The Insider Series: Q&A with T.J. Kirgin

TJ KirginT.J. Kirgin (@Anchor_STL) is the second-generation chief marketing consigliere for Anchor Media Communications & Digital Services. This month, Anchor is celebrating 20 years of advertising and marketing goodness in St. Louis, MO. 

T.J. has managed more than 30 million in measured media since joining the agency in 1997. In 2011, he was invited by the Public Relations Society of America’s St. Louis Chapter to teach PR professionals SEO and social media at St. Louis University.

He is a member of Vistage International and Digital Masterminds, and recently published his first ebook, Mobile Marketing as a Service, a case for mobile marketing as a strategic adjacency for advertising agencies and marketing companies.

In this Insider Series, he discusses the origins of his agency, its success transitioning into digital, evolving services and more.

AnchorMAI: What are the origins of Anchor Digital?

T.J.: From 1997 to 2003, I had great success growing our firms revenue via traditional media buying as well as audio/video production. It was in 2003 when our traditional clients began looking for enterprise solutions for web design, ecommerce, SEO and such.

At the time, we were using local specialist vendors to accommodate this work and making a modest margins as project managers. Then, we started losing business. We would lose a 250k media client over a 10k web design project because of the delays and code quality, or server instability issues of our web vendors. After I fired the 3rd vendor, I realized that it would be better to have in-house digital capabilities. Basically, I said: “I can screw this up just as bad as they can and for better margins.”

I also learned from my mistake to not bring new capabilities to existing customers, as you may risk losing those customers due to your own learning curve. I took my idea to my father who shunned it like it was the plague. His position was simple: “I don’t care about the Internet; I don’t want to learn about the Internet. Period.”

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. There were no local web marketing companies, just design and development shops. So, I started my own company, Anchor Digital Services LLC., which we called the “Geeky Love Child of a St. Louis Ad Agency.”

I had learned my mistake, so we did not immediately begin offering services to our traditional agency clients. We spent several months hiring great talent, developing processes, and learning via trial and error with new business. Once we were comfortable, we made Anchor Digital the exclusive web design, development and marketing vendor of Anchor Communications.

The success was huge. So much so that I used the profits from Anchor Digital to purchase the traditional agency, Anchor Communications, from my father just two years later in 2005.

MAI: Your father built Anchor as a media-buying agency. What caused you to make the transition into digital and mobile? What trends were you seeing?

T.J.: Our transition to digital was driven by the incompetence of local design firms to live up to their pitches, and the absolute lack of post-launch web marketing support or knowledge. Being only in my late twenties at the time, I had a vision of an old school Mad Men style agency for web marketing. Years later, we have removed the 23-year-old Scotch, and do things a bit differently.

I learned that the strategic planning concept that I used was known as “strategic adjacency” — a phrase coined by Chris Zook of Bain and Company. Strategic adjacency is defined as a company’s continual growth into related marketing segments or businesses that utilize, and usually reinforce, the strength of the company’s core services.

It was in early 2007 when we saw the mobile marketing tsunami coming to America from the U.K., India and Asia. At this time, we were confident that a similar adjacency would work well. With all our inbound marketing skills, we would be positioned well to compete nationally in mobile, rather than locally as with our other divisions. As a result, Anchor Mobile was born.

We began development of a cloud-based SMS marketing platform (SaaS) that would go through continuous improvement and eventually evolve to what it is today—a feature-rich mobile marketing automation platform with capabilities ranging from SMS to mobile site creation, mobile CMS and even HTML5 mobile app development.

Originally, we were going to offer the service to end-user advertisers. Then, we realized (like Hubspot) that we needed the agencies, as they were the ones with the connections, skills and clients to use our platform to its fullest.

At that moment, we stopped offering mobile marketing to end users and began offering the platform exclusively to advertising agencies and marketing companies. We now support more than 500 advertising and marketing companies including PR firms, web design shops and SEO firms in North America. We even have 30 or so in Canada and three in Mexico. Our mobile marketing division spends its time generating quality content, webinars, white papers, ebooks, case studies and e-learning tools to help our agency partners succeed and do mobile marketing right.

The trend I am seeing is this: every business needs to have a thumb-friendly website at the core of its mobile strategy. Less than 3% of websites are mobile friendly, yet more than 90% of Americans are within three feet of their mobile phones, 24 hours a day.

Our clients and those of our resellers find the demand to be in HTML5 mobile web apps that can easily be converted to native app as well as Reactive or Adaptive CSS. SMS is the up-sell as it becomes the workhorse of mobile marketing. Combine that with QR codes, augmented reality, mobile video and mobile coupons, and you have a pretty good strategy to engage via the always-on, mobile channel.

We have recently become a Certified Hubspot VAR and are ready for the next era of growth by way of content-driven marketing .

MAI: What services do you currently offer?

T.J.: Anchor has a diverse menu of web services, but our most sought after are web design, custom programming (including Ruby on Rails), native mobile app development, mobile websites, SEO, paid search, social media and inbound marketing.

MAI: How has the agency benefited from this service evolution? What results have you seen?

T.J.: As I said above, the first dramatic evolution was that the revenue generated by digital allowed me to purchase the traditional agency and then change it from within. After 9/11, traditional media took a hit that it never fully recovered from. Then, in 2008, the bottom fell out as the mortgage bubble burst. Our home-builder client went into bankruptcy, our mortgage client was indicted, our home decor clients shut their doors, and our car dealers went silent for a long time.

It was digital that carried us through these rough years with an average annual growth of over 20%. Then, we added mobile to our toolbox in 2007 and started experiencing growth of over 50% annually. Some of the benefits of going digital and mobile include:

  • Tons of new business.
  • Larger clients that used to ignore us now see us as assets.
  • We bought our own 7,000 square-foot building in historic St. Charles.
  • We have increased our staff more than 300%.

The best part is we are having fun. What we do these days is very technical, but with tools like Hubspot3 and the Anchor Mobile Marketing Platform, it gets easier to implement and faster for the client to see ROI. This, in turn, makes us heroes.

MAI: In your opinion, what will the agency of the future look like?

T.J.: It will be a nimble, knowledgeable resource for clients that are overwhelmed by “change velocity,” as it will only get faster and more complex. The winning agencies will be the ones that stay young, stay on the bleeding edge, and never get comfortable.

T.J. Kirgin is the chief marketing consigliere for Anchor Media Communications & Digital Services. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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