By Stuart Roberts on November 02, 2015

Interview with Watertight Marketing founder and author, Bryony Thomas

If you’re a small business owner fretting over a marketing strategy, Bryony Thomas’ book, Watertight Marketing, is a revelation. In simple terms, it talks you through a series of actionable steps to help your business get a grip on its marketing, plugging those all important leaks in the marketing funnel. We’ve long been fans of the book (and the blog) so it was a real pleasure to sit down and have a chat with Bryony about inspiration, small business marketing and the power of content.

Future Content: Hi Bryony. Firstly, thanks for taking the time out to chat with us.

Bryony Thomas: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.

FC: Could you start by giving us a bit of background, what got you into marketing?

BT: Sure. Well, originally I wanted to be the Prime Minister...

FC: Okay [laughs]

BT: Yeah [laughs], I studied politics at the University of Bristol. I was a self-funding student so while studying I also worked as a telephone fundraiser for ActionAid, the overseas development charity, basically trying to get people to part with cash on the phone for a good cause.

Within three months, I was part of the campaign management team - training and appraising a rolling team of about two hundred people aged from 17 to 92. I worked about 20-30 hours a week, alongside my undergraduate degree, so when I left university, I had two years marketing experience under my belt.

After uni, I did a year with a recruitment agency, running the sales & marketing desk. It gave me a phenomenal insight into the local marketing employers! While I was there, I came across a job I liked the look of myself, with an agency called Mason Zimbler (MZL). I had a great interview with Mark [Mason, then CEO of Mason Zimbler, now CEO of Mubaloo] and they offered me the job, marketing the agency itself - marketing to marketing people.

When the teams were at full capacity, I stepped in and took on some work and it snowballed from there.

To cut a long story short, I left MZL four years later having been offered the job of Account Director on Microsoft.

FC: Wow! So, what made you leave?

BT: Well, I’d hit the ceiling - I’d been offered the Account Director role and I suddenly thought “Ah, there’s no move up from here… to progress I will have to leave”. So I did! MZL had supported me in completing my Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) diploma. I loved studying, I love translating theory into practice. So, I applied for a full-time MBA, and took an interim contract with Lloyds TSB before the course started.

FC: So you didn’t have any marketing qualifications before that?

BT: Nope. A Politics degree, and lots of learning on the ground. The MBA was about really underpinning my practical know-how with firm academic foundations.

And, the course was a perfect opportunity to get in touch with all my old contacts. I called them all up and said, “could I base one of my essays or projects on your business?” So for every single one of my essays I essentially did a consulting assignment and worked it into what was required academically.

One of these projects, for a company called ClarityBlue, fundamentally changed the course of my career. They asked me if I would come in and work with them, initially as a planner and then as Director of Marketing. I took on that role alongside my (full-time) MBA. It was a crazy time, I worked 50-70 hours a week, completed my MBA in 18 months and then and joined the company full-time when I completed the course. The company was then acquired by Experian (for £85 million!) and my role expanded to director of marketing for the Integrated Marketing division in the UK.


From boardrooms to lunches: Bryony's marketing career began at large corporates, before setting up on her own

So, there I was aged 28, as the divisional director of marketing within a FTSE 100 company. But I got fed up with driving to Nottingham where Experian was head-quartered, and I’d never set out to work in a big corporate. It happened by accident, and to be blunt, I was bored of the internal politics and uninspired by making money for a big machine.

I had always planning to do my own thing when I graduated from my MBA, but got sidetracked by the corporate trappings. So one day, when I was driving into Nottingham I decided I didn’t want my office job. Why the hell was I in the car at half past four in the morning working my ass off when I wouldn’t even want a promotion if it was offered to me? So I left, again with nothing to go to.

I quietly set up Watertight Marketing (then named Clear Thought Consulting) on August 5th 2008, worked out my three months’ notice, and picked up my first major client in the November of that year. Watertight Marketing is an aggregation of all of those previous marketing jobs. It’s developed very much organically, and I can definitely see parts of all my previous work in the what I’m doing now, even from the call scripts I worked on at ActionAid and the very early proposals I was putting together all those years ago at Mason Zimbler.

FC: So your marketing career has been pretty much unplanned?

BT: Well, there was no one big ‘flux capacitor’ (Back to the Future fans) moment. But everything I’ve done, from the telemarketing to MZL to Experian, has brought me here. In fact, I’d say that the values on which it is all founded can be traced to my hippy roots in the Preseli Hills. So, whilst I can’t point you to some grand plan I wrote when I was 19, the path has been a thoughtful one.

FC: And here we are...

BT: Here we are, yes. And, wow! I truly love where I am.

"I want to cry when I hear business owners tell me that they ‘have a friend’s daughter who's quite creative putting a bit of marketing together for them’. This is like saying that the kid who’s good with numbers is equipped to do your annual accounts. Seriously! Marketing is the lifeblood of your business…"

I wrote the book because I find it hard to watch good people with good businesses struggle to get the growth and rewards they deserve. Genuinely heartbroken. I went from big corporates, where quite frankly it barely matters if the marketing works, to working with small businesses where people have put everything on the line.

