From the Ground Up: An Interview with Ben Swartz of Marcel Digital
In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Ben Swartz from Marcel Digital, an UpCity Certified Premium partner and one of the top SEO companies in the United States. Below we discuss the unique way that Marcel Digital got its name, how a data-driven approach to attribution has helped them intelligently grow, and more!
Q: Tell me about Marcel Digital, how you got your start, and the guiding principles behind what you do.
A: The sole mission from the beginning of Marcel Digital has been transparency. We want to bring transparency to our clients and to the digital universe at large.
I was working for AOL around the time that they acquired Time Warner. Almost overnight they became the world’s largest media company and I was in the middle of it. What I noticed is that their model certainly had nothing to do with bringing clarity or transparency into the services they provided. When I made the decision to start my own company, that was the first thing that had to be different – and that’s been our mission for over 16 years.
We quickly became a Google Analytics Certified Partner in order to be able to provide the highest level of data clarity to our clients. We have every member of our team attain certification in Google Analytics so that no matter who you’re speaking with, whether they’re account management, sales, project management, they’ll be able to answer your questions in the moment. What’s perhaps even more valuable is that it empowers each employee to engage in rigorous discussion about our client’s strategy.
Q: You mentioned that you’ve been around for 16 years. That’s a long history! Can you elaborate a bit more about what that growth process has looked like? Did you start offering all the services you offer today or did you start small and expand?
A: We started officially in March 2003 with the plan of reselling what was then called Google AdWords, now Google Ads. Back then, AdWords was just launching; it was Google’s Sheryl Sandberg’s answer to a revenue model they really didn’t have in place previously. The idea was to approach some of our previous clients from the AOL days and see if they’d be interested in Google Ads. Needless to say, we had a lot of interested parties.
One of the interested parties was a gentleman named Marcel. I ended up striking a deal with him that if he became our first big client, we would name the company after him. That’s how we got our name and it has stuck to this day.
You can do that when you’re young, entrepreneurial, and just getting started. You have to make decisions fast. It was an on-the-spot decision that obviously paid off for us in the long run.
Not soon after, many of our clients started to show up organically in the search results, so SEO at Marcel Digital was born. In order to provide top quality SEO services though we needed to be comfortable with web design work, so we brought on a web developer who knew a lot about implementing technical SEO changes and how to build websites from scratch. From then on, we were a full-service digital marketing and website development agency.
Q: By focusing on what you need to provide the best results for your clients, it sounds like you’ve escaped some of the problems that plague agencies looking to make the jump from a small team of one or two people to scaling their operations. How have you approached adding new service offerings?
A: Like you said, everything is driven by client needs. All of our work starts with our client’s goals which informs strategy. If a new service offering will help the client achieve their goals, we will try to incorporate it. That being said, it doesn’t make sense to create a new department if the ROI isn’t there. If the need for a new service offering is client-driven and client-specific, we’ll usually source the solution and rigorously test results including attribution. If it’s decided to create a department, we’ll have a strategic discussion and planning session, then test into that new offering for appropriate clients.
We lead with analytics because analytics is baked into everything we do. There’s absolutely no reason to make a significant investment into a new channel without testing it first. Looking at the complete spectrum of data helps close the loop and understand what is performing best for your business. That approach has worked out very well for us in the long run. For example, when social media first came on the scene our competition flocked to it. They sold their clients organic social and told them to acquire likes then keep posting as much as possible for the best results. When push came to shove and the attribution showed that it wasn’t driving as much business as the clients thought, those types of programs began to fade pretty quickly. While they went in blind, we tested in and realized that an organic approach supplemented by paid promotions was more effective. Our clients came out on top because we were able to increase spend as performance dictated, and if we didn’t see performance for a particular client, we had the data and insights to divert those funds into the channels that were performing.
Q: That’s certainly the safest strategy, but one that requires careful preparation to make sure you have the right data in hand. I want to talk a bit more about the growth of Marcel Digital. Besides cash flow, what has been the biggest hindrance to your growth thus far?
A: The challenge we’re always faced with is finding great talent. So far, we’ve been lucky. We work very hard to create a culture that attracts and keeps great talent, but we have to stay in front of the pack at all times. There are more and more opportunities for the talent that is in and around the Chicagoland area, so it’s about being more attractive than our competition.
There are really two pieces when it comes to talent. It’s not just that the next person we hire has to be talented and have the right skill set; they also have to be the right type of person who can engage in a rigorous conversation. We look for the person that can stand up in front of a room of other power players and hold their own while having an open and honest debate about what’s best for our clients. Part of that is not only being able to express yourself and think critically, but also being able to hear differing opinions and know when it’s right to acquiesce to the group and when it’s right to stick to your guns. That’s not an easy atmosphere, but we don’t want it to be an easy atmosphere. Great talent thrives in that environment because it gives them the opportunity to be themselves and think creatively; it gives them the opportunity to stand up for what they believe is correct for our clients. So finding people who have that capability is difficult.
Q: How important would you say word-of-mouth and your reputation have been to your brand’s success thus far?
A: Certainly, a personal referral is amazing and a great start to any conversation. With that being said, while a referral may go a long way towards making that warm introduction, folks are still going to go online and do their research, especially for something with a substantial contract size behind it. It’s a big decision, so buyers want to know who else is out there and how your company measures up to others in the space. Building a strong reputation is more than just showing you can get results for your clients.
There are three pillars that we feel we need to hit in order to make sure that every client loves Marcel Digital and will ultimately refer us. Number one: we have to bring results. Ultimately, everything else is a non-starter if you can’t put your money where your mouth is. Number two: Great project management systems designed to get a volume of work done efficiently. Our project management processes are transparent and open; our workflow software is open so clients can see precisely where their project is at. Number three: we have to be likable. It’s about our attitude throughout the whole process, but more than anything it’s a matter of whether we’re a trusted partner. Do we have the courage to tell the client that we disagree with them in the moment of truth or do we smile and say that the customer is always right? Honesty creates real trust and likability.
It’s about results, transparency and service, and likability. If we’ve hit on all three of those elements we’ve built a successful partnership.
Q: Last but not least, how has your partnership with UpCity helped Marcel Digital thus far and how do you see it growing in the future?
A: I mean, I don’t want to overstate it, but I think it’s one of the top 10 worst decisions we’ve ever made. I’m obviously kidding.
When I think about the value that UpCity has provided, it’s really special. One of the most unappreciated values we’ve received from our partnership is that you’ve created a platform for our happy clients to express themselves in an honest and simple way. We’ve always been worried about asking clients to become a case study or give testimonials, but we’ve found that through UpCity, our clients feel comfortable expressing themselves in a meaningful way that moves our business forward.
Ben Swartz is the founder and CEO of Marcel Digital, a Chicago digital marketing and web development agency. Ben founded Marcel Digital in 2003 after a successful career at AOL Time Warner and has become involved in several local organizations, including being Chairman on the Board of Directors for Streetwise, mentoring with the Chicago Lights Internship Program, and volunteering at JUF Chicago. He has received his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to compliment his Marketing degree from The Ohio State University.
Marcel Digital is a Google Premier Partner, Google Analytics Certified Partner, Umbraco Gold Partner, Hotjar Founding Member and one of 2 agencies in the Midwest to employ a Moz Oracle. They create award-winning strategies to target, attract, inform, and engage prospects, drive more qualified traffic and conversions to our client’s websites, and achieve their most important business goals.