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Adapting to Industry Changes with Agency Director Gareth Hoyle

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Gareth Hoyle

Gareth Hoyle, Managing Director of Marketing Signals

Gareth Hoyle is the Managing Director of Marketing Signals, a dedicated digital marketing firm that prides itself on driving measurable online success for businesses globally. With over 15 years of experience in the digital marketing sphere, Gareth began his journey while at university, where his fascination with SEO sparked a robust career in developing bespoke digital strategies. Under his leadership, Marketing Signals focuses on precision in SEO, content marketing, and e-commerce, avoiding web design to concentrate solely on marketing solutions that deliver.

In his role, Gareth has built a team of 20 professionals, including in-house experts and virtual assistants from the Philippines, all dedicated to delivering top-tier marketing services. Marketing Signals stands out as a pure marketing powerhouse, employing targeted social media advertising, Google Ads expertise, and meticulous web analytics to ensure their clients' brands achieve and maintain high visibility and growth.

A vocal advocate for the 4-day work week, Gareth believes in the power of balance between personal well-being and professional productivity. His advocacy is rooted in the positive transformation he witnessed within his company, resulting from adopting this innovative work model. This approach has not only increased productivity but also enhanced overall employee satisfaction and company growth.

Gareth is also a regular speaker at global conferences, sharing his insights on effective digital marketing strategies and the benefits of a balanced work-life. He encourages connections with professionals keen to explore the future of digital marketing and workplace innovation. Passionate about empowering businesses and individuals, Gareth invites like-minded individuals to join him in redefining success in the digital age.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Gareth Hoyle

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(click on the 'cc' icon to view subtitles)

Listen to the podcast

(57 minutes long)

Unscripted Agency Industry Changes Q&As with Mark A Preston and Gareth Hoyle

What's the story behind your SEO career, Gareth?

My SEO journey began around 2006-2007 while I was still at university, when I first started building and optimising websites. As I needed to drive traffic to these sites, I delved deeper into SEO, learning through reading, practising, and testing on my own sites. Initially working with small businesses, I shifted focus to providing services directly to other SEO professionals to engage more with peers. During university, I also worked at General Electric, where I learned about the business model of outsourcing. This inspired me to establish a link-building agency, which at its peak employed 300 staff across three shifts, seven days a week, primarily in India, with a handful in the UK. However, the arrival of Google's Penguin update overnight changed the industry landscape, leading me to pivot to a broader SEO-focused approach with my current company, Marketing Signals. We now specialise in SEO, PPC, and paid social media, operating purely as a marketing firm without web design or development services. We are a team of 20, including four virtual assistants from the Philippines who handle data-related tasks. My personal interest lies in digital due diligence—assessing the value of online communities, domain portfolios, and generally indulging in my passion for internet-based investigations for the past two decades.

Has your experience of persevering through challenging times contributed to a resilient attitude?

Absolutely, resilience is essential in the agency world, especially since it has been particularly challenging since 2012. Managing an agency demands a great deal of resilience and a diverse set of business skills. Despite specialising in digital services, many of the challenges I face are people-related. This environment has honed my ability to adapt quickly and spot opportunities or inefficiencies instantly when entering a new business setting. It's like shifting from being a digital marketing advisor to a business consultant. Embracing this life has equipped me with a broad skill set, making me confident that I could successfully manage businesses in entirely different sectors, such as roofing, because the core principles of marketing, product management, customer service, delivery, billing, and overall business acumen are universal. My experience has not only given me a "can-do" attitude but has also prepared me for broader leadership roles, potentially as a CEO, thanks to my financial astuteness and extensive operational experience.

How does understanding business efficiency aid you in working with established brands?

Understanding business efficiency is crucial, especially in roles that involve lead generation and managing operational processes. I often liken my role in marketing to handing out flyers on a busy strip—drawing people into a bar. If the operational follow-through, such as serving drinks or answering business calls promptly, isn't efficient, then the initial marketing efforts are wasted. This analogy extends to e-commerce, where fulfilling orders efficiently is as critical as attracting customers. If a business can't manage inventory or respond quickly to generated leads, then the investment in marketing is futile. My approach always considers the full spectrum of business operations, enhancing efficiency across all stages. This mindset is often lacking in larger corporate settings where there might be less concern over cost efficiencies. My hands-on, efficient management style not only saves money but can significantly increase profitability by streamlining processes and eliminating waste. This focus on efficiency is not just about cutting costs—it's about maximising value and ensuring that every investment in marketing translates into real, measurable outcomes.

Does encouraging your team to think as if they are spending their own money lead to better results for your clients?

