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Episode 18 – Rob Twells – The Digital Maze

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Episode 18 – Rob Twells – The Digital Maze

Mediaboard_sounds (00:02.391)
Hello and thanks for coming along to And We Have An Office Dog, the digital agency podcast where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’d rather have known sooner, where they’ve had success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed.

with your host Chris Simmons, the Agency Accelerator, and he’ll be talking to a different, awesome agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let us begin. Over to you, Chris.

Thanks, voiceover guy. And I’m really pleased to have Rob Twel’s back from the digital maze. How you doing, mate? Good to see you again.

Rob Twells (00:56.127)
well. Yeah, thanks for having me. How are you?

Chris Simmance (00:58.71)
I’m all right. Thank you. I’m all right. It’s very rare that I get questions asked of me in a podcast. That was within the first one minute. Bloody hell. Look at that guys. Tables are turned. So how things been generally in the last year? What are you thinking in terms of agency land? Are we on a positive end of the scale? What we looking at, do you think?

Rob Twells (01:02.033)
I guess.

Rob Twells (01:20.811)
Yeah, it’s been okay. It’s been okay. I mean, I’m not gonna sit here and lie and say it’s been anything to write home about because it hasn’t. But we’re on an upward trajectory, very, very slightly. It’s challenging though. I think, you know, I speak to a lot of agency owners or leaders and whatnot. And, you know, you do hear the same sorts of things, you know, things like sales are a lot more difficult to combine. Staff retention and talent and stuff is a lot more difficult to combine. It seems to have been.

Chris Simmance (01:35.608)

Rob Twells (01:50.039)
Probably since COVID, you know, last two, three years really, it’s been, it’s been, it feels like it’s more difficult to grow. Doesn’t mean that growth’s not possible, but it’s just more difficult.

Chris Simmance (02:01.878)
So for those really rude people who didn’t listen to your very good season one episode, can you just give us a little bit of rundown of, you know, who you are and what you do and what the agency you, uh, you run does or will do as well.

Rob Twells (02:14.403)
Sure, so I’m Rob, I’m the managing director of the Digital Maze. We are actually the amalgamation of, well, particularly two different agencies, by the way, of a merger. So an agency called Frogspark, which actually I founded back in 2012, which was a web design and development agency primarily, and then Boom Online, which is performance marketing, merged them together. Those brands still exist, but actually we’ve now created, what we’re trying to be sort of more of a powerhouse agency in the Digital Maze.

Chris Simmance (02:42.923)

Rob Twells (02:44.712)
So yeah, that’s those with full service, three core services, web design, development, particularly e-commerce, SEO, and paid advertising.

Chris Simmance (02:55.122)
And we talked a little bit about the merger and how it all happened in season one, but was that for the benefit of everyone, you know, listening for the first time to your story? How did you both kind of come about a this makes sense to do kind of perspective? Because I know lots of agencies at the minute, kind of looking at long term options and how, you know, to be resilient in the face of, you know, current challenges and things like that. How did how did things come up for you guys?

Rob Twells (03:24.067)
I think it was the, I think we were probably at a bit of a crossroads in the agency of, you know, do we put our foot down and really go for this ourselves, me and my business partner that is, or do we, you know, do we look for other opportunities whereby we can almost fast forward the growth, so to speak. And that’s what we decided to do, you know, both me and my business partner had just started a family. So it felt like fast forwarding, it was quite attractive to us because, you know, nobody wants to…

Chris Simmance (03:35.447)

Rob Twells (03:53.971)
aggressively grow a business with all the sleepless nights you get with kids and all that kind of stuff. So that’s what we did. We sort of, you know, we fast forwarded it by merging the agencies together, doubled the team overnight, well, more than double the team overnight, doubled the revenue overnight, of course, as well. And all of a sudden, we, you know, we went and gone from a sort of 15 person agency to a 30 and then what we are now, which is sort of 35 person agency, which, you know, poses different challenges to what it did when it was just happening. Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Chris Simmance (04:04.426)

Chris Simmance (04:07.584)

Chris Simmance (04:17.798)
Yeah, it’s a different set of rules in many senses, isn’t it? So in the last year or so, since we’ve since we’ve spoken a lot of the merger pieces kind of bedded in quite nicely, I suspect, what are you seeing in terms of major trends and developments in the in the agency space over the last year or so?

