How Best to Invest when the Brand is Bland

Bill Durrant, President at Exverus Media (Los Angeles, CA)

Bill Durrant is President at Exverus Media, a paid-media agency (TV ads, print advertising, sponsorships, and other types of media) that serves culture-creating, growth-stage brands. The agency’s focus is not so much on big-budget, long-term brand building as it is on consulting with clients and recommending “how best to invest” to produce significant, trackable, and measurable short- to medium-term results.

Bill says, “all media is performance media” and that it can be very challenging to quickly determine the effectiveness of branding efforts and traditional marketing media. To address this, his agency tries to establish a “performance mindset” and “a structure to capture things that aren’t directly trackable.”

Bill finds it exciting that today’s solutions for modeling are “significantly less expensive” than those that were available in the past. He says modeling has been “democratized” – that you can build and launch a model in weeks, update it continuously with sales and investment data, and track performance across a variety of marketing channels. Work that used to be done over a period of months by costly data scientists and analysts can be done now by utilizing a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The agency’s name, Exverus, is Latin for “from the truth.” In this interview, Bill explains how the name reflects the agency’s values and the importance of transparency in how the agency conducts business, manages its clients’ finances, and builds, over time, trust-based and truth-based client relationships. In a typical engagement, the agency consults with growing-brand clients and follows a step-by-step process that involves:

  1. understanding at a deep level client needs and stakeholder goals
  2. curating campaigns rooted in science and best practices 
  3. incorporating customized measurement solutions that prove campaign impact even when immediate, vendor-driven measurements aren’t immediately available.

The agency’s “roots” are in a consumer-facing infrastructure. Over the past year, B2B clients have increased as brands “tired of being bland” seek to get more involved in being “adjacent to culture, creating culture, or participating in culture” in order to increase their visibility and cultural involvement.

Bill can be reached on his agency’s website at: www.exverus.com or on Linkedin at Bill Durrant (with two “R’s.”) To make it easier to find him, add “Exverus.”

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Bill Durrant, President at Exverus Media based in Los Angeles, California. Welcome to the podcast, Bill.

BILL: Hey, how are you? Thanks for having me.

ROB: I’m excellent, and it’s good to have you here. Why don’t you start off, Bill, by telling us about Exverus and what the firm’s superpowers are?

BILL: Yeah, we do like to think of ourselves as superheroes every now and again. The first question we always get is “What does Exverus mean?”, so I’ll start there. Exverus means “from the truth” in Latin. I think that as a paid media agency, which is our area of expertise, that can extend to things as rational as transparency in how we do our business and how we manage our finances for our clients to really the crux and the core of how the agency has been able to thrive over the past several years, which is trust-based and truth-based relationships with clients, building that over time. As we think about the mission for the agency and what the agency stands for, it’s right there in the name.

As I mentioned, we are a paid media agency. We like to think of ourselves as the paid media agency for culture-creating, growth-stage brands. I guess that’s really where our superpower comes in. Our superpower is growing culture-creating brands that don’t necessarily have the eight and nine figure budgets to invest in paid media and need their dollars to work harder. That’s not only what we’ve found we’re best at, but it’s also what we’ve found gives us the most personal fulfillment as an agency team and as a leadership team within the agency. So it’s something that’s really easy to stick to, and that’s something that we’re very proud of as well.

ROB: Does that pull a little bit more then towards consumer? Or do you also see some B2B brands you would also dub as culture-creating in their own way?

BILL: It’s funny; we’ve been having more interesting conversations with B2B brands probably over the last year. So it does extend to that space, even if it certainly has its heart, and certainly our roots, in more of a consumer-facing type of communications infrastructure. But yes, it’s really interesting to see how B2B brands are now saying, “The idea of being adjacent to culture, creating culture, or participating in culture is to help stand out, to help gain association and equity from existing cultural platforms; why does that necessarily exclude us? Why does everything that we do need to be so bland, so to speak?” It’s been really fun having those conversations.

ROB: You mentioned a judiciousness required around the resources. Is it possible maybe for you to dive down into a client or two and share what it looks like to spend those budgets in a way that really has to deliver in a near- to midterm-way, where they can’t just say “We’re investing in brand, we’re investing in brand”? I assume you’re not posting Coke ads for Coca-Cola, right?