It's challenging because many SEOs, especially those involved in PR and content marketing, tend to be creative thinkers rather than business-minded. Ideally, they would blend creative flair with business acumen, but it's difficult to instil this mindset. Recently, we've become stricter with time tracking because, although the content produced is excellent, the cost associated with creating it doesn't always justify the return on investment. When you consider the amount we need to sell to cover these costs, it makes you rethink. I encourage our team to view expenses from the customer's perspective, especially when dealing with significant budgets. For example, if a customer is paying £10,000 a month, they expect clear communication, understanding of activities, and predictable returns. This perspective requires empathy towards the person managing the budget, whether they're a Managing Director or a head of SEO who must justify their expenditure. If one isn't prepared to explain their spending decisions transparently, perhaps they shouldn't be managing that account.

Have client expectations evolved over time?

The industry has definitely matured. Marketing managers today are more knowledgeable about SEO than they were five to ten years ago. There's greater acceptance of remote working setups, like working from home, which has become the norm. Now, client meetings often happen via Zoom or Google Meet, with participants joining from informal settings such as kitchens or home offices. This broader understanding improves client relationships because informed clients are preferable—they act as advocates for our services within their organisations. When it comes to budget discussions, a well-informed marketing manager can safeguard an SEO budget more effectively than if SEO were just a line item that no one understands. Currently, maintaining budgets is as crucial as growing them, given the economic climate where immediate returns from PPC often overshadow the longer-term benefits of SEO.

What strategies can agency owners employ to foster growth?

Agency growth hinges on two main areas: operational management and client engagement. Finding and retaining skilled staff is crucial because the quality of the staff directly affects the quality of the work. To stand out, we've adopted a four-day work week and embraced full remote working, allowing us to attract talent globally, though I prefer to keep my leadership team in the Northwest of England for easier face-to-face interactions. On the client side, transparency and effective communication are key. We use tools like shared Slack channels to maintain open lines of communication. Our approach involves simplifying our activities into understandable terms for clients, ensuring they know what we're doing and why. It's essential to tailor communication to the audience; while we discuss metrics and strategies with marketing teams, we focus on business outcomes like lead generation with sales teams. This clear, business-focused communication helps align our goals with client expectations and enhances our role as integral parts of their marketing strategies.

Do agencies need to drive revenue and not just focus on organic growth?

Yes, driving revenue is essential, not just achieving organic growth. Many of my creative staff, brilliant in their artistic domains, sometimes struggle with the commercial aspects, like understanding the financial implications of their work. We've addressed this by placing a commercially savvy head of strategy in a key role, whose first priority is financial performance, not just activity. Utilising tools like Clarity or Hotjar on landing pages helps us understand what's working and what isn’t. The amount a client pays dictates the level of strategic thinking they receive. We try to allocate time for strategy and account management to deeply understand our clients' businesses, which is crucial for efficient operation. Sometimes it's about optimising what we already have—like improving conversion rates rather than just driving more traffic. If we can increase conversion from 1% to 2%, we double the leads—it's simple maths. Ultimately, it’s about applying sound business principles to marketing, ensuring that we're not just driving traffic but also creating genuine business value.

Why do agencies prefer to work with well-known brands?

Working with well-known brands often aligns better with our capabilities and goals. For example, if a major retailer like Selfridges were to sell a popular brand, it would be significantly easier to achieve good rankings and visibility due to their established brand signals and historical presence online. However, this can also introduce challenges, such as dealing with outdated technology or slow internal processes. Established brands have built-in trust and authority, which makes public relations efforts more effective. Journalists are more likely to reference a known retailer over a lesser-known shop. Despite these advantages, working with large brands can be complex due to their internal protocols, especially if they are publicly traded with quiet periods. Understanding these dynamics is crucial, and we plan our content strategies accordingly. It's easier in some ways, but it requires a sophisticated understanding of corporate structures and schedules.

Do you find that it takes a long time for your suggestions to be implemented when working with larger brands?

Yes, implementing changes with larger brands can be notoriously slow. I have clients with whom we haven't worked for years, yet some of our suggestions are still queued in their systems. These brands often have substantial budgets, allowing them to focus on paid traffic, which can lessen the urgency to address slower-moving SEO improvements. In publicly traded companies, the focus is often on the quarterly share price, not on the day-to-day updates we propose, such as fixing breadcrumbs on a website. We must recognize that while SEO and marketing are crucial to us, they are just one part of a larger business ecosystem. If our contact within the company doesn't wield significant influence, progress can be slow. However, having a strong brand can sometimes compensate for less than perfect technical implementations. We often see brands perform well in search rankings despite technical disadvantages, thanks to strong off-page signals. This shows the enduring power of brand in the digital age.

