Matthew Berman, president and co-founder of Emerald Digital (New York, NY and New Orleans, LA)
Matthew Berman is President/ co-founder of Emerald Digital, a full-service data- and creative-driven digital marketing/ public relations agency that specializes in generating quantifiable leads and sales by:
- Mapping and generating consumer-journey-stage-specific touchpoints across multiple digital channels,
- Developing and delivering personalized, consumer-journey-stage-specific content.
Typical clients are B2C premium consumer goods providers, B2B clients, and professional services (legal, healthcare, and some financial companies).
Matthew talks about journey stages as being three funnels: awareness, consideration, and purchase. Awareness involves highlighting a consumer’s major” pain points, introducing the client, and clearly presenting the client’s unique benefits. At the purchase stage, where the user is already familiar with the client and trust and authority have been established, the message can be “a little more aggressive.”
The client, its product, and its target market determine the mix of content, platform, audience, and messaging needed to best address the target audience at each particular stage. Although the agency’s focus is digital, Matthew says it will get into whatever space their target market is in.
Matthew cites the example of a pet brand client with “two audiences.” When communicating with “the general public (traditional consumer channels), the focus is on digital with some print media, and media buying. For the industry-specific retail buyers (industry trades), the media mix is more traditional.
It has been difficult in the past to track billboard impact (except perhaps by sending viewers through distinct contact options). Today, companies can purchase digital space for times when prospective customers will be passing by that billboard, change up the message more frequently to keep it “fresh” or to meet the client’s changing needs and goals (to increase business, build brand, hire new employees), or try to ping passing cell phones to track “views.”
Matthew started his career in music production, selling songs through NYC ad agencies to support large brands’ digital content. He partnered with a creative director contact to create Chunnel TV, a video curation and production platform. Funding for that evaporated with the Great Recession and Matthew moved to a traditional marketing agency in New Orleans to work on social and ambassador programs.
A few years later, he started Ember Networks, which provided other agencies with white-label social, web, and SEO support, and often consulted and collaborated with a close friend who owned Herald PR in New York City. On a joint project in the Turks and Caicos, they realized their teams were already integrated and that they would be able to tackle larger projects and work smarter if they combined the two companies. Ember Networks and Herald PR became Emerald Digital.
When COVID hit, both locations shut down. Growth was exploding – the company probably tripled last year. Finding, hiring, and integrating new employees into the team was a challenge when everyone was remote. Processes needed to be thoroughly documented, mapped, and assessed; SOPs written, organized, posted, and automated; and communications tools updated and unified. In this interview, Matthew explains how a key tool of the agency’s operationalization, a program called ClickUp, has allowed them to aggregate all their documents, automate processes, streamline reporting, and handle client communication.
Matthew is excited about how, today, his clients can tell never-ending stories and have ongoing narratives broken into digestible pieces across multiple platforms and multiple touchpoints and, even more so, how technological advances, AR, VR, AI will impact storytelling in the not-so-distant future. He can be reached on his agency’s website at: https://emerald.digital
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Matthew Berman, who is President and Partner at Emerald Digital with offices in New York, New York and New Orleans, Louisiana. Welcome to the podcast, Matthew.
MATTHEW: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start by introducing Emerald Digital and what it is that you all are excellent in doing for your clients?
MATTHEW: Absolutely. I am the president and a co-founder of Emerald Digital. We are a full-service digital marketing and public relations agency. Our superpower is we are exceptional at generating quantifiable leads and sales. We do this by mapping out and generating consumer touchpoints across multiple digital channels, and we strive to engineer these consumer touchpoints by the stage which the consumer journey and the user is actually in. If they’re at the awareness stage, we have different content pieces generated just for them and personalized just for them. If they’re at the consideration stage, we do the same thing.
ROB: You’ve kind of teased it; give us all the stages as you all think about it.
