Our guest today is Ian Martins, Managing Partner for Bell Curve.
Ian currently runs operations at Bell Curve, which is a San Francisco-based agency that helps startups and high-growth enterprises grow. Bell Curve has worked with companies like Microsoft, Clearbit, Segment, and Pilot to name a few.
Before working with Bell Curve, Ian helped build the advertising agency Abacus, which worked with clients like Nestle, Starbucks, Campbells, CIBC, and more. Prior to his work building and growing agencies, Ian spent a number of years working at global media agencies in account management servicing a variety of clients spanning everything from CPG to Financial Services.
Ian has given talks at a number of colleges and universities on various marketing topics and spent a couple of years teaching at York University where he helped develop the postgraduate curriculum in digital marketing.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- Onboarding remotely and how it differs from face-to-face onboarding
- How to help build the adoption of creating SOPs and other useful resources to minimize the fluff and maximize essential productivity
- What were some of the hurdles that were in the way to obtaining the highest ROI and how focus was maintained to get there
- How to get the customer on board and on the side with the brand of an agency
- The typical expectations from the client on deliverables from an agency
- The best way to manage an in-house marketing team
Connect with Ian Martins: LinkedIn
Bell Curve – https://www.bellcurve.com
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Our guest is Ian Martins, the Managing Partner for Bell Curve. Ian runs operations at Bell Curve, which is a San Francisco-based agency that helps startups and high-growth enterprises grow. Bell Curve has worked with companies like Microsoft, Clearbit, Segment, and Pilot to name a few. Before working with Bell Curve, Ian helped build the advertising agency, Abacus, which worked with clients like Nestle, Starbucks, Campbell, CIBC, and more.
Prior to his work building and growing agencies, Ian spent a number of years working at global media agencies in account management servicing a variety of clients, spanning everything from CPG to financial services. Ian has given talks at a number of colleges and universities on various marketing topics, and spent a couple of years teaching at York University where he helped develop the post-graduate curriculum in Digital Marketing. Ian, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much for having me.
You mentioned just before we hopped on that you have a podcast yourself. What was that podcast going or what is it all about?
I did actually, it’s not active anymore. It was when I was at Abacus. Myself and the Cofounder, Jeff, started a podcast called Idea Sex, and pulling some language from James Altucher. I feel like I used to coin this idea of idea sex. It was when a couple of ideas come together and create something new, they’re having an idea baby. We thought that was a great idea for a podcast.
That’s crazy. James and I are in a couple of Mastermind groups together, and that must be where I heard the term. I was at a group called Mastermind Talks from James many years ago. I’ve gone to the main TED conference for eleven years, and I used to call it Ideas Having Sex. I knew it wasn’t my idea. I knew it wasn’t my term. That’s interesting. Now I know the genesis of what I’ve been calling it all along. I can actually get credit.
Unless, he pulled it from somewhere else.
He might have pulled it from me. I don’t think it was my idea and I would give him credit for it. He’s a smart enough cerebral dude that he would have thought of that. Like I said, I’ve known him for years. He’s a smart guy too. Thanks for doing this. Tell us a little bit about Bell Curve. What do you guys focus on now?
Bell Curve is primarily a growth marketing agency. I’d say what makes us different from a lot of other agencies is that we’re trying to bring together the disciplines of brand marketing and performance marketing. Traditionally, these are two separate areas of practice in the marketing and advertising worlds. You have the way that companies are structured internally. There are typically brand teams and performance teams.
The way they select agencies is you’ve got creative brand partners and then you’ve got performance media partners and so on and so forth. It’s fairly segregated, siloed approach traditionally. We’ve seen a lot of missed opportunities by having that approach. We’re trying to bring those disciplines together and do things a little bit differently.
When you mentioned performance marketing, are you talking about performance like affiliate marketing side or just anything where you can have attribution back to the marketing side?
Pretty much anything where you can have attribution back, but I’d say performance marketing is very much a shorthand for paid acquisition. Anything that is paid media acquisition where you can attribute back to revenue.
Performance marketing is a shorthand for paid acquisition.
Versus just general branding.
General higher level brand marketing that’s harder to attribute generally, a longer-term focused, non-transactional. I’m thinking about it in terms of transactional or non-transactional marketing. It’s another way to slice it.
