Agency Unfiltered - Scott Baradell from IdeaGrove

Transitioning Your Agency from PR to Digital

Scott sits in to teach us how he successfully made the transition from traditional PR to digital marketing. He explains why he moved from PR to a full menu of digital services, how his processes and team structure changed to account for this transition, and why PR and digital marketing are a great fit for pairing together.

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Episode Transcript

The Agency Unfiltered train rolls on with a stop in Dallas, Texas. Our hosts, Scott Baradell and the Idea Grove team. Scott is the founder and CEO of Idea Grove, a platinum HubSpot agency, and in this episode Scott teaches us how he successfully made the transition from a PR agency to a full digital marketing agency. He explains why he moved from traditional PR to a full menu of digital services, how his processes and team structure changed to account for this transition, and why PR and digital marketing are a great fit for pairing together. Ready? Let's dive in.

KD: Well, hello Scott, thanks for joining us on Agency Unfiltered. Very excited to be here in Dallas.

SB: First time in Dallas for you, we're excited to have you here. Hopefully, you won't get into too much trouble.

KD: Yeah, hopefully. I saw there's a pretty good craft beer scene and a bunch barbecue and fried chicken, so, that'll definitely be my plans after this.

SB: And Tex Mex.

KD: And Tex Mex.

SB: You just have to eat the whole time you're here.

KD: I think I can make that happen. Now we're going to be talking today about Idea Grove, your team, and how you were able to transition from a traditional PR agency into an agency that offers PR still but also a full menu of digital services. I think that's a really interesting transition, and we can certainly dig into it in a second, but maybe the best place to start would be for you to give us context into who Idea Grove was as a PR agency, and what that looked like pre-migration to full digital if that makes sense.

SB: Well, Idea Grove, well, is 14 years old, but the first six years, it was just me. And so, as a PR firm and content firm for B2B tech companies, I did a lot of writing, a lot of producing white papers, eBooks things like that from the beginning—and the evolution came with hiring staff, beginning in 2011, and realizing that as we brought in folks who had been at larger PR firms and agency experience. because I came from journalism and corporate side I hadn't worked at an agency so I was kind of learning from folks who had been doing it, that the traditional structures for PR agencies really didn't work for, as well, for where things were going with PR marketing. And so over time we've tried a number of different structures that we've evolved to try to really organize around what our clients need.

KD: So, meeting clients where they're at, having a vision of the future and saying well, traditionally what we're offering in this PR landscape is not going to meet the future of where our clients need to go. How did you see digital inbound this new menu of services. How did you see that being a complimentary piece?

SB: Well, for me, I started my agency when I left my last corporate job which was at a media company. I started with a blog before I even had a client. So, I was blogging beginning of 2005 sometime ago in early days. And I realized that this was really all about audience building. And it came natural, I thought to PR because has to, PR can't buy an ad and say, "Here you're going to see an ad for our product." PR has to organically get a third party authority or endorser to agree that what you're talking about is interesting. And then hopefully, they'll write about it or do a story on it. And that's fundamentally what inbound marketing is all about. Inbound marketing, that whole inbound marketing revolution which HubSpot was right at the forefront of was always about stop talking about yourself, and start talking about things that are of interest that will draw people in, and hopefully bring them back to you as an authority. Well, authority building is what PR has always been about through the tool principally of getting the endorsement, and the authority that comes with getting media coverage. So, there are a lot similarities in that respect, and so as we started organizing as an agency, and the first synergies we really started to realize were around the kinds of content, the kinds of ideation that we did in PR, if you took them to that thought leadership level, worked just as well for say, gated content, social currency as they did for something that you might pitch to reporter. We do it all the time. This is something we've been doing for years, we're doing it all the time today.

A great example is a survey. A client in the indoor, cellular coverage space making sure tall buildings have coverage, they have signal indoors. Instead of just talking about their company and their product, doing a survey of office workers where you survey about them, their common frustrations, with having to go by the window or having to go outside to make a phone call, things like that. That kind of survey and understanding how Millennials expectations of cellular coverage in an office might be different from older workers, all those kind of slicing and dicing of a survey, that is great media fodder. A survey like that, which we did, got coverage across all kinds of vertical trades in mainstream business press and was turned into two different assets that were gated that were used in the nurturing of clients. So, from my standpoint, I've always said from the beginning, all these different functions that we do that's one thing. There's a lot of people do these things. What's really rare is good ideas. They don't come along everyday. Good ideas about, that you have a unique take on your industry. You have something unique to contribute to the conversation in your space. So, when you have one of those make the most of it. It's like using every part of the whale. It's that's what you have to do. And an integrated agency is best position to do that.

