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Mike McGrail, Velocity Digital

Mike McGrail

Founder, Velocity Digital

Mike McGrail is the founder of highly-regarded Edinburgh marketing consultancy Velocity Digital, and was previously marketing director at fast-growing EdTech platform Administrate.

Got the Marketing Skills to Pay the Bills?

In this talk, Mike will explore the skills required to be an effective and desirable modern marketer. It's not as clear-cut as you may think; Mike has learned this personally via his own career, but also via the building of marketing teams. What attributes really make the difference between 'meh' and 'yeah!'? Mike will tell you in his usual straight-to-the-point manner. Who knows, he may even throw you a biscuit....





Good morning, everybody. Thanks for getting out of your beds and crawling here with much anticipation for a fantastic day. As Brian correctly said, I’m Mike McGrail, it’s a quite familiar name. That wasn’t the case last month at another event. Before I start talking about anything, I would like everybody to become better acquainted. So if you can all stand up, please — I mean it, I’m not joking — and fist-bump the person to your left and the person to your right.


You may be seated. I’ve always wanted to say that in a church, turns out, for years. By the way, great, great action there. I even saw a few like, “We’re here to learn!” It turns out for years I’ve been calling this a fist pump. A fist pump’s like a “boom!,” like that, so maybe you don’t wanna confuse those, because if somebody puts their fist out like that and you go, “Boom!,” they’re just gonna get a bit aggressive. But thanks very much for doing that. That was more for my amusement than it anything else, to be honest.

I spoke on this stage last year. Well, not this stage. And… There we go. I spoke on a different stage at the same conference last year about social media advertising and how it’s done very badly. I misplaced some asterisks as you can see there, and I’m really sorry for the F-bomb early in the day, especially in this setting. But the point of that was that that was the reaction that most of the social media ads I was researching got. So last year, the reason I spoke about that was I was running a consultancy at Edinburgh called Velocity Digital, and I was very much involved in helping clients make the most of social media.

But things have changed a lot for me and since then. In January, I joined Administrate. Many people have seen John Peebles speaking yesterday if you’re here, you would have had to have been here to see him. And I’m sure some of you know of us. And I joined in January as the marketing director, and that was a big change for me from running my own company for nearly four years, having worked in agencies previously. All of a sudden I was in this environment of we have this one goal and that is to create this phenomenal educational technology product, but also the ultimate human organization. And I started to really think about my talk for this, and I wanna talk about the story of why I’m gonna talk about what I’m gonna talk about today and I can’t tell you that. No, it’d ruin everything.

Things have changed for me, and one of the first things I started to look at when I joined Administrate, among others, was what technology we’re using in this company, what are we using for marketing automation, what are we using for social media management, so on and so forth. And I started to think, “Well, maybe that would be a great talk for Full Stack marketing next year. I could come up here and recommend a bunch of tools that could make all your lives easier and yourselves more successful and on behalf of your businesses as well.

Before we go any further, it’s quite staggering how many tools are out there. And without further ado – sorry, I may get sued for that image – I want us to undergo a little quiz. Now, here’s a question. How many marketing technology tools are on the market? Is it, A: 2,761; B: 3,874, or C: 4,121. If you think it’s A, please raise your hand now. Not a soul. If you think it’s B, please raise your hand now. Okay, and C, finally.


Thank you. I’m on this note here. All right, fantastic, yeah. Interesting. Okay, sorry. Right. So, I am not gonna tell you the answer. I have a guest star from overseas who’s gonna join me on the stage via video link to tell you the answer.

Video: Oh, hey, how’s it going? This is Jay Baer, president of Convince and Convert, New York Times best-selling author of a bunch of books that nerds like and the most retweeted person in the world among digital marketers. What are you guys doing right now? What’s up? What? You’re doing what? Oh, you’re listening to my man Mike giving a masterful presentation in Scotland? Good on you, fantastic. I hope you’re having a terrific time. Meanwhile, the answer to the question is B, 3874 different pieces of marketing software are available. How about that? Enjoy Mike, see you later.

A big thanks to my man Jay Baer there. Please do follow him, tweet him, tell him you saw him on the stage, he would absolutely love that. Morning, how’re you doing? It’s Fringe time. I think you answered B. I think I saw you get that correct. What was your name?

Woman: Sophia.

Sophia. What company are you from, Sophia?

Sophia: Cyber-Duck.

Cyber-Duck. Cool, that sounds great. Listen, because you got the answer right, I have a present for you.

Woman: Oh, thank you.

