Women in Advertising: No, we are not the “marketing girls”

“You must be the marketing girls,” said the big guy wearing a polo adorned with his contracting company’s logo. He was speaking in reference to myself, the CEO and Co-Founder of Simpatico Studios, a full service advertising agency, and my female employee.

On that balmy May evening, my team and I were putting the finishing details in place for our client’s big event: a card exchange featuring the reveal of their agency’s rebrand, sponsored by our local Chamber of Commerce. The attendees were arriving—local business owners, friends and networking partners from the community—and my employee and I were testing the A/V connections when this man from the contracting company turned to us and said:

“You must be the marketing girls.”

I’d like to say I don’t know what possessed him to interrupt our work to call us that, but the truth of the matter is, he was simply verbalizing the sentiment that runs rampant in our industry, and one that he was trained to accept without a second thought. Though the sentence seems innocent enough without context, the trope of the Marketing Girls is one that has long followed hard-working women in the world of advertising.

Much like a ball follows the ankle it is shackled to, the concept of the Marketing Girl is both inescapable and detrimental for women in the marketing industry. A Marketing Girl is a woman with a lower level to middle management role in the advertising industry who executes projects and produces deliverables—and receives little to none of the recognition or accolades she deserves for that work. The Marketing Girl is rarely promoted to higher than middle management, and no matter how much she contributes to the execution of a project, her work is often perceived as supplemental or simply supportive of the ‘real’ work (i.e. the idea and concept).

With the strides women are making, in the wake of everything Mad Men has brought to light about the historical context of women in marketing, one might wonder how the Marketing Girl can continue to stifle the careers of bright women in advertising in this day and age.

The field of marketing and advertising has undergone a series of evolutions in the last 15 years, moving from a set of strictly-defined functional areas to an interconnected, integrated and multidisciplinary web of tactics for building brands and influencing consumers. But for all the advances in technology, connectedness and even roles within the field, one thing has conspicuously stayed the same:

Women are desperately missing from the highest ranks in agencies and creative studios.

 

Let’s talk stats.

10 years ago, 51.3% of all marketing roles were held by women.

Of those women, only 13.5% held high-level roles such as chair, CEO or managing director.

Of the rest of the women, a meager 27.3% held other executive management positions.  

Women’s earnings were 67.7% of men’s earnings for the same roles (Brandweek Survey, 2009).

 

Now, let’s fast forward to today.

As of December, 2017: 53% of all marketing roles were held by women.

30% of all women held leadership roles (less than a 3% increase), but still only 18% had titles including chair, CEO or Managing Director.

Even worse, less than 3% of all creative leaders—particularly Creative Directors—are women (Boston Globe, 2017).

No matter what your gender is, statistics like that should infuriate you. I am 15 years deep in marketing (my sole career), and I can confidently say I’ve encountered as many brilliant women as I have men. But more often than not, the people I find myself liaising with across the board room tables, the conference room lines and the finance offices are men. Those brilliant female minds rarely, if ever, have the title CEO, Creative Director or Partner—but I see those minds at work in nearly all of the Marketing Directors that I work with and for.

Are we to believe, then, that the reason for the lack of women in positions of power is that men become smarter and more promotable as they get more experience, and women don’t? Are we to believe that women who choose to start a family lapse so drastically in their skills that companies just can’t possibly even take the risk of moving them into a senior role? Are we to believe that 70% of all experienced women marketers just simply do not possess the qualities of leaders?

As a young lady from Florida, who is forging her own path in a male-dominated industry, eloquently put it: I call bullshit.

And yet—though I’d like to say that being a female CEO has allowed me to escape the inequality so many of my colleagues still struggle with, the Marketing Girl label continues to find me. I still find myself thinking carefully about every word I say and how I say it when in meetings with certain male clients. There are certain situations where it takes strategy to know when to push and demand respect based on my merit and experience, and when to have my partner/husband repeat what I just said to gain consensus.

I can’t imagine how much talent and leadership, how many ideas and innovations, we are missing out on from brilliant women in the field who are seen and not heard. But, as with the gentleman from the card exchange, I have found that the sexism and disparity arises mostly from a place of conditioning and ignorance, and less so from a place of malice or ill-intent.

So I’d like to put conditioning and bad traditions aside, and set the record straight for the hard-working women of advertising: no, we are not the Marketing Girls.

We are branding experts, social media mavens, event managers, public relations rock stars, data analysts, programmers, digital marketers, copywriters, media buyers and graphic designers. We are educated degree-holders. And yes—we are Creative Directors, Partners, CMOs, CEOs and Owners.

We are marketers: professionals dedicated to growing businesses, building brands and leading teams to create and innovate, push the envelope, draw new boundaries and think like there isn’t a box (or a ceiling) that ever even existed.

And we intend to do just that.

 

By Jill Whiskeyman, CEO and Co-founder of Simpatico Studios

 

Additional sources:

Women Have stronger Digital Marketing Skills But Are Underrepresented, Trends and Insights

https://www.thirteen.org/programs/real-mad-men/real-mad-men-and-women-madison-avenue-jane-mass-women-advertising/

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Web Traffic & Analytics: What the Numbers Mean, and How to Move Them In Your Favor

Business owners and marketing leaders: When was the last time you took a good look at your website traffic?

Odds are you created a Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics account and installed a tracking pixel when you launched your website. (If you didn’t, be sure to do so today. Don’t know how? Book us for an initial consult).

Fact is, you’re missing critical customer insights—and, ultimately, revenue—if you aren’t checking your website traffic at least monthly. If you just can’t make the time for it, it’s time to hire help. With foundations in Digital Communications, Marketing Management and Design, and with certifications in Marketing Automation, Search Marketing and Social Media Marketing, Simpatico’s experienced, credentialed, multidisciplinary team is standing by to help you make sense of the numbers.

Simpatico’s baseline reporting regimens consider metrics such as the ones below. Don’t be alarmed if you aren’t seeing these precise trends or results with your own traffic; each business and campaign is so nuanced that many factors contribute to the unique outcomes you’ll likely see for your own website.

But, for the interim, a crash course:

TOP ENTRY PAGES can tell you how well a campaign or tactic is performing. For example, imagine you’re running a lead generation campaign, such as a sweepstakes or a webinar, and have created a unique page on your site for users to sign up. You should see that page’s URL among your main points of entry for users. Likewise, if you’re in the latter months of an SEO campaign, the pages you’ve been optimizing should be inching upward over time.