MATTHEW: Sure. At a very general level, let’s think about awareness, let’s think about consideration, and let’s think about purchase. We can break them down into those three major funnels. We try to identify, based on the client that we have, what mix of content, what mix of platform, what mix of audience, and what mix of message we need to best speak to our audience at that particular stage.
If we’re just trying to generate awareness, we want to highlight what their major pain points are. We want to introduce who our client is, and we want to distill our message such that it can focus on the unique benefits that our client offers in an easy-to-understand way for our target market. If it’s at the purchase stage, we would generally have communicated with that particular user several times by now, so we’ve built up trust, we’ve built up authority. Our messaging is going to be a little more aggressive.
ROB: Give us a picture here. Dive down a little bit. Are there typical clients for you? Particular industry, particular size? What’s the wheelhouse?
MATTHEW: I think in general, we see two different kinds, although it certainly extends beyond that. But the two different kinds that we have are a B2C company, generally consumer goods, with a product or service that might be a little more premium, a little more expensive, whether that be a luxury hotel or a private jet or a luxury villa or a more expensive food item. So we see that.
On the other side, we handle a lot of B2B clients and professional services. We deal very frequently in the legal and healthcare and sometimes the financial space.
ROB: I can’t let it just sit there – I need to know more about expensive food items.
MATTHEW: One of the examples is we’re working with one of the most premium hotdog manufacturers and sellers in the United States. You would normally think about a hotdog as just a few bucks, and the ingredients that would go into that are maybe not the ingredients you would want to eat. We’re working with this great brand where all of their ingredients are ultra-premium. It tastes amazing. It might cost a few dollars more than your typical hotdog, but we have to break down, where would this product be sold? Who would it be sold to? What type of benefits would a prospective buyer be looking for? That might be health, that might be ease of making it, things like that. But they do taste great. [laughs]
I always love working with our consumer brands, especially in the food and drink business, because one of the benefits that we get is we get to try the product. I’ve probably worked with 50 alcohol brands or something by now, and that’s always fun because you have to try it out. You have to make recipes, you have to shoot the product. You get to meet fascinating people all over the country.
ROB: That might help with recruiting too.
MATTHEW: [laughs] It’s always a fun gig.
ROB: You’re like, “Hey, come here. Here’s who we work with.” That makes sense, especially on the premium food side. There’s a trend here that is fascinating. You’re talking about educating people around considered purchases, but it is interesting how it spans across consumer versus the business side. The awareness, the consideration, the purchase, that’s all there. You’re not very much into the transactional world. You have digital in your name, but I would imagine you also – how do you think about traditional media as part of the media mix when you’re talking about these long-term considered purchases?
MATTHEW: Oh, without a doubt. Our expertise is certainly in the digital world, and that’s where my background comes from. But I think as our business grows and as we take on more mature clients, we very much had to get into the space where it’s also billboard, it’s also print. It really matters where our target market is. I’m not going to only focus on a digital solution if my client’s market isn’t active there.
We’re working with a pet brand now, and we have two audiences that we need to communicate with. We need to communicate with the general public; those would be our more traditional consumer channels, and for us, we definitely highlight on the digital side there. But we can also focus on print media. We can focus on traditional news, media buying, things like that. But then there’s this other audience, which is very industry-specific. Those are your retail buyers, your industry trades. Things like that, we might go with a more traditional mix than a more digital mix.
But I’ve been a big proponent of this digital revolution for many years. It’s sort of mirroring what my own personal habits were. I’m 34 now, so I’ve seen – I’m at that age where when I was younger, it was only traditional, and I’ve seen more and more brands moving to the digital space. If the last few years have taught us anything, we went from where you had to sell clients on the concept of digital 10-15 years ago, but now they all understand that that’s where they need to be. They just need to know exactly what they have to do and what exactly they should be doing.
ROB: It probably gives you a pretty good advantage. A lot of traditional media is digitizing in the buying, whether you’re talking about billboards, out of home, whether you’re talking about TV and you have the OTT stuff. That becomes an increasingly digital buy, I think. You might know better.
