The Insider Series: Q&A with Mitch Joel, Twist Image

By | August 16, 2012
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This post is part of the Insider Series, which is designed to feature professionals in our industry, offer business insight and discover new paths in the agency world.

Mitch JoelMitch Joel (@mitchjoel) is the president of Twist Image, an award-winning digital marketing and communications agency. Twist Image was named one of the top 10 agencies in Canada for two years running by Marketing Magazine, and the only digital marketing pure-play to make the list.

In addition, Mitch is a blogger, podcaster, speaker and author. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, is a business and marketing bestseller. His next book, CTRL ALT DEL, will be published in spring 2013.

Marketing Agency Insider was privileged to speak with Mitch about how he grew his agency, scaling challenges he faced along the way, lessons learned and more. Below is the transcript of the conversation, and the audio in its entirety. Enjoy!



(Note: Minor edits were made to the transcript version for clarity and readability.)

Q&A with Mitch Joel

MAI: What are the origins of Twist Image? What inspired you and your partners to start the agency?

Mitch: Twist Image started in 2000, so we’re heading into our 13th year of existence, which is somewhat impossible to believe when you’re the entrepreneur.

The company actually started with two of my four business partners. They were really scrambling when I met them in 2002 to do anything they could to be an agency. They would do a logo (if you needed it), an ad, or really complex 3D and multimedia stuff. I happened to see some of their work at a charity event I was involved with. I thought it was really creative the way they were using technology, so I kept their names.

When I decided that I wanted to make a run in marketing and communications, potentially in an advertising agency type scenario, I remembered their names, met with them, and thought “well, they will at least help me build my identify for my first sort into the consulting world, and then from there, I can help them perhaps—because if I get clients, I’d need someone to produce [the work].”

And in the process of those conversations, we realized that we were both doing the same thing. They were kind enough to let me take on some of their debt to be a partner. (They were in debt—not a lot—but enough.) Then, we started looking at what we could do to create, at the time, our vision for the agency of the future.

The reason we had that conversation back in 2002 was that we felt that marketers were fundamentally very scared of technology. The IT department was holding onto websites at the time—almost scaring marketers to not let go control. So, we saw this world of panacea where technology should be embraced by marketers, and marketers should get a better understanding of what technology is.

Fast forward to 2012, and you see how clear and salient that thought was. But, back then, that was very strange. When we made the shift to being a digital agency, some of our first hires were technical people. It was almost heresy in the agency world. All that tech stuff was primarily still being outsourced. As a matter of fact, a lot of it still is in this day and age by some of the major agencies.

A few years after that, we ran into a friend of mine that became our fourth business partner. This guy was the founder of FCB in Canada, and he was ready to make his exit. He had a non-compete and things like that, but we were friendly and we stayed in touch. Right after his non-compete ended, I approached him. I don’t know why he agreed at the time, but he agreed.

The agency was quite successful at that time. I just really felt that because of the persona that we’d created through Six Pixels of Separation, the blog and podcast, and with speaking starting to roll in, it would be great to have someone with an equally big persona within the organization to help lead the charge there.

From there, we have four equal business partners (still in tact to this day and we’re all really close), and we have more than 100 employees in two offices in Toronto and Montreal. We focus almost exclusively on the digital space.

MAI: You launched your blog, Six Pixels of Separation, early in the game (2003). What spurred you to give blogging a try? How has your blog and podcast contributed to Twist Image’s growth?

Mitch: I would come to the office and, at the time, look to my two partners and our 2-3 employees and say, “How exactly are we going to get new clients here? What’s going on?”

With my background in journalism, media and public relations, my first thought was to create some noise. Have people know that we have this agency. “We’re open for business.” “We think differently.”

I did my rounds of calling all the industry magazines and all the usual suspects (the AdAges and AdWeeks), and it was crickets. Who wants to talk about an ad agency in Canada with a couple of clients and not many employees? It just wasn’t a compelling story. I knew that you had to create a portfolio—that in this industry, it’s important to be able to show the work. While we were starting to win some awards and get some recognition, it just didn’t feel like enough.

Blogging started to become popular, and I thought why don’t I just try this? I think we got into the marketing-blog world very early. It’s going to be 10 years now that we’ll be doing this.

But, I think the difference is that we committed to it with a different perspective. If you go back to those early blog posts, you will see a lot of chest beating and naval gazing on my part. “I’m speaking here.” “I’m doing this.” “Look how great we are.” But, it quickly evolved into a place where we believed that we could help communicate and convey a value system that’s based off a real, rigorous journalistic-like mindset. This means that when you read it as somebody in marketing and communications, you get value out of it. Perhaps the halo effect of that is you might want to call us and hire us. That was the seeding of it.

If you transition to today, it’s very different. The blog is a place where I do a lot of my critical thinking. I don’t think it’s a place that directly drives business. I think it provides social proofing about the types of clients we work with, but my readers aren’t my clients, really.