One of our founding members of the COO Alliance was a guy named Matt Wool. He and Bob Glazer run a company called Acceleration Partners. They’re in the pure, almost like higher-end affiliate space. They really have niched into it, wouldn’t they?
Yes, absolutely. It’s funny because for a number of years, and even the last agency I built was all on this hypothesis of the increasing need for specialists. The way that brand started selecting partners and agencies to work with was moving away from agency of record who does everything to a network of agencies that are specialists because things are becoming more and more complicated.
Like with any trend, what I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that pendulum swinging back to a desire for less complexity and the volume of partners and wanting to work with someone who understands the bigger picture. When I came on board to Bell Curve to relaunch that agency, our idea was to be actually more holistic and full-funnel and less specialists in our approach to how we service our clients.
I think marketing has changed in the last many years. Where years ago, to be an expert in paid search and digital and mobile and affiliates, it was too hard. It was too many, it was different businesses. Now, it seems like there’s a lot of convergence around that skillset. Is that true? Is that why there’s a kickback or is it because we’re just tired of managing so many partners?
I think it’s more the latter. The complexity of each channel is continuing and will continue in that direction. I think brand managers that are selecting these agency partners are having a very difficult time managing that complexity of various partners themselves. All of those partners then compete for bandwidth with the client, and you start getting into weird power politics. Who’s leading strategy and who’s not leading strategy? Can we carve out more budget for our own services or our own channels? The client loses in that mix as well and they don’t enjoy that part of it.
The term managing partner, where do you fit in terms of like the C-suite or the org chart at Bell Curve? How does that all fit?
At Bell Curve, I joined three cofounders. Julian Shapiro is the main founder, I believe. He has Neil and Justin who joined him, and they launched Bell Curve a number of years ago. Then they ended up pivoting and building another business called Demand Curve. Bell Curve was an agency that was focused on actually executing on behalf of clients. Then Demand Curve is more about empowering startup founders and growth marketers through education, community, and playbooks. They paused the agency, so they ended up winding down the agency, building this other company. It was part of Y Combinator and they had a lot of success there.
After a few years, they’ve built out a bunch of brands, Affinity. Lots of people are saying, “I don’t want to learn this. I want you to do this for me.” They saw the opportunity to boot back up the agency and that’s when they reached out to me to say, “Do you want to take this brand that exists? We’ve got a bunch of inbound interests. You’ve already built an agency before, do you want to do that with us and take the reins and relaunch this?”
Managing partner means I joined them as one of their partners. I oversee all of the responsibilities of the agency. I do report into them effectively, the majority shareholders in the overall context, but they’re not involved in any of the operations on a day-to-day basis. We meet about once a month. We go over progress with how the agency is doing, where the financials are, I brainstorm with them if I need some sanity checks in the decisions that I’m making on a day-to-day basis. For all intents and purpose, I’m running the agency portion of the business.
That’s super cool. It’s like a true second-in-command and with a power that a true second-in-command should have to go run the business too.
It’s a big departure from when I was a COO in my previous role building, Abacus, which was more of a traditional COO role.
You said something that I want to jump on before I go into the real role and responsibilities, and what it was that got you to join these guys. It was around these companies that didn’t want to learn it anymore and they wanted to have someone do it for them. I feel like there’s been a huge trend towards that now too. It’s like, “We’re aware of this. We now know that all this exists. We can’t develop this expertise. We need to turn to the experts.” Is that what’s happening now? We just realize there’s just way more depth in all these areas than we can possibly muster.
It’s that and it’s a desire. To build a true functioning in-house marketing department team, it takes a lot of desire to want to have that function in-house. With that desire then comes a lot of time to make that engine hum effectively. A lot of the clients that we’re working with are startups. They just raise series A, they just got a big seed round. Speed is number one for them. They’ve only got a certain amount of runway, “How can I start marketing and growing this business as quickly as possible?” The idea of learning the fundamentals of growth and running these experiments themselves and hiring for it, there’s that trade off of speed and agility.
You’re based in Canada, your founders are based in San Francisco, where are your clients?
They’re predominantly in the United States, but we do have service on some European clients, as well. I’d say we’re open to servicing anybody in predominantly English speaking markets. We don’t have boots on the ground and other languages to do that marketing work effectively. Europe, United States, no Canadian clients as of yet though.
