Why Your Agency Needs to Embrace Automation and Artificial Intelligence

By Jason Swenk on February 23, 2022

Do you struggle to embrace automation in your agency’s operations? Jordan Bell was already an ads expert that taught the ins and outs of creating successful ads when he started his agency Agency Bell, where he applied his knowledge to offer direct response ad mastery with AI-powered automation and retainer-level audience insights for law firms. In his interview with Jason, he talks about why it was difficult to embrace automation which ultimately became a game-changer for his agency. He also chats about the importance of really understanding what you’re doing and not fully relying on technology as the ultimate solution, and why it takes a solid structure, more than just new technology, to get your agency through difficult times.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Embracing automation. Jordan was the guy when it came to ads. He could calculate the exact bid that we would need at a common conversion rate in like a specific keyword or targeting group. It was all manual. This is why it was very hard for him to embrace automation. In the end, it wasn’t about getting into machine automation, but actually turning it into a competitive advantage for them, which became a massive milestone for his agency.
  2. Can you find your way through a problem? We all need to get back to the basics at some point to remember what’s important. As Jordan puts it, you should learn to fly a plane before turning on automated navigation. “There’s so much technology available to us that it often becomes the solution in people’s minds,” he says. They forget that, in order to be reliable, efficient and successful you should be able to understand what you’re doing in the context of what we’re trying to achieve or the larger vision and goals. At the end of the day, regardless of what task management program you use, can you write down what outcomes you need to be able to achieve when you’ve got 20 or 30 tasks due that week?
  3. A solid structure to get you through. These have been difficult times where many have had to learn to adapt to new circumstances. There are solid frameworks that protect any kind of business and Jordan has learned that it’s not about getting to the new tech. It’s more about the management side of running a business, being in charge of the outcomes, having a vision for the future of the business, designing the lifestyle. These years taught him to really consider what work he should be doing versus not doing in the business as an agency owner.

Sponsors and Resources

Verblio: Today’s episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease in their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.


Apple | Spotify | iHeart Radio | Stitcher | Radio FM

Using Automation as a Competitive Advantage & Really Understand the Context of What You’re Trying to Achieve

{These transcripts have been auto-generated. While largely accurate, they may contain some errors.}

Jason: [00:00:00] Hey, Jordan, welcome to the show.

Jordan: [00:00:04] Hey, thank you.

Jason: [00:00:05] You know, the funny thing is, is whenever we record these shows, it’s like we have chatted before, which we’ve been chatting for like 10 minutes, but I guess we have to do that for you listeners out here, making it believe this is the first time we’re chatting. But, um, tell us who you are and what do you do?

Jordan: [00:00:20] Yeah. So my name is Jordan Bell. I run a digital ad agency called Agency Bell. I’ve been doing it for about five years, but my experience in advertising and agency-type services is about over a decade or so. I’m a builder type of agency owner. I kind of classify them as like, kind of like the builders and engineers, the service people, the sales focus ones. I’m a true builder and a service type of person.

So I built the agency really from a service perspective as a guy who was cutting his teeth in Google ads on large accounts for a long time. And getting really involved in the technology side of it and really enjoying the customized integrations.

And so, you know, I ran an agency or I helped run an agency as a junior partner for a little while after my last corporate role, seven years ago or something and, um, after that I was teaching digital marketing courses, advertising courses at coding academies and stuff, and a couple of colleges and a while also consulting and taking on like really not really like, um, you know, corporate, not a lot of corporate projects. I had a couple like Fortune 500 ones, but, um, a lot of like, uh, hit the hammer, strike the from hammer to anvil, get the outcome type of in the trenches types of roles.

I always enjoyed that. And, um, the consulting gigs came from teaching adults in CMOs. Good to go digital, stuff like that. And then eventually the consultancy, it just kind of became more and more until it became time to start an agency again. I’m an individual agency owner, right? My wife and I work on it together, but I’m a primary principal on it and we haven’t had done it before. We’d like, you know, partners or multiple people, which is, uh, its own a wild ride of challenges and volatility in the past.

