Push-Pull Transformations Drive Rocket-Ship Growth

Julie Koepsell, President – North America, Horizontal Digital (Minneapolis, MN)

Julie Koepsell came into Horizontal Digital as President of the North America division in December 2020 at a time when, due to Covid, the company was “fully remote.” Horizontal Digital is a 17-year-old global, “experience forward” consultancy that puts people at the center of its efforts by creating deeper, end-to-end-connected, seamless, relevant, and personal customer relationships that boost client ROI. Because Horizontal is a boutique consultancy, clients get a “very high touch experience.”

Julie says it is important for leaders to “listen.” One of the first things she did after joining the company was to connect one-on-one with all 50 division employees. Due to continued growth, the division has hired an additional 150 employees over the first part of this year. Globally, the consultancy has 500 employees.

Many of Horizontal Digital’s B2B clients sell through multiple distribution channels and dealer networks. The desired push-pull challenge is complex – companies want their dealers to recommend their products . . . but they also want customers to ask for the company’s products. Horizontal Digital strives to:

  1. Create promotional programs that build meaningful relationships with end customers so those customers will go to dealers and ask for a company’s products. 
  2. Build a martech stack so the customer journey experience is cohesive from sales and marketing through digital POS, web and experience portals, and customer service. The goal is to understand what customers want, anticipate their needs, and grow relationships “at a life level.”
  3. Provide client education and get client employees to understand the need for internal changes related to demand generation, customer experience, or “internal digital transformation” initiatives . . . and help them understand how those changes will be implemented.

She says, if a company’s message is properly set up across all channels, companies can simultaneously control expenses and grow revenue . . . customer lifetime value is increased, customers will advocate for the company, and there will be an increased opportunity to cross-sell and upsell.

Julie is passionate about providing women with the opportunity to advance, especially in technology. She believes it is important, as Horizontal Digital grows, to build the infrastructure and internal scaling to support that growth, to “create an amazing employee experience,” and to make sure clients’ experiences with Horizontal Digital surpass their expectations.

Julie can be found on her consultancy’s website at: https://www.horizontaldigital.com/ .

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Julie Koepsell, President – North America at Horizontal Digital based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome to the podcast, Julie.

JULIE: Thank you, Rob. I’m so happy to be here.

ROB: It’s awesome to have you here. Why don’t you tell us about Horizontal Digital and the journey the firm is on, where you specialize, and what we should know about it?

JULIE: I’d love to. Horizontal Digital is an experience-forward consultancy. We operate as a boutique consultancy, which really means that our clients get a very high touch experience from us. And we do it with global teams so we can actually deliver at scale, which is pretty unique.

When I say that we’re experience-forward, what that means is that we put people at the center of everything that we do. More specifically for our clients, we help them build deeper relationships with their customers so they get better ROI, and we do that by creating end-to-end connected experiences that are seamless, relevant, and personal.

If you consider that customer journey, we are able to deliver a cohesive experience all the way from sales and marketing through digital POS, web and experience portals, and then customer experience, and we do that so we can better understand what they want, anticipate their needs, and grow the relationship.

ROB: Got it. A lot of the services you’re talking about are things that a lot of people are in the business of, but it seems like what might elevate that to the level of a consultancy is the holistic, the big picture, the customer journey not in the sense – some people think of customer journey like “I’m going to send you different emails depending on where you are in the purchase process.” But it sounds like you’re talking about more at a life level.

JULIE: That’s absolutely right. Through the entire experience that any brand has with its customer.

ROB: If we zoom in to that just a little bit, is there an example of a client, some touchpoints, what my experience might be in a client that Horizontal has been involved in?

JULIE: A lot of things actually come to mind. One of the things is in our conversations – we had a conversation yesterday with a prospective client who is thinking about how they can digitally transform their business. They’re selling through multiple channels; they’ve got distribution channels. They want to make sure that they are building relationships with their end customer so the customers are going to the dealer and asking for them. Through that entire process, they’re going through an internal digital transformation.

So not only are they working to make sure that they are building a martech stack that enables them to deliver the experience that they want to for their customers, but they also have a lot of internal education that they need to do to make the case for it. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what that actually means in terms of whether you’re talking about demand gen or digital transformation or customer experience. So there’s a lot to it in terms of not only how you’re building your technology stack to deliver that experience, but also how you’re going through the change management internally to make sure that everybody understands why you’re doing that.

