And additional focus on an old direction.
When Kris Skavish and I started Two Octobers in 2010, we shared a vision of a collaborative team of smart, analytical marketers who enjoy helping businesses grow. We wanted to create a no-nonsense culture where results are valued over BS, and everyone is treated with respect. I say “culture”, but honestly we didn’t see ourselves getting to be much bigger than 15 or 20 people.
We couldn’t be happier with where we are today. We achieved what we set out to achieve, and more. We’ve got 30 smart, analytical marketers helping businesses grow every day. We have fantastic clients and a culture of innovation and collaboration beyond what Kris and I imagined.
Change is coming…
Things are pretty great right now, but the world of marketing is changing around us. That creates some exciting opportunities, as well as some risks. We are in our 8th year. I’m not sure we’ll be around for another 8 if we keep doing things the way we do them now.
Two trends happening outside of Two Octobers are of particular note:
- The ever-decreasing cost and capabilities of automation
- A blurring of lines between everything digital marketing
Here is the version of this trend that is grabbing headlines: AI is going to replace most of our jobs. That’s a compelling headline, but the reality is likely to be a lot more nuanced, and AI is only part of the picture.
This is my point of view: it is getting easier and easier to create software that has more and more functionality. Go back 40 years (which some of us remember), and code was written and run on mainframes, and you mostly started from scratch every time you built something new. Today, more than 99% of what you want to do already exists as a library, module, API, framework, etc. There are 25 million public code repositories on GitHub alone, up from 1 million in 2010. Creating software today is mostly just fitting things together, and adding a few bits of proprietary flourish.
For any business that works with information, this means that a high degree of automation is inevitable.. When software took specialized people and systems to create, only the more common or expensive problems got solved, e.g. engineering calculations or banking transactions. As the difficulty and cost of creating software goes down, we can automate progressively smaller and more specific tasks. AI allows us to automate an important category of tasks, but it is really just part of a larger trend.
Marketing agencies are people-intensive businesses. Most of us work in front of computers,, but much of the strategy, planning, execution and optimization work we do is barely automated at all. We may get help from spreadsheets and graphics tools, but our tedium-to-thinking ratio is still pretty high. As automation progresses into agency work, we can do the same work for our clients in less time, and therefore be more cost effective, resulting in more value for the client. The agencies that don’t adapt will either price themselves out of the market, or do low-quality work.
Automating marketing services is not a new idea, I know. I helped launch an ad tech business, GoToast, which had a wildly successful ride in the 2000s. But one of the reasons I switched from ad tech to services is that I saw our platform and others producing mediocre results in comparison to smart humans. The problems we were trying to solve moved so fast that our software was always at least six months out-of-date. We also couldn’t help but force methodologies on our users that had limited real-world validation. And if we spent more time validating, the out-of-date problem got worse.
As the means of creating or integrating software become more available to the people doing the work, we can build tools based on our own proven methodologies, and make changes as we go.
The other big shift that is happening is a blurring of lines between what used to be treated as distinct categories of media. This is happening in a variety of ways, but stark examples are SEO, social media, UX, and content. Success in any one of these areas depends on expertise in the others.
In the realm of SEO, Google is becoming ever more sophisticated in how it evaluates and presents content, largely abandoning the idea that searchers are looking for websites to visit when they enter a query. We are also seeing a departure from browser search as the default starting point of digital activity. Certainly, Google search is still massively important, but people are also getting answers and finding products via mobile apps, personal assistants, and social media at an increasing rate.
If people are less likely to seek websites as a source of information, and Google is giving websites less and less real estate on search engine results pages, are the cries of, “SEO is dead” finally becoming true? The answer is maybe, if we define SEO as the practice of getting website listings to rank on Google. But search engines are far from dead. Arguably, they are just getting started. Nearly every social network and mobile app you use has a search engine built in, as do many web publishers. What is Shazam if not a search engine? What about LinkedIn? Alexa?
When I got started in search engine marketing, the notion of a search engine fell under the big tent of “information retrieval”. Somewhere along the way, “search engine” became synonymous with Google for me and everybody else. And Google was ten blue links delivered to a web browser. Search engine optimization was, therefore, ten-blue-links optimization. While we were endlessly debating Google ranking factors, however, the technology and adoption of information retrieval was expanding in every direction.
As an agency, we haven’t been ignoring this expansion, we just haven’t understood it in the broader context. We have had people developing content, optimizing UX, amplifying social presence, and doing other activities that help our clients reach and connect with people wherever they go in the digital world. We know that these activities relate to each other, but we treat them as different disciplines in our org structure and job descriptions, which creates hard boundaries between them.