MATTHEW: You’re absolutely right. We were hesitant to recommend things like traditional billboards to our clients in the past. We’re this interesting marriage of being data-driven but also creative-driven. If we couldn’t get the right data for why we were buying something or why a client should be there, it was hard for me to make that recommendation.
I might say, let’s conduct some hopefully siloed experiment where if we buy this particular billboard without digital capabilities, let’s see if we can see any noticeable lift in sales or phone calls. We can have a tracking number. We can send them to a unique URL that’s on the billboard. But if it was hard for us to measure, it was hard for us to manage.
With billboards now, especially in the digital space, there are Bluetooth – I’m not sure what the phrase is, but there’s this Bluetooth tracking on it so it can try to ping all the phones driving by to give us some information on that. We can also purchase particular space if we only want it between 12:00 and 2:00 and 4:00 and 6:00 when people are driving back and forth. It just gives us more options than a general “This billboard is on the corner of X & X.”
ROB: I’m just curious, because I’ve seen things on billboards that I would never have expected would have the correct ROI for the cost. What is the cost and entry point to get into a digital billboard placement? I see restaurants hiring for chefs and I’m like, man, how does that ever ROI? Or maybe they’re thinking more about awareness. It seems like it doesn’t add up to me, but how does that work?
MATTHEW: There is such a variation in what these prices are. It’s tough to give you an exact number. I would think there might be a branding component there. We bought a billboard for a client a few weeks back, and we were looking at rural markets versus urban markets, how many people. The urban billboard, I think we were looking at something like $15-$20K a month versus the rural one was maybe $800 or $1,000 or something.
MATTHEW: So there’s a wide variation of what those costs should be. With a message like “We need to hire someone,” that’s not the message you would expect. [laughs] I’m not tracking that; I don’t know what their ROI is. It’s possible they just really needed workers. But it’s also possible they’re thinking about it from a brand place.
ROB: Right, I get that. It’s like, “Hey, we’re a restaurant, we’re here.” Even maybe an opportunity afforded by digital is you get to shift up the creative more often, sometimes saying you’re hiring and sometimes talking about your fish and chips.
MATTHEW: That’s exactly it.
ROB: Rotating the message.
MATTHEW: Yes. Frequency – we have to heavily consider that, because you don’t want to give the same individual the same message 10 times in a row. It will fall flat. It may also be that that particular restaurant purchased a set amount of billboard space, and they were committed to that for X amount of months, and it came to be that they were already busy, or perhaps COVID changed things for them, and they decided, with the digital billboard, “Let’s allocate 15% of that space to hiring. We’ve already accomplished some of the goals we intended to here, and the money has already been spent, so let’s use it for something that can affect us right now.”
ROB: Matthew, let’s rewind the clock here a little bit. Talk us through the origin story of Emerald Digital. Where did this business come from? What led you to start it? What were you leaving behind? All of that.
MATTHEW: Let me give you a little run-through here. I got into this marketing world – I’ve been a musician for over 25 years, and in my late teens I was heavily into music production. I started selling songs to Heineken, Hennessey, and some other large brands for the digital content they were at that time producing.
I was able to do this through some ad agency contacts in New York City, which ultimately led me to partnering with one of the creative directors there, and we created a video curation and production platform called Chunnel TV. After the Great Recession hit, we were unable to raise any more money for that, and I moved to a traditional market agency in New Orleans, where I was heavily involved in social and ambassador programs.
A few years later, I decided to start my own firm. This is I think where the story of Emerald begins. At that point, I started a firm called Ember Networks. We focused heavily on social, web, and SEO. A lot of the time, there were other agencies that were hiring us. They would say they were able to do XYZ, but they either didn’t have the bandwidth or the ability to, so they white-labeled out.
