"Shift Happens" 5 Truth Bombs from Dan Golden, President of BFO

"Shift Happens" 5 Truth Bombs from Dan Golden, President of BFO
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“ In business, plans change, clients come and go, industries evolve, and products (the ones you use and the ones you provide) must be constantly adapted. Or, everything changes. I’ve learned that if you’re too comfortable, then you must be missing opportunities. The remedy for this? Break your own molds before the market does it for you!”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Golden, President of BFO, a Chicago-based digital marketing agency. BFO is a 6x Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies award winner, a 2017 Clutch Global Leaders honoree, a 2017 Better Business Bureau Torch Award Winner, and was #1 on the 2016 Ad Age Best Places to Work list, a 2016 Great Game of Business All Star, and is a frequent U.S. Search List Finalist.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory"?

I graduated from Northwestern University with an ambitious career goal of touring with my college band. Not quite what my parents had envisioned but they were very supportive (although not quite groupies). A couple years in, I decided it would be smart to get the proverbial “day-job” and was waffling between working at a cigar store or taking a chance on this “search engine marketing internship”. I happened to pick the latter, which got me in at ground level of one of the fastest growing channels in the history of advertising. I think I chose wisely.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Well, the best place to start this story is with velcro. Or rather, a sign velcroed on our door.

You see, when we first got started, we did a lot of work as a subcontractor for other agencies that didn’t do what we do. Much of the time, our services were white-labeled so we were working behind the scenes. Our clients’ clients never knew we were the ones doing the work. Of course, sometimes our team needed to be on the frontline acting as a representative for our client, such as when we were doing SEO. On these occasions the client’s client knew us, but didn’t know worked for a different company. That was until we got a call one Thursday afternoon…

It was a normal day in the office. Then, as I say, the phone rang. It was the CFO from one of our largest partnership clients (a huge publicly-traded company). He said he was in Chicago and wanted to extend his trip an extra day so he could come meet with our team. We said, ‘Sure, great, we’d love it.’ Then we called our partner. Panic ensued.

It was craziness. We felt we needed to maintain the front as a part of their brand. They immediately overnighted branded paper pads, coffee mugs, and even a custom-printed sign to attach to the front door - to cover our BFO sign.

The next day the client arrived. He walked to the front door. Noticed the sign, gave it a tug and realized it was velcroed to the door. There he stood with the sign in hand and the rest of us unsure what would happen next. And what happened next was beyond our wildest imagination.

We had a great meeting. And a great discussion on honesty. He was fine with the situation, trusted our team, but just wanted us to be upfront about it. Our partner may not have been thrilled, but from that day forth, we’ve worked as a grey-label partner to provide transparency while still offering integrated client services with our partners.

So what exactly does your company do?

We help our clients turn data into money. Perhaps a little less abstractly, we’re a full service digital marketing agency. We got our start as a search marketing agency, but since then we’ve evolved. Search remains a big part of our offering, but we take the approach to follow the eyeballs.

Our paid search team has grown into a digital media buying team following the user’s eyeballs across the internet...across search, social, programmatic and anywhere we find our client’s audience. On the SEO side, in addition to core SEO consulting we’ve developed a strong content marketing practice to help clients succeed where UX, content, PR, social and other digital channels intersect.

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

We say ‘no’ a lot. That may sound odd, but in an industry where services have become commoditized, it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. We stand out for our honesty and willingness to be perfectly blunt. In other words, we say ‘No’ to bad or risky ideas that may not match the data, or when a strategy or service doesn’t make sense for a client. Even if that means we don’t get the business.

We’re in the business of setting realistic expectations. We help clients focus on a core list of prioritized recommendations to help produce the best outcomes for everybody. It can be scary to say no, but we’ve found our clients respect us more and creates more honest partnerships.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

So beyond the obvious “I was lucky to be raised by two loving and supportive parents and to have an entrepreneurial father and brother”, I would have to say Cam Balzar, a marketing executive who went on to run strategy for Performics and was the CMO of Theadless. He gave me a kickstart in the fast growing industry of digital marketing. Cam took a chance on me as a side project to my touring band, and I followed him around for a couple years which got my foot in the door and launched my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a member of the Small Giants Community, BBB Board Member, and frequent speaker at Conscious Capitalism events, I believe businesses should be a force for good for all stakeholders. At BFO, we do this through open book management principles that engage employees and create more meaningful impacts on company success. We encourage employees to take ownership of company results and pursue their careers in a culture that accepts the value of each individual employee and their unique interests and abilities. We further encourage our employees to “give back” and get involved in their community. This includes Volunteer Time Off, where employees can take time off for charitable and community work and last year included a new type of VTO - Voting Time Off, where we closed our offices on Election Day to encourage everyone to vote and get involved civically. From this experience, we founded EmployersForVTO.org and got dozens of other companies to join us in offering extra days off for our teams.

What are your "5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO" and why.

#1. Shift Happens. In business, plans change, clients come and go, industries evolve, and products (the ones you use and the ones you provide) must be constantly adapted. Or, everything changes. I’ve learned that if you’re too comfortable, then you must be missing opportunities. The remedy for this? Break your own molds before the market does it for you!

#2. Relationships are Everything. Yes, we are in business, do marketing, win awards and earn clients money, but in the end, our business has grown based on relationships. We found discovered early that our best new clients were former client and partner contacts at new companies. We followed them around because we like them and cared for them. Be genuine. Care for your clients. Don’t focus on what they can do for you, but what you can do for them, and offer to help when and wherever you can. It pays off; sometimes not immediately or directly, but it does.

#3. Enjoy the Ride. I’ve always said that BFO’s goal is to grow, but to grow without losing our mojo. This means everyone on the team keeps having fun as we do SEO analytics, execute paid media strategies and all the other hard work that goes into digital marketing, as we make money along the way. Both of these are critical! It’s easy to focus on financial growth goals, sales to the next big client or hitting that next tier, but none of this really matters if you don’t love what you’re doing today.

#4. People are Different. Sure we all know this, but it’s a helpful to remember this as you scale a business. We built a company culture that empowers people to be the best versions of themselves, not that forces people to change to fit in with the company. This meant understanding some great employees may not want to talk to clients or manage other people and encouraging them to excellence in roles that met their talents.

#5. Predict the Future. I learned fast if you don’t take time to predict the future, you’ll be left in the past. There’s a great chance you’ll be wrong as there are no crystal balls, but the more you learn about your business, the better you can get at influencing positive outcomes. Find the leading indicators for your new business and build an active projections model.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

I’ll join a long list of entrepreneurs that would love to spend more time with Gary Vaynerchuck. Not only is he an inspirational entrepreneur, but we play in the same agency “sandbox”. I think I could learn a lot about how to position my company for success as our industry continues to evolve. While I did get a chance to run into him on the street corner in New York before we both attended a Google event, I’d love to have a more in-depth opportunity to pick his brain and absorb some truth bombs!

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