Wise Marketing Secrets Interview Series #177: Jeff Ferguson

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Jeff Ferguson is a partner at Amplitude Digital.

With over 25 years of online marketing experience, Jeff has led the online marketing efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark, InterActiveCorp, Experian, and Napster.

Jeff’s clients have also included renowned brands such as Belkin, Billabong, CBS, eHarmony, JustFab, Manchester United, Paychex, PetSmart, Popcornopolis, The Smithsonian, Stila Cosmetics, ThriveMarket and Sony.

How did you start out as a marketer?

I started as a Computer Science major when I was an undergrad at Cal State Fullerton; however, I struggled with a lot of the old school, higher math requirements for the degree.

I had always excelled at writing in school, plus I was doing promotional work for a youth group I was part of at the time, so I changed majors to Communications with the intent of becoming a copywriter for an ad agency while I wrote on the next “Great American Novel.” 

As I neared graduation, my advisor told me the requirements for a Computer Science degree had changed.

I only needed one more class to graduate with a double major in Computer Science and Communications. I wasn’t planning to work in digital marketing since it wasn’t a thing yet, but I figured having both wouldn’t hurt.

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After graduation, I sent my resume to every company I could think of at the time, and the response was terrific. Still, everyone wanted to talk about the internet, not copywriting, so I passed on the first couple of offers.

Then, my first student loan bill arrived.

In my next interview, I claimed I was a “digital marketing expert” and landed a job at a medium-sized hardware and software company in Orange County, California, as their first “Webmaster” and marketing associate.

I did everything from creating websites to writing marketing copy to work trade shows to resetting crashed servers in the middle of the night for three years while the “internet boom” gained speed.

Eventually, I was recruited by a startup in Los Angeles, then to Hilton Hotels, becoming their first digital advertising head.

After that, I worked for Kimberly-Clark, Napster, Experian, and a few others before starting my agency in 2010.

Looking back, what is your hardest struggle when it came to delivering results?

I don’t want to badmouth the clients, but most of the time, if there’s a struggle to deliver results, the required results weren’t an actual business goal or completely unrealistic.

We’ve had a few clients who had us chase diagnostic metrics instead of KPIs, then wonder why their business isn’t growing.

I don’t care how new your business is, “Awareness” isn’t an advertising goal; it’s a side effect. If your client has you chasing something not tied to the money, then it’s a lost cause.

How did you get your first client back then, and what kind of service did you do for them?

One of my early mentors gave me some great advice early in my career: “Jeff, don’t be an a**hole.” So, when people ask me how I got my first or any client, I tell them, “From not being an a**hole.”

I started my agency after 15 years on the client-side of the business, where I would have had lots of opportunities to be a jerk to people.

I must have been doing something right because before I had the chance to let the world know I was moving to the agency side of the business, I had someone knocking on my door.

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The first service I did for my first client, one of the major dating websites, was a full search engine optimization audit and roadmap.

I had only done something like that for my employers, so not only did I need to make it more comprehensive but much better looking.

The work paid off. When that first client moves to a new company, I’m one of the first people she calls.

What do you find most rewarding about what you do?

I’m a tinkerer by nature. With my hobbies, this takes the form of cooking, cocktail making, and lately, woodworking.

In my work, it shows up in my love of figuring out how the various platforms used in digital marketing work together: everything from learning how Facebook and Google Ads optimize to how search engines actually work, then looking over the entire toolbox of digital marketing tactics and combining them into something that helps a business grow.

If given a chance to build your career all over again, what would you do differently to achieve your dreams faster?

During the pandemic shutdown, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I don’t know if I would have changed much about my career path because it’s been gratifying.

That said, I think I would have taken a few opportunities that would have taken me to New York, San Francisco, or abroad rather than sticking so close to home.

These days, I fulfill my wanderlust with my public speaking tours, but I dreamed of getting out of my comfort zone when I was a younger man.

How is your typical workday structured?

Thanks to a raging case of anxiety, I’m an early waker, but I’ve learned to use it to my advantage over the years.

I’m currently writing a book, so after I make my coffee, I spend the first two to three hours researching and writing before the world comes knocking.

I usually then take the first poke at my inbox to make sure nothing is on fire before heading out for an hour-long walk around my neighborhood and listen to music and a few different news podcasts.

During the warmer months, I take a swim, and in the colder months, I jump in the sauna and meditate, then get cleaned up, usually just in time for my first meetings of the day, usually with my business partners or my team.

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My partner, Ellen, runs a restaurant, so we usually have lunch together before she heads into work, then back to my email and checking off my to-do list for the day. If all goes right, I’m wrapping up work by about four o’clock.

These days, it’s all the fashion to tell young entrepreneurs who want to get ahead in the world to start waking up early – ignore this.

Trust me, if I could sleep in, I would. I have an affliction that I’ve learned to manage through work and exercise. If your body clock works differently, go with it.

Can you tell us about a time where you had to put in significant effort up front and then wait a long time for success?

One of the largest clients I ever had was The Smithsonian Institute. I was referred to them by another client, and they were the first government agency I had ever pitched.

The entire process took over a year to land, and I swore I didn’t get the business at least a half dozen times, but one day, the call came through.

I found myself auditing over sixty thousand web pages from one of the largest repositories of knowledge on the planet. 

To this day, it is still one of my favorite projects.

Can you tell us about a past situation where you had to juggle multiple projects with competing deadlines?

I work in marketing, so that would be “every day.”

What do you do to stay up to date with new marketing techniques?

I read a lot of newsletters and journals every day.

Can you tell us about a project you’re most proud of from your past work history?

I’ve worked with some gargantuan clients over the years, but the stuff I’m most proud of is taking smaller brands and growing them into big brands.

Marketing is a lot easier when you have tons of resources at your disposal, but when the marketing department is one of the company’s founders and a couple of interns, you have to put the work in to make a difference.

Which one book/blog post would you recommend every Marketer should read?

Thinking Inside the Box: The 12 Timeless Rules for Managing a Successful Business by Kirk Cheyfitz. 

Written shortly after the first internet crash, Cheyfitz uses the failures of some of the biggest busts of the internet boom to show how the basic tenants of running a business never grow old.

What advice would you share with other Marketers who want to become more productive?

Get some damn rest. This whole hustle culture thing is a sham.

You’re no good to anyone if you’re exhausted, and most of the people who sell you on the hustling lifestyle are conmen who look more like the guys in the 90s that used to sell videos on how to flip houses.

Also, stop subscribing to every little renaming trend that comes down the pike. Growth hacking, content marketing, even SEO are all repackaged collections of marketing tactics that have been around for centuries but use the latest tools to make things happen.

Don’t be a hacker, be a marketer.

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