Listen to the Fifth instalment of the Choosing an Agency podcast.

In episode five Alex interviews Mark, Director at digital marketing agency Candour. They speak about their mutual love of Norwich, shadow IT solutions and why a solid onboarding process is crucial to building trust at the start of a new agency relationship

Alex: Hello, and welcome to choosing an agency. My name’s Alex and I'm here to talk about how to select the right agency to grow your business, giving you the inside line on things to look out for the next time you need external support. I'll be interviewing industry figures from all manner of backgrounds to get hints and tips on the things to consider when choosing an agency. Today, I'm joined by the amazing Mark Williams Cook from Candour. Hello, Mark.

Mark: Hello. Thanks for having me, Alex

Alex: So, for people who are just meeting you for the first time, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mark: Yeah, sure. So, I've been bopping around the SEO industry for about the last 16 years. I've been agency side for most of that, so I think 12-13 years now. I cut my teeth in SEO making my own sites and started off doing affiliate stuff and realising I could make things rank in Google and AltaVista at the time and ended up moving to an agency. And essentially, that grew to the point now where, a few agencies later, I'm director at Candour which is a digital agency based in Norwich. We've got a team of 16 and we are primarily kind of a search marketing company. But we have in house designers, developers as well. So, we do build sites and apps and that kind of thing.

Alex: So, I’ve got a lot of love for the fair county of Norfolk and especially Norwich, since they’re my football team. And I loved the way you pronounce Candour -

Mark: Correctly.

Alex: So, could you share some information about the project or piece of work that you're most proud of?

Mark: Oh, wow. So, I guess at the at the moment, the project that I'm most proud of is actually an internal one, which is AlsoAsked.com. And that's a project that was - I think many things born out of necessity so we do try – we’ve got a few products of our own as an agency. So, outside of client work, I tend to try and foster anything that falls into the category of shadow IT. So, shadow IT, for those that hadn't heard the term before, and I actually hadn't until a couple years ago, is when - if you go into companies, you have found that people have just engineered solutions, made their own programmes, or have their own processes to help do a job because nothing currently exists. And I found whenever people are doing that within a company, it's usually highlighting there's a gap there for something. So, AlsoAsked is a tool that takes the – it’s a keyword research tool that takes Google's people also ask and kind of curates, aggregates all that data, maps it out as part of our keyword research process. So, we had a little version that we used internally as our shadow IT piece for when we were doing keyword research or part of that for clients, and we made an online version of that. So, people could go and type in a keyword and see the data that we were using. And I just thought I'd put it out there to see if anyone would want it and it got a really good reception. And over the last sort of year or so it grew to, we're serving on average, around a million searches a day.

Alex: Wow.

Mark: That's obviously not a million users, that's just people doing lots of searches and using the tool. So, that's actually something I'm really proud of because we've made something I think that is of value to a lot of people. It's been free up until this point. I hope one day, once we've got it to a stage where I'm really happy with it, we can turn that into a paid product for us. But that's sort of most recently one of the things that's got me out of bed in the morning and kept me excited to work on.

Alex: I think as an agency in the SEO space, us guys here at Climbing Trees, we actually use AlsoAsked, we think it’s fantastic. The visualisation of the mapping of the questions is really beautifully done. You've just - it was in not beta, what was it before beta?

Mark: Yeah, so we’ve released an alpha version. And so, the alpha, the sort of definition there is that here's a thing. All of the features we want to put in aren't there yet, and it's probably broken. And then this was the beginning of this year, we released the beta, which is the - we’ve got all the features done that we would like and we're pretty sure they're working but help test it for us. And we got some really good feedback there, which is part of what we're working on now and the popularity as well. So, the main thing we needed to test was the scalability. So, how many visitors, users can we take? Because even doing stuff like each of those trees that we generate from one search is cached, so it’s saved. But when we have so many of these done, the database, even in days was enormous. It was like gigabytes within 90 days. So, at scale comes lots of interesting problems, challenges – sorry, not problems.

Alex: Opportunities.

Mark: Opportunities, challenges. Yeah. The other thing too, not to go too deep into it, which I personally hadn't encountered before, was this cascade when you do get a problem. So, what I mean by that is, so say, for whatever reason, the system that handles the searches slows down, right? So, that's an issue for whatever reason, that's creaking a bit, that then has a domino effect in that there's a separate system that manages the queue, and another system that manages kind of proxy health. And that backs up then and creates problems for these other systems, and then they go down. So, the logic for actually alerting and mitigating issues - not only do you need, like, oh, if this happens, do this, you need some overall type of code to say, okay, well things A and B are broken so C will break next, so we need to fix this thing first. You need to kind of triage where the bottleneck which is interesting. So, that kind of problem solving was way more complicated than I thought it was going to be.

