Real Talk: Advice for Living Your Best #AgencyLife

Cactus with Googly Eyes Reading a Book

I have spent my entire career working at agencies. I knew nothing when I started, and I still don’t know much. However, I have learned several important lessons along the way. I wrote this post to pass along some of those lessons and inform young marketers who are currently working at an agency or thinking about going to work at an agency. These are some hard-learned nuggets of wisdom that I picked up along the way during my journey in the agency world. Let my L’s be your W’s.

Table of Contents

  1. Your manager is critical to your success. Find a great one.
  2. No matter what anyone tells you, *YOU* are responsible for your training.
  3. Be the dumbest person in the room.
  4. Create a plan for your career before someone else does.
  5. You will hear lies. Hopefully you won’t tell them.
  6. Build relationships and results. You’ll need them.
  7. You will get overwhelmed and stressed out.
  8. Don’t eat the free food and snacks.
  9. Find a trusted colleague who will tell you the hard truths about you.
  10. Not all work looks the same.
  11. Your salaries, raises, and promotions probably won’t be directly based on revenue growth and financial performance, but they should be.

#1 – Your manager is critical to your success. Find a great one.

During my career in digital marketing, I have interviewed hundreds of people. For a little background, the majority of those interviews were in a relaxed setting with several of my colleagues and the candidate.

Interviews are enlightening, primarily because of the opportunity to meet people from extremely diverse backgrounds with an even wider range of skillsets and experience. Interviews are also a fantastic opportunity for applicants to ask questions about the company, the team, and the manager for whom they would potentially work.

Prison Mike (The Office)
“I never got caught neither.” – Prison Mike

In all the time I have spent talking with applicants, not one has ever asked about their potential manager. Interviewees ask mainly about the company, the work and responsibilities of the desired role, and the team they would potentially work on. Yes, these questions are important, but they do not address perhaps the most important factor of any agency job.

If you are interviewing with or working at an agency, please understand that nothing has more of an impact on your career goals than your immediate manager. This is a person you will work with every day. It would behoove you to ask about them.

I have had some truly exceptional managers in my career. I earned their trust, and they became my champion. Your manager needs to be your champion – a person who will hold you accountable as well as go to battle for you when necessary.

Here are some questions to consider asking:

  • Who would I report to?
  • What are their roles and responsibilities in the agency?
  • How long have they been at the agency?
  • How many people do they manage?
  • Which marketing channel(s) do they specialize in?
  • Which accounts do they work on?
  • Tell me about a few of the recent projects they have managed in the last year.
  • Are they known for adequately training their direct reports?
  • How many people on their team have been promoted in the last year?
  • How many people on their team have left the company in the last year?
  • Tell me about a specific internal project they were responsible for in the last year.
  • Is my manager critical to the agency’s success?
  • Can I meet my potential manager during the interview process?

These are just suggestions. You don’t have to ask all of them, and please do not launch an all out barrage of fifty back-to-back questions. That would not be good.

Don’t be surprised if these questions catch the interviewer off guard. It is very likely that your interviewer will have never heard these questions from an applicant. They might not be able to answer them on the spot. It’s okay if they don’t have immediate answers, but don’t let them off the hook. Instead, let them get back to you via email or phone. Let them know that your potential manager is one of the most important aspects of your decision-making process.

You are there to sell your skills and experience and how you can strengthen their agency. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to essentially sell the agency to you and how working at their agency can strengthen you. In my opinion, the number one selling point isn’t the perks. It’s not the way the initial visit makes you feel. Perks are meaningless. Feelings can be biased and/or manipulated. The biggest selling point should be who you report to, who will help you grow, and who will be your champion within the agency.

One of your interview goals should be to find out about your manager. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. Just ask a few questions.

My hope is that you find a job where you report to an honest, direct communicator, someone who is an experienced leader with a track record of growing great teams, managing talented people, and promoting based on measurable success.

Side Note: No manager is perfect. You are not going to find a unicorn. Hopefully these tips help you find a great manager. By the way, when you become a manager, be even better than the one you had.

#2 – No matter what anyone tells you, *YOU* are responsible for your training.

You are responsible for your training. Let that sink in. Read it again if necessary.

This might be a polarizing take, but this statement has proven to be true time and time again, both for me and for most of the people I have worked with.

Digital marketing requires a level of curiosity, inquiry, and go-get-itness that most people simply don’t have. You will hear new hires complain that no one is training them. You will *literally* see people sitting at their desk with nothing to do – AND THEY WILL SIT THERE DOING NOTHING FOREVER (or until someone important notices).

First, don’t expect anyone to train you. Expect to be relentlessly training yourself. Second, for most people, the agency world is sink or swim. It’s a harsh reality, but my experience is that people will only want to help people who are trying to help themselves. In one sense, you have to prove that you deserve their training. Prove to them you are worth their time and effort. Even then, they will only have time to teach you so much. They can only lead you so far. No one has time to hold your hand through everything, so you will need to be resourceful.

The solution is to find a way to learn. Make someone teach you. Be the squeaky wheel. Find someone who knows more than you do and put a training session on their calendar. Do whatever it takes. Find a way to learn. Find a way to teach yourself. Find what works for you, and then challenge yourself to learn more. One month, I challenged myself to learn a new Excel formula every day. I failed that challenge, but I ended up learning ~10 new things. Maybe I won after all. 🤔

Pro Tip: Nothing is as effective as working on real accounts and campaigns. I learn a lot from blog posts and forums (not so much from videos), but the only way to truly learn digital marketing is to actually do it. Dive in!

#3 – Be the dumbest person in the room.

I love learning from people who are more experienced than me. Because of that, I love being the dumbest person in the room. It essentially means that I have found my way onto a team or a project that is being run by smart, experienced people who can directly or indirectly teach me something. Furthermore, being included in different projects and teams means you will inevitably meet new people and hear new perspectives. That is always a good thing.

If you are always the most experienced and/or most skilled person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Find your way into meetings where you are not the smartest, where you are not the most experienced, where no one cares what you have to say. If you are used to being the expert in the room, being a nobody can feel strange. It’s humbling and rewarding at the same time.

Find opportunities to be on projects where you have zero confidence and even less ability. These types of projects are your opportunities to learn new skills. This has worked for me many times over the years. Nowadays, most of my time is spent learning new things, so in a way I have taken this advice to the extreme.

Side Note: This is also an effective tactic for training yourself. 😉

#4 – Create a plan for your career before someone else does.

I started working at an agency when I was 26-years-old. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. At 26, I also had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. I had quit my job as a teacher and found a job as a digital marketer. I was sitting at a desk where I was paid by the hour, and I had no idea what I wanted long-term. A few years later all of that changed when I created a vision for my career.

What I discovered about myself is that I preferred to work with brands and clients who moved quickly in the digital realm. Furthermore, I wanted to be in a role where I could actively be part of the implementation of the strategies I helped create. It’s funny to look back and realize how fast things moved once I figured out what I wanted.

Up to that point, if anyone had asked me for a career plan, I’m sure I did my best to fill it out just so it got done. I’m sure I put some thought into it, but I certainly didn’t know what I wanted to be doing in 5 years, much less 1 year. I was not certain about this, but I felt that not having a career plan was common among my similarly-aged peers in the industry.

As it turned out, five years after I left my first agency job, I was now managing a team of seven (eight including myself). When HR began to talk about career plans, I got super nervous because I had never written a career plan that had been approved by anyone in the company I was working for. Additionally, I had never attended any formal training on how to help others create career plans of their own. (Tangent: I often wonder if anyone in the agency world has ever had any formal training on helping their direct reports create short and long-term career plans. If so, I can’t imagine that it’s a large percentage.)

With absolutely zero training, I spent some time researching how to help other people find a vision for their careers. Based on my research and my personal feelings on the topic, I made it my mission to help my team members identify their strengths and pursue a trajectory of roles that would continue to build their skillsets, so that they would continue to be an asset to the company and so they would also find fulfillment in their work, which primarily consisted of delivering results for clients and contributing to the agency. I have no idea if I did a good job or not, but hopefully my team members know that I made my best attempts and truly cared about them.

If you’re still with me, I hope you can appreciate the level of stress that can come from being responsible for someone else’s career. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s a complex responsibility with long-term ramifications, both in someone’s personal life and professional life.

