Melanie Querry, owner of Beyond Spots and Dots (Pittsburgh, PA)
Melanie Querry owns Beyond Spots and Dots, a full-service advertising agency that frames its work around analysis, keeps client budgets on target, and utilizes proven marketing success in one industry to help businesses in other industries grow. Spots and Dots has been on the Inc. 5000 list five times.
In this interview Melanie discusses how her agency helps clients understand the customer journey and how prioritizing and implementing tactics will do exactly what a client wants . . . and meet budget constraints. Melanie claims that, for a roughly equivalent impression count, digital marketing can cost one-third of what traditional marketing costs. Still, all the layers have to work together. “You have to have synergy within your marketing budget,” she says.
Tactic selection and prioritization are critical, customized to meet a client’s needs, and are based on a mix of Beyond Spots and Dots’ experience, knowledge, and research.
As an example, Melanie talks about geofencing, creating a technological fence to target programmed advertising to a specific audience. Another tactic she presents is secondary search retargeting, which uses proprietary software/connections to capture someone searching for information on a third-party website and then follows that individual with ads on the internet.
Melanie informs us that “there are three satellites above us collecting every bit of data that we are doing on our cellphone, our laptops, our TVs, our computers, our desktops.” Legally, large companies (Oracle, BlueKai) can disperse that collected information. Beyond Spots and Dots is one of only a few companies allowed to utilize the information . . . which they can pass on to their clients so that their clients can target these potential customers.
Melanie wanted to be in advertising from an early age. After she earned her advertising degree, she took a job selling advertising at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, then another with a cable station to learn “the cable side.” Melanie says these organizations “didn’t know about their clients, didn’t know about their customers,” and only focused on rating points and the number of “spots” they got. She left the cable station almost on a whim (just because it was “time”), started her agency as a media buying firm that would be “Beyond the Spots and Dots” focus of her previous employers, and took on a Pittsburgh mega car dealer as a client “for the cash flow.”
Melanie convinced the dealer to fund a digital campaign at a time when even car manufacturers were not “doing digital.” The car dealer’s business grew so significantly that it eventually hired ten people for an internal digital department. Melanie jokes that. while the dealership provided sorely needed cash flow in those early years, she was not able to “use them for profits.”
Today, Beyond Spots and Dots provides advertising, public relations, marketing, branding, and digital services. Once things are “back to normal,” Melanie looks forward to reopening the agency’s physical locations in Pittsburgh and Columbus, OH – she prefers working with clients face-to-face “120% over what we’re doing currently.” Interestingly, even with clients “everywhere,” the agency does not charge clients for its travel expenses – Melanie considers travel as a way to reinvest in her company.
Melanie can be reached on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook and on her agency’s website at Beyondspotsanddots.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m excited to be joined today by Melanie Querry, owner of Beyond Spots and Dots based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the podcast, Melanie.
MELANIE: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I certainly appreciate it.
ROB: It’s a pleasure to have you here. Tell us about Beyond Spots and Dots. Where does your firm excel?
MELANIE: We really excel in helping businesses grow. We understand what it takes to grow. We’ve been on the Inc. 5000 list five times, which we’re very proud of, and hope to continue to be there again in the future. We are able to take our experiences and really utilize the marketing efforts and successes that we have had with various industries and apply those to other industries.
Our real growth has been in the digital world. We started as a media buying firm, so I kind of laugh and say that we do media buying with our eyes closed. However, the digital media buying is new and evolving, and we’ve been doing it for 15 years that we’ve been in business – which is great. Not many agencies can say that.
So, we really excel at implementing those tactics for businesses, but helping businesses understand where their budgeting should be. I think what makes us different is that we really stay in line with budgets for clients and on behalf of clients and rein them in when they get out of line with budgets or things that they want to implement. Something that makes us very different is while we have super killer creative and award-winning creative, we really take an analytical approach to everything we do, including creative. That’s pretty different from most agencies. Most agencies want to just be creative shops or digital firms, and we really do take a full-service approach.
ROB: Got it. Congratulations on the 15 years, on the Inc. 5000 list. Those are all things – it doesn’t pay the bills, but it is a recognition of that ongoing growth that you also seek for your clients.
You mentioned being able to transfer tactics and strategies from some industries that we might think of perhaps to some industries we might not think of having such successful digital and media tactics. Is that the case? Are there some unexpected industries you’ve found yourself in the middle of?
MELANIE: Yes. We really don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. We started in 2006, and in 2008 had the economy fall out beneath us. Nothing like COVID, but certainly at the time, and through those years, we learned a lot and a great deal. What we did learn is not to put all of our eggs in one basket. We pride ourselves on working in various industries.