TOP EXIT PAGES can tell you a great deal about whether your website’s pages are designed for an optimal user experience (UX), or whether they could use some refining. Suppose the main thing you want your website to do is capture visitor email addresses. If you’re following best practices and redirecting users who enter their email address to a ‘Thank you’ page—assuming those users are qualified—that ‘Thank you’ page should be the place where most users end their visit that day. If you find they’re walking out the door on the wrong page, it could mean more relevant content, deep-linking and clearer calls-to-action are needed.

BOUNCE RATE is a metric closely related to Entry and Exit pages. In general, if a website visitor leaves the site from the same page they first entered on, that action is counted by Analytics tools as a Bounce. Think about it this way: If you ran a deli counter, and found most of your walk-ins turned around and walked right back out, you’d want to know why, wouldn’t you?

UNIQUE VISITORS, as the name suggests, is a rough quantification of how many individuals come to your website. (That’s as opposed to VISITS, which quantifies the total number of ‘hits’, to borrow a dot-com era term, your site gets.) It’s worth noting that this metric can’t truly tell you how many unique people have been to your website. If you visit your own site using a computer on your office WiFi network, and then do the same on your iPhone using LTE, those two actions will be counted as two unique visitors. Single sign-on (SSO) technology, which works in part to corral all your user accounts under a single, master account, might eventually resolve this discrepancy, but it’s still not an exact science.

AVERAGE TIME ON-SITE can reveal precisely how much time users are spending with your brand or company. For the most part, the richer and deeper your website content, the longer users will spend with it. Social Media has recognized this pattern of behavior, and responded by promoting and encouraging submission of original video content. (Notice how you get notified each time one of your Facebook friends goes live?) In truth, time on-site is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how captivating and relevant visitors consider your site to be. Facebook, for their part, introduced a metric in the last year which it’s dubbed ‘Attention Impressions.’ Attention Impressions quantify how often your posts get your friends and followers to stop scrolling down their bottomless newsfeed. Expect this metric to be increasingly grouped with native heat-mapping, eye- and cursor-tracking in the coming 12 months.

PAGES PER SESSION can provide a glimpse into the state of your site’s relationship with its visitors. The simplest argument is that the more pages a user visits, the more interested that user is in what you have to say or offer. Intent, of course, is another question. A competitor conducting a little intelligence survey might visit dozens of pages with no intention to ever take a single step down your customer journey map. For that reason, the most accurate interpretation of this data starts with stripping out outliers and looking instead at average pages per session—better yet, based on traffic source (did the user come from a Search Engine, a link from another site, or by typing the URL directly into their browser bar?).

RETURN VISITORS, very much like Pages Per Session, can you give you some sense of whether your brand’s message is sticking. As a rule of thumb, Simpatico advises clients that users need to see a message 9+ times before it begins to register as familiar. If you’ve got visitors coming back multiple times, that fact is, by itself, a win. The next trick is to move them down the purchase funnel. How? Well, that’s a full-time job in and of itself—and one more reason to hire a dedicated marketing team.

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Top 7 Qualities of a Truly Compatible Agency Partner

Well, it’s finally decided: You need outside marketing help. Congratulations! It was a feat in and of itself to arrive at that decision. Suddenly, though, things are even more complicated. You find yourself swimming in a sea of possible partners, some of whom are surely beating down your door to get your business. They’re using big marketing words, chomping at the bit to show you their work, and trying to sell you on why they’re all-around better than the next guy.

Frankly, you can’t tell one from the next. What do you do?

Well, for starters, you aren’t buying a ream of paper. You’re buying into a relationship that, done right, should last a decade or more, and result in tremendous value-add to your company. And since you’re buying a relationship (and not a commodity), a great place to start is by determining what qualities make for the utmost compatibility with your group.

It isn’t an easy question to answer. But over the years, we’ve observed there are a definite set of attributes—seven altogether—that should be vetted for. So, when procuring outsourced marketing help, your due diligence should drive to ascertain the extent to which the candidate partner offers…

7. Accountability

The measure of accountability isn’t a proactive approach to reporting; that’s a minimum requirement. Instead, the question to ask is: When something goes wrong, how do you respond? The right agency partner will offer, in writing, an always-make-good approach for the multitude of scenarios in which workmanship isn’t, or results aren’t, up to par based on the expectations you set for them. They’ll also have stated sign-off processes along the way, so it’s clear who has ownership of, and responsibility for, what. Furthermore, they’ll be prepared to customize their processes to match yours, so you can have peace-of-mind that the agency is continuously optimizing itself to meet your expectations.

6. Transparency

Who’s proofing this copy? Who’s analyzing our website’s user paths? Who’s preparing that briefing book of media contacts? While agencies are very good at laying out their capabilities, they’re not always very good at answering the critical questions about who on the team is responsible for what.

Don’t assume that uber-specific job titles, or team members with narrowly defined functions, are evidence that a candidate agency will take an all-bases-covered approach to your account. Nor should you assume that you, as a card-carrying, invoice-paying client, automatically get access to everyone on the agency’s team. On the contrary, we’ve heard horror stories of companies hiring agencies who, for the duration of the interview/review, positioned themselves as “THE [Insert Your Industry Here] MARKETING AGENCY,” only to discover after contracts are signed that, for their budget, they don’t even get the ‘B’ team.

Ask to understand who, specifically, is working on your account, particularly if you intend to go with a larger agency. Boutique agencies—those with 15 or fewer team members, like Simpatico—tend to take an all-hands on deck approach, and roll out the client welcome mat with a very clear message of mi equipo, su equipo.

5. Cross-Channel Clout

According to industry analyst Brian Regienczuk, there are 120,000 ad agencies in the US alone—a sweeping assessment that includes “everything from [so-called] digital agencies, PR firms, design studios, and even [market] research firms.” It’s probably safe to bet the number is higher still, since anybody with a MacBook Pro and a Creative Cloud subscription these days wants to dub their enterprise an agency.