But today, after working on a lot of different industries, we’re currently focused primarily on large-scale law firm projects. So, um, think like, you know, multimillion-dollar annual budgets for plaintiff driven. So you’ve got your mass like product liability, lemon law, um, motor vehicle accidents, those kinds of things. We work with a lot of investors, so we’re usually like one of the three or four people at partner like, uh, companies at the table.

You’ve got the large-scale investment companies that are investing in plaintiff operations for law firms. And then the law firms who are the subject matter experts and sometimes they’re have their own large scale budgets. And through that, it’s sort of given us a nice corner where we can really build out larger-scale programs that are really fully integrated into their CRMs.

So the way I like to think about it is that there’s a lot of lead generators out there, and we like to train the ad systems to optimize towards people who are more likely to take the desired final action, which with your thinking about e-commerce it’s like optimizing to the conversion pixel, right? But in the lead generation world, you’re optimizing to a person who is more likely to sign a contract retainer, or like, if it was like a car dealership, it’d be like a person who’s likely to buy the car at the end.

So that created a big, a massive burden of technology because you have to protect data pipelines because if you don’t have perfect data flowing between a firmer, a company, that’s actually, um, doing things inside their CRM, it can destroy the campaigns quickly. So it created a data requirement for ad data and CRM data, and automation where power’s out to your users and a bunch of other fun technology because people contact our clients through chat and form and phone, and there’s different levels of engagement in the pipeline.

So it really encompasses all of like, what I know from my background is an MBA, business modeling with them and their own operations as companies, as clients. And so it goes far beyond like the advertising stuff and it lets us stay up to date on the new tech that’s, that’s out and really weaponizing that.

So it’s a massively difficult thing to do, and it takes a while to onboard people in our team, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it. I’m where I want to be. So…

Jason: [00:04:08] That’s awesome. Tell us about what’s a big milestone that you’ve achieved since starting the agency that you’re really proud of with running your digital agency?

Jordan: [00:04:21] Yeah, it used to be like I was for a while the guy that somebody knew that was really good at ads and it didn’t involve automated bidding inside like Google ads, Bing, Facebook. It involved a lot of manual work. I used to like calculate the exact bid that we would need at a common conversion rate in like a specific keyword or a targeting group, and like be able to pinpoint and say, okay, I needed a negative 20% bid modifier.

It was all manual. I mean, it was good. We’d calculate it. But I was teaching people to really go in there and move all the levers and switching over to automation and machine learning was, I was extremely stubborn about like, not wanting to like take my hands off the levers. It’d be like, I don’t want the computer to fly the plane. I want to fly it myself. You’ve got to feel it differently, right?

And that journey, I’m a risk-taker in some ways, but risk-averse and others and trusting automation systems to think big picture strategically like a person who’s looking at many different factors, not just the ad system, which itself is a rocket ship, but looking at many different factors before making a decision inside an ad program, when you’re dealing with multi-million dollar budgets. That is one extremely hard to teach in collectively with, um, as we bring on team people internally, and we have a small team for that because of this.

But also it’s like what logic rules inside ad systems are going to account for that. They don’t make the technology that is designed specifically to solve the kinds of problems that we’re trying to solve that would make it like we could not set it and forget it, but there’s so much ad tech out there that is like, oh, you won’t have to do as much. It’ll tell you exactly what to do.

And yet no program was able to give us those exact winning solutions or even close. And so learning, not whether to go into machine learning and automation, but actually how to make it our competitive advantage the way we used it was a massive milestone for us. The reason, the way that we had to do that was we had to think about how to make sure that all the data that we wanted from disparate sources were not available from these static reports that would take hours to put together.

I used to hand-piece together all these like reports, but they had to be available in seconds, completely dynamic, so I could, we could change date ranges and filters and stuff. Google systems didn’t even have, like, not all the views that are possible are actually available. And their own tools aren’t even flexible enough for it.

