Geoff McMurdo on Life Inside an Agency

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B marketers. In this post we're talking with Geoff McMurdo from Isabel Avery on life inside an agency.

Geoff McMurdo - Partner & CEO at Isabel Avery

Geoff McMurdo - Partner & CEO at Isabel Avery

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Geoff McMurdo and I'm the CEO of Isabel Avery & Company and one of three partners in the agency. We are a strategic marketing agency with a creative dynamic and focus on output. We are an end-to-end marketing agency, taking clients on the journey from insights, to strategy, to execution - with a creative layer within each piece.

How did your career path take you from a VP of a global brand to running a boutique marketing firm?
I think fate is the best way to answer it but I'll give a bit more detail than that. I spent 20 years mostly in marketing, in corporate life with a small startup stint in there from 2004-2007. It was great… I worked for some great brands like Sony, Blackberry, and LG so I had a tremendous experience and learned an awful lot. Corporate life taught me structure, process, and how to manage and deploy resources... but it got to the point where I was getting tired of the political, slow moving, corporate reality. 

After I left LG and was doing some consulting, I bumped into my current partners Carrie and Carrie, and we got talking. They had just founded Isabel Avery & Company and they were looking for help to scale things and I was looking for a new challenge to be able to build something that I could call my own. Since we worked so great together as partners at Blackberry, we decided "let's do it" and that's how I ended up here - it's been fun!

"If you try to do too many things at once, you do a half ass job at everything."

What have you learned being on agency side now, instead of being inside the company?
There's a few things. Number one - not necessarily a learning but a reaffirming - which is that mid to large sized companies can get so bogged down by their internal structure and process. It's almost like you become big and you need process to function, but that process and internal process slows you down. So one of the things we really try to focus on here is how do we help our customers get to their goals quickly. We know what the goals are, what the output and the deliverables are, so it’s how can we push them, to push themselves, to actually make it happen quicker. 

One of the things I've learned with small companies is to help ground them in reality at times. You have to really set realistic goals and prioritize because if you try to do too many things at once, you do a half ass job at everything. Pick 3-4 things and do them better than anyone else. So when we talk to the smaller companies we really try have them try to focus in on that. 

Now you're selling ROI because you're agency side, how does it change the way you think about marketing strategy and how people should be measuring that?
ROI is one of those things that's always been tough in the marketing and advertising. There's always been ways to do it - but even some of those, some people might call suspect - like impressions. I think the digital world has made it a whole lot easier. You still have to translate your message to the market, and your analytics and metrics to a call to action. I still don’t think that’s black and white, but it's certainly a lot easier than what I would call a traditional world where you'd put a print, radio, and tv ad out. So I think the digital world has helped but it might have even swung the other way where there are so many metrics now that for the traditional marketing executive who's trying to talk to his sales exec or CFO and they're trying to put an ROI on things, it can be overwhelming. We even have that challenge, and we fairly savvy marketers. 

"When you're on the top of Everest... there's really only one way to go."

I find a lot of the problem with digital is that there are too many metrics and everyone focuses on the vanity metrics - and so it's like if we get engagement, things are good - but what does engagement even mean...
Well yeah, you can just get sucked into Google analytics and all the things that plug in, it can put you in a trance at times. What you really need to do is sit back and think about what's important, and that's going to change depending on the evolutionary state that companies in. Are they trying to get a product to market? Build a brand? Because those are really different things. When I was at Blackberry, we would always battle between the brand marketing team and the channel marketing team about what was important, and at the end of the day it was all important, building a brand was important and so was selling the product. 

The good thing is, the better job you do at building that company over time and it's strengths, the longer that brand can last. I'll give you a perfect example; at LG, it always blew our minds how strong Sony's brand still resonated. When if you think about it, they have bits of success here and there but there heyday was back in the 80's and 90's, and they haven't really done much since then but that brand was built so strong, it has a brick wall around it. So that shows you how important it is to build a good company, sustain it over time, and that brand can last a long time. Apple will probably be the next example of that. When you're at the top of Everest, there's not a lot more ‘up’ to go. You can put a step ladder up on top of Everest but the reality is there's probably only one way for them to go in the perceptions of people. But you know that consumers love the brand, so it's going to be tough for competitiors to chip away at that, they've done such a great job in the last 10 years of building the brand on the backs of great products. 