BILL: We do some work with Coke. We can’t say exactly where or how, but we do some work with some of their brands in Atlanta, your hometown. But yes, you’re right; it’s not about having that long-term branding campaign that’s on a very long leash from organizations that are used to having the discipline and the budgets, frankly, to be able to support that and not stress about what their investment’s immediate return was. That’s a constant conversation that we’re having with our brand partners, and helping them understand how best to invest.

As we think about that, there are two axioms that we like to share with our clients. Number one is “all media is performance media.” Whether it’s something that feels like a longer term-ish, traditional branding campaign, there is still a performance that’s being associated with that. There is still a short-term lens that is almost always associated with that. So we want to make sure we’re understanding that to satisfy and appease the stakeholders in their organization who are looking for those short-term or more “prove it to me” type results.

As we think about what the science tells us, what an analysis of the world’s most successful and least successful and average-success brands tells us about how to invest dollars, we know there is a huge economic argument to be made from having that kind of brand-led communications. It really comes down to how you measure it. If you have appropriate measurement in place that can measure things that aren’t as immediate as “tell me what the return on ad spend was for my campaign on Amazon,” for instance, then you’re going to be in solid shape.

So what we try to do with our clients is really understand what their needs are, what their stakeholders are looking for, and then curate a campaign that is rooted somewhat in science and in what works best at growing brands, but does that in a way that also has measurement incorporated so they can prove the impact of what they’re doing if it’s something where that immediate, vendor-driven measurement isn’t right away available.

That’s how we approach that, and it is absolutely central to our conversations with our brand partners.

ROB: Does that focus on measurability in any way impact the selection of marketing channels? You mentioned selecting for the measurement and thinking about the measurement of the channel correctly. Is there anything that’s completely out from a measurement perspective?

BILL: That’s kind of the knock on a lot of traditional media, that it’s very challenging to measure them in a more immediate way. Really what you’re looking at there is you’re trying to put a structure in place that can capture things that aren’t as directly trackable. That’s where you’re looking at, what kind of marketing mix model is my organization using? If my organization spends $10-20 million plus on media or on other important marketing channels, I may already have a marketing mix model in place. Let’s figure out how we can align with that and ensure the decisions that we’re making are able to be picked up by that measurement.

But if you’re not, then you might say “I need something that can help me understand what the impact was of a TV spot or radio spot or an outdoor ad” – all things that we know work but are really hard to pin down exactly how they worked for me exactly last month. That’s where we’re looking at more customized measurement solutions, and that’s stuff we can provide directly to a client, to one of our brand partners. We’re very proud of being able to do that, but it does require some – we’ll call it hoop-jumping.

I think that the prize is absolutely worth it, because you’ve now got a more balanced media mix that’s proven to be more effective, 100%, in driving a return for the brand. So jumping through those initial hoops around measurement and setting that up is always worth the investment of time and energy and money.

ROB: That’s such a neat area to pull in on. I do think a lot of marketers, when they hear “media mix modeling,” it sounds like a high-class tool. Is there a size of brand or a size of budget where it’s more viable? Or is it really just a limitation on thinking and it can start from just one or two channels?

BILL: I grew up in my career to some degree working with Nestlé. Nestlé has a number of billion-dollar brands and significantly more nine-figure annual sales brands. Those brands very often had access to marketing mix models, and it did feel like a high-class tool, especially at that time.

What we’ve actually been able to figure out over the last three years is that there are now solutions in place for modeling that are significantly less expensive. They’re essentially utilizing what we hear about when we hear about AI and machine learning. They’re essentially utilizing machine learning in a very efficient and democratized way where you don’t need to have expensive data scientists and data analysts running analyses over the course of months. You can now actually build a model over the course of weeks and then have that model in market and be continuously updating it with sales figures and investment figures across different marketing channels, not just media.

The fact that that’s now democratized is a huge win for brands who aren’t spending $10 million plus in their advertising and marketing efforts. We’ve actually had success modeling out the impact of a campaign that was in the low six figures for an extremely well-known national client, a Fortune 5 client that was really looking to drill down for one of their subsidiaries and understand what the impact was of their spend so that they could then scale it out further, but didn’t know where to scale it.