FC: Sure.

BT: You know, you see people put their heart and soul in, you see marriages on the line, you see people risking their mental health. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. You know, stress and insomnia and alcoholism - these issues are rife because business owners often 70-odd hours a week, and they take on the stress of the mortgages of every single person that relies on them. So, if the marketing money doesn’t offer a return, then there’s so much more than money at stake. My mission is to set those people free, by giving them the confidence to make calm and sensible marketing decisions.

FC: You must have come across a fair few small businesses who have been burned by poor marketing.

BT: Hundreds.

FC: As a marketer, how do you overcome that? It’s got to be difficult to convince someone who has been burnt to then go back and be…..

BT: Give me a cynic and I will return you a convert! I love a cynic, genuinely. People who have had a hard time, or even have an absolute hatred of marketing, have at least they have engaged with it emotionally; they desperately wanted it to work. It might not have done, but they wanted it to.

It’s people who don’t care that I find hard to work with, or people who have got to the point where they just won’t even engage with the concept anymore.

People who are passionately disappointed by their marketing are perfect because when I run them through Watertight Marketing they’ll suddenly go, “of course. That’s why it didn’t work”. So you know, if they’ve been burnt, and it hurt, at some stage during Watertight Marketing they will realise why it didn’t work, and that’s a phenomenal moment, for us both.

FC: You must get a lot of questions specifically about Watertight Marketing, but I’m interested in the current marketing landscape. What changes have you noticed since your time at MZL, and what new trends can you see on the horizon?

BT: I don’t buy into the marketing revolution thing. People are usually talking about technology, social or digital when they say this. But, the way that people buy stuff, psychologically speaking, will always remain fundamentally the same. If you understand the thought processes people go through and how they navigate a purchase decisions, what boxes they need to tick to buy something, then it doesn’t matter what tool you’re using… providing it ticks that box for them. I do accept that people can do this faster, and via a vaster network of people in this connected world we now live in, but the needs they are fulfilling within their own minds remain unchanged.

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What marketing revolution? The way in which people buy things psychologically, says Bryony, will always remain the same.

I don’t know what the next big thing is going to be; I haven’t got a clue. But I do know that every time a new technology or social platform emerges I can map it against the Watertight Marketing framework and understand what role it could play in a buying decision. So, whatever the Emperor’s new clothes are, you can very quickly assess it against the framework and decide whether it deserves your energy.

The framework means you can look at a new trend, and ask... (a) how does it support a buying decision? (b) do I need something that does that job? And (c) does it fit my people and my buyer? This means that you can quickly make decisions about stuff that’s brand new.

FC: Do you think a lot of marketers get a little bit blinded by new technology?

BT: Yeah, shiny new stuff, absolutely. It’s like fitness, isn’t it?! Everyone wants to think that this is the magic diet or the no-effort exercise regime that means you can look gorgeous and never have to lift a finger. We all know this is a fallacy, don’t we? You just need to eat less and move more, and the same is true with marketing.

The problem is that people go looking for a silver bullet, and there just isn’t one.

FC: You’re a marketer and an author, with so much advice available to smaller businesses and business owners online, and in books like Watertight Marketing, what can the marketer offer that a business owner can’t learn themselves?

BT: Well to a certain extent there’s too much advice, and that’s the problem. It can be overwhelming. As a business owner, it’s knowing where to start. You could probably spend a couple of years reading Copyblogger, and others, and get some phenomenal advice. The problem is that if you haven’t got a structure in which to apply that advice, you’re probably doing things in the wrong order. Having an experienced adviser is your shortcut to getting this right. Like working with a personal trainer on your fitness - sure, you could do it yourself. But, the expert guidance will get you there faster and is more likely to make it stick.

"For the last six years I’ve essentially been using the same content every single day. If there’s real value to it, you can turn one piece of content into so much more."

What’s more… it is a core business discipline. Like finance, like law. Experienced marketers have a deep knowledge of their subject and many years of experience. I want to cry when I hear business owners tell me that they ‘have a friend’s daughter who's quite creative putting a bit of marketing together for them’. Or, they’ve got a smart graduate on the team to handle the marketing. This is like saying that the kid who’s good with numbers is equipped to do your annual accounts, or the fresh law graduate can put your contracts together. Seriously! Marketing is the lifeblood of your business… why would you not want an expert to help you?

I also don’t think for a moment that Watertight marketing is the only marketing book that anyone’s going to read - I seriously hope not. I hope it’s the first one, because it will then direct you onto the other things you should read, and how they fit together.

FC: Let’s move onto content. As you say, there is so much advice online, how does a business separate themselves, you know, stand out from the noise?

BT: By being relevant. Again, that’s always been true. You know, it’s [pause]…’s about answering the question at the moment that they have it, isn’t it? It’s about making sure that what you are putting in front of them helps them with the decision they’re making, or question they’re asking themselves at that moment.