"That's how we build our team, hungry people who want to produce quality and make things happen quickly."

As people are building out there marketing organizations, what are the biggest gaps you're seeing in their teams?
It depends on the size of the company. One big thing that we see a lot within small to mid sized companies is that they lack a lot of internal resources, so the team just isn't big enough and it's important to them to always do things with quality. So the question is, does it merit (at this point in time) to bring in a resource to do function A or function B? We find a lot of companies turn to us because we can help them turn quality and turn it with speed. That quality with speed helps them accomplish their goals internally. 

As far as team structure goes, you need team balance. At the end of the day, you have to be able to tell a good story and you have to bring that story to life. Then the question is, what are the communication channels you use to actually go out and do that? For building our team, you need people with experience, and people who are savvy. More than that though, I want people that are hungry and people who want to make things happen. That's how we try and build our team here, hungry people who want to produce quality and make things happen quickly. 

So it's less about the specific roles and more about attitude?
Again, it depends on the size of the company. If you're a big corporate organization with lots of money and resources... you can afford to have a full time scientific analytics person on staff. For most of the rest of the companies, you're more so looking for people who are willing to work hard and learn, and build your team out that way, with enough of the people who are seasoned enough that they can mentor and guide. 

How would you structure an in house team if you're building one today?
What's changed in the last 10 years, is you're going to have a lot more focus on digital. At the end of the day, it's really going to be dependent on what your business is, and how you're going to market whether it be consumer, channel, B2C, B2B. Each one of those takes a very different skillset. The question is what's your ‘go to market’ path? You need to build the infrastructure for people, and the marketers to tell the story and enable your company to sell. It's a tough question to give a specific example, but what I would say is understand your ‘go to market’ path and support that. 

When and how should companies think about bringing in an agency to supplement what they are doing?
It's funny, we've had a few chats with small sized companies that have been using a lot of sub contractors, which makes sense for things like copy work, design, web development, PR help, etc. When I look at it, there's an efficiency for a company to use an agency because the problem is if you've got six subcontractors you're working with to bring together the complete solution, that's six briefings, and six updates every time something changes. When you put that all under one roof, you create a huge efficiency in your time and that allows you to start thinking and planning for the future - that’s where an agency makes sense. Hold your agency responsible to help with the deliverables today. 

What I would say, if you're working with an agency is to use them to get that efficiency and demand value from them in their deliverables. The efficiency of using an agency that can deliver a complete solution and keeping it under one roof, it makes the brand people and the internal director of marketing that much more efficient because they're not having to brief six people every single time something happens. 

"A strong brief that's in sync with the agency will produce great results. If not, it's garbage in, garbage out."

Is there a right way or wrong way for clients to give feedback to agencies they are working with?
For sure. I'll sum it up by saying - and this is probably a good statement for life in general - you get out things what you put into it. Another way to say it is, it's all about the brief. If you have a strong brief that is well written and in sync with the agency, it will produce tremendous things because everyone gets it. If you don't do that well, it's garbage in, garbage out. 

If a brand just calls me up and says in two minutes, here's what we want, can you do it? Well I will do my best to interpret what I think you want, but if you haven't told me clearly and if you're not willing to put in enough time, you're not going to get good value from us or any other agency. It's about having the commitment to understand that you've got to be vested in it. It shouldn't take hours and hours of your time, but you've got to spend enough time that you set your partners on the right path and check in enough to make sure it stays on path. 

Where do you go to keep up with marketing?
We follow lots of blogs and marketing daily's. I get consumed with a lot of them and my list of ‘I'm going to read this later’ keeps getting bigger and bigger. I read a lot of venture content. I like to read Mark Suster and Fred Wilson, I'll read their dailies everyday. I find that they are very grounded in being practical, so I love reading it and re-post a lot of it. 

It's hard to keep on top of it though. You could literally spend all day everyday reading and keeping on top of things, but we do prioritize getting quality work out to our clients as much as possible (laughs). So between that and driving kids to hockey games, I read whatever I can. 

What is your favorite 90's dance song?
I'm a big music fan, although I don't know if I'd say I'm a big dance music fan, so the closest one I could think of that has a bit of dance edge to it is Jump Around by House of Pain. 

There was a whole bunch of other things listed on the top 100 I looked up that I did not want my name associated with. 

Awesome. Thanks for taking the time today.