Margie Johnson Is Igniting!
By Wendy McHale, Publisher
Margie Johnson began her career in the technology business at a very early age. She was born into it! Her Dad manufactured portable hard disc drives in California and later on took the company public in the 1980's. She is an original. So is the shop she works for.
Ignited has the good fortune of having Margie as part of its team. I enjoyed chatting with her recently about it. The thing that set the tone of our conversation apart began when I did some research on Ignited and found these two simple sentences on its site, as I navigated through it to check out some of the agency's work, here:
You know that one commercial where the one soda delivery guy gets in a fight with the other soda delivery guy, and then the guy he got in the fight with offers to share his soda with the other soda delivery guy, and the one soda delivery guy likes the soda so much that the two soda delivery guys become friends?
We didn't do that one.
Needless to say, our chat was ice-cold refreshing!
Wendy: How's it going?
Margie: It's going very well!
Wendy: Excellent! Before we get into talking about Ignited and the industry, would you tell me a little about your background and how you got into the business?
Margie: Well it's funny. My Dad had a company that he took public in the 1980's. He manufactured portable hard disc drives. It was interesting for me, as a kid, to watch all this going on around me. I was surrounded by the explosion of new technology.
Wendy: That's interesting.
Margie: By the time I got to college to figure out what I wanted to do, it was a choice between becoming a doctor and doing something in the tech field. I ended up majoring in Managing Information Systems and when I graduated, I started off as a programmer. It was a good time to be a programmer because it was during the Internet boom. I began with a job at Warner Brothers where I programmed their DVD's.
Wendy: Wow, what a cool job just coming out of college.
Margie: It was great, because it was really new. Not that many people were doing it. Looking back, the entry into DVD production was relatively easy because there weren't that many people with experience anyway.
Wendy: Was that in the late 1990's?
Margie: It was around 1997.
Margie: If you try to get a job like that today, it's almost impossible. You must have experience because everyone is trying to get into the field. While I was programming, I quickly figured out that I liked the social interaction that comes with being a project manager, rather than sitting at my desk 10 hours a day closing bugs. I really enjoyed it and became good at it because, in part, I knew the pet peeves of my programmers!
Wendy: That makes sense.
Wendy: Where did you go to school?
Margie: Long Beach State.
Wendy: Have you always lived in California?
Margie: Yes, I'm so local it hurts! (LOL) But seriously, I come from a tight-knit family. Everyone is local, so California is home to me.
Wendy: Do you see yourself today more on the technical side or the marketing side?
Margie: It's kind of an even split. I have a tendency to lean more to the technical side, based on my experience. I think having a technical understanding can be an excellent background to develop good marketing and strategic skills in our business. For one, it definitely increases the chance your tech recommendations will line up with the overall creative direction.
Wendy: Who are some of Ignited’s clients?
Margie: We work with Sony VAIO Latin America, LA Weekly and NBC Universal, among others. We also do work for several gaming companies. That's how our company originated. Ignited's founders came from Activision. We're pleased with the diversity of our client list outside of the gaming world. Some people just think of us as a gaming advertising agency, but we do much more than that.
Wendy: Tell me what technology is coming down the road that you like.
Margie: There are a couple of things that come to mind.
Wendy: Like what?
Margie: Well, I like to push my vision out beyond the immediate future. While this doesn't sound revolutionary, I get very excited about the convergence of various mediums.
Wendy: So do I.
Margie: Specifically speaking, I’m interested in the integration between Television and the Web. The reason clients like the web so much is because it's measurable. I have this vision of walking into my house one day in the future and having one server that does it all.
Wendy: We're definitely on our way there.
Margie: The excitement for me is to offer consumers the kind of things which will give them more control...which is another reason why people like the web. Consumers are multi-tasking. Consumers are watching TV and playing synched gameshow games at the same time. We can measure where they are with the live game on television. I think it's cool. It excites me to find out what people are doing and what they like. It helps me do my job better.
Wendy: We interviewed the founder of LiveHive, a company that does just that kind of thing. You can be watching an NFL game on TV which is in sync with the game, only it's on the computer. It allows you to play with your friends through a network so you can make predictions about what is going to happen in the next play. It's a whole different type of stat.
Margie: I agree. But many marketers think, "Well, what's the likelihood that someone is going to be watching and playing along at the same time?" I think it's just like doing your homework while watching TV or listening to the radio. It's the same with games.
Wendy: What about mobile TV, watching video on your cell phone or personal communication device?
Margie: I'm struggling with finding the right balance that PDA's should have in your life. I work quite a bit. I make it a point to stay at the office later so I can get the work done. When I go home I can shut it off. I can't always do that but it's nice to have time to myself once in awhile. This is a nit-pick, but I find it rude to be checking email when you're supposed to be giving someone your full attention in a meeting.