ROB: I know you said prospective customer, so I don’t want to pull too deep into the identity here, but you said dealer. Is this some sort of vehicle? Is there some kind of picture you can fill in to help us contextualize?

JULIE: Yeah, a lot of B2B clients right now are selling through dealer networks. What they really want is the end consumer to go to the dealer and ask for them. They want that push-pull, where they want the dealer to be recommending them, but they also want the customer to be asking for them. And then ultimately, they want to make sure that the experience the customer has, if they come to their website or through any other experience, is seamless, anticipates their needs, is transparent, and is really meaningful. Because at the end of the day, customer experience is really what lends to long-term loyalty.

One of the things that we talk about a lot around here is that two-thirds of customers actually switch brands not based on prices or features but because of the experience they have. That’s really the holy grail of business today.

ROB: Absolutely. It’s interesting that why you were involved as a consultancy instead of an agency is – I’m going to say something that could be wrong, but if I’m thinking about a car, if I’m thinking about a snowmobile, if I’m thinking about a motorcycle, if I’m thinking about a dealer of just about anything, digital creates the opportunity for an ownership experience. It creates an opportunity for that relationship to start when I announce a new product. It’s much more long-term than “Did I show up at a dealer? Did I ask for this thing or not?” My journey may start with my previous ownership experience with that product. How does that tie in to digital?

JULIE: That’s exactly right. And if you can set it up properly across all channels, you can actually control your expenses and grow your revenue at the same time because you’re increasing that customer lifetime value. Not only that, but they’re also advocating for you on your behalf, and it creates – I think where you were going is the opportunity to continue to cross-sell and upsell.

ROB: Right, because you’re talking about digital platforms, you’re talking about customer experience, you’re talking about social listening to an extent, probably, social customer support, all of those different lenses. Absolutely makes sense.

Julie, I think something that is perhaps interesting and unique to your story is the difference – a lot of our guests are founding partners, founding CEOs, and you have a unique story of coming into a business that is successful with an opportunity also to continue making it more successful. What is the background of Horizontal and the origin story there, and then also your personal journey into the firm?

JULIE: Horizontal Digital started about 17 years ago. Chris Staley and Sabin Ephrem started the company. I’m going to use a term that you used earlier in our conversation, Rob – it’s been a rocket ship ever since they started. It’s such an inspiring and amazing story about what they’ve built, and it’s a true testament to the way that they have run their business, the vision that they’ve had for it, the way they invest in talent, and the way they understand technology and what our customers want.

Because it’s a relatively tight community, I’ve known about Horizontal Digital for years, and I actually ran into them at a conference at Sitecore Symposium about three years ago. They were sponsoring a panel about women in technology, and I was actually sitting on that panel, and I got the chance to meet them. I’ve always had great respect for what they do. They’ve built an amazing culture here.

So I was excited but a little bit hesitant about a year ago when they first reached out to me. I was happy with what I was doing, but as I started talking to them, their ability to deliver globally at scale and yet have a company that feels like a tightly knit family was really inspiring to me. In addition to that, I’m really passionate about advancing women, and particularly women in technology, and they’re very supportive of that.

What we’re really trying to do here is to create an amazing employee experience. We talk about being an experience-forward consultancy, and experience-forward is really about – I mentioned this a little bit ago – putting people at the center. In addition to how we do that with our clients and their customers, it’s also got a couple other pillars for me.

One of them is making sure that the client experience that our clients have with Horizontal surpasses their expectations. Certainly we expect to deliver on their business needs, but also we want that experience that they have with us to bring a lot of value and, frankly, to have them enjoy the experience along the way.

Then the third pillar is – and I just mentioned this – employee experience. Talent is the most important asset that we have in this business. I believe that if you create an amazing employee experience, they will in turn create an amazing experience for our customers, and then that result is growth. So I joined this company with the aspiration of making Horizontal the best career experience that our employees have.

ROB: It’s a particular challenge. I’ve seen leadership elevated from within, but how did you approach that process of coming in with a requirement to lead, but also with – you said you were familiar with the firm, but there’s a different familiarity that comes when you’re actually on the inside every day. How did you balance the movement into leading with the need to acclimate?