For that reason, whenever consulting on agency reviews, we generally advise clients to not even count a candidate marketing partner as an agency unless the firm is multidisciplinaryin capabilities. That means it already has demonstrable experience with greater than five [5] go-to-market tactics (i.e., search engine marketing or optimization, social media, PR, list growth and mining, digital display, out-of-home, Guerrilla, events, etc.) An agency must also offer a variety of in-house executional competencies, ranging from digital graphic design and video production to media vendor management and the day-to-day brokerage required by channel partners such as Google AdWords.

The ideal candidate, by the way, will have the capacity to offer and/or coordinate all of the above above—that’s called an Integrated Marketing Communications, or “IMC” agency (and it’s what Simpatico does best). Those candidates who don’t have interest in your whole marketing picture are more accurately classified as freelancers or specialists, and, however valuable, probably have limitations in their offering and the value they can add.

Finally, it’ll be obvious who’s who based on the growth trajectory and reputation of the candidate agency. Ask for an account of creative accolades, contracts awarded, and alliances with credentialed partners. Simpatico, for example, was recently voted a Top Philadelphia Marketing Consultant by marketing referral service UpCity, has consistently won out against vertically concentrated agencies thanks to the breadth of our experience, and is in partnership with AdTaxi, one of a select handful of Google Premier Search Partners in the world.

4. Flexibility in Function

Predictability in business is like the power play in hockey: no sooner have you found a rhythm than the rhythm changes all over again. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business owner, or a corporate marketing leader, you need an outsourced marketing partner who understands that. Expensive specialists have little use when economic conditions are throwing your forecasts off, or when some as-yet-unidentified competitor starts stealing your marketshare. The right agency partner will have an on-your-side approach, and that means readiness to shift their function on a moment’s notice—from design to competitive reconnaissance, or from long-game strategy to next-meeting sales support—in order to remain relevant and useful.

3. Clear-as-Glass Processes

Industry standard toolkits are built for collaboration. Google Apps, Adobe Creative Cloud, and a host of marketing automation tools come standard with version control, revision history tracking, role management and task delegation, and countless real-time reporting and analytics features. Is it important to know what tools the candidate agency uses? In a check-the-boxes kind of way, yes.

But it should be more important to you to know how your outsourced marketing partner does its strategic calculus. In other words, you need to know how it arrives at the recommendations that’ll ultimately drive your marketing program, and inform its success or failure. In each of our initial meetings, we bring prospective clients up-to-speed on our Evidence-Based Design™methodology, and how it’s used to ensure our team, at all levels on the org chart, are making informed, defensible choices on your behalf.

Don’t get me wrong: With all the imitators and outright plagiarists to contend with, agencies are entitled to their secret sauce, whatever it happens to be. But wherever internal and outsourced teams need to cooperate with one another to get the job done, you, the client, are as entitled to know how the agency works through certain types of challenges, because that’s going to directly impact how you, as a business owner or marketing leader, can even decide if what’s being proposed makes any sense at all.

2. Accessibility

Having sat in the seat of corporate marketing, I know too well the pain of being stuck in a contract with an unreachable partner.

Once, while on deadline for the first deployment of a mission-critical email marketing campaign, our internal development team needed creative assets, pronto, to make the initial send deadline. It took all of the inside brand management team to page anybody from our agency partner’s team, two states away, who could give us the files we needed. Worse, said team had been apprised of our deadlines in plenty of time.

Sometimes, you just need an immediate answer from your agency. While no agency offers an 1-800-customer-service approach to client relations, you should seek out a partner who will answer when you call, or who will at least agree (in writing, as Simpatico does) to return your messages within 24 hours. And you should certainly expect your agency has got a system in place to not only manage and meet your deadlines, but support you as those deadlines approach—provided, of course, you’re doing your part to include them during the lead-up.

1. Matching Values

If you’re going to hire outsourced marketing help, whatever matters most to your company should also matter to the agency. You wouldn’t hire a sales rep who couldn’t get behind your product, service or solution; it’s reasonable to expect the same of your marketing partner. Pretty simple, right?

Well, yes—on the surface. But whether your agency’s values align with yours isn’t merely a question of whether they’d buy what you’re selling. Remember, your agency is an extension of your team. If you expect them play an integrated, day-to-day role, then you need to make clear to them that they’ll be held to the exact same standards as anyone else in your company. Moreover, you need to understand what those standards are.

If, for example, everyone in your company is judged by very specific, very measurable goals, what good does it do to hire an agency whose competencies end at content production capabilities? Ask them to lay out their attribution model, or to at least describe how they’d go about creating one for you. Likewise, there must be cultural compatibility across the organizations. Imagine the most successful people on your team are lone wolves who thrive when left to their own devices, and can provide now-and-then status reports. In that case, you ought to make clear to your agency that you’d rather reign them in—and therefore expect them to be proactive, and take risks—than have them sitting around waiting for their next set of orders.

To be sure, this step has more to do with you than it does with the agency. It requires consensus among your leadership team about what’s important. It requires you to firmly understand all the things that, in principle, make your company tick.

If there’s even a remote possibility that different leaders in your organization will give different answers about these things, then before even contacting outsourced marketing candidates, assemble your executives to develop a Mission, Vision and Values Statement. Having one will not only ensure your Executive Leadership Team is aligned, it’ll save your marketing budget untold sums in reworks down the line.

Oh, and it should go without saying, but while there’s a lot of problems that marketing can solve, fractures among management is not one of them. Simpatico collaborates with a network of Executive Coaches and Consultants with incredible qualifications who can help steer your management team if you find yours in such a position. Be wary of agencies who purport to solve managerial differences via marketing; conflict resolution, particularly at the top of your org chart, is its own discipline.

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Big Talkers, Small Doers: Revisiting the Role of Strategy in Outsourced Marketing

Ever shopped agencies? Freelancer designers? Advertising consultants? Or outsourced marketing help by any other name? If you have, you might’ve noticed something confounding: Those who want the biggest paydays are also often the same ones who, when hired, want to tell you exactly where and how to dig—but wouldn’t be caught dead holding a shovel.

I’m talking, of course, about the labor of effective marketing. And labor is the word. Because for marketing to work, you, and by extension your marketing team, also have to work. Very hard. Every day.