There’s a caramel wafer, enjoy that. I’m about to walk backwards up the steps. Well okay, so that’s quite a staggering number 3,874 pieces of marketing technology are available today. And this supergraphic they call it, this is created by every year and it shows every piece of marketing technology that’s on the market. That was in March 2016, we’re obviously advanced from there now. I’m sure there’s more. There’s probably 1874 new social media management tools. Saturated market guys. Why? Nobody needs more. You know, I started to think that crowd, that Full Stack marketing is probably the savviest marketing audience in the world. They don’t need a guy in a skirt with really shit hair telling them the best technology to use. You all know where to go to get the peer recommendations, and your technology stack is absolutely fine, I’m sure.

Something I’ve always been interested in is what marketers need to excel in their jobs, to be self-fulfilled as a marketer, and to do good for their businesses or the businesses they work with and their teammates. And I thought, actually, I’m gonna explore that, that’s what I’m gonna explore at Full Stack. I’m one marketer in a massive sea of marketers and I wanted to dip my toes into that sea. This is a weird, salt-based analogy.

So I went to somewhere that if you do not spend any time as a marketer, you’re in a bad way,, which was actually co-founded by a fellow Full Stack speaker, Rand Fishkin, and I thought, “I’m gonna go and ask that phenomenal community there what they think might be the top skills a marketer needs to have today.” So I spent 20 minutes writing this post, telling them the story. “Guys, I’m thinking about this. I’m gonna do a talk about technology,” but then I thought, “No, I’m not gonna do that. So I told them and I listed eight skills that I wanted their feedback on.” Now, this very quickly got a lot of attraction over on which can actually be quite hard to do, at the time 86 upvotes 2400 views, but that didn’t matter. I got over 120 really in-depth responses and it turns out that I got it, sadly wrong. Sadly wrong, sad face at the clicker.

Yes, I got it badly wrong and they were quick to tell me that. I even got two tweets. One of them was passive aggressive. “I’m trying not to spit my coffee out all over my PC at the idiotic suggestions that @mikemcgrail has made on Inbound.” I’m like, “At least do it to me directly and use a Mac.” I actually wanted to show that tweet, but it’s been deleted by the guy, because I started to debate with him back and forth, and now we’re best buds. And yeah, it was quite strong. But that’s good, us marketers tend to make sure that we get our opinions across.

The reason I got it so badly wrong was I had focused on hard skills. I had set SEO, AdWords, analytics, so on and so forth. Now, I knew that wasn’t the right way to go. What I did enjoy was that people…albeit they told me I was a dick, they did answer the question, but then carried on into how they felt, and I’ll talk more about that. It’s still interesting, though, what the community thinks the top three hard skills are, and I’m gonna cover those now.

How ya doing? How ya doing? I’m gonna ask you a question, that’s why I’m standing here. Could you have a stab at one of those top three…? That guy can tell the future, you should employ him. Writing, writing. Okay, you can have a biscuit, too, for stealing that guy’s answer. Thanks to whoever that was, cheers. Yeah, writing. That was overwhelming. I went through every response and I tallied them all up and writing was the number-one hard skill that the fellow and I believe that marketers need in this day and age. If we can’t write, no matter what that is – if it’s an ebook, a white paper, an email, the little tiny bit of text we get in some ads – we can’t convey what we need to convey. We can’t communicate with the people we’re marketing to. We can’t push them further towards where we want them to be as marketers. And writing is a difficult skill, some people say, “I’m just not a natural writer.”

And one of the things that we’re trying to work on right now at Administrate is really empowering our team, every person, every team to be able to write and be a voice within the organization. The key part of our strategy is thought leadership, as I’m sure it is for most of you. And we’re looking at there are people who say, “I don’t wanna write, I don’t like writing, I’m not very good at it.” So we’re trying to put some tools in place some guides and some templates and things that will help them at least be able to create a nice digestible blog post, for example.

The next one, it focuses on stories, and so this is tied in to writing, and I just wanna, I wanna talk about this. So Seth Godin is somebody that I’ve got massive respect for, and I’m sure a lot of you read his stuff. And he says marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make but the stories you tell, and it’s true. We should be using these skills we have to tell stories about the business, but also this storytelling thing is getting a little bit out of hand. There’s times when a well-written ad with a great image will get what you need, as opposed to a series of blog posts. Now, that latter thing is what I would try and do at all times. But I was at a meeting where I was consulting and the client said to me, “Mike, Mike, I got this piece of content. There’s a technical manual for this.” It was a smelt… it was a galvanizing company in the Highlands. “How do we storatize this manual?” I said, “If you ever say storatize again, we will not be working together anymore.” But people that aren’t as embedded in marketing as we are get carried away when people with huge influence start to say, “Write stories,” or “Get on social. Snapchat, get yourself on there or you’re missing out.” And people that aren’t that into it and don’t understand, they get panicked, and I don’t like that. So the number one skill was write.