So we had to be able to recreate things like dynamic reports that are based in sheets that pull data from APIs. We had to create audit systems and the audit systems are like, cause we use this thing called offline conversions where, where a CRM action happens and then a person has a unique click in the URL. And then we follow that, we connect it to the person and it, and it kind of, um, in updates, Google. That person, they get, I call it a superhero Cape when one of 20 leads gets a superhero cape, and that’s the person you want more of. And then you have to immediately send that to Google. But that data pipeline is extremely fragile because there’s so many things that can break that connection.

And so learning how to audit that in workflow, we’re dealing with thousands of leads per week, it could become doing it manually is, is an impossible job. I was up to like three or four in the morning, every night, just trying to manually like hand stitch these things together, and then eventually learning how to build operational workflows like that was a massive challenge.

But when we finally like wrapped our heads around it and got through like these 40 step, like Zap(ier) automations, that was a huge milestone. In the biggest account that we have we finally just did a workflow where we had to treat it like an e-commerce setup and where like multiple conversions could come from one lead, like multiple cases.

And that was extremely difficult because if, if not to go too into the weeds, but if you mess that up, you can’t undo the damage to the account. And so building that entire thing to protect that meant that as soon as we committed to the machine learning aspect of our agency, it put a huge burden of things that we had to accomplish in order just to be successful. When you raise the bar that high, you have to be able to get over it, or you have to go back and lower the bar.

And so that was really big for us.

Jason: [00:08:28] Yeah. So, I mean, that’s amazing how you’re, you’re trusting machine learning and AI in order to do things that used to do manually. So what’s life like now that you’ve turned over that stuff, like, what are you able to focus on now?

Jordan: [00:08:45] Building the system better. We couldn’t focus on things before. Like we couldn’t take like this satellite image view in seconds of anything in the campaign we want to see you. So if I want to look at the income, like income or age range inside a particular ad group or geographic location and instantly get statistically significant data on a specific, customized low conversion action, like assigned retainer up to the minute basically that they’re doing it. We didn’t have that ability before.

To be able to say in 10 seconds we can get to that information and get a stat that’s relevant. It changed the way that we could optimize campaigns with the level of granularity that we could get to so that rather than 10 different decisions that could be made, we can isolate down to the two or three where at least two of them are highly likely to work.

We’re creating the science in the advertising world, where there were so much more of the, there is a, there’s a data science obviously to advertising that a lot of people don’t realize until they really get into it and look at the data. But our decisions are far more likely to deliver the expected outcome.

And when we’re dealing with return on investment for like large scale investors that becomes a competitive advantage for us because we become the company and they don’t want to work with anybody else. So our retention is incredible at that point. We’re talking about years not months when with our retention.

Jason: [00:10:12] Are you looking for a content creation solution for your agency and/or clients? Verblio can help you with everything from blog posts, eBooks, to video scripts, and a lot more. Verblio is a crowdsource solution to content creation with the pool of more than 3000 highly-vetted writers who produce custom SEO-rich content.

In fact, my team has been using Verblio and we love the ease of their process. With Verblio, we set the criteria for the style and the tone, and then they match you with the writers that have the expertise in your subject matter. Verblio is a platform specifically designed for agency, and that’s why for a limited time, they’re offering my listeners 50% off the first month of content.

Just go to verblio.com/smartagency to learn more. That’s Verblio, V E R B L I O.com/smartagency.

Now, how did you guys go about finding the right solution? You know, because there’s lots of tools out there that say they do machine learning and AI. And there’s always a fuzzy thing between each and then people were like, well, if you do this, then why can’t the customer or the client go directly there and just bypass the agency? So talk a little bit about that.

Jordan: [00:11:34] Yeah, great question. When I used to teach one of the first lessons that we did in the marketing course was about how I would call it like the ninja digital marketer will have a set of skills. Like they’ll be a creative thinker, they’ll be kind of like a data and analytical thinker, and then they’ll be a strategist as well.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

And all the kind of technology and the programs that we’re using and the way that we bring them together, which is always cool, people are often surprised that I don’t make a decision on technology and workflows until far later in the game than most others will.