No kidding, says you, fearless marketing leader and protagonist of this article. That’s obvious. And yet when it comes to retaining the perfect marketing partner, you’d be amazed at how susceptible a budding, in-transition, or otherwise-vulnerable marketing program is to self-described ‘strategists’—hacks with marketing titles who really just talk a lot, and then send their invoice.

As soon as you know what to look for, you can’t unsee it. A couple clues: When pitching their service, they’ll tend to use terms like “drive strategy,” which is code for, I don’t do any real work, because I’m the smartest guy in the room, and only peons sweat. When prompted for their experience, they’ll quickly relay a client list that’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the most successful companies in your space (and how honored you should feel that they’d even entertain working with the likes of you!). Ask them to monetize their success? They’ll use figures that are just-a-tier above your market cap (e.g., if your revenues are in the hundreds of millions, they’ll tell you about their last billion-dollar marketing victory).

How exactly these guys manage to mold lasting relationships from lip-service, and sleep at night, is foreign to a business like Simpatico. Value, to us, means we can’t stop at creating go-to-market strategies for clients; that’s just the beginning. We’ve got to, got to, got toexecute, and follow through. That means putting in the time. It means dealing as much in tedium as we do in big-picture thinking. It means being accountable—for success and all its glory, and for failure and all its blunder.

The benefits of this ethos are, to us, obvious: It’s only through deep, continuous, day-to-day involvement that we can ever hope to know our clients’ businesses as well as they do, and continuously improve the effectiveness of our partnership.

A Matter of Principal

It occurred to me while reading up on ‘Game of Thrones’ creator George R. R. Martin that many of our counterparts in the outsourced marketing realm have abetted this kind of sloth-and-gluttony definition of strategy. Here’s what I mean:

Strategy, as many of our competitors would have you believe, means having a really good idea and telling others what to do with it. They also peddle the idea that strategy takes the form of dialogue and conjecture—and that if you’re designing, developing or otherwise deploying, well, that’s not strategic. Or, most egregious, they pit thinking and doing against one another, suggesting that solid strategy and effective execution can’t possiblycome in one package.

That, of course, is ridiculous. The cream of the crop in the arts and outsourced marketing are proof of the opposite.

We model our agency after contemporaries whose principals said “‘Til death do us part!” with their businesses. In agency land, that’s guys like Stan Richards—who, at 85 years young, remains as involved in client work as he was when he opened a freelance shop from his garage in Dallas 42 years ago. (The guy still runs production meetings.) In entertainment, it’s gals like Dolly Parton, who went from Smoky Mountain rags to Dollywood riches—not thanks to luck, or talent, or acumen, but because she’s still, now in the sixth decade of her music career, putting in the work to crystalize her branded entertainment empire. You don’t need to like country music to respect the hell out of that.

Let the Market, Not the Monarch, Do the Talking

Richards and Parton are a far cry from the bunch of big-talking, price-inflated marketing consultancies and agencies who would have you believe that their do-nothing method is justified by their embellished resume. But that’s the trick of it all: to persuade you that they, and they alone, are the kings of their domains, and are thus worth their royal approach to problem-solving.

Buyer beware: Give ’em a seat at the table, and you can be sure they’ll use it like a throne. Why wouldn’t they? After all, from the comfort of a throne, whenever something doesn’t work, you can simply yell, Off with their heads!, and keep your seat. And that’s about the extent of what they’ll do: Bark orders, point fingers, send a massive invoice, repeat.

Call us old-fashioned, but we’d rather let our work—and your customers—do the talking.

 

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How (not) to Hire in Outsourced Marketing: A Buyer’s Guide

Think fast: What do corn and marketing have in common?

Not setting up a punchline here—although I’m accepting them in the comments, if you’ve got a good one. (It’s the Internet. Don’t let me down.)

Seriously. What do they have in common?

The one-word answer you’d probably expect is: Nothing. After all, one’s a grain; the other is a protracted exercise in getting attention to grow a business, organization, or cause. Corn and marketing have exactly zip in common. That’s the answer. Or it should be.

But as time goes on, the truth of the matter, especially as it pertains to business leadership, is that the answer depends entirely on who you ask.

It depends who you ask because if you ask certain parts of the org chart—procurement, for example—of if you ask business leaders who made a career in manufacturing, or who have a line-item orientation to their company finances, they’ll tell you they favor buying marketing services the way a cereal maker buys its corn.

Like a commodity.

And why not? There’s plenty to like about a commodity market. The economics are simple. It’s input-output, supply-and-demand stuff. That makes for predictable pricing models, and transparent cost factors, each of which is an advantage if you’ve got any concern for accurate projections or your bottom line. What’s more, there’s no difference between corn supplied by Farmer A and corn supplied by Farmer B; as a buyer, you can effectively sort by ‘Price: Low to High’ and expect more or less the same thing.

Hiring for marketing services, on the other hand, is a very different matter. Industry-wide, the cost factors that drive marketing services pricing are notoriously opaque (that, by the way, is one of the things that Simpatico is working to change). So much so that it surprises even us. In 2017, we unseated another marketing agency to win an enterprise eCommerce project. During the proposal stage, when our client took our bid back to the incumbent, the agency principal rebuffed: “I can’t even build you a five-page website for that amount!” That incumbent, by the way, had bid $500,000 to complete the same work. Our price wasn’t peanuts, but it wasn’t that much, either. Because the scope, by our most conservative estimate, wouldn’t amount to anywhere near a half-million dollars in time and materials. (Incidentally, if any agency after 2011 is trying to tell you they charge for website builds by the page, run away.)

We found ourselves in a similar scenario with a different prospect six months later. Word made it back to the shop that the guy signing the checks had asked, for a sanity check along the way, “How in the world could there be such a difference in these estimates?”

Good question. Damn good question. And in the absence of any kind of transparency, or without any frame of reference, how are you, as a responsible marketing leader, or as an entrepreneur trying to squeeze out some semblance of profit, supposed to know the answer?

Fixing the Blank Check Problem

Classically, the remedy to this conundrum—at the enterprise level, at least—has been to start with a budget number, and find a partner who’s willing to back themselves into it. This is what I’ve got for you, says you, our fearless CMO and protagonist of this article, and this is what I need. Either the candidate agency will accept the challenge, or they won’t. And voila: through natural attrition, you’ve found yourself the perfect marketing partner: Somebody who’s able to give you exactly what you want for exactly what you can afford.