With all of that said, let’s talk about what it’s like in the agency world if you don’t have a plan or a vision for your career. Most importantly, you need to know that not having a plan for yourself causes some weird sh*t to happen. I don’t know how to explain it, but I have seen it many, many times. It’s some psychological reaction that I’m sure has a name. Ultimately, if you lack a vision for yourself, other people will assume the authority and begin to create one for you.

You don’t want to be in a role where someone else – who likely has no idea about your goals and dreams – is unilaterally creating a plan for something as important as your career. It is absolutely maddening when someone else tells you what you like, what you don’t like, what they think you should do, what they think you should not do, etc… #yuck 🤮

If you have a specific plan for your career, awesome. Live your best life already. On the other hand, if a vision for your career has yet materialized, my advice is to find someone in your company (hopefully it’s your direct manager), and work together to create the best plan for your career that you can articulate at this point in time. Even if the career plan turns out to be only partly inline with your dreams and goals, it will at least push you closer to finding your true north.

Side Note: Planning your career is not a simple task, so do your best to go easy on yourself and your manager during this process.

#5 – You will hear lies. Hopefully you won’t tell them.

Disclaimer: It is not my intention to accuse or indict all marketing agencies. My intention is to prepare new marketers for what they might experience while working for an agency, typically during sales pitches.

When you work at an agency, at some point you will be approached by a vendor who wants to sell you a platform, a toolset, a software, etc… Vendors will bring their best and brightest people who are trained in their products and also in selling their products.

A lie with a purpose is one of the worst kind, and the most profitable. – Josh Billings, American humorist

In many pitches, I have heard vendors make false claims about their respective product’s abilities. They are generally subtle about it, it’s often a game of semantics. They might fudge a number here or a launch date there, so keep your ears peeled.

During a pitch, you might hear one of your colleagues challenge a vendor’s claims, and then the vendor might backtrack and say something like “Oh, I didn’t mean that we have that feature now, but it is a feature that is expected to be released next quarter.” When I hear a vendor walk back a claim like that, I immediately get suspicious of their entire product suite.

Sadly, on one occasion a vendor directly lied to me. After the contract was signed, I found out one of the key features of their tool — the one I specifically told them that I needed which they said was already in production — would not be available for several months. 🤬

Over the years, I became accustomed to the art of lowkey bending the truth. If you sit in enough vendor pitches, you will begin to notice when it happens, too. For the record, not every vendor is like that, but listening to vendor pitches certainly taught me to keep my ears active during a pitch. (BTW sitting in on vendor pitches is a great way to learn about how other people pitch.)

Now let’s switch gears and talk about agency pitches. I might get some flack for this one. Oh well. Let’s talk about it.

The White Lies Agencies Tell Clients
From: The White Lies Agencies Tell Clients (DIGIDAY)

Selling marketing is very different than doing marketing. It’s extremely competitive out there, and because of that, I believe that every agency will do anything and everything to win a pitch. Because of this, you might will hear people in your agency bend the truth. 90% of this is answering in the affirmative when the client asks if you can do something or solve one of their problems. “Can you solve world hunger?” Of course we can.

The other 10% consists of comments that aim to make the agency seem bigger, more reputable, and more established. For example, a team of 4 becomes a team of 8-10. A company of 30 people becomes a company of 40-50 people. One employee in an apartment in Portland becomes ‘our Portland office’. “We have this awesome tool that has been live for months (maybe 1 month) and recently produced eye-popping results for AcmeWidgets.com.” And on and on and on…

When I think of why people might bend the truth in sales pitches, some popular sayings come to mind: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there” and “It’s survival of the fittest!” In some ways, those fit the occasion. However, those sayings imply an alarming level of desperation. I believe I can offer a good theory as to why the truth gets bent in sales pitches. Let’s see if I can explain it.

If there was a video of me and my colleagues in sales pitches, it would look like a table of bobbleheads, where everyone on the agency side is nodding “Yes” to every question asked by the potential client.

I believe this nodding phenomenon occurs because if, during the pitch, you say yes to a million questions but no to one question, the prospective client will remember the no. That is what it feels like when you are in the room. Although based on conversations I have had with in-house marketing decision makers, the feedback I have received is that 99% of the time their decision comes down to cost. I have been told that most agencies are the same, so the cost is the driving factor of who wins the pitch in most cases.

In my experience, agency marketers say yes because what the client is asking is possible. Their challenge is something that the agency can solve. It’s actually doable — even if the agency has never done it before.

Even if I have no idea where I’m going or how to get there, I prefer to say yes, instead of no. Opportunity favours the bold – this is a lesson that I learned early on, and have used to guide the Virgin story. If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later! – Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group (source)

If you happen to witness this nodding phenomenon or even the bending of the truth during a sales pitch, be assured that it is most likely happening because your agency leadership sees a problem they can solve for the client. The tool or feature may not exist right now, but it is possible. These moments are actually opportunities to do something new and meaningful for the potential client. The intention is usually a good one.

If you witness an outright lie where there is no actual intention of solving anything for anyone and the only reason for the lie is to get business, you can almost count on that relationship going south if the client signs with your agency. Relationships built on lies don’t go well. I’m sure it happens, but it hasn’t been my experience.

Side Note: I am in no way defending or condoning deception of any kind. I just want you to be prepared for the things you might see in the marketing world. Hopefully, if you do witness these things, you have a better understanding of why it’s happening.

#6 – Build relationships and results. You’ll need them.

Relationships and results are the most important part of your career. If you work at an agency, everything you do should be based around relationships and results.

Build and maintain relationships with your team members and your manager. Do the same with some of the people who you don’t directly work with. If possible, build a relationship with upper management and the leaders of the company.

Build relationships with your clients. Email them. Call them. Send them notes to let them know you are working on their project. Send them quick updates with some positive trends you are seeing. Send a quick status update to let them know you completed a simple task for them. Send them industry articles about topics that are relevant to the project you’re working on for them. Clients love the communication, so communicate with them often.

When it comes to results, you only have one option: produce results. If you can’t produce the results for which you have been hired, you’re gonna have a bad time.

The reason I put relationships and results as the top priority is because they will absolutely be needed when things are not going well. When results are lagging, you will lean on your relationships. If you’ve built a good relationship with your client, it will make those tough times a little easier. When relationships are bad, hopefully you can lean on your results. If you don’t have a good relationship with your client and the results are bad, well, you can probably predict how that movie will end.

#7 – You will get overwhelmed and stressed out.

Working at an agency comes with many responsibilities. Here is an abridged list:

  • Train yourself.
  • Train your team members.
  • Plan your career.
  • Help plan your team members’ careers.
  • Develop strategies for clients.
  • Create project plans for clients.
  • Manage projects for clients.
  • Attend internal meetings.
  • Manage internal projects.
  • Lead client calls.
  • Sit in on client calls.
  • Produce results for your clients.
  • REPORTING! (FYI it never ends.)
  • Drive and maintain client relationships.
  • Travel to see your clients.
  • Continuously remind your clients why they hired you.
  • Write RFPs.
  • Build pitch decks.
  • Be part of pitches to get more clients.
  • Build your network of industry friends and colleagues.
  • (Placeholder for all the ones I forgot to list)
  • Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The responsibilities of working at an agency are many. It’s a lot to ask of someone, and some days you will wonder how you can get it all done. You’ll work some nights. You’ll work some weekends. Some weeks you’ll work 40 hours. Some weeks you’ll work 60-80 hours. It comes in waves, so enjoy the slow times.

"I have eight bosses, Bob. Eight." - Peter Gibbons (Office Space)
“Hi, Bob. Bob.” – Peter Gibbons

Working at an agency can make you feel like you have several bosses because every one of your clients is technically your boss, too. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about that viewpoint, but for me, it’s a real thing. You have to keep your agency-side boss(es) happy while also keeping your client-side boss(es) happy. It can be a lot to manage, but hey — If I can do it, you can definitely do it.

Make no mistake – #AgencyLife can be overwhelming. You will get overwhelmed. However, you will learn to live with the pressure of all of these items weighing on you every day. Somehow, it’s easier than it looks.

Should you succeed in your role at an agency, you will build excellent time management skills, a solid professional network, and a wealth of marketing experience — all of which go towards a fantastic résumé.

#8 – Don’t eat the free food and snacks.

Some background: I have a very real problem saying no to free food, and I have struggled with my weight ever since I can remember.

