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The evolution of agency events (featuring Carl Smith)

In this episode of Chats with Chip, Carl Smith describes the journey and talks about what has worked — and what hasn't.

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When we last visited with Carl Smith, his Bureau of Digital was just beginning a substantial forced transformation. The world was shutting down, and as an events-focused business, the Bureau was facing tough times.

Two years later, the Bureau of Digital has transformed itself, building a substantial membership base and producing a variety of virtual, hybrid, and in-person events for the agency community.

In this episode of Chats with Chip, Carl describes the journey and talks about what has worked — and what hasn’t. He also peers into his crystal ball to share a bit about what the future looks like — both for events and the digital agency community itself.

Key takeaways

Carl Smith: “To all the owners listening out there, take a breath. Just be careful and take care of yourself. Don’t rush into where everybody else is running.”

Chip Griffin: “Build to own. Don’t build to sell. You really have to build something that you’re happy with. If you do, chances are someone will be interested.”

Carl Smith: “[The Bureau of Digital] has really become this global community of people who are in digital services. And it’s not just owners, it’s operators, it’s project managers, it’s creative directors. It’s anybody who’s in a leadership role that was never properly trained to be in a leadership role and we’re just keeping each other from falling over.”

Chip Griffin: “Agency owners historically have done a very bad job at understanding what they personally want from their own businesses and then trying to shape the business to that, and they allow the business to drive them.”

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host Chip Griffin, the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And I am very excited to have with me, a returning guest, coming to talk under different circumstances than the last time we spoke. Carl Smith from the Bureau of Digital.

It’s always great to have a bureau man here, you know, you’re, I feel like you’re about ready to investigate us. Is that, is that what you’re gonna do, Carl?

Carl Smith: Well, I do know some things we need to discuss, Chip, about your personal and business finances. It looks like things have been co-mingling

Chip Griffin: Well, yeah, no, fortunately, that hasn’t happened to me at any time recently because I have been in the game a long time and I know how to do it properly, so you’re not going to get me on that one, Carl.

Maybe something else who knows. Anyway, Carl, it is absolutely great to have you here. The last time we spoke on this podcast was shortly after these times began right after everything shut down and it changed everyone’s business quite a bit. And and so one of the things we’re going to talk about today is how your business has evolved and what that means for the larger agency community.

Carl Smith: Yeah, for sure. And thanks for having me back Chip. I know that last time when I was on, I mean, I got pretty aggressive and rude with you and I just, first of all, if you haven’t watched that episode, go back and watch it. You’ll see I was in a bad place. Watch all of the previous episodes. They’re all wonderful.

Yeah, so we spoke, I think right after I was coming out of what would be the last event that we had in person for quite a while. And I’ll say at that moment, I didn’t really know if the Bureau was going to make it, you know, it’s like, I knew we’d keep going. I just didn’t know if I’d have to get a job.

Chip Griffin: Well, I remember when we were talking, you were in such good spirits, but also telling me that so much had come to a crashing halt and I’m like, this is strange.

Carl Smith: For me, and I’ve always been this way. I am the optimist, I’m the optimist 99% of the time. And 1% of the time I’m on the ground crying.

But it doesn’t last long because somebody will find me. But when we were coming through that, I saw so much opportunity and I didn’t, I didn’t know where it was going to come from, but I knew that we had been on the course of just doing what we’d always done. Being who we’d always been. And honestly, it was a hustle.

We had to keep running really fast to sell the future, to pay for the past. And that was a little rhyme in there. You can, you can write that down if you want. But as we went through it and I do you know, I thank David Baker a lot for this but he gave me this opportunity to bounce some ideas off of him to think through things.

And you know, really the last time we spoke, I don’t know that we had come through the evolution of membership. Had we gone through that?

Chip Griffin: Not really, no.

Carl Smith: Okay. So…

Chip Griffin: Actually, that’s a good point. Why don’t you just tell folks a little bit about the Bureau of Digital in case they don’t remember that episode from two years ago.