Just how problematic this pattern of thinking is should be obvious to anyone who’s spent any length of time in creative services, or for that matter any kind of services business. Effectively what you’ve done is written out every part of the check except the Pay to the order of line and said, “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” What business in their right mind wouldn’t shout back, “Everything you said you need!”?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s proper, and polite, to, at some point during the review process, reveal to the candidate agency the upper limits to your spending abilities. Doing so saves umpteen rounds of volleying between your internal contracts team and agency’s proposal writer, because most contract volleying is usually circling around whether your company can bear to finance the agency’s recommendation.

But the main issue is that there are a number of freelancers, one-person shows and even team-based agencies out there who will reply to any boolean question about viability with a simple ‘yes’—that is, they’re content to promise anything to win the contract, without regard to what reputation damage they might incur by overpromising and underdelivering. Right-minded agencies don’t just give a commitment. They ask clarifying questions, and propose a middle ground. If you award work to an agency who hasn’t done that, it’s you, the client-to-be, who loses; you’ve just agreed to exchange precious budget not for a guarantee, but for an implied promise that a competent second-opinion might have told you is completely unrealistic.

Is there a better way? The good news is, there is.

Automation, A.I. and Your Marketing Program

Too many creative professionals waste energy lamenting the loss of work to that which can be automated. At first, it was code packaging and recycling. Part of what led to the emergence of WordPress as the clear leader in Content Management Systems is what it calls ‘plugins’: micro code sets which are affordable, and built to plug-and-play into web projects of virtually any size, scope or intention.

But while WordPress and its plugins have streamlined Web design processes significantly (and is part of the reason why, in the case of the aforementioned client, we didn’t quote $500,000 for their project), it didn’t render Web designers useless. Why? For one, code sets from different developers don’t automatically play nicely together. Nor do they automatically meet brand styles, aesthetic preferences, or user expectations. So now, instead of scratch-programming—i.e., developing interactive projects from the first line of code—Web designers today find themselves redirecting their efforts, manipulating someone else’s code to conform to the master requirements doc of their project. Which sounds like a lot, but is still less work than the redundant work of ground-up builds.

So too with virtually every other marketing function. Stock code, stock design, shared resources of any kind—these things eliminate redundancy, shorten lead times, lower costs, and overall create win-win scenarios for both clients and for marketing agencies, particularly those agencies who understand the best use of their time is strategic thinking, not production for production’s sake.

Marketing Partners: Screening Out the Chaff

As code recycling gives way to automation, and as automation gives birth to Artificial Intelligence, there’s little question that a great deal of the production work that businesses depend on marketing partners for will, sooner or later, be almost entirely, if not completely, automated. We’re approaching that reality more rapidly than you might expect. And that’s part of why Cost:Value Ratio is more important than ever when vetting outsourced marketing partners and awarding contracts.

If you think of even one of said benefits as a commodity, then you’re effectively arguing that you, yourself, are a commodity.

Automatability of certain functions, however, hardly relegates quality marketing partners to the rank of commodity. The value of the agency—if they know what they’re doing, and if you’re hiring for the right reasons—doesn’t end at, or even begin with, production or fulfillment. The agency’s value is its broad, cross-industry knowledge, its multidisciplinary skillset, its singular focus on the pulse of your target audience, its readiness to educate you on user expectations, the competitive intelligence and context it provides, and the ability to extrapolate and interpret the whole environment in which you operate for the benefit of your business goals.

If you think of even one of said benefits as a commodity, then you’re effectively arguing that you, yourself, are a commodity. That, of course, is silly. Leaders like you don’t grow on trees—or stalks, as it were.

When screening marketing partners, your main goal should be to ascertain the extent to which (1) the agency team’s braintrust is cerebral in approach, and (2) the project team is prepared to roll up their sleeves and do the work on your behalf. A great way to deduce these things is to ask the agency, at the point of proposal delivery, how they arrived at their numbers. I’m here to tell you that yes, that’s kosher. The answer should be a function of:

  • labor required
  • hourly rate
  • material costs
  • vendor costs
  • media costs

Keep an open mind, but if the even one of these variables seems off-kilter and can’t be explained, it’s probably safe to bet the candidate agency either doesn’t understand their pricing model, or they do, but they aren’t ready to share it with you. If the former, their competence to help you meet your business objectives should be questioned. If the latter, you’re rolling the budget dice each time you commission them for work.

Marketing leaders will never have the same buying luxuries that their counterparts in commodity procurement do—not completely, anyway—and that’s OK. The trick is to understand how your needs, or your requirements doc, drives the cost equation on your agency partner’s side. So long as you do your homework, and you’re honest with yourself and the agency, you’ll eliminate many question marks in the outsourcing process.

Bottom line? Don’t accept opacity. Demand transparency—if you hope to derive even a kernel of value from your marketing partner.

 

By Steve Whiskeyman, Chief Campaign Strategist & Co-founder of Simpatico Studios
Also posted on LinkedIn

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“Contract Customers Only”: What a local HVAC Business Can Teach Your Marketing Program About True Emergencies and Planning

The way Simpatico does business, there’s a lot to be proud of. But as a marketing studio, there’s nothing we’re more proud of than sending new customers knocking on our clients’ doors. Usually, we drum up business for clients just by running damn good marketing campaigns. Other times, though, we trip over opportunities for our clients in casual settings, outside office hours, mid-conversation with colleagues, neighbors, friends, or family.

The latter scenario unfolded most recently in early March. With the first of four nor’easters inbound, there came a late-night SOS, in the form of a Facebook notification, from one of the private community groups I frequent:

“HELP! Furnace won’t turn on. Don’t want my pipes to freeze tonight… Anyone know an emergency heating contractor?”

Well, it just so happened I did. Simpatico has both used, and handled marketing for, a growing regional HVAC business for north of two years. Among the top claims in their playbook? “24/7 Emergency Service.”

I screenshotted the post, and texted it to the VP, who’s also become a friend. “Got a lead for ya!”

Three dots took turns bouncing in iMessage. Then, the reply came: “No can do. Contract customers only.”

Contract customers only? I thought. What’s with that? Here was a perfectly good referral—revenue at the ready—and they were turning it away. Why?