Is it important for a Digital PR agency team to work alongside the in-house traditional PR team?

It's essential for Digital and traditional PR teams to collaborate effectively, although their focuses may differ. Traditional in-house PR teams are often centred on brand-centric communications like quarterly results and senior hires, whereas digital PR might focus on more dynamic content like surveys comparing nightlife in different cities. The most successful campaigns we've run were those where we integrated seamlessly with the in-house PR team, acting as an extension rather than a separate entity. We sometimes defer to in-house teams for contacts they have established relationships with, fostering a collaborative rather than competitive atmosphere. Our aim is not to replace the in-house team but to complement their efforts, enhancing the overall PR strategy. This collaborative approach can sometimes meet resistance as traditional PR personnel may feel encroached upon, particularly if they did not initiate the hiring of the digital agency. Addressing these challenges involves clear communication and setting common goals, aiming to enhance the visibility and effectiveness of PR efforts across the board.

Do you think that agencies consider themselves as part of the businesses they work with?

As an agency owner, I encourage our clients to view us as an integral part of their team, ideally within multi-year contracts. However, the reality is that perceptions can change, particularly when companies decide to internalise functions we handle, underestimating the resources and expertise required. We aim to be seen as an extension of our client’s marketing team, though it's clear that agency relationships are sometimes viewed as more transactional than familial. Our relationships are subject to the ebb and flow of corporate changes, such as changes in personnel, which can abruptly end our involvement. New decision-makers might bring their preferred agencies, reflecting no shortfall on our performance but rather personal preferences and pre-existing relationships. This dynamic underscores the precarious nature of agency life, where long-term integration can be swiftly undone by new management.

Where is the sweet spot of agency life to avoid the hire and fire culture when you win or lose clients?

Finding the sweet spot in agency life to mitigate the volatility of client turnover is challenging. Agency work can oscillate between periods of rapid growth and sudden downturns. We focus on continuous training to ensure our team remains cutting-edge, which helps in retaining and attracting clients by showcasing our up-to-date expertise. Building strong, personal relationships with client contacts is crucial; their career goals and success are inherently tied to our performance. Complacency is the enemy, and we must consistently prove our value, especially as budgets and priorities shift, such as the changes seen pre- and post-COVID with shifts towards different marketing strategies. Ultimately, maintaining client satisfaction through demonstrable results is key, but external factors like budget reallocations or changes in client personnel can still disrupt even the most stable relationships. The goal is to continuously justify our presence and value to the client, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of agency life.

Do SEOs and digital marketers need to understand the real-life impact of their work on the people within the businesses they assist?

Absolutely. It's crucial for SEOs and digital marketers to recognise that their efforts, although significant in terms of driving traffic or generating links, may not align perfectly with their clients' internal KPIs. Often, clients have broader business objectives that might not be immediately apparent. For instance, while I invest in a dating app for widows, we found that running TV ads during specific programmes led to excellent conversions, completely independent of SEO. This example highlights the importance of understanding the broader marketing mix and recognising that SEO is just one of many tools available. Marketers need to be aware of the bigger picture and consider how various strategies integrate to enhance the overall marketing effectiveness.

What are your personal thoughts on the changes occurring within the SEO industry?

The evolution of the SEO industry, especially with the advent of AI, has been quite a spectacle. I recall the pre-Penguin days when SEO seemed straightforward, and we could dominate search rankings easily. However, the landscape has drastically changed, making those tactics obsolete. It's fascinating, yet somewhat unfortunate, to watch some AI-driven sites struggle today. My hope is that those who adapt and innovate despite these challenges will emerge as the future leaders in marketing. The key lesson here is that strategies need to evolve continuously; what works today might not work tomorrow. So, while it's crucial to capitalise on current opportunities, it's equally important to anticipate changes and adapt swiftly.

What conversations would you like to have with people, and where can they find you, Gareth?

The best place to connect with me is on LinkedIn. I'm increasingly active there as I embrace a more corporate persona over the years. You can also find me on Facebook and other platforms. Simply search for Gareth Hoyle; if I'm doing my job correctly, I should be easily discoverable. I enjoy solving problems, not just in SEO but across various interests, and I often offer advice without charge if the challenge intrigues me. Whether it's PR, link building, website development, coin collecting, or cars, I'm open to discussions. If you have a problem and think I might help, just send me a message. In this industry, networking is key—if I can't assist directly, I likely know someone who can.

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