The Truth of Selling to Brands vs Agencies

One of the constant questions that I see startups wrestle with is how to think about the selling process of brand marketers vs their agency partners.  Frankly it is a question that does not have clean cut answer.  But, it is a question that I think I am well positioned to at least help with since over my career I have spent two-thirds of my time on the brand side (P&G) and one-third on the agency side (Rockfish).  So how should startups handle the brand vs agency debate?  In my eyes, there is not a single answer but instead several questions that a startup should consider as they build their selling strategy:

Question #1:  Brand Tech? Ad Tech? Retail Tech?  Which budget would your service come out of?

Not all marketing budgets are created equal and not everyone on a brand has equal control on those budgets.  It is vital that a startup realize the type of spend that their company would fall under.  For instance, if you are a media buy or asking people to purchase based on CPMs than you are most likely AdTech.  And as such, you are not going to have much luck pitching to a Brand Manager.  In most cases, especially with the rise of programmatic buying, brands have empowered their media agency or internal media group to own all AdTech decisions.  For all but the largest strategic discussions, marketers turn over the decision on which sites to buy and do not even begin to get into the details of things like real-time bidding.   If you are a shopper marketing play (ie Retail Tech), then you need to be talking to the marketer (and their agency) that owns the relationships with their retail partners and customer teams.  Or if you are Brand Tech / Digital Marketing, then you are probably talking to the Brand Manager and their digital agency.  Startups can waste a lot of time and energy having meetings with people on the brand that really do not have a say on making the buy.  Figure out which budget you fit into and then map the right relationships based on that.

Question #2:  Who is impacted by your product? What work would take place to implement it?

While there is often a single decision maker that gives the go / no go decision on working with your startup, there is a good chance that decision will impact a multitude of folks on the brand and agency side.  Those people can become champions of your solution or there is an equal chance they can become a poison pill that kills the deal.  It is important to try and gain a 360 degree view of the landscape and how your solution might fit.  For instance, many brands are currently working on global templates to bring a common architecture to their websites globally.  If you are attempting to sell a social media content hub to the brand team in North America, you will have to realize the impact that would make on the global template work that another team might have been working on for over a year.  As the worlds of the CMO and CIO continue to blend together, the need to understand the impact of your solution is more important than ever.

Question #3:  Are you selling a “test & learn” to start or a broader implementation?

When a startup first sells to a brand marketer, they quickly learn the term “test & learn”.  Think of it essentially as a trial or foot in the door with the brand that lasts a set amount of time (and usually is under $50K at max).  Done right, it can lead to a bigger long term relationship.  Done poorly, it can mean you have shot yourself in the foot and ruined any opportunities in the future.  Some startups try to inherently avoid test & learns but that is a dangerous path.  Instead, you should focus on clearly defining the success metrics of the test & learn and what next steps would look like if those metrics are met.  Excuse the bad analogy, but you want to think of the test & learn as the engagement period that will hopefully lead to a marriage.  Even in those situations where you are pitching a much broader engagement (for instance switching to an entirely new Content Marketing Platform), the startup should look for a way to get a brand to dip their toe in the water.  If you have a great product that truly solves a problem that a brand faces, this trial can be what ultimately leads to you winning the business.

Question #4:  Have other brands or clients at the company / agency worked with you before?

Most startups learn about the concept of social signaling when first dealing with investors.  Well the same holds true with brand marketers and agencies as well.  If your startup has worked with another client at an agency, they are going to do the due diligence of finding out what worked and what did not.  And they will do the same if you have worked with another brand within a company.  You can use this to your advantage as well because marketers like to know that someone else has taken that first risk on your startup and worked out all of the kinks.  And frankly even more importantly, they know that someone else has the scars on their back from doing the hard work of getting your startup through legal and set up in their purchasing / payment system.  That seems like a small thing but it is actually a very big thing for most folks.  On the flip side, if this is the first time your startup has worked with a certain company, realize that you are asking that person on the other side of the table to not only say yes, but to also be a champion  for you internally.  You need to reward and recognize them for the extra work that in many times they will be doing on your behalf (this holds true if its on the brand or agency side).

Question #5:  What is the role and authority of the person you are talking to?

