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In this episode of E Coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser caught up with Adam Helweh, CEO of Secret Sushi Creative. The conversation touched upon the many facets of digital marketing where Adam shared his experiences about agency life. From setting up successful strategies to monitoring trends that dictate marketing approaches, this interview has it all.
The speed at which you can conceptualize a program, a piece of content or outreach and then actually see it come to life and produce results – That’s what I love about Digital Marketing.
Man! You got it right the first time. How did you do that?
Thank you. I was like that’s me. That sounds like a pretty decent guy there.
I grew up in Silicon Valley. Yeah, so it’s funny because, over the last say 20 or more years, I’ve seen so many folks move out here, through all the new.com and technology boom, that’s been continuing to happen over here, Social media, all that sort of stuff. And I’ve met a lot of folks that are transplanted out this way. They vied to come out here, from not only different places around the US, but there are pockets of folks that are coming out from incubators and accelerators and entrepreneurship programs in other countries out there. And it got me to reflect a little bit on being a native here. I was born in San Francisco. So I’ve been out here in the Silicon Valley. For a time I was I was down closer to Southern California, but I’m back here in the Silicon Valley and love it.
Yeah, it’s such an interesting cultural difference. I’ve got a friend that for instance, works a lot with startups and entrepreneurs in Korea. I’ve got another one that works with similar folks in the Middle East that come over here. And I went to Malaysia one time to work with some entrepreneurs over there for a program for a week, and all of them want to get, not just a taste of the opportunity that the Silicon Valley provides, but also the cultural difference that seems to be in this area around sort of moving fast, allowing to take some chances and sometimes fail in some areas. And to think differently. And I’ve taken that for granted for quite some time until I started to see how many other people were interested in getting a taste. And culturally, we had communities that were less open to the level of risk. That risk became a stigma, for instance, and things and so I’m very appreciative of having the opportunity to be around here. But I also want to make sure I try to keep my brain and mind open because you can often get caught in a little bit of a bubble as well, with culturally everybody’s thinking a similar way. And you forget how people especially when it comes to marketing and you’re trying to connect with customers and create those relationships that you were talking about in your intro with me. Understanding and having empathy and understanding for those other audiences was really important to be able to create those relationships and if you’re thinking very, solely in the direction of this community, that’s kind of an outlier here in the Silicon Valley. You can often lose touch with who your customers are when they aren’t in Silicon Valley themselves.
I think for sure what it’s made more regular is doing things from wherever you are. To do it remotely. I’ve been running from a home office for my entire career and my business, the agency has been around for 15 years. I’ve made certain decisions that I just felt time in traffic was a waste. Working remotely allowed me to be a lot more adaptable and flexible for my customers and not worry about lots and lots of overhead that would ultimately need to get paid for by somebody. And that gets passed on to the clients that we work within some form or fashion. And so to see it go from making sure that stuff’s clean behind me and nobody can hear whatever’s going on outside of my office, or whatever the case may be, it’s normal. That’s the way life is happening around everybody. I think that that is incredible. And that’s something that’s not going to go away. And that is more human, I’ve seen people where you’re having an important conversation with folks, and then the landscapers outside, or the kid gets home from kindergarten and wants to come in real quick, and give you a Father’s Day card or just saying hi to you real quick, it doesn’t have to be a big disruption, it is just kind of life. And within reason, it’s been far more acceptable. So I think that alone, has made it so you can do far more business from wherever you may be. But there’s still such a big advantage to trying whenever possible to get face time with individuals so that you can create and strengthen those relationships, which is not always easy to do, I say that they call it zoom because it just feels like you’re just always zooming from one meeting to another. But like, I have my COO, for instance, who’s in Southern California, and I’m in Northern California, and he flies up every three to four weeks. He’s coming tomorrow, and we’re going to get face-to-face time. And we can do that stuff from afar if we needed to. But it the real good, good work and strengthening of the relationship gets done when we’re face to face. And I think that that is something where folks can now save that money from moving to Silicon Valley to now instead buy plane tickets or whatever to go travel out and have some of that face time still to strengthen those relationships.
