With a background in integrated marketing, Kent Lewis left a public relations agency in 1996 to start his search engine marketing career. Since then, he has focused on helping clients solve business problems via the Internet.
Lewis founded digital marketing agency Anvil Media, Inc. in 2000, to help clients grow their businesses via search engine and social media marketing. In 2008, he created Formic Media, a sister agency to Anvil, specializing in digital marketing and website development for small business.
Lewis enriches his personal and professional life by co-hosting a weekly Internet radio show, DadsUnplugged, and honing his business acumen via The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO).
MO: What was the turning point in having a secure agency job to starting your own business?
Kent: Funny you should ask. Most entrepreneurs I’ve met had some sort of epiphany one day at work or at home, and left their jobs within days if not weeks. For me, it was more black-and-white. I founded Anvil after getting fired from an agency in which I was an equity stakeholder and co-founder. I had a falling out with the CEO, which was unfortunate, because he was my greatest mentor to that point. Getting pushed out of an agency you helped grow to $3.5M in less than 2 years was disappointing to say the least, but I’m not one to sit around for long. The next week I met with my CPA and incorporated. At that point, it was more about a tax shelter for my consulting and ezine. After about 10 months of project and consulting work, I ended up back at another agency. I worked there for 6 months with my old team from the previous agency (which was acquired earlier that year) before being fired once again. This time, it was also personal, but for very different reasons. Regardless, I realized I was virtually unemployable, particularly by people that didn’t understand or value my expertise to the same degree as my clients and team. That’s when I decided to re-start Anvil, this time for good. I wouldn’t work for another person again. I’m actually grateful I was fired both times, as it’s given me the motivation and opportunity to create my own path.
MO: You started Anvil Media in 2000, how much has the Social Media landscape changed since you started and how has it changed how you do business and represent clients?
Kent: When I was an “online marketing consultant” at a larger full-service agency in Portland in 1998, I was building and managing “social media” campaigns for clients, which at that time, included chat rooms and bulletin boards. We were even sending “viral” videos as attachments in email, as it was before YouTube was around. Since then, the game has certainly changed. At Anvil, we’ve been developed social media programs for the past 5 years or so – primarily creating and optimizing blogs as well as profiles on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. While the brands have morphed, the fundamental social media strategies have not. In fact, presentations I gave 8 years ago about viral marketing best practices, still apply to social media today. So I would say the platforms are evolving and adoption continues, yet too many brands and marketers are distracted by the technology and forget the fundamentals (authenticity, relevance, value, commitment, etc.).
MO: You’re on the advisory boards for 4 different companies. What kind of guidance do you give them and how varied is your advice or is the core message consistent for each company?
Kent: I’m actually an acting advisor to over 6 companies currently, but my role is very “as-needed” vs. a structured or formal board role. While my expertise is digital marketing, with a focus on search engine and social media marketing, I typically end up discussing business and overall marketing strategies with these companies, as startups can get easily distracted by what’s urgent vs. important and I like to fly at a higher altitude and offer more strategic advice (vs. tactical SEO advice – not that I’m not willing to offer my insights on that front as well). My advice is primarily consistent, as my experience is relatively limited to agencies and supporting clients as a vendor. That said, I’m frequently giving completely customized and specific feedback and advice to each company, as they all have unique customers, products and cultures. One of my most common approaches is to connect the companies with potential strategic partners. It’s my way of leveraging my network while floating all boats with the rising tide.
MO: How important is customer service at Anvil and in what ways do you go that extra mile?
Kent: Customer service is not only job 1 at Anvil, it’s our key differentiator. I learned very early in my agency career that I could lose a client relatively easily if I didn’t “show them the love” with responsive client service. On the other hand, I realized I could keep clients, even when we’d made a mistake, due largely if not solely because of our client service. What most agencies don’t understand, or care to finesse, is that excellent customer service builds trust and respect to the point you make yourself nearly indispensible. Of course we always back our game up by delivering results and a meaningful ROI consistently. Some of the ways we’ve endeared ourselves to our clients include: creating a discount club exclusively for our clients, with products and services offered by our clients. We also hosted an exclusive Client Learning Day, where we invited our clients and subject matter experts to a day of learning, -including catered food and beverages. For a 10 person company at the time, that was a major investment.
MO: You’ve been recognized in the Portland Journal for being one of the most philanthropic companies. What causes do you champion and how have you chosen them?
Kent: Perhaps I’m unique as an entrepreneur and successful business person, but I believe my success, and that of my companies, is due in part to the community in which I live. As such, I feel it is appropriate give back. I’ve also heard from more than one wealthy businessman that the more you give, the more you get. Regardless, I’m such a strong believer in philanthropy that I’ve built it into Anvil Media, Formic Media and even SEMpdx, a professional trade association of which I’m a co-founder and the first president. All three organizations take on a Charity of Choice, for whom we provide search engine marketing services. In all three cases, we donate a portion of our profits on a quarterly or annual basis. The best part is that the team really gets into it, which is a good habit to create in the younger generations.
MO: Why do you think that you have the privilege of experiencing record growth during a recession? What’s the secret of your success?
Kent: I know our success isn’t based in my sheer willpower or intelligence. Instead, I believe there are three basic factors in our continued growth, regardless of economic conditions. First, we’re inherently in a recession-resistant line of business, as everything we do is measureable and generally creates a compelling ROI for marketers. Secondarily, we spend a good deal of time keeping our clients (and team) happy: listening to and addressing their needs to the best of our ability. Lastly, we adapt quickly. When the economy tanked in 2008, we had a horrible December, despite an otherwise strong year. I realized I had to act fast to keep the team focused on the long haul. As a result, I came up with a controversial idea: set a goal to double my employees’ compensation in 2 years (from January 2009 to December 2010). I figured they would be so focused on helping achieve the aggressive goal that they would be too busy to fret about the economy and their paychecks. In the end, the team did double their compensation, and in return, Anvil and its clients received complete focus and world-class work from a committed team. We’ve made a few significant modifications this year, resulting in meaningful growth while maintaining profitability, but most importantly, set us up to continue towards our goal of being the Most Respected SEM Agency on the Planet.
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