“I Knew Working at a Marketing Agency Would Be F*cking Hard, But I Had No Idea It Would Be This Awesome”
There comes a point in every person’s life where tremendously difficult decisions have to be made. That point came for me in December of 2014. At that time, I was extremely dissatisfied with where I was in my career. I was an account manager at a private consulting firm that specialized in executive leadership coaching and high performance team training.
The company had a prestigious list of clients, the consultants were very bright, and I was fostering first name basis relationships with CEO’s & C-Suite level executives like it was nobody’s business. I was required to wear dress slacks, dress shoes, a button up shirt, and a tie to work every day. From an outsider’s perspective, I had it all. The truth is – I was crying on the inside.
One morning on my train ride to work, I looked around and noticed all the other men in suits. I started thinking back to the days when I told myself I would never be one of those “guys in a suit holding a briefcase and reading the paper”. Suddenly, I came to a horrifying realization – I became just like them. I became exactly what I told myself I never wanted to be.
It was only my 2nd “real job” after completing my master’s, but I was incredibly un-fulfilled with the work I was doing. I didn’t agree with the company’s ethics and I certainly wasn’t the right fit for the company culture, that’s for damn sure. After a year and change of doing what I knew in my heart was not meant for me, a blessing came out of nowhere and convinced me that it was time to move on.
After parting ways with the company, I took a long and much needed trip back to the motherland (Italy) to clear my mind. I spent time with family, ate some incredible food, drank lots of delicious wine, and I took the Italian equivalent of Amtrak across the country to various cities by myself. After a month of re-connecting with my traditional Italian roots, I knew that it was time to hit the pavement hard and fast as soon as I got back to New York.
Chilling in Torino, Italy. I thought I was cool in this pic.
How It All Began
Let’s just say, it started with a song. Literally. I’ll get to more on that soon.
So when I got back to New York, I spent one miserable month dedicated to hunting for jobs online. After what seemed to be a hopeless search, I finally received the answer to my prayers. It was an email alert from Glassdoor. I set up automatic emails via Glassdoor to alert me of new account manager jobs posted in the NYC area. The interesting part was that I usually ignored them, but on this particular day I decided to browse and I saw a listing from Mike King, founder of iPullRank.
Something about the way this job post was written seemed very peculiar to me. The tone & voice, the writing style, it was so different yet exciting. It wasn’t the typical corporate lingo. It had personality, it had a cool vibe to it. I was intrigued, so I decided to do some light research on Mike King and iPullRank. The first few Google results were pretty typical, until I came across an article with this headline:
I thought this was a joke at first.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a hardcore music head. I wouldn’t normally plug myself like this, but because it adds relevance, I’ll be the first to say that I’m much more than your typical music junkie. I’m a singer-songwriter-producer-guitarist that’s been in the music game for almost 7 years now. I’ve released 2 EP’s and worked on some big records with major artists.
After reading that blog post, I learned how Mike went from developer turned indie rapper turned results-driven marketer. Needless to say, I was inspired. Not to get all cheesy, but I had a feeling that it could be fate. I immediately realized how rare it would be to work for someone who is just as passionate about music as I am.
After a few interactions with Mike via LinkedIn and over the phone, the next thing I knew I was working on my test project. For my final step in the interview process, Mike asked me to come in and walk him through the creation, release, and launch of my latest EP, “Fade Away.” The presentation was essentially about the marketing & release strategy behind the EP, including metrics on the performance of the release as well.
My initial gut-feeling when Mike asked me to present this was anxiety, which soon transformed to excitement. No potential employer had ever shown interest in my musical talents before. I was surprised that Mike even knew I released an EP. I mentioned to him during our phone interactions that we had music as a shared common interest, and he noticed that we even had a few mutual connections, but never in a million years would I have thought an employer would ask me to do a presentation on my music.
This was the actual table of contents slide from my interview.
Remember when I said it started with a song? Well it did. I played my debut song, Speak With My Guitar as the intro to my interview.
Was it a risky move? Of course. Was I concerned? Yes. But I was more concerned with being memorable.
Oh and let’s just completely disregard the fact that I walked into my interview wearing a mafia suit. In fact, we still joke about how I looked like I came from a meeting with Robert DeNiro & Joe Pesci.
Long story short, it all paid off in the long run because I was hired. To my surprise though, not for the position I thought I’d be hired for. I told Mike that I wanted to be an SEO Analyst, but I was only leveraging my account management background to set myself up for a future analyst role.