The next one was CRO, Conversion Rate Optimization. This surprised me a little bit, not because it’s not important, but I was really quite… I was quite mystified at the fact that it was number two, and I’ve got another guest who’s gonna tell us why CRO is so important.

Video: Hi, guys. I’m Talia from Banana Splash, and I hope you’re having a great time with Mike. CRO is one of the most important parts of marketing as it’s not only a fantastic way to optimize your site, getting more sales and increase your conversion rates. But it’s actually a way to gain a lot more information about your customers and understand them, what they’re looking for, what they need and provide a better experience for them. So I hope you have a great time today.

Thanks, Talia. A really interesting person again to follow, and please do say hi to her, she’s one of the top people. Now, I’m not gonna talk about CRO for too long, because Oli Gardner is on the stage later, and that would be very unwise of me. However, we’ve just been speaking about writing. And we can write until we’re blue in the face, until the cows come home, get people to the part of the site we want them to from ads or get them really absorbed in the blog post or writing, but if we don’t think about how we’re then gonna convert to take the action that we need them to, all that could be in absolute vain. If we want a trial signup, if we want a newsletter signup, if we want them to add something to a basket, how do we do that? And CRO, at a basic level that’s what it’s about. The thing that Talia said there at the end is that it gives us information on how our audience act and that’s the important part. It’s not just about we’ve split-tested two landing pages and the image with the lady converts more clicks. It’s not that that gives us the data, but then we need to deep dive into that and see what do the people that we’re trying to sell to or the customers that we’re trying to retain and upsell to, what do they want to hear from us?

The final hard skill. Sorry, that’s an error on my part there. I’ll move on swiftly. The final skill is analytics. Oh, Jesus… I said Jesus in church as well… The final skill is analytics. The fact is, folks, we have so much data at our fingertips it’s almost painful, whether it’s web data through the likes of Google Analytics, whether it’s ad data we get from the ad platforms we use. The problem is what do we do with it? The skill isn’t going, “I made you this lovely report, Mr. CEO, and it’s got some metrics and stuff in it. And it’s got a cool little graph, like look our reach is expanding.” “Ugh.” That doesn’t matter. What matters is saying, “Here’s the data, Mr. CEO, and here’s what we’re gonna do based on what we’ve learned.” And that is the hard part, that is the hard part indeed.

So writing, CRO and analytics. CRO and analytics, lots of data are being created. How do we deal with that in the best possible way? The fact is, though, we are not robots. As humans, we are highly intelligent, driven by emotion and that comes down to something that we term as soft skills. The personalities, the traits that make us all different as individuals, but really empower us to do our jobs. Humans drive marketing, technology doesn’t drive marketing. Hard skills we can learn hard skills. Writing is quite tough to learn, and you’re not necessarily gonna be world class at all of these skills that we need to get our jobs done. But it really, for me, comes down to how we are as people. People are the organization. We need to be marketing to humans, so if we don’t act like humans and think like humans, it’s not gonna work.

The talk on was pushing farther and farther towards soft skills, and I said soft skills is always what I had thought of. I’ve hired people in marketing for a long time now: when I worked at other agencies, when I was running my own consultancy, I’m doing it right now at Administrate. I’ve also had to fire people, and that’s always horrible. And I can honestly, hand on heart, say that the reason for me having to fire them in the end was probably 70% my fault, because I’ve been guilty in the past of hiring based on a job spec. What level of experience do we need them to have? What skills do we need them to have? And when you get a CV in and you go, “Yes, this person ticks every box,” and you go and you interview them and you maybe get them to do an exercise… And I’ve been guilty of not looking at the person enough. Are we gonna have the rapport to be able to work together? Do they have the right abilities, personality and traits-wise, to be a valuable member of this team and offer value to the people that we really need to offer value to, of course, yes, as our prospects and our customers, but also our team mates? So I think we can all be guilty of not hiring in the right way and for the right reasons.