When I first started working at an agency, I weighed 230lbs. Within a couple of years, I ballooned to 290lbs. Through a lot of hard work, I eventually got up to 315lbs. Then I lost 90lbs. And a couple of years later, through even more hard work, I gained it all back. Since then, I have bounced back and forth between 250lbs and 290lbs. It’s a never-ending struggle for me.

My vice is Dr. Pepper and sweet tea.

I’ve always worked at agencies where there is a never-ending supply of sodas and other assorted delicious goodies. Add to that the vendors who cater lunch and bring in the most delicious treats every few days. Add to that the sedintary lifestyle where I’m glued to a computer screen for 8 hours a day. Add to that my amazing ability to avoid the gym for months (or even years) at a time. It all creates the perfect storm for a person like me, who, again, cannot say no to free food.

My weight is my responsibility. I can’t blame anyone but myself. After all, it’s not the agency’s fault that I can’t stop myself from going to the office kitchen multiple times a day. I have to make a conscious effort to stay away from the free food, and there is a very important reason as to why.

Marketing is all about presentation, style, and charisma. For some, marketing is also about the work. But it’s mostly about presentation. After all, we basically have to sell ourselves every time we talk to a client, see a client, or meet with a prospective client. Presentation matters.

There are probably a ton of studies out there that provide more evidence to this wild theory of mine, but it seems to me that people are nicer to me and treat me better when I am in shape. I can almost guarantee that it has something to do with me being happier when I’m in shape and consistently exercising. It all goes hand in hand. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is true for me.

For me, it pays to be healthy and to have my weight somewhat under control. I’m happier. My clients are happier. My manager is happier. My family is happier. Good health makes a difference in every aspect of my life.

If you also work in marketing and have trouble keeping your weight at a manageable level, please learn from my failures and find alternatives to the carb-rich food and snacks at your office. As you get older, the habit gets harder to break, and those empty calories get tougher and tougher to burn off.

Bottom line: If you work at an agency that provides free food and snacks, be careful. While the free food is technically ‘free’, there is a cost.

#9 – Find a trusted colleague who will tell you the hard truths about you.

In case you don’t already know, you are a beautiful person — inside and out. But you have massive flaws. Seriously. Huge ones. Many of which you are not even remotely aware of. Many of which will negatively impact your career.

Peter, you suck! (Forgeting Sarah Marshall)
It me.

Sure, you probably know about some of your flaws, but you’ll never know about the majority of your flaws unless someone tells you. And let me tell you — when you are face-to-face with someone telling you about your flaws, it sucks. It’s the worst. But you need it. If it’s coming from someone you trust, it’s a lot easier to take. To that point, I recommend finding someone that you trust.

Hopefully you have the courage to ask your manager about your flaws. Invite them (or someone else) to tell you all about things that you need to work on. One time, I asked my manager what people say about me when I’m not around. That was not a fun experience, but it helped me grow and get better.

“Why would I want someone pointing out my flaws?”

You do not want to end up in a situation where people only tell you what you are good at. That situation is great in the short run. “Everyone is so nice to me. They only have glowing reviews about my work.” I wish it could be that easy.

If you are only getting the positive feedback, over time you’ll begin to feel like everyone is blowing smoke up your a** because they are not providing you with the complete picture. By not giving you the tough feedback, they are not pushing you to be better.

Trust me: You should want to work with people who are honest and direct and have the courage to bring up the uncomfortable truths with you. The alternative is miserable because they will very likely talk about you rather than to you.

It says a lot about a person who has the courage to ask for tough feedback. It also says a lot about a manager who can give tough feedback and then coach their employees to get better and grow.

I once heard someone say, “If it’s easy, it ain’t growth.” That is perhaps the most succinct way that I know to tell myself to embrace the tough times in life. Those are the times when I grow the most.

Pro Tip: Allow yourself to be human. It is okay to be flawed. I know I am. It’s just part of being human. The world would be totally boring if we didn’t have drastically different personality traits, backgrounds, communication styles, etc… Embrace your humanity. It’s who you are. But — by all means — make an attempt to grow. Life is better when you’re learning new things and pushing forward. 😊

#10 – Not all work looks the same.

In my first couple of years working at the agency, I didn’t really think about raises, promotions, salaries, or incentives. All I thought about was the work.

I was being paid hourly to do work. It’s a very simple concept. Show up. Do your work. Get paid. It reminded me of working with my dad (he’s a general contractor). Showing up to do a job and then get paid was a very easy concept for me to grasp and appreciate. Eventually, I got hired full-time at the agency, and I was given a salary. Even with a salary, the concept remained the same to me: Show up. Do my work. Get paid.

‘Work’ can be a difficult word to define at a rapidly growing agency where everyone is encouraged and expected to jump in and help when needed. In fact, I’d say that it is difficult to define roles and responsibilities at growing agencies due to the constant change.

In every role I have ever had at an agency, the workload always increased over time, which I figured was another side effect of working at agencies that were always growing.

In my first few years, I was able to glean two important insights about working at an agency:

  • With clients, if the scope of work ever changed, it only broadened; it never narrowed.
  • Internally, my scope of work always increased, regardless of whether or not I got a promotion or a raise.

For a teacher like me, I was having to piece together the in’s and out’s of the agency world. I could clearly see that the amount of work I had to do was strongly correlated to the length of my employment at the agency. I was continuously asked to do more and more, and it came from both directions.

Internally, I was expected to manage, lead, and sell more accounts. Externally, my clients were asking for increasing amounts of deliverables and communication. This goes back to the idea that at agencies it can seem like you have several bosses.

Simply put: More experience leads to more work.

But not all work looks the same.

At 26, as an Account Manager, I could look at some of roles directly above me and get an idea what they did. I worked with Account Leads and Account Directors on a daily basis. I pieced together some of their responsibilities just by observing. From my perspective I was doing more of the actual work, while they were doing less work but more communication. That all made sense to me because Account Leads and Account Directors bore the majority of the responsibility for client relationships (see Tip #6).

However, as I looked up the chain of command, things because muddier, mostly because I had very little visibility into those upper level roles.

I had no idea what a Director did. I could see they were heavily involved in client relationships and business development, but I didn’t have much visibility into their daily tasks. I had even less idea what a VP did or what a Chief Officer did. I saw these people in the office every day, but I didn’t know anything about the finer details of their roles and responsibilities. What did ‘work’ mean to them? I had no idea.

As I moved up the chain of command, I got to see much more of the upper management world. My thoughts went from “What do they do during their workday?” to “Holy crap. These people do a type of work that I would find mentally exhausting.”

The Relationship Between Money & Problems
Perhaps Biggie was right all along.

The people at the top levels of a company have more pressure and stress than I could have ever imagined. It also appeared that they changed jobs more often (maybe even got fired more often) than people who were further down the ladder. While the money can get much better the higher you move up the ladder, the levels of pressure and stress rise in direct proportion. #MoMoneyMoProblems

Agencies are not easy. They are made up of people. People are awesome, but people can also make things extremely difficult. Personalities will clash. Emotions can sometimes get the best of us. Internal politics can also add another challenging dimension. The people at the top of agencies have to deal with all of this, while also trying to keep the ship on the right course. It’s not easy.

Finally, one thing I picked up on over the years is that upper level managers who are truly great at their job can often make it look easy and effortless. You might work with someone like this. It might seem like they do nothing. You might hear people say, “What do they do all day?” For the truly exceptional ones, I can promise you that they do a type of work that younger, less experienced coworkers would not understand. If I had to describe this type of work, I would say that it is 100% based on relationships and connections — which took them an entire career to build. In terms of their value to the agency, their ‘work’ is often invaluable.

On the other hand, you might also work with upper level managers who actually do nothing. And they look like they are doing nothing. Some of them don’t even try to hide it. Sadly, I don’t know the best way to distinguish the truly exceptional ones from the others just by looking. But trust me — you’ll know it when you see it.

If you are in your mid-20’s and stressed AF about all the work and reporting you have to get done and you are looking around at all the leaders in your company and wondering WTF are they even doing, don’t get discouraged. Take a step back and realize that you don’t know everything and that you may not actually be more stressed out than any of those people who make all the money. Hopefully some day you’ll get your chance to be one of those people at the top, and then all the younger people will look at you and ask the same question. For now, calm down. It’s the circle of life, Simba.

#11 – Your salaries, raises, and promotions probably won’t be directly based on revenue growth and financial performance, but they should be.