JULIE: That’s such a great question. What I appreciate is all the conversations that Chris, Sabin, and I had in advance about how we were going to do this, approach this. They’ve been unbelievably supportive every step along the way.

But the most important thing to do when you come into a company in a leadership role is to listen. I came in in December, so everything was fully remote, and when it’s fully remote, I will tell you it takes so much longer to build that rapport and trust with people because you have to be so purposeful with every experience you have via whatever video technology you’re using rather than just running into people by the proverbial water cooler.

So I very purposefully did a series of – I think I did more than 50 one-on-one introductions with people. I joined each individual team meeting. We actually hired Gallup to do an employee engagement survey. We went on a listening tour to start to understand what the needs of the team were.

One of the challenges is coming in and listening. You get excited and you want to make change, or you want to advance the ball in whatever way you decide to do that. Finding the balance of moving at a pace that feels like you’re making progress, but not going too fast that you aren’t being thoughtful or purposeful and you aren’t damaging something in the organization – it’s a tough line to walk, I’ll tell you. I actually made a few decisions probably quicker than I should’ve, perhaps should’ve moved a little faster on some things. But it’s kind of one of the things that I love about it: it’s a learning experience every step of the way.

ROB: What I hear in there is a recognition that sometimes there are not shortcuts. There’s no shortcut – having 50 one-on-one conversations, by some people’s reckoning, that doesn’t scale well. That doesn’t look like an org chart. That looks like 50 one-on-one conversations. Are there any other aspects of getting in and rolling up your sleeves and leading that maybe didn’t scale well, but yet were key to getting into the role?

JULIE: That certainly was the big one. One of the other things that I am doing around here is weekly having a session with about five or six people from different teams within the organization, and I purposely do it with five or six people because I want it to be small enough that people feel like they can speak up and yet have enough people that I feel like I’m making some progress and getting a group together.

So we get together once a week, and I call it “bring your favorite beverage.” We get together and we introduce ourselves and we talk about non work-y stuff. And sometimes it turns into work stuff. But what’s been really interesting is since the pandemic started, we’ve hired – gosh, it’s got to be closer to 150 people by now. So not just do I not know a lot of people, but a lot of people don’t know each other.

One of the things I know – and this isn’t specific to Horizontal Digital, but in general – people really miss that sense of community, and people miss the culture. I don’t think that means they want to come into the office every day necessarily, but they want very thoughtful and meaningful and purposeful moments of connection to build and feel the company culture.

So we try to create opportunities to do that. And selfishly, I want to create opportunities where I can get to know people on a personal level because I believe that my job is not to tell people how to do their job, because they’re all quite capable. We hire amazing people. But my job is to support and enable them to do their job, and I can’t do that if people don’t know me and feel like they can trust me and are willing to come talk to me.

ROB: It seems to me that with you coming into the firm and that degree of growth, it almost seems like the company as a whole discovered another capability, another core function, another gear. What do you think is driving that engine so remarkably?

JULIE: Well, there’s a couple things. Companies understanding the importance of building an amazing customer experience and digital transformation is certainly a thing that’s happening beyond our company. That’s an industry-wide movement that’s happening, so that is a big part of our growth.

In addition to that, I have to give the owners a ton of credit because we are independently owned, and their ability to drive the vision for where we’re going and see ahead of where we are today, and their willingness to invest in that, is something that I’ve actually not experienced in over 25 years in this business. I think that’s another thing that sets us apart and truly makes us unique.

And then again, back to the idea of community and relationships. I believe that relationships are at the center of everything, and when you do a great job, like I was talking about – if we create an amazing experience for our clients, then we’re going to grow through that as well. There’s just a lot of things that Horizontal Digital is doing right that also made it really exciting to join, and I joined and I’m just trying to continue to build on the momentum.

One of the things that we talk about a lot around here is not only keeping up with the pace of growth – because there is an all-out war for talent right now, especially in the digital space – and creating an amazing employee experience, but also, we have to make sure that as we are growing, we’re building the infrastructure and scale internally to enable that growth.