Do you have a network of companies that you outsource parts of this too as well or are you building all the competency in-house?
No, that’s one of our points of differentiation is we rely heavily on outsourced expertise. Demand Curve, which is the sister business, we’ve got over 20,000 marketers in our network, and we’ve got varying tiers in our Slack community and that sort of thing. We’ve been hand vetting and selecting a couple hundred of them over the past year or two and working with a number of them. We’ve adopted this idea that our in-house team is always going to be strategy. Growth strategy, brand strategy, creative strategy, and then we’ll bring on tactical execution partners to bring those strategies to life.
We do this for two reasons. One, I don’t believe agencies can actually own the best execution talent anymore. I think when you’re the best copywriter, designer, whatever, you either go freelance and become a consultant, you start your own small agency maybe, or you go in-house to a bigger brand. If I can’t own this talent, I need a way to get access to them if I want to do the best work. That’s one reason. Then the other reason is I find it aligns our incentives a lot closer with our partners because we’re not trying to sell them one channel or one tactic. We’re taking agnostic view to their business and looking for what is going to be the highest leverage growth opportunity.
You also don’t need to have that expertise for 50 hours a week either. Sometimes you need them for twelve hours a week, and then it’s like, “What am I going to do for you for the next 38?”
That’s one of the reasons why agencies are such a small margin business traditionally. A good agency is pushing for 15% profit margins generally. It’s because there’s a lot of staff that they got to carry if they want to do all of this work in-house. It’s not always fully utilized and all that stuff.
You’re managing, so is it a fully distributed remote workforce now as well?
Yes, it was. They’re V1 of this before I took the reins and relaunched. It was already remote. Demand Curve is remote in all over the States and Canada. We’re distributed as well, and this is a pre-COVID plan. It wasn’t an adaptation because of COVID.
I just did a call with a group of second-in-commands. We were talking about some of the, not challenges from a negative way, but challenges of how can we continually get better? What have you had that were challenges to having that remote distributed team? Can you give us the secrets? What’s working and/or what have you tried that didn’t work that you threw out so people don’t waste their time trying stuff that you know doesn’t work?
I’d go back to my time at Abacus and give you some context there more specifically because we went through two iterations. That company went through a bit bigger of a growth cycle in terms of the size. I’d say that one of the big differences is the amount of everybody being on the same page when you’re all sitting around the same table. You lose that in the remote context.
How do I make sure that everybody feels like they’re aware of everything that’s happening in the business? How do I over-communicate so people don’t feel like they’re not part of conversations that they feel snubbed? It’s feeling like they’re being a reason for them not being in that conversation when there wasn’t. It was just because we needed to move forward and you weren’t necessarily required for the decision.
I’d say managing those politics of who’s in what rooms and what decisions and who’s aware of what happening within the company is probably one of the bigger struggles of being in a remote context. The way we’ve tried to address this is we’re big users of Notion as a tool, as our internal wiki. We push the idea of writing a lot, documenting things, putting this information publicly visible in the company so that everybody has access to it and can go look for these things if they need it. Interviewing, hiring, and onboarding people in a remote context is definitely a challenge.
It’s more challenging than it would be in person. I think you get away with being less formal about it when someone can just watch over your shoulder and you can sit beside them and you can nudge them along throughout the day and train them on their role. In the remote context, they have to be a lot more disciplined with how you’re trying to train people. It takes a little bit more homework and a bit more structure than it would if someone could just shadow you all day.
I think the interviewing and the hiring component is probably largely the same. We can interview somebody over a video, but the onboarding stuff. What have you learned in terms of onboarding and how do you have to do that differently when you’re remote?
I wish I had the magic answer.
Even with that, are there lessons from getting better at onboarding that even if you were in person, we would now change too, right? Because you probably got a better process.
I think it’s taking from my time building curriculum is this idea of actually building, training curriculum for people and varying organizations do this more effectively than others. Some people have more formalized training curriculum in place than other companies. I’m coming from advertising world, there’s not much of it.
Most of the ad land curriculum comes from publishers like the Facebooks and the Googles of the world, and we lean on them to provide us with training materials. Actually like, “How does this company operate? What’s your function in it?” There are very little materials, even at the global agency level. There’s compliance stuff that they have gamified and what have you, but like actual day-to-day practical training, not a lot of that is structured or formalized.