For the shocking conclusion to this post, I’d like to discuss money. It’s a sensitive topic, so let me preface it by saying these are my experiences, observations, and conjectures. Not every agency is the same. Results may vary.

Real Talk: Salary edition

To understand how I think about salaries, you must remember that prior to working at an agency, I was a public school teacher. As a teacher, I made ~$38,000/year. My salary was determined by the upper management at the District level. Wait. Actually, I don’t know who determined my salary. Maybe it was the superintendent or the school board. Oh who cares?

Anyhoo, my salary was public information. It was strictly based on my degree and how many years of experience I had. I knew it was pretty much set in stone. I could not walk into the principal’s office and demand a raise. I don’t think he had any control over that. Point being: I come from a profession where salary was set by management, it was non-negotiable, and most relevant to this story, it was not based on performance.

When I started my first role at a marketing agency (I was 26), my first salary was less than what I made as a public school teacher. I knew there was much more opportunity in the “business world” than there was in the world of public school education, so I didn’t mind working three more months per year for less money. I saw the move as an opportunity to learn something new and potentially make more money in the long run. (Side Note: I didn’t make more than $50,000/year until I was 32 – after I left my first agency. Take that for what it’s worth.)

Today, I look at salaries very differently. Working at agencies for over a decade can teach a person a lot about how salaries are determined. Long story short: I think it’s mostly arbitrary. Experience and timing are probably the biggest factors.

First, there is a market rate for every role at an agency, but it’s really more of a market range.

For the lower level roles — account coordinators, managers, and leads — the market range tends to be based on age and experience. The range for these positions is not very wide. If you pick two account managers at an agency and both have similar experience and skills, their salaries are likely to be relatively similar. I don’t think you’ll find two account managers with similar experience who have salaries that differ by $20,000. I’m sure it happens from time to time, but I think that scenario would be out of the ordinary.

One thing I will tell you here is that if you work at the same agency for several years and if that agency is consistently growing its client base at a fast rate, you will almost certainly end up meeting new colleagues who got hired based on your agency’s immediate needs. In those cases, the agency will be willing to pay much more than the actual market rate because they *really* need someone to fill a position for a new account. They needed that person yesterday, so they will be willing to pay more.

In situations like that, you might find yourself sitting right next to someone who has less experience than you but makes a significant amount more than you. It can be depressing and maddening to find that out, but please know it doesn’t mean anything about you or your value to the company. It’s more about how your new coworker was in the right place at the right time when an amazing opportunity appeared. If only we could all be so lucky.

Biff Tannen - Luckiest Man on Earth (Hill Valley Telegraph,
Biff Tannen – Luckiest Man on Earth (Hill Valley Telegraph, 1959)

Higher up the ladder, salaries become trickier to predict. Well, nearly impossible because the market ranges can be much wider.

Account coordinators, managers, and leads tend to be younger, which means they typically have less experience than the higher level roles. Younger people with less experience will generally make less money, and their salaries will probably be based on a pay scale that is more clearly defined.

Directors, VPs, and Chief Officers, on the other hand, are generally older and have much more experience. These people are not only hired for their experience. They are hired to help drive the agency strategy and create the overall strategy for their respective lines of business. Upper management roles not only have their teams’ and clients’ success on their shoulders, they are also charged with growing the agency’s revenue. Because of this, their salaries can vary dramatically from one to the other. Furthermore, they can be incentivized much differently with things like stock options, performance bonuses, distributions, equity, revenue sharing, shares, commissions, etc… Getting a true gauge of how much these people actually make can be downright impossible.

Another important factor in the salaries of senior level employees is that they often negotiate their salary. This means that they are not always taking what is offered them. They may negotiate a higher salary, incentives, vacation, bonuses, commission, equity, etc… With salary negotiation, they might take the first offer on salary, but perhaps they negotiated an additional week of vacation. That extra week of vacation is another type of compensation. You can’t only look at salary as your only form of compensation.

Senior level people have been around the block a few more times, so they have a better idea of their true value and what they can bring to a company. They know their worth, and they also tend to have a much better idea of what they want. Also, they have likely learned from peers and experience that salary negotiation is a real thing, and it often pays off to pursue it.

When you’re hiring for senior level roles, you also take into account the applicant’s network. You don’t only want their expertise and experience, you want them to connect you and your agency to the people they know. If they have an employment history in several senior level positions, their former colleagues, direct reports, and bosses could potentially be decision makers at companies and brands that would be highly valuable in your agency’s client portfolio.

If you’re an agency CEO looking to grow your client base, it’s a smart move to hire people who are connected. Not all senior level positions are filled based on their near network, but it’s not hard to imagine that it would be a consideration.

Side Note: Do not get distracted by all the meaningless perks of modern agencies. All of those things are meaningless. What should really matter to you is that you are being paid what you are worth and compensated fairly for everything you do for the agency.

Frank Abagnale Quotes (Catch Me If You Can)
Don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of modern agencies.

Performance-Based Incentives & Compensation

During a typical workday, if someone asked me to help with a sales pitch, I would help out. That type of request clearly fit into my scope of work internally. Because I had no prior knowledge of how sales worked, it never occurred to me that I could be incentivized to help grow the business.

“What do you mean by that?”

Let’s say you are an Account Lead at an agency, and you were recently part of a successful sales pitch to a client who signed a contract for $120,000/year.

Now multiply that number by 10 (because you’re awesome and you will eventually bring on 10 new accounts over the next year).

Now your department is generating $1.2 million more in revenue. If you helped bring on those 10 accounts and grow that line of business, wouldn’t it be reasonable and fair that you receive some type of performance-based compensation for achieving that level of revenue growth (in addition to your salary)?

Early in my career, I was an SEO Account Manager, but this same concept should hold true if you manage accounts in Paid Search, Paid Social, or Display. If you help pitch and sign a new client that will spend $5Mil/yr, there is a strong, logical argument that you deserve additional compensation (on top of you salary) for helping drive that new revenue.

In some cases, you might even be directly responsible for your client(s) spending more money with your agency. If your accounts are growing and/or their spend with your agency is growing, you are adding real monetary value (i.e. 💰💰💰) to the agency. The basic idea here is this: If you help grow the agency’s revenue via driving new business or expanding existing business, you should have an incentive structure that rewards you for those things.

Additionally, performance based incentives are also in the agency’s best interest. It’s the same reason that NFL players have contracts that have specific performance triggers. For example, in this ESPN.com article, it states, “Vinatieri will earn a $500,000 bonus if he makes at least 90 percent of his field goal attempts.” If Vinatieri makes 90% of his field goals, the Colts make several multiples of that $500k in revenue. Guaranteed. Both parties win if he reaches that bonus.

If you had a significant performance incentive to retain 90% of your clients, I’d bet that you’d be busting you butt to make sure you did everything you could to retain all of you clients. I’m sure you do that anyways, but let’s be honest – if there was a chance you could earn an immediate monetary bonus, you’d probably try a little harder.

Incentives keeps players motivated all season long. The same type of incentives will keep you extra motivated, which ultimately helps the agency. Both parties win. That’s always a good thing.

It would be fair to be compensated for your efforts, but you won’t be compensated because most agency pay structures are not set up like that. The performance incentives simply do not exist for people in your position.

It’s highly probable that you won’t receive additional compensation for your help in bringing on new business or signing existing business. In fact, I would bet that you don’t even get compensated for growing an existing account’s spend/budget.

After selling a new account, this is the only thing you will receive: more work.

The system is set up so that you help bring on new accounts, upsell existing accounts, increase your current clients’ budgets, and re-sign existing accounts, and the only thing you get in return is more accounts to work on.

Oh wait. If you bring on that many accounts, you might receive a promotion and a raise. But I seriously doubt that your raise will be commensurate with the revenue growth you helped drive for the agency.

If you are an Account Lead, Manager, or Coordinator, I would venture a guess that, outside of you base salary and yearly bonus, you are not incentivized to sell, upsell, or re-sign clients. You will probably not get a raise, a promotion, or a spot bonus for bringing on a new account. You may be part of dozens successful pitches, but your salary and compensation will be based on work rather than driving revenue. That’s just the way it is.

I would guess that most agencies are run this way. The account coordinators, managers, leads, and directors are all asked to help sell, but it’s likely that none of them are ever fairly compensated to do so (via performance incentives, bonuses, or commissions).

