iCiDIGITAL is a digital transformation firm that combines technical expertise, creative talent and integrated solutions to create better digital experiences and more profitable customer interactions. They work with big-name clients like Panera Bread, United Airlines, Time Warner Cable, Hyatt, and NASCAR. [Note from 2023: They later merged with Blue Acorn, to become Blue Acorn iCi, and then were acquired by Infosys.]
Greg and I covered the benefits of technology for agencies, how to scale, agency mergers & acquisitions, talent development, challenges for agency leaders, and much more. You can find Greg on LinkedIn.
Interview summary: My top 5 takeaways
Here are my top takeaways from speaking with Greg:
- Technology expertise gives marketing agencies an advantage in getting hired, delivering work, and being profitable.
- Stretch your team past what they believe they can do today in preparation of what you need them to do tomorrow. You will never grow if you are scared of tomorrow.
- There must be a clearly defined vision and goals in any business you run. Otherwise your team won’t know where you are going and the business won’t succeed. There is an old saying: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will definitely get there.”
- The one thing that is consistent in business is change. Change is inevitable and you have to plan for it. Clients and employees will move on. You should be both comfortable and confident that there is more opportunity over the horizon.
- Big clients want to personalize customer content and then track which marketing dollars worked and which didn’t.
Technology Meets Creative: The Importance of Implementation
Q: What’s the difference between a digital marketing agency and a company like iCiDIGITAL, which describes itself as a digital transformation firm?
What I like is the marriage between marketing and technology. We provide services that can help the creative and strategy side, but we come from an engineering heritage. We have the development skills to actually implement the complex, high value technology we recommend.
After years of immersion in both technology and the digital marketing landscape, we noticed the technologies that were being leveraged and how complex they were starting to become. We took our engineering skills and pivoted to become something that could create more value to the organizations we wanted to work with, which was to provide a comprehensive marketing solution.
Where a lot of folks play only on the creative side, I think that we are the perfect blend of creative, content marketing, commerce and engineering. We support the vision of the business and marketing, and at the same time we give the IT folks the confidence that it won’t fail. That blend has been what’s made us successful and has really helped us grow the past couple of years.
Agency Leader Responsibilities and Delegation
Q: What are your responsibilities as an agency president?
I consider myself a servant leader, where I’m supporting the business. I work mainly in support and strategy, not in front of the clients, working on creatives or programming software, anymore.
There’s value in delegation and accountability. For me it’s about putting the right folks in the right places to be successful, which then leads to the organization being successful. I’m there to support ideas and provide a little bit of a nudge when I see things going off the rails.
It’s about being able to be comfortable and confident in delegation—knowing that at the end of the day, I’m still accountable.
Grow Your People to Grow Your Agency
Q: You’ve grown from a team of three to almost 100. How did you do it?
In order to scale an organization you have to support those who are struggling to learn and grow. In our company we often put people in positions that they aren’t quite ready for yet. We do this to stretch them, to get them to be ready.
In business in general if you do things based on when you actually need them, it’s already too late. You have to position yourself in advance within your market or industry and be on the forefront to really capitalize and take advantage. We treat our employees the same way, making sure that we stretch them for tomorrow.
Growing from a handful of people to nearly 100 employees wasn’t just thanks to my effort. I had mentors who supported me and I continue to leverage them today. I’d say my biggest talent in all of this is being able to find the “diamonds in the rough” from a recruiting standpoint.
I don’t care if you’re the smartest person in the room. If you can’t work with your team and if there’s no chemistry, we don’t want you, because for us it’s all about team. We want the people who want to work hard and play hard, and who aren’t afraid of grit. It’s all about growing that culture.
Once you get the right team around you, you can do a lot.
What Enterprise Clients Want: Quantifying and Personalization
Q: If an agency leader wants to work with bigger clients, what should they know?
It can be a challenge to get into large enterprise clients without having some type of niche. Look at your market and find a niche. A lot of agencies want to be all things to all people, and they end up becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none. You must have something that clients need, and there has to be a pain point that you solve.
We took a look at the technology available and decided that digital marketing fits our skill set and has a great growth trajectory. We didn’t just throw a dart and decide to become a digital transformation firm—it was a real business decision.
