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Incrementally Building Your Marketing Machine

How long does it take to design, build, and see results from a marketing platform?

Well, that depends. On a lot of things: your focus — on what you do and who you can serve best — your content — the forms your expertise takes and how they meet interest in the marketplace — your time, your flexibility, etc. The truth is, the mix is complicated and can be different for one firm compared to another. But what is always true is that the greater the focus, the more machine-like your marketing can be. And that’s what you want: a machine. You want your marketing running efficiently and perpetually.

In this episode of Expert Marketing Matters, Mark interviews Sarah Durham of Big Duck about how establishing a focused positioning led her firm over the past 25 years to incrementally build their marketing and sales machine, which has helped their business thrive.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Mark: Hello, and welcome to Expert Marketing Matters. My name is Mark O’Brien and today I am joined by a great friend and a great entrepreneur, Sarah Durham of Big Duck. Hey, Sarah!

Sarah: Hey Mark. How are you?

Mark: I’m wonderful. I’m wonderful. How are you?

Sarah: I’m great. Delighted to be here. I’m a big fan of your podcast.

Mark: Oh, thank you. And likewise. So you launched podcast what about, five months ago was it?

Sarah: Yep. Five or six months ago. It’s called the Smart Communications Podcast. It’s for non-profits.

Mark: Wonderful. Wonderful. Okay. So, I invited you to this podcast just because I’ve been a very big fan of yours for a very long time and just have the utmost respect for you as an entrepreneur. You always are on the leading edge of things. Whenever we talk, you’ve got some new ideas you’re working on. Your agency culture is fantastic. Your agency is instinctively successful. You’ve been at it now for at least 20 years, right? How long has Big Duck been around?

Sarah: Yep. I started Big Duck in 1994, so next year is our 25th anniversary.

Mark: 25. That’s great. Do you have any planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary?

Sarah: Well, I don’t know. For Big Duck’s 20th anniversary, I took a sabbatical. But [crosstalk]-

Mark: [inaudible].

Sarah: For 25. We’ll see.

Mark: You’re just going to quit. You’re gonna quit. Not gonna show up again without warning. Excellent. Well, yeah, could you start off just by telling us a little bit about your history and Big Duck’s history and what you all do for a living?

Sarah: Sure. So just to give you a sense of what we do, for starts, Big Duck is a communications firm that works with non-profit organizations going through significant growth and change. And we help them advance their missions by developing strong brands, strong campaigns, and strong teams. So probably, the majority of what we’re doing is helping non-profits leverage branding in strategic ways that advance their missions. But we also do a lot of work helping them build their internal communications capacity and developing recruitment at reach and fundraising campaigns like capital campaigns.

Mark: Right. Okay, so highly, highly specialized, and you’ve already written one book about this and another one’s in the works?

Sarah: Yeah. My first book was called Brand Raising, and it was about non-profit branding and fundraising. It came out, I don’t know, eight or so years ago? And I’m working on a new one that is due out in 2019.

Mark: Okay. Great. Great. So not too far from now at all. 2019. Especially with publishing cycles, that’s quick.

Sarah: Yeah.

Mark: Wonderful. Wonderful. How do you like it? How do you like owning an agency?

Sarah: You know, I think it’s really a journey and I love it, but it’s definitely … you know, it’s like a practice. Like doing yoga or meditating in that you have to keep at it, keep refining it. Some days are great. Some days are really challenging. To me what’s really exciting about what I do and what you do and what your listeners do is that we’re operating in an environment where the landscape of communications and marketing is changing so quickly, that even for me doing this work for 20 something years, it always feels new and fresh because there’s always some seismic shift that’s changing … that’s game changing for us.

Mark: Yeah. That’s so true. The constant pace of change is just kind of shocking, and it seems to be ever increasing, right? The pace of change now feels a lot different than it did even five years ago. Would you agree with that?

Sarah: I definitely agree and I think it’s not only how we as communicators communicate, but it’s also how our target audiences receive communications. I think we as consumers are getting much more sophisticated about the channels and tools we use to communicate with each other. So, it’s tricky business. It’s complicated stuff.

Mark: It really is [inaudible] being in the business of communication, right? And the fact that the nature of it itself is changing, really every year, it feels like. So, how do you handle this? What about your marketing journey? How have you approached promoting Big Duck? You approached the balance between marketing and sales. What’s the short history of your journey of really taking business development seriously, as I know you do and have for a really long time?