I’m the slowest learner ever. I don’t process information very quickly. But after a few years working at an agency, I realized that owners, board members, partners, upper management, sales people, and other key people were making 100% of the commission and profits on every contract that was being signed. There were typically 3-8 lower level employees involved in most pitches, and the only thing they received after winning a big pitch was an “Attaboy!” And more work.

I think the system is inherently flawed. It’s not equitable. If that is happening to you, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. It’s not fair. But that is life. Honestly, it’s the deal you made with the agency when you chose to accept the pay structure outlined in your contract. Don’t get all sad and depressed about the deal you agreed to. It’s not even worth being mad about. Feel grateful that you have a job at a good company, and move forward with this new knowledge. My hope is that it will help you get paid what you are worth at your next gig. #KnowledgeIsPower

Bonuses

Bonuses have always been a mystery to me. The methodology for bonuses is so unclear and confusing yet often presented as transparent and easy to understand.

Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover)
Let’s see here. Divide by 4. Carry the 1…

From what I know, my yearly bonus was determined by a formula. I saw different versions of this formula over the course of 13 years. The equation varied from one agency to the other, but I don’t remember the exact factors. However, I don’t think I ever saw financial goals as a factor in any versions of the bonus formula. To me, the formula just looked like an equation that ultimately got reduced to a percentage of my base salary. That made the most sense. Plug in some numbers and the equation spits out a number. Done and done.

To be honest, I can’t help but wonder if bonuses are really just some output derived from an equation full of arbitrary inputs. Also, I kinda wonder if bonuses are determined by taking the previous year’s bonus and then adding an arbitrary percentage. Who knows.

I never had any complaints about my bonus because 1) I felt grateful just to get a bonus and 2) I had nothing to compare my bonus to. Honestly this is the most I’ve ever thought about my bonuses. I wish I could tell you more, but for me the entire topic is like an episode of ‘Unsolved Mysteries‘.

The Criteria for Raises & Promotions

In my experience at agencies, raises and promotions did not appear to be directly tied to the financial performance of current clients. If they were, I don’t think I ever saw any evidence of that. I never heard about anyone getting a raise or promotion because they landed a new account or re-signed an account.

Raises and promotions seemed to be indirectly related to the financial performance of our clients, meaning that if the client fired us, our job security might be in question. If the client re-signed the contract, we would have a better feeling about our job security.

No one ever said, “If we re-sign this client, you can all keep your jobs.” No one ever said, “If this client doesn’t re-sign, you might be out of work.” However, if you’re a reasonable human being, you can’t help to wonder what will happen to your position if you work on an account that ceases to exist.

Luckily for me, I never had to experience layoffs if we lost a client. I worked for agencies that were always growing, so it was never an issue. Even if we lost a client, there was always a need for resources and expertise on existing clients or recently acquired clients.

At the agencies I worked for, the criteria for raises and promotions appeared to be most closely tied to:

  • overall work performance
  • driving results for clients
  • acquiring additional knowledge and skills
  • the current status of your client relationships
  • achieving items on your career plan
  • your status internally within the agency
  • reviews from managers, direct reports, and peers
  • etc…

Those factors are clearly important, but I believe performance-based factors should have more weight in determining raises and promotions. For example, if you are working in paid media and you sell your client on increasing their paid media spend by 25% over the next quarter, you should be rewarded with some type of performance based compensation. Do that with three accounts and you should be given a raise and/or a promotion. If you have a role in increasing the agency’s revenue, you should be compensated for that.

My biggest complaint with the process for raises and promotions is that there is so much ambiguity around the process itself. “Want a promotion? Talk to your manager.” That is too vague for me. It can also be depressing when you feel like you have checked off all the boxes, received great reviews from peers and clients, gone the extra mile for the agency and for clients, and helped grow the business, and yet there is still hesitation on a promotion. I’ve been there. It sucks. That is why I’m a fan of tangible, objective goals that would trigger raises and/or promotion.

It would be awesome if the promotion conversation could go like this: “Want a promotion? Sure. Your clients currently spend $6.2 million. Increase that to $7.2 million, and then I’ll give you that promotion in a heartbeat.” For me, that type of directive is much easier to grasp than “We need you to be more proactive.” or “You need to be a better communicator.” Also, if you get your clients to spend a million more dollars, it is likely that you were more proactive and communicated much better.

If you are stuck in a sea of ambiguity when it comes to your raises and promotions, ask for tangible goals and numbers that are able to be verified objectively, not subjectively.

Side Note: I don’t know the perfect criteria for raises and promotions. There may not be a right answer, but I prefer a protocol based on clearly defined quantifiable goals and numbers that would trigger a raise and/or a promotion. I like when things are clearly defined. I bet you do, too.

Conclusion

Agencies are a fantastic place to work. You will learn a lot and hopefully find a nice career path for yourself in the agency world.

I met lifelong friends at the agencies I worked for. I had some incredible managers who mentored me and help put me on the path to success. I failed a lot, too. But it’s okay. I’m only human.

If I can leave you with one final thought, I’d like you to know that you are meaningful to the success of the agency, and you have a lot more power and leverage than you realize. It might take you some time to fully realize that, but let me assure you — it’s true.

Hopefully you learned something from my experiences and observations, so that you can live your best #AgencyLife.

If you relate to this and/or have any insights you would like you to share with others in the agency world, please share your story in the comment section below. Thanks!

The Road to Surveillance Capitalism is Paved with Likes & Mentions

Botanical Cactus

I first heard the term ‘surveillance capitalism‘ a few years ago, and when I saw it I immediately knew exactly what it meant. It gave me chills. Let’s go down the rabbit hole on this one.

When the Consumer is the Product

For me, the concept ‘surveillance capitalism‘ seems to be intertwined with a statement that made its way into our lives back in 2010, courtesy of Andrew Lewis:

Andrew first posted that statement as a comment on a MetaCritic post about the release of Digg 4.0, which many Redditors might remember lead to the ‘The Great Digg Migration‘. Digg v4 was so bad that there was a mass exodus away from Digg to Reddit. As a rabid user of both platforms at the time, I was heavily disappointed both with the new Digg v4 and also with the rapid change that it brought to the culture and style of Reddit. But that’s another blog post altogether.

In addition to its appearance on MetaCritic, Andrew’s statement would be tweeted by a VC named Bryce Roberts, retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, pick up a lot of traction over the next several years, and ultimately be shortened to something much more memorable and easier to remember:

If it’s free, you are the product.

That is a statement that hits me in the soul every time I read it. It feels icky, especially because I am certain that most people are unaware of the true nature of the business goals of tech companies and/or the breadth and scope of digital surveillance.

Facebook & Your Data

On January 24, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg penned an Op-Ed column in the Wall Street Journal. In a world full of fake news and fake news accusations, Mark found the perfect title for his article: The Facts About Facebook. Of course, as America will do to people these days, he got slammed by Pretty. Much. Everyone.

To be clear, I’m not here to celebrate or criticize his column. I’m primarily interested in the one section that is most relevant to my article:

“In an ordinary transaction, you pay a company for a product or service they provide. Here you get our services for free—and we work separately with advertisers to show you relevant ads. This model can feel opaque, and we’re all distrustful of systems we don’t understand. ​

Sometimes this means people assume we do things that we don’t do. For example, we don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do. In fact, selling people’s information to advertisers would be counter to our business interests, because it would reduce the unique value of our service to advertisers. We have a strong incentive to protect people’s information from being accessed by anyone else.”

– Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook (Jan. 24, 2019)

Among the several pieces I read in response to Mark’s WSJ Op-Ed piece, perhaps the best was from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org):

“Next, Zuckerberg deploys Facebook’s favorite PR red herring: he says that Facebook does not sell your data. It may be the case that Facebook does not transfer user data to third parties in exchange for money. But there are many other ways to invade users’ privacy. For example, the company indisputably does sell access to users’ personal information in the form of targeted advertising spots. No matter how Zuckerberg slices it, Facebook’s business model revolves around monetizing your data.”

– Gennie Gebhart, Jason Kelley, and Bennett Cyphers (Jan. 25, 2019)

Regardless of how you interpret his wording, Mark Zuckerberg is now on record saying Facebook doesn’t sell our data.

Apple & Your Data

In August 2018, Tim Powderly, Apple’s Director of Federal Government Affairs, responded to a letter from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In his response, Tim made Apple’s position on user privacy unequivocally clear:

“The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertisers.”