Rob Twells (04:38.207)
Yeah, I mean, you know, I’m not going to sit and talk about AI and stuff like that. Cause I think people have spoken about that to death, but you know, I don’t know if that has an impact on what I’m going to talk about next, but I think, you know, agency, business development and sales is something that I’m heavily involved in anyway. So whilst I’m the Managing Director, I would say day to day, a lot of my time is spent on the front end talking to potential new customers, being part of the pitch team.

Chris Simmance (04:42.645)
Please don’t.

Rob Twells (05:07.175)
onboarding new customers and so on. The process has changed a massive amount in my opinion over the last two or three years particularly. Not only what feels like there’s an expectation to do more in the pitch process, so almost provide the work upfront in some cases. Can we see a design? Can we have the strategy now and all that kind of stuff. So more commitment from us upfront in terms of time, energy and obviously cost that goes along with that.

Chris Simmance (05:15.042)

Chris Simmance (05:24.151)
Wow, okay.

Rob Twells (05:34.083)
But then it just feels like there’s not a lot of commitment after that process. You know, I’m getting, I’m not talking all of our prospects, you know, 75% of them are fantastic. It’s, you know, there’s a lot of respect for what we do and how much time and effort we put into the process, but there’s definitely a bigger piece of the pie now that quite happily just ghost you after a pitch, quite happily string you along for six months and say, oh, yeah, we’re still thinking about it. Well, the MD is not sure. And, you know, from a forecasting point of view, it’s just a pain.

Chris Simmance (05:37.504)

Rob Twells (06:03.031)
You know, you got deals in your new revenue forecast that have been there for six months and the probability of going up and down based on the last email you got and you don’t know if to think about it from a resource point of view or not. I would say that’s been the biggest challenge, to be honest, over the last 12 months.

Chris Simmance (06:03.362)

Chris Simmance (06:12.067)

Chris Simmance (06:18.79)
What do you think is driving that? And it not just necessarily the, I know, the lag and the difficulty getting that final signature, so we say, and kicking off, but is there something that you’ve noticed as a trend in general that’s making it easier for people to be, let’s say, unprofessional and ghost or string you along or want the free work and things like that? What’s changed there, do you think?

Rob Twells (06:42.691)
I don’t know, to be honest I have no idea. I think obviously you can talk about economics, you can talk about cost of living crisis, you can talk about things like that. And if agents are finding it more challenging to grow, then there’s a good chance that a lot of other businesses are finding it more challenging to grow. And therefore marketing is a considerable investment. So they’re thinking much harder about it.

Chris Simmance (07:00.757)
Yeah, yeah.

Rob Twells (07:11.423)
A lot of the things we’re seeing at the moment is, two or three years ago, someone would sign up to retain a no problem. 12 months, no issue at all. But now it’s like, oh, we’ll start, first month we’ll do an audit, and then we’ll see about it in the second month. You’re almost account managing to the point where you’ve got a customer under retainer, which is fine. But in terms of what’s driving it, not entirely sure, I think there’s a lot of, I think right at the top of businesses, so sort of C-suite level, director level.

I think just the appetite to invest is not there quite as much as it used to. I don’t think there’s as much free capital or free flowing capital knocking about like there used to be potentially. But you know, I am optimistic about this year. You know, I think everyone knows about the issue of economically in 2022 and 2023. I’m reading a lot of optimistic articles about marketing budgets increasing in 2024 and all this kind of stuff. And you know, I am optimistic about it.

Chris Simmance (07:49.823)

Chris Simmance (08:07.59)
Yeah, I think the types of businesses which will see and feel that sort of positive, positivity that you’re talking about are the ones that are smart enough to know that marketing is essential. The ones that, the ones that are more kind of like, well, let’s stop marketing and so we can save some cash because times are tough. And they’re probably not going to be ones that can afford you in a few years time anyway, because maybe they won’t be around.

Rob Twells (08:28.845)

Rob Twells (08:33.207)
No, exactly.

Chris Simmance (08:34.686)
I can’t remember. I’m, if I get this wrong, I’m going to get slated, but I think it was Henry Ford. He said something along the lines of, uh, stopping marketing, um, to save cost is like stopping a watch to save time. Um, you know, you cut, if you, if you switch off the marketing, you, you don’t get the cash flow that you need to generate to, to manage everything else. So it’s, it’s not really a cost to the business as an investment.

