Twist Image’s Mitch Joel On The Art of Ad Agency Social Media As A Business Development Tool
And… Writing Like Crazy Since 2003
Here is an interview with Mitch Joel as a counterpoint to his interviewing me for his “6 Pixels of Separation” podcast.
Mitch is President of the WPP Montreal-based agency Twist Image – one of the largest independent digital marketing agencies in North America. Mitch is the most prolific user of social media in the agency world. In addition to his podcast, he authors the agency’s blog, has written two books (with a third on the way), writes for the “Harvard Business Review” and “Huffington Post”, has over 64,000 @mitchjoel Twitter Followers and speaks at major conferences.
Peter: When did you start blogging?
Mitch: I started blogging in 2003. The spirit of it came from my pedigree and background in publishing, media and writing. When I saw the blogging platform come out, it was Blogger at the time, I thought that blogging would be a different and unique way for our agency to do some form of thought leadership. Although, I didn’t call it ‘thought leadership’ at the time.
We were there at the early days of digital becoming something in marketing. It just seemed like the right, comfortable fit for me. Then I got very addicted. I publish eight hundred to a thousand words every day. I couldn’t tell you logically why I do this. I don’t check my stats. I do it because I like to write and there happens to be a publish button.
You’re up to four hundred and forty-four podcasts. Why did you move into podcasting in addition to such prolific blogging?
I use the biblical reference, even God rested on one day. I thought, “Well, on my one day of rest, what I’ll do is… it’ll be easier to talk than write.” So, that was my naïve entry into podcasting. What I started learning quickly is it was like I was having flashbacks back to when I was doing college radio, which I was passionate about it. I started getting into the conversation groove.
The real push for me into podcasting was Seth Godin. I had read his books and was really passionate about his blog. I thought I’d love to ask him these ten things. The podcast became a channel for me to corner people who I really respect and like and have a conversation with them, again it just so happens that there’s a publish button on it. What it’s evolved into I hope is a different type of audio content. I don’t want it to be radio, “Hey, everybody we’re back from break and we’ve got Seth…”
I want my podcast to be like you’re a fly on the wall of two people having a conversation in a café about whatever the topic is, related to business. I know it’s not for everybody. I created it in the fashion where you can come in and out, you can come in because you like the guest or you can come in because you like the topic. I don’t need you to listen every single week. I don’t expect anybody to.
You’re telling me that you didn’t start the blog and podcast with the objective of being business development tools, but they have evolved into a business development tool?
Yes. I think it’s more social proof than business development tool. If you’re looking to hire a strategic digital marketing agency that has proven capabilities, I believe that our social media package proves a lot about the ways in which we look at digital communications. You see a human being.
We always say that Twist Image manages a couple of brands. We manage Twist Image. We manage this brand called Six Pixels of Separation, which is the name of the blog and the podcast and my first book, that’s our content, and then there is Mitch Joel. It’s not inauthentic. It’s me.
I write everything. I produce everything.
‘Social proof’ is an interesting concept. Are clients telling you that they are looking at your blog and podcast and telling you that this social proof is important? Or is it basically a ticket for you to get into conversations and pitches?
I think it’s a lot of everything. The other day I got on a client call and someone said, “Wow, you sound exactly like you do on your podcasts,” which sort of makes me laugh. What I think it also does at a subconscious level is it has me in their head, which I think is a really important thing.
They (marketers) are constantly seeing me in their feed. If they’re following me on Twitter or Facebook, I’m sure that some people are talking about me. Other people come in, like you and others, and interview me and that adds to it so it’s all of those things.
For sure for pitches. We just won a really nice piece of digital North American business, which I don’t think we would have won prior to (our WPP) acquisition.
We won it on our own merits. We won it because it was us. But the lead at the client basically was like, “I’ve been following your podcast forever and I really wanted to bring you into this pitch, but you’re an independent shop up in Canada. Right size, but independent in Canada. Now with the WPP acquisition it works.”
The podcast was a catalyst for them to know that we exist. I don’t think the podcast is anything more than the first couple of minutes of grace that someone like Jerry Seinfeld gets on stage when he does comedy. It’s like, “Okay, Seinfeld, I’ll give you five minutes,” but after that he’s got to be funny; if he’s not funny, it’s over.
This sounds like what happens after an agency wins a new business pitch.