– Tim Powderly, Apple (Aug. 7, 2018)

If you’re keeping score at home, so far we know that Facebook is not selling our data and the customer is not Apple’s product.

Google & Your Data

In December 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee . After delivering his written testimony, he answered direct questions from members of the committe, most of which were focused on political bias, misinformation, user privacy, and data security. Basically, he was there to discuss how Google uses its customers’ data.

In the video above – courtesy of Yahoo.com – Sundar directly says:

As a company, we do not sell user data. That would be against our principles.

Sundar Pichai, Google, CEO (Dec. 11, 2018)

Like they do with most things related to public perception, Google has also gone the extra mile to create a small microsite of sorts with more information on its data practices.

Google Data Privacy
Google Data Privacy

Well, there you have it — Facebook, Apple, and Google are not selling our data. Okay. My next question is: What is this data that they are not selling?

The Behavioral Side of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

I consider my privacy almost every time I sign up for a newsletter, download a “free” app, turn on my smart TV, use my iPhone, watch Netflix, turn on Waze for a trip, send a message through Facebook Messenger, like a picture on Instagram, etc… Technically, it is not sensitive data, but it is sensitive to me.

Sometimes I give in and give my email to get that cool new app. Yet, other times, I’ll walk away from something like that because I value my privacy more at that point in time. But let’s be honest – there is no such thing as privacy any more. Every “smart” device is listening and tracking, storing and sending, collecting and selling. And it’s not just our email address, phone number, physical address, gender, marital status, age, income, etc… It’s much, much more.

There is probably a much better name for this particular aspect of PII, but I refer to it as behavioral data privacy, which consists of information such as: where I am now, where I was earlier, what I bought today, when I left to go to work, how long I slept last night at night, how times I picked up my phone, how many screens I scrolled on Instagram, etc… Combined with our personal data, our behavioral data is critical to complete the picture of who we are as a consumer and which audiences we fit into for potential advertisers.

All of our data is out there for the taking, both personal and behavioral. Because of this I am exceedingly concerned with websites and apps that are collecting, compiling, and sharing all of that data without my knowledge – and sometimes, without my consent.

If you don’t think your data is being collected, shared, sold, and or monetized without your consent, here is some evidence that you should consider:

“Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That isn’t true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.”

apnews.com (Aug. 13, 2018)

“Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.”

nytimes.com (Dec. 18, 2018)

The Current Data Trend: Biometric Data

Companies have our personal data. They have our behavioral data. Now they are collecting our biometric data.

“Biometrics systems are designed to identify or verify the identity of people by using their intrinsic physical or behavioral characteristics. Biometric identifiers include fingerprints; iris, face and palm prints; gait; voice; and DNA, among others. “

Biometrics, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Biometric data is at the forefront of the privacy conversations at this very moment. In a landmark case in Illinois regarding the Biometric Privacy Information Act (BIPA), a mother filed suit on behalf of her son regarding the collection of her son’s fingerprint by a business. In that case, the Supreme Court of Illinois recently reversed the lower court’s ruling and found that “an individual need not allege actual injury beyond his or her rights to be entitled to seek damages and relief.”

Personally, I think Illinois is on to something with their BIPA Act. I wonder how many states will create laws to protect biometric data. On a related note, you might find it not so shocking that Facebook has apparently been fighting to “gut” the privacy laws, such as the Biometric Privacy Information Act (as reported by Wired). Go figure.

Amazon Selling Face Recognition Systems to the Government?

There is another major battlefront on the horizon, and it involves face recognition. It should come as no shock to you that when you are looking at a screen, there are cameras pointed directly at your face. And not just any cameras. High-quality cameras. 4K cameras. Sometimes there are multiple forward facing cameras. And you don’t have to guess who now has high-res images of your face as well as powerful software that is getting better and better at identifying people based on facial features.

According to a recent USAToday.com story, “Face recognition, powered by artificial intelligence, could allow the government to supercharge surveillance by automating identification and tracking.”

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon each have powerful facial recognition systems and/or software, but according the story in USAToday, Amazon is the only one trying to sell theirs (Amazon Rekognition) to government agencies. In fact, according to the ACLU:

“Amazon, meanwhile, has doubled down on efforts to sell facial recognition technology to government, despite continued warnings from consumers, employees, members of Congress, and shareholders. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company’s products might be put to “bad uses,” but said the solution was to wait for society’s eventual “immune response” to take care of the problems. Further, recent reports revealed that the FBI is piloting the use of Rekognition, Amazon’s face surveillance product, and that Amazon recently met with ICE officials about its face surveillance product.”

ACLU

I don’t like Amazon’s approach to this issue. Our society is in a rough spot right now. It seems like we are too divided to solve anything. I don’t think we would have the first idea of how to come up with an “immune response” — one that both political parties would support — to solve any “bad uses” of facial recognition, especially when the software is being used by government agencies.

Side note: If a major retail/tech giant selling face recognition software to government agencies doesn’t sound creepy to you, then I don’t know if anything will. Thankfully there are dozens of groups who are asking those industry giants to not sell their face recognition systems to the government.

Soon Meme (Honey Bear)
Soon Meme (Honey Bear)

The New Economy: Surveillance Capitalism

In a recent, must-read Financial Times article, Facebook, Google and a Dark Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff, provides a powerful, insightful view into a new economy she calls ‘surveillance capitalism’.

This is where we live now — a world in which nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device or vehicle, every “digital assistant” — each is a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data.

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

Because I work in the Search Marketing industry, I enjoyed her brief synopsis of where this whole thing started. It’s like the unofficial origin story of ‘surveillance capitalism’:

“Surveillance capitalism was invented in the teeth of the dot.com bust, when a fledgling company called Google decided to try and boost ad revenue by using its exclusive access to largely ignored data logs — the “digital exhaust” left over from users’ online search and browsing. The data would be analysed for predictive patterns that could match ads and users. Google would both repurpose the “surplus” behavioural data and develop methods to aggressively seek new sources of it.”

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

In her article, Zuboff describes how this quest for data as a means to revenue eventually migrated to Facebook and then to virtually every Silicon Valley start-up and app and beyond. In reference to the previously-discussed concept of consumers as products, Zuboff offers an alternative point of view:

“In this logic, surveillance capitalism poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains and our beating hearts. You are not ‘the product’ but rather the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus data ripped from your life.”

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

In my opinion, Zuboff’s conclusion nails it. Seeing ourselves as the product still arguably leaves us with some sense of self worth. In Zuboff’s view, we are not important to the companies at all. We are the abandoned carcasses. The only thing that companies care about is the data they can extract from us and our behaviors. Ouch. Here I was, thinking that these companies actually cared about me. 💔

In my opinion, Shoshana Zuboff’s article really ties the room together. It allows us to see how all of these data pieces fit together. How it all came together in a new way of doing business. In many ways, it has changed the relationship between businesses and customers. Businesses have always needed customers to buy things. Now, businesses just need customers to do things, so that apps and devices can monitor and track their behaviors to monetize at a later date.

If My TV is Cheaper, Maybe The Surveillance is Okay.

In a recent interview with Vizio CTO Bill Baxter, he essentially says Vizio is able to price their televisions lower because Vizio can employ additional business strategies to make money off of data and advertising after the purchase of the TV.

“So look, it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV. This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.”

– Bill Baxter, CTO, Vizio (Jan. 7, 2019)

How do you feel being told that your TV is cheaper because they are tracking and monetizing your data and behaviors after the purchase? It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Pause. Not!

Lettuce Wrap This Up

In a recent article in The Guardian, author John Naughton writes:

“The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched.”

– John Naughton (Jan. 20, 2019)

It occurred to me several times over the years that this brave new world of smart devices, apps, and artificial intelligence is nothing but a complex surveillance system built to capture and monetize my personal data and behaviors. Just kidding. I’m not that bright. I might not have had the complete picture, but I saw hints here and there. I just never had a name for it.

In all likelihood, things are just going to keep rolling in the same direction as they have been. If it really bothered us to be ‘the watched’, we would probably put up a bigger fight. But we’re too busy watching our screens to notice. Or care.

tl;dr In the economy of Surveillance Capitalism, every company has our data, but apparently no one is selling it. Seriously. It’s totally private and secure, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. /s

When Page 1 Just Isn’t What It Used To Be

A Cactus By The Window

In 2005, I was still a Yahoo user. Yahoo Mail was my jam. I was also one of the roughly 30% of search engine users who used Yahoo to search online. I even used Yahoo for domain purchases and web hosting. Things would soon change. As it turned out, my entry into the world of SEO was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Yahoo products.