I’d say what we’ve learned and would work very well in an in-person context is formalizing that training in an actual curriculum environment, where there are certain tasks that people have to complete, there’s certain reading that people have to do, certain video content that you can film videos, so on and so forth. I think that has helped us and would be practical in an in-person setting as well.
Do you use any kind of an LMS, a Learning Management System for the onboarding and training? Do you have any software that you use?
Right now, everything is in Notion. We’re trying to simplify our tech stack as much as possible so people aren’t switching between tools all the time. Right now, Notion is kind of our wiki. It’s where everything exists with relation to knowledge and information in the company. Then, onboarding tasks and actual working through that, we use a tool called ClickUp for all of our project management. That’s both for clients, for internal projects, and for onboarding checklists. That would all be delivered through a tool called ClickUp.
I haven’t heard of that one. Notion has been getting a lot of buzz as well. Have you had any struggles with using that at all?
It’s a little slow. If it was developed as a native app, I think it would be faster, which would be helpful. I think the struggle is more of a human habit struggle, which is this idea of having a wiki in your company that you’re updating, that you’re referencing, that if I’m going to do a task that’s going to be repeated a number of times, I may as well write the SOP for that as I’m doing it, taking screenshots, that sort of thing. It’s more of a habit building to actually make that a useful up-to-date resource and not something that is not updated and then isn’t particularly practical or useful.
How do you help people build that habit? How do you help get that adoption? Is it through training? Is it just reinforcing it?
It’s through reinforcement and highlighting opportunities to create that SOP, “We should put this in Notion for next time.” It’s more about identifying the opportunities regularly and day-to-day interactions, day-to-day work and saying, “This would be great actually if we formalize this and structure it a little bit and put it into Notion.”
I remember when I was building 1-800-GOT-JUNK, when I was a COO there, that when our franchisees would call us back in the early days, we used to say RTFM. They’d be like, “What?” I’m like, “Read The F****** manual.” Like, “Read Notion.” Like, “Go to Notion, GTN or something.” It was in the manual. If there was a better way, we didn’t have the ability to update it live. We had to wait for the printing of the manual or we would send out a chapter. I remember one year, we sent out a PDF of Chapter 7 and we’re like, “Here’s the PDF. It’s the updated chapter.” Now, I think it’s a really great way to say like, “Go to Notion. It’s there and don’t ask me.”
The other thing too that I think it instills, which is great, is I always have this idea that everything we create, particularly process-wise is the idea to beat. It’s the best way we thought about doing it thus far. As a new entrant into the company, you’ve entered this role, you’re reviewing the process. Something might stick out as being odd or off or not great, and because it’s documented, you can actually identify it and say, “Why don’t we do this way instead?” You have now an anchor to actually have a conversation about it because it’s documented in Notion.
One of my coaching clients, I’ve always said that your core values should be short phrases, not single words, and their fifth core value was a single word. I’m like, “No, it can’t be.” They go, “It’s simplify.” I’m like, “That’s so good.”
I get that.
It was perfect. There isn’t a better short phrase than that single word. How do you make sure that the systems and the playbooks that you’re putting in place are simplified?
We have a very high bar to aspire to. Julian Shapiro, one of the Founders is an incredible writer. He’s quite well known for publishing like Guides to Writing Effectively. He’s got over a hundred thousand followers on Twitter. He writes a lot of things about life and marketing and what have you. He’s this pillar of highly effective, very pithy writing that I think permeates the culture of the company. That definitely influences the content that Demand Curve publishes that we’re so well-known for as a brand, and it’s because it’s very to the point, it’s very actionable, very pithy, very low on fluff and filler. That has influenced the broader culture of the company.
I want to go back to the day one for you. What were you thinking? Why would you join this nothing company? There were no customers, there were no employees. It had been shelved. You had to come in and dust it off and build it. By the way, you did a great job.