Turns out, earlier that week, our HVAC client had revised their snowstorm policy. Now, in the event of emergencies, they didn’t just dispatch service vehicles to homes with maintenance contracts first—they dispatched to contract customers exclusively.

It was a response to overwhelming demand. Whenever the weather hit, they couldn’t keep up with all the cries for help from unprepared homeowners. So they stopped trying. Instead, they made a priority the people who prioritized them: the hundreds of households who’d already given them a commitment.

“We’re a relationship business,” the owner later told me. “We don’t want to be Broken Furnace 911.”

Beware the No-Obligation Promises

It’s a fact: As marketing programs mature, they experience growing pains. What begins as an itch to update a logo quite quickly becomes a mess of ideas, experiments, goals, initiatives, projects, campaigns and paperwork that, to remain reconciled, integrated and in-harmony, requires full-time attention from dedicated resources.

Which is why I scoff a bit each time I see competitors making zero-obligation promises to any and all prospective clients. We don’t do retainers! they exclaim. Project basis only! No contracts here! Cancel any time! And on and on.

Don’t get me wrong; Simpatico makes many of the same promises—up to a point. For our part, project-basis work is fine when the relationship is new, since it commits neither party beyond the initial scope of work, and makes for a no-hard-feelings ‘out’ if things aren’t working; it’s fine when the parameters and timeline are finite, agreed upon and made clear; it’s fine for established, sophisticated marketeers who have hit their stride and who are well-resourced, except for that one thing they need their agency for.

Where it’s not fine is in marketing programs that have yet to coalesce, or that are deeply layered, or which are otherwise ruled by ambiguity and ad-hoc needs. Third parties who promise they can resource you on a moment’s notice with no commitment from you—without understanding whether said needs will require two experts for a half-day or 200 for a year—are essentially promising they can drop everything to go all-in on a ‘maybe’, move heaven and earth to make whims a priority, and have nothing to lose if leaders suddenly change their mind.

Plainly, that ain’t how business works. And for any discerning entrepreneur or marketing leader, blanket promises such as these ought to send red flags flying up their masts when candidate agencies make them.

Before People Will Commit to You, You Need to Commit to Them

For the past two years, my partner and I have had the privilege of teaching undergraduate marketing classes at our alma mater. Regardless of the course number or its content, day one, lesson one, is always the same: “When you work for an agency, you’re not in the marketing business. You’re not in the website business, or social media business, or direct mail business. You aren’t even in the design, or app, or idea business. You’re in the people business.”

We preach it and teach it because, in marketing, people are the critical variable. The measure of success for any tactic or discipline in our field is how effectively it moves prospective customers—people—to take favorable action to boost the top line. When it comes down to it, nothing else an agency does matters.

The dance of persuasion is well-chronicled in author Daniel H. Pink’s 2013 bestseller To Sell is Human. So says Pink, “The average person spends 40% of their life trying to move others. We’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got.”

Persuasion, then, is a long-term, if not lifelong exercise. The most successful businesses, in my experience, understand that, and aren’t shy about committing the resources necessary to make moving customers their marketing partner’s top priority. The flightiest businesses, on the other hand, do just the opposite: dangling carrots, beating around the bush, and never, in the end, following through—with their own goals, much less with us.

To understand how important commitment is to marketing success, we need only look backwards through the customer journey funnel. Start toward the bottom, at the point of purchase: Why do people buy? Psychological principle tells us people buy from companies who they recognize and consider trustworthy. Customers start using these qualities to describe our business, product, service, or cause not overnight, but over time. That’s the reason Anheuser-Busch sends the clydesdales prancing each holiday season, that LifeAlert still reminds seniors on daytime TV what do when they’ve fallen and can’t get up; it’s why Smokey Bear is still pointing his index finger at you after 75 years.

By balking at a marketing commitment, you’re effectively balking at the chance to make a million good first impressions, to start a million conversations, to earn a good reputation among a million people who might have spent money with you. If you can’t commit to earning the trust of your prospective customers, why in the world would they treat you any differently with their hard-earned money?

Marketing 911: When It’s Bad Planning vs. a True Emergency

You don’t need to run a 75-year campaign to keep your marketing goals from being left in the cold. Those brands which transcend their organizations and businesses, which ultimately take their seat among cultural icons and the zeitgeists of their contemporaries, are just the best examples of how effective persuasion is a multiple of time and effort. The truth is, prospective customers don’t care if your marketing budget is zero dollars or has a billion zeros; they just need to recognize and trust you before they’ll give you their money.

On Simpatico’s front door, beneath our logo, is a line that reads, “Create a Brand. Create a Plan. Create Demand.™” In part, it’s a promise to our clients. It’s the value we bring to the table. But it’s also our principal argument: You can’t expect customer demand unless you’ve first built a plan around proving yourself within your market. And plans, in case I forgot to mention it, take commitment.

With respect to your agency partner, commitment to your marketing goals is a function of first recognizing when you’ve outgrown project-based marketing help, and second, rallying a team not around another last-minute deadline, but around long-term commitment to your own success. Yep: I’m talking about a contract. Hey, if you’re serious about your goals, you’ve already made a contract with yourself, anyway. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t have people who both you can depend on, and who can depend on you.

That’s not to say everything in marketing land can be anticipated; quite the opposite. We build deliberate, adaptable programs understanding that communications crises are a thing, and that business and economic conditions change all the time. But if your marketing modus operandi is best described as last-minute, or ad hoc—if you find yourself withholding critical information from your team, and then uttering, “I need this by end of day”—you are emulating the flightiest businesses, not the most successful ones. And it’s a matter of time before your team stamps ‘return to sender’ on the request and says, “No can do. Contract customers only.”

 

By Steve Whiskeyman, Chief Campaign Strategist & Co-founder of Simpatico Studios
Also posted on LinkedIn

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Vertical Concentration: Why Most Agencies of Scale Do It, and Why We Never Will

Among the many things clients value about Simpatico is our versatility. Because we’ve designed our processes to be scalable, we’re just as ready to respond to the marketing needs of local and regional businesses as we are to the urgent, big-stage communications challenges of national and global enterprises. Many of our counterparts can’t say the same. Indeed, sooner or later, most ad agencies shed clients who don’t fall within target industries. Vertical concentration, they reason, allows for predictability, profitability, and—of course—marketability.

