Conversations with Leaders and Founders of Marketing Agencies, sharing wisdom on how they built their company, lessons they wish they knew when they started, and marketing and agency strategies for the months and years ahead.
On Generosity, Integrity, Raising the Goal, and Doing it NOW!
Joe Soltis, CEO, ChoiceLocal (Cleveland, OH)
Joe Soltis is CEO at ChoiceLocal, which Joe describes as “the top performing franchise growth engine” with a “money back guarantee.” The agency offers a wide scope of services for franchisors and franchisees of over 50 brands, enabling them to provide “Fortune 500 level customer service, results, strategy, and ROI on the franchisee level” for a “small and medium size business price.”
Large clients might be parent companies of franchise systems, franchisors owning 20 or more franchise systems where each system may have from 20 to 200 franchisees – and up to as many as 6,000 internal franchise units. Small franchise systems may have 10 units. For these smaller clients, the agency facilitates franchise development, consumer, new customer, location, company, and digital talent recruitment marketing.
Joe says hiring is a challenge, especially in the franchise space. The agency needs to understand its client’s hiring needs, the kind of candidates it desires, and the historical hire rates to know the number of applicants to target . . . then reverse engineer the hire rate/cost per quality candidate by channel and implement the most effective marketing strategy to ensure future growth. Joe says they use the same channels as they do for consumer marketing (in a different order), plus some that are recruitment specific.
Joe notes that franchise operations need to beware . . . a lot of agencies will lock clients into proprietary technology solutions . . . that don’t fit. ChoiceLocal strives to find the right tools for each client to build a “win-win” ecosystem where franchisor, franchisee, and the agency all win. He says it’s important that the tool providers are companies sensitive to client needs, adaptable to a changing market, and willing to invest in “making sure that you can use their tool to provide the best in the world customer service to your end customers.”
Joe started his career working his way up for 10 years in a company that grew to serve Fortune 500 companies. At a time of great personal loss, he changed the direction of his life. In his words,
I always said I wanted to be successful so that I could help people, and that day it changed to “I don’t want to just build something; I want to help people and I want to do it now. I don’t want to be successful so that I can help people later. I want to do it now.”
Joe started ChoiceLocal with the mission “to help others” – the agency’s franchisor and franchisee partners, agency teammates (to make their dreams and aspirations reality), and people in the community.
Joe structured the agency with the goal of having employees work their 40-hours, then “unplug and leave work at work.” With a teammate Net Promoter Score in the 70s (far exceeding the “good” score, which is in the 30s), the agency has been a Top Workplace in Northeast Ohio for the past five years.
When Covid struck, the agency created a ChoiceLocal Economic Stimulus Package to help its customers “grow through the downturn,” an initiative that Joe estimates saved 30 franchisees from going out of business.
Giving back to the community is “baked into” the agency’s DNA, with 10% of profits dedicated to helping “kids in need.” Joe says the agency’s “big hairy audacious goal is to help 10,000 kids a year.” As of this interview, the agency had already helped 6,000 kids in 2022 through such things as meal programs, partnering with Habitat for Humanity to provide a home for an in-need family, and through team members’ personal volunteer work in the community. Joe says the next thing after achieving this goal would be to “raise the goal.”
Recently, the agency spun off a dental franchise, Broadview Dental Group, which Joe targets to be “the largest provider of dental care in the United States within 10 years.” Expectations are that dentists following this franchise system “can
How to Bring the “Little Guy” to the TOP
Rafi Arbel, President, Market JD (Chicago, IL)
Rafi Arbel is President at Market JD, an internet-based advertising that focuses its work on “increasing visibility” for small law firms specializing in personal injury and workers’ compensation cases. With the kind of clientele the agency serves, the written content has to be extremely precise and accurate. That’s why the firm currently employs 3 attorneys. Rafi is one of them.
The agency provides websites, search engine optimization, pay-per-click, reputation management, and content production. The work split is about 65% to 70% personal injury and 55% (overlapping) worker’s compensation legal firms.
Rafi says, “Everybody can build a website and everybody can claim they do SEO or pay-per-click well.” Because this work is so labor-intensive and the details are numerous and critical, Rafi believes that those “who do it well” are not only those with knowledge, but those who have built a process to ensure consistent, high-quality outcomes. People have to know what they are doing, set an end objective, figure out the tasks to get it done, assess and respond to feedback, and do it “consistently over and over again.