ROB: One of those key things you mentioned very close to your heart and your passion – it seems like it’s really hard to create a substitute for having women in very visible and top-level senior roles. That has to echo down through the organization. It has to be authentic. You can’t do it in this demonstrative way. How have you thought about it? You’ve obviously had to structure for growth and refactor the organization probably a few times in the pandemic time. How have you thought about the thoughtful, intentional establishing of women in leadership as well over that time? How do you do it well?

JULIE: That’s a good question. I think the important thing is to meet people where they are. And I am all for advancing women, not at the expense of men or anybody else. I believe that all boats rise with the tide. But I think understanding where people are in their careers and their lives is super important, and then meeting people where they are.

There is no delineation – in my life, anyway, even prior to the pandemic, there was no delineation really between work and life because when you’re passionate about everything that you do, it all kind of melds together and you’ve got to try to figure out ways to make all of it work. I think the pandemic has exacerbated that, and I think it’s been really hard. This is not me; this is clearly very much out there, but it’s particularly difficult for women, and moms in particular, which I am as well.

So understanding that and making room for conversations around that and – this sounds so simple – asking people how they’re doing. Talking to people about their personal lives. Making sure that you are bringing empathy and listening in all those conversations. It seems like things that sound so easy, but they’re also the things that are really easy to forget about in the pace of everyday stuff.

And particularly, again, if you’re not just seeing people in the hall in passing, you get on a call with somebody, you’ve got a half-hour, you’ve got a list of things you’ve got to cover off on, and you want to dig right into that list – when what you really need to be doing is making sure that you’re taking time to check in with people on the human side and see how they’re doing. Because everybody’s at a different point in their journey.

ROB: Right. That really is one of those superpower advantages. When people know that you care, when they know that on some level you know the names of the people that are important in life – I will fully confess that I have places where I write this stuff down. There’s a lot of things I don’t write down, but I write down people’s names and what’s important to them because I don’t want to leave – I still care. I care enough to write it down. I care enough to ask about it.

JULIE: Yep.

ROB: It makes a difference in where people work and where they stay working.

JULIE: I agree with that. I think it was Maya Angelou that said people will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

ROB: Yes.

JULIE: I think the fact that you make an effort to remember somebody’s name and something personal about them makes people feel seen. And that stuff is really important and can’t be underestimated.

ROB: As you mentioned, that war for talent is real. It’s really excellent, I think, that in Minneapolis, you’ve been able to sustain and grow as an independent business. I’m sure the owners – how many people do you have on board now? I think LinkedIn said over 200?

JULIE: Yeah, globally it’s nearly 500.

ROB: You don’t get to that level without a few people coming in and offering to write you a nice check. So there is some intentionality in staying that way, and that also feels very authentically Minneapolis. A lot of the Midwest, I think, has lost some of their anchor tenets. It’s a city that seems to have some businesses that they’re proud of, and it seems like you get to be a part of that.

JULIE: Yeah, and I’ve done the other side of it, too. I have done the being part of a holding company. At this point in my career, when I made a decision to come here, it was very purposeful because the owners not only fully own the business, but they’re very involved in the business, and they care very deeply about it. Like I was saying, they’re willing to invest in the future and have vision for where we’re going to keep going. That’s what drives the inspiration, I think, for a lot of the team in terms of the longevity of careers here.

ROB: Wonderful. Julie, this is not even your first time, as you mentioned, running a shop. What are some things you have learned along the journey that you would maybe go back and tell yourself to do a little bit differently if you could reset?

JULIE: I think about that question a lot because I have twin girls, and it’s really important to me that they have opportunities that I didn’t necessarily have. One of the things that I am already talking to them about that I wish I had done more of is just speaking up. Over the course of time I have learned how to ask for things when I need them, and I wish I had started doing that sooner – whether that’s asking for the next role or asking for mentorship, asking for help – not easy to do, really important – admitting if you might feel like you’re in over your head, and having the courage to call out bad behavior when you see it, making sure that you’re listening to your instincts.

All of those things, I feel like I wish I would’ve learned a little bit sooner, and I would encourage people to absolutely do. I’m constantly saying to everybody here, every time I get a chance to address the company, I’m always asking them to please reach out to me. I don’t care what channel it is, whether it’s Slack or you want to text me or email me or call me, whatever it is. But I really want to hear from people because the only way that we’re actually going to make this a truly amazing employee experience is if we understand what’s going on in the minds of our employees. So I think it’s really important to speak up.

