you’re an entrepreneur and you want to start a company, the last thing you say is, “What are the values going to be of my company?” It’s rarely something an entrepreneur does first.

But had we done that first, I think we would have grown faster and even more intentionally than we did. Our first 5 years felt like a wild, wild west, and we had a culture inflection point at Year 5 where, honestly, almost everything exploded. And almost everything exploded because we were not a values-driven company. We had a great team; we knew we wanted to go out and get a beer with everybody, but we didn’t all approach conflict in the same way.

When you have a values-driven company, you have a set of guidelines with which to attack conflict together as a team, but we didn’t have that. Nobody really knew what our values were, even though they spelled out the word “KILLER.”

So we had to reset and focus on building a values-driven culture, hiring and firing by our values and hiring and firing clients by our values as well. That drastically changed who we were. It also drastically changed our level of productivity, the types of clients we attracted – I mean, our very first year of really paying attention to that, our revenue went up 50% in one year.

So there’s more than just the corny feelings that you get with coming up with your mission, vision, and values. When you actually truly embrace those and live those and lead by those, you’ll see a team that is so much more inspired, so much more willing to take on the hardest challenges with you. You can really grow your company by leaps and bounds when you do that. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned.

ROB: Was it the explosion that pushed you to this realization of the need, or was there another catalyst in your life?

AMY: It was the explosion, it really was. And that explosion was such a slow burn. That powder keg – we knew it was going to explode at some point, but we were still being so reactive that there wasn’t time to pay attention to it.

By the time it happened – we actually joke in the company and we call it “emailgate” because it all started from an email. [laughs] But we brought in the right people at that point. I hired a business coach to come in and coach myself, coach my leadership, and coach the team as a whole. I hired a really good HR consultant to come in and do the exact same thing, to really help us build the right policies in that arena. By bringing on the right experts, I was really, really lucky. I was also somebody who kept saying, “Why do I need a coach? I don’t need a coach! This isn’t a sports team!” [laughs]

It turned out that having a business coach was probably the best investment I have ever made, and I know my team feels that way too, because they saw me change as a result of having somebody really help me look at problems differently and react to critiques from the team differently. When you’re a business owner and you’re at the very top, it is extremely lonely. And when you’re in a creative firm where everybody is really emotionally driven – because to be creative, you have to bring emotion into your work. When you’re that passionate – that’s what I mean by emotionally driven – you’re going to be passionate about what’s working and what’s not in the company, and you’re going to be very vocal about that.

I used to take that as such an affront to me. I would get offended by really positive critiques, people coming to me with good ideas, and maybe I would just look at it as them critiquing me instead of an opportunity to improve in the company.

So having a coach really helped me look at that very differently and embrace the amazing feedback of my team.

ROB: I think it’s so helpful for you to share that, Amy. The perception people have is – in some cases it’s true that a cheesy coach is cheesy and cheesy values are cheesy. Sometimes I feel like I can sound a little bit needy in the course of a conversation because I will tell people about my coach and my therapist and my entrepreneurial support group. But I think we just need to talk about it. For me, those things are all healthy, but maybe there’s sort of the cult of the CEO, where we feel like we need to have all the answers.

AMY: Yes, that’s exactly it. You get imposter syndrome when you don’t necessarily have the right answers. I also have an entrepreneurial support group, and that has been immensely helpful for me. Just talking to other business owners – they don’t have to be in your same industry – and realizing, “Oh, hey, these problems exist across all businesses, not just a creative content agency, or not just a mom and pop shop down the street.”

There’s very similar problems that exist across any culture, across any work environment, and when you can get other business owners to tell you what they’ve gone through and game a solution together, it is so much better than just being in your own silo, trying to figure it out yourself.

ROB: Such a healthy conversation, Amy. You’ve really shared the journey and shared the experience. When people want to connect with you and when they want to connect with Killer Visual Strategies, where should they look you up?

AMY: You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m very active on LinkedIn. Just Amy Balliett on LinkedIn. You can find me on Twitter @amyballiett, although I’m not nearly as active as I should be on Twitter. Then you can also check out my book, which is Killer Visual Strategies, on Amazon. It was just awarded one of the best marketing and sales books of 2020.

ROB: Congratulations. I think we all needed a nice visual book along those lines in 2020 – something to think about aspirationally and not just looking into our own basements.

AMY: Right? That’s so true. Oh my gosh. Good old 2020. [laughs]

ROB: Yeah. Hope is on the way. I’m tremendously hopeful for the year, and I think probably you’re very similarly positioned with your positioning and with what people are about to need to do with you as a partner.

AMY: Yeah, definitely. I’m very excited for what 2021 has in store for us.

ROB: Excellent. Amy, I wish you the best. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I encourage everyone to look Amy up, look up her book, and I would imagine that Killer Visual Strategies probably has a solid couple of social feeds to pay attention to as well.

AMY: Definitely. Thank you so much, Rob. I really appreciate it.

ROB: Thank you, Amy. Be well. Bye.

AMY: You too.

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 info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.