One of the biggest mistakes that a startup makes is not understanding the person they are selling to.  In general, they make two types of mistakes in this regard.  The first is they assume the more senior the person is, the better for them to sell to.  For instance, just last week a startup sent a LinkedIn message to the President of a large CPG that I know.  This President has overall Profit & Loss responsibility for his division yet this startup was trying to get him to meet to talk about a small digital activation of less than $100K (a rounding error in his budget).  The second mistake is that they don’t understand the role the person has within the organization.  There is a big difference between a Brand Manager that has budget responsibility and an Innovation Manager that is responsibility for exploring new areas.  Its not that one is better than the other but instead their internal reward structures are different.  For instance, the Brand Manager is going to be measured on growing their top and bottom line of the business – not on creating a new innovative marketing campaign necessarily.  Likewise on the agency side, the Account Director might not “own” the budget for the client, but they likely have one of the closest relationships and ability to convince them why it is worth taking a risk on a new idea.

If a startup goes in understanding these questions about their business and the company they are talking with, it will help them figure out the right path to explore.  There are amazing opportunities for brands and startups to more closely collaborate but it will take both sides working to make the most of the relationship.

Innovation Generation: Why brand–startup partnerships are a must for marketers

This article originally appeared in Upstream, Rockfish’s newsletter that shares our insights and points of view across technology, marketing and strategy; our take on current trends; and a look ahead to what’s on the horizon for marketers. You can sign up for the next issue at

Smart businesses thrive on the right amount of chaos – in the form of disruptive innovation. At Rockfish, we embrace innovation – and the disruption and chaos it brings. Why? Because innovation drives progress.  And growth.

That spirit of entrepreneurship runs deep in our organization. It’s how we approach every project, and why we call ourselves a digital innovation partner (not just another digital agency). We don’t want to just create work. We want to help our clients redefine industries, change models, find explosive growth and create partnerships.

I believe every marketer should be finding ways to drive innovation both from inside their own organization and by partnering with outside agencies and startups who can partner with them to push these goals forward. As an enabler of disruptive innovation, Rockfish partners with startups to deliver best-in-class thinking and the technology and mobile innovation that drives our clients’ brands forward. We innovate both externally and internally by:

  • Partnering with and mentoring innovative startups
  • Driving innovation within our organization with a startup process model

Supporting innovation

Rockfish also has deep ties to the startup world in each of our markets. Take Cincinnati, for example, where Rockfish is one of the partner agencies that guide startup companies through the development and growth process at The Brandery during its four-month program annually. The Brandery is a nationally recognized startup accelerator and the first to focus on applying the principles of brand marketing to startups. (Myself and Rockfish colleague Bryan Radtke, VP, Client Services, are both co-founders.)

Specifically, Rockfish experts provide strategic  branding mentorship and design guidance to help startups focus their brand, find their message(s) and make true connections with their target audience(s).

Collaborating to innovate

Rockfish also thrives on introducing our clients to smart startups that may help them meet a business or industry challenge.  One example of this is our participation in Brand Fusion, an innovative gathering that introduces top-level brand managers to startup founders, for collaboration and networking. In a fast and efficient round-robin format, brand managers get to meet 8 to  10 startup leaders that could help them solve digital marketing challenges. It’s both inspiring and practical for all parties involved.

Innovating from within

We talk the talk, but we also walk the walk by baking innovation into our operational model and our hiring practices. Our internal innovation starts with a workforce that thrives on it. If you can’t bring new ideas to the table, you won’t be a good fit at Rockfish.

Each new hire brings an entrepreneurial spirit to work every day. Our core value of collaboration plays out into our hiring must-haves: Smart people who are innovative, driven and versatile.

Quick-turn innovation

In early 2013, we hosted our first-ever Rockfish Hackathon. The inaugural event pitted cross-functional teams of Rockfish employees against each other with a deadline for rapid innovation – and an accompanying lack of sleep. Over two days, nearly 75 employees formed 10 teams and dove in to develop working demonstrations of groundbreaking digital ideas, based on ideas they had developed leading up to the competition.  The all-nighter took lots of coffee and tons of teamwork.  The results blew us away. Browse the projects and see for yourself.