Sarah: Yeah, well, I mean I try to practice what I preach which is to read a lot, learn a lot, work with experts a lot. Full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Newfangled for a long time, and we found Newfangled really helpful in a lot of our journey. But basically, the philosophy behind our marketing is heavily reliant on thought leadership which is largely expressed through our blog, through speaking, through our new podcast, and also through a philosophy of kind of less is more. What I mean by that is, we don’t try to do everything and we don’t try to provide a vast amount of content. We try to really focus on what we’re good at producing and go as deep as we can in those areas.

Mark: Yeah. That’s interesting to hear you say that, because comparatively, you really do create quite a bit of content.

Sarah: Yeah, well, we’ve been doing it a long time and I think one of the pieces of advice I like to give people … I wonder if you agree with this, is, I mean, we started our blog at Big Duck maybe in 2007 or 2008 and that was awhile before a lot of agencies were blogging. And for awhile, we just did blogging, and then we started doing more and more speaking, and then we started doing more and more e-mailing and then we started doing, you know? And so we’ve kind of layered on. So now we do have, I think, a pretty, relatively, comparatively complex digital marketing machine. But it was built incrementally, and I think that that incremental … those incremental steps have been really important because honestly, it would be entirely overwhelming to begin where we are today.

Mark: Sure, and that’s actually interesting. You had the luxury of building incrementally, because you’ve done it over the past 10 years, and you got a really nice head start on the rest of the field, really. You took marketing seriously and adopted these tools and strategies far earlier than the average firm. And I think that’s something that a lot of firms face as they, today, decide okay, we’re going to start taking up marketing seriously now in 2018. It just seems like such a high wall to climb, and I think it is very, very intimidating to people. And I don’t think you can change the nature of it. There are certain things that you do need to get up and running right away. There are certain essentials that just have to be there for marketing to work at all.
But the experience that you’ve gone through, the path you’ve taken of just the incremental build is really the only way. One thing that comes up a lot in my conversations with agency owners is that when you think about marketing, it’s a lifelong decision. It’s not just we’re gonna do this for the next three months and see how it works. No. If this is going to work for you, this just [inaudible] has to be how you operate and Big Duck really embodies that. You just embraced it, and you’re always improving it. You’re not like breaking your neck over it. Right? It’s not as if you took five people off of client work and put them on marketing full time. You’ve done it in a way that makes sense for the culture of the firm and the size of the firm. It’s in balance, but you are always pushing it.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think it is, to your point, I think of it as a machine, you know? You definitely commit to it for the long haul, and I think it’s easier for us, or we benefit from the fact that we’re deeply opinionated and we have a lot we want to say to our target audience. So we’re not at a lack of ideas. The challenge, I think, comes with having the capacity to produce that content. To write and speak and podcast and making sure you remember to pitch that conference, or whatever. That machine takes a lot of care and feeding and can suck up a lot of time and … So we, like many agencies, track our time and one of the things we do is we track our marketing time, too, and we really look at how much time we’re spending on marketing, and we try to be very thoughtful about who we ask on our team to produce content and how we ask them to produce that content to just make it realistic and efficient and sustainable.

Mark: Right. Right. So, lots of really good points that you just made right there. The first thing you mentioned is that you’re opinionated. And that’s a natural outcome of being really well positioned. Right?

Sarah: Yes. I definitely think clear positioning is essential to that. And also really feeling like you identify with and understand the audience you serve. So, I mean, I have met agencies that claim a positioning or want to own a positioning but have not yet really embedded themselves or kind of breathed the air of the client that that positioning requires them to serve. It kind of sounds good, but they’re not really fully embedded in it. The people who work at my shop identify more with the non-profit sector than they identify with the agency sector. You’d be more likely to find them in a non-profit conference than at an agency conference. And that identifying with the audience we serve and feeling connected to that community is what really helps us live and breath our positioning. It’s not just marketing. It’s really who we are in our DNA.

Mark: Yeah. That’s a great way to express it, and I have not heard many principles repress it quite that way. But it checks out completely with me. The efficacy of your positioning is limited by the amount of true empathy you’ve got for the prospect.

Sarah: Yeah.