In the middle of the pandemic, no less. That’s how I started at Abacus. It was very similar story. I was the first employee. I joined two cofounders. They had this idea for an agency. They’ve got a bunch of relationships that they can leverage for sales, but the actual work of how do we deliver on what we’re promising and how the work gets done and how we hire people, none of that figured out at all. They’re like, “You’re going to be the head of our performance department initially,” and then I became the COO very quickly after that. It’s actually to fulfill the promises they were out there delivering in their sales calls, just building the airplane on the way down.
I enjoyed that experience of starting at, “Here’s the vision or the brand or what have you, how do I make this something and build it up?” I had a lot of fun doing that with Abacus over four years. We started off working with startups and ended up working with Fortune 100 clients, and built that up to almost 50 people in terms of the size of the company, mid-seven figure revenue and that sort of thing. I had a lot of fun going through that initial phase.
I found when it got to cruising altitude and I had empowered great leaders and we had brought on strong partners to the table and everyone was doing their thing, I found that my usefulness in the organization changed and my role changed. This is an oversimplification, but my role became helping people manage their own personal problems and babysitting to a degree, less building product and figuring out processes and finding customers and that type of work. That’s what excited me.
When it got to the maintenance level, at least in terms of what I was experienced, I was looking around at, “What’s going to come next for me?” We knew we wanted to exit that company and sell it as well. I was a little nervous about, “Who’s going to acquire this and am I going to be stuck in an earn out?” That was part of the thinking as well.
When the challenge was presented to me, I was already familiar with Demand Curve, the brand. I was familiar with Julian and his thought, leadership, and his communication. I said, “Here’s a group of really smart people. They’re in Silicon Valley, which is this tech hub and all this exciting stuff happening. At the very least, it’s an opportunity for me to expand my network if nothing takes off. If it does take off, even better. It was a bit of me wanting to prove to myself, “I did this once, can I do it again?” It’s like, “If I had to go back four years and start again with nothing, could I do that again?” We’re doing pretty good. We’re about a year into it now.
In that first year, it’s the speed of getting things done and out the door. It’s not about perfect. It’s like momentum creates momentum and minimum viable everything. Just get her done, get her out the door. How did you focus to get the highest ROI on that year? What are some of the things that you did? Maybe what were some of the hurdles or roadblocks that were in your way along that path?
The biggest thing to me is this idea of, “Why is anyone going to give a crap in terms of like the customers?” Because the world does not need another agency. For us to come in and build up from scratch and everything, it’s like, “What are we going to do that’s different than everybody else that is going to allow us to find customers and build an agency?”
We landed on this idea of the biggest problem that I saw through all of my work in agencies and talking with founders and all of that was this gap between performance and brand. Particularly startups, they don’t pay a lot of attention to brand building out of the gates. They’re very transactional. They need customers.
The brand is a bit of an afterthought. This idea of can we help them build brands simultaneously? Brand is part of your moat just as much as your IP is part of your moat. How do we bring these two disciplines together as being a differentiator and taking this story-led approach to growth? I’d say that the taking how we’re going to differentiate ourselves was part of that focus. Then everything stemmed from that in terms of what’s the company we’re going to build if that’s what we’re thinking.
Your brand is part of your moat just as your IP is. Bring these two disciplines together to achieve a story-led approach to growth.
Another thing I was thinking about is client-agency relationships are not in a good place. In general, there’s a lot of pressure there. It doesn’t change if you’re Fortune 100 dealing with global media agencies and advertising agencies, or if you’re a startup trying to find an agency. That relationship is not in a great place and it’s like analyzing, “Why is that not in a great place? What can be done to change that?”
It’s so hard.
Both parties are guilty for different reasons in that ecosystem. We started off with, “What do we need to do to fix that?” One of the things is it’s hard to be an agency. If profit margins are low, what do we have to do different to have a high profit margin? High profit margin means we can pay people better, which means that we can get better talents than other agencies. It means that we can be more choosy with not needing to take every single client, even if they’re not a fit.
This idea of optimizing for profit in the business model was a very big focusing for us, and that’s what led us to that distributed business model where we’re bringing on external experts and pairing them with our strategists. It was picking the right problems initially that we wanted to address that made all of the other decisions much easier as we were building up the company because we had a very clear understanding of what it is we were trying to build and what problems we were trying to solve.
I was on a call with our agency and I was laughing with their 4 or 5 people and my team that was on the call. I said, “Your CEO and I aren’t going to kill each other. I don’t think he’s loving me and I haven’t been loving him, but I feel like we’re turning a corner.” Months later, I was like, “I think we’re actually getting this.”
