10 Lessons Learned From a Decade in Digital Marketing

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During the Christmas break, I was doing a bit of housekeeping on my LinkedIn profile and happened to tot up my years with each employer. To my surprise, the total was over 10 years! It had crept up on me like a silent ninja snail and got me thinking that I should mark the occasion by reflecting on the lessons I have learnt a long the way. So here I go:

One morning in 2006, I sat down at my computer for another day of marketing placement/internship hunting. This time it wasn’t just the typical mix of big brand marketing apprenticeships and local businesses on the hunt for a glorified coffee maker. There was a listing for an opportunity to join a media buying agency called MediaVest based in Manchester city centre. The role was for a 12 month PPC internship. Three letters I had never seen before but after a little research established they were “digital marketing” related, I was intrigued. I had been on a Marketing degree course at Huddersfield University for almost 2 years and “digital marketing” had not been mentioned once. I filled out the job application and 2 interviews later I was offered the role.

Little did I know that 10 years later I would have written my dissertation on search engine marketing, graduated from university, worked for 3 agencies, a fashion brand and be running my own digital marketing consultancy business. So what have I learnt about the industry that has nurtured and clothed me for the last decade?

1. You Haven’t Got to LOVE it.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting a lot out of your job or having a passion for what you do is important. There is no point spending 7+ hours a day, five days a week, doing something that you hate. But I think there is often a perception that if you work in digital marketing you have to LOVE what you do. I have survived successfully for 10 years in the industry using a mixture of marketing know-how, logic, platform tools and the principles behind buyer behaviour. I am happy to admit that I don’t love what I do, even now whilst owning a digital marketing business. I have acquired the skills to do something well and get positive results doing it. That is enough for me, and my clients.


2. No Shortcuts. Work For It

Over the years I have seen a lot of agencies come and go. Of course, there are many reasons behind who survives and who doesn’t. But one thing the survivors often have in common is a commitment to quality over shortcuts. Many agencies fill clients’ heads with this belief that they can somehow press a button and make a million pounds for them overnight. These marketers spend a lot of time looking for shortcuts, that untapped magic traffic source or the infamous secret to page one Google rankings.

Instead of looking for an easy win that probably doesn’t exist, you should be prepared to do what it takes to build or work for a solid business. This means committing to creating a quality service offering, building an experienced team and delivering great results. If more marketers and agency owners committed to this goal then we would have a higher average agency lifespan and an industry that isn’t blighted by shysters and misconceptions.


3. Give An Inch, They Take A Mile

On that theme of shortcuts, I have learnt a very important lesson about managing client expectations. This is an important and unavoidable element to get right for every business or individual working in the digital marketing sector (or any sector). On a daily basis you will be interacting with clients and communicating various aspects of a project from turnaround times to results. Every time you do this you are setting the scene for how you work and what kind of business you are. These little interactions are as important as those proposals and monthly reports. When a client looks back on your first 3 months or year they will be subconsciously taking in all those times you said you would do something and did it or didint.

So in the delivery of early communications try and establish precedents which set the scene for the whole project or relationship. For example:

  • They can have a quick response, but the full detailed response may take a day to turnaround.
  • They can have a higher quality piece of content produced but this wont be fast or cheap.
  • They can have a cheaper quote but then this won’t be done ads quickly and wont include all the extras.

The key is to make the client understand that you have other clients and they can’t have everything. As soon as they think they can, they become a financially inviable nightmare. There has to compromise. The GIF below sums this concept up perfectly. Picture it when you are dealing with clients.


4. Technology Changes, But People & Principles Remain the Same

Although my marketing degree modules taught me very little about digital marketing, they did include a lot of the principles behind human buying behaviour. In the last 10 years, technology has advanced a hell of a lot leading to the launch of new advertising channels, countless new tools and tracking /attribution abilities. But what has remained the same is human’s basic wants, needs and desires. These dictate how we behave and how we interact with marketing and advertising media.

If you can learn to understand human behaviour and response, you will be miles ahead of your competitors who are often focusing on the technical tactics. Combine what new technology has to offer with time-tested marketing messages and you will have a winning formula for sure.


5. You’re Better Off Without Some Clients

Whether you run a 100 person agency or are a freelancer, clients are imperative for you to make money and be sustainable. However at times, agencies in particular, are guilty of taking on clients who are clearly going to cause problems for them. They see the money over the faff-time, stress, legal action etc that is going to arise later down the line.

There are various litmus tests to weed out those nightmare clients. I, for example, have a needs assessment form that all clients must fill in before I move to proposal or project kick-off. This asks big questions about the business, setup, audience, competition and importantly, budget. The idea is that a client is going to have to work with me and give me information throughout the project so if they aren’t willing to share at the start they aren’t a client for me.

Over the years, I have challenged client briefs and withdrawn from pitching if I don’t believe that the strategy is in their best interests, or if I don’t feel there is a good fit between them and I. This has obviously had an impact on my business growth at times but we must stand for what we believe, at our own expense, and I would rather build long-term client relationships with clients than make a quick buck on projects that are ultimately doomed to failure. I also have no interest in working with people who give me grief or stress. Granted, in agency side roles this isnt something I had any say on but now I am my boss I will happily turn down a project where the client is going to be a pain in the arse.