Rockfish Labs

Our internal startup incubator, Rockfish Labs, has generated some amazing products and services that we have spun out to deliver innovation to clients. They include:

  • YouEarnedIt, an employee rewards program that encourages teamwork and peer encouragement.
  • Media Multiplyer, a platform that provides rich-media technology to optimize digital ads across channels and devices via self-contained and sharable ad units.
  • Sygnl, a social-local-mobile diagnostic tool that provides a holistic picture of your current so-lo-mo efforts

A continual learning model

Generating innovation around here also means investing in our communities, to fuel the next generation of disruptive innovators. Rockfish employees are also involved in groups including:

  • The Ark Challenge in northwest Arkansas, a mentorship-driven business accelerator program for technology startups. []
  • Hosting Meetup groups to share Android development skills
  • Volunteering for local schools to help develop mobile apps

The Rockfish point of view is that by innovating from within, we can keep our clients and partners at the cutting edge of technology, digital marketing and communications.

The next issue of Upstream from Rockfish will be released soon so sign-up to receive it in your inbox at

The Impending Era of SoLoMo

Rockfish CEO Kenny Tomlin gave the keynote for the 2012 iMedia Agency Summit. Check out his below presentation entitled “SoLoMo: Creator of The Hyper-Connected Consumer & What Brands Can Do to Keep Up”
[slideshare id=13053848&doc=2012-05-agency-tomlinkenny-120523235609-phpapp02]

The Value of Wearing Two Hats

Every day in business, I wear two hats (metaphorically of course).  The first hat is in the agency world as the Chief Marketing Officer at Rockfish.  The second hat is in the start-up investor world, both as the co-founder of The Brandery and as a partner in Vine St Ventures.  While these two professions have more differences than similarities, I know I am better at both jobs because of the other.

On the agency side, each day is spent uncovering the marketing and business pain points of our clients.  These pain points create opportunities which start up companies can capitalize on by providing the solution.  As an investor, I often have one of the first opportunities to evaluate the start-ups that are looking to provide that solution.  Well before they hit the pages of Mashable or the New York Times, many of these start-ups are pitching investors.  In the investment world, venture firms often talk about “proprietary deal flow” where they get a first look at investment opportunities.  In much the same way, being involved directly in the start-up investment space gives Rockfish proprietary deal flow to bring digital innovation to our clients.

Being a practitioner in the world of marketing helps me be a subject matter expert when it comes to brand marketing.  In turn, I become more valuable as an investor because of the subject matter expertise I can bring to start-ups.  And ultimately, the value comes full circle as I can better help the digital innovation strategy of my clients to identify opportunities.

Wearing two hats in your professional life definitely requires double the work.  But at the same time, the return you get for both jobs clearly proves the old saying of “one plus one equals three.”

Klout’s version of March Madness

Last week I got a fun invitation from the crew over at Klout asking me to participate in Agency Insanity, their version of March Madness.  Instead of college hoops though, this bracket is a match-up of marketers from different agencies.  In Agency Insanity, marketers compete head-to-head in a bracket on who has more influence. The bracket has 6 rounds of competition and people are seeded based on their Klout Scores.

Klout gets credit for some solid B2B marketing on this one for sure.  Agencies are a key target audience for them and what better way to get their attention than to throw a little competition into the mix.  After all, which agency wouldn’t want to be able to take home the title of Klout’s Most Influential Social Media Marketer?

I’m always up for a little competition and I could use your help.  In the first round of the Agency Insanity Tournament, I’m up against Maggie Ratigan, a Media Planner at AKQA.  My team name is ROC-DK.  You can help me advance to the 2nd Round by visiting the bracket matchup and giving me +K.  Our CEO/Founder of Rockfish, Kenny Tomlin, is also in the bracket as ROC-KT.  He’s faced with a tough first round match-up, going against my fellow VCU BrandCenter Board Member, Gareth Kay.

The tournament is taking place over the next two weeks with Round 1 today, Round 2 on March 21, Sweet 16 on March 22, Elite 8 on March 23 and then Final Four on March 26.    You can log-in daily to “Give +K’s”.  I appreciate the help!