Not only is starting with an MVP the most cost-effective and safe way to preserve capital, but it is also the best way to learn from your most important data source about how to make your company better: your clients.
Thomas Donohoe is the CEO and Founder of Level Agency. Donohoe is a digital marketer with over two decades of experience creating, executing and managing digital strategies to drive results for B2B clients. Thomas is a member of YPO, Young Entrepreneurs Council, and he is a Founding Member of EO Charleston. His award-winning agency is the recipient of the Top 10 Digital Marketing Agency in the Region, INC 500, Diamond Award for Outstanding CEO’s, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and #1 Fastest Growing Company in the Region by Pittsburgh Times “Pittsburgh 100.”
Where did the idea for Level Agency come from?
I worked for a decade on the client side as a marketer whose main job was to spend millions of dollars in order to drive more customers at good acquisition costs. I hired the biggest and best ad agencies in America. I witnessed firsthand these giant agencies having massive problems with either the quality of their work or the depth of which they would own results and offer all essential pieces to a very complex ad channel ecosystem.
So I started the agency I wanted to work with when I was the client.
The idea was that there was a massive need for an agency that treated digital advertising as an advanced science to perfect as opposed to an extension of old school marketing. At the time, I knew it would be essential for a marketing firm to do more than a handful of tactics that are required to solve the whole equation of digital customer generation, instead of only one small component of it. Today, that model has proven itself to be 100% true.
B2B companies ranging in revenue from $5,000,000 to $500,000,000 continue to be underserved by global advertising agencies. Often times, you need to hire 6 of their incredibly expensive divisions to get a cohesive best practice digital marketing team ready to battle in the 21st Century.
Specifically, how are they underserved by global ad agencies? In both the quality of work and the depth of which they’d partner with clients to own the real business outcomes of marketing via offering full-stack solutions.
You would find it hard to believe that a company that has 1000 employees and does nothing but social network advertising would be the best at social network advertising. But that’s not the case universally across their entire client portfolio because for smaller accounts (which, keep in mind, are still HUGE companies…just not Fortune 100’s), they often send out the C Team versus their best employees. Even global leaders in each space, from giant consulting companies to marketing agencies, have problems scaling quality of employees as they grow. They’re not going to say no to winning more accounts, and certainly when they have a dozen or more offices, there is a point of diminishing returns in terms of hiring the best employees.
So what inevitably happens with large clients that are worthy of the best methods in the digital marketing world is that they naturally seek out the biggest marketing agencies and, very often, get stuck with the B, C or Bottom Of The Barrel Teams. They usually have no idea because they’re paying the agency to be the experts and they would have a very hard time internally spotting a bad digital advertising person vs. a pretty good account manager in a slick suit with an MBA. The people that sold them the account were often a mix of the A Team, and the people that service the account are the B or C team. When I say that, I’m sure that everyone has experienced what in the consulting world they call “backing up the school bus.” You are sold on a team of the most tenured and skilled employees but the real people that end up doing the work are often younger, more inexperienced, or they are perhaps still fairly senior but not the rock stars you saw when you signed the contract.
There is a massive risk of large companies getting the bait and switch and receiving poor service because they went with a giant marketing agency. If you’re not one of their biggest accounts, and there is always someone bigger if you’re “only” spending $100,000 per month in agency fees, you’re going to get the teams that are half as good as what you’d get with a much smaller digital marketing agency that is more committed to giving you the best employees they have.
Next, there is often a lack of depth pertaining to ownership of results, which is a function of most global digital agencies that are siloed around big clusters of the TYPE of digital work vs. doing every important element under one roof. And if you don’t hire multiple companies within this global giant, which is going to cost a ton of money, then it’s going to be up to your company to fill in the gaps. This nearly always results in the agency not being able to claim responsibility for driving new customers and helping your company make a profit from marketing activities.
As an example, a typical B2B or High-Value B2C company will need the following skill sets and projects to be completed on EVERY digital project, but very few divisions within global giants do all of them because that’s often not how they are structured. You’ll see a lot of giant divisions only doing a few of these…but make no mistake, you NEED every single one:
• Paid Search Engine Marketing
• Organic Search Engine Marketing
• Paid Social Network Marketing
• Organic Social Network Marketing
• Advanced Display Advertising (“banner ads”) via a DSP
• Designing, Building, Hosting, and Optimizing Landing Pages
• Tagging and Tracking (this is incredibly essential and often ignored by small and giant firms alike using solutions like Google Tag Manager to ensure that not only is the data being passed step to step in your marketing and sales funnel, but you’re pulling and aggregating data from down-stream sources like your CRM
• Reporting beyond Excel documents, such as offering an advanced BI Tool for a near-real time dashboard
The simple fact is that if you’re running a 8+ figure top-line revenue B2B or B2C company, you need at LEAST every single one of these marketing skills and tactics above. This doesn’t even begin to touch the additional needs under the marketing umbrella like PR, copywriting, and offline advertising, which are also critical.