Alex: Well, if I was texting you, I'd send you a mind blown emoji right now.

Mark: That's how I felt the first time, when things really started to creep. But I think we're there now, we’ve got really good dev team working on it. So, that's the thing I'd say, put my hands up – do all this back end, well the front end now as well – it’s all been built by a dev team. So that was originally my idea, that it's well above my paygrade now in terms of how it's been developed. So, I'm really proud of the team for being able to pull that off.

Alex: Excellent. And so, part of the reason behind trying to pull this podcast series together is to synthesise some helpful advice about choosing an agency for clients to utilise. And so, we've got some questions that we're going to come on to that are focused specifically around that. So, what's the worst advice you ever heard a client be given?

Mark: What, in terms of SEO or picking an agency or -

Alex: So, it could be practical advice in terms of for SEO, or it could be just general advice in terms of choosing an agency.

Mark: So, I think some - we’ll be generous and call them SEO agencies - are quite aggressive with their sales techniques. And I actually published a few weeks ago now a podcast where I had been emailed saying, and it was actually about also about them saying, okay, we've done an audit of your website, and you know what, you're going to be really interested in this, there's all these errors in it. And I emailed them back from my Kandra address, which, you know, says who we are, has a job title in it. And I just said, I’ll be honest, there's nothing I’m going to find interesting in your audit, kind of leave me alone type thing. The reply was to send me a date for a call that they wanted to go through the audit. And they wanted 30 minutes, and it was on a Friday, and I had some time free, so I was like, Okay, let's hear what they have to say. And on that call, I got some really interesting advice. So, this is obviously advice they’re giving people which was – so, some of the problems was that the HTML to text ratio on my site was wrong, and that it needed to be in balance. So, I needed a 50/50 ratio of code to content which, even when people did use to talk about content to code ratio, when some people thought that was a thing, that isn’t what they’d do. Even when it kind of maybe was a thing, it wasn't that thing. But this spiraled to the point where I was told that to be ranking in Google, what I needed to do was - they were going to give me content that they were going to put on my site, which was going to be invisible to my site users. And that content would link to their websites, which would help me rank in Google and I had to pay them for that. So, it was essentially building links to their PBN from cloaked content on my site, so it was it was huge. It would have been hugely damaging for my site because I would have been breaking Google's Webmaster Guidelines by cloaking and having all this stuff on my site, and they would have got all the benefit. So essentially, I was doing SEO for them and then paying them for it and that's the worst advice I've seen. Apart from that, it's just the standard things you see with audits where you just get exported SEM rush reports, things like that.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that having a background in the ad industry, I worked in some quite large agencies, and then moving to a smaller independent in 2001 and them moving into SEO. I think part of it is with SEO is the relative immaturity of it as an industry, and so I think that as time goes on, there is a sort of rising tide in terms of quality. But there are these agencies that still produce an approach, which is - I don't know how you can pacify it. Ethically, they're probably, if you think about the worst sort of estate agent, or used car salesman, the sort of the ethically worst version of that - they operate at that sort of sphere. And I just think if you're going to spend your career doing something, do it spending your time trying to achieve something positive, rather than that kind of thing, which is just reputationally really short term and you’re going to be really, really badly thought of. I just don’t understand it.

Mark: I think it makes it hard as well, then when we've engaged with clients that have been burned by those kinds of agencies, because it then makes it hard for them. Because there's an element of trust, I think, that's required between a client and an agency to do a good job. And obviously, when they've had that trust broken before, if you like, it could be hard for them to actually then have a productive working relationship with any agency.

Alex: Absolutely. And I think it's almost like what I imagine, if you move from your first marriage to a second marriage, you've got a lot of emotional baggage from the first one that you need to resolve by the time you're ready for the second one. And as your role, when you're speaking to clients is that sort of, you end up not counselling them, but you have to empathise into their situation. It’s terrible. So, on the client side, or the agency side, what can be done to improve the quality of the work that a client gets?