Wendy: I get where you're coming from. As we were talking about convergence one of the things that is being talked about is how to reach consumers on their mobile devices in a way that will be non-intrusive, using for example, behavioral targeting. What do you think of the idea of a marketer delivering a text message while you're walking by a Banana Republic?
Margie: It's a great concept, but we have to be careful not to be intrusive because that will turn consumers off. One of the beautiful things about the Web is that it's user initiated, and consumers can choose to engage or not. If it's advertising on a mobile device, I think the message has to be relevant. I think advertisers have to be careful not to make the same mistakes that are done on TV everyday, bombarding consumers with things that have no relevance in their lives. That's one of the reasons DVR's are so popular.
Wendy: It seems marketers are cautious about jumping into the mobile space in part because they don't want to alienate consumers. I saw a survey recently that suggests a large majority of people are opposed to the idea of mobile advertising because they see it as intrusive. The value prop to consumers is still not clear.
Margie: Many marketers don't give consumers the credit they deserve. If you serve a consumer an ad at a time when they're not open to seeing it, it could have an adverse effect on the brand.
Wendy: What do you think of UGC and the effect it's having on how a brand markets itself today?
Margie: I have a different take on UGC. It's a balance between freedom and censorship. The whole point of having UGC on your site is so people will come back and visit. The only way they're going to do that is if they feel it's a free forum. Of course you don't want them on your site saying terrible things about your brand. But if you censor heavily, people will question how authentic it is. There's still a level of respect you must give to your consumers and to have faith that they're not going to talk too trashy or use inappropriate language.
Wendy: It's a delicate balance. Brands need to be transparent and consumers need to be respectful of their sites.
Margie: I think it's a good idea to have several employees on the site monitoring what's going on and what's being said, but you should also allow consumers to police themselves. We built blankblankly.com and its UCS. The way we built the logic into the system is that we are not policing it and they are not policing it, they're allowing their consumers to have a free voice. The users of the site are policing themselves.
Wendy: Give me an example.
Margie: The model is sort of like Flickr. You can upload an image, assign meta tags to it and pretty much say what you want, but if something is inappropriate and someone flags it, a warning will be sent to you. If the image is flagged a second time, it's pulled down. That user gets put into a warning bin if this happens to more than one of his posts. He will no longer be allowed to post under that profile. He will be forced to sign up again if he wants to post and continue to be a part of the community.
Wendy: Interesting model.
Margie: The self-policing works very well. A lot of people like that site. We just won several Belding Awards for the LA Weekly campaign. It is a huge honor for us.
Wendy: Congratulations! I'm curious; did you use EyeWonder for that campaign?
Margie: We didn't do online advertising for them. We just created the site. We use EyeWonder for many other campaigns. It's not that we don't use other companies in addition to EyeWonder, but the customer service with some of these other companies just isn't there. We were consistently missing deadlines. And in our business as in most, projects that sometimes come up very quickly have turn-around times that are just as hectic. It's essential that the vendor you choose is sensitive to that and respects your deadlines.
Margie: Customer service is one of the most important aspects to me in a client/vendor relationship. Stemming from a project management background, I ’d have to juggle projects in various stages of development and many deadlines. The level of attention and assurance that the project will deliver perfectly is a priceless attribute for a vendor to have. I talk a lot on the EyeWonder testimonial about the excellence of their customer service and the relationship we have with them.
Wendy: Yes, it seems to be a core theme throughout the testimonial campaign.
Margie: I know the guys in the LA office really well. They're just the nicest people. They will also take the time to come out and see you. They go over and above. Even if it's something they've done before, they have no problem coming out 3 times in a row to do the same capabilities meeting because we've hired new employees.
Wendy: It makes a huge difference in terms of differentiating yourself from other competitors because customer service in any service business is not necessarily the norm these days.
Margie: That's for sure.
Wendy: Let's switch gears. Tell me what you like most about what you do and then what are the biggest challenges you face?
Margie: I like many aspects of my job. If I had to choose between being on the client side versus the agency side, I would choose working at an agency. It gives me access to all the different companies we get to work with and the challenges they provide us.
Margie: Some of the challenges, especially being in the interactive space, are getting clients who are willing to take risks. People are afraid of losing their job, so they'll do an iteration of what their competitors do because no one's ever lost their job for doing something that seems to be "proven". We're getting to the point where clients are putting funds behind truly innovative concepts; ones that span across many mediums, but we have a long way to go. Occasionally when you have a client who wants to do something completely different, we say, "You've come to the right place!"
Wendy: How do you measure the effectiveness of a campaign? Do you set up a system to measure the results beforehand? Do you build that in or do clients do it themselves based on whatever their goals happen to be?