I think one of the only reasons why I’m still a client, why they haven’t fired me and I haven’t fired them is because their CEO and I are friends or want to stay friends, and we’re not willing to let this get in the way. There are two sides to every story with this. How do you get the customer on the side of the brand and how do you get the brand or the agency and the agency on the side of the customer to really join hands and get through that? Is it an education thing? Is it an expectation thing?
It’s a selection process. I think it’s going into the understanding that you’re not going to be the right agency for everybody. That you’re only going to be able to make certain kinds of clients happy because every agency has a personality. It’s like relationships. It’s a relationship-based industry for the most part. It’s humans working with other humans.
Your agency has a personality and a way that it wants to work and a way that it sees the world. Then it’s your job as an agency to find clients that also see the world the same way and have a similar working style. If you’re the type of client that is used to being wooed by multiple agencies and there’s a lot of dog and pony and you require a lot of decks and reports and all that sort of stuff, we are not the agency for you.
We are an extension of your team. We roll-our-sleeves-up, get-things-done kind of hacky growth company that is going to 80/20 things and try to stretch your budget to be most effective as possible. We’re looking for people that want that type of service and want that type of relationship. We want people who when it comes to things like attribution of how the media is performing or the desire to invest in brand and what have you.
We want people who are approaching it from the same kind of principles as we are in terms of how we see the world. Because if someone doesn’t believe in investing in brand, nothing that I tell them is going to change their mind on that. I can’t work with you if you don’t see the power of brand and how that influences your performance marketing. I think it’s about understanding your personality really as an agency and selection of the right clients.
If someone doesn’t believe in investing in a brand, nothing can change their mind. You must see the power of your brand and influence your performance marketing.
Year one, you don’t always get to do that because you got to keep the lights on and you got to grow and you got to bring on enough revenue to actually get a start. I think we got a bit of a head start because there was already a lot of inbound interest. We had a lot of leads coming through on a month-to-month basis because of the brand Affinity towards Demand Curve and Bell Curve.
I had a head start. I wasn’t building from scratch. That allowed us to be a little bit more choosy. The other thing that we did is we went fairly upmarket in terms of independent agencies and how much we’re charging. That whittles down the overall pool of people that were willing to work with as well. They actually have a certain amount of cash and capital to invest, which means we can bring on smarter, better people, which generally leads to better results and then better relationships because there are better results.
Are the clients expecting too much too soon and/or are the clients spending too much on the actual advertising and not enough to the agency? It’s almost like should we give the agency more money and put less into the actual ad spend?
I would say that there’s no silver bullet answer to that question, but I would say that those are definitely variables, I’d say. Expectations about what’s possible in a very short timeframe. I think oftentimes clients have unrealistic expectations about what is actually possible. That’s definitely true when it comes to performance media buying. Like this idea that I can just spend my first $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, $20,000, and get an immediate return on that is a little crazy because if you rewind 20 years when you’re buying magazine or TV ads, you would never had that expectation.
Now, because you can measure it down to the penny, you expect performance down to the penny immediately. There is a little bit of an education gap there in terms of the paying the agencies more, absolutely. I think you get what you pay for and most agencies are just trying to survive. Most operate on a very high turnover. If you’re not talking about the global holding co-agencies them aside. Independent smaller agencies, that’s very high turnover.
You’re trying to keep a client for 3 to 6 months, and they’re leaving and you’re refilling that. You’re never investing enough in the relationship. It becomes very transactional and it’s because they’re not getting paid that much. They’re not making enough money to build a high margin business. It puts a lot of stress on their employees because they’re managing too many clients simultaneously, which stresses them out. It leads to poor quality of work that they’re able to deliver. It’s a big cascading snowball of bad things.
I think that’s actually what happened to me with our agency. My friend tried to do me a favor and make it cheap for us to hire him so that we could spend money, but then because of that they didn’t want to put all their best people on it. We got their solid B and C pluses. We weren’t getting the results. I was getting frustrated in one of the results and then I’m not paying enough, and then they want more budget. I’m like, “You’re not doing enough to validate the budget.” It’s almost like I should have given them more money for more talent and spent less. Or they should just have said to me, “No, let’s go skiing together. Let’s not be business associates.”