Mark: So, from the agency side, and I think this is sometimes looked over, is to have an onboarding process where the SEO agency team and the marketing team gets to know the client. So, if we think about the points of contact when you first meet the client, depending on the agency, they will normally speak be speaking to different people in that first contact to who they end up working with. So, some agencies have new businesspeople, like I generally speak to most of our new clients before they're onboarded and then usually, they will go to some kind of account manager, account strategist, that kind of role and interact with the team. And normally, there's some loss of fidelity of information that happens there. So, the people that have the initial conversations to do the pitch, they really understand the client: who they are, what they do, what their business is about to a certain level. And sometimes, I've seen that as this information gets passed down to the kind of implementation execution team, it just becomes a set of targets and objectives, and it's like too much of a skeleton. So, an onboarding process, it doesn't have to be like a grand thing. But it's really where the team directly speak to the client, they start to understand what this client's mission, vision, values because that plays into all of the marketing and the messaging that they're going to be doing. And understanding what that client's brand is actually about. So, if you're doing things like outreach or producing content, it becomes very quick to then say, I don't think this feels right for this client. And again, I've seen that happen, where you – that process has kind of been missed where you will be then producing work, it goes back to the client, and they're a bit like, what's this? And then you get into that conversation of, well, this is kind of what we need to do to build links or whatever. So, I think a lot of that can be ironed out right at the beginning and it's good for the relationship as well, which as I said a minute ago, like trust is key to a lot of this process because it does take time. And trust is related to – So if I had to give two things, the onboarding process would be one for the agency side. And the for the client side, it would be something not to do, which is micromanagement. So, that is trusting the agency to deliver, providing them obviously, with what they need. But the relationships that I've seen, that have been difficult for clients to get the best out of, are ones where there, for instance, they’re asking for breakdowns of how every single hour was spent, and what it was spent on. Because those things take time to do and actually can eat up quite a lot of time with that kind of auditing, if you like. And that is time that the agency, or the freelancer, whoever you're using can actually be using to get results for you. Unless you're asking them to do it outside of the time you're paying them for. But then essentially, you're asking them to take their time to do free stuff, which isn't obviously going to go down. Well, you know, occasionally, there's stuff that you have to you have to do, but that kind of lack of trust normally is a catalyst for other things not going great.

Alex: So, for the agency to bring to life what the onboarding process is like and try and bring people from the actual team that are delivering the work so it’s possible. And then the client side, to empower and trust the agency and back them.

Mark: Definitely.

Alex: So, what sort of factors are included in the best brief that you've ever seen, Mark?

Mark: So, briefs are really interesting because they vary so wildly, and in terms of the ones I've received - I've received super detailed, multi-page briefs and I've received kind of like quarter of a page briefs before. I think the best briefs are the ones that just specify what you want. Maybe the why, but not the how you want it. Okay. And what I mean by that is, I've received briefs before, that have basically said, we want to achieve this, and this is how we want to go about doing it. So, essentially, it’s just like, can you give us a price for this? And I've gone back to them and said, if this is what you're trying to achieve, there's actually a much better way to do this, you can do it this way. And then the kind of response is, well, that's not what the brief is, because we want to do it this way. And I feel unless you are a specialist in that area, which I think is going to be unlikely a lot of time if you're reaching out to an agency to do that specialist thing for you. Normally the best briefs you can give them is just - this is what we want to achieve, how would you go about it? Because then you're leaning into their expertise and the cross section of experience they've got, and you'll see different approaches. If you tell someone, essentially how to do their job, you're going to get the same answers back and you're making a decision then on price alone, you're discarding the possibility of getting some really great ideas.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. So, there’s no - it's a price-based gig rather than a value based one on the knowledge and experience of the people you're working with.

Mark: Yeah, so I think, you know, that's, in my view, at least why you use an agency, because they're not just an extra pair of hands that you need, because that's kind of what you hire for generally if you just have more of the same work. Normally, you have a specialist requirement, or you don't have the skill set in-house, or you need an outside view. And for me I guess it’s like, we’re a specialist in this area so just tell us what you want, and we'll tell you using the strategies we use, the best way to get that. And the other things are just technical detail, which is at the point of giving the brief - tell us about the site, what's it running? What technologies do you use? What CRMs are there? Because all of these things, again, can affect the type of options you have when putting together approaches in a proposal, whether it's we definitely can't do that because it's this or, you know, we can do this because we know they've got a CRM system. So, any background, technical detail, and even the resource that you have as well. So, usually we'll be working with in house client teams, so let us know how your team structure is set up as well. So, what are we going to be interacting with? Again, it's building up this picture of, you know, a brief should be a lot more than just - this is what we want to achieve, this is the problem. It should then say, and this is the playing field, build a picture of - this is the parameters we're operating in and this is the team that you're going to be working with reporting to, interacting with so we know all the players that are on the stage. There's lots of different analogies I've heard people use about, you know, writing a play and things like that but building that picture of everyone and everything that's involved is a really important part of a brief.