Reorganizing for change
Last year, I undertook an exercise I dubbed Vision Quest 2017. I spent time with every employee at Two Octobers, and got his or her perspective on our culture, opportunities, weaknesses and direction. A lot of great things came out of those meetings. Regarding our vision for what we want to be, several themes emerged:
- We aspire to be known for our innovative tools and processes that drive continuous improvement.
- We aspire to be cross-trained, cross-channel, and masters of the customer journey.
- We aspire to be our customers’ smart friend.
I also included office dogs in the Vision Quest process. Their vision also had a consistent, though somewhat different theme.
The vision our human employees came up with aligns perfectly with the trends described above. As we dug into how we might go about fulfilling these goals, we evaluated our organizational structure. Did our roles and teams support this direction? We decided no. We were organized by discipline, mostly. That structure worked fairly well for fostering innovative tools and processes, but actively discouraged people from being cross-trained and cross-channel. Without succeeding at that, it was also hard to be our clients’ smart friend.
With our new goals in mind, and a little outside help, we set about designing the ideal organization. We ended up reorganizing into two new teams:
- The Marketing Engineering Group
- Digital Presence Labs
The Marketing Engineering Group (MEG)
The focus of the Marketing Engineering Group is to develop efficient processes and nimble tools to deliver big-budget solutions to small and medium-budget marketers. This is a core competence of ours already, so it is really more of a doubling down than a change in direction. Teams within MEG are organized by client type, to facilitate innovation around common client challenges. For example, one group works on multi-location businesses. These types of clients typically have low per-location budgets. We have already developed our own tools and processes that allow us to build new location campaigns in minutes, eliminating the need for per-location minimum fees, and ensuring that even the smallest-budget locations get comprehensive and customized campaigns.
MEG is designed to work with clients for whom customized, automated solutions can deliver another level of performance. This certainly applies to a lot of businesses, but think of things like linking CRM data to real time bid optimization or building search-engine-friendly content from structured data. If a marketer is thinking, “shouldn’t we be able to …?”, they are probably a great fit for the Marketing Engineering Group.
Digital Presence Lab (DPL)
The focus of Digital Presence Labs is to provide strategy, training and services to clients who are looking to improve their digital presence. Each client gets its own team of multi-disciplinary experts that work collaboratively towards the client’s goals. This sounds like how every agency should work, but it isn’t. Agencies that work on large accounts do usually have dedicated client teams, but most agencies in the small-to-mid space organize functionally. We did, until now. Part of what makes this change possible is the fact that we have been developing lean-collaboration practices for the last few years. Using concepts from agile software development and some of our own innovations, we stay connected and adaptive with extremely low overhead.
Our intent with DPL is to become an extension of our clients’ businesses. There is a wide variety of expertise and knowledge required to navigate and prioritize social media, mobile apps, search engines, and everything else digital. We provide critical expertise. Our goal is not to create an ongoing dependency, it is to help our clients grow their digital knowledge and presence.
Last but not least, people
To other agency leaders out there, I want to add one more thing. None of this would have been possible without an amazing team, but I want to call out two hires in particular. In 2016, we were about 20 people and struggling a bit with growth. Having built Two Octobers on principles from our product & technology backgrounds, Kris and I knew it was time to round out the team with agency-experienced leaders who could help us make our culture and services even better. We nailed it.
We hired Sirena Rolfe, who has a long digital advertising resume, and is brilliant at developing and managing high-functioning teams. She also provides a strong and steady hand to our operations. Sirena was drawn to our values regarding collaboration and results, and she has helped us preserve and improve our culture as we grow. Sirena oversees the Marketing Engineering Group.
We also hired Jake Jamieson, who brought solid agency credentials as well. Jake is a strategic thinker with a knack for turning vague concepts into definitive action. Jake took over the SEO team, which I had previously been managing. It wasn’t really a team under my watch, it was a group of talented and strong-willed individuals. Jake grew them into a cohesive team and got them collaborating in new ways. Jake manages the Digital Presence Lab.
We needed Jake and Sirena when we hired them, but it was a bit of a leap at the time for us. If we had not taken that leap then, we would not be able to do what we are doing now.
I hope this post doesn’t come across as too much of an infomercial. It is true that I am very proud of our team, and honored to be a part of it, but I also wanted to share some of what we’re doing to create dialog with other agencies. Here are a few takeaways, in conclusion:
- Most of the execution side of marketing will be automated, and the means of automation are becoming more accessible to everyone.
- The consultative side of marketing is getting more complex and multi-disciplinary, requiring a new level of internal and external collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- Crowdsourcing our vision worked great. I was surprised at how easy it was to identify coherent and powerful themes.
- Creating a new org structure is an opportunity to think about what you want to be great at, and organize around that. After going through this, I can’t imagine articulating a vision without also considering organizational change.
If you have ideas or opinions related to these topics, I’d love to hear from you! Share in the comments, or to @nicobrx on Twitter.