It does. In outsourced marketing, it also enables creative laziness, recycling of ideas, and paranoia among clients. It deceives cash-paying businesses into believing they’ve bought a first-of-its-kind, campaignable concept, when in reality all they’ve been pitched is a reject from their competitor’s slush pile. Most of all, it does one thing from the outset that’s a no-no for us at any point in the lifecycle of Client Services: It undermines trust. And it does so, specifically, by begging an important question from the very first impression: “How can you be 100% on my side when my biggest competitors keep your lights on?”

Simpatico, as we are fond of saying, works with businesses around the corner and around the world. Sure, we’ve got a few specialties, but our market interests are as varied as our skillsets. Our competitors might whisper about why that’s silly, but like all operational decisions, it was made deliberately, in service our clients, and is therefore central to who we are. And that’s not about to change.

In the same way education exposes undergrads to a spectrum of experiences and insights, eschewing vertical concentration is the very thing that keeps the SimpatiCrew grounded and well-rounded. It allows a transfer of relevant knowledge, a sharing of critical thought, among business minds who—however cerebral, however ahead of their own packs—might never otherwise cross paths. It allows Simpatico to honor requests like industry exclusivity, when the value-exchange is sufficient to make business sense for us both. It makes us better. And it makes our clients better.

If you think you’ve got nothing to learn from industries who aren’t yours, consider Jeff Bezos. When Amazon sold its first books out of an attached garage in the sleepy Seattle suburb of Bellevue in 1994, what wisdom do you suppose Walmart leadership in Bentonville, Ar., then the undisputed retail leader, thought they might glean from a web-based bookselling startup?

Consider, too, Netflix. When, in April 1998, Reed Hastings and company shipped their first batch of DVDs under the moniker of Netflix, were entertainment moguls at all worried? Forget Blockbuster—I’m talking broadcast networks, and Hollywood. Could these industry cornerstones have fathomed a rival, reared in the cradle of the Internet, who might emerge to captivate and command viewing audiences larger then their own, much less steal away Golden Globes and Oscars?

Or consider, as perhaps the most timely and salient example, Snapchat. Not quite seven years ago, Stanford junior Evan Spiegel and his classmates released for iOS a disappearing messaging app, which they dubbed Picaboo. Picaboo’s first glints of publicity had tech analysts mentioning it in the same breath as the iPhone’s native messaging app—not exactly a compliment, considering SMS was viewed as rusty tech compared to the shiny world of Social Media. But today, if you’ve paid any attention to your newsfeed lately (or to anyone under the age of 20), surely you’ve noticed Facebook’s newfound love for Stories. Stories, it turns out, is a feature borrowed directly from rival Snapchat—formerly known as Picaboo—who refused Facebook’s $3 billion cash acquisition offer in 2014. Is Facebook out of ideas? Or is Mark Zuckerberg fighting off an existential, Amazonesque threat, to avoid the same fate suffered by Goliath counterparts like Walmart before him?

For these reasons—and many more—the premise of Simpatico’s Client Services model is that diversification is key. By maintaining a vertically diverse book of business, our clients automatically have the edge in so many ways: a better pulse on economic and market conditions, preemptive strikes in an economy more prone than ever to disruptive innovative, ethical leads on competitive intelligence, and disposal to a wealth of resources.

Any size, any business stage, any vertical: Simpatico’s clients run the gamut. That’s because we screen not for demographic attributes, but for clients who share our values, who require macro-level thinking, and who are, like us, in pursuit of permanence within their space.

We don’t just have a moral or fiduciary or business case for our model: We have a Client Services case for it. And in our business, that’s what matters most.

 

By Steve Whiskeyman, Chief Campaign Strategist & Co-founder of Simpatico Studios
Also posted on LinkedIn

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The Marketing Mask, and Why You Need to Toss It—Now

‪By definition, Brand Identity Design doesn’t tell you who customers want you to be. Instead, it tells customers who you really are.

For everyone, it’s a scary exercise. But for most, it’s a rewarding, self-actualizing, and dividends-paying investment. It nets leaders more of their ideal customers, enables greater efficiency and profitability, and leaves them wondering, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?”

Other leaders, though, never overcome that initial tinge of fear. Some are so frightened, in fact, that at the very next opportunity, they put back on their dusty old Marketing Mask. And why not? The Marketing Mask is a people-pleaser. It shows customers whatever they want to see. It looks like Randy Newman, and it whistles a promise that whoever you are, and whatever you need, You’ve got a friend in me.

But upon closer scrutiny, it’s apparent the fabric of the Marketing Mask is an outdated, erroneous pattern of thinking. Each fiber in that pattern proclaims something wild and fallacious—something like, “The buyer at my target account really likes [x] supplier, and [x] supplier does this, so I should do it, too.” Or, “The secret ingredient to my method is [y], but no one in my space takes [y] seriously, so I shouldn’t talk about it.”

The danger of the marketing mask is the false promises it creates, and the expectations it fails to set. All stitched together, its fibers create a pattern that sounds logical, that looks rational. In reality, it’s just methodical rationalization—and there’s a big, big difference between the two.

To any objective observer, the symptoms of wearing the Marketing Mask too long are obvious. Businesses stuck in ruts or stranded on plateaus for months, years, decades—these businesses, more than likely, are led by people who like their Marketing Mask, thank you very much, and fully intend to keep wearing it. While I understand the impulse, I’m nevertheless vexed, profoundly, each time I see a brilliant leader of otherwise sound mind shrink from the sight of his or her own reflection. It’s companies who refuse to self-actualize that suffer a fate of mediocrity. Of never realizing their true potential in the marketplace. Of never—as Jim C. Collins so eloquently put it in his 2001 book—making the leap from good to great.

In a free market economy, where technology has had a steroidal effect on disruptive innovation, and where indispensable mega brands go six feet under every day, you can choose to continue wearing your Marketing Mask. But if you do, you heard it here first: Your. Days. Are. Numbered. Someone else is one meeting, one sale, one contract away from making the next Toys ‘R Us out of you.

Can you ensure your own longevity in your space? Sure you can. But the trick isn’t to be all things to all people. The trick is to be comfortable with what you see in the mirror.

