An N.C. ad agency’s shift to digital

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E-commerce was already booming, but it has accelerated in the past 18 months. In the second quarter of 2020, when many of us went home because of the pandemic, e-commerce retail sales surged more than 43% from a year earlier.  

There’s a lot more pressure on companies to have a strong digital presence.  As I write that, I sense eyeballs rolling upward. Who isn’t telling you this?

But I wanted to know what this means, as most businesses do not have a staff devoted to e-commerce, unlike Amazon or Target.  Many of you sell business to business, so you may not be focused on a digital strategy so much.  Or you have some digital but there’s not a lot that someone can do on your site, maybe a little inventory and a shopping cart that works some of the time.

Ames Flynn of Trone

I talked about this with Ames Flynn, president of Trone, a High Point-based agency that has steadily repositioned itself from a traditional advertising firm to a specialist in e-commerce. He has a good perspective because he has seen e-commerce since the earliest days of the internet, when underpowered PCs and tiny bandwidth made buying stuff online very difficult.  Flynn has managed IT, e-commerce, analytics and marketing across a wide range of sectors, including groceries (Delhaize America), home improvement (Lowe’s) and hotels (Extended Stay America). 

He studied marketing at Wake Forest, but when he graduated in 1986 (and especially after he got his MBA there in 1988), technology was rolling through the business world like a bulldozer.

“I stumbled into technology and fell in love with it,” Flynn says. “But what kept me going, I was always working on something customer or marketing-driven. Technology could allow you to differentiate your customer service.”

Flynn left Charlotte-based Extended Stay America in early 2020 and was starting to do some consulting work when he was asked by Trone to help update its strategy. Flynn had previously tapped Trone’s expertise in his prior role, where he oversaw technology, marketing, e-commerce and franchise services. “I really liked their research capability. That fed my marketing. I had some analytics challenges on my e-commerce site that was 20% of my business.”

In 2020, Trone’s leaders wanted to “go even stronger down this e-commerce route,” Flynn recalls.

That makes sense. The fastest growth in the agency space has been in digital, as traditional media has been overtaken in the past 15 years by social media and narrowly targeted web strategies.  Founded by Lee Trone in 1982 with one client and seven employees, the firm grew – in part with a big R.J. Reynolds Tobacco account – to become one of the largest advertising agencies in the state by the mid-1990s, with about 100 employees and room for growth.

“Trone had been a traditional agency,” Flynn says. “Although about six, seven years ago, maybe 10 years ago, they really did start in digital web, mobile development, digital marketing and analytics. So they were shifting there, but they just probably weren’t sure what’s the next leg … what should we do next?”

“One thing kind of led to another.  I got involved in the strategy, and the next thing I know, they said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to be president to execute on the strategy.’”  The offer came from CEO Doug Barton and CFO Rick Morgan, who were part of a group that acquired the firm from Lee Trone more than a decade ago.

“I got really excited,” Flynn says. “It was a combination of things I had done and where things had evolved and grown up to on the agency side.”

In the summer of 2020, when he came in, the pandemic had been turbocharging e-commerce for months. And a lot of companies, particularly smaller and mid-sized businesses, were looking at what Flynn calls low-cost “web-in-a-box” solutions, and “IT body shops.” 

The problem is that these don’t often address the company’s branding or strategy, says Flynn.  Successful e-commerce requires a deeper understanding of the company’s target markets and its own processes.

Some of Trone’s clients have been selling through Amazon or other platforms. “We have a lot of pet clients.  They dabble on Chewy.”  

“What they realize is they don’t have control of their brand and they pay quite a commission.  At some point they need to take control,” he says.

For some B-to-B clients, the digital goal might need to be to increase sales leads or boost the number of quotes requested. A company may have a presence on LinkedIn, for example, but they could use the platform more systematically to find new customers and key buying decision-makers.

“You’ve got to have a brand. You’ve got to have a brand strategy. You’ve got to have great content, and a real good user experience to stitch it together,“ Flynn says.

Subtle things can make a huge difference. In the hotel business, Flynn could quantify the impact of speeding up the average page click by a half second. “No matter what the result was, whether they were looking at availability, or clicking the change-room-type choices, or want to pay for the wi-fi today — a half second translated into multi-million dollars just because how people will tolerate speed, and subconsciously move on to somebody else they know is faster, if you’re slowing them down.”

And it matters if the little chat box pops up and users encounter a robot, or they’re talking to someone who is juggling 20 other chats and may not be that helpful.  “People will try it once if they don’t have to wait and go through a call tree and wait in a queue.  As soon as they realize it’s not going to be faster or not knowledgeable, they’ll give up pretty quick.” 

Sorting through all this is the challenge for mid-sized companies and for agencies like Trone that are evolving their businesses. 

One of the biggest challenges for any agency trying to improve a client’s e-commerce capabilities is dealing with company culture, workflows and rules.  You have to go in and learn how things work, end to end.

Trone had around 80 employees in 2015 when it handled the North Carolina lottery account.  Today, according to Flynn, headcount is in the low 40s, “plus another 15 or so people that are either contract or outsourced folks that we can dial up or down depending on the project.” The lottery, he says, “was a good business. I won’t say it was the most profitable. It was great work. It got our name out. But in general, it was more traditional, and now we can be more efficient with our labor in what we do.”  He sees Trone getting back up in the 70-80 employee range.  

“A lot of what we do is come in and work with people on communicating with each other and planning together, breaking down some of those functional barriers and redefining processes. We start there, which ultimately will tie to their brand. What are they trying to represent? What’s the customer experience they’re trying to get to?  I think we start with the end in mind and go backwards. What’s it going to take to deliver that?”

A few weeks ago, Flynn was at a conference in Washington, D.C., and consulting giant Accenture’s digital folks were making a presentation. “They’ve been on a tear,” Flynn says, “buying up a lot of more on the technology side, a lot of what they call marketing automation, with customer data platforms, a lot around web development, a lot around analytics and digital marketing.  And one of the things they said — which made us feel good — they’re like ‘We realize we’re not as effective as we could be, because we have not focused on creative, we’ve not focused on user experience, and we really haven’t helped people build brands in these channels. We’ve just delivered these solutions. And that is what we’re trying to do different.’

“If you look at some of our clients that I’d say value us” Flynn says, “and long-term they do repeatable business with us, it’s exactly those kinds of things.”

 

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