KD: I love that, it's almost like a marriage. The mindset is the same on both sides, right? And I think that embracing that change or that shift is one thing, but I would say that actually putting it into practice at your agency is a whole other thing. So, by adopting that mindset, by making that shift, by being an integrated agency, how did you approach the way you built your team and restructured your team from account management to hierarchies what did that shift look like internally?

SB: Well, it hasn't been easy to be honest and it's been in phases. We've, fortunately, consistently grown. But I've also felt like we've reached growth plateaus because even though our ideas are always good, and I think our work was always strong, our organization was behind where we needed to be in terms of being as frictionless and scalable as possible. So, as an example, when I first started hiring folks back in 2011, when we are 20, around 25 people now, and we were at around eight to 10, we had folks that were PR, content and digital. And digital at that time would be a couple folks that did web design and little SEO things like that.

KD: But not digital as we see it today.

SB: Yeah, pretty light on that side but something that could compliment a core offering that was really built around content being the way to turn those ideas into reality that could be used across the board. We ultimately, four plus years ago, became a HubSpot partner that helped us to get a more form around how we were doing approaching digital. But what's happened is, what's digital and what's PR, those lines continue to blur and blur to where they become meaningless. What used to be called in SEO, at least in terms of the inbound link portion of SEO, the best way to do that is through what's always been PR. Getting a guest post, an article published or getting someone to write about you. Things like getting a review on a review site in our space in B2B tech a Capterra or the other Gartner digital marketing sites, G2 crowd. That goes as far today in terms of doing what PR should do for a client as an article in trade publication might get. So, what's digital? What's PR? Because Capterra, initially, in its early days was all about lead generation for SaaS businesses. And so now is it lead generation? Is it PR? Where does the line for one stop and start. When you look at it that way, it really means that organizing the way we used to, PR, content, digital, what is, the terms become meaningless. What we've evolved to that is, that which we're really excited about in terms of the scalability of it, is evolving to a structure where we've got an account management group and a product group.

Our former VP of digital Nate Binford, who's been our executive running the HubSpot relationship among other things, is now VP of product. We've taken media relations, what used to be, the work used to be performed by the account management team because how PR firms have traditionally been structured is that they were a hierarchy of generalists. You were the account manager and you did the PR work. If you were account coordinator, account manager account director and so forth you still did the same things, you just got better at it, and did, and took more and had more responsibility. Very different from how, say a creative firm would be structured. The account people would never try to be the designers, right? So, we realized that having, trying to be neither fish nor fowl ultimately inhibited our scalability. So, what we've done is we've now brought on a senior level person who is a media relation strategist working across accounts in the same way that our designers do web design or other kinds of design across accounts. And you allow that, that frees up the account people to not be first thinking about PR and not have a difficulty really taking an integrated approach to how they service clients. Because there is always going to be an inherent bias when our account people were also the doers of the PR work. And it was kind of more difficult transition than you might think because 90 plus percent of PR firms in this country organize as that hierarchy of generalists. Meaning the candidates are expecting to come into a job where they're going to do media relations work and account management, and you're telling them, "No we actually separate those here." We're starting to see some agencies Gowen, one of the big PR agencies who we just brought someone over from and others that have done that. But I think it's a reason why despite the fact that logically it made all the sense in the world for PR, and inbound marketing to have a marriage, the logistical and operational issues based on how PR agencies had been traditionally structured have made that difficult.

That's why to this day, I just remember a couple years ago, one of the folks that I'm partnered at HubSpot had told me, "Wow you're a PR firm? "That's kind of unicorn for us, "in terms of agencies partners for HubSpot." Because there was always an expectation gosh, it seems unnatural why is it happening? So, I think it's starting to happen more. You're seeing more and more PR agencies starting to realize the synergies and to find ways to take advantage of them. That and I make the joke that PR people don't do math. And so when you get into the field digital and you're doing, dealing with a lot of analytics there's a certain subsection of PR people who are kind of scared away by that but if you're kind of one the geeky side of things you like technology, in terms of the story telling piece and seeking that third party validation piece there's a lot of synergies.

KD: I absolutely love that. You mentioned that it sounds like the driving force behind that restructure was that it was hard to tell when would PR start and end, and where would something like digital would start and end. So rather than having two distinct account manager groups that would do both the account management and ownership, we actually now have account managers and product, PR media relations being one of the products that group comes in on, is that—

SB: That's exactly right. So for example, we do manage, we start a lot of PR engagements now, starting, it used to be a traditional agency would start a PR engagement by building your media list. Who, what are the media work on, send press releases to pitch stories to. We start with an MPS survey of your customers because that's who today has more credibility. That's why Gartner bought Capterra is because Capterra views have as much more credibility than the opinion of some Garnter analyst today. It's the person who's closer to you is who all the data shows people are trusting today.

KD: Word of mouth, social proof referrals, yup.