6. Money Does Not Equal Happiness

Yes, I know this is possibly the most over a quoted quote in the history of quotes. I’m not some frugal hippy living off-grid. I like my boy’s toys, house, car etc. Those things happen to be a by-product of my success running my own business.

But have a real think about its application to your business, agency and life. For me I was always convinced that having big spending clients would give me happiness during agency roles. But then it was getting creative with the low spending clients that really excited me. I also always thought that getting to a salary that was above my age (dumb I know) would make me feel satisfied in my job. In fact, I still felt incomplete when I reached that milestone.

Money makes the world go around and certainly makes businesses function, but I think more people need to take happiness from achieving something sustainable, than looking for the next bigger bucks. Perhaps I should take up Buddhism but I have definitely learned that money does not guarantee happiness and that, for me, deeper satisfaction is not related to a bank balance. It comes from running a business that delivers me a much better lifestyle than I ever had before. Something to think about for those with employees or those who are solo.


7. Work Smart, Not Hard

During my full-time employment and now as a business owner, I have never bought into this view that to be successful or achieve, you need to “work hard”. I have watched colleagues age considerably as they stress to work all hours of the day in the belief that this will lead to objectives being achieved. I, however, have always bought into the concept of working smarter, not harder.

Success in any business, including digital marketing, is not about working harder. It is about getting more done and this doesn’t always have to be done by yourself. As I mentioned in previous posts, I realised last year that certain tasks were taking up a huge amount of my time and could be done by properly vetted professionals, not me. This was a game changer for my time and my business in 2017.

For me, a great business (agency or otherwise) is based upon a set of defined, tried and tested systems or processes. These processes make your life easier, keep your work consistent and make you or your team more productive. Tried and tested processes are vital to the development of a person or business. Don’t be one of those people who wait for their health to suffer before learning this important lesson!


8. Going the Extra Mile Makes a Difference

Another cliche quote to tick off the list ☑️. But this lesson applies to us all in everything we do personally or financially. But dont get this mixed up with the above. Working yourself into the ground is not what this teaches us. This is about those little things that improve something for others and in-turn improve our professional lives. Put that extra bit of thought into a clients campaign. Help out a colleague struggling to get that pitch deck done in time. Send a thank you card to your client at the end of the year. Customise your client’s advert imagery to make it more personal, even though they didn’t pay or ask for it.

Going the extra mile was important back in 2007 when I started this journey, but it is even more important in 2018 when there are countless options a client looking for digital marketing help.


9. Culture is Important for All

A company’s culture is not immediately obvious, it really be measured and it won’t appear in any Companies House report. But even for us solo businesses, I believe that it is one of the most impactful assets a business has. Culture is the glue that holds successful companies together. I, for example, strive to run an approachable business that puts transparency and integrity before profit.

Whilst working in an agency it’s easy to think it’s the responsibility of the leadership team to build and maintain the culture. In fact, simply every single person in an organisation makes an important contribution. Look out for what type of people the company is recruiting. This dictates the type of culture and values they are aiming to build whilst helping you understand whether you fit into that. Working with people and in teams that share what you value is fantastic and effects not only the team’s output but also your job satisfaction. If you dont feel you fit into an agency or companies culture, or are being treated like a cog rather than a person, perhaps think about moving on.


10.  Content Bullshit is King

Arguably one the biggest single reasons for my decision to start Profoundry was the frustration that I felt at the quality of digital marketing consultancy on offer in the UK. Of course, most industries are affected by this, but the world of digital marketing suffers more than most, due primarily to the fact that there are no real barriers to entry and no regulators.

Whilst things have moved on in the last ten years, there is still far too much bullshit. I often get frustrated seeing the ‘wisdom’ being touted by the self-professed ‘gurus’, ‘experts’ and ‘specialists’ out there. Unfortunately, it remains very easy to set up shop, guarantee results and declare yourself to be the “best agency in the world”. The fact that agencies can pay to enter awards and almost guarantee themselves an award doesn’t help things. Ultimately it is up to clients to do their due diligence and make sure that prospective partners really can deliver what they say they can.

As general levels of knowledge and confidence increase, I hope to see the bullshit-o-meter levels continue to fall over the coming years.


BONUS LESSON: The 80:20 Rule

(It wouldn’t be a digital marketing related post without some percentages!) The Pareto Principle says that you actually get 80% of your results from 20% of your activities. I have found that this rule pops up time and again in btoh business ownership and digital marketing. Here are some examples:

  • From a product perspective, 80 percent of a typical company’s revenue is derived from 20 percent of its products or services.
  • A typical business earns approximately 80 percent of its profits from the top 20 percent of its customer base.
  • 80 percent of your online product sales come from 20 percent of your products.
  • In general, 20 percent of marketing messages produce 80 percent of a campaign’s results.
  • 80 percent of your traffic comes from 20 percent of your traffic channels.
  • 20 percent of your time can produce 80 percent of your results if managed correctly.

It’s important to understand that this rule is not a magic trick. It’s a principle and not some inviolable law of the universe. More precisely, it’s a trend and something that happens most of the time. The Pareto principle can be extremely powerful and demonstrates that power can come from realising that your data is telling you a story and that it is actionable. Focus on finding the 20% in what you do and liberating it’s potential. Look into your business and client’s data to source those precious 20%s and exploit them as much as you can.


I would love to hear your lessons from working in the digital marketing industry. Pop them in the comments below.

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On October 28, 2018