And I think that you probably find that I’d imagine that if you were to do a bit of a forensic deep dive into the clients that are signing and that are agreeing and they aren’t being harder to get across the line, I’d imagine that there’s probably a trend where those people actually understand marketing and they’ve been given marketing budgets versus, you know, oh, we need to do it, but we’re not sure when.

Rob Twells (09:15.307)
hundred and seven.

Rob Twells (09:19.959)
definitely a culture of marketing within businesses that we’ve seen the success from. You know whilst I’ve been quite negative on the sales front you know we’ve still got you know a decent you know 50% around 50% strike rate which obviously is pretty good for a pitch process and stuff like that. I think what frustrates me is more just the time and energy that goes into it because I know that you know there’s a lot of put a lot on the teams sometimes to say we need to get this pitch deck together it’s you know it’s gonna be a great opportunity you’re trying to motivate people you’ve got a great new prospect.

Chris Simmance (09:24.142)

Chris Simmance (09:35.058)

Chris Simmance (09:41.023)

Rob Twells (09:51.138)
And it’s very deflated if it doesn’t come to fruition. So managing that internally as well.

Chris Simmance (09:53.77)
Yeah, it’s tough. And other than other than that, in terms of the agency itself, have you seen what have you seen going on in the industry as it as it as it were speaking to other agency leaders, you spotting any trends amongst them beyond getting that signing on the dotted line?

Rob Twells (10:11.475)
And speaking to our agency owners, I think, you know, and something I’ve certainly seen is, with the clients that do choose to go on board, and we have a great working relationship with, there’s lots of emphasis on, and as there should be, don’t get it wrong, there’s lots of emphasis on driving the conversion, driving the revenue, and that’s fantastic. But for me, there’s always a place for that sort of top of funnel creativity stuff that doesn’t directly drive revenue, but it does.

It does play part in the entire marketing funnel. People are a lot less interested in that these days, which doesn’t mean that there’s probably less opportunity for our team to work on some of the more creative stuff, some of the more sort of awareness building stuff. And it’s all very focused on how are we gonna get pounds in our customers’ back pocket as quick as possible. And again, it’s all driven by the same thing. People are finding it more challenging to grow, therefore there’s more pressure on marketing functions to develop the opportunity, so on and so forth.

Chris Simmance (11:08.125)

Rob Twells (11:09.183)
I’d say that’s something that we’ve seen definitely a lot more emphasis on bottom of the funnel conversion rather than the more creative awareness building activity, which, you know, I’m a creative, I like doing that kind of stuff, but I’m also aware it takes longer to see the return from that kind of stuff, but I do think it’s essential.

Chris Simmance (11:19.774)
Yeah, it’s the fun bit.

Chris Simmance (11:27.014)
It’s true. It is absolutely true. The fun stuff is usually the higher priced stuff and it often ends up taking longer to see the return. So you can kind of understand it, but you know, you get the one in ten that’s fun, it should keep you going.

Rob Twells (11:43.947)
Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Mediaboard_sounds (11:44.651)
Hey, voiceover guy here! Me again! Minty Digital increased its net profits by 54% within 6 months with the OMG Accelerator program. Check out forward slash info. Sorry, Chris. Keep going.

Great, great facts. Rude to interrupt us. Thanks very much voice of a guy. And so from your point of view as a leader, how do you think? What have you learned and adapted to this year? What sort of personal or professional growth have you seen for yourself?

Rob Twells (12:02.252)

Rob Twells (12:14.683)
Um, personal and professional growth. So I think something I’ve always found challenging is sort of delegation and sort of keeping out of the way, so to speak. You know, I’ve got a great network of people as part of the sort of merger and acquisition we went through. We have got a really, really quite good sort of non-executive team as well. So I get a lot of mentoring from those guys as well, which has been useful for me, because you know, personally never really had a job.

Chris Simmance (12:24.791)

Chris Simmance (12:37.739)

Rob Twells (12:42.883)
kind of started the agency from university and you know, you learn the ropes and make a lot of mistakes and you kind of look back now and cringe at some of the stuff you used to do and say. But I definitely think getting out of the way, and this is very cliche, but getting out of the way, delegating and really focusing on where my strength lies. And I think as an agency leader in any capacity, I think certainly up until a revenue of maybe two, three, four million.