Carl Smith: Which is really rude because what have they been doing? There’s a pandemic, people. Listen to Chip’s podcast. So the Bureau started – actually our 10 year anniversary is coming up on March 31st. I should do a logo or something. So 2012, 20 ish, I think there were 24 of us total shop owners got together in Portland. Happy Cog basically decided that they needed to talk to other shop owners because nobody really knew what was going on.

Coaching for digital shops for webs agencies, that kind of thing. Wasn’t really a thing. So we just got together and over the course of about three and a half days, we shared, you know, what was working, what wasn’t working, you get to see behind the curtain. People who had felt like were just crushing it were falling apart. People like me who were worried, they were falling apart, turned out not. The things I thought I was failing at were just really hard things and everybody was struggling. So you go from those 24 to today. Today we’ve had over 10,000 people come through events. Oh, well, I’ll get to this in a minute.

We have a significant number of members compared to when we started membership in 2016. And we just did this exercise to kind of see where the Bureau has reached around the world. There aren’t many places where somebody isn’t part of the Bureau right down to the part where when we have something happening, like.

You know, I mean, Russia, right? When we see that, we have shops in Russia. So, so now it’s, it’s really become this global community of people who are in digital services. And it’s not just owners, it’s operators, it’s project managers, it’s creative directors. It’s anybody who’s in a leadership role that was never properly trained to be in a leadership role and we’re just keeping each other from falling over.

Right. We just keep propping each other up and finding better ways to move forward. And yeah, it’s pretty magical.

Chip Griffin: Well, I mean, and a lot of the agency world has come to it because they’ve got creative experience and chops like that, but they don’t have management and leadership experience. And so providing those tools – I mean, it’s, it’s something that’s important that you do, that I do.

And hopefully it helps the overall community to up their game.

Carl Smith: Yeah, I would totally agree. And I mean, it’s even in the Slack every day, there are hundreds of conversations going on and the conversations are all around: hey, we just hit 20 people. I feel like we need to get a full-time ops person. How big were you when you did?

Oh, we did at 14, but she was an office manager. And then, you know, once we got to a certain size, we were like, that’s the most qualified person. So, so these conversations around inflection points, challenges, clients gone awry, all of that, I think the biggest way to say it is you’re not alone anymore.

Chip Griffin: So why don’t we talk about some of the evolution that you’ve gone through over the last couple of years?

Because I think it’s similar to what a lot of agencies in the event space have been looking at and trying to figure out. You’ve I think cracked the nut on some of it. And you’ve got a different business today than, than what you had two years ago. And my sense from watching and listening to what you do, you don’t plan to go back to the way things were.

Carl Smith: No, that would be, that would be really bad. And I don’t want to say it was an abusive relationship between myself and the Bureau and not the community, but, but the organization, the entity itself, but we were constantly on the treadmill. We were constantly running. Like if I were running a shop, I would call it, feeding the beast.

Right. We grew to this size, we don’t have enough work. We got to just bring in whatever we can, give me that mom and pop Mexican restaurant, you know, it’s, it was that level of we need butts in seats. We’ve got to get people to events. We’ve got to do this stuff and it felt horrible. Honestly, it wasn’t what I wanted at all.

What I wanted was to collectively make each other better, but to sustain it and be able to pay my mortgage and get my kids in college and all that. But we had to figure out another way of revenue. So when the world shut down, we found ourselves with $70,000 in refund requests. We found ourselves with almost a quarter of a million dollars in venue deposits that did not look like we were getting back that were on a credit card. Right. So all of these things were a big part of what just shook me to my core, but I also knew – and it’s easy for Now Carl to say that about Then Carl, but I think I knew that this was the only way the Bureau was truly going to achieve its potential was how it operated in the worst times.

And this was a bad time for us. What was amazing was about 20 of the shops that were there in the community at the time, one of them actually reached out to Slack and said, Hey. We’ve we’ve got about 1600 people in there at the time about 1600 digital professionals in the Slack channel, trying to help each other with the IDL and PPP loans and, you know, figuring out how do we structure so our staff can stay.