Because Rafi practiced law for 6 years, he has represented people. Following a passion for selling and “engaging people,” he worked for Thompson Reuters and spent a number of years selling for Findlaw and Westlaw. Then, he went back for his MBA and again, and decided to change course, this time to become an entrepreneur. With this varied background and because he has been promoting small law firms for over 20 years, he understands what lawyers do, “how they do it, and how to position them.”
In this interview, Rafi notes how SEO has changed over the years, that searching for broadhead terms, “Chicago injury lawyer” or “Nevada workers’ compensation lawyer” renders a lot of paid ads at the top of the page so that even if a firm organically appears below that in the map section or even below that, the likelihood that SEO will produce much traffic is negligible. Or the firm’s won’t show well because Google’s Local Service ads take up the top of the page, followed by Google Ads below that. A big portion of the top of the screen gets taken up by all those paid ads . . . especially on mobile. So, broadhead SEO is not of great benefit to lawyers.
What does work are longtail searches. Rafi says the great race now is to “capture the longtail searches’ to find “the corners that the big guys don’t see.”
As an example, Rafi talks about a Nevada client . . . a personal injury lawyer who, unlike his big competitors, does not have$40,000 or $50,000 a month to spend on SEO. What the attorney does have is a lot of experience representing people who have suffered sepsis and whose doctors failed to treat it correctly. Medical malpractice? Not many Nevada lawyers work in that area. By building comprehensive content to cover sepsis and medical malpractice, Market JD is carving out a unique niche for the lawyer’s business and building a moat around the lawyer’s business as well. Few competitors in that specific area will be willing to invest the resources to match this project.
Rafi says the best way to contact him is to call him at: 312.970.9353 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Market JD like Juris Doctor)
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Rafi Arbel, President at Market JD based in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome to the podcast, Rafi.
RAFI: Thank you, Rob. Nice to be here.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Market JD, and what is the company’s superpower? What is your specialty?
RAFI: Market JD is an internet-based advertising firm. We only work for small law firms. People think that we work for lawyers; it’s much narrower than that. We really don’t work for the big f
Why Citizen Branding?
Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director, Citizen Group (San Francisco, CA)
Inspired by Marc Gobé’s book, Citizen Brand: 10 Commandments for Transforming Brand Culture in a Consumer Democracy, Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director at Citizen Group, started his agency in 2006 to work with entities committed to meaningful and measurable pro-social impact. His agency’s proposition is that organizations build brand value when they “walk their talk” and operate in ways that enhance society for their employees, shareholders, and consumers. Robin notes that the rise of social media has created a window on organizational operations . . . companies have a harder time projecting a “corporate mirage” that “everything is okay” when people can now see what is going on, assess practices, and ask the tougher questions. Clients today include for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, municipalities, cities, and trade associations.
Working with Amnesty International and other NGOs while he was at Chiat/Day early in his career, Robin became aware of two operational economies: “the Moneyball ad world, where money is thrown around (half a million for a 30-second spot)” and the $15k budget for creating a nonprofit PSA environment. Gobé’s book identifies the trend toward citizen branding as a convergence between these two economies.
At his agency’s inception, Robin worked with Walmart’s sustainability effort and explored how big-box retail stores needed to change their operational practices to support sustainability, creating “a race to the top for brands to reutilize, recycle, (and produce) less waste” and a model for future initiatives with other organizations. Brands get a lift from doing the right thing, he says, both for society and for the environment.
In his early adulthood, Robin says he didn’t know that people had human rights. He says the 30 articulated in the United Nation’s post World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights made a big impact on him.
Citizen Group is involved in a diverse range of projects. It is working with:
Sports apparel retailer Lids on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative (They Gave Us Game) to recognize and honor early Black sports leagues. A group called Leading Age on the Keep Leading Life campaign to showcase the variety of caregiving and expert services available to people who are aging. With close friend Jordan Harris, Robin shares a concern about the need to promote electric vehicles. Citizen Group commissioned a study to investigate the feasibility of shading California’s 4,000 mile aqueduct system with solar canopies to reduce evaporation, conserve water, reduce algal growth, and generate power. Annual water savings for a complete end-to-end system were estimated at 63 billion with the solar array along the aqueduct system’s existing utility corridors rather than taking up working land. A spinoff company, Solar AquaGrid, will be working Audubon Society to study environmental impacts and with the state and irrigation districts to plan the first demonstration project, and break ground on the pilot (proof-of-concept) project this fall.
Robin can be found on his agency’s website at citizengroup.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Robin Raj, Founder and Executive Creative Director at Citizen Group based in San Francisco, California, with some other fascinating interests as well. Welcome to the podcast, Robin.
ROBIN: Good to be here, Rob. Thank you.