I do really have a belief that person should be right at the front end, you know, talking to potential customers, being, you know, representing the business, that kind of stuff. So I’m trying to focus more of my time and energy on, on that side of things, you know, driving the business forward, representing the business, being almost a face for the business, rather than at the back end and doing the stuff that really, I haven’t been on the tools in 10 years now, so I’m no use there anyway. Do you know what I mean?

Chris Simmance (13:24.332)

Chris Simmance (13:35.114)
Yeah, it’s changed too much. You may as well stick to your, stick to your strengths, which are current. And how, um, I know from my experience, what it felt like to get out of your own way eventually in the, you know, your eyes kind of widened, don’t they? You realize what you can, what there was to win and how much you could get by, you know, doing potentially doing it sooner. I remember kicking myself and thinking, why didn’t I just let these smart people be smart first? Why have I not done this sooner?

Rob Twells (13:40.089)

Chris Simmance (14:03.438)
Um, how do you think your team have sort of noticed that change? Do you think they’ve reacted well to that kind of thing?

Rob Twells (14:09.987)
I think so, and don’t get it wrong, it’s still not perfect. It’s still, I’m very, you know, very, I’m very committed to the business. I like to, I don’t like the feeling of not knowing something and stuff like that. And I still have, you know, still have days and weeks where maybe we’re a little bit too involved and stuff like that. But I think generally looking at it holistically and zooming out a bit more, I think, you know, definitely step back and focus on where I’m strongest. I think the team overall just feel more empowered.

Chris Simmance (14:20.876)

Rob Twells (14:39.683)
We make better decisions. And actually it’s less about whether we make good or bad decisions. It’s about learning from it as well. I’m very much wired up to think that every decision needs to be correct every single time, but actually that’s no good. It’s no good. You have to make a couple of rubbish decisions here and there really to learn from it. So you have to let it be. So that’s kind of my promise to myself and to the team that I’m trying to implement. And it’s going okay.

Chris Simmance (14:40.236)

Chris Simmance (14:59.955)

Chris Simmance (15:09.374)
And if you’re a member of Rob’s team listening to this right now and he starts butting in professionally, tell him to butt out it’s for his own good. Okay.

Rob Twells (15:19.003)
I’m not a professional about telling me to bite out.

Chris Simmance (15:21.222)
Yeah, well, you know, it’s all about the delivery of most of these things, isn’t it? I think, you know, you, you know, what, where your strengths lie, you know, where to put your time you’ve got, like you say, you’ve got a nice non-exec team, you’ve got mentorship in place and things like that. And I suspect that you’re getting the right nudges at the right time when you need to, and, and there’s no better way of learning than the being told something is a hard, it’s quite hard way to learn when you’re an adult.

Rob Twells (15:38.411)
Yeah, of course, yeah.

Chris Simmance (15:48.254)
show being shown something or doing something and learning from it is much nicer, isn’t it?

Rob Twells (15:53.787)
I think I’ve made myself more accountable as well. You know, growing the business independently with business partner and best mate for the best part of the first eight years of the journey, there was, you know, something went wrong. Really, nobody was gonna tell me otherwise, or had nobody to be accountable to. There was no board to report into all that kind of stuff. Whereas now, I’m accountable to the team. I’m accountable to a wider…

team of leadership that we’ve got now. I’ve got directors, I’ve got leadership, we’ve got technical directors, we’ve got operational directors and that. I’m accountable to them at the end of the day because we’re a more sophisticated business. Whereas again, roll back five, six years, the leadership team was me and my business partner. You know, you learn a lot by having a bigger leadership team around you.

Chris Simmance (16:27.832)

Chris Simmance (16:35.394)

Chris Simmance (16:39.502)
Absolutely. It’s like that learning by osmosis sometimes as well, isn’t it? You pick up these things and I never forget, I often sort of punch myself for thinking about it, slap myself thinking about it. I went into my first ever agency job and someone said, oh, I can’t remember, they used an acronym, BAU. And I was like, oh yeah, BAU. And I’m like, what the hell does that mean? I was on Google, Googling it and thinking, why am I not as smart as these people? And it just turns out.

that you have to learn some of this stuff. There’s no kind of rules of engagement when it comes to these things. And you pick up little bits, and then there’s other times where it’s probably good to sit in a room with people who know something you don’t know, because it’s a bit humbling, but also you learn something from it.