Margie: We have a media division at Ignited. In every campaign where we’ve purchased media we know what the measures of success are going to be. That's critical to developing the solution. We provide multiple solutions, multiple messaging, multiple types of creative and we recommend that we optimize their campaign along the way, based on what we’ve learned through weekly reports. Very often we analyze the reports in real time and make recommendations from what we see.
Wendy: What's the most ideal metric you could imagine to measure success?
Margie: One that measures the consumer every step of the way. For example, synchronizing your messaging based on a person's web experience. Let's say you're a brand like Coca-Cola. You cookie a user who saw your ad asking them to register for something on your site. Then they go to Google and there's another Coke ad and it asks "why haven't you signed up yet?" If you can start to get that granular, the types of solutions you can come up with are amazing. The metrics will be a key part to optimizing that kind of campaign in real time.
Wendy: Great example. Okay, last question, we spoke about your experience breaking into the new media space at the beginning of this interview. You said it was relatively easy to break into the new media space. It's an even more competitive market now than it was then. What advice would you give a college grad who's considering a career in this field?
Margie: Well it's funny; when I started I didn't realize how much this business (digital business) was really tied into marketing. Sure, there’s product and software development, but creating ads and sites for products are equally fulfilling to me. Had I had that kind of framework, I may have tried to get into the agency business straightaway instead of programming and working at Interactive specific shops. What I would recommend to kids coming out of school these days is that they consider that the job market in the digital advertising field is going to continue to grow. Take advantage of it. Don’t automatically assume that your skillset is best suited as a webmaster for a small company. All agencies need programmers, project managers, designers and media people.
Wendy: I was talking to an executive in the media department of a large digital agency in New York and he was saying that talent is scarce because college grads don't really have access to advertising classes in school. They don't really know what opportunities exist. Do any agencies you know do job fairs?
Margie: What you learn in school doesn't always apply to the "real world". When I was in school I took database classes and HTML classes. When I got my first job I asked myself, "Okay, how do I apply this?" I actually needed a mentor to help me break in to it because there was a disconnect between what I studied versus what I was doing on the job.
Wendy: Makes sense.
Margie: I was President of the largest club on campus for Management Information Systems. We would actually set up job fairs ourselves. We were able to get Boeing to come out. They recognized that students were learning what was going to impact their industry faster than long tenured employees that were set in their ways. Once companies learned about our job fairs, it was amazing how many would come out. They would give a presentation and collect resumes at the end.
Wendy: So, the school-side was the driver.
Margie: Definitely. That raises an even larger issue. I think there needs to be more "real world applications" in class to help students apply what they learn in the text books. It would be helpful to have someone from the industry teach the course. Not a professor who's been stuck in a college for 20 years.
Wendy: When I was in school I took as many co-op credits and internships as I possibly could because I knew that the classes I was taking in communication and marketing were theory-based versus action-based.
Margie: I tend to save everything. I was just going through some of my old college textbooks and none of them apply to where I ended up.
Wendy: Do you hire interns?
Margie: Yes, we're very close to Loyola Marymount here. We recruit many interns from there. Every 2 years or so, I get out to Long Beach State and I'll speak to the same group I was president of to make sure that I'm still mentoring and trying to give something back.
Wendy: New recruits are important. I've heard many times that the lack of qualified people means that companies just end up poaching from each other.
Margie: Yes, but we've had people leave Ignited and then come back because after working at other companies, they missed our company philosophy. I’ve been here 3.5 years after working at several other companies and the difference here is that our management cares.
Wendy: That's great!
Margie: We're 147 employees now and there is not one time a person can't walk over to a senior manager and talk to them about issues. They're available and their philosophy is that everyone has something valuable to contribute. We have company staff meetings regularly so everyone feels plugged into the agency and what is going on.
Wendy: That is the exact opposite of the type of environment I worked in for the last 20 years in publishing. I worked in extremely corporate environments which probably accounts for why I decided to become an entrepreneur! I think it's great that all of these small and mid-size companies exist now to give people a real sense that what they do directly effects the company they work for.
Margie: Although our intention is to grow, we don't want to lose that "boutiquey" feel. It allows us to provide a level of customer service that our clients have come to expect from Ignited. My own philosophy on customer service is it's not just about servicing clients. It's also about how you treat each other in the office. As Director of Production, I think it's important for me to be there for the programmers. The account people need to have a "what can I do for you today" approach. My whole team has read the book "Customer Service for Dummies". We take turns reading it and discuss it in our producers meetings. A lot of it we already know, but it's a good refresher anyway.
Wendy: That's so cool!
Margie: You know, if we're going to be spending all these late hours together, we better like each other! What better way to build those relationships than to provide the same, stellar customer service to one another the same way we do for our clients?
Wendy: I couldn't agree more. Margie, this was great. Thanks so much!
Margie: You're quite welcome, Wendy!