Mark: And that comes from just knowledge of the process.

Sarah: And in our case, I mean, we’ve hired … Most of our staff comes out of the non-profit sector. We have staff people who have degrees in non-profit management. We are our clients in some way. And that also has been an evolution.

Mark: Right.

Sarah: I don’t think we started there, but the deeper we go into this positioning, the more we become it. It becomes us.

Mark: Yes. And I’m interested in speaking a little bit more about the nature of that. So 24 years ago, were you serving non-profits exclusively, when you started?

Sarah: No. 24 years ago, probably for the first … maybe it was about five or six years, we had a mix of non-profit clients and for-profit clients. This was in the mid and late 90s. We actually did a lot of magazine work, which was weird. And it was around 2000 when I felt like the business was running me, instead of me running the business. That I made the decision first to specialize in working with non-profits, and that led to making different staffing decisions, different marketing decisions, that was kind of the platform. And then over the years, we’ve just gone deeper and deeper. Not just specializing with non-profits, but doing certain things for non-profits. We’ve built out new services where we’ve seen opportunities. We’ve let go of a lot of services where we feel like we no longer should them.
So, it’s really iterative.

Mark: Yeah. Exactly. It’s iterative and endless, right?

Sarah: Yeah, and again, that’s the part that I think is fun and that’s the practice. It’s every day.

Mark: That’s the practice, yes.

Sarah: How do I work on this? How do I mold this piece of clay?

Mark: Right. And I think that’s another potential misconception, again, for firms who are trying to figure out if they should position. They should become really focused in the marketplace. I think many of them view it from the outside looking in as a one and done.

Sarah: Not at all, yeah.

Mark: And we’ve seen that too. To me, it feels like every 18 months or so, there’s a lens correction. Like you know when you used to go to the old optometrist and they had those manual machines and they’ll flip the glass lenses. This or that. It feels like every 18 months we just … we see something. We see a truth or a pattern that we simply didn’t recognize before, because we had just taken 18 months prior, a new step deeper into the positioning and we realize, oh, okay, this is really where our clients need the most help.
And those are really exciting, fun moments. They are also a little scary because they do necessitate change, right? Every time. But, if you do the consistent change, the more maintenance oriented change, that allows you one, to stay relevant, and two, to not have to do the massive change which could be closing the firm or just radically changing the nature of the firm [crosstalk].

Sarah: Yeah. And I mean, you and I have talked about this. We’re both alumni of the Strategic Coach Program. We both run our agencies on the EOS model. Gino Wickman’s book, Traction. And in those programs, I think, one of the things I’ve woken up to is the fact that that kind of change … when you as the entrepreneur or the CEO of your agency see an opportunity and nobody else in your agency sees it, it’s potentially super disruptive to flip that switch. But through a discipline of regular and with your team collaborative reflection and adjustments, you bring everybody on the journey and it is a lot easier, I think, to maintain a pace of constant growth and change with a discipline like that to support it.

Mark: Absolutely. Yeah. I completely agree.

Speaker 2: You’re listening to Expert Marketing Matters. A podcast about generating ideal new business opportunities by creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on your bottom line. This podcast is brought to you by Newfangled, a digital marketing consultancy focused on empowering experts to do better digital marketing. You can learn more about Newfangled’s digital marketing method at

Mark: The other thing we mentioned a few minutes ago that was really interesting after you spoke about being opinionated was the idea that you are distributing the thought leadership load among a pretty wide segment of your staff. And I think that speaks to the way you go about staffing now, right, which is different than how you were staffed before that. You really have non-profit veterans on staff as opposed to marketing people on staff. And so it sounds like what you are saying is it’s easier to teach marketing disciplines to deep experts than it would be to train somebody how to think like a non-profit person.

Sarah: I think that’s true and I mean, I guess it depends on your positioning. In what we do that is true because actually, the non-profit sector is much more complex and sophisticated than most people realize it is. So most marketing people would probably think, yeah, I could learn the non-profit sector. That wouldn’t be too hard. There’s some truth to that, but at the same time, there’s a degree of nuance that we need our team to bring to the table. But with marketing, I mean, the flip side of our situation is because we are so non-profit oriented, we have to really keep ourselves educated about marketing and what’s changing. And again, that’s where we rely on a lot of the content you produce, and where it’s helpful to just be constantly learning and growing. You know?