Alex: Absolutely. And understanding in-house capacities and specialisms, and their ability to contribute to what you've got to fulfil in the brief is really important.

Mark: Absolutely. And the last thing, this seems super obvious, is to either have budgets or targets in the brief, and certainly time scales as well. So, I've seen briefs without all of these things before. So, just giving someone a blank - this is what we want to achieve without giving them a target, you’ve given them no way to set a budget. Or giving them a budget without expectation of a target can also be problematic but having at least one of them. You either, in my opinion, need a target -so, if you we're doing a million pounds in sales, and we want to get to 1.5 million, then an agency’s in a position to say, okay, to get that 500k, this is what we think you need to spend, that's kind of doable, right? Or if you say we have X budget, you can then make an estimate at, okay, we think we can make this much impact for that budget.

Alex: And so, with budgets, I think sometimes for clients there’s a sensitivity. So, if a client comes in says, okay, we've got 10,000 pounds a month, they know the proposal they will get will be for 10,000 pounds a month. Or you might put in an option for five, eight and 10, or whatever it is and so sometimes there can be a hesitancy to do that. Would you work on a request for pitch or brief or a tender, for a client that hasn't given the budget?

Mark: If it has targets? Yes. So, that's a multifaceted question. So, I would qualify first that we're in the same kind of ballpark in terms of - they have enough budget to realistically do what they want to do. But as long as they have a target, I would do that. So again, if they’ve said, we're doing a million pounds through organic a year, and we want to get to a million and a half, I could have a look at their site, and then give them an idea for the kind of investment I think they would need. We've certainly encountered that hesitancy around budgets before and when I’ve spoken to clients, and I’ve said, what's your target? And they're like, we're not sure. And then I say, what's the budget? And they're like, can you tell us? Then it's a no. I’m not going to do a proposal from that because firstly, there is a budget there, whether they want to say or not, because if you start from a million pounds a month and work your way down, you'll soon find that most people don't want to spend a million pounds a month. So, there is at least a maximum they’ll spend. And this question of, oh well, if we say 10,000 pounds a month is our budget, will we get a proposal back for 10,000 pounds a month? Yes, of course you will because that's the budget that we've been given, and you will get better results for 10,000 pounds a month than you would for 5000. And much better than if you spent 1000 pounds a month. So, if you have a set budget, then we can tell you the impact of that. I do think that it needs to be accountable in terms of - if you're saying spend this what are we going to get from it? I never give proposals with a choice of options myself because there's normally a target that we will get to, and I will tell them what we need to get to that target. So, there isn't a 3000 pound or 7000-pound option. It's if you want to hit this target, this is what I think we need to invest. And this is our best guess, you know and if the target’s not half of that, we're not going to propose spending half of that.

Alex: That makes sense, that makes absolute sense. So, in terms of the lead qualification process, that’s very important for you then?

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. It's really just to save our time and the client’s time. SEO is one of the harder things I think, even when you've got a lot of experience in it to judge how long exactly it's going to take and what you're going to get out the other engineers, especially with people that haven't done it before. So, for clients that have done some kind of SEO before, they have normally a visible momentum. So, you can see how they've been moving around Google and how their traffic has been going, and from that you can kind of extrapolate at least a fair estimate of - this is our rate of progression. When you have clients especially with new websites, new domains, it can become very difficult, and then it becomes a case of looking at the competition and just highlighting where they stand with that. And again, the rate of movement of the competition. So, it's likely, if they're in any kind of competitive area, that their competitors are not ranking where they are by chance, they're also doing SEO. The analogy I've always used is that if SEO is a marathon, which kind of it is this long game, if you wanted to go and win a marathon, you wouldn't join in, and then run slower than everyone else. Right? Because you know, you're not going to win, yes, you'll be taking part. And the same applies in terms of SEO and committing a realistic spend. If your competitors are ranked number one, number one, and this is a brutal place to be, and, you know, if they're ranked number one, and they're earning good money from that, they're in a position to reinvest in their SEO and their content. Sometimes you just, if you're coming in, and you're, you know, page two, you're going to have to just out outspend them, or outthink them, or, you know, you have to put in more legwork to catch up, to make yourself better. There isn’t a free pass. So sometimes it does take some cash to do that. And, you know, when you look at Google's goal, which is to rank the kind of best, most helpful content - that’s a difficult and expensive task to get right. So, I don't paint, you know, draw any illusions that it's going to be quick and easy and cheap. There’s definitely a difference you'll get depending on the people you work with, in terms of the quality of the SEO, and its longevity in terms of the tactics used but I think you need to be real with people. And give them this real view on what their competitors are doing and what the investment needs to be to beat them, because I've seen what happens the other side. And the other side is the SEO agency just agrees to work for whatever budget the client has, which they know isn't enough and whether the client spends 15 grand in a year, or 30 grand - when it's all kind of washed up it doesn't make a huge difference if they spent 15 grand in the year and they got nothing, or they spent 30 grand maybe and broke even and then next year they're going to make money. They're still going to be annoyed if they spend any amount of money and basically get nothing out at the end of it. So, this is a situation where it's not you spend half and get half, it's you spend half, and you get nothing.