 

By Steve Whiskeyman, Chief Campaign Strategist & Co-founder of Simpatico Studios
Also posted on LinkedIn

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A Culture Plan

If we’re nearing football season (and we are—15 days until the first regular season game), we’re nearing the end of summer. By itself, a second summer in business feels like an accomplishment. But the milestones we’ve reached, and they are plenty, aren’t purely symbolic.

We did a lot of work, work that added up to big things for our clients. A dream website was built from scratch. Core values were visualized to form a brand identity. We conducted a usability study that was international in scope. It can’t be overstated: This is big stuff. We continue to learn from the challenges our clients present us, and the result is a level of collaboration—a level of innovation, I’d even say—we never could have dreamed of. To be sure, we dreamed big when we first got our feet wet in freelance land. But to have gotten this far is, to say the least, humbling. Our clients are the reason we are where we are, and they have our gratitude.

While we’re thanking people for a productive and accomplished summer, we need to acknowledge our vendors. To come by honest and dependable printers, accountants and sign makers is any small studio’s struggle. To come by them all in one town is a small studio’s dream-come-true. We do not take it lightly that we’ve got good people at good companies, right here in Bethlehem, to help keep our cogs oiled and spinning. And to those people: We’ve thanked you second, but you are not secondary by any means.

Internally, we’ve reflected a lot lately not just on how far the studio has come, but what drives us to take it further. What’s the future? We know client services will remain our core, even as we explore proprietary ways to grow and innovate. But our strategic initiatives make expansion an inevitability. As a studio with hiring goals, we’ve made it a priority to make people a priority. That’s why we’re laying the groundwork not with a business plan, but with a culture plan, because it makes better business sense. (Read about the culture plan concept, authored by Frank Addante at FounderBlog.) And with culture in mind, we’re ready to say this much about the future already: that Simpatico will be a place our people can look forward to on Sunday nights.

We head into Fall humbled, renewed and with work aplenty, all thanks to good people.

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Five Factors That Make Or Break A Conference

The SimpatiCrew returned late Saturday from the INTEGRATE 2012 conference at West Virginia University‘s stunning Morgantown campus. It was our second participation in an emerging media conference in 12 months. It also proved the more valuable of the two.

Whether you’re a start-up or small business, you’ve probably considered budget-conscious ways to invest training dollars. You’re right to: There are good alternatives to commercial destination conferences. Many, like WVU’s INTEGRATE, offer an intimate, academic and professional atmosphere. Here are five factors to consider as you do your homework.

5. The Speaking Roster

All-star keynotes and C-level titles don’t necessarily portend the keenest, nor most relevant, of insights. Too frequently, speakers exhaust the bulk of their stage time acquainting the audience with their company and key results. Don’t get me wrong: When facing an audience of 7,000+ attendees, it’s important to answer the question, “Who are you, and why should I care?”  But at a big conference in San Diego last June, most time blocks translated into little more than hour-long sales pitches. Speakers seemed to forget they were at a learning summit, not an Apple media event.

On the other hand, the roster at INTEGRATE played host to successful authors, agency principals and Ph.D.s. These speakers didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the spotlight, but they certainly didn’t hesitate to impart upon the audience the very methods and strategic thinking that brought them success, either. One speaker, Mark Schaefer, even gave away copies of his latest book, Return on Influence (McGraw-Hill 2012). Try walking away from a premier conference with anything more than free pens and branded beach balls.

It’s worth noting INTEGRATE still had its share of movers and shakers, like Dave Pavelko, head of Google Travel and Fred Cook, CEO of GolinHarris.

4. Networking Opportunities

Industry’s largest conference! Record-breaking attendance! Over a gajillion companies represented! Let me spell it out for you: None of that means jack if the host organization doesn’t help its attendees mingle. Some conferences create the perception of networking emphasis by adding “schmoozing time” to the agenda in the form of cocktail receptions, dinners and rooftop parties. All great networking events offer such things, but merely offering such things does not indicate a great networking event. Because let’s face it: professional connections require more than introductions, handshakes and exchanging business cards. They require sustained, meaningful interaction.

At West Virginia University’s INTEGRATE conference, I immediately encountered something you won’t encounter at a big conference:  group discussion in a workshop setting. In “The Role of PR in Crisis Management,”  Dr. Mitchell Friedman and Rebecca Andersen of Pacific Bridge Marketing orchestrated a highly interactive session that drummed up good discourse and, for me, three introductions. (Plus, INTEGRATE’s cocktail reception had complementary hors d’oeuvres.)

3. Resource Friendliness

If there’s anything an entrepreneur hates, it’s a resource hog. As it happens, INTEGRATE was an efficient use of both time and money. Instead of spanning a week and running up the tab, INTEGRATE asked just two days of my time and less than $500 per person. The conference fee was so modest, in fact, that the bulk of the company’s expenses were travel, lodging and meals. Not to mention: ever spend a full workweek at a professional event? The hundred-yard stares and walkouts are happening by Wednesday. Small and short can actually translate to cost-effective and concise.

2. An Academic Approach

Not only were the attendees, speakers and event staff at INTEGRATE more approachable and accessible than the premier counterpart in San Diego, the same parties were genuinely interested in (1) learning about me and (2) making sure I was learning. Why? Consider whether your conference is the product of a for-profit entity or the brainchild of a university. There’s a big difference. In the latter, profit is secondary to scholarship. It’s noticeable. Trust me. (Hint: INTEGRATE falls in the latter category.)

1. Big-town Perks + Small-town Views

Don’t eliminate a conference from your short list because of location alone. San Diego is beautiful, to be sure. But remember, it’s possible to find culture and the quintessence of American beauty in locations that aren’t media darlings. Which can, in fact, be a very pleasant surprise.

Suspend your preconceptions about West Virginia, for example. Morgantown has everything San Diego does: luxury accommodations, franchise restaurants and retailers, local thread shops, lively cafés and microbrews. It even has fantastic sushi (sampled at Dragonfly, which now comes with my highest recommendation). What it lacks in beaches and bridges it readily compensates for with inspiring architecture, soaring green mountains and and clouds you can practically touch.

The Verdict

There’s no algorithm for finding the right conference, but weighing the above five factors should help you make an informed decision and, ideally, get you the most bang for your buck. In my experience, the smaller conference was more suiting. What’s your take on conference going? Leave a comment.

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