Q&A with Bill Sebald: Creating a Marketing Culture of Innovation

Bill SebaldBill Sebald is a founding partner at Greenlane Search Marketing, a 14-year-old firm specializing in SEO, strategy and analytics. He’s also an adjunct professor at Jefferson University, where he teaches digital marketing strategy, and Drexel University, where he teaches SEO strategy.

There are so many marketing firms out there. It seems like their first line of business should be marketing themselves. But how can you break out of the pack and differentiate yourself in such a crowded field? How did you do it?

For us, it started with a differentiator. Even though it wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking (it doesn’t need to be!), our approach to services was less common, yet easy to define and sell through.

Backstory: When we started this version of Greenlane Digital Marketing, my partner and I had left the big agency world. He worked in analytics and I worked in SEO. In 2011, I started seeing serious advancements in Google’s recognition of value from a website. The old standby tactics we had known as SEOs were starting to bear less fruit. Ranking factors started to align more with traditional digital marketing tactics and strategies. In many big agencies, where the framework provides a scaled value to every client, I started to see it as losing proposition. Google’s tastes were changing, but agencies were still offering the same recipes.

Basically, I was tired of failing my clients with the old formulas and making excuses.

So I had this fantasy about an SEO company that was less about throwing things over the fence, and more about true digital marketing consulting: Putting business goals before rankings, putting ROI before general traffic, helping companies leverage their other channels for SEO and vice-versa.

What about networking? Because great ideas only work if people know about them, right?

Networking is so important. I always recommend that an agency look to their expanded network often. If you hire experienced team members, they come with a network as well. Leverage everything. Good relationships are hiding everywhere.

The company I worked for, called GSI Commerce, served e-commerce clients like Calvin Klein, Petsmart, Toys R Us and about 80 more of the same stature. There were thousands of incredibly bright people coming in and out the doors. I was building the new SEO channel, so I used every opportunity to charm my co-workers and demonstrate confidence in our offering.

What do you look for when you hire new talent? Is there some advice that would be just as good for the new company that is looking for its first employee as the established firm looking for another junior copywriter?

When I interview, I look for passion, experience and attitude. When I can’t find someone with all three traits, I at least look for passion and attitude. We can always train, but without passion and attitude, the employee typically washes out. I want someone who sends themselves to after-work Meetups or engages in online conversations about digital marketing in their off-hours.

When you hire correctly, you should have some long-term employees. But when someone isn’t the best fit, they are not just causing you to leave money on the table, but they’re making the job tougher for your passionate employees. The wrong team members can be dangerous to morale, selling ability and retention.

Also, a new agency should first decide if it wants to be a lifestyle agency or a high-growth agency. We chose the former. This allows us to create that passionate supergroup. Otherwise, you have to work really hard to make sure you aren’t just creating a place for people to use only as a stepping stone.

How about the reverse? What should you offer in order to attract dedicated, loyal, hard-working employees? Can you give us some do’s and don’ts?

If you want passionate people, you must feed that passion. You must provide challenges and a chance to be successful. I recommend providing many avenues for training and all the tools needed to be profitable for clients.

Also, foster a culture of experimentation and support. I often hear about unrealistic, demanding clients, and the agency leadership leaves the employees to fend for themselves. That creates a lot of frustration.

I see you have a slideshow of recommendations for clients on your website. Should everyone have some version of this to help boost their reputation?

Social proof is a real influencer. For a company like ours, where most of our new business comes from referrals, I’m proud to show off those positive endorsements. I don’t know how often they drive the decision in our favor, but based on typical case studies, they are definitely an influential factor.

Let’s talk about the teaching aspect of your career for a minute. Do you believe that while formal education is valuable, marketing students can learn important, innovative ideas out in the field that don’t translate easily in textbooks? Do you even use textbooks?

When I’m teaching, I may use some online resources to prime students, but the lesson plan is organized based on complexity. Start light, then get deeper as the information starts to sink in.

A lot of successful search marketing is adding a creative layer to the default framework. There are plenty of cases where if search marketing is not taught right, it can cause a lot more trouble and unnecessary spend. I teach the creative element. Anyone can press buttons, but creativity and experience allow you to outperform your competitors.

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