To be able to show this channel versus this channel versus the third channel, and this was the relative impact and this is how they all work together – which is another important element – in a way where they spent five figures to have that analysis and had it done in less than eight weeks is a very powerful example of how that works best.

ROB: It certainly seems democratizing not only for the brand, but also on even the agency side, because this sort of tooling sounds like the thing that you had to be in a holding company agency at some point, or a very large brand or house of brands, to even consider having access to.

BILL: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I grew up in that space, working with Nestlé, working in a large holding company for whom I still have a lot of heart and love, and that was the case. It was also the case back then that you really needed to be in part of one of those infrastructures in order to get strong rates for your brand. That’s shifted now as so much of our media inventory has become biddable. The standards around how we negotiate, how we manage media for clients, have changed.

It really is a golden age for the small- to medium-sized brand or marketer, the growing marketer or brand, to get into the marketplace and to be a meaningful player from Day 1 and not feel like you’re being outgunned by these massive organizations. It’s very exciting for us.

ROB: Indeed. Let’s pull on that origin story thread for a moment here, Bill. How did you go from that Nestlé, that holding company agency world, and decide to jump off the cliff and start Exverus?

BILL: This is always an interesting question to answer because there was no real one point where it all happened, which is usually the case for most agencies. It happened very organically. I had decided to shift from going full-time, working in one space, to freelancing and to working as a consultant, maybe 10 years ago.

As I was doing that, within about three or four months of doing that, I got a phone call from one of my favorite people on Earth, a client of mine from Nestlé, who said, “Hey, I’m over at Clif Bar now. We’re really shaping up how we look at media and advertising across our brands. Would you be interested in taking a stab at essentially being a one-person media agency for Clif Bar?” Of course, in my mind I was thinking “there’s no possible way I could do that,” and my mouth was somehow saying, “Yes, I’ll give it a shot.” [laughs]

That began a really wonderful relationship with Clif Bar, and that relationship grew as their investments grew and their need to grow new brands and new product formats grew. Between them and Creative Artist Agency (CAA) and their extremely wonderful, award-winning marketing team, which is now known as Observatory, I think they hit a point where the amount of work was too much for one person plus a few helpers on the side to handle.

We had a lot of built-in credibility, working with an organization that’s probably over a billion dollars in sales annually in Clif Bar, and CAA, which is the world’s best-known talent agency from a marketing standpoint. Impeccable reputation. So there was a lot of built-in credibility. There was new demand. We just made the decision – I still remember my Head of Operations saying, “We have to go for it,” driving to a soccer match one Wednesday night. And thus Exverus was born. We said “we’re really going to give this a go” about five and a half years ago now.

ROB: Wow. Congrats. A lot of companies don’t even make it that far. You’ve got a team around you now, and it feels probably pretty real.

I think the timing that a firm starts always confers some advantages and disadvantages. Your firm started around I guess 2012-2014, depending on where you are in that slow-motion window that you referred to; in performance marketing, that’s an interesting time within the evolution of the different channels. How do you think that timing informed how you attacked the market?

BILL: It did a few things. At a macroeconomic level, I think unfortunately it created a scarcity mindset because we had just gone through a massive crash in 2008. By the time I really started, there was no very clear boom and very clear recovery happening. That was a more recent thing. So there was a bit of a scarcity mindset, which took a long time to work out of and to shift into more that abundance mindset. I think that can keep you conservative, which is a good thing sometimes, in some years. In some years that holds you back. So from a macro standpoint, that’s how the timing maybe helped and maybe slowed things down over time.

As I think, too, about where the industry was, really from Day 1, it reaffirmed that even though it was much more straightforward to start a media agency and to focus on digital channels – there was much more access; it was a much more equitable system with a lot less in the way in terms of gatekeepers like there are with some traditional media – even though it was a little bit more challenging to have those other mediums in place, being media-neutral and being able to offer all media, even if we were still digital-first, was a really smart strategic decision.

As the rise of performance media has come in, and now for many organizations performance media has overtaken brand media by multiple times over – knowing that that trend was happening and having a strategy and a perspective of neutrality really helped us a lot. It helped us to build more trust-based relationships with our clients because we weren’t trying to push them into the latest fad or the latest channel or the latest tactic for its own sake. We were always trying to do that based off of what was best for their business, what was best to grow their brand. That helps build trust rather than saying “We’re focused in this particular area which is hot right now.”