ROB: Excellent to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Citizen Group, and what is the firm’s superpower? What are you all known for? What do you do well?
ROBIN: Well, I started Citizen Group in 2006, and it was really inspired by a book of the same name called Citizen Brand. This is where I can give a shout-out to an author by the name of Marc Gobé. I was
A Colorful Review of the Possibilities of Paint
Susan Britton, Owner/ Principal Creative Director, Britton Marketing & Design Group (Fort Wayne, IN) Susan Britton is Owner and Principal Creative Director at Britton Marketing & Design Group, a branding boutique agency that focuses on strategy, design, and helping its color-trended consumer goods clients better brand and market themselves. Sue started her career at Vera Bradley and rode a 9-year growth boom where things changed so rapidly the company had to reinvent itself every six months. (Revenues increased from $10 million to $400 million.) She left Vera Bradley on such good terms that they provided her with furniture for her new company and stayed on as clients with Britton doing catalogs and marketing for them for the next 10 years until Vera Bradley went public.
Sixteen years after she left her position at Vera Bradley, Sue says the experience “gave us a wonderful foundation to work with companies that are focused on home and colors, or fashion” – Britton’s niche market. She believes that brands “really take off” when a brand is distinctly “nuanced” in a way that shows the brand is special and the agency builds a “very highly descriptive visual expression” reinforcing the brand identity and couples that with a “strong strategy.” Done right, the created assets can be amortized over time, broadly used, and will promote a “more devoted following.”
As an example of a typical client, Sue talks about working with a number of paint companies, the importance of tracking color trends and building brand uniqueness, and the challenge of reaching out to “the do-it-yourselfers and the do-it-for-mes and then the pros.”
Some changes Sue has seen over the years are “a reluctance to invest in creative because it’s changing so quickly,” the need for lots of online (and often transitory) creative assets, and the flux of brands vacillating between bringing their creative work inhouse . . . and seeking an external agency. Sue’s agency has deleted some staff positions over the years and today outsources to partner vendors such less-frequently used services as building website backends or videography.
Sue is a strong believer in work-life balance. Before Covid, her agency interviewed people to discover what they valued . . . and came back with these results: “Their family, whatever that looked like. Their community. Their spirituality, whatever that looked like, or wellness. And then their environment.” She says, “They’ve circled the wagons around their family in a really, really big way.” She describes this as “the new American middle.”
Sue can be reached on her agency’s website at: bmdg.com (for Britton Marketing & Design Group), send an email off the site, or email Sue directly at: email@example.com
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Susan Britton, Owner and Principal Creative Director at Britton Marketing & Design Group based in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast, Susan.
SUE: Thank you, Rob. You can just call me Sue, that’s fine.
ROB: We’ll go with Sue. Yeah, it’s excellent to have you here. I want all the Fort Wayne stories that the audience might not want to hear. But why don’t we start off first with a little bit of introduction to Britton Marketing & Design Group, and what is the firm’s superpower?
SUE: Well, we’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana because my education happened when I went to work for Vera Bradley, which is located – their headquarters are here in Fort Wayne. I joined Vera Bradley when they were about $10 million, and nine years later they were about $400 million. We tried everything, we experienced everything, and growing at that fast rate, we were reinventing every six months what we were doing. So that was a real privilege, and like I said, a great education.
Then I jumped off after about 10 years, and owner/founder B
Making Small Business Personal and Successful
Amanda Parker, President and Owner, Collective Alternative (Indianapolis, IN) Amanda Parker is President and Owner at Collective Alternative, a full-service agency that focuses on growing small, mostly local businesses. She started her agency 14 years ago to bring together her background in strategy and development, experience as the Vice President of Marketing for a homebuilder, and passion for Mom-and-Pops, new home construction, and small, home-service businesses. Typical agency clients might include a local plumber trying to compete with bigger plumbing competition.
In this interview, Amanda explains there are a number of differences for successfully working with small businesses as opposed to mega-brand clients. Marketers typically work fast. With small businesses, she has found that it is important to slow down, communicate with the client, and let them know what the agency is trying to accomplish, the end goal/objective, and the benefit of the end goal. They require a lot more “hand-holding” through the process, she explains, and they can’t “afford to waste a single dollar.”
Amanda feels it is also critical to “protect” these smaller clients, to watch both the market and the economy. She also believes an “it’s just business” approach does not work. Larger companies have the resources and resilience to “experiment” with marketing strategies. With smaller companies, errors bleed through to the bottom line and can affect an organization’s survival. With smaller companies,
It is so personal. It doesn’t get any more personal for a small business owner. They have sunk everything into it. They’re working 12-16 hour days. All they want to do is provide for their family, send their daughter to dance class, send their kid to college, whatever it is. It’s personal.