Rob Twells (17:24.683)
100%, 100%. And then, you know, you get a much different perspective on what your perspective is. And I think by knowing less, I think you can offer a better perspective as well. You come in a bit, you know, fresh pair of eyes. If you know too much about something and you get too fixated on what the solution should be. But if you come into it fresh with background information or service level information, I think, you know, me as a, in a leadership position, I can provide better support to my team as well.

Chris Simmance (17:49.79)
Yeah, it’s almost like the kid in the back of the car asking why, and, and eventually someone who’s being on who’s answering the question starts to question why themselves. And then maybe something better comes from it. So Rob, 12 months into the future, we’re recording another episode of this, but we’ve got a bottle of champagne in front of us. But the champagne is only going to get opened if you get to where you want to go to in the next 12 months. What’s the what’s the trajectory? What’s the plan? What we’re going to pop the champagne over?

Rob Twells (17:53.279)

Rob Twells (18:17.823)
Well, there’s a few things that I’ve got my eye on for sure. One of them is obviously revenue based, but I don’t particularly want to say that because everyone can say that. For me, one of the things that’s really top of mind for me at the minute is our brands. I mentioned we’ve got Frogspark, we’ve got Boom Online, we’ve got Digital Maze, and the last three, four months, we’ve really gone on a journey of trying to define what the brands are and why they exist, why should they exist?

Chris Simmance (18:29.038)

Chris Simmance (18:46.239)

Rob Twells (18:47.767)
Because I’m not afraid to say that they got to a point last year where the brands were coexisting but they were all serving the same purpose to the same people. We’re currently going through a process now of, okay, we’ll boom online, okay, you’ve got 10 years of history in, it’s actually the furniture sector where a lot of the clients from that business came from. So we’re actually in the process now of pivoting that to a specialist marketing agency just for that sector, just for the sort of home retail sector is what we call on it.

Chris Simmance (19:14.908)

Rob Twells (19:18.523)
And we’re doing the same exercise with all of our brands at the moment, really giving them a solid positioning. And I’d like to say in 12 months time, I’d love to be able to sit here and say, okay, I’m looking at the, the lead generated for our three brands, 90% of the lead generated for Buma from the home market sector. Nine, that’s what, that’s what I’d love to sit here and do and say, look, we’ve actually pulled this off. We’ve created a niche for ourselves. We’ve created a market for ourselves. We know exactly who we’re speaking to. And I think.

Chris Simmance (19:35.937)

Rob Twells (19:47.519)
you know, 12 years into this journey, it’s taken me 12 years to realise it, but we’re here.

Chris Simmance (19:54.859)
So Rob I’m going to put a bottle in the fridge. I’ll put a bottle in the fridge ready for the next recording if you will.

Rob Twells (20:00.319)
Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I think that’s the ticket to growth, isn’t it? Really focusing on an area, knowing who you’re speaking to, you know.

Chris Simmance (20:05.374)
Yeah. If you’re going to be obsessed with anything, be obsessed with something in the future that allow and then doggedly get to it. And you know, you know, after 12 years, the only way forward is to get on with it. And you know, it’s not going to come to you.

Rob Twells (20:23.355)
And we’ve been all things to all people for the last 12 years as well. It’s got us, you know, we’ve made great progress with that, don’t get me wrong, but I think now is the time for us to really, you know, really pick out the sorts of plants we do our best work for and focus on them. Because that only has good news for retention, has good news for new businesses. It’s a good news story all around, isn’t it?

Chris Simmance (20:35.415)

Chris Simmance (20:42.474)
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And thanks so much for coming on a second time, Rob, it’s been great to catch up and no doubt we’ll speak throughout the year at some point somewhere, hopefully in person. But thanks very much for coming on.

Rob Twells (20:46.486)
Thank you. Never mind.

Rob Twells (20:54.719)
No problem at all, thanks for having me.

Chris Simmance (20:56.574)
And in the next episode, we’ll revisit another agency leader and see how their last year has been. Thanks very much for listening.