So I think that can be great to be a particular specialist, even within the specialty of paid media, but I think that our timing really reaffirmed our strategy and our approach to market, and it’s one that’s seen us continue to grow and be successful into and beyond 2021.

ROB: For sure. It’s an interesting time. You got to start past the social for the sake of social, social as the source of infinite free growth, but also social as the bucket of infinite budget without accountability. It’s interesting you mentioned the gatekeepers. It’s almost easy to forget the times when if you wanted to manage let’s say your Facebook ads, there were only a handful of companies you could talk to about that.

BILL: That’s right.

ROB: That’s a whole different world.

BILL: And to see how much – at one point I was doing the Facebook ads, 9 or 10 years ago, and it was exhausting keeping up with the changes. Every three months, something minor would change that you used daily, and every six months it seemed like they were completely renovating and revamping the entire process. It was so funny to see that TV couldn’t change fast enough, print certainly couldn’t change fast enough, and here you had social and other channels that were changing so fast that it was almost impossible to keep up with them. It was certainly an interesting time to start things up.

ROB: A friend of mine used to work for one of those vendors. They had to keep up with all the changes, and they used to call every Tuesday “new bug Tuesday,” because there would be something new they had to go out and fix. You probably had to deal with the other end of that stick.

BILL: That’s right.

ROB: Bill, as you reflect on the journey so far with Exverus, what are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that you might do a little bit differently if you were starting clean, from scratch?

BILL: Things that I would do differently. I think that we were never slow to meet our clients’ needs, but we were sometimes slow to say, “This is a macro trend and we should have a whole staff around it.” One of the examples is more performance-based media.

The reason I say that is because we have plenty of team members, particularly today, who are world-class experts in performance, but a few years ago we kind of missed the boat a little bit because we thought that by satisfying our clients’ immediate needs and performance, we were doing our jobs. What I missed was that this was a strategic exercise. There needed to be a strategic team of people that were focused in the performance space.

One of the reasons why was that it wasn’t that they needed to have a particular technical skillset; in many cases we’re talking about the same media channels that can be used for very different purposes, like search, like social, like digital video and digital display. But what we were doing was missing the mindset. Those folks who really excel in performance have a completely different mindset and approach to how they manage media and how they manage client relationships to get to specific results. There’s plenty of reasons for that, which all make sense. But missing that mindset was number one in terms of what we could’ve done better, going back probably 3-5 years ago.

The other thing, too, is I think really understanding the business and the business side of being an agency leader. The ups and downs are not communicated to you when you are working at an agency in a way that’s terribly transparent, or frankly often necessary. You’re usually hearing the very big undulations of the waves. “Things are amazing. We won this huge account” or “Things aren’t great and we need to have layoffs.” Those are the types of things you’re hearing. What you don’t realize is that as an agency owner, things are up and down on an hourly basis, some days on a quarter-hourly basis.

There is a mindset and there is a psychological helmet that you need to put on to be able to manage that in the context of doing all of the wonderful work that your clients are contracting you to do. I think that is one thing that I certainly didn’t know about, and that’s something that lives alongside what all business owners learn, which is that you’re responsible now for every element of the business.

I was ready to do the accounting. That’s easy. [laughs] I went to an accounting school for college. But it was the psychological aspect of being in our business and being comfortable with the way that our business works that, if you’re someone without a very risk-tolerant mindset, might be a bit jarring.

ROB: How do you process that over time? I know certainly initially, a lot of your team, you feel like you can’t tell them a lot of the gusts. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and they’ll have a great solution, and sometimes they won’t know what the heck to do and you might just freak them out a little bit. How do you think about processing, learning some of these blind spots, those shifts that we all have to make?

BILL: That’s a great question. From my standpoint, we try to be as transparent as possible with our team. Today we actually just had our quarterly state of the union. This time we didn’t go into as much detail as normal, but we try to be transparent. “This is what’s going on. This is where we’re struggling. We’re struggling to fill this particular role. Do you have any solutions? Do you think you might be able to help? Or if nothing else, please know that we’re working on it still, because we know that’s had an impact on some people’s workloads.”