And the reason is because we’re trying to pick a decision that’s not, that we’re not going to have to iterate on and change a bunch of stuff the next day or the next week. We’re trying to make a decision that accounts for all the factors or as many of them as we can reasonably do while allowing for variability afterwards and allowing us to have the flexibility.

So when we do things like pulling data from like the tracking URL, we pull everything because we don’t know that we’re whether we’re going to need it yet. And oftentimes that’s how we’re able to like sort of save the day on scenarios because we pulled it, not knowing when we’d need it, but having it anyway.

And so one of the reasons why it’s difficult for companies to execute on this is because in order for them to do this properly, they, well properly in the sense of like what we’re trying to achieve here, they have to be able to tap into a series of strategic decisions that come from first off knowledge of the market and what you can do to understanding how machine learning is working in how the system is looking at signals and having outcomes from that.

We have to be able to predict based on experience and like vast amounts of data. The difference between asking a single qualifying question that’s slightly different in its wording and what the user experience of the person is going to be like who’s just did a search, which there’s search psychology in there.

And then following that process through what kind of data does it produce and how did the ad systems learn from it as the law firm or any other is changing things in their CRM? There’s a long pattern of factors before you can make really effective decisions. And it’s, unfortunately, it creates kind of a tight rope because digital can be pretty unforgiving in a lot of ways, but it’s what makes the work interesting because you can no longer just look at ad data and say, oh yeah, just make this next move. You know, it doesn’t work that way. It’s a, it’s a worthy challenge.

But I also like to make it accessible though, you know, we get on a call, like, do you want to teach the firms how to think about this stuff because there’ll be a better partner. They’ll appreciate the fact that we’re confident that nothing that we’re doing yet or how we packaged it as proprietary. It’s just really difficult to do and it’s really great for big outcomes and sustainable.

So like we have $200 click keywords in some accounts and that usually produces high click fraud rate, and we have one of the lowest click fraud rates I’ve ever seen on that on our most expensive account, because we’ve trained Google to avoid lawyer and marketer clicks that destroys budgets.

So you, it’s very hard without all the pieces together you actually can’t really do it very easily on your own. And that’s why it’s fun, but it’s also, there’s also, it’s pretty high stakes at that point.

Jason: [00:14:34] I remember back in the day when I was first advertising on Overture, so this was before Google and yeah, there’s a bunch of click fraud because I know people, you just see the competitor and you’d go back and forth and be like, ooh, I charged this guy a dollar.

Jordan: [00:14:51] Yeah, we have click fraud software but it doesn’t really, it eats like it’s a whack-a-mole game, right? And the bigger, the ratio of people you don’t want clicking to the ones you do it can really mess up campaigns. It’s hard. We won’t even start some kinds of campaigns without a runway budget and without like certain factors in their tech and their operations being okay because that’s our story.

If there are things that we can’t reasonably control and they’re not the right fit, then that becomes our story at that point. And most of the business was built off like our and my reputation because we drive to success, you know, we aim for that outcome. And that was a level of commitment that it’s very exhausting at times, but you know how it is.

And you don’t always know if it’s a click, it’s like, how does one person who types in the same keyword, how do you know the difference? You know, what’s happening. You just don’t know where it is.

Jason: [00:15:39] Let’s switch focus a little bit, because a little while ago, we were talking about some things that you were doing that’s really helping you guys out and kind of going back to the basics. Talk a little bit about that, cause I know your agency is doing really well. You guys are growing and scaling the agency fast, but why would you go back to the basics? Because a lot of people were like, oh, you’re advanced. And we’re talking about very advanced stuff right now that machine learning all that.

So why go back to the base?

Jordan: [00:16:09] Yeah. I’ve heard some good things from people that better explain it than I do. So I’m going to borrow one from a person who said this to me recently, is that show me, you can do long division before you get a calculator, right? Or I’ve always described it as like, show me, you can fly the plane before you get your like computer navigation, like on, you know, within like a 747 or a fighter jet.