It’s really hard because sometimes you get lucky with some clients. Sometimes, your B or C team can make it work and because the demand is really easy to target and there’s pent up. They transact very quickly and you get lucky. That team can actually do it well when it’s a harder nut to crack, you need the A-team.
Sometimes it just like, it won’t work in that context and you need to be creative about finding other channels, other mediums, other ways to grow the business that isn’t like advertising. Maybe you need to lean harder into partnerships and to content and to other things that aren’t necessarily just like paid acquisition advertising. I don’t know the context of the work that you’re doing with them but that would be an example.
I was going to ask you some questions about marketing and I’m like, “There’s no answer.” The stupid question was going to be like, “So, what are the best tactics?” There aren’t the best because there’s a million scenarios. Let’s talk about your team. What’s the best way to actually manage a team of creatives and to manage a team of the marketers? Let’s say, we were building an in-house marketing team as a company listening. You guys are just a different breed.
There’s the quant side of the marketing org and there’s the qual side of the marketing org. I would say that the way that you find them, hire them, and manage them is very different. They’re motivated by different things. Let’s talk about the creative side because I think that that’s probably the breed that is most different.
I think the quants are the easiest, right?
The numbers and buyers now, they’re easier to manage.
They’re a little more like linear logic, Newtonian type thinkers. Let’s go to the creative side. I think when you’re trying to hire creative people, to get the good ones, you have to be doing work that is going to allow them to be very creative. I’d say, if you want to build an in-house agency and you need to hire creative people, you should be very honest with yourself about, “Do I run the kind of business that a creative person can genuinely do really good creative work?”
If you can’t, you’re better off going to a creative agency. What’s the kind of company that could really hire a great creative in-house? Nike, Facebook, Tumblr, something in the fashion space, something in CPG, where you can really flex that creative muscle. If you are selling B2B management services, you’re probably not going to have the most creative people want to join your team because they’re not going to be able to build extravagant portfolio that will get them the next job.
I think that when you’re managing creative people, that’s another thing that you need to take into consideration, as well. It’s like, “Is this work going to help their portfolio?” You’ll get the best out of them when they believe that it’s helping their portfolio because that book is what they live and die on for the rest of their career. They’re often optimizing for winning awards and all that kind of stuff. Because as a creative, that’s how you stand out. That’s how you make more money. That’s how you get the next gig.
When they’re looking at the briefs they’re getting from you internally or what have you, first thing that’s running through their mind generally is like, “How’s this going to look at my portfolio? Is this just a make work project or is this something I’m actually going to be able to put in there?” As you’re building an agency, you need to take that into consideration.
With my model it’s like, “Do I want in-house creatives or do I not want them?” Because if I can’t keep them busy on enough exciting work, then they’ll churn or I won’t attract them to begin with or I’ll attract the B or C creatives who can’t get a better job and then I’m only doing B or C creative. You don’t want to be in that spot either because creativity in marketing is the big unlock. You can push all the buttons on the quant side, but if your creative is not right, it doesn’t matter.
Creativity in marketing is the big unlock. You can push all the buttons on the quant side, but if your creative is not right, it will never matter.
It’s interesting on the book of what they’ve done in the past. It’s what they’re caring about. That was what allowed us at 1-800-GOT-JUNK to attract some people in the early days. We were so intent on building this globally admired brand and a best company to work for and this cult-like work environment that people were just like, “I just want to work here.” They knew that it was going to be a stamp.
We competed against Lululemon, Vancouver Olympics, and Intrawest was the big, Whistler Blackcomb and then us. Those are the only four companies that anybody wanted to work for in British Columbia in those years. We were a garbage company, but it was because they wanted that stamp in their book because the cult was all of a sudden strong.
You were willing to do great marketing?
Not even so much in the earlier days. There are more now. I’m going back to when I was COO from 2000 to 2007, we didn’t have a lot of dollars. We started to get to that $5 million total budget across our franchises. It was more that we were building this cool brand and this cool cult and they were like, “If I can say I worked for the number one company to work for in BC or the number two company in all of Canada.” That was a nice stamp for them. Because outside of that, we were junk removal. We weren’t anything super sexy.