MAI: What’s the biggest challenge you faced scaling Twist Image—from your partners, to more than 100 employees in two locations today? How did you overcome it?

Mitch: I think the biggest challenge is making sure that you are working with the clients that are going to let you scale. I know it sounds ambiguous, but it’s true. There’s that old saying “you get the clients that you deserve.” If you’re an agency like ours that has a propulsion toward creating what’s next and coming, and helping marketers think differently about advertising, marketing, communications, then you have to have clients that are willing to give you the money to go along on that journey a little bit.

That can be really challenging because clients want what they want, which isn’t necessarily where you think the industry is going. And, so it becomes a bit of a push and pull, where you’re constantly trying to innovate and do things.

The most innovative clients usually are working with agencies that are known for just pure innovation. That’s not what we’re necessarily known for.

That’s friction when it comes to business growth, but it’s not friction in terms of client-agency relationships. I know our relationships are really solid and the work we do is great because the clients are happy, and we continue to grow and be recognized for the work. I think the friction is in always evaluating that you’re taking on clients that are going to allow you to move forward the vision of what you want to do.

MAI: Do you have any tips for other agencies that might be trying to evaluate those clients (i.e. things to look for, warning signs, etc.)?

Mitch: What I’ve learned is very similar to my time spent in the music industry, which is people always want to know: “How do all these bands become so famous?” The answer is that every single one is the exception to the rule, and that there actually isn’t a rule.

I think that it’s nice to say as an agency: “This is our sort of chart and if you don’t fit into it, then we won’t work with you.” I think we have that. I’m sure your agency has that. I’m sure every agency has that.

But, I think there’s another piece—this sort of intangible. It’s the thing you look at and say: “Is this going to make us better?” It’s hard to know, and so you take your chances and roll with it a little bit.

Again, I’m not trying to be ambiguous, but I think that each client comes to you, or is presented to you, as an opportunity. Some of them small; some of them big; some of them tend to be massive. Some of the biggest client opportunities tend to be the smallest opportunities in terms of financial, reward or work even. So, I think the trick for me, at least, is analyzing each one in a unique way and trying to figure out if it’s working or if it’s not working.

I think the biggest challenge ongoing is trying to keep those lines of communication open. This way, you’re really having candid conversations about levels of happiness and quality of work.

MAI: What do you consider the three most critical traits of a marketing agency professional?

Mitch: One would be flexibility. Marketing professionals need to be very understanding of the myriad of ways that people can connect to marketing messages now. That is core.

Two is you need to be a hybrid of a very collaborative individual. I wouldn’t say introvert. I think I mean introvert much in the same way Susan Cain (@SusanCain) described it in her book, The Quiet—the ability to take the information that you gather, and go and really work on it hard.

While great work does happen in teams, I think that at the end of the day, it’s usually a very individual piece of work that maybe then comes together as a unit. Being almost like a split personality between someone who can be openly collaborative  (we work in mobile and open spaces), but then somebody who can really go away and do the work is key.

Another is fiscal responsibility. It’s easy to do great work when you’re unbounded and have unlimited resources, and its just go. “We’re just doing this for the awards, and it’s off you go.” The best marketing professionals are the ones that can look at a budget—small, medium or large—and understand how great work happens within those rails.

The last one, that’s sort of come to me [as I’m speaking] is the ability to pitch. I read an amazing book called The Art of the Pitch by Peter Coughter (@Coughter). He often talks about the client killed the creative, and he’ll say: “No, the client didn’t kill any creative, you had an inability to pitch it in a compelling way.”

We often forget as marketing professionals that because it’s not a science, and the work we do can be somewhat ambiguous, you have to have an amazing skill set when it comes to storytelling and presenting your ideas. 

MAI: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned along the way that you can share with agency leaders who aspire to build a great modern marketing agency?

Mitch: The most valuable lesson that I’m starting to understand better as a leader (it doesn’t necessarily trickle down to employees), is something I call squiggly. It’s how squiggly work comes in and work is done.

It’s not always: There’s an RFP. We filled it out. We won the RFP, and went off to do the work. I feel that it’s squiggly. I’ll write a blog post. Somebody will see it. I’ll join an industry organization. Somebody will hear about me. Four worlds collide. Somebody leaves a phone call that gets lost, and then I get an email. You start to realize that it’s not as linear as you would like to think“I will be business development. I will go out and meet companies, and they will hire us.”

The world has changed so much because of connectivity and multiple channels that it’s made things very squiggly. So, usually when I’m looking at opportunities, I tend to what I call “embrace the squiggly” a little bit. I don’t know where this thing is going, but I’m going to put my toe in the water and see if it turns into something more interesting. I used to think it was a lot more linear. It’s definitely not linear.

Want more agency goodness from Mitch? Vote for Paul Roetzer's (@paulroetzer) 2013 SXSW panel, Building Next Generation Marketing Agencies, which features Mitch, Jay Baer (@jaybaer) and Peter Caputa (@pc4media). Voting is open until Aug. 31.