Business is business, and while industries do have niche audiences or niche ways of advertising or marketing, there are still businesses that are being run through operations that really follow through all types of business. We have been able to successfully help businesses grow in various industries, but some of the industries that have been unique that we didn’t seek out, if you will, have been property management, for example. That was one where we didn’t seek it out. They sought us out. But we were able to be very successful with one property management company, and it filtered through to many others because of the tactics we implemented at a low cost and we were able to help them grow.
ROB: In that case, were they seeking more properties to manage? Were they seeking tenants, renters? Not to focus in too deeply, but as a means of exploring what you do.
MELANIE: Sure. Their goal is to seek out renters. They have several properties around the country, and near one of our offices – we have an office in Columbus and also Baltimore. In the Columbus market, they wanted to sell out a particular building, which was very specific, and they did it so quickly when they started working with us that they actually shut their advertising off early, but then diverted their dollars to a completely different market. That was really interesting and fun. It’s fun for us.
ROB: And probably meaningful for them. Behind the scenes, not always, but a lot of times in the real estate world, having something fully leased or above a certain percentage is a meaningful financial milestone. It lets you collateralize or sell the property. It’s a big deal beyond just filling the space.
But then on the “who you’re targeting side,” finding a place, whether it’s an office or a residence, is a customer journey. What does that journey look like, and how do you tackle people along that journey?
MELANIE: That’s a great question. You’re speaking my language, Rob. [laughs] We do take that customer journey fully into consideration when we are making a recommendation for any type of creative assets or messaging and also the placement of the ads themselves, and whether it’s a recommendation to do PR versus traditional marketing or advertising versus some kind of new media.
In targeting, it’s really fun to look at the customer journey because you have these five steps, if you will, from the point of time when someone is not even familiar with your service or product all the way to the point of no return where they have to make a decision and their decision is either “let’s do it / buy it,” whatever it is you’re asking them to do, or “let’s not.” That customer journey has steps throughout in between those two aspects or behaviors, and there are advertising tactics that make sense for certain parts of that journey.
In the very beginning, when you’re trying to just make someone aware of your product, your book, your property that you have available or whatever it might be that you’re selling, there are tactics that work better for that part of the customer journey versus the middle of the journey where they’re now aware, they might be talking to their friends about you, they’re doing their research, which is part of that journey – and then they’re trying to figure out what makes sense for them and what’s best for them, and whether or not they’re going to buy.
We utilize that customer journey for everything that we do, and we’re always presenting that to businesses to understand the different parts of the journey. A lot of people will come to us and say, “We just want an awareness campaign,” and I ask them, “Why?” That is valid and relevant, and sometimes an awareness campaign is all they want or all they think they can afford, so we help them to understand that journey so that they understand the different tactics within.
ROB: Right. It would seem deeper in the funnel, there’s some tactics you can’t afford to not do. I can imagine – and I’m just making things up here, because I don’t run, let’s say, an apartment complex – but if someone comes and they book a tour, they’re so deep into that funnel, two things seem true to me. Number one, it seems like a lot of businesses – and I’ll broaden this beyond real estate – would find it hard to operationalize the information of who has booked a tour in a timely manner. But it also seems like one of the best ways you could possibly spend your money is, let’s say, remarketing to an email list of people who have visited you in the past X months.
How do they operationalize that successfully? Or am I way off, number one? Number two, if I’m in the neighborhood, how do you help people meet some of those time-sensitive communications that would need to happen to execute on that sort of thing?
MELANIE: We try to implement new media because of the technology behind it. Depending on a business’s budget, our job is to help them understand those tactics that they can implement to do exactly what you’re asking within the budget. Based on our experience and based on our knowledge and based on research, we will help that business to prioritize those tactics.
For example, a tactic might be geofencing, which is one of the new ways of advertising through programmatic advertising. We can literally draw a fence, if you will – it’s technology for sure, but you are drawing a fence around something. We’ve drawn fences on roads before, trying to reach people driving into a college when a competitive college wants to reach those potential students. We have drawn fences around convention centers, trying to target tradeshows for particular audiences. So, the geofencing is really cool. That’s one tactic that we can utilize to grab people now.
With COVID, obviously things have changed with geofencing because people aren’t out and about and aren’t going to these big events or aren’t going to big tradeshows. That will start again, but there are other tactics. There’s another tactic that we can utilize called secondary search retargeting, and that’s one of the newest and latest and greatest, and a lot of fun to work with.