I knew a few things about SEO from marketing my own music. I did keyword research before at previous jobs. Not real keyword research though, just collecting keywords and search volumes (yikes)!
The email response from Mike after my thank you follow up was very surprising. Turns out I did the damn thing! He was more impressed with my analytical capabilities than my account manager skills. Check it out.
Mike’s actual response to my thank you follow up.
Now that you’ve got the full story on how I ended up at iPullRank, let’s look at the 6 epic lessons I’ve learned from working here since April 2015.
Agency Life Is Really F*cking Hard Work
I knew working at a start-up marketing agency would be hard, but I had no idea how hard it would truly be. With being just the 3rd person hired, bandwidth was limited throughout most of my onboarding process. Mike was frequently on the road for various speaking engagements, leaving periods of time where I had to figure things out on my own.
Mike characterizes his management style as “I throw you into the deep end and let you figure out how to swim.” While that is a funny way of looking at it, it was a pretty accurate metaphor for my first few months at iPullRank. Some of my biggest challenges faced were the following:
- Having to figure tasks out with little direction
- Having to figure tasks out that I’ve never done before
- Multi-tasking lots of projects at once
- Time management challenges
I remember a moment when I was asking myself what I had gotten into. Soon after that, there was another moment when I thought I was going to quit. It was the first major deliverable assigned to me. I had to execute a rather difficult content audit with no clue how to do it. I hadn’t received full training on content audits to the point where I felt comfortable doing them on my own. Somehow – I figured it out. I pulled an all-nighter, met the deadline, and crushed the presentation.
It was a defining moment. It was a defining moment because it was the first time I actually felt like an analyst. It was the first time I successfully crawled a massive site. I figured out how to work around Screaming Frog’s local memory limitations. I pivoted in excel until I found actionable insights. I told a story with data. I almost cried when it was over. To this day, it is still one of my proudest moments at iPullRank.
One of the key insights drawn from my first ever content audit.
The comforting part was knowing that my team members at the time, Rashard Spiller & Alexsandra Buckner, were facing the same challenges as I was. Those were tough times, but we were in it together. Looking back on it all now is somewhat comical. The company (and ourselves) have grown since then. We’re all doing things now that we thought we’d never be able to do. Aside from that, the team is expanding and life is getting better.
* Cues up Drake: “Started from the Bottom” *
Agency Experience Accelerates Your Career
This is probably my favorite lesson learned. Personally, I was off to a slow start. Adjusting to the challenges of agency life was rough. However, the beauty of working at a start-up agency is that you get to do a lot of cool stuff with no micro management. My success as a Digital Marketing Analyst has directly paralleled with getting more reps in. No different than developing muscle memory at the gym.
For the most part, I struggled at my first crack of completing deliverables on my own, but each time I did one it got better. The presentations got better, the insights became stronger, the speed at which I completed my work became faster, and now I’m at the point where I am helping with training our new hires.
Aside from given the opportunity to get my hands dirty with all types of tasks, I also get to work closely with some extremely smart people. Being able to learn SEO & greater digital marketing from Mike has been an incredible experience. I should also mention that we’ve recently hired a brilliant SEO manager, Joshua Giardino.
For those who haven’t heard of Josh before, he’s a developer and SEO expert whose claim to fame was this article – Googlebot is Chrome. Because Mike is focusing more on operations and sales in 2016, I’ll need someone to lean on for help. With the addition of Josh, I truly believe I can get to that next level not only as an SEO Analyst but as a digital marketer overall.
I thought it would be worthwhile to mention all of the awesome things I’m able to do now, that I wasn’t able to do when I first started. These are tasks such as:
- SEO Audits
- Content Strategy
- Content Audits
- Keyword Research (The Persona-Driven Method)
- Backlink Audits
- Link Building
- I Became Google Analytics Certified
Communication Is Everything
I never realized how important communication truly is. I’ve worked at larger organizations before where the culture was poor and things rarely got done, because people simply never talked to each other. At iPullRank, proactive communication and transparency is at the core of everything we do. Nobody ever feels like they can’t speak up about issues that are plaguing their workflow.
Proactively calling out project issues ahead of time, to being effective in written communications, (both internal & external) to giving feedback in a clear manner are all tremendously crucial. In my opinion, clear and effective external communications with clients may be the most crucial of all. Understanding how to deliver what clients are asking for, and explaining technical jargon in a simple to understand fashion are key skills to have as a digital marketer.
A hard lesson I learned in 2015 is that communication (and transparency) are the lifeblood of any healthy organization. Particularly, the communication with account and project managers.