We’ll be very forthright with everything that we can. Without being obligated to or sharing specific numbers financially, we will share where we are in terms of reaching our goals and what it means to reach our goals. Is it just profit for the sake of profit? Or does profit open up new doors and new opportunities to all of us for strategic partnerships? That’s a very different conversation, and it’s one that I think our team appreciates hearing.

One great piece of advice that I got during COVID was actually from Simon Sinek, Start with Why, very famous guy. Incredibly intelligent. Everyone knows his public persona. He’s a family friend; he’s been good friends with my wife for over a decade.

We were chatting about there are certain things that we just don’t know what to do and how to move forward in COVID, and he said, “Put it on your team. Share it with your team. Do that in a thoughtful way and say, ‘I don’t know the answer to this. I’m not going to pretend that I’m the person who has all the answers all the time, and I’d love to hear what your input is and what your feedback or solutions are.’ You’ll be surprised as to what you get back. Your team isn’t necessarily thinking about your business all day long, but they are working in it, and they are people that you hire specifically for their intelligence. So see if that helps.” And it really did.

I also think it made for more open dialogue, which in today’s age of transparency is really valued by employees and by myself and the rest of the leadership team.

ROB: All such really good points in there. Reminds me of a very recent experience where for a long time, I had been suggesting a certain sort of client engagement model. I tried to communicate why, but I maybe wasn’t really getting my point across.

In a totally different conversation, I expressed a particular business goal in terms of margin – and to your point about profit margin, the key of telling people where that goes and what that gets us when you’re growing – you need cash just to be in cash reserves. You need to have good financial cushion on the business. You need to invest in growth. You need all those things. Helping them know why you need profit helps instead of just thinking you should break even and everybody should take all the cash out.

But I shared a particular goal in terms of profit margin, and I had somebody super brilliant on my team who said, “Oh, why don’t we engage more in this model?” It was exactly pretty close to what I had suggested before, but without the full picture and the rationale and the transparency, it was just hanging empty. And everybody does things better when they think it’s their idea, and that’s okay. I don’t have any problem with that. So really good point.

BILL: From your standpoint, where do you feel the line is in terms of transparency, in terms of how you communicate with team members?

ROB: That’s a great question that I’m still learning. I have typically been a tremendously private person on these sorts of things, and over the past year I engaged with a business coach about a year ago who came recommended by people who have billion-dollar companies. That was good enough for me, and I could still afford them. He’s just continued to push me on the value of what I’ll get by sharing more with the team.

Where that stands for us right now, to be real specific about it, at an exec team level, we’re talking about – in a services organization, on our services side, we’re talking about revenue per employee. We’re talking about target profit margin. We’re talking about what that actually looks like. And that’s uncomfortable for me. I could regret it. I could learn something from it. But it’s going in the right direction.

BILL: That’s great. I think we’ve probably had a very similar experience. I may not dig into some of the KPIs that you do quite as in-depth, but sharing that information can be liberating when it’s done properly, and it can show a lot of faith in the team. For me it was a great learning experience, and it was a great moment of growth starting to share that information.

ROB: I’m glad to hear and gain some comfort. The worst story we ever had on here about somebody sharing stuff was someone who had an employee suck out $300,000 in payroll taxes that they were personally liable for, and they had to drive ahead and build the business and dig their way out. But that’s a different lesson to be learned.

BILL: Yes, and I don’t necessarily think we should be giving access to the finances to everyone. [laughs]

ROB: Totally agree. Bill, when people want to track you down and track down Exverus, where should they go to find you?

BILL: Probably the best place for Exverus is our website. It’s www.exverus.com. For me, I can be found on LinkedIn. I’m Bill Durrant with two R’s. No relation to Kevin. I’m pretty easy to track down if you add “Exverus” to the end of that in the search queue.

ROB: That’s good. It’s good to know we can’t track down KD through you. We’ll have to find our own way.

BILL: Just want to set expectations.

ROB: [laughs] Thank you so much, Bill. Congratulations to everything you and Exverus have accomplished so far, and I wish you the best.

BILL: Appreciate it. Thanks, Rob.

ROB: Take care. 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.