Like what are the stories that are, that are amazing about crash landings with planes? Is that the pilot was able to land the plane in a river, right? And what computer is going to do that at that point? Is, is a team’s ability it can fail fast when the plug is bolt, can you get a candle in the dark and find your way through a problem, or like have a get out of the woods with the stars, right?

And I’ve found that that is so important, especially in like comprehension of the material, because it’s so much technology that’s available to us that it often becomes the solution in people’s minds. And they forget that in order to be the most successful, the most efficient, the most reliable and achieve results when we set the bar high is we have to be able to understand what we’re doing in the context of what we’re trying to achieve or our larger vision and goals.

You know, to talk about it as if you don’t need the technology, but you can operate faster with it and you can be more efficient with it and get to better places, because then you’re talking about, then you’re living it. It’s authentic.

You know, I’m not a great salesperson on the phone. I’m really not, I don’t say all the right things, but I close the deals because for me it’s authentic. I believe in it. I understand how it works and that interestingly in the success and challenges of the, of the agency that we’ve had in, in my own. When we won it was because we understood it without technology and process and in any kind of, and you know, frameworks have been awesome, but like we’ve been looking at a lot of things like whether like agile adaptive would help us, you know, like EOS, OKRs all those kinds of things are, are, are really coming to the forefront now.

At the end of the day, can you, regardless of what task management program that you have, can you throw things off the desk and then write down what outcomes you need to be able to achieve when you know, you’ve got like 20 or 30 tasks due that week? Can you say, this is why they’re important, what they’re going to achieve, its current place within the scope of the work, because then no matter what you have, you can prioritize, you can do what matters and that every time we get away from that we struggle.

So I make the technology decisions and the operational policies and the workflows, all that kind of stuff is one of the last things that we do to get it right. But we have to have that comprehension in the beginning and the ability to operate in the dark with a candle in a piece of paper.

Jason: [00:18:46] Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah. I always tell everybody every quarter you should look at going back to the basics. You know, I always use the story when, when I was playing college tennis and I was losing to a guy I should not have been losing to. And my tennis coach go back to the basics, Swenk! Go back to the basics dummy! And as soon as I stopped overthinking about my backswing or my follow through, I was like, all right, I’m gonna just look at the ball and hit it. And it started working.

Jordan: [00:19:16] Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I’m a, I’m a musician so this is kind of like someone playing, doing their scales or doing the rudiments on a, on a drum or something like that, right? Like there’s a reason those are important because it’s got, those have to be second nature to build things on top of it.

And it’s why, you know, whether it’s in an ad campaign, right? We, we’re looking at all like the data and the tech and like all the suggestions that has, but we’re lost. Why are we lost? At the end of the day what do we have to do? We have to say, what is the business problem we’re solving? Who are we reaching? Well, how would we describe them? Demographically, behaviorally, like when something is stopping in their newsfeed.

Like, what would we say to them that would make them go, yeah, oh, I’m going to stop doing this thing that I really want to do to, to look at an ad that I didn’t ask for. What’s in it for me? Why do I care? Like, and there’s going into user experiences on at that point. User experience, design and copywriting, and really good targeting theory is timeless. It really is.

It’s the same skills we use to decide whether what we should write on a direct mail piece and where we should send it and what kind of things to put on billboards. That skill is so still important. The best copywriting books are ancient, and yet we apply them differently today just based on the technology.

And I’m a big believer in the, in the traditional foundations there. If someone can, she can talk me through that strategy. I can teach him how to use it. That’s no problem. But teaching the basics and teaching the foundations, that’s the challenge.

Jason: [00:20:40] Yeah. Many years ago, when, when I started helping agency owners and I was developing the playbook, I really thought about that of like, what are the foundational systems that you need that will stand the test of time that are the basics that you go back and forth.

Like we were talking, pre-show like, you know, how do we make sure we have that clarity? And then we get the positioning and then the offering, and then we can start prospecting and doing sales. Like there’s systematic things that you need to do that will always stand the test of time and you just got to think about what is that for your business and constantly going, are we making it simple? Are we on the right plan? And then, you know, adjust rather than just see the shiny red object and where the cat trying to swat it down.