More and more over time, I began working with a firm called Herald PR, which is owned by one of my dear friends. He was in New York City. He was my college roommate, so we were always bouncing ideas off of each other. As an agency owner, it’s always helpful to have that bouncing-off point. “How are you doing this? How are you doing that?” So we started working together more and more on escalating projects.
After a few years, we had a client who was a villa in the Turks and Caicos. Villa Bella Vita. It’s absolutely gorgeous. We went down there, we were shooting drones and doing pictures, and we had brought some of our other clients down. We said, “Why are we doing this separately? Our teams are already integrated. They’re already working together. We’re able to take on larger projects together and work smarter than we are alone, so let’s create a joint venture.” So Emerald is a joint venture between Ember and Herald PR. And you get to work with your friends.
ROB: And hopefully you get to go back down to that villa every now and again.
MATTHEW: Yes, we do, actually. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] That’s good, to revisit the origin a little bit in that way, for sure.
MATTHEW: Yeah. That’s one of the benefits of working a little bit in the luxury space. You get to look at some of these beautiful places.
ROB: As we follow the narrative of Emerald Digital, that’s a good starting point. What have been some key inflection points, some times in the business where the difficulty level ramped up a little bit?
MATTHEW: Well, an obvious one I think would be last year. I think everyone was under similar stress. We had to shut down both of our offices, but at the same time, we were growing at a tremendous pace. We were hiring, hiring, hiring. I think our team tripled or something last year. We were trying to identify people, work with them, merge them into our team, and inculcate them on the business without being in the same physical space. So I would say that was particularly challenging.
That very much led us to hyper-focusing on the documentation of our processes and making sure that we had the right communication tools in place to try to break down these physical barriers that we have now, because we have people all over the country now. While our team was mainly focused in New Orleans and New York, during the last year we’ve had people want to move out of Manhattan; we’ve had people trying to move a little closer to the middle of the country, whether that’s the Midwest, Michigan, and we’ve had a certain amount of team members moving to Florida.
So how do we collaborate? How do we communicate? How are we working efficiently in this environment where we’re all separated? That was a pretty major challenge. But it really led us to hyper-focusing on what these processes were and then implementing a toolset that was able to mold our workflow so that we weren’t looking at “This thing is on Dropbox and this thing is on Drive and this guy communicates on Zoom and this person communicates on Slack.”
It was looking at all of the different things we were doing across two offices, and now we’re trying to operationalize this entire business.
ROB: That’s a really interesting thread to pull on. What are some of those key tools, practices? What makes distributed work for Emerald?
MATTHEW: The first thing was we had to write all of these SOPs. First it was, what are the different stages in the work that we have to do, whether it’s account service, biz dev, sales, the content creation process – everything from the brainstorm to the client revision to the scheduling to the ad buying? It was mapping out each of these different things we do.
I think one of the first things was we wrote this book. I think we had 91 individual SOPs. And it didn’t at that point cover everything. So it was like, all right, we have all of these SOPs. No one’s going to read 91 separate things, so we need to put them in a single place that everyone can see at all times, and we have to add video. We added GIFs. We unified all of the documents. We had that all in a drive.
But then in the last few months, we moved over to a program called ClickUp. It’s been fantastic. We’re very happy to have moved over because we can aggregate all of our docs. We implemented all of our different processes into the actual software, so we were able to automate a lot of different things. We were able to streamline a lot of our reporting as well and a lot of our client communication. If there was a particular deliverable we had, we were able to have that automatically pull up.
So if we have a social client that needs XYZ, when that job is created, it will pull in the SOPs that we have made and automatically pull in some of our primary documentation so that the employee doesn’t need to go looking for it or even realize they have to pull that up. It’ll just have it right there.
ROB: Sure, and then nobody has to ask where something is, right? They can go look for it, actually, which is helpful.