SB: Exactly, and so that's an example of how, if you're fundamentally kind of flipping what you expect of a PR people, PR practitioner, are you really going to take your whole staff and try to train them to know everything they need to know to make the most of a reputation management play across multiple review sites? Or, are you going to have one person who's your internal subject matter expert who you can turn to execute on that. And so you start to realize that as part of what we would call PR, or I call authority building because we've built it in a more varied array of ways today, media relations is critically important but it's not the be all and end all that it used to be. There are other pieces that to have a good PR program for a client, you have to be able to do, and it's always changing. So, when PR wasn't, PR is changing probably at 100 times the speed that it was 10 years ago. You can't keep trying to train a generalist to keep adding more and more and more knowledge. Their brains explode, it won't work. And so, once you've done that, then you say, "Well gosh, I got 10 people over here "who all know a lot about media relations. "I don't want to lose that knowledge. "But I have to take away some of that work "so they won't be so focused on that one to one toolbox." Because for some clients, and what they need it's going to be by far the most important tool to them.

For others, we may determine, you know what, you're thinking you want media coverage but based on what you've described your business goals as being, have you thought about one of these three or four other tactics for achieving those goals. It gives us a much better ability to help our clients strategically to match what we can do to what they need. And as our account teams are freed up to kind of approach all of these different things that we can do for our clients in a mutual way always knowing there'll be things they're better at than others. But having the mind space to be able to, we're sending four of our PR folks who have been PR trained to HubSpots account management boot camp in June. We did it last year. We do, we've set up account management training program here. And what's really exciting is that compared to a few years ago, when sometimes people were like, "Hey man, I just want to do PR." Everyone on our team at least is excited about it. They really want to learn this. They realize that the future is, requires us to become more nimble to be in a position where we're constantly learning, and not settling for sticking to what you learned at your last job or learned in college or what you thought it was going to be. It's so important to have a group of people who embrace the idea of continuous learning.

KD: We've talked about the approach from an internal perspective, but what does that look like on the other side of the coin with your clients, right? Do you now cross-sell your legacy PR customers into digital or do you look to expand your services in that direction. Is this whole new market of customers that you're now going after? So, with that transition to that integrated firm what is the client base look like in the way you going to market.

SB: Yeah, it really depends, our clients are mostly mid-market. We've got some really big companies that we work with. Most of our clients are mid-market and well, typically they're only agency. And so maybe they have a budget of $10-, $12-, $15,000 a month. And in many cases it would be very difficult for them to dramatically increase that budget. So, what typically happens is we reprioritize. And so, for a client that is saying, "Gosh I need to know, figure out how to get the most "for my investment." We have more options for helping to ensure we provide that. We do have a lot of clients that we upsell on a project basis. That makes, it's, it makes a client feel more comfortable that they haven't just kind of doubled their retainer commitment, to feel like they have more control over it. They can try out things. Like someone who's been using us for PR and wants us to start helping them with managing their HubSpot or to start doing video content for them or other things. So, it's generally start with a base in that $10-to-$15,000 a month range and what we do from there is on a project basis. We've had a couple clients that have just taken it from 10 to 25 or things like that. But I think, based on the size clients we work with that's a little scary for some of them. So, if you can bite it off kind of a chunk at a time with a defined project where they know what they're going to get, they feel more comfortable doing that way.

KD: And do you find or is there a success rate that you track or anything from folks that start with that initial project into, do they end up rolling that into their retainer full time or what kind, how do you see that additional project apply in the long term?

SB: In some cases, we've seen it happen both ways. At a certain point a client might just be, "I've signed enough changeovers here "or enough project contracts, why don't we just go, "and since we've been doing this every quarter for a year, "why don't we just build it "into the next retainer contract?"

KD: Final question for you. I tend to ask a lot of folks that I have on but I'd be interested to get your perspective on it what would you say is the weirdest part of agency life?

SB: The weirdest part of agency life? All right.

KD: Premium bean bags.

SB: We have premium bean bags, our bean bags are not made of plastic, and do not have actual beans in them. One of the, maybe not weirdest, but most unique parts of family, of agency life, it is a family. If you're, I think I've gone back and forth over the years of whether, okay is this a business or is it family or you know? because I sometimes push in the direction of hey, you're being too easy on people and then, but you get too business like, it doesn't feel right, and gosh why don't you just go to work for a corporation because they pay more than agencies pay. You got to be able to provide an experience and an atmosphere that feels different or fundamentally what makes it feel different or has to, is that you're getting a chance to be more you by being more creative, by interacting with people in a real way, by using our premium bean bags. You know things like that. We've got a sectional, what do you want? I've never worked at place with a sectional before. So, we needed to have one.

KD: Well, I appreciate taking the time, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on for a very loungey sectional-based episode of Agency Unfiltered. Scott, thanks so much, and that's it, that's for today's episode.

SB: Thank you.

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