Mark: Right. Absolutely. How do you view the balance between marketing and sales? Inside of Big Duck, where does one begin, the other end? Percentage wise, how much time do you spend on one versus the other, et cetera?

Sarah: Well, I mean they’re certainly closely related and it’s an interesting thing here because I’m fortunate in that I have this member at my senior leadership team named Farra, who you know, who is a great marketer and a great new business person too, and that’s a little unusual in agencies. Farra and I together are responsible for the new business machine that we’ve built and I’m responsible for the marketing machine. But she and I have to work very closely and collaboratively. I guess I’m sort of picturing in my head like a yin and yang. They fit together. There are places where they overlap and interlock. So, for instance, we have in our Salesforce platform and in our kind of marketing analytics platform, we’re looking at the new business that the marketing we’re doing is generating on a monthly basis.
So we’re looking at the number of new opportunities we’ve opened. We actually categorize our opportunities as green, yellow and red, based on how aligned they are with our business goals. We look at our win rate. We look at how many meetings we’re having. So we track all these new business metrics and we try to look at them in a spreadsheet that actually you guys helped us develop and we look at it also monthly with our colleagues at Newfangled because we really want to see, okay, what did we do on our website, or in our marketing last month, last quarter? Is there a tail that’s feeding that into what’s coming in, in the new business side?
And then on the new business side, we’re getting feedback from prospects and clients a lot, and we’re using that to inform the content we’re producing on the marketing side. So it’s really important to have this like ongoing dialogue between the two.

Mark: I so agree. Yeah. That’s really essential, and marketing learns from sales, and sales learn from marketing.

Sarah: Yeah, and even in a smaller shop, I would imagine those two things would probably be headed up by one person. In my shop, a lot of people generate content, but really there’s only two people who are leading in a sort of an accountable way, those efforts.

Mark: And for the benefit of the audience, how many full time employees do you have currently?

Sarah: We’re 16 full time staff. Full time employees.

Mark: Yeah. So, a lot of firms who are in that 10 to 20 range, sort of let themselves off the hook for marketing because they say they’re too small to pull it off. And you’re proof. And there are a lot of other agencies out there who are proof that that’s just not the case. And, I’d argue there’s no firm of any size that can afford to just ignore their marketing.

Sarah: Yeah. I agree with you. I would add to that, that it helps if you love it. I love the marketing strategy. I love writing and speaking. My colleague Farra does, too. We also love new business. In a shop our size, it’s only a piece of our jobs. But it’s a piece of our jobs that we love and that we’re passionate about, and because we’re passionate about it, I think that helps make it effective. We’re not treating it as like a chore we have to tick off every day. It’s fun.

Mark: Yeah. That’s a great point. I think to the degree that there are naturals out there, that really dictates it, right? Do you enjoy it? Do you really love it? And those people who love it are hard to find and they are not always the principles. In this case, you do love it and Farra’s been with you as long as I’ve known Big Duck, I think. She’s quite senior, and she loves it too and there are some principles out there who don’t love it. And feel guilty about it and that they should. And they don’t necessarily need to be the ones who lead the biz dev effort, but they do need to find somebody internally who does love it. And oftentimes it’s not like this rainmaker idea. It’s not just a sales person, right? It’s somebody who really gets the culture, and understands the marketing side of things as well, and has a passion for that and not just out on the pavement, so to speak.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean I think what you’re describing is a champion. Having a champion for it. And yeah, I’d be curious if you’ve ever seen this. I have yet to run across an agency that is smaller. Maybe I’ve seen this in larger agencies, but in a small or mid-sized firm, the notion of a salesperson who is kind of like out there with a spear, grabbing up clients, just rings so false to me. I mean, we’re really looking for authentic fit and alignment with our clients. And we’re in a luxurious position because the marketing that we have been doing consistently generates roughly 10 inbound opportunities a week. And that’s been the case for years. So 10 times a week an organization is going to e-mail us or call us or reach out to us with a possible project, and our job is not to go out and hunt, it’s to do what we’re doing and as long as that pipeline is coming into us, to be really thoughtful about navigating with those organizations, which projects we’re a good fit for and which we’re not passing on the things we should pass on. Pursuing the things we’re good at.
And I think that’s really … that’s what you get when you build a machine that works, but it takes time to do that. When you do that, I don’t think you need the hunter.