And if we have to deal with layoffs, what do we do? Can you please turn on the paid version for us? Because we don’t have the money, but we’re losing conversations every day. And these are really important conversations. And Slack did. They turned it on for two months, which ended up being eight months. And at that point I knew that we could never go back, but we couldn’t afford to keep the paid Slack, but it unlocked a half million messages.

That had been accruing over the years and now they’re all searchable and there’s just amazing knowledge and people are helping each other. At that same time, a bunch of shop owners got together and released videos about what the Bureau meant to them and talked about membership and talked about how being a member of the Bureau was so important.

And membership started selling. And membership, I had always had a weird dance with membership because it felt like a barrier to somebody saying hello. And my whole mission was to support it. And if somebody feels they can’t get in, because they don’t have the fee to get in the door, that felt bad.

Well, we had 60, no, we had 76 members, I think, before the pandemic at the end of 2019. When those videos went out, we were having 15, 16, $17,000 membership days. With people coming in and just buying membership. And membership is 49 bucks a month or 500 bucks for the year $499. Today, we’re just under a thousand members.

It’s unbelievable. And it changes everything so that now we don’t have to worry about if an event isn’t going to do well. Like if it’s not selling well, but even with that, we changed it because now we did get stuck. You know what you said? I’m not sure if we were recording. We were just talking before, but you know, the world changed and is the world still changed?

It has it, has it corrected? Are we okay now? Can we, can we deflect all the variants or are we still on, you know, yellow alert? Are we still kind of out there? So we thought we weren’t and we went for it and we got caught. Right? Owner summit. We had rented out the Hard Rock theater, which has this amazing theater. Beautiful.

We were expecting 200, 250 attendees. We ended up with 40. So we went to a hybrid model and I think you’ll see this with a lot of event companies, everybody. First of all, we went online and I’ll say we did too, we set up 70 events in just over a week. I contacted every speaker who had been part of the Bureau at some event that rated a four or five on a scale of one to five in terms of their, you know, attendee feedback. And I just said, you got nowhere to be, we got nothing to do. Let’s figure it out. And I just sent over a bunch of dates and people just took them on this public spreadsheet and we just went for it. So when we decided to come back, we did see some hesitation.

And so now the big model is we’re calling it the Kickstarter model. So when we’re putting an event on sale, like we did Owner Camp Costa Rica, doesn’t sound horrible. We put that on sale and basically you pay $500 to secure your spot. If enough people secure their spots, then we Greenlight it and we have the event in person.

If not that $500 goes to your online ticket and we’ll have it online. That event sold out in under 50 hours. It just sold out. It oversold. Right. And, and so now we’re doing that with everything. We’re just basically saying to the community, this is what we heard you want. If you want it put down this small amount, right.

Well no, 500 bucks isn’t small, but you know, but put this down and then if enough people agree with you, I’ll see you in Costa Rica.

Chip Griffin: So do you expect that that will be your model for the foreseeable future in setting up events? Are you going to kind of keep taking it by, you know, day by day, month by month?

Carl Smith: No, I think that’s the model going forward. One thing I hate is making decisions. I was never good at it.

Chip Griffin: And that’s a challenging thing, as a leader of an organization, right?

Carl Smith: Yeah. Okay. Well, when you, when you’re responsible for other people’s mortgages, it’s like hard to make a decision because you’re not thinking about what would I do.

You’re thinking about what’s best for us. And that’s such a different thing cause you don’t know everybody’s context or where they are, but, but yeah, I think we’ll keep it because given that we were always a community that sustained on events, right. We were always community first. We were always hanging out, talking, if somebody was in somebody’s town, they were getting together.

The biggest risk for us has always been in person events. There’s more than one time. Like, I mean, I’ll, I’ll just say it, you know, this event we’ve got coming up looks like we may lose about 30 grand. You can only do that so many times. But when you’ve got almost a thousand members and you don’t want to use the money that way, right.

You don’t want to be a bad steward of what’s come in. So yeah, that, that will be the last event that we do in that manner. It’s the last one we got caught on when we thought we were out of the woods. So really, I don’t know why we wouldn’t just let the community kind of crowdfund. If they want to do this, come together and we’ll make it happen.