My advice to anyone starting an agency today is there has to be some technology component to it. Don’t just be a creative generalist. Enterprise clients want to increase their experience, AND performance, AND integrate their tools. Agencies aren’t lacking in creative ability—it’s the technology element that can get you in the door [at the client].
Another thing that’s great about today’s digital marketing is that you can actually quantify and personalize it more easily than you could in the past. The marriage between marketing and technology makes it easy to track down to the dollar what marketing did for us, both internally and for our clients. Fifteen to 20 years ago, you couldn’t really quantify that. We can get down to the individualized user level, which is a big thing with every enterprise organization I’ve spoken to. Enterprise clients want to hone in on the customer. If two people go to the same site and are different ages and live in different cities, they shouldn’t be seeing the same thing. They should see what matters to them.
Client Retention: Strive for Client Independence
Q: How do you retain clients?
What makes us successful in retaining clients is our ability to enable them. Many agencies want clients to be dependent on them, but we enable our clients to be successful and support whatever we build for them. Our clients can just do day-to-day maintenance and then they can call us in like a SWAT team to handle the more aggressive initiatives they may have.
Some agencies get threatened by clients wanting to do things in-house because they don’t have enough clients. If you’re solely dependent on two clients then that’s a business risk that you should be addressing anyway.
When you start to get client diversification, you’re able to create a backlog and have a revolving door where one client may not need you this month or this year, but they will need you the next year. Once you start stacking these, you’ll get the diversification and a business that is starting to come around.
We focus on hiring clients on a project to project basis versus a traditional retainer model. Ever evolving enterprise clients are never short on new initiatives and complex projects, so there’s always a steady pipeline of opportunity.
Agency Pricing and Expectations
Q: How do you ensure you’re charging reasonable prices?
Sometimes [agencies will] do bottom basement pricing to gain or retain a client, and then one day [they’ll] wake up and think “I was charging $90 an hour, how did I not make any money?”
You have to maintain your conviction about your goals and your value to avoid [under-charging]. There is a fundamental difference between a consultant and a contractor. That difference is mainly in the form of expertise and ability to guide the clients. As long as you continue to showcase your expertise, you shouldn’t have a problem.
Also as the paid expert there will always be an expectation of velocity. This can be a challenge when hiring employees that are more comfortable for in-house work versus agency work. This potential lack of pace could lead to client issues and ultimately pricing and/or profitability.
Acquisition: It’s All About Relationships and Culture
Q: You recently acquired Billups Design in Chicago. What was the acquisition process like?
This was probably different from a traditional acquisition because we had been working with them for 18 months. We partnered on a few opportunities before acquisition, so our running joke is we dated before we got married.
In a typical acquisition, you do some research to see whether you complement each other geographically or offering-wise, but you don’t usually work with the target. We were able to work with the people and see that there were a lot of similarities between how we did business and our cultures.
One of the biggest questions we had was about how to lead a group of folks who are used to working independently. Part of it is trust; they must have confidence in you and what you’re doing. Business is always about relationships.
Q: What are some challenges you face as an agency leader, and your advice to others?
A challenge I had going from a contributor to leading an organization was adjusting to different conversation tactics. Sometimes I just have to remove myself because I don’t want to dominate a brainstorming session and have my team take everything I say as final.
For businesses in general, there must be a clear vision and goals, and they have to have hard metrics. How many clients, how much revenue, what is the retention like, etc. Define the business strategy, definitely identify clear goals.
Also, be okay if people leave, whether it’s employees or clients. I’ve seen agencies drive prices down to keep clients and raise employee salaries beyond what’s sustainable to keep them. Don’t forget you’re still running a business.
Every client is not a good client, just like every vendor is not a good vendor. It’s just a reality you have to recognize early and then be ok to move on. This goes back into client diversity; your business cannot depend on just a few clients or people. If you want to scale, you have to create a structure where everyone is important, but not necessary.
For an agency, my advice is to listen to your people and the market equally. Focus on the areas in which you can truly be great today. Remember that you can’t grow by yourself. You are only as good as your team.