MATTHEW: Yes. Not only be able to look for it, but to remind them that it’s there. I think that first month when everyone was working from home, it was, “Where is this thing? Where is that thing? Which folder?” It was a big organizational task. Not only to have it where it’s all in a place that the person can find, but it’s to create automated reminders and touchpoints on our end so that we don’t even have to find it. It’s right there. “Hey, by the way, since you’re making a social media post, here’s a few things that might help you out. Here’s previous creative. Here’s file assets. Here’s a step-by-step on how to do this. Here’s a video. And if you need help, here’s a simple form that you can fill out right there, and that form will automatically be sent to your superior, our management team, or even our leadership.”
ROB: Has it been difficult for everyone to make that transition? It seems like that’s a cultural shift, and with that comes the privilege of being able to be distributed, of being able to move to Florida whenever you want. But has that been a tough transition across the team in some cases?
MATTHEW: I want to point out that I’m so happy with the way our team has adapted. Everyone has done a tremendous job, to the point where I think in many cases we’re more efficient now than we even were before.
But I think on a personal level, for many people, with that shift in not going to the office and being in the same house with all of your kids who can’t go to school for months at a time, or for even the new hires, there’s certainly difficulty there. Or we have employees who have older parents. So there’s certainly difficulties. But I think on a professional level, our team has adapted to it tremendously.
ROB: That’s good news. It’s a tricky transition. Now, as you’re spread apart, how are you thinking about in person? Is there a cadence of getting together, or is it off the table for now?
MATTHEW: That’s a great question. With your previous question, you asked what some of the challenges are, and I think one of the biggest ones, especially for me and our creative team, is there are these great ideas that happen off the cuff around the water cooler, and you can sit around a whiteboard in the same physical space and be like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did XYZ?” There is absolutely something to being in the same physical space. I don’t want to discount that.
Where I believe we will be moving to as things open up is a more flex time model, where you can come into the office two or three times a week and then you can work from home the rest of the time. If you’re not in a location where one of the offices is, then obviously you cannot come in. But wherever possible, I think we’re going to identify physical opportunities for everyone to get together, whether that’s once a quarter or – we’re not sure exactly what that frequency is.
But we have several different cadences now for our team to brainstorm, to basically connect. We have an all hands meeting every Monday, every Friday, and then each of our separate teams meets every single morning. “What are we doing today? What are our goals? How did yesterday go?” Those are our primary touchpoints. Most of us are in communication with each other throughout the day anyway, but it’s still good to get everyone on those face-to-faces. On a digital face-to-face, I should say.
ROB: [laughs] Absolutely. Matthew, as you think back on the journey so far, what are maybe some lessons you have learned that you would tell yourself to do a little bit differently if you were starting from scratch?
MATTHEW: I think to document these processes is something I would’ve done much, much sooner. It would’ve helped us scale a lot faster, and I think a lot more efficiently. So certainly that. And it would have allowed us to train and hire people in a much easier manner, and I think for us to even identify what some of our own roadblocks were and to have a better understanding of what repeatable processes we have and where we can identify pain points and how we can grow those.
And certainly another one for myself – for many years, I wanted to see every creative and had to approve it. It was almost like all roads went through me. That’s a tough thing to let go of, but as a business owner, you have to. You have to trust the people that you’re hiring to make the decisions that you hired them to do, and only to come to you when they need you, or for you to bring them that strategic vision or directive. But give them enough room to do their job properly.
So I would say, “Chill out, Matt. Let go.” [laughs] Bring on the smartest people that you possibly can. That’s a really major part. You as the business owner want to be the dumbest person in the entire room. Your job is to hire the smartest people for the best job that you can find, and hire them no matter what it takes so that you can trust them to do what they do well.
ROB: How do you time that transition? Because clearly, you start the thing from zero and you’re going to be working in the business, necessarily. Very few people – I know one guy that bought five agencies and he just starts being in charge. But for most of us, you’re starting with a special talent. You’re starting with that skill that you have being the reason that people come to you, and then you start having people fill in some of your weaknesses, and then people who also have your strengths.