As a person who is responsible for “doing work” aka completing deliverables, we don’t like being nagged about project status updates. Sometimes, our tasks have very long timetables where in most cases, there isn’t much to report on a day to day basis. That being said, some PM’s like to be updated frequently or even daily. As an organization, we’ve taken strides to improve communication across the board. Some of the measures taken are the following:
- Updating task management software at the end of each day
- Using communication boards like Slack to not interrupt work flows
- Implementing distribution client email address: CLIENT@IPULLRANK.COM
Deadlines Are Not Optional
Self-Explanatory. This was by far the hardest lesson learned. I struggled with this so bad that at one point I thought I was going to get fired. I f*cked up a few times with regard to deadlines by waiting too long to ask Mike for help, or waiting too long to ask for a timeline extension.
Personally for me, it was challenging to estimate how long certain sub-tasks within deliverables would take. For example, the data collection for content audits and SEO audits varies depending on the size of the website we’re dealing with. As an organization, we recognized there was a need to implement some type of process to help forecast if deadlines could be met or not. As a proactive measure, we decided to implement the internal deadline rule as the last point at which anyone can ask for a project timeline extension.
I personally love that rule and think it’s the best way, aside from proactive communication, to ensure that deadlines are met. The challenge of course, is adhering to creating a project timeline that has reasonable distance between the internal and external deadlines.
Since then, we’ve brought on a certified PMP, Matt Alago. Matt has done a great job so far with helping to streamline our internal processes. Oh and by the way, he won an Emmy.
One of the awesome solutions that Matt is implementing right now is creating and logging deliverable milestones to make sure that we are able to assess how long a deliverable will take. For example, crawling the site in Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl would be a milestone for the SEO Audit. He’s also including risk assessments in our project plans, which is very helpful for account managers that need to let clients know of potential issues that may impact deadlines.
Self-Learning Is Absolutely Vital for Growth
Proactive self-learning has been the most important component of my career development at iPullRank. Musicians have to study theory, athletes have to study and learn playbooks. Digital marketers should be reading and studying their craft too. Some of my favorite blogs and publications that I read almost daily are:
- Moz Blog
- Search Engine Land Blog
- BuzzSumo Blog
- Buffer Blog
- Occam’s Razor by Avinash Kaushik
- Distilled Blog
- URL Profiler Blog
- AH Refs Blog
- SEM Rush Blog
Aside from the blogs, I also try to read one digital marketing related book every month. I’m currently reading the PR Masterclass by Alex Singleton, a fantastic book on how to create and deliver an effective PR strategy. Personally, I haven’t been as effective as I want to be with content promotion and outreach. The PR Masterclass will help me improve in that area for 2016.
You’ve heard the saying, “sharing is caring” right? Well at iPullRank, we have weekly lunch & learns and teach backs where we share knowledge with the team. These benefit us in two aspects – It sharpens presentation skills for whoever is presenting, and it educates other team members on topics that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in their day to day tasks.
For example, our front end developer gets a lot of value from SEO presentations. Our content strategy team benefits from audience and market research presentations. In our content audits, we align qualitative data to the personas and user journeys developed in the audience report. The more we understand our dependencies, the better we can do our jobs as content strategists.
Finally, not only does self-learning keep you sharp and help you do your job at higher level, but it keeps you up-to-date in a fast paced digital marketing industry that is changing almost literally day by day. Especially things like algorithm updates, which in fact has been suspected to happen on Jan 9th. According to sources, this may be Penguin Update #4.
Working At An Agency Is Super Rewarding
Agency life can be really hard. Multi-tasking multiple client projects and tasks at once. Strict deadlines. Working and communicating effectively with your peers and clients. Continuing to learn and develop your subject matter knowledge. These are not easy to maintain. But when all is said and done, we are doing work that we’re PROUD of.
It takes a lot of passion, dedication, and long hours to do great work. The common thread for every person that works at iPullRank is that we’re passionate about what we do. We all left other industries and jobs that left us feeling un-fulfilled and empty to come and do the work that we enjoy doing. Besides that fact that we’re passionate, we’re good at what we do, and we love getting results for our clients.
Personally, I am super PROUD of the entire iPullRank family. We achieved some great things in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve all stepped our game up to the next level. The energy at work feels vibrant. High performance has naturally become a part of our culture. I think I can speak on behalf of everyone when I say we’re beyond excited for what’s to come in 2016. On that note, I hope I can write another article at the beginning of 2017 that’s even better than this one.