Search Engine Market Share in 2005

I look back at 2005 as an interesting year in the world of search marketing because it represented the last time that Yahoo and Microsoft (combined) had more market share than Google. In a press release from Aug. 19, 2005, comScore reported the the following market share data:

  • Google – 36.5%
  • Yahoo – 30.5%
  • MSN – 15.5%
  • AOL – 9.9%
  • Ask Jeeves – 6.1%
  • All Other – 1.5%
Search Engine Market Share (comScore, July 2005)
Search Engine Market Share (comScore, July 2005)

It’s funny to think about those days. I can still remember calls with clients where I discussed unique SEO recommendations for each of the big 3 search engines. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was something like “You’ll rank better on Yahoo if you have two H1 tags, and you’ll rank better on MSN if you have more internal links with the target keywords in the anchor.” Lol. That was a fun time.

For a while there, gaming Yahoo and MSN was almost like shooting fish in a barrel. Because Google’s spam filters were so much better than anyone else’s, a lot of SEOs made a ton of money by driving organic traffic solely from Yahoo and MSN, whose spam filters/defenses were less sophisticated and whose 45% market share was still large enough to make the effort worthwhile. But I digest…

Search Engine Market Share in 2018/19

Today, comScore reports that Google has ~63% of the desktop search engine market share. I have also seen some reports that estimate Google’s market share in the range of 70%. While that might seem like a massive market share, it’s not even close to the market share percentages I see in my data.

For the last couple of years, I have been seeing 80%-90% of my clients’ organic search sessions originating from Google. During certain months, I have even seen a few clients get 93-94% of their search traffic from Google. This is why I always get confused when I see Google’s market share reported in the 60-70% range.

What Is Google’s True Market Share?

A few months ago, I finally saw someone address the discrepancies in the coverage of Google’s market share. And he had real data. And it wasn’t just anyone. It was Rand Fishkin. Rand is someone with a big enough influence and reach to actually make this a talking point in industries beyond the world of search marketing.

My favorite part of Rand’s post was that he was able to distinguish the market share between Google and Google Images. Combined, these two sources represent 90% of the searches in the data set he got from JumpShot. Furthermore, Rand also cited corroborating statistics from longtime analytics giant, StatCounter:

This data is backed up by StatCounter’s numbers, so it’s not just Jumpshot saying this is true. 

Rand Fishkin (SparkToro.com, October 16, 2018)

Living by Google’s Rules – Or Not

With Google’s market share at 90%, it forces us into a spot where we have to live by their rules and optimize websites with their TOS and guidelines in the forefront of every consideration and decision. With that size market share, we can’t ignore them. In fact, we are effectively required to focus only on them.

Alternatively, I have read about some SEOs — who are so fed up with Google — they have created eCommerce websites and blocked Googlebot. These SEOs would rather not start an eCommerce business and be at the mercy of Google’s algorithm updates, in which there are often false positives where websites are moved to page 3 and beyond for falsely being identified as websites that have violated Google’s TOS. This happens, and those companies sometimes die because of it.

By focusing on building traffic from sources other Google, some SEOs believe they can create a much more consistent and predictable revenue stream while at the same time not have to worry about the carpet being pulled out from under them by an algorithmic update or algorithmic error. That is not my bag, but I understand the mindset, especially when you read about people who lost their income and had no recourse.

When the One Who Gives…

Google has changed the world. I don’t even think it’s possible to imagine the number of industries, careers, and jobs that have arisen because of Google and the technology it has created in the last 20+ years.

On a much more personal level, Google is the reason I have a job and a career in digital marketing. I’m grateful for that. And, yes, while I have a job because I’m providing a service where there is a demand, Google really helped solidify the need for SEOs in the marketing industry. Additionally, Google’s branding and popularity sped up the entry of thousands of brands into the digital world.

Google's Mission Statement
Google’s Mission Statement

Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” was such a bold undertaking. Twenty years after they started pursuing that mission, we are much more accustomed to a world where data is everywhere. We see headlines in our feeds telling us how pretty much every company is capturing our data, buying our data, and selling our data. It’s just part of the world we live in now. The idea of finding and organizing guhzillions of data points doesn’t seem so wild now, but back in 1998 the idea of finding all of that data and making it retrievable was downright inspirational.

[On a side note: It is Google’s mission statement that makes me believe SEO will never die. As long as information needs to be indexed, organized, and retrieved, SEO will exist in one form or another, as there will always be companies, brands, systems, and people who want certain information indexed or not indexed, found or not found, and placed higher or lower in the results. It might have a different name, but the concept will be around for a long, long time.]

…Is Also the One Who Takes Away

Earlier this year, I was in a meeting where a VP of Digital asked us, “In your opinion, what is our biggest threat?” My answer: Google. I elaborated to say that Google is now essentially an Online Travel Agency (OTA) , which is clearly a threat to other OTAs, aggregators, travel sites, and hospitality sites. It’s not that Google is selling the products, but they are clearly inserting their own search products into the research path and then basically forcing brands to pay for placements in those products (see: Google Flights).

In July 2010, Google bought ITA Software in order to acquire their QPX software, which provided the data for Google Flights. A lot of people had questions about whether or not this indicated Google was moving into the travel industry and/or whether or not Google would begin ranking its own content over competitors. Here are Google’s responses:

Doesn’t this mean that Google’s long-term plan is to enter the travel search business?
Searches for travel-related information are among the highest-volume queries we receive at Google. We are innovating in a number of ways to make it easier for users to search for travel information and to deliver more useful results to them. It’s also important to note that our goal will be to refer people quickly to a site where they can actually purchase flights, and that we have no plans to sell flights ourselves.

Whatever form it takes, how can Google do something like this without unfairly ranking its own content over competitors?
Our goal has always been to provide users with what we think is the best and most useful information possible. We see opportunities to improve the search experience for users searching for flight information on Google. It’s important to note that our goal will be to refer people quickly to a site where they can actually purchase flights, and that we have no plans to sell flights ourselves.

Source: Google.com, July 1, 2010

Those responses are about as clear as mud. To me, those are straightforward yes/no questions that Google does not answer with a yes or no.

Google Rankings: Now vs Then

I have been exceedingly dubious of Google ever since I realized that in some cases organic search traffic to my sites was declining because Google was appropriating more and more of the real estate in the search results to show additional paid ads.

Here is a real example of this. Below are two Google search results pages for the same keyword – hotels. On the left is a screenshot from June 20, 2012. On the right is a screenshot from today. Take a look:

Google Search Results for 'hotels' (2012 vs 2019)
Google Search Results for ‘hotels’ (2012 vs 2019)

No one can look at this picture and tell me that ranking on Page 1 in the organic listings – for any result (1-10) – means the same thing today as it did back in 2012. The SERPS were much more geared to generating organic clicks. That is not the case today. It’s not like this for every keyword, but this is something that presents problems to marketers who are judging their organic growth based on year-over-year trends. The takeaway: For brands who count on organic search rankings to drive sessions and revenue, don’t believe that a top ranking today will generate as much traffic and revenue as it did yesterday.

For those of us who have seen this play out over the last decade, it’s kinda deflating. What does it mean to achieve or maintain a #1 ranking for a competitive keyword if a mobile user has to scroll past paid ads, map listings, a knowledge panel, and god knows what other widget Google recently created before seeing your hard-earned #1 ranking? In reference to the famous philosophical question about the tree falling in the woods, please allow me to ask one of my own: If I have to scroll down 2-3 screens to see your first position organic listing, is it really even there?

But don’t worry. Despite the seemingly impending doom of being relegated to search results oblivion, I can argue that SEO is even more important now because, if you are able to get into the Top 3 positions and be seen, you can still drive free organic sessions. That is a certainly a competitive advantage that allows you to spend more money on content and other marketing channels. 😉

Bring It Home, Kerry.