But there are so many giant divisions within the global agency leaders that only do a few of these things, that you’re left with massive, lethal holes in your customer generation to-do list and not only is it up to you to handle it, but your new agency goliath can’t own the results because they’ll say they don’t own or contribute to every step in the sales chain. They’ll likely only own a mid-funnel KPI result like clicks or lead volume versus what you really care about like volume of new customers and cost per sale, which fails to fulfill the promise of partnership when these ultimate KPI’s are not co-owned by the agency.
Level Agency was built to solve that need. We built Level to offer every single item on the must-have list in the portfolio of 21st Century Marketing that is essential to effective customer generation.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Monday through Friday I travel and visit current clients or find new partners. When I’m near anything that resembles a flat surface, at 36,000 ft. or in Level’s second office in Charleston SC, I’m doing one of three things:
• Writing my current book on digital advertising and my future books on the same topic
• Reaching out to our partners and clients to better serve the marketplace and improve the positioning of our company
• Writing about full-stack digital marketing and trying to take two decades of working nearly every job in the online trenches and compiling it to share, especially the baseline things every single company on Earth needs to do if they want more clients.
Why? Because there is so much bad marketing out there and so many bad agencies, that my company loses when we talk to an uneducated prospective client that can’t tell the difference between a good agency and a snake oil salesman. I am honestly very OK with getting beat by a worthy, good competitor. But I hate getting beat by a bad company that’s not only likely going to waste the clients’ money and hurt their bottom line, but they’re going to make that client hate all agencies and in the future we’ll need to not only do good work, but work hard to disprove the fact that all agencies are terrible. This happens no less than 1/3 of the time we encounter a new client. Bad marketing is prolific and it hurts both clients and the good agencies and digital professionals out there.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When you still actively DO the real work that your most junior employees do for your clients every day, you see things that other CEO’s can’t and won’t see. It’s easy to delegate yourself out of knowing what you’re talking about; to extinguish the fire of problem solving and creativity in the name of “That’s No Longer My Job.”
I am one of the few CEO’s of a mid-sized digital marketing agency that still gets his hands dirty running Google, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn ads manually. The day that a CEO forgets how to do the real work that a company specializes in is the day that company starts allowing bad work to happen. People think that leadership comes from the top. It doesn’t. It comes from all levels of a good organization. What comes from the top is the demand for quality across every service line. You would be shocked to know how few C level executives at digital marketing agencies even know how to do a keyword build or what the backend of Facebook looks like. When you start doing the work, even if you just dive back in for an hour a week, you bring yourself back to the place where that idea and those solutions to problems come to light.
I have an unrelenting interest in the science and art of the core of what my agency does, and it is very difficult to evolve into a full-time CEO versus a CEO whom still enjoys the actual digital advertising work, theory and tactics. This is a good thing as an entrepreneur. As an executive, as you move up and as your company grows, you start doing LESS of the work your company is known for and more things relating to running the company. Things like HR, accounting & finance, legal issues, operational logistics, etc. While these things are ESSENTIAL to a successful growing company, it takes time, focus, and ultimately understanding away from the very subject matter expertise that made me good in the first place. So my continual interest – and therefore monthly commitment to still mire myself in the actual digital advertising while allowing my executive team to either partially or completely take care of the other essential duties of running a company – has allowed me to lead from the front of thought leadership and strategic direction of the company. For Level Agency, this means that the way we do our digital marketing and the sophistication of our approach is typically better than most companies, which is our strategic advantage (versus being a low-cost leader).
What’s one trend that excites you?
The overall fascination and subsequent investment in technology that will save us time is one trend that excites me. The past 30+ years have been dominated by the ascendance of consuming and sharing information – from widespread Internet usage in the 90’s to Google in 2000 to Facebook to each subsequent social media channel. Over the past five years, we have seen a focus on optimizing the precious asset of time – whether through straightforward time saving to multitasking. Uber does both: you can do more while waiting for your Uber that you know will arrive and never worry about payment at the end. This excites me because while the fascination with knowledge was an incredible benefit to the overall global index of doing smart things via more invention, collaboration, etc, it was a long-term benefit. But the new zeitgeist of saving time…that’s an immediate benefit to every human today.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
In the past few years, I’ve been on the road more than 40 weeks a year. When you’re the CEO or an entrepreneur with not much oversight, it is easy to use that time to decompress or watch a movie. I fell into this trap for most of my early career. Recently, I’ve executed on the promise I made to myself to take advantage of being stuck in a seat with a laptop within reach. My goal is to work 75% of every single flight and try and take advantage of the white noise of the engines and not having coworkers or life at 35,000 feet distract you.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t waste time on services or projects that won’t make you money. Focus on the essentials and go all in.
