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Making Agencies Better Than Ever. Interview with Ben Kirshner



The agency business has been undergoing change, not least of which is through the ability to leverage new technology to deliver the best messaging to the right consumer at the right time. 

Fourteen years ago, Ben Kirshner, CEO of Elite, started Coffee for Less, which was an online store for all things coffee. “When I hired an agency for search marketing, I realized quickly that the people who cared most about my business were the salespeople, because they got commissions. The account managers were the most important people, but the agency kept switching them on me. I was re-educating account managers four times a year, and none of them had any passion for my business.” So Ben decided to create Elite, an agency which gives all employees a share in overall agency profits. With such a provocative agency offering, I asked Ben about his business, how it impacts the industry and how it might impact the future of agencies in general.

Charlene Weisler: Tell me about your current job. What exactly does your agency do?

Ben Kirshner: We don’t do the creative; we plan and buy the media so that more people click on clients’ ads and buy their products. We started in paid search marketing, and now we also do organic search, display advertising, social media advertising, and shopping ads with the data feeds supporting them. We’re also growing fast in the area of conversion rate optimization, which means getting people who come to your website to buy more. 

Charlene: Who is in your competitive set?

Ben: We typically get contacted when a brand is looking for a digital specialist to partner with their full-service or creative agency. That said, we mostly run up against 3Q Digital, Rimm Kaufman group, iCrossing and iProspect. They’ve been around a long time, so they were leaders out of the gate. We’re of similar sizes and client bases, in the middle ground between the five-person startups and the 1,000-person giants. The five-person startups lack thought leadership, while the 1,000-person giants fall into anarchy.

Charlene: What is your definition of performance marketing?

Ben: Anything where the medium and the goal are measurable. We are held accountable for achieving clients’ advertising goals. There’s no subjectivity in what we do. Our clients count money, not impressions. We have to deliver enough customers, paying enough money, to meet cost-per-sale goals on weekly and monthly bases. When we set realistic goals, we meet them. If we didn’t, we’d get fired immediately.

Performance means digital now because the media is more measurable. Eventually, all media will be, from a TV ad to a billboard.

Charlene: What is your agency doing to help marketers deal with a more demanding digital environment?

Ben: We’re bringing clients broader counsel and deeper execution across digital media. Over the past year, we’ve created specialties in four key disciplines – shopping and feed (data), CRO (conversion rate optimization), performance display, and paid social. These operate as pieces of a whole, thanks to the way we share information and successful practices. You can’t be good across the frontiers without specializing, because each of the emerging areas is complex and deep, and the real value comes from knowing things that a generalist would miss. You have to know how the engine works at the level of each bolt. It takes master mechanics working together. Every week, our teams come together and share what’s working, and what’s not, so we can bring all of our client work up a notch.

Charlene: What data, if any, do you collect and how is it used to forward your business?

Ben: Data is our everything. Our account teams are analyzing data and making adjustments day in and day out. We’re constantly looking at website analytics – store information, revenues, traffic, purchases – to determine how much it’s costing to get each visitor and buyer. For example, if we see our campaign’s leading 40% more people to our client’s site, but they’re not buying the unique products with higher gross margins, we can immediately focus marketing on those items. Also, we’re always exploring new terms and new ways to segment campaigns for optimization.

From a business standpoint, we look at client NPS, or net promoter score, twice a year. We also ask our clients quarterly, using the Client Heartbeat tool, what we can improve upon. We want to identify issues and solve them in real time.

Charlene: Looking ahead the next 3-5 years, give me some predictions about how the agency and media landscape in general will look.

Ben: Google will be the place all media flows through to be placed, traced, tracked, optimized and reported on. If you want to buy TV commercial programmatically you’ll do it through Google. The same with radio ads. As a result, all of the media planning and buying teams will use the same toolkit. We will have solved the attribution problem because we have one persistent tracking mechanism. And mobile will be the ideal place to buy. Your phone will be more than a wallet; it will be your computer to buy, browse, and compare. People will still need to work on big screen, but mobile will be gatekeeper for everything we buy. It will be considered normal to walk through Macy’s, scan an item and click to have it shipped to your home from the nearest distribution center.

This article first appeared in www.Mediapost.com

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