As a Diamond Tier HubSpot Partner, Salted Stone is in the top 0.5% of agency partners within the HubSpot ecosystem. But we didn’t get here without learning some lessons. One such lesson that I’ve been reflecting upon lately is how inbound marketing success — and the degrees of success — are driven by three primary factors:
- The individual talents of each contributing team member,
- The process that first orders and then synthesizes each team member’s contribution into a single cohesive effort, and
- The culture that binds the team members together.
We’ve been in business since 2009 and have had around 50 individual employees since inception. I can say with confidence that our team today is more talented than it has ever been. We have a combination of blue chips and solid depth in most positions.
One of our clients recently told me: “It’s easy to do marketing. It’s just hard to do marketing really well.” This is a simple yet astute observation, and one that is aligned with my experience in building an agency. We become more formidable as an agency with each new key personnel acquisition and with each new step forward in skill level that existing team members take.
I gauge the difference between our team now and our team in 2009 in three distinct ways:
- My regular attention and involvement in several areas of the business is no longer required whereas I was once heavily involved. This is because those areas are driving success in my absence.
- If I were to become involved in those areas of the business, it would likely represent a step backwards or would otherwise prove detrimental because the individuals who are now responsible for those domains are more capable than I am as it relates to those domains. They are driving greater success in my absence than they would be in my presence.
- Teams are pushing the envelope in ways that are innovative and opening the doors to new opportunities, revenue channels, etc. They are succeeding not only in driving success for our clients, but also in tangential ways for the agency as well.
In many respects, the caliber of our team is forcing me to rethink my own role within the organization, as every time someone comes aboard to handle a responsibility that used to fall within my domain, the agency seems better off because of it. In short: as my direct involvement diminishes, the agency seems to excel.
Ballast Point is one of my favorite breweries. They were just acquired by Constellation Brands, which also happens to make some of my go-to beers, so it all works out okay. The reason I bring them up (and you could substitute with many product-based companies, especially in food or beverage) is that their success was driven not only by the quality of their ingredients or the refinement of their recipes, but in their ability to replicate a specific recipe with consistency at scale.
There are a ton of homebrewers and nanobreweries that are able to make an amazing batch of beer. Typically, an amazing batch of beer is going to leverage high-quality ingredients. But one of the most significant challenges facing brewers is the ability to — even when using the same high-quality ingredients between batches — control all of the variables that result in delivering the same amazing batch of beer with consistency time-and-again. It requires calibrated equipment, sameness in temperatures, timings, and more.
There are truisms here as it relates to an agency’s ability to drive success for its clients. Just as a broken clock is right twice per day, a mediocre agency will periodically launch a client campaign that is very successful.
But replicable and consistent success requires not only talented team members (i.e. quality ingredients) but a process that ensures operational integrity.
If an agency’s team members are the equivalent of the brewer’s ingredients, an agency’s process for delivering marketing services is the equivalent to all of the other variables that ensure batch-to-batch consistency of your favorite brew.
In 2014, Salted Stone hired a former HubSpotter as its Director of Operations. He has been instrumental in establishing processes, as well as in ensuring that those processes are being adhered to. While we continue to refine, improve, and test our processes over time, and while some clients require exceptions or adjustments to the process, we approach each new client engagement with machinelike precision and efficiency. This ensures that our clients receive a consistent level of service engagement-to-engagement.
We have developed a recipe for driving inbound marketing success, and we’ve created the processes and systems required to ensure the recipe is followed. Our process requires involvement from various domain experts, each contributing their own perspective relative to their domains as it relates to the client, all of which coalesce into an overarching strategy and approach to production that ensures cohesion and congruence.
Prior to establishing our processes, we were like the brewers whose batches were hit-or-miss; we drove success based on the raw talent and work ethic of our team, but we lacked consistency in success because we failed to control enough of the influential variables.
While I expect that our process will continue to evolve over time, we’ve become very consistent in our success percentage now that we’ve equipped our super talented team with a process that ensures we’re controlling as many variables as possible.
A recent conversation with a client revealed the very real importance of agency culture in driving client success. We were speaking with sports analogies around the concept of personnel. I was using Terrell Owens as an example of a hyper talented football player whose inability to coalesce as a teammate led to him being released from team after team until—finally—no one was willing to take a risk on him anymore. In short: teams believed that they would win more often without him, irrespective of his talents.
The client contributed a key insight: a bad team member, even a highly talented one, will suppress the potential of other players on the team. A bad team member will prevent other players from reaching their full potential, and will prevent the team from being as successful as it could be.
Continuing with the sports analogies, the client contrasted this scenario of talent suppression by illustrating how a good teammate is able to elevate the potential of the people he or she works alongside. The example he relied on was the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw is widely considered one of the top—if not the best—pitchers in baseball. His teammates had confidence that if he was on the mound there was a good chance they’d be winning the game. He was injured earlier in the season and has missed the past couple of months as a result.
Kershaw has long been considered a consummate teammate; his exuberance and camaraderie with other members of the team is obvious and infectious. What the client pointed out is that, in contrast to a talented player like Terrell Owens whose presence hurt the teams that he was on, a player like Kershaw elevates the performance of everyone around him.
Prior to Kershaw’s injury, the rest of the Dodgers’ starting rotation had a record of 33-36 (.478). When Kershaw was injured, the talk around the ball club was about how the rest of the team was going to need to step up the same way that Clayton stepped-up for the team every time he took the mound (“Let’s win one for Clayton!”).
The team appeared to rally behind him, or for him, in his injury, with each player wanting to give a little bit more effort on his behalf out of consideration for how much effort he gave on their behalf every game that he played. After his injury, the Dodgers posted one of the best records in the National League.
Culture matters. Just as with sports organizations, a bad agency team member can suppress talent, drive down morale, and stymie the sort of innovation that only comes from a truly collaborative workplace environment. Conversely, a culture comprised of teammates who are aligned and wanting to succeed for the sake of the other can truly produce results that are greater than the sum total of the individuals themselves.
How To Choose An Agency Partner
Choosing an agency partner is a big decision. There’s a fair amount of risk in terms of both finances and time. You don’t want to lose either. In evaluating a prospective agency partner, I’d highly recommend vetting — at minimum — members of the agency associated with the strategy, client services, content, creative and technical marketing teams.
Interview each of them individually to gauge their respective experience, talent, and cultural fit. Check out the creative portfolio, looking for consistency and variety.
Ask questions of the creative folks to get a sense for whether they understand how to design around measurable marketing objectives, as opposed to designing purely for aesthetics. Get a sense for whether the content strategist has a sense for nuance, since that will be key for creating content that resonates with your personas. Get a feel for the variety of ways that the agency is accustomed to distributing and promoting content, since you’ll likely need a fair amount of that to be successful. And so on…
Interviewing multiple individuals from the agency will help you to avoid bait-and-switch maneuvers where a senior level team member sells you on a promise of success that a junior-level team simply cannot provide.
There’s a lot of bait-and-switch in the industry — to the point where agencies are going on record stating that the new overtime pay rules (which really only impacts agencies staffed by junior-level employees) are going to negatively impact their ability to protect margins while servicing client accounts. You’d like to avoid working with that type of agency if at all possible.
And after you’ve sufficiently vetted the team’s talent and general cultural fit, get a sense for their process and systems, because you’re rolling the dice with your company’s success in their absence.
Interested in partnering with Salted Stone to provide your inbound marketing services? Contact us today for a consultation.