Accept the fact that your feelings are less important than the success of the company and, often, those two are in direct opposition to each other.
Own your results and mistakes – and the CEO needs to be the one making and owning up to the most mistakes. The most important skill set that every person regardless of talent can manifest in my world is OWNERSHIP. Not hard work, aptitude, or even self-awareness. Seeing the CEO own the results and mistakes is essential in letting ownership metastasize.
BE VULNERABLE. Seriously. The CEO is not a god and for younger coworkers, it’s important to remind them of the need to make mistakes and speak their mind…and not live in the shadows of C Level titles.
Care an absurd amount about if your clients are doing well, even if you are losing money or breaking even on some accounts. Business karma is real. Great work done in a well-run company will live longer than short term P&L wins.
Pick the smartest humans you can find to work with, hire them, and get out of their way.
TRUST in earnest people who care and give them real ownership in the process. Do not micromanage and you’ll unleash things much bigger than yourself.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Nobody agrees with me that companies waste 100X more time on fancy SaaS platforms and tech solutions than they should. These companies forget to tie their shoes and execute on the basics of sales and marketing. This means that most companies aren’t running baseline digital advertising, yet they want to drop five figures a month on some analytics package that won’t ever legitimately improve their business and will instead only make executives feel better.
As an example, they’re not running tradename/brand paid search engine marketing, WHICH every company on Earth needs to run, but instead they are interested in much more expensive and difficult tactics that will make them FAR less money. Most executives have no idea what’s really going on in the trenches of customer generation and get sold a bill of goods while their house is on fire.
Another thing that no one agrees with me on? Conferences that sell the newest bells and whistles are usually a complete waste of time. Why? Because they’re not trying to remind you to fix what’s broken (ex: run tradename search) and instead try and sell you on things you shouldn’t be doing until AFTER you build the baseline digital campaigns and tactics that are far less expensive, far easier and faster to build, and much more profitable.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Make sure you’re doing the basic stuff that’s core to your business, especially if you’re a service business that also uses that service. The excuse that the cobblers sons do not have shoes is garbage and shouldn’t be tolerated.
I recommend that everyone else does exactly what we do- the core 4. The core 4 includes essential marketing tactics for every company in the world to run vs. the marketing tactics and campaigns that are either less essential or things that need to be done in later phases AFTER the baseline must-have marketing campaigns are in place.
The Core 4 includes:
• Tradename Paid Search Engine Marketing (also called Brand Search)
• Paid Social Network Advertising Custom Audience Targeting (“CAT”)
• Retargeting Banner ads via Display Network and Social Networks
• Landing Pages
Those are the 4 things that every B2B and High-Value B2C company needs to run to have an efficient, successful customer generation marketing effort in the 21st Century.
So we offer these things as an agency as well as the more advanced tactics in search engines, social networks, banner advertising and landing page creation and optimization.
We also offer the essential reporting and analytics that must accompany these efforts.
But what we don’t offer are pieces under the marketing umbrella that CAN be useful, but are NOT must-have things for every single B2B and B2C company or things that we feel clients can do just fine in-house: things like PR, conference and event management, and traditional advertising on TV, print and radio.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Understand that not every industry or client will give you money just because they SHOULD want your service. Identify a need, sure. But also understand what clients are willing to budget for your goods or services. Not every thirsty man is going to buy a glass of water, no matter how much they need it.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
After our first five months in business and after 45 days of selling, no one was buying our product. Everyone took meetings because it was a great IDEA…but no one wanted to commit to a real budget. Within 30 days, we retooled our product line, started selling what clients were WILLING to buy, and within nine months, we were profitable.
So my failure was not selling what companies wanted to spend money on because I didn’t ask them what they had budgeted for. I thought a great idea alone would command revenue, which is a common, deadly assumption of most entrepreneurs.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Please STOP making apps. There are going to be 500,000 other people like you trying to make apps and 5000 will be just like yours. And STOP building SaaS companies because you like the exit multiples and the easy-as-hell revenue model and the fact that “all you need to do is build the tech.”