Little bit of an accident. So some years ago, I was looking for a transition. My background was actually in New Media Design. And so it was called New Media Design back then, which just basically meant anything that was on screens, right. So it could have been animations with flash or website design. Interactive CDs on Macromedia shockwave if you remember any of those. And in Adobe and all these things that you build in doing graphics in Photoshop for advertising and all this stuff. So it was graphic design a new media and as time was passing I decided to create a company out of this and do it on my own when I was working previously for another company. And as years had gone by I was realizing that I was doing less creative work. And I was doing infusing more like business and marketing, guidance and consulting in what I was doing. There were a lot I identified, everybody who does creative work had to do this and found that no, that was a differentiator that people who were doing design. There were plenty of people who were doing things and just kind of going through the motions, but not like working with a client to extrapolate, what is the goal of this? And you know what, I think we recommend this. And I’d recommend that. And during that same time, social media started to expand, people were trying to make heads or tails of what was going on in digital marketing, all that sort of stuff. And, my background, before New Media was working a lot with people. I worked with kids with autism. I worked in a vocational facility with adults who had disabilities. And then as you were describing my work with Youth to Youth. I loved working in the human services-based space before I ever started doing any of this. So when digital marketing came about, it was almost like instant gratification of being able to connect with human beings through the internet. But then utilizing the creative side of things to communicate that. It’s communication. It’s like social media alone as one element of digital marketing is very much like, you’ve got to have the social and you’ve got to have the media, you’ve got to have the ability to talk and engage in and relate to human beings, the customers, you want to work with the community you’re trying to build. And then you get to bring the smores, which is the content that you’ve created to bring around the campfire and talk about with those other human beings. Like ghost stories are talking about the game last time, you’re able to utilize this content that you’re creating, to set the tone in the environment. And I love being able to bring those elements together. And I would say about six, seven years ago, we made a big decision and said, You know what, this is a digital marketing agency. This is not a just strictly a Creative Services Agency. And so right now, we do provide creative services. But a vast majority of what we’re doing is all like demand Gen strategy, performance marketing, things that creative empowers and fuels but it’s not the sole element of the business.
I think, digging back, I would consider my first client wanted us to manage Google ads on an ongoing basis. Once things started to go towards advertising you’ve got the art in the science. And there was science that had to be infused into it, looking at the numbers, understanding the bid strategy, trying to make heads or tails of that. So it was many years ago, we had a client that was working in the b2b space around NetSuite and Salesforce, they did implementation and all that, and they’re like, look, we need somebody to handle our ads from now on, can you jump in and do it? And that turned into from Google to LinkedIn, to all these other advertising platforms? And I think that was one of the biggest kinds of official starts to it all.
I think it’s the speed at which you can conceptualize a program, a piece of content, outreach, and then actually see it come to life and get those results. Before I started the company, I did do some design work at another company or two, to plan out doing a brochure, like creating a brochure for somebody or a poster or whatever. The amount of time that it took, you design it and then you’ve got to make sure you’re laying it out properly. And then you got to find the printer and make sure it’s on the right paper and you got to do all these things, just to make sure that in the end, you spend this money and that it’s going to print properly, and it’s going to come out well it’s not going to get screwed up. And then you move on to the next thing. In digital marketing, you don’t have to worry about that as much you can make some mistakes and be a bit human in that case and quickly learn from them and, implement the learnings within the day if you wanted to.
what about you, Matt, what do you love about digital marketing?
I think to your point, it’s the marketing even in a broader sense. I’ve always treated marketing as a revenue center, not a cost center. Throughout probably your career as well, marketing has been seen as this department that just produces deliverables and is taking money out of the budget in some way. And it’s not always been the best at traditionally tying it back to the results that you were talking about. And digital marketing, especially when done right, when you get to see the data and you can tie it back to having that impact on the business. It’s not a cost center. It is something that has an impact on sales and the bottom line, and I love that part as well.
So I think there are two parts to that and that’s such a great question because it’s about expectation. So when you’re first working with a client, or that doesn’t matter, but setting the right expectation that what we’re doing, we only have control up to a certain point. So we can’t control what happens when this lead gets into the salesperson’s hands. Can we help? Can we contribute? Can we collaborate with the sales team to try to make things more efficient, help them with their close rate, or whatever? Not all marketing companies will do that, or even know how to do that. But it’s something that I, on the other side of the equation find to be important, when we can talk with the sales team and understand, what is their process? And is this like a relay team where somebody’s just handing the baton off to them, and we have to do it smoothly for them to be successful? Or is this kind of more along the lines of like taking a shovel and just kind of throwing something over the fence and not having any clue what’s happening on the other side? So I think setting the expectation with the client about what we have control over and where those results end in regards to our responsibility and accountability. Not because we don’t want them to be successful beyond that, but because we can’t, we don’t have much influence beyond that. Beyond what we’re capable of doing on the marketing side of the pipeline. But we do, more often than not end up having conversations with the sales team and trying to create relationships with the sales team. So that way, we can understand how to grease the wheels and make things better for them, let alone like over the last couple of years, especially, we’ve stepped in and created processes automation, brought in tools, and made other recommendations for the sales team. So that way, things are improved for them as well. So you may not have always that opportunity to do that with the sales team, they may be not willing to talk about it, they may be very, very old school in the sense that that for them they just want to, I don’t know the Glen Ross thing where they just want a stack of leads, and you just put it on their desk and walk away and that’s all they care about. But when they really like are collaborative, and are part of that unified team that you’re presenting as part of that business you’re working with, you can usually work in collaboration with them, you know, quite well, and it works out better in the end.