Chip Griffin: What’s your experience with online, only events right now is that are people sick and tired of them? Are you seeing decreased attendance or are you seeing people sort of frustrated with that format? Or do you think that people are embracing it still in saying, yeah. You know, not for everything, but you know, this is a useful platform for workshops and such going forward?

Carl Smith: Yeah, I think that’s very much a yes, and. Right. It’s people where we get an online event going on, somebody is one is going to bitch about how much they’re on zoom. I’m on zoom all the damn time. I can’t stand it. I can’t this, I can’t that. But then it’s like, it was so good to see everybody. Right. So it’s, it’s one of those things where I think everybody is exhausted from being on camera all the time and not quite making eye contact. Right. But really it’s more in the work environment. I think when people come to an event and they’re allowed to just be themselves. And although I think a lot of humanizing has happened, we’ve all become a lot more open with who we are and how we are.

But I think that when we do the online events and we see the post event surveys, even when we did owner summit and we had a streaming option, but we were, they were involved in the Q and A, they were involved in those things. Those reviews were great. So I think it really depends. We’re not going to sit here and just stay on camera the whole time when we’re in an event for two or three days.

I mean, we’re going to do some fun games. We’re going to do some other stuff. And it sounds like forced fun, but honestly, Everybody leans in. I mean, it’s just great. I have so many bad cliches. I’m going to say, I’ve said out of the woods, I’ve said leans in. Let’s just keep going. Let’s play bingo.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. Why not? Why not? I mean, I’ve always thought that the zoom fatigue thing was overblown anyway. Because it it’s really more meeting fatigue first and foremost. Right. And that predates the pandemic. Yeah. A lot of us had way too many calls and meetings that were unnecessary for us to be participating in.

And does it get magnified by zoom? Yes. And does the fact that you’re staring into the camera a little bit weirdly? Is that more fatiguing than an in-person meeting? Yes. But at the same time, I look at it from a, you know, what’s the alternative? For me, pre pandemic, I was on the road, you know, a hundred plus 200 plus some years, days a year.

I mean, that’s a lot and that’s fatiguing in and of itself. And so, you know, now I spend most of my time, I joke in this 12 foot by 12 foot room. And you know, sometimes it feels like a prison, at the same time, I get to go out and see people like you that I probably wouldn’t see in person all that often, if ever. I get to work with people on the other side of the world that I know I would never be flying to go see, cause it would be cost prohibitive.

And so, so I think it opens doors. You have to figure out how to manage it correctly. And you know, anyone who expects someone to be literally staring into the camera for, you know, three or four hours straight is just bonkers. That’s, that’s simply not going to happen.

Carl Smith: But you’re doing a great job. I have to say your, your eye contact. It feels like you’re, you’re actually, you’re looking a little, you’re staring at me a little too much. It’s starting to get uncomfortable

Chip Griffin: Well, the secret Carl, is I do not actually see you cause I am looking into the lens so that viewers will think that I am staring them in the eye. In fact I have to glance down if I actually want to see you.

Carl Smith: Meanwhile, I’m worried about something off screen here that seems to continuously want to attack me, but all I’m really doing is suddenly looking at you and I’m over here. You know, I think everything you said, it just makes really good sense and, when it comes to meeting fatigue when it comes to accessibility, right?

When you hit, you hit on it, we have people come to our events now that never could afford the normal cost. Right? I mean, Bureau events, even for members can be thousands of dollars a ticket. And that is one of those things he said swallowing, oh my God, is it that much? But now that we’re doing stuff online, it’s so much more accessible.

We’ve tried to do a hybrid model of a camp, but we can’t figure it out because that’s a small group setting and to have one person who’s not quite there, that’s not quite going to hear it. That kind of level doesn’t work. But if you’re in a big group, like when we did owner summit, we have about 40 people in the room.

We’ve got other people that are just zooming in or literally we’re zooming in. And I got to give it to AVOD three who was the group that helped us with all of the, the streaming and the way that they manage was just amazing. When you’re on all the time when you’re staring into the camera, instead of looking at the individual.