Start creating SERVICE businesses. Why? With every app and every SaaS company that gets funded, another layer of complexity is created that few companies have the in-house talent to control and manage.
50 years ago, most people understood the basics of how their modern appliances and cars worked. Not everyone was a mechanic, but the delta between the baseline understanding of how stuff worked vs. the stuff itself wasn’t that large.
Today, every single device we own is multiple orders of magnitude more complex than 99% of the average person’s understanding of how they work.
The same is true for companies. Start a service business and take advantage of the fact that everyone else’s startup is going to make the ecosystem MORE confusing for an internal team. Pick a category and solve THAT need in the marketplace.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Because my job as a CEO is, partially, as a digital advertising thought leader, I need to film a lot of videos explaining how to do some fairly complex things in digital advertising. I am alone when I do this on the road. So I pieced together an amazing selfie video rig comprised of the following:
• The new DJI Osmo Pocket
• The new RODE GO Wireless system that is the first actual wireless, Bluetooth lavalier mic
• The LITRA LitraTorch Photo and Video Light – An unbreakable, super compact and bright as heck light
These three things + some selfie-stick action gives me the lightest, best 4k quality selfie-video filming ability with facial recognition and tracking in the market. An absolute killer trifecta.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Dropbox is life. It is both a warm blanket of security from worst-case scenarios as well as a collaboration facilitator.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I recommend reading my new book “The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook,” published by Koehler Books, coming out in October 2019. In 150 pages, it will teach:
(a) Every CEO how to manage their marketing in the 21st Century
(b) Every digital marketer how to be better at the essential, must-have tactics in today’s competitive cross-channel environments
(c) Every sole proprietor and startup on what the essential components of B2B and High-Value B2C digital advertising is and how to do it in-house more cost-effectively.
What is your favorite quote?
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” – Lincoln
This quote is quite possibly the perfect definition of the state of marketing. The old tactics and the commanding strategic doctrines of marketing and advertising before the Internet and the 2000’s with shared-risk and well-targeted digital channels are dangerous and inadequate in today’s business environments. As an example, in the old days, you’d have one slogan for your company and you’d spend all your money on traditional offline advertising. Some companies still do this to this day. But not having dozens of unique messages and call to actions active at the same time across all of your different customer types is flat out bad marketing, as is spending all or even a majority of your marketing dollars in offline media because those channels have terrible ROI, widespread inability to track results, and poor to little ability to surgically target your future customers and optimize accordingly with data.
- Focus On The Money: The single most important thing is to find available revenue today (right now and ready to be spent) and create a product or service to get it. Focus on the people in charge of the money in the industry or vertical you are going after and seek them out. Ignore things that can happen in the future and instead focus on identifying revenue before you start a company instead of after! Too many entrepreneurs ignore the need to be profitable within 6-9 months. Unless you are one of the few with seven or eight figures of venture capital in your bank account and can afford not to turn a profit for years, you need to focus on making money out of the gate. It is nice to want to change the world, but you need money to do that. You can’t achieve higher level philanthropic goals without having a profitable, running company first.
- Get 2 client commitments before launching: Have 1 or 2 clients willing to sign with you before you start the company. Get a verbal agreement from a person at a company that has a purchase order or a contract that they are willing to sign. If you start a company without having that, you are likely not going to make it. Most people don’t make it for that reason. If you start a company and assume or hope that the market will buy what you have, you will fail. Assumptions and hope are not strategies. Nothing is more important than getting a client commitment before you start a company. Few things will give your new business a better start than opening your door on day 1 with a new client.
- Build Your MVP: Create a product or service that is simple and solves the most basic need. This is called the Minimum Viable Product (“MVP”). Too often startups waste time trying to make the perfect product or solution and ignore the need to establish quick wins and cash flow. Start dealing with customers as soon as possible with a baseline version of your product or service so you can learn what you need to build or offer next. Not only is starting with an MVP the most cost-effective and safe way to preserve capital, but it is also the best way to learn from your most important data source about how to make your company better: your clients. If you take more time to build a fancier version of your product or service, you are delaying the opportunity to engage with the marketplace so it can guide your v2.0.
- Better or Cheaper: Either make your MVP work better than your competition OR as good as your competition but for less money/in less time/with less effort. There is no need to do both because either one of those value propositions is good enough for your future customers to want your product.
- Keep It Simple: Do not let lawyers and complicated contracts stand in the way of your first few clients. Bring process and official documents in after you have created a revenue stream. The risk you accept by doing business without a 20-page contract vs. a 2-page contract is much less than the near guarantee you’ll lose clients early on by scaring them away with massive contracts you’ll very rarely need.