June 12, 2019

Calm Amidst the Storm

Lee Steely

Calm Amidst the Storm

…is not something you’d ever hear our founder, Paul Brandon, claim to be. Self-described as “entirely too intense” Paul doesn’t always project calm to the world at large. He talks quickly when an idea strikes him, and then he’s replying to an email, responding to an urgent question in the company chat room, and dialing into a conference call on the way to a pitch meeting in Atlanta traffic.

These days he drinks green tea, which he finds makes him less fidgety than the opaque black, quadruple-strength Folgers he knocked back in the early days of Vehicle Media. But no matter how frenetic it may feel to be in Paul’s circle as he fields the everyday chaos of running a digital marketing agency in 2019, it’s clear that Paul is actually pretty comfortable chasing down the next win and accepting the next defeat.

The fail rate for new businesses in their first 7 years is 96%. By then, VM had already seen some of its biggest competitors go under. Though there remains an  unending supply of new ones—and a constant sea-change of algorithms and advances underfoot, forcing us to learn new ways of doing things to survive as a company.

This month marks two major milestones for Vehicle Media:

  1. June 12th is our 10th anniversary as a company.

  2. We’re leaving behind our fledgling loft at King Plow with all of its memories to a bigger space–also at King Plow!–which is both exciting and a little bittersweet.

As we celebrate our expansion and ten years of adapting in this chaotic industry, it’s a good time to look back at the fires that forged us.

Staying Afloat: Vehicle Media in Year One

In 2009, MySpace use had just peaked. Instagram didn’t yet exist. Smartphone use was on the rise, but still not quite ubiquitous, and the mobile web was still young. Marketing automation tools definitely existed, but they were new and uncertain on the marketplace before the boom of 2012. Digital marketing still looked like a fledgling niche. And the Great Recession was the backdrop to it all, driving companies to try to do more with less.

That’s about when Paul was laid off from his job at a marketing company in Atlanta in 2008.

With a hunch that digital could be done better than he’d seen the big agencies do it, a lot of manic personal drive, and no Plan B, Paul started freelancing web design and digital marketing gigs. As projects grew in scope, he reached out to other lone freelancers to fill the gaps in his expertise with their own.

The collaborators he found fit the best had similar stories: they’d been laid off, they needed a change, they were whip-smart about web design and digital marketing, but frustrated by the pace of change at big agencies.

Before long, he’d formed a loose cohort of highly-skilled and independent workers, remote and local, with something to prove. The jobs and the clients changed, but the basic players behind the scenes stayed the same. A loose band of dedicated misfits had been formed—the way so many of the best stories start.

Then in June of 2009, Vehicle Media was founded, equal parts dream and kick in the pants. The early crew included some jack-of-all-trades generalists with a gift for digital and one or two true specialists.

We all grew up with the industry as it evolved, specializing in whatever clients needed most.

“I don’t know how else to say it,” Paul says, “other than, I am fairly useless unless I can get the best people possible the ball. The people are the magic.”

Standing Out

Starting a business during the recession meant the brand had to stand out in the crowd of competition.

Leah came to Vehicle as she was making her own transition from the architecture and interior design world to web design and branding.

After making her mark in creating our own branding, Leah’s instinct for clean lines and sophisticated layouts became a calling card. With her vision, we were able to carve out a niche for web development with a design-first mindset, so that when the UX/UI design craze hit the industry—we were already there.

Leah’s experience with large interiors projects helped her to bring structure and repeatable processes to the ‘wild west’ of web design. Before her leadership, design principles were a secondary consideration in meetings with clients, and user experience wasn’t an emphasis.

Design-first thinking starts with making sure the designer is present in all talks with the client from the very beginning–something that hadn’t always been in practice. Instead of having design ideas and preferences from clients passed from the business development team to the design team, Leah made sure to be there to ask questions of clients directly, get to know them and the challenges they faced, and design solutions in a process that was more collaborative and structured. Site layouts were designed to create the right user experience for client goals as well as aesthetics, and development notes would be made early in the process to keep all teams on the same page from the first idea’s spark to final site launch.

Pay-to-Play Social & Digital Marketing Dominance

When Facebook held their IPO in 2012, the option to “boost” a post for $5 to extend its reach appeared for company pages. That was the canary in the coal mine before social platforms seemed to all make their pivots to pay-to-play. Soon, organic post reach on Facebook started to contract dramatically for those who chose not to make the switch to paid social. Companies who had been doing all of the right things to grow organic followers were often left scrambling to figure out how to regain the customer engagement they’d long enjoyed. Some of these companies were our own clients.