I mean, that’s assuming they’re doing a good job, right. So some agencies are getting fired because they’re not doing the right job. And some agencies are getting fired, because unfortunately, yes, they’re not able to communicate the value. And I think there was a time several years ago when I realized that doing the work was a significant part of the equation. But the account management and the art of account management was actually like a make it or break it thing for this for, for working with customers. So understanding how to set expectations, how to understand and even anticipate either what the client needs as you’re working with them, and you gotta listen and be able to anticipate what they need to some extent because sometimes they don’t know entirely what they need. But they’re saying, and they’re sending signals and if you listen, you’ll be able to have a conversation with them preemptively. You’re supposed to be the experts, right? And so there’s an element of folks not seeing, what do they call it? not reading the tea leaves, so to speak of what’s going on with their clients, and then assuming everything is hunky-dory, and then a month, two months, three months later, they haven’t changed anything they’re doing, they haven’t really found a way to check the temperature of the relationship, and then it kind of all falls apart. I think that’s one thing. I think the other thing that I’ve been hearing a lot from clients as I’ve been checking in with some of mine, is their appreciation and the need for agencies to be able to speak multiple languages. And what I mean by that is organizations as a whole have an issue with people in each department, speaking their language and having problems transcending from department to department from function to function a lot. And, because I am somebody who loves technology, because I am somebody who has put myself in a position to talk to sales, and works with not only whoever the junior folks who are that are working on marketing, but also we work with CMOs and CEOs. I, let alone my team have had to learn that human art of like communicating with people that have diverse backgrounds and needs and all this stuff. And so I’ve had some of our clients tell us how much they appreciate the fact that they internally have issues, talking to their IT guys then talking to their salespeople, then talking to their executive team about very similar things, the language shifts and changes just like a buyer persona. When you talk to one type of individual and organization and another one, they’re at the same organization and they have the same product, but they speak very different languages. They have different needs and different jobs that they’re focused on. And I think agencies really should work on those communication skills that allow them to shift in understanding who they’re talking to. And what that particular person’s language is in some, in a way, because we’ve been able to communicate more clearly between two departments within the same company, then those two individuals, for some reason seem to be able to do so internally. And it’s helped us not only get things done for them but kind of propel what we’re all doing as an organization because we’re getting past those human roadblocks of I don’t understand what they want. After all, they are speaking a different language or whatever.
I think one of the things that I think I like the least as of lately is to stay current. Sometimes it means being connected and engaged when you’d rather not because of the toxicity that happens on social media sometimes, and some folks have the luxury of counting on, I don’t care. This is just all for my leisure. This is for when I’m looking at things on Google. I can very easily shut my phone off or not pay attention to that. In digital marketing, because there are so many changes, and so many things happening, staying connected, and abreast of what’s going on, can be just like; Look, I just want to detox off this for a while, but if I do, how far apart am I going to be from whatever’s currently going on in one of my client’s needs? What about you?
Yeah, for sure. I can relate to that.