ROB: I think that’s super helpful. I think that’s great for your girls. I think at least a lot of us want to work in a workplace where that is the default behavior. There may be some generational baggage there; I don’t think my grandparents wanted that kind of job. But I think about my team, and if someone’s going to say when they’re in over their head, if they’re going to ask for help, if they’re going to ask for where they want to go next and help me participate in their future, it seems like that’s what a lot of us want. And we want more people to want those things so they can get out of the jobs where they can’t have those things.

JULIE: Rob, you may be a lot younger than I am, I don’t know, but I will tell you I was raised “Don’t question authority. You don’t ask questions. You do as you’re told.” So it took me a long time to try to find a balance with that. I think as a society, that is changing, but I think it’s a really important thing to continue to remind people.

ROB: Yeah, and it’s our opportunity to build workplaces that differentiate by being that kind of place. It’s a tremendous opportunity there.

JULIE: Absolutely.

ROB: Julie, as you’re looking forward for the future not only of Horizontal Digital, but also in overall experience for brands and their customers together, what are you excited about, looking into the crystal ball?

JULIE: Broadly, I’m just excited about where technology continues to take us and the opportunity to really, truly create amazing experiences. Not only am I trying to help our clients create amazing customer experiences, but I want to experience that with all of the brands I engage with as well. So I get really excited about the pace technology is moving and how that’s becoming better and better.

As it relates to Horizontal specifically, I’m not even a year in yet, so I’m really excited about the momentum that we continue to have, and again, the way that our founders are willing to invest. But I also hope that in many ways, this year is a building year for me. We set the benchmark on employee experience. We’re hiring some new key talent. We’re continuing to evolve our capabilities. So my hope is that we can continue to take this to the next level in terms of building a vision that the team gets really excited about, continuing to foster and grow the talent, and then building the infrastructure to scale and grow.

Beyond even what we’re doing for our clients, we also want to make sure that we’re doing purpose-driven work that people are getting really excited about as well, so we have an organization called Horizontal Cares where we give back to our communities. I’m excited about all the opportunities that we have to build community with our employees, with our clients, and with the broader community within which we work.

ROB: Horizontal Cares sounds like one of those things that I think any of us would probably wish we had started sooner within a firm. How do you think about allocating resources to that? Is there a rule, is there a budget? And where would you think about starting if you were even quite small?

JULIE: Oh, that’s such a good question. This started prior to me being here, but you get a few people together who want to change the world and anything can happen. To this point, it’s pretty scrappy and entrepreneurial. We do internal fundraising efforts and look to our employees to help us figure out where the need is in our communities.

I will tell you we are looking for how we can take this to the next level in terms of scale, so that is very much on the horizon for us and one of the things that I’m excited to work on.

ROB: One thing I think probably that comes up repeatedly – it happens in every growing firm, and probably especially for you and Horizontal – is thinking about what types of either new capabilities you’re going to say no to versus what you’re going to say yes to, and what opportunities you might have taken on three years ago that don’t fit with the firm anymore. How do you think about the things you say yes to and the things you say no to?

JULIE: Boy, that’s a good question, and it’s an ongoing conversation that we have at the executive level.

ROB: Has to be.

JULIE: Of course, you want to make sure that you are continuing to be relevant to your clients and to your future clients, and at the same time, we also have to be really purposeful and thoughtful about not biting off more than we can chew at any given moment.

When we are making sure that we are hiring as quickly as we can to keep up with the demand that we have – everything’s a balancing act, Rob. It’s a balancing act with where we are adding to our capabilities to make sure that we can not only deliver on the work that we have, but then build the future. So really, it’s an ongoing conversation, but again, that’s one of the things that I get really excited about because the owners here are so well-entrenched in that and willing to place bets where they think it makes sense to place bets.

ROB: It sounds like a wonderful journey to be on, an excellent season to be there, in spite of everything everybody’s been facing over the past little while. We still have some rough waters around us, but it sounds like you’ve been able to help Horizontal to be part of the bright spot in your life, and for some other people as well. Thank you for hopping on and sharing that journey. I do appreciate it.

JULIE: Thank you for having me on. It was really fun talking to you.

ROB: Sounds good, Julie. Be well.

JULIE: Thanks.

ROB: Bye.

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