Amanda says she is quite cognizant of her personal weaknesses. In building her agency, she focuses on hiring people who can bring complementary strengths, identifies potential areas of growth, supports continuing education efforts, and brings in experts to help her team “accelerate” their careers.
Some of the agency’s local clients go national. One client they are currently working with provides rehabilitative and mental health care for first responders (fire and police). The client will soon launch a national first responder mental health platform called Shield, which excites Amanda because it facilitates open discussions of mental health.
Amanda can be reached on her agency’s website at: collectivealternative.com or thecaway.com, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Amanda Parker, President and Owner at Collective Alternative based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast, Amanda.
AMANDA: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Very excited to be here.
ROB: Absolutely. Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Collective Alternative, and what distinguishes the firm? What is your superpower?
AMANDA: Oh, our superpower. Our firm is unique in we focus on small business. My background with agencies and things like that, I was on the larger accounts, but I really fell in love with the mom n’ pops, the small businesses of the country, and wanted to give them an opportunity to compete and gain some market share. So, we really focus on those mom n’ pop businesses.
I love home services. When I did work on the client-side, I was the Vice President of Marketing for a homebuilder, and I fell in love with it. It got in my blood. So, we love home services and new home construction and all of that. But I just love my small business clients and to see their growth. It’s just amazing.
ROB: That’s excellent. Those businesses, you say small; are they largely local? Are some of them national in scope? Is it heavy into services? Are you helping the local p
Page One or You Don’t Pay
Kevin Roy, Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO based in Beverly, Massachusetts Kevin Roy is the Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO, a full-stack digital ad agency, best known for search engine optimization but also providing paid media, Google AdWords, Facebook, and programmatic display services. Over the years the team has developed a number of internal systems to keep up with the work, including 24x7 online ordering system that funnels agency orders to his team and creates a workflow. Kevin says the agency always has more web development work than it can “keep up with” but over the past 15 years, it has always been a “loss leader.”
The agency’s motto is “Page 1 or you don’t pay.” Kevin explains that the agency does not guarantee the agency’s services will get a client on Page 1. It’s about whether the client pays.
Unless we get our clients on Page 1 for the keywords that they pick, they don’t pay us. If we don’t get them ranked, they don’t pay us. If we get them ranked and lose their rankings, they don’t pay us. We have to get them ranked and keep them ranked
Part of the “secret sauce” of the agency’s success is a comprehensive understanding of Google’s webmaster tools and its ever-changing rules. Websites are optimized “based on a few very important factors.” The agency has an 80-step process, which is frequently updated to adapt to Google’s policy changes. As a recent example of a new Google requirement, Kevin cites desktop viewability. The agency has integrated this requirement into the websites it manages and tested the sites to ensure they meet “all those metrics.”
Kevin warns against using “tricks” to “game the system” to get a site ranked. He says, “Google is always going to be bigger and have more resources” and will eventually figure out the “game.” “That’s not a position you want to put your client in,” he says. He believes it is more important to “just try to provide quality and relevance” and then adds, “It does take people a little longer to get ranked when you follow the rules, but it also is harder to lose your ranking when you do.”
When Kevin decided to start his agency, he offered to build websites and run SEO for three successful businesspeople on two conditions: that they not tell anyone that he “did it for free” and that, if they were happy with his work, they would recommend him. The strategy worked. Today, the agency is 100% referral and “business just keeps coming in.”
At the beginning of client engagement, GreenBananaSEO provides a free website audit and recommendations based on what it perceives to be a client’s problem. Kevin says the agency is a “digital executioner” with an SEO division and a paid media division (focused on key performance indexes/conversions). He says the agency does “almost everything on a screen that’s paid” including OTT (over-the-top) television, programmatic, geofencing, geotargeting, and addressable media. No billboards. No direct mail. “It’s all paid media,” he explains, and the agency is “hired by people to make their messaging and their branding work.”
Kevin can be reached on his personal page at: ijustmetkevin.com.or on his agency website at: greenbananaseo.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and my guest today is Kevin Roy, Co-founder of GreenBananaSEO based in Beverly, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Kevin.
KEVIN: Hey, thanks for having me.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about GreenBanana and what you specialize in?
KEVIN: We don’t sell bananas. GreenBananaSEO is a full-stack digital ad agency, and we’re primarily known for our search engine optimization, but we also have a significant portion of our clients run paid media, Google AdWords, Facebook, programmatic display.
One of the reasons that a lot of people know us for search
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