The number one skill, soft skill-wise, that the community thought, and it’s one that I’ve always been really interested in is curiosity. I’ve always had a massive frustration with the lack of curiosity of some people I have worked around and worked with in the past. No desire to learn everything about marketing, to learn everything about the business they are in, the industry that they are in, the people they are working with and the people they are for. It’s been a big frustration for me over the last 10, 11 years. There’s a thing, though, that we can all be curious and read and read and read and read and listen to podcasts and watch videos. And we’ve all got somebody in our team that sends you 20 links a day, “This is great, this is great,, this is great, this is great.” “Brilliant, thanks for sharing that, but what are you gonna do to go and execute on all this knowledge you’re absorbing?” It does happen, doesn’t it? And I’ve been guilty of that in the past. My traffic used to be like 50 things a day. Boom, boom, boom, boom. No, I’m better just maybe sharing two or three things and then saying, “Here’s what I would do with that.” So, we can read and read and read, we can learn and learn and learn, but we need to go and execute, learn, adapt and move on from there.

It’s also down to the organizations to foster curiosity though. Something we do at Administrate is every member of staff must read a book a month, a relevant book and write a report on it, and we’re gonna move those into blog posts soon. That allows us to take the knowledge in, share the knowledge, but then everybody has to think about “How am I gonna apply that to my team,” in a way that suits the way of their business. If somebody wants a book they see it on Amazon, we’ll buy it for them and it’s theirs. It’s not like you go out and buy a book. We facilitate that and we really encourage this learning, and I’ve never seen that in an organization before and I think it’s a great thing. So curiosity. Curiosity.

The next one is adaptability. Curiosity has played a huge part in my career. It led me to in 2009 to start the Social Penguin Blog. At the time I was working in a very small digital agency in Edinburgh, and my job every day was to write 200-300 AdWords ads and a shit ton of metadata for websites. Back then it was like meta titles, meta descriptions. The CMSes even still have the little keywords field that you were like, “These are the words I want a feature for.” It did fuckall. I started this because I, quite frankly, was bored out of my mind, and I’d got on to Twitter around the time and I started following some of the marketers over in the States, guys like Mark Schaefer, Mitch Joel, the late Trey Pennington. These were people that were starting to see social media could be a great marketing channel, and we do that as marketers, don’t we? “Ooh, there’s something shiny and new, and people use it, and people buy our stuff! And we’re gonna go and ruin it for everybody.” And that’s what’s happening with every social media platform we see at the moment. It’s like, “Snapchat, Snapchat, Peach, Peach!” What the hell is Peach? I don’t even know where I was going.

But I thought, “I want to learn more about this social media.” So I started to interact with these guys, ask them questions. And then it was quite nice, because one of our clients at the agency… I said, “Look I wanna set you guys up on Twitter.” They were a quite a well-known chemist chain here in Scotland. And they said, “Yes, Mike, great idea. We’ve got a special on Tampax.” Pardon? “Well, our weekly special is Tampax.” And I’m like I’m not gonna start tweeting about that, I’m not sure that’s what the audience is gonna react to, you know? So I was allowed to experiment. We started doing things like making… They sold hair straighteners, so I said, “I’ll come with a video camera and we’ll film somebody getting their hair curled with those straighteners that you sell, we’ll put that on your website and we’ll start tweeting about it,” and bloody hell, that worked! It was nice.

Anyway, I wanted to dive deeper, so I started writing the Social Penguin blog. And I was writing that right up to the middle of 2012, and so before I started my consultancy. We had five or six writers at one point, a really nice audience. The reason I’m talking about this is not to be like, “Look at me, I made a dreadful-looking website.” This is the reason that I am able to stand on a stage like this in front of way smarter people than me and talk to you about marketing. I thoroughly believe if I had not done that, I would not have been able to build a career that I’ve gained so much from, and I’m proud of, and I’m not…no qualms in saying I’m proud of what I’ve managed to achieve. And that that is what we all need to strive to be is that…not me. The curiosity. That curiosity factor is absolutely key.

When I interview people I ask them, “Can you tell me the top three blogs or podcasts or writers that you learn the most from?” It’s not all about reading and listening, but that question has been choked on so many times, so many times, and that astounds me. Some of them even say Mashable, which makes me wanna cry. So, curiosity. The fact that you’re all seating here shows how curious you are to learn. And if you know marketers, you’ve got friends who are marketers and they didn’t try their ass off to get a ticket for this, you tell them they should be fucking ashamed. This is the best lineup you will see in the UK this year, everybody should be striving to get tickets for this. Curiosity, number one.

Can anybody guess what the next one was?

Woman: Adaptability.