And that’s what all of the science has said. That’s why we get exhausted because we can’t quite make eye contact. Right. And so our brains are like, this doesn’t feel right.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and I think part of it too, is, is trying to decide how on you’re going to be. Right? So for something like this, it’s fine for us to be on.

Right? Cause we’re recording this. We’re distributing it to lots of people. Hopefully, you know, two or three of them will actually pay attention. For a couple of minutes, you know, but, but if you’re on a, on a zoom conversation with a group of people, you know, then I think it’s, it’s fine to be a little bit more relaxed. Be looking at the screen, you know, kind of, you know, sit back. You don’t have to be on and focused in the same way that you are, if you’re recording something.

Carl Smith: Yeah. No. And, and there’s that difference when you have the thumbnail people? Right? I I’ve become a pretty good zoom DJ in terms of keeping people in the spotlight.

If they’re talking and bringing multiple people up and all that sort of stuff. And I think that’s really important too, because you do have that moment where you see somebody who’s obviously gone off to do something else when you get so many people in there. Right. And I think that becomes a different level of, of work.

I will say that one thing that’s really weird as an event organizer is when you do an in-person event, you get all of those great, thank yous. You have people that walk up after, you have, you know, people that send you the email or the text or whatever, and say, Hey, this literally helped me solve so many problems.

I’m just, I’m so grateful. When you do an online event, and you’ll still get some of that, but nobody can pull you aside. Nobody can say it privately because everybody’s on screen. And the last thing they’re going to do is ask to come back on screen later, right? Like that’s not a thing. So one thing I have found is in, in terms of, for an organizer, When you’ve done a big event afterwards, normally there’s a little bit of depression that sets in because you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to do now.

You’ve been so focused on this one thing and then it’s quiet. And then you’re like, oh my God, was that any good? What happened? When you do it online and you just close the laptop afterwards? It’s so weird. You don’t really go through that same type of post event depression. You’re just like suddenly the reentry into your normal world that you never really left is almost…

Chip Griffin: It’s abrupt, is what it is.

Carl Smith: It’s so abrupt.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, you get that, certainly when you’re the organizer. I think if you’re a presenter, you know, it’s the same thing. It’s just, you know, you’re used to you, you walk off the stage and you maybe, you know, chat with a few people on your way out. You know, if you’ve done a really good job, you get swarmed and people are like, oh, that was so great. But you don’t, you don’t have anything. And you don’t even have to walk to the car. Just literally, just screen goes black. And so that is, that is an adjustment. But I think, you know, that it, I think the toughest are the hybrid events, right? From both the participant standpoint, as well as the presenter in those sorts of things, because you’re, there, there are the, you know, the different experiences that people had.

And I think you hit your, hit the nail on the head here that the larger it is, the easier you can do hybrid. The smaller it is, the more challenging it is.

Carl Smith: Yep. Cause if you’re in a large event, everybody’s going to feel like they’re part of a bigger group. You’re in a small event, anybody from the outside, it’s going to feel like they’re intruding.

They don’t feel like they’re just because there’s something great about that talk show model, which is what we did for owner summit, where you’ve got a live studio audience, and you’re basically interviewing somebody who has a great story. I think we learned that you do need to mix it up a little bit.

We went a little too heavy with interviews day one and workshop day two. So that’s always a mix, but it’s also based on your audience. So our audience is really quick to let us know what they think.

Chip Griffin: Well, speaking about audiences and letting you know what they think as we begin to wind down this conversation, you know, what is the perspective of your membership these days. And obviously, you know, you’ve got quite a few members, as you mentioned, they are in the digital space, which I think, in the agency community they’ve generally come through the last couple of years, a lot better than, than other kinds of agencies, you know, particularly in the early days.

Right. Because so many people were trying to go from brick and mortar to online or ramp up what they were doing digitally. So digital agencies, you know, certainly saw a surge of activity coming out of it. And I think most, at least in my experience, they’re still doing pretty well, but you know what, what’s the mood of the digital agency community today?

What are they feeling and seeing?