I think it’s the same thing. We have maybe a couple of seconds, but after that the team has to deliver, the work has to be great, the pedigree has to be there. None of what I do really matters past that. It’s important in terms of what I do strategically at a business development level, but I think it opens the door. I don’t think our social media program is everything and I don’t think it’s the only reason the door gets open. I think our work drives notice.
Did WPP buy Twist Image in part because of your social media prowess?
That’s a great question. We’re very careful to down play it in client spaces because it can become the Mitch show, “Where is Mitch? Is Mitch going to be on our business?” We’ve spent fifteen years making clients, once we’re in the door, understand that it’s not the Mitch show. There’s a full strategy team, a full creative team, a full tactical team.
What’s interesting about the question is that when we were in the process of meeting opportunities several people from major networks pulled us aside and said, “You should not downplay this. This is a tremendous value.”
In the process we wound up cranking up our social media more based off the feedback from people who live and breathe this. I do think that in a WPP world [I’m 00:15:25] somewhat of an anomaly and I think that that’s a good thing. I think that it can only add value. It’s one of those things where it can only help.
Okay. You said earlier that you don’t spend a great deal of grey matter trying to track your analytics. Tell me about that.
Zero. I don’t even know how to look at that. People think I’m joking when I say that. I have no idea. Here’s the thing, I’m a do as I say, don’t do as I do. I would never tell somebody to run their blog or podcast the way I do. I think it’s insane. Every single day publishing, have these crazy links that we share on the weekend between friends, have a podcast every single week an hour long. It is completely opposite of what I would recommend to anybody doing content marketing.
It’s just the flow and pace that I like. At the beginning I’d look at which words and which links are sending people here and how does it work. I don’t know if I grew tired of it or I thought it was jading what I wanted to write or what I think, but in general there’s two thing that happened. One is I read and see a lot of things all day, I get home, I do the family thing, and then a I need an exhaust valve. For some people it’s Dancing With The Stars, for other people it’s smoking a joint or having a glass of wine, for me it’s writing so that’s my exhaust valve and that’s what you get the output of.
The second one is the podcast, which is what we talked about, it’s like, “Who’s super interesting in the world? There are these four people. Let me see who would like to have a conversation with me, be in my podcast.” That is the maximum effort in terms of what I’m putting into it. I haven’t really changed it that much. I probably should, again I’m probably stupid for not doing any of this stuff. I know people who go crazy because I don’t collect email addresses. It’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to sell anybody anything.
How much time does all of this social media activity take?
Blog posts take me, let’s call it a half hour at night, maybe.
The podcast is an hour conversation; whenever I get the person I get the person. I’m not really a 9-to-5er in general. The podcast takes about an hour to record. To actually post it, I take it, edit it, put in the front, the back, twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes or so. Twitter or Facebook, I’m sitting around, I’ll have a coffee, I see a thing, I tweet it. I use Buffer, which is helpful. Sometimes at 5:00 in the morning on a Monday I’ll load Buffer for four days.
You don’t have a system? What you’re saying is this is organic and it’s organic that comes from your journalism background.
I wouldn’t say that there isn’t an editorial calendar. Mondays I typically publish the audio that I do. Then there’s a local rock radio station here where I do a ten to twelve minute hit on what’s happening in digital, which I love doing. Typically my Monday post is a bit of a commentary on that. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is usually some form of thought leadership type stuff. Friday, because it’s the weekend, I usually put a video of something I saw on a Google talk or a TED talk or something like that with a bit of commentary.
Saturday we do our six links. Hugh McGuire Alistair Croll and I share one link that we think the other person has to check out, because they all come from different backgrounds. It’s one of my favorite things on the blog. It’s these very diverse set of links. Then Sundays the podcast. So there is actually an editorial calendar and I’m pretty serious and set on it, but what I’m going to write about I have no idea.
Is it difficult to find people to interview? Do most people say yes?
I haven’t really had too many no’s. I’ll get sometimes, “I’m not really doing a book now,” or something, “Can we do it later?” I’m trying to think if I’ve had any outright no’s. I don’t think I’ve ever had an outright no. I think most people sort of no or if they don’t and they check it out, they’re like, “Oh, it’s legit.” I’ve had people on like Deepak Chopra and Steve Wozniak and Mark Marin, I’ve had enough celebrity on there that somebody feels like, “Oh, this must be good to do.”