Alex: Absolutely. So, it's about then that qualification process, making sure that there is a ability for the agency to gain significant momentum and sort of velocity with an SEO project, to actually make a tangible difference to real business objectives

Mark: It comes back down to just things like their cash flow. And if they don't have the cash flow to support what I think is, you know, the required effort, then I normally tell them not to do it, and actually to look at other channels, other strategies to begin with. So, lots of people jump into SEO, for instance, without even looking at PPC. While I would never suggest you build a whole business around putting all your eggs in a PPC basket, the logic of, you know, if you're not doing it, it's still search traffic. So, if organic traffic is going to convert, there's a fair case that paid search traffic will also convert, and you should be able to make a profitable PPC campaign and therefore, you can reinvest the profits. I speak to a lot of people saying, oh, we're doing SEO so we can reduce reliance on PPC or reduce spend. And in my experience, if you did a Venn diagram that overlaps between people that click on the ads and click organic, it’s fairly small. They tend to be different audiences. So, if you switched off your ads, all that would happen is they're not going to click on your organic result, they'll just click on whatever ad is still at the top.

Alex: Absolutely. I don't think there's much cannibalisation between paid and organic. We've got a couple of clients that we're speaking to at the moment on - they want a long-term organic strategy, but they haven't yet released their product and they need some results immediately. And so, it's really bad situation to be in. So, our advice to them is to troll paid search, accrue some learnings based on different categories and segments of keywords. And if they then convert, then it's worth then having an emerging sort of organic strategy to start producing content and optimising the site for the terms that are actually converting.

Mark: Yeah. 100%. There's always information you can transfer over like you're saying from PPC. But if the if the conversation starts, you know, like, we need results straightaway, we need quick results, then it's very easy to qualify that brilliant SEO is not for you. Let’s look at paid – paid’s the only way you’re going to get instant results that are scalable and reliable.

Alex: And final thing I'll say, there's something that I find delightful with clients that view organic as that free traffic that Google gives you. And they don’t realise that, actually, if you’re investing 5-10 grand a month in terms of paid search - why haven't you got a comparable strategy to try and accrue organic traffic as well?

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. So, the analogy I use there is about equity and you're not building equity really with PPC. And by that, I mean that the money you spend once you stop spending it, everything just stops overnight, right? All that traffic's gone whereas with the SEO stuff, you're investing in content and outreach and etc., and if you did stop that you’d still have equity in that you still own that content on your site, it’s still helpful to people, it will still drive traffic. So yeah, definitely. Always scares me when I see people that are 70% Reliant with their business on PPC.

Alex: Yeah, it’s not a long-term thing. Perfect. Mark. This has been great. Where can people find out more about you online?

Mark: So, obviously with Candour it’s our site - we've got our own podcast there, talk about SEO and PPC every week. I also publish daily, unsolicited SEO tips on LinkedIn so you can find me- just Mark Williams Cook. So, interesting, fun fact is I double barreled my name when I got married. I used to just be Mark Cook and I think I'm the only Mark Williams hyphen Cook on the internet. I'm incredibly easy to stalk. So basically, if you just want to find me just type Matt Williams Cook into Google and I'll pop up – for good or for worse.

Alex: There’s an American fashion designer called Alex Holliman and there's a South American, evangelical sort of Pentecostal preacher called Alex Holliman as well so don’t get me confused with that.

Mark: No way. Yeah, I'm pretty easy to find.

Alex: Perfect. Thanks for joining me today.

Mark: Thanks, Alex. Thanks for having me, it’s been a pleasure.

Alex: Thanks for listening. If you found the conversation useful, please join me again next time for Choosing an Agency.

Choosing an Agency is available for you to download from all the usual podcast platforms or find out more, here: www.AlexHolliman.com