I don’t think it’s about the sexiness. I think it’s about like the opportunity to flex your creativity. It’s like, “If I can make junk removal fun and cool and exciting, then I’m a very good creative communicator.” That challenge I think is what the creatives are looking for and had been given that opportunity to actually put work that they believe in out into the market.
I’ll have to show you a video. We won the third place at the Cannes Film Festival. We won a lion for our TV ad called the Rat Advertising Trial. It was when we threw these little rats out of the truck dressed in little 1-800-GOT-JUNK outfits, and the rats went out and searching for junk. It was ridiculous.
That’s the kind of thing that gets you good creatives. If you were winning Cannes’ lions, then you will continue to attract creatives.
What’s funny is we had no budget to run the TV ad other than in one market for six weeks just to be proving that we’d actually run it because for the Cannes you had to actually had to be a running commercial. That was so dumb.
That whole side of the industry is its own problem. This idea of optimizing your creative to win awards versus actually driving results for your client. In some cases, it can get a little murky. It’s one of those things where you have to have the right values on your creative team, and they have to want to drive good value for clients because you can get into a place where you’re just trying to do clever advertising to win awards. There are a lot of shops that do that.
I want to go back to the 22-year-old self, you’re graduating college, you’re getting ready to start off in your career. What advice would you have for the 22-year-old Ian Martins that you wish you knew back then that now you know to be true?
I wish I had reached out to mentors, other people in the industries that I found interesting. I perceived this ivory tower in accessibility of A-players at the age of 22, and I wouldn’t just pick up the phone and call them. I think if I had done that, I probably would’ve progressed faster in learning and not necessarily needing to make all of the mistakes I did myself. I think that that’s definitely some advice.
The other thing I would say too, is I’ve had a fairly asymmetrical career trajectory, and it’s because I always approached everything that I did and I always looked for ways to improve the general situation of everything around me. I was never really focused particularly just on the work that I was doing individually.
I would always go in and I’d do my job, but I’d always be observing everything around me and saying like, “How can we be better, fix things, get better?” That ability to help organizations do better work holistically has helped me progress in a way that I don’t see a lot of people even that I’ve hired over the years and everything. I’d say that’s not the default position of most people. Most people come in very focused on me and my job and what I’m doing. They’re not looking around them to like, “How do I contribute and add value and help lift everybody up?”
Do you have ADD?
I don’t think so. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I might. Who knows?
It’s actually a superpower. When you have ADD, you actually see everything around you in terms of everything that’s going on in the business. Because you see everything, you do want to change it and react to it. Whether it’s ADD or not, the fact that you are seeing all that, that’s what’s made you very successful as a COO because you actually are seeing the entire organization. You’re not just sitting and looking at a silo.
I don’t know if I have ADD, but I’m subscribed to Gallup StrengthsFinder. It’s something that I’ve used over the years. One of my superpowers is ideation in there, learner. I’m very attracted to ideas and systems. Futuristic is one of them like, “How do I look forward and do this better? Change what we’re doing.” I’m very stifled by routine, by maintenance. One of my weaknesses and was much harder for me earlier on in my career because you’re not in the management position is execution.
Actually executing and following through and delivering that type of work in general is a weakness of mine. Now that I’m in a position where I’m running companies, I can hire to offset that as a weakness. When you’re an individual contributor starting your career, it was tough for me to be an individual contributor because I don’t have that discipline, that dot-all-the-i’s, cross-all-the-t’s type of brain, and I had to do that work for a number of years to move into a management spot.
I’d say that that idea of being obsessed with ideas and learning and looking for better ways is what I attribute to me being a good COO because I can take an inspiration of a couple cofounders. I can see how you would make that happen and put that out into the world and be like, “These are all the things and pieces that we need.” I’d probably wouldn’t be the best at doing any of those pieces myself, but I can see how they all interlinked and map together.
Ian Martin is the Managing Director for Bell Curve. Thanks very much for sharing with us on the Second in Command Podcast.
Thank you very much, Cameron. It’s a pleasure being here.
I appreciate it.
About Ian Martins
Managing Partner at Bell Curve (Demand Curve). Bell Curve is a creative growth agency. We work at the intersection of brand and performance. We bridge the two together to bring our partners sustainable and defensible growth.