Moving onto to even more content… You’ve written two books so far, “Six Pixels of Separation” and “Control, Alt, Delete”. You’re writing a new book now?
I am, yeah. I’m working on the third. I’m going to be coauthoring it. I can’t say anything else about it.
A lot of agencies have blogs these days. Can you give any tips to agencies in respect to how they should either manage their blog from an objectives perspective or even from a management perspective?
It’s hard to because I don’t really follow many agency blogs. I tend to follow individuals. My general advice is make sure you’re really passionate about writing. Decide if you want long form or short form. Make sure that the person who’s writing really has a voice or a perspective that’s going to add value to the overall brand of what you’re trying to produce.
I think you need to figure out what I call the pulse of your community, which is how much content can they handle? How often? How do they like it delivered? What does it look like to them?
Then the bigger idea that I would pass on is think more about content distribution strategies. One of the things that I used to do more, I’m going to try and get better is, for example, that Tuesday thought leadership piece was typically for the “Huffington Post”.
In this case you’re looking for message reach?
Yes. If I were starting a blog today I would … Let’s say I want to blog four times a week on my corporate blog. Then, I’d say, “Hey, why don’t I publish once in the “Harvard Business Review”, once in the “Huffington Post”, once in “Inc.”, or once in the agency blog. Then I can take the unedited longer versions and post them on my corporate blog and link to it, let people know I’ve written there. I would probably use the larger platforms as the place to get my voice out because they have built audiences, it’s easier to leverage.
You’re building on the other publication’s need for content?
Yes. I’m also building on my ability to get my content into a place that has a better audience. Take book writing for example. I’m a writer so I’m passionate to write books, but people who aren’t and say they want to write a book, I always say to them … It’s a lot different now than it was when I published even my two books because the world has changed so much, but before it really was about getting into airport books stores, Barnes and Nobles and Borders when it was there.
It’s a bit of a different world now. It’s a much more limited world. I don’t know if books have that same reach. I think they’re more of a five-dollar business card than anything else for businesses. I always say, “You’ve got to think of the context of what you’re trying to do. Books reach a different audience.”
How do you feel about social media as an ad agency business development tool?
I think it helps.
I do believe that the social component allows people to better understand the agency’s culture and the philosophy than just static corporate websites. On another note, our Twist Image Facebook page is basically fun and pranky and silly. The spirit of it is we look at it like an HR tool.
People who are thinking about working with us will hopefully see that page and go, “Wow, if I fit in that type of culture, maybe that’s the right place for me.” It works better than a website so I think social is critical to exposing to the world what actually makes your company different other than the fact that you do advertising.
So you’re very conscious of the value of each platform, LinkedIn versus Facebook versus podcasting. Each has its own reason for being for you?
Well not only for me. I think it has its reason for being in terms of how you want to do it. A lot of people might say, “That’s silly for you to use Facebook for that. You should do that on LinkedIn.” They’re not wrong. We can’t say that that’s a wrong statement. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just that each platform has its own thing.
I think that as a brand, whether you’re an agency or a client, you can use each platform to do something unique as well. You can be the first bank on Facebook to create a transaction. You don’t have to just be on Facebook because everyone else is on Facebook.
I look at it (the world of social media) like you have publishing platforms, text, images, audio, video, long form, short form; what are you going to use to create the proper mix for you? like the fact that these platforms really allow an agency or a brand to be very expressively creative.
Last question. Who would be your best get at this point for your podcast? Who’s your dream get?
Dreams for me are people like Jerry Seinfeld or Charlie Rose, Howard Stern.
Speaking of dreaming… I’ll leave with this last image.
I used to commute into New York to Saatchi & Saatchi either by train or car everyday, which is one of the reasons why I left New York City and moved to Portland. I would be sitting in my car in the morning listening to Howard Stern, waiting in line to get into the Holland Tunnel. I’d be listening to Stern laughing and I’d turn to the guy in the car next to me and he’d be laughing at the very same joke.
That’s hilarious. It’s very rare that I have what I call the driveway moments where you’re waiting in the driveway because it’s so good, the radio. I only get that with Stern. I find myself in the parking lot, like, “I don’t want to leave yet.”
I’ve had that happen with your podcasts.
Oh, come on!