We had a company that was very niche; they were implementing services to small to medium size businesses for Mac users specifically, but for companies frankly like ours, where we have mostly PC-based computers, and we have a few Macs because we have designers, and they need their Macs. This company would target businesses that were utilizing both PC and Mac, and they were specialists in the Mac realm.
When you buy a Mac at the Apple Store, you can go online to search for companies like this to help us network the Macs with the PCs. A lot of companies are getting into this because people do like their Macs and they’re very loyal to their Macs. This particular company was able to utilize secondary search retargeting by targeting third party searches. This is outside of the Google world and outside of just your search bar in Google.
We’ve also been able to utilize on the spot, like you’re asking, secondary search retargeting for students. College students are searching online for lots of things, for different programs, for different schools. they’re searching in all of these third parties out there, and we’re able to actually tap into those searches. It’s really wild.
ROB: What does that mean? Explore the tactic with me a little bit. Does that mean you’re on something like US News, World Report, looking at college rankings, and you’re searching for something and somehow that’s able to feed back into search targeting? Where does this information come from?
MELANIE: That’s right. To give another example, probably an easier one to visualize is real estate. We have worked in the real estate realm and been very successful with that industry as well. A secondary search tactic that’s really cool allows us to target – let’s say you’re buying a home and I’m a real estate company, and I want your business because you’re buying a home and I’ve got homes to sell. But you are really hard to catch unless I can catch you through geotargeting by visiting other open houses. Right now, during COVID, we know that’s not happening so much around the country. There are open houses, but they’re few and far between. So. a different technology you can use is this secondary search retargeting.
You might be searching on Realtor.com, and if you’re searching for a home value or the home sale price, then I can capture you doing that search on that third party website. And when I capture you doing that through my technology, I can physically follow you with ads through the internet, which is the retargeting part.
The way that that’s done, to answer your question, is there are three satellites above us collecting every bit of data that we are doing on our cellphone, our laptops, our TVs, our computers, our desktops. All of our actions are being collected through this data, and huge companies such as BlueKai and Oracle now legally are allowed to spit that information back out. Companies like ours – and there are only a few companies like ours around the country that are allowed to utilize this information – we’re able to use that data of that behavior from someone like you and give it to our real estate company and target those people. It is wild. It’s pretty cool.
ROB: That’s remarkable. There’s great power and there’s great responsibility. I feel like I need to go close my blinds or something.
MELANIE: Yes. [laughs]
ROB: It’s really just what I type into the computer that’s probably the problem here. Take me back a little bit, Melanie. Tell us about where Beyond Spots and Dots came into existence. What led you to start running your own business that was not by any means guaranteed to be a multi-time Inc. 5000 company and so on?
MELANIE: As a young child, I always wanted to have an advertising agency. And I don’t know that I even knew what an advertising agency was at the time or what an agency really did, but I followed that. I probably at the time thought of more of the creative side, which is what most people think of when you think of an advertising agency. I really followed that through school. I got a degree in advertising. Back then, there were only three colleges across the country that actually offered a degree in advertising doing creative and media buying. Not many colleges and universities offered that then, but they do now, which is great.
Once I graduated, of course, at that time I learned that TV was the most complicated of all media, and when doing media buying, TV was the most complex. So, I really wanted to learn about the inner workings of TV. I graduated from college, I moved to Pittsburgh – being a Penn Stater, I got to know Pittsburgh when I was very young – and started at KDKA-TV, which was the first TV station ever. That was really powerful to me.
I worked like a dog as an entry level person. At the time, they also didn’t allow entry level employees, so I really had to show them what I was made of to be able to even keep my job. I barely made a salary at the time. I think I made more in college waiting tables than I did at my first job at KDKA-TV. [laughs] I was going to power through it.
After KDKA, I went to the cable side because I wanted to know and understand both sides of TV, broadcast and cable. One day I decided, okay, there’s never a real good time, so it’s as good as any. I put in my four weeks’ notice and I just quit. I resigned cold turkey. I didn’t take clients. I didn’t do anything like that. I just stopped one day and resigned, and the next day I said, okay, I’ve got to figure out how to start a business.
I started making phone calls to the state on how to register a business, and “What the heck is my name going to be?” When I worked in these big mammoth companies, Comcast and CBS Network, I worked with big agencies, global agencies, and they didn’t know anything about their clients. They just didn’t know about their customers. All the media buyers cared about were rating points and “How many spots am I getting?”
The name actually came pretty easy to me. Beyond Spots and Dots became the name because I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted to go beyond the number of spots someone’s getting and the rating points they’re getting. And the name stuck. The first day of the business, I went out to celebrate and I met who would become my husband, which was awesome.
ROB: Wow. Good day.