Mark: Right. Yeah. And so, again, a lot of great points there. You had asked what my experience has been. I have seen a lot of hunters come and go.

Sarah: I bet.

Mark: There’s one hunter in the history of my time doing this that I have come across who really, independently, just generated new business and the agency thrived or did not based on his presence in the agency. And it was actually quite amazing to watch how this person did their thing. It got real rainmaker. I’ve met one of those in my life. But, even that, he eventually left the agency and the agency fell on very hard times, very shortly after he left. So even if you’ve got a rainmaker, they sort of own you.

Sarah: Better hang onto them.

Mark: You better hang onto them. And they know they’re the rainmaker, right? They know exactly how valuable they are, and so you’re really in a compromised position there when that’s the case. So, yeah, the hunter thing doesn’t tend to work out. But, what you’re talking about there with the opportunities, you are an example of doing everything the right way, right? You’re positioned the right way. You hire the right way. The culture is strong. Has been forever. The reputation in the marketplace is strong. When you do things the right way, the results you’re talking about happen. But it’s hard to do. It is a tall order. But it’s entirely possible. You’re not a unicorn. You didn’t have some massive amount of funding or something. Nothing strange happened to Big Duck. You just made a lot of good decisions and you have a lot of smart people. But you’re not an aberration.

Sarah: Well, thank you. I’ve always believed in running a stable, sane, profitable business. And actually, that philosophy is very, in some ways, conservative because it’s meant that our growth has been incremental and relatively slow or steady. We’re pretty conscious as a … in terms of our operations and our philosophy about how you run a business well. So, I made a lot of agency owners who are so eager to grow quickly, and they staff up super fast, and they do all these things that radically change what they’re doing very quickly. And for me, that would be terrifying, because I need to kind of make a change and then live with it and let it integrate and kind of acclimate. But that also means that growth is slower and incremental.
So I mean, it’s nice to hear you say that we do many things well. A lot of the things we do well today, we do well today because we did it badly before, and we learned the hard way, you know?

Mark: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah: I think if I started a new business tomorrow, I’d be much better equipped to do it. But so much of what we’ve done well has just been the result of trial and learning painfully. And slowly making changes. It’s intense.

Mark: Yeah. It’s intense. Right. Right. And that’s the nature of it, right? That’s the permanent nature. And that’s really the theme of this whole conversation is persistence.

Sarah: Yeah.

Mark: Constant change. Being brave. Not being afraid of the change. But also not rushing to any conclusions or rushing to any outcomes. It’s just getting up every day, and doing what you need to do. And continually moving forward, step by step, by step, by step without any major jumps or also without taking your foot off the gas. Just being consistent, showing up each day and making the best decision you can.

Sarah: It’s like parenting.

Mark: Yeah, parenting.

Sarah: I mean, I’m listening to you talk and I’m thinking, you’re really describing also parenting. That’s what we do as [inaudible] principles. We parent our businesses. We try to be steady and stable and reliable.

Mark: That’s beautiful, and that’s a great way to end. Thanks Sarah. This was wonderful. I’m sure there’s a ton of really beautiful insight here that people are going to get a lot from. So, thanks for doing your part in many ways. You do a lot to help other firms through a lot of your speaking and just the … how free you are with your knowledge. And so, I really appreciate that and what you contribute to the industry and it’s just really inspirational to watch how you and the firm have done what you’ve done over the years and continue to do. So, congratulations on that. Congratulations on the success that you’ve gotten from that.

Sarah: Thank you so much and right back at you. I really think you guys are pioneers in opening up these conversations. It’s so easy for us as small businesses to kind of let ourselves off the hook from doing this work right, and I really appreciate the model that you set for not only showing what you do and opening up these conversations but being a resource to agencies like mine. So, thank you.

Mark: My pleasure. And it’s conversations like this and relationships like these that make our job just really, really fun and rewarding. So thanks, Sarah Durham, from Big Duck. It’s bigducknyc, is that correct? The URL?

Sarah: Yep.

Mark: Yep.


Mark: Excellent. So go check it out and check out the firm and be overwhelmed with the brilliance that is constantly on display there. All right, Sarah. Thanks so much and I’m looking forward to our new conversation.

Sarah: Be well.