So there’s a few, there are a few different approaches I have. One is just being open and keeping my ears and eyes open. And when I start to see something that’s repeated more often, it’s being talked about, especially by folks who are not in the digital marketing know, that tells me like, oh, Pinterest, never heard of that site before. But I’m hearing all these folks that are talking about it and they’re not digital marketers. They’re people that are just, customers quote-unquote, they’re non-digital marketers, or NF T’s or, Blockchain in general, or whatever the case may be. So just like paying attention to these things, and seeing who is saying them, gets me to go down the rabbit hole of Googling. It’s very simple, I just start to Google and we Google we need to use a little time-based search thing and look at stuff that’s been posted in the last month or the last year so that you’re getting fairly recent stuff. So that’s one of the ways that I do it. Another one is because of how closely I believe technology is connected to marketing and digital marketing in general. I honestly go to tech meme every day. And it sounds like a really weird place for a marketer to go. But when I go there, I get to pay attention to things like is Apple planning on releasing this particular thing on one of their new devices? I understand how that might change the expectation or behavior of customers based on it because Apple has a critical mass or the fact that they’re talking about all of the tech companies like Coinbase, and stuff that had the Superbowl ads and how popular Coinbase became in the App Store because they had this very popular QR code, Super Bowl ad. And so being able to see what is on the tip of people’s brain cells here, allows me to go and dive into those and see what part of this is something that we can utilize as a tool or becomes a behavioral, or expectation change in customers and customer experience. I think those are the core things, everything else is, again, I have a great network of folks that are peers and folks that work in marketing, and so just having conversations with them constantly about what is going on, and just being able to sort of chew on things with that network of folks that I give to you, and they give back. And we’re just sort of sharing because we all want folks to be successful. That’s a resource for me. And then there’s just too many, like email newsletters and all that sort of stuff. You just get bombarded and never know what to pay attention to. Because you’re getting 100 emails a day already as it is.
That is a Silicon Valley thing. I visit once or twice a day just to check out
I think anything that allows you to see real-time things is the best way of looking at stuff. If it’s trending it’s because of actual signals from Human beings. I look at tech meme. I go to Twitter a few times daily to see what’s trending there to understand what’s at the top of people’s minds. I don’t care about Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashians dating which is one of the more recent things but there are a lot of different things there. I go to YouTube and go to the trends and see the top 20 videos at any given time and all that will tell you what is trending and I will see what applies to trends in how we create content or new tools or new technology.
There is a story behind it. I was between jobs when I decided to start the Company and didn’t want to name it after me. And at the time I had been awakened to this wonderful food that I still love which is Sushi. Being the creative person that I am, I had a friend who was starting to love Sushi as well and I said: “Hey let’s play around with this project”. I wanted to create something that we could just do on the side and the goal was with this domain that we were going to create a blog that was going to be entertaining and was going to be called, The Society of the Secret Sushi. We did almost nothing with it. We created the illustrations and some characters that were going to use with it almost sixteen years ago. I decided when I was going to start the company That I had to find a domain that people will fanatically say and people can remember because if I just create something crazy or If I say Secret Sushi you know how to find it and it just sticks in your brain. Because we didn’t have the project and I was looking at catalyst media and they were charging money for the domain and I decided I was going to use the domain Secret Sushi that I bought and I am going to put the business on there and people went crazy. I remember my dad telling me how you can name a Marketing Agency, let alone a creative agency Secret Sushi. I remember people telling me you don’t name your kids or things what they are exactly. I design for money that is not what the name of my business was going to be used for. So I had fun with that and eventually, I did tell the story that if you are a fan of Sushi you know that good sushi takes great ingredients, the right tools and it takes skills to prepare, and ultimately in the end it is beautiful as much as it is very healthy for you as well. You want your marketing to not be all about visuals and sizzle. You want it to be something that fills your customers up and makes them hungry for more. I made the connection from a marketing standpoint that you wanted to find your secret sushi. You wanted to find something that attracted people initially to see that it is out there and the skills that it took to put that together, but when they took it in it made them satisfied and hungry for more engagement and interaction with you as a customer. So that is what I use to say for the first 12 years of my business.
I would not have accepted this interview if I had known that. I am just kidding.
The first is research research research. I love my data and my data tools. I would describe my approach as Heart and science. I know I said art and science earlier, but we want to make sure that as we are looking at the data we are taking it in and filtering it as human beings. What does this mean? What does our customer want? Not just hard and fast to whatever the data is. I use several tools to look at: What are the competitors doing that gives me an idea if we have competitors that are very mature and are successful. There are going to be some takeaways that we can quickly learn from those folks. But in addition, we look at the overall market, understanding the customer and all that stuff. Finding out the current asset that the client has. I just got a call before this interview from a company that had to be assessed. What were the assets that they had? Do they have the ability to create content internally? Do they have thought leaders and subject matter experts? Do they have the time to do any of this because some companies won’t have the time? Do they have any content that they previously used that could be utilized in other fashions and formats? Understanding where they are and what their resources are because you can create a strategy but if they can’t execute on it and they can’t do so because of time, budget or whatever that may be it’s all for naught. So try to understand the pieces and then tie them together in a cohesive fashion. And I think that is another area where both clients and marketers, in general, fall through. We have tried to create an agency that has a lot of things under one roof because we understand that marketing is not a single discipline or a single touchpoint. So we need to tie those things together we need to have an understanding of how they work and in most cases provide those ourselves so that way they can integrate and work exponentially well versus, you hire an agency that does PPC and then you hire an agency that does SEO and then you hire another agency that does web design. Now as a client you have to spend your time keeping track and if you can that is great. If you have a resource that is making sure that they are tying everything together, that’s awesome. A lot of the clients that we work with they are all limited in the resource and their people and all that, so they don’t have the time or even the institutional knowledge. So being able to tie all that together in a strategy that asks, How is SEO going to touch these elements and why? How is PPC in what channels is going to do this? And integrate all that and create a ten thousand foot flow, One of my favorite tools I love to use for that is Mirror, Have you ever seen mirror which use to be called a real-time board?