MELANIE: Yeah. He was a finance major and he helped me with the books, and as I got revenue in, I needed someone to help me with that side of it, the business side. He ended up coming on board, we got married, and now we’re a full-service firm. At the time, he was already developing websites and doing Google ads. So, Day 1, we picked up website development and Google advertising, which was really great.
ROB: What did those first few customers look like? Who did you start working with initially?
MELANIE: I made phone calls, of course, Day 1, and said, “I now have an advertising agency. I would love an opportunity to work with you and to handle your advertising.” I was willing to do what it took to get business as far as services that I wasn’t familiar with. I was willing to learn new services.
One was a mega car dealer in Pittsburgh. I had talked to them about some Google advertising, and at the time, manufacturers weren’t doing that. So, I implemented a digital campaign for them 15 years ago. In order to get their business, which was big, I needed the cash flow. They needed someone that knew digital, and it was a win-win – except that from a cash flow standpoint, I was able to use them as cash flow; I just wasn’t able to use them for profits. [laughs]
I felt that it was a necessary evil. I loved working with the general manager there, and I knew that I could help their business grow, and we did. We were able to take their business to a digital standpoint that, at the time, neither manufacturers nor car dealers were able to do. They were able to hire 10 internal people as a digital department, which was unheard of at the time. This was during the time right before the fallout in 2008, so yeah, pretty cool and definitely a good story and something that I look back on, for sure.
ROB: Right. What did the budget of a car dealership like that look like at the time for traditional media? Has their overall ad budget changed much, or has it just shifted a percentage to digital?
MELANIE: Certainly, the traditional media spend was big. It was bigger. That’s the beauty about digital; you don’t actually have to spend as much in digital. You just don’t, and you can reach – the impression count is similar by spending a third of the amount. Traditional media is more expensive on a cost per spot basis or a cost per impression basis. Our job is to help the client understand all of that and what that means and how they should be spending their money.
So there always was a bigger spend for them specifically in traditional, and at the time, of course, the digital was just really hitting. I mean, 14-15 years ago, digital wasn’t that big. You didn’t have to have it. You dabbled in it and you knew it was coming and you knew it was out there. So, we helped them to utilize some of this new media at the time.
ROB: What was someone like that spending on traditional per month? Was it $10,000, $50,000, $100,000? What’s the ballpark? Or am I even low? I don’t know.
MELANIE: This particular dealer had multiple manufacturers, multiple brands, and each manufacturer would offer them incentives, and they had budgets that they had to spend by manufacturer. So, it would vary. In general, a dealer like that could spend anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a month. It truly varies. It varies throughout the year, it varies by the incentives the dealer is receiving, and it varies by the number of cars they have on the lot. There’re so many variables when it comes to spending for something like that.
ROB: It’s helpful even just to know a general direction. I’ve certainly seen an increased appetite for digital, and I’ve seen even new real estate developments looking for very sophisticated website buildouts and that sort of thing. It starts to make sense when you put it in the context of the traditional ad budgets. If they’ve started to turn the corner on digital, you can start to understand that increased degree of investment in some of the places – a website used to be an afterthought. You might not even have one for a development, and now it seems to be a hub of activity.
MELANIE: Sure. A website is a walking salesperson. I don’t care what you’re selling or what you’re offering, any industry should have a decent website because that’s where people go. And even social media. We find, in our experience – and I’m kind of floored by it, but it is what it is – people will go to social media. They’ll go to a business Facebook page before they ever even get to the website. Which is also very interesting in my mind.
To your point, the layering of dollars so that you can layer your tactics – your marketing tactics, your advertising tactics – the layering is what’s really critical. When you have a budget – and we’ve worked with very small budgets and have put people on TV before, even with a smaller budget. It’s all about the layering and where you’re going to run and what the messaging is, and it all works together. It really has to be cohesive. I feel like the word “synergy” is so cliché, but it’s true. You have to have synergy within your own marketing budget.
ROB: Really interesting threads to pull on there, Melanie. When you look back at the history of Beyond Spots and Dots, what are some things you have learned along the way that you might do differently if you were starting anew?
MELANIE: I wish I would’ve started sooner. [laughs] I had this in the back of my mind. I’m very fortunate to have started when I did. Today’s my birthday, actually.
ROB: Happy birthday.
MELANIE: I’m turning 45, and I’m blessed to have what I have and to have been able to work this hard thus far. I have a child now. We have a little kiddo. But prior to that, working your tail off – I wish I started sooner. I wish I’d started earlier because having the energy and not having a family at that time and being able to work the 80 hours I used to work before kids – it’s hard to do that. As you get older, it’s tiring. So, I would recommend just doing it. You only live once. I think that’s one thing.
