Jeff Ferguson of Amplitude Digital: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive

Thirst For Knowledge — never stop learning, ever. I don’t just mean in your chosen field, either. Break out of your comfort zone and read books and articles about ideas and concepts you’ve never touched before. Lately, I’ve been on a real kick to learn more about Economics while also learning about woodworking. Last summer, I was all about Philosophy. Sometimes these things unlock some pretty big ideas; other times, they just make for good stories to incorporate into something I’m writing or a speech I’m giving at some conference.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ferguson.

Jeff Ferguson is a passionate growth marketer and digital educator who has led the online marketing efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark, InterActiveCorp, Experian and Napster.

In his current role as Head of Production at Amplitude Digital, he has worked with renowned brands such as Belkin, Billabong, CBS, eHarmony, JustFab, Manchester United, Paychex, PetSmart, Popcornopolis, The Smithsonian, Stila Cosmetics, ThriveMarket, Sony and many more.

Honored as one of PPC Hero’s “Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts” for three years in a row, Jeff Ferguson is a regular presenter at Ad:tech, AllFacebook Expo, Conversion Conference, eMetrics, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), Digital Hollywood, Online Marketing Summit (OMS) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES). He has been both a speaker and board member at Search Engine Strategies (SES).

Jeff is a columnist for Search Engine Journal, where his legendary data research projects have tipped many sacred cows of SEO and paid media advertising malpractice.

As an adjunct professor for UCLA, Jeff teaches introductory and advanced digital marketing classes and designed the school’s first ever course on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Jeff volunteers time with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) and Digital Analytics Associations (DAA) on both the national and regional levels, where he serves as a board member of the Los Angeles chapter.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I started as a Computer Science major in college but switched to Communications and Advertising after a few years to become a copywriter. Near the end of school, my advisor told me that I was a couple of credits away from a double major, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

After graduation in early 1995, I sent my resume out everywhere, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the internet, and this new thing called the World Wide Web. I passed at first, but after my first monthly bill for my student loan arrived, I told the next company, “I know everything about the Internet!”

I landed the job, ran out, bought a big book on HTML, and never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A few years after I started my agency, a former client referred my team to their contact at The Smithsonian, who was looking for help in the area of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It took over a year to make it happen, but we eventually got the business, and it was a monster of a project.

We audited their existing website and their designs for a planned update, from top to bottom. Plus, I ran a multi-day education seminar to their team to upgrade the skill sets of multiple departments so that their entire squad became an SEO powerhouse.

If the project wasn’t cool enough on its own, I presented my findings and taught my classes at “The Castle” museum building on The Mall in Washington, DC.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my early mentors once told me his favorite piece of advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”

He didn’t mean I was an asshole at the time, but having that kind of attitude in business doesn’t get people very far. I’ve kind of used that as my North Star in my life the best I can, and I think it’s one of the reasons why most of my agency’s business comes from referrals.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

I have two books that have changed my perspective on business.

“Thinking Inside the Box:12 Timeless Rules for Managing A Small Business” by Kirk Cheyfitz. Written after the first internet boom and bust, Cheyfitz dismantles most of the ideas around “The New Economy” and reminds readers that things like “profit” and “cash management” are still very much a thing.

My understanding of business was always firmly planted in reality, thanks to my education and some of my early employers (Hilton Hotels, Kimberly Clark). Those companies may not have led the charge of digital transformation, but at the very least, embraced the technology while never forgetting the basics. Many startups tried to tempt me to jump ship during the first internet boom, only to see those companies fail. This book explained it all, plus reminded me of what was truly important in business

“The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets” by Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker. I picked this book up years ago because it mentioned one of my previous employers, Napster. The book details how slight deviations from the norm have radically changed entire industries and how the companies that don’t embrace those deviant tendencies can get left behind.

As I mentioned earlier, I worked for many “old school” companies early in my career. They provided a lot of stability but not a lot of opportunities for trying new things. This book became my bible for how to change internal thinking to allow for “deviant behavior.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

After 15 years on the client-side of advertising and working with some of the largest advertising agencies in the world, when it came time to start my shop, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want it to be.

My business plan stripped away a lot of the bureaucracy that seemed to rule the big shops those days. None of the endless forms or long turnaround times I saw from the big shops while still focusing on classic media planning and buying principles, a concept that had fallen out of favor with the flashy digital media shops of the day.

Plus, I stripped away a lot of the attitudes I experienced from agencies at the time. No more acting like what we were doing was some form of dark art that mere mortals could never understand. We would offer marketing services, pure and simple, but using the modern digital media I had grown to love.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Either be prepared to do the work or stick with the safe bet of working for someone else.

I occasionally coach friends and family when they want to start a business, and one of the first things I have them do is write a business plan. Nothing fancy, just an outline to collect their thoughts into one place.

Most of them never bother to fill it out.

That’s the first test. If you can’t bother to write a simple business plan, you don’t have the strength to run a business.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

For a while, it seemed like all the advice around the advertising agency business was to “specialize.” Basically, find one or two industries and focus all of your attention there. I rejected the idea for years; it sounded dull and looked like nothing but an opportunity for unethical behavior.