Adaptability. Keeping the Transformers theme going after John Peebles had one on the stage yesterday. I got a four-year-old at home who speaks like Bumblebee all the time so it’s pretty wearing. Adaptability, yeah. This is the T-Shaped marketer, and if it kind of feels like Moz and Rand are the basis of my talk after I used for my research, and this is a post that Rand wrote on the Moz blog in 2013, and it takes the concepts of the T-Shaped employee and morphs it into marketers. What we have on the top bar is a bunch of hard skills. The idea is that marketers should be able to at least have a basic idea and understanding of how these play a part and they can inform and talk about those. The fact is that everything we do has to be integrated, so if we can be across the top of that bar, we can offer value to our businesses. But one of the biggest things we do there is we build respect with our colleagues as well if we know we’re all striving to be as rounded as we can. Then the bottom bar is one, two or three skills that you’re specialized in. What are the ones that you become the go-to person for? Over the years, I kinda morphed into social media and content creation.

I would like to see this revamped, though, with everything we’ve been talking about today. So the T and the S, so the soft skills, how do we build those into it as well? Just a great thing. The game most of us are operating in is pretty hard, it changes a lot. Sometimes it feels like it’s changing daily. So we need to be adaptable from a skills perspective, but we also need to be adaptable from the fact that we can take quite hard knocks.

There’s a guy who I spent a week on a course with about two weeks ago — I think some of you were there, Bill Aulet from MIT. He’s based in Boston, and he’s got this phrase he uses, antifragile or anti-fragile, as he would say. And it’s basically about no matter what you do for you for your work or to earn money, it’s about when a change comes, you shouldn’t be downtrodden by that. You should see that as an opportunity to capitalize on it. And one of the biggest things that has changed over the years is SEO. I have a pathological fear of pandas and penguins now.

When those algorithms came into play on Google, it was the biggest change to hope Google indexed content, ever. And it was brilliant, because the ultimate aim of it was to put the best and most relevant and high-quality content in front of people. So all the nasty stuff that I’d been doing back in 2009, building all this infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, still important, but not the number one thing. What happened at that point in time? A bunch of blog posts from SEO gurus saying, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this. I don’t know how to write. How do I do it?” And it’s just like, “Just dry your eyes and move on.” Actually, they were the crap SEOs. They’ve probably gone out of business or, shockingly, some of them are still operating doing that terrible old-school work in SEO and they still get paid to do it, which is really scary. So it’s about being adaptable as people with skills. It’s about being adaptable as colleagues and adapt to all the change, really, really important.

The last one. Who can tell me what this might signify?

Man: Empathy.


Man: Empathy.

Empathy. Nothing says empathy like perfectly formed lattes, pastel shades and wonderful cheekbones. You’ve gotta love Shutterstock. What was your name, sir? Brendan, I’m gonna give you a biscuit, just because you’re smiley. And you’re gonna get an AC/DC t-shirt, and I’ve not worn it. It’s clean, but I hope you wear it with pride.

Empathy. The fact is we are… as marketers, our job is to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we market to and our customers. If we cannot see ourselves through the eyes of their lives and the problems they need to solve in their businesses and the emotions that not being able to solve problems can create, and the emotions that are created when somebody does come along and solve a problem for you, we’re really gonna struggle. It’s not about being great at SEO. It’s not about being great at CRO. Curiosity and everything all comes together, but this one for me is the absolute killer. But it’s not just about having empathy with the people outside that we’re trying to market to. It’s about having internal empathy. Every team in every business has its own problems, and we all rely on each other in many ways.

If my team at Administrate isn’t doing our job, the sales team don’t get the quality leads. Always quality leads. They don’t get the quality leads they need to go and sell and increase their revenue and give us the money that we can then build the product with and build that ultimate human organization. If the product team aren’t creating a great product and progressing that product, it becomes hard for my team to market it, because we market on benefits. This will automate your horrible, horrible manual processes that you’ve been doing like this for years and allow you to take your training product and make it better. That’s what we want to do. Why do we want to do that? Because the people that learn through those training companies will be better educated, better educated. I’m not sure that’s right, grammatically, ironically.

And we’ve got empathy with two sections there. We’ve got empathy with the people running these training companies, but also with the learners as we call them that’s really important. So we need to understand the problems that our colleagues are facing and how we can all work together, and that empathy is an absolutely huge part of that. I don’t actually think we can be truly empathetic outwardly until we have that real empathy internally. And also understanding ourselves as individuals is hard, everything. You know yesterday people were up here pouring their hearts out, you know, founders of companies about how difficult it’s been, and that bit of self reflection is so important.

So if you can be curious, adaptable and empathetic, you will win. I do 20 of those every morning. Thank you so much.

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