How do you think about when to start turning the corner on getting yourself out of every piece of creative? How do you time that?
MATTHEW: That’s a great question. Certainly bringing in smart people and then making sure they know exactly the job they’re supposed to do, and then giving them – maybe working with them for the first month or two, where you are a little more hands-on, and just ensure that your processes work. Just oversee. Say, “I built all these processes out. I have trained you. Here’s enough room for you to do it yourself.” And you set, “Every Thursday I’m going to dedicate three hours to ensuring that this foundation that we’ve made is actually working.”
You start with different topics. Maybe I’m going to let go of all of the creative when it comes to social posts and video production, but I’m still going to hold on to this web dev side. For now, I want to be able to test everything and I want to be able to overlook the code. I just want to make sure everything’s working properly. I think one by one, start making sure that each of those teams has that process down.
I would start thinking about what unique assets you have. Are you the best at social? Are you the best web guy? Are you the best for overall strategy? Did you create a web firm because you’re a killer coder? Start thinking about the things that you can offload that maybe don’t fall into your expertise as much as the others.
ROB: That makes perfect sense. As we look at the future of Emerald and of the work that you do for clients, what’s coming up? What’s the future look like? What’s exciting there? What should we be looking out for?
MATTHEW: Awesome. If we talk general industry – and I kind of mentioned this before, but it felt like for many years we had to pitch about why you should be in the digital space at all. That conversation, especially in the last two years, has really shifted to “You know that you have to be here. Now we can do some really interesting things.”
Our clients are much more on board with this concept of telling a never-ending story, having an ongoing narrative that can be broken up into digestible pieces across multiple platforms, multiple touchpoints. I think that’s very exciting as a storyteller. We can create video, we can create audio, we can do all these interesting things. I think that’s really fun.
That brings us to what’s on the horizon. We’re not going to be using the same platforms forever, and they change all of the time. More and more, we’re seeing movement in the AR, VR, and AI space. I think it’s really exciting. There’s this fantastic firm up in New York that we are friends with, and some of the stuff they create is this marriage of a digital space with a real-world space. I think as a storyteller, that opens up so many different avenues for us, because now all of your content and all of your communication doesn’t have to be flat. It can be 3D. It can be all-encompassing. You can build things that can sit on someone’s table and look like they actually exist.
So I’m very excited for that AR/VR space, and then on the AI side, it’s certainly helping us to more intelligently gather and parse out what our data means, but also to create content faster.
ROB: Lots going on there. It would probably be a whole interesting other conversation to get into the level and approach and who’s appropriate to get into AR/VR. But I think with the right creative people, a lot is certainly possible.
MATTHEW: Yeah. I definitely think we’re still a few years out, and it’s probably a matter of one of these big tech firms releasing the Apple Glasses or a contact lens. I think the general user hasn’t adopted these yet. We’re very much still in the first mover advantage. It’s not quite there. But part of our role as a business owner here is to set the business up for success 10 years from now. We don’t want to be the best Facebook ads guys in 10 years. We want to be the guys that are doing the next thing great as well.
ROB: Excellent. Matthew, when people want to track you down, and Emerald Digital, how should they connect with you?
MATTHEW: Check us out at https://emerald.digital.
ROB: Awesome. We get these hot new domains. I kind of want to get a .digital myself, but maybe just to track my billboard ads. I don’t know. We’ll get there. [laughs]
MATTHEW: Yes, done. [laughs]
ROB: Thank you so much, Matthew. Thank you for coming on, for sharing. Best wishes to you and the whole Emerald team.
MATTHEW: Thank you so much.
ROB: And all the good stuff going on in New York and New Orleans and beyond, right?
MATTHEW: And beyond.
ROB: Excellent. Have a wonderful day, a wonderful week, and thank you so much, Matthew.
MATTHEW: Thank you, Rob, for absolutely everything. Cheers.
ROB: Cheers. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.