On one hand, Google gives us life via organic search referrals. On the other hand, Google ever so slowly takes it away by squeezing the real estate for organic listings. This is nothing new. Organic real estate has always been shrinking, and mobile organic listings change shape and placement all of the time. These slow changes lead to innovations and new ways of doing SEO, and that is exciting.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if Google’s updates to the layout of the search results continue to cause you some headaches. I have seen several cases where my clients are maintaining current rankings while also earning new rankings, yet seeing a year-over-year decline in organic traffic for the landing pages associated with those keywords. Because Google has such a large market share, the only thing we can really do is go back to the drawing board and continue to find new ways drive visits in the world they are creating. It’s been that way all along. In fact, I probably didn’t even need to write this post. Oh well.

tl;dr

Google is moving further and further away from the concept of giving you leads for free, and because they have 90% market share, this will continue to force marketers to 1) come up with new ideas to get the top organic placements and 2) spend (even more) money with Google’s paid programs to get visibility in search.

A Lesson on Working with Data & People

In the Shade

When I started building digital marketing reports in 2005, I was given what felt like the equivalent of a master’s degree in Microsoft Excel. The person who taught me was a spreadsheet wizard. Within six months, I was already working with large data sets from one of the biggest travel websites at the time.

I will never forget my frustration with Excel’s row limit of 65,536. It makes me laugh to think of the crazy workarounds we came up with to work with and analyze large data sets prior to Office 2007. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say I was working with “big data” before it had a name (or a hashtag).

Over the next decade plus, I would dedicate over half of my time to answering data requests from clients. The concept of the data-driven marketer was taking over, and there was no going back. I always thought all marketers were data-driven by definition, but digital marketing took that concept to a whole new level.

‘Let Me Get Back To You On That’

“Digging into the data” became a mandatory part of my daily routine, primarily because I worked with enterprise level-websites. I can’t even tell you how many times I have uttered that phrase over the last umpteen years. There is something about large websites that makes it astronomically tougher to diagnose data fluctuations, which is why nearly every data platform attempts to make that process easier and more efficient.

I initially trusted the data. I’m talking about a Truth-with-a-capital-T level of trust. I was young and naive. I did not yet know about the limitations of tracking software, and it’s not like anyone at those companies was going to tell me about their software’s blind spots. Within eighteen months of working as an SEO, I noticed a rising level of distrust within myself about the data and reporting I was creating.

I was enamored by Omniture, Webtrends, Coremetrics, Google Analytics, and any other third party tracking software that let me pull data. Everyone else was, too. However, there was something in the data that just didn’t add up. As a former mathematics teacher–who loves when things add up–I started questioning the data in my clients’ reports, especially when I had evidence.

Losing My Religion

Data is my True North. Metrics are my compass. These things lay the foundation of everything that I do for my clients, so you can probably imagine what it might be like for a person like me when I start to see cracks in that foundation.

While it started slowly, every few months I would see something in my reporting that just didn’t sit right with me. Fast forward to 2014, and I was increasingly skeptical with every report that I saw because I was not sure if the underlying data was 100% accurate. This is when a case study from Groupon confirmed all of my suspicions.

Groupon ran a test where they purposefully de-indexed their website for six hours. When you block search engines from your website for six hours, you expect to see your organic search sessions drop to zero during that timeframe. That is what Groupon saw during those six hours. However, Groupon also saw a 60% decline in “Direct” sessions during that exact timeframe. When the six hour test was over, the “Direct” sessions recovered to their typical levels.

Groupon’s conclusion:

“Our testing shows that, for a site getting in the ballpark of 50% mobile web traffic, the 60% of the traffic to long URLs reported as Direct is probably Organic traffic from Google.

Source: Gene McKenna, SearchEngineLand.com (July 8, 2014)

When I read that sentence for the first time, I swear a part of me died. I had been creating SEO strategies for years based on data that was wrong. Furthermore, my clients and I were not able to see all of the organic search traffic we were driving, as most of it was being tracked as “Direct.” Also, I was in the midst of a months-long quest to find which browsers and operating systems were hiding referrers or perhaps not sending them at all. Now, I realized it was all of the browsers and operating systems–and they all did it differently. There was no way to know!

Regardless, my innate optimism looked ahead to the future, thinking that surely all of these massive companies will figure out how to track things more accurately. I was wrong.

If You Think Fake News Is The Only Fake Thing On The Internet, Think Again.

In a recent article in New York Magazine, author Max Read provides a fascinating look at the world of website metrics. He essentially describes an internet where everything from web metrics to content to businesses to people are fake. For example:

“Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures.”

Source: Max Read, NYMag.com (Dec. 26, 2018)

This article generated an eye-opening response from former Reddit CEO, Ellen K. Pao:

Data validation is something that greatly concerns me. I have worked with dozens of companies that have the most modern and advanced analytics software enabled on their websites. Some companies spend millions of dollars for each years for analytics software. And let me tell you – modern analytics software is highly sophisticated. It’s wildly impressive. However, if I ask to speak to the client-side person who responsible for managing, testing, and monitoring the tracking software on their websites, I often hear crickets.

Here’s a quick challenge: Find someone who knows the complex intricacies of exactly how visitors are tracked on the web, how KPIs are defined in each tracking software, which visitors are most likely to not be tracked or those who get incorrectly dropped in the “Direct” bucket, and how to find and isolate those visitors in each tracking software. Go ahead. Find that person. [Hint: This person is not only a unicorn. This person is a mythical, cycloptic unicorn that breathes fire while doing the latest viral dance from Fortnite.]

Over the last few years, I have started to see more and more companies hire in-house analytics managers, as more and more websites are beginning to truly focus on their data’s accuracy. After all, because data is the foundation of nearly all digital strategies, all steps should be taken to ensure that it is correct.

But why did it take so long to get to this point? I think I have some pertinent insight into that question.

Nobody Wants To Know That Their Data Is Wrong

I am not a quick learner. I’m even slower when it comes to interpersonal social skills. Case in point: It took me at least five years to figure out that people don’t want to know about the quality of their data. Wait. That can’t be true, can it? Maybe it is just my personal experience. But I have a hunch that many digital marketers have come to the exact same conclusion based on real-life situations.

I can’t tell you how many times I ruined an otherwise perfectly good meeting or phone call by bringing up evidence of problems in my clients’ data. In fact, early in my career after I brought up data discrepancies in a meeting, a chief officer sat me down and said: “Don’t bring problems to meetings. Bring solutions. Don’t do that again.”

To this day I have an internal struggle when I discover data discrepancies. Should I bring it up? If so, when? To whom? Is it most effective to do in a meeting or on a phone call? Everything inside me tells me that I should bring it up in an environment where everyone can be informed about it, but I have learned that is hardly ever the best option.

‘Winning solves everything.’ – Tiger Woods

Here’s another nugget I noticed very early in my marketing career: The only time anyone will listen to a data validity issue is when their numbers are down. If the numbers are up, everything must be fine, right? I can’t remember ever being asked about potential data problems when the numbers are trending the right way.

I see this scenario play out in sports quite often. During post-game press conferences, reporters hardly ever throw hardball questions at the winning coach. Only the losing coach gets those type of questions. Because clearly the winning team has no issues.

Sports analogies are fun, but let’s bring this back to our world. You walk in to an important meeting to review and recap a three-month project that involved several teams and a wild new strategy. The results are great. The numbers are amazing. Everyone is happy. The mood is congratulatory. And then you raise your hand and ruin everything.

If there was ever a gif that best described me–there it is.

I am Josh’s complete lack of situational social skills.

This classic scene is, of course, from the Tom Hanks movie, Big, where 12-year-old Josh Baskin wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old man and is forced to navigate the real world as kid trapped in an adult’s body. I can relate to Josh Baskin in so many ways.

Let’s Wrap This Up Already

Today, I know that no one has 100% accurate data. Nothing is perfect. We just have to roll with the data we’ve got. And if we can get better data, let’s do our best to make that happen. Additionally, I have learned that it is (probably) best to not ruin the mood of an otherwise congenial meeting by addressing an issue that brings up more questions than answers and/or brings into question the success of the project. There is something powerful about a team accomplishing a goal and getting together to high five about the amazing results.

Whenever I have questions about anything these days, I do my best to avoid bringing it up in project review meetings. I usually find another time to approach the person who might be able to help me verify the issue before I bring it up to anyone else. I still believe there are times where these things need to be addressed, but I think a lot more about when and where and how to do it.

tl;dr I don’t 100% trust any of the data I see on a daily basis, and I have learned to be very careful about how and when I bring up data issues with clients.

Tell Me About Your Experiences

I’d love to hear your stories about working with data and people, so please leave a comment below – even if it is just to reminisce about the 1988 blockbuster, Big, starring Tom Hanks.