Over the next two years, Vehicle would start to take on more and more digital marketing projects for clients, focusing on content creation and inbound marketing strategies to maximize paid and organic reach for clients. We saw the connection between a well-designed website and effective digital marketing strategy and made it our mission to execute campaigns that fit our clients’ needs.

Selling Custom-Build in a Web Template World

Around 2013, web builder software and services started to really saturate the business consumer market with interfaces that were becoming easier and easier to use. At first, this seemed like a good thing for us: after all, every company needs a website, but the kind of designed custom work we specialized in wasn’t going to fit the needs of every company. These gave us something to recommend when prospects just needed something cheap and fast.

But as pre-made web templates became easier to use, smart software companies started making high-quality templates with bells and whistles at a much lower cost than custom development. At first…this was rough. Listening to the client is important, but not always easy. The dreaded question: “Why should we pay you for development when we can buy this template as-is for less?” The answer, we knew, was because templates are shortcuts and have big consequences for some companies and other times they get the job done fine. We design, we create, and we don’t want to be simply chasing templates, but sometimes, that’s best for the client.

So as we followed the market and listened to our clients—understanding when to utilize a template while working around their limitations for clients with customization and putting research into security tradeoffs and down-the-line maintenance costs—we found our next specialization. We began helping large corporations with more complex website needs (massive databases, multiple locations, dynamic content) navigate major redesigns and rebrands. Our project managers matured with new levels of responsibility, learning to coordinate the multitude of moving parts.

Day to day, the challenges were real. Projects’ scale could be considered  intimidating. We leaned into it.

Growing

 As our clients’ needs grew, and as we expanded our services, we realized that the team had to grow. It was possible to fill in the new gaps for a while with freelancers, but managing complex projects with a revolving team was its own full time job. On the development side, a project might get delayed by the abrupt disappointment of a remote dev freelancer ghosting without delivering work. On the marketing side, content creation could be an uphill battle when every freelancer would be new to a subject matter that we needed to be well-researched for some of our more niche B2B clients.

So, we grew. We took in our first interns and trained our first junior members, doing our best to demonstrate “the VM way of doing things” while we were still figuring out how to articulate it ourselves. After years of relying on a small cohort of independently-driven specialists, we found ourselves in charge of building our culture and hopefully our legacy. One of the most important, though bittersweet, steps in our growth, was moving away from an all-remote crew. But we knew it was necessary to fully embrace this change in scale and bring our focus and most of our team to Atlanta.

Tethering to Land

By 2015, our growing sales team needed a better place to meet than a rotating selection of coffee shops. The design team was fielding last-minute change requests. Having remote workers available at different schedules and time zones could too often practically result in no help available at all when it was most needed. Also, as we took on our first interns and tried to train new team members, we learned the value of in-person training and hands-on demonstrations.

That’s when we made the commitment: a real, full-time office for Vehicle Media. The loft space at King Plow was the perfect match for the modular way we work. The space, airy and full of natural light, quickly became our inspiring home.

Rise of Instagram + Influencers

We’re not here to be influencers, folks. Some of us are even a little camera shy. But every platform change that affects our clients changes our business, and through years of focusing on design as our edge, we’ve attracted quite a few clients who need that visual flair and branding touch. When all your clients want to kill it on Instagram, it’s time to become the expert in killing it on Instagram.

As our design team honed strategies for defining a brand’s Instagram look and feel, the marketing team delved into research on content and posting strategies. We put more resources into our photography and video capabilities for clients who needed help showcasing their products. We even got our dev team involved after our research on Instagram bots gave us the idea to create our own automation software (our version, unlike many you’ll find on the market, is actually legal).

This first foray into custom software showed us another opportunity, and now we’re working on several products of our own to fit both our and our clients’ needs. Marketing automation is part of the future—it just needs to get smarter. We’re working on that.

“I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat”

 That brings us to the most recent challenge: moving operations from our cozy loft to our new bigger space at King Plow, and, of course, a few things on the horizon we’re keeping under-wraps.

 Whatever madness undoubtedly awaits us here, we’re ready. When you specialize in an industry that changes this rapidly, ten years of business feels like a master class in accepting change as a constant. We stack the deck with talented folks who get that.

As Paul says: it’s a practice.