For the future, growth. Growth is important. We plan to get back where we were. We were on a roll. We have good planning. We’ve got the tools internally to be able to expand and scale at this point. So, we do plan to open other offices. We have an office in Baltimore and Columbus right now, and Pittsburgh, obviously; that’s our headquarters. But we do want to keep growing. We want to continue to help mentor others and also continue to grow and help businesses grow.
ROB: How do you think about that office planting strategy? Is it rooted in some of your clientele having a local base and being able to be in person with someone? Do you spin up a small lease, or are you in WeWork land? How do you think about the planting strategy?
MELANIE: Part of it is a real estate strategy with respect to investing, and that’s a whole other conversation. As we diversify our own portfolio, if you will, personally speaking – and from a business standpoint – real estate is important to us.
Long term, I don’t plan to purchase real estate all over for office buildings. I do have to tell you, you kind of hit the nail on the head with respect to having an office and then working with a local client. We’ve lost business, presentations we’ve made, because businesses want an agency that’s right in their backyard.
When COVID hit, I thought to myself, does this change the way businesses believe they can do business? For example, we own our building currently in Pittsburgh, and we have an empty building right now because we have our whole staff working from home. We will keep them working from home as long as we feel that we need to, to keep everybody safe. Hopefully, that ends soon, but the reality of it is, we are doing business and conducting business all over the world from home. There are a lot of securities that go behind that, and we’re dealing with a lot of data and customers’ data and customers’ information. The security has changed, of course.
But does it change the way businesses think in the fact that we could do business – I don’t have to be right in Columbus to do business for you or to handle your native or your advertising. It’s an interesting open question that I ask myself as well.
ROB: I understand that. I think there will always be a certain scope and scale of client that you’re going to want to go see in person. When everything’s normal, there’s just a certain size of client that you’re going to win more or not lose if you’re giving them some attention in person.
ROB: I’m a firm believer in that. I agree, it’s a whole other topic that I think we’ll probably pass exploring on this podcast. Most people don’t want to talk a lot about profits, but profits are important. I come originally from a software background and now also have some services work that we do, but within a services firm, there’s only so much reinvestment back into the business that makes sense. It’s not like a software company where you’re infinitely scaling and pulling additional capital. So, figuring out what to do with profitability is its own interesting topic, I think.
MELANIE: Yeah. And to answer that, for us at least, I agree with you fully. We prefer to be in person. That is why we opened offices in Baltimore and Columbus specifically, because they are nearby; it’s quick and easy for us to travel there. I do have family in Baltimore, so selfishly, I’m thrilled to have an office there. [laughs] It’s an excuse, anyway.
Doing business in person is way better, I believe. I prefer it 120% over what we’re doing currently. And we do reinvest our profits into travel. We don’t charge our clients for travel. Our hourly fee has been the same for 15 years. We know what it takes timewise to do business. Now that we’ve been in business 15 years, we’re more efficient at what we do, so it doesn’t take us as long to do things. So, I don’t feel that I have to gouge clients. It’s just not necessary. Those profits we do roll back into travel, and we travel to our clients as much as we humanly possibly can.
I think the same goes for getting work done in person. There’s something to be said for our staff to be able to walk upstairs and go talk to the designer real quick or go downstairs and pull our copywriter in and say, “Hey, what do you think about this tagline?” There’s some camaraderie there, and that’s missing during all of this COVID. But that’s reality, and we divert, and we will – I’m positive; it’s a new year, and we will get back to where we were. We definitely will. I think the world will as well.
But as a business owner right now, you just have to go with the flow and figure out your plan and keep at it and stay positive as much as you can and be able to stay on top of it.
ROB: That’s excellent. I really do like that thought of travel as a means of reinvesting in the business. I think that’s a solid way to think about that, investing in relationships there. Melanie, when people want to find you and when they want to find Beyond Spots and Dots, where should they go to connect with you?
MELANIE: Sure. I’m a believer of connecting. I certainly have a LinkedIn page, and I appreciate when people do connect. I love to mentor, so I love when young people reach out. I probably volunteer a little too much for mentoring, but I’ll take it. I’ll do it all day long if it helps someone young who’s trying to get into the business and break through. As long as they’re a hard worker, they’re going to be successful.
Beyondspotsanddots.com is our website. You can also google us and find us. Lots of places. We have a Twitter account, Facebook page, and all the good things.
ROB: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Melanie. It’s been excellent connecting with you and learning for you, so thank you for coming on and sharing.
MELANIE: Thank you so much. I certainly appreciate it.
ROB: Be well. Bye.
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