Carl Smith: From an owner’s and founder’s perspective, it’s exhaustion. The, at the end of the year, like right around December, a lot of people were talking about, we have to reinforce our leadership teams. We have to find new ways for other people to help carry the load. In January the conversation started turning more into how do I stand back?

How do I not let this overtake my life? And then if you’ve seen it, I’m sure. February, March you start to see a lot of acquisitions. You start to see a lot of mergers. I think where everybody is right now is this can’t keep going the way it is. If you look at it, we just released our salary guide.

It’s a member thing, sorry everybody.

Chip Griffin: So go become a member.

Carl Smith: Become a member just, just for a month. What could it hurt? But. Average salary increase or average compensation increases for across most roles is 25 to 35%. Owners is 6%. And when you start to look at that and a lot of people say, well, they can, the owner can pay themselves anything they want.

No they can’t. Not if they want to stay in business, right? Now, they should be able to make a good, healthy living. But if they start to see that the business isn’t going to be able to sustain and they can’t personally make it, then I think what what’s happening right now is people are reevaluating. What is it that we do?

And who do we need to do the new thing? So I think we’re still right at the beginning of a big shift in the way that web shops, digital agencies are going to operate.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think it’s necessary. I mean, I think this is, this is across all kinds of agencies. I think agency owners historically have done a very bad job at understanding what they personally want from their own businesses and then trying to shape the business to that, and they allow the business to drive them.

And so when you talk about compensation, Agency owners need to know this is how much I want to get out of the business. How do I build a business that gets me there? And it may be that you need to change your structure of your team, or you need to change your pricing, or you need to change your positioning.

There are all sorts of things that you can do to do it, but you have to start by understanding what you want from it. And I always say, there’s no reason to take on the risk and the stress of owning your own business, and not getting what you want from it. That’s just dumb. You can go get a job if that’s what you want.

I’m virtually unemployable at this point after, you know, 20 some years.

Carl Smith: We all are!

Chip Griffin: Right. You know, I’ve dipped my toe in that a couple of times over the last couple of decades for various reasons. But no, no.

Carl Smith: Yeah, no, I’m with you. And you know, the final thing, I’ll just say to all the owners listening out there, take a breath.

You know, take a breath and yeah, you’re going to hear that there are a lot of people selling and they’re making these multiples and they’re doing stuff. My personal experience, the people I’ve spoken with, there are people who’ve made it through and sold and they’re happy, but they didn’t get what they were told.

And, and you need to realize we are all very, very fragile right now. And people are going to show up and tell us that we’re going to be able to get like this four or five times multiple, but then as soon as they start digging in, they’re going to say, well…But you’ve already gone so far as to tell people.

So now you just go with it. Just be careful and take care of yourself. Don’t, don’t rush into where everybody else is running.

Chip Griffin: Build to own. Don’t build to sell. You really have to build something that you’re happy with. If you do, chances are someone will be interested. And if it happens to be terms that you’re okay with, and will give you what you want, fine. Go ahead and sell. But don’t think that that’s the end game because the vast majority of agencies don’t sell at all, those that do don’t sell for life-changing money. And those that do sell for life-changing money often come with horrible strings attached that end up being regrets by the owners at the end of the day.

Carl Smith: Exactly. Yep.

Chip Griffin: So not, not to rain on anybody’s parade, but…

Carl Smith: No, you know what really feels right for me? It’s like, don’t do it because you’re exhausted and don’t know where to go. Do it because you’re like, that’s what I want.

Chip Griffin: Yep. All right. Well, if someone wants to learn more about the Bureau of Digital or perhaps even join the Bureau of Digital to get the salary information or the great community, or the discount on events or all of the lovely things that you are for your members, where can they find you, Carl?

Carl Smith: At bureauofdigital.com

Chip Griffin: Why that’s very simple and straightforward.

So. If you’ve made it this far, we appreciate you sticking with us. Hopefully we’ve given you some good insights and hopefully you will now go visit bureauofdigital.com. So again, that will bring to an end this episode of Chats with Chip. Thank you all for listening. And I look forward to being back with you all again very soon.

Carl Smith: Thanks, Chip. Thanks everybody.