However, for a few years there, most of my new clients were in the clothing and beauty industries. We worked up some new materials that focused on our experience in these areas and just chased these sectors. It worked for a bit, but soon what I feared would happen happened. Prospects would hear that I was working with one of their competitors (or someone they thought was a competitor) and not give us the business because of the potential for overlap.

Plus, as a bonus, when we decided to pivot back to a broader target market, it took longer to get back into the marketplace, and things got really thin for a while. Luckily, we bounced back after about 18 months, but it got really scary.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Responsibility — I’m not afraid of “getting my hands dirty.” I don’t mean I could kill people or anything weird like that! I just mean I’m willing to put the actual work in to meet my goals. Most people think entrepreneurship is just shouting big ideas into the ether, but those people are a dime a dozen. Successful people do the work. I start by doing every aspect of the business I can do myself for every company I’ve created until I can’t do it anymore. This includes the stuff I hate, like finances, human resources, even packing and shipping — I handled them all until the business grew enough that I could afford for someone else to take them on.

Thirst For Knowledge — never stop learning, ever. I don’t just mean in your chosen field, either. Break out of your comfort zone and read books and articles about ideas and concepts you’ve never touched before. Lately, I’ve been on a real kick to learn more about Economics while also learning about woodworking. Last summer, I was all about Philosophy. Sometimes these things unlock some pretty big ideas; other times, they just make for good stories to incorporate into something I’m writing or a speech I’m giving at some conference.

Patience — seriously, calm the hell down. Drive is an excellent trait for an entrepreneur, but be realistic about time and your abilities. Every stumble isn’t the end of the world. Get back up, figure out what you did wrong, and keep rolling.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

In short, your job is supposed to be more about strategy than execution. That’s not always the case when you start a business from scratch, but I can confirm this is at least the ultimate goal.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

That you don’t always get to focus on strategy just because that’s the definition of your title!

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Not understanding how their products and services work. My first job out of college was with a medium-sized hardware/software company. Shortly after I started working there, one of their engineers came up with some software that scraped information from the internet and repurposed it into other applications (or stealing, it was stealing).

Once the CEO and CMO got a hold of it, they started selling it as this all-in-one business information solution, but it wasn’t… at all. I remember sitting in marketing meetings in the early days of the product and thinking, “This is just a complete fantasy, and we’re going to get called on it.” I’m not sure if some engineer sold him the fantasy, or he just didn’t understand the product, but either way, he was selling something that didn’t exist.

After a few hours, I couldn’t stand it and said, “This is all well and good, but this product doesn’t do these things you’ve written up on the board!” The CMO pulled me aside and asked what I meant, and I laid it all out for him, and he was honestly shocked.

I still run into this constantly, usually from salespeople, but sometimes from clients, and it’s still terrifying.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Planning is everything. My dad had the entrepreneur spirit as well, but he tended to have more ideas than executions. When I was younger, I just thought that maybe he was a flake, but in reality, he just lacked the knowledge on how to create execution plans for those ideas properly.

The concept of the “idea man” is fun for the movies, but in reality, if you want an idea to see the light of day, you have to plan.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Sure! In no particular order:

  • You still have a boss. It’s easy to think the buck stops with you, but in the end, you’ll always have to answer to someone: shareholders, clients, partners, and so on. When I started my agency, I had no grand ideas that I would tell my clients to scram whenever I felt like it. However, years later, when I merged my agency with another, suddenly, I had business partners who had just as much of a stake in the company as I did. I may insist my partners speak to me a little differently, but I can’t simply ignore them.
  • Some employees don’t just need more direction; they want it. Sure, you can try to be the cool boss and give your staff plenty of room to move, but some of them want you to tell them what to do. That’s ok if that person is worth the extra effort, but sometimes, not so much.
  • Make time for the small stuff. I don’t know how many management books and articles I’ve read that tell you to delegate the small stuff elsewhere, but trust me, some details need to be dealt with by you and only you.
  • Learn as much of the details of your business as you can. Like Captain Kirk once said, “You must learn why things work on a Starship…” because one day, you may have to run it yourself. When I started my experimental e-commerce business in grad school, I did everything myself, even if I sucked at doing so. Sometimes I ended up getting help, but most of the time, I just pushed through. Eventually, when I had enough revenue to offload some tasks, I knew how those tasks functioned and could negotiate the price and so on much better.
  • Remember to take a minute to appreciate the fact that you’re the boss.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Be a mentor, not a boss. I speak to everyone that works for me like they’re going to outgrow their box. Some move on, some don’t, but no one leaves angry because they felt like I held them back.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are two things I would love to see happen, both involve working with young people.

We need to find a way to help high school students learn how to “adult” better these days. Before the 1970s, high schools used to provide “Home Economics” classes that taught basic cooking and cleaning skills and sections about home finances, balancing your checkbook, and so much more. When I was in elementary school in the mid-1980s, these classes were turned into “electives” and then eventually done away with entirely.

Another is giving young entrepreneurs access to resources to develop their ideas. My partner, Ellen, is a CASA here in Los Angeles, a program that works with individual wards of the state who would usually get lost in the system if not for people like her. Many of these kids are bursting with ideas, but most of them go unheard because the system focuses more on just getting them out of the system rather than setting them up for success.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’m @countxero on Twitter and everywhere, really.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Jeff Ferguson of Amplitude Digital: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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