Jordan this all been amazing. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

Jordan: [00:21:35] The one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how like the systems, right? So like the agency playbook kind of systems, right? Like one of the things that has really kind of helped and, and maybe kind of almost like saved us from like the peaks and valley, like the, the days of where it’s like, can we, is this gonna work tomorrow? Did we set our sights too high, right?

You know, I got married last year, we had a child, I started law school, like I was back to the 16 hour day. Like it was hard, like life was coming and also were, we were both work from home parents. So that whole psychological challenge that happens, like there’s research about how people are getting like really beaten up their mental health is hard, is tough right now.

And one of the things that really has stood out to me is that it wasn’t about getting to the new tech. And it wasn’t even about something that would like, it would just be for agencies for anyone that’s kind of like manager, running a business, you know, major responsibilities like that, who is in charge of outcomes.

It was really focusing on the vision, the designing the lifestyle, like what work I should be doing versus not doing, and then backing up from those outcomes, which I, I used to talk about all the time, but I wasn’t taking those daily steps.

I worked with a CEO coach and I found that some of those just involved setting the vision for myself as an agency owner. Now, it’s now as we’re kind of running the agency together as, uh, you know, with a child at home is that we, we have to look at our life and our daily schedules and our vision and how that contributes and how we work together as a team.

And so everyone’s got their own version of this in the pandemic era where then maybe they’re in an office or not, maybe, you know, but everything is a little bit more difficult these days and it’s changing constantly.

And the thing you just talked about with the going back to basics, there are solid frameworks that protect any kind of business. And it doesn’t mean that you have to use, like, I’ve always finally, it doesn’t mean you have to use one specific method. It doesn’t, no one method solves everything. It’s the application of it.

And I could not see it more clearly now how there were things that we did not have in place in every department like that. Uh, you know, just the planning element, the vision and mission, the OKR style, like KPIs, like the qualitative and quantitative outcome, and making sure that we are locking onto that.

I mean, we’ve had times where people, we had people working two jobs and we didn’t know about it until like two full-time jobs, because that’s what happened in advertising in the pandemic air, right? And engineering and stuff like that.

And so we had, like, we learned a lot of hard lessons that way, but if we started with those things and then build operational structures in which the outcome was still those things and we held accountability systems in place to that, that’s the only thing that we feel now stands the test of time. Because everything else is just which workflow we’re using, which project management system it’s, I’m, I’m agnostic to those things. They’re all, they all kind of work the same way.

But I’ve only really become safe and scalable from those basics and those frameworks and the things that we found worked for us. And then we, we made those, our bottom line. Like those are non-negotiables. And from there, honestly, like I feel like even still, I’m getting back to waves of peace, again, knowing that there’s a big uphill battle to achieve the goals, but it’s not scary anymore.

That’s really the biggest thing that I, that I think even just from going into the new year that, that we found.

Jason: [00:24:57] That’s awesome. Well, it’s been great to have you on the show. It’s been also great to get to know you over the past years of being in the mastermind and watching your guys grow. And watching you constantly take one tackle and then get up and then tackle the next one because running an agency’s tough and you’re always going to get beat down, but it’s about like moving forward and moving forward in the right way and be able to just kind of sidetrack some of the things coming at ya.

What’s the agency website, people go and check you guys out?

Jordan: [00:25:32] Sure, agencybell.com

Jason: [00:25:34] Really hard. Very easy. If you guys can’t remember that you guys got issues, but uh, check out Jordan’s, uh, agency website and, uh, thanks so much Jordan for coming on the show.

And if you guys enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe comment and if you want to be around other amazing agency owners like Jordan, where you can ask us any questions that you’re struggling with. And we might be able to see the things a little bit differently so you guys can grow and scale your digital agency faster, go to digitalagencyelite.com and apply.

And until next time have a Swenk day.

Would You Like To Get Access To A Proven Agency Framework For Growing Your Agency?