I see lots of content that seems to have got lost in trying to be sexy, like infographics that look great but tell you very little. It doesn’t matter how stunning the format, if the content of your content is not what people need.

I also think one of the things people suffer with is that they think they need to continually come up with something fresh and new. This is based on the assumption that the rest of the world cares, or indeed notices all of your content. It’s simply not true. So let’s imagine you create a really good piece of evergreen content, why do you need something new? I’ve essentially been talking about the same Watertight Marketing stuff for at least six years, and I can trace the origins back 15 years. If there’s real value to it, you can turn one piece of content into so much more.

So, for the last six years I’ve essentially been using the same content every single day, but I’m not feeling the pressure to go and create something brand spanking new because there are still people who haven’t heard about it, and there are still people who have heard about it who haven’t got round to actually engaging with it yet.

The pressure to come up with something new, something new, something new; it stops people from developing something really, really good. And if it’s really good, and it’s evergreen, it doesn’t date. If it’s something fundamental, don’t throw it out just because you’ve got another campaign to do, or to fill the ‘something new’ quota.

FC: Do you think business owners have bought into digital marketing already or is there still convincing that you need to do?

BT: I just don’t buy the difference between marketing and digital marketing. Digital is just part of the marketing mix. The key question for our typical clients - those with anywhere between £1-10 million turnover with 5-10 employees - tends to be around whether they should invest money in marketing, digital and content being part of that, or in sales people. It’s usually an either/or question in their minds, whereas I think both are complemented by the other.

There’s a tension between long-term and short-term, and that tends to be the crux of the decision. So if cashflow is a major issue which means they need to hit targets at the end of the next quarter and the end of the next six months, then they will almost always go with the sales-driven approach because it sounds less risky. You give someone a target, if they don’t meet it, you don’t pay them. So there’s a risk aversion in that.

I don’t buy into the marketing revolution thing. People are usually talking about technology, social or digital when they say this. But, the way that people buy stuff, psychologically speaking, will always remain fundamentally the same.

Whereas, if a business is in a position where they have steady cashflow, or they have the guts to look longer term and understand that, like fitness, sometimes it will hurt like hell for a while before you feel the benefit, content (integrated on and offline) is the way forward.

There is an initial investment in getting great content created, in getting your team to understand that and use it and contribute to it and get it out into the world in a way that’s needed for the content to breathe. There’s a delay in the impact that that will have. So usually it’s down to how much pressure there is to see results quickly.

FC: As a marketing company ourselves, it’s easy to step back and say everything is down to great marketing, but it’s never quite that easy...

BT: Of course not. I understand why people feel they need to do it [invest in sales rather than marketing], it’s about money now, rather than long-term sustainability. So people go with the tried and tested old-fashioned sales techniques, and they think that’s justified based on the results that they get in this quarter, but perhaps don’t think about the impact that they had on the people that they irritated on their journey.

If you’re investing in evergreen content, if you’re building a following, creating relationships, then that is something that starts to gain momentum: each investment that you make builds on the last.

It all has to come together, and that is exactly what Watertight Marketing is all about. It’s funny. I did have someone tell me that Watertight Marketing is less a book on creating a marketing operation written for a business person, and more a book about how to run a business written by a marketing person.

FC: The return on investment (ROI) question is one which all marketers face. What are the things that you, as a marketer, measure? How do you measure the success of a campaign?

BT: I’m going to have to give you a chapter reference now. This is Chapter 10 in Watertight Marketing. If you map your techniques appropriately at each stage of the buying decision then you should only ever be measuring the activity on the staged outcome to which it was mapped. So, for example, if you run an awareness campaign, you should only measure the effectiveness of that on awareness metrics - social media follows or shares, for instance. You shouldn’t be judging an awareness campaign on sales. You should be judging it on getting someone to do something that indicates interest. And then you look at the ratio between steps.


The marketing funnel: Crucial to marketing success

So, of all the people who do something that indicates Awareness, what percentage go on to do something that indicates Interest? Then what percentage of those do something that indicates Evaluation? So you’ve got your volume metrics per step, and you’ve got your ratio between steps.

From there, the other critical factor is time horizon, - most people measure on a completely wrong time horizon.

Imagine, a company does a big awareness piece, and even if they’ve got all their steps in place, they measure on false horizons. People think, ‘it’s our quarter end, and I’ve got a Board Report so I’m going to see whether that big awareness campaign I did has turned into sales’. But that’s a false time horizon, and you need to have let it run for long enough for a typical person to make their decision. And in companies such as big software businesses, for example, that timeline could be between six months and three years.

If you know that the ratios between steps and you’re tracking the steps to the final spend and tracking the time scale between steps, you can properly judge the success of any given marketing campaign or campaigns. Does that make sense?

FC: Yes, absolutely. One last question then, do you still have designs on being Prime Minister?

BT: Never say never!

Published by Stuart Roberts November 2, 2015