I love mirror. it works the way my brain works in the sense that because they use to use Photoshop and illustrator and all that back then, I love having a canvas where I can visually communicate things and move them around. So this mirror is this incredible whiteboarding tool and we use it for so many different things because you can put graphics on it and icons and do all kinds of things; flow charts, wireframes if you want to. There are so many things you can do. So for one cost, it is a very eversible tool. We will create entire campaign flows using mirror that shows each step and tie everything together. Another tool that we use, especially for our content marketing is called Demand jump. We love the team at demand just because not only is the tool great but the folks are very good. And we use that for a lot of different things but the biggest one is to understand from a content perspective what topics, and I hate to use the word keyword because it is not a standard, let’s research keywords and then create content. They have a great way of pulling together data from a lot of different sources to inform: What are the topics and the type of things that you should be creating content around that is in demand from customers that are out there, the folks you are trying to make connections with. And it guides you on how to structure the creation of that content in a good data-driven way and then measure the effectiveness of that. So we love using demand jump as well. We have a lot of tools that sometimes my team will say wow I did not know we had that because that is stuff that I love to dig into `and use, And you have to know when is the right time to pull that thing off the swiss army knife. We need a toothpick and suddenly you pull the toothpick out of the swiss army knife. What are some of your favorite tools?
We use ClickUp as well. We switched over a few months ago.
When you say what’s it called it’s funny because that could have been the name o a tool because of how they are naming them nowadays. What’s it called!
So Guru is I think that’s for building funnels.
So I use mirror for something like that. I look to Guru and there is some interesting stuff there. Guru has some cool specific elements that are specific to good funnels. I decided I didn’t want to spend the extra money because mirror could do a lot of that plus more, but it doesn’t include some of the funnels specific tools that are there but it just was me choosing a more versatile tool. I have seen it and it looks pretty awesome.
It is on a client-by-client basis. We have some partnerships but we have people every day with multiple emails saying, we would love to partner with you. We would love to give you an affiliate cut of whatever you sell. For me and I tell them time and time again I am not interested in making money off the affiliate thing because my business is helping the clients with the other stuff. And what I want them to do is not give me the benefit of giving me some dollars for helping them sell something, I want them to give me inside access. I want to build a relationship with the people like demand jump for instance. That is why I have an excellent relationship with the people at demand jump because we have a human relationship directly with that team. To me all that matters is, is it the right tool? So for some of our customers, we are Sharp spring partners. For some of our customers’ Sharp sping is the right solution, for others sales force or HubSpot is the right solution. And for other types of individuals, active campaigns may be the right solution. But then active campaign is rapidly updating things and adding things like accounts that they didn’t have many years ago. We as an agency use active campaigns because of our current structure but at some point, we might end up moving to HubSpot or even to sharp spring because of other needs that we have. Let’s use for example the marketing on a nationside or CRM side; what are the needs of the clients? I try to expose us to as many new tools as possible so that we have a clear understanding of what’s different about you as a CRM for instance versus these guys? What’s different about you as an email marketing tool or whatever? One of my favorite things that I would recommend to your listeners to go do is; that I love browsing in the G2 crowd. So you go to g2crowd and you lookup like you talk about the guru, you might find Guru on g2crowd and then can reverse engineer what category they put that tool into and click the breadcrumbs on top to look at all of the players in that space and see if somebody new who is getting a lot more positive reviews that guru or mirror or any of that stuff. I go through there often to just compare tools I might not be aware of, especially ones in a space I didn’t know people were making software around. That helps me very quickly create a list of those tools I should now investigate and learn more about. By going to their website and talking to hire a sales team and doing all those things to vet them and create my opinion about them
Let’s do it.
I think working at McDonald’s and simultaneously I was a mobile Dj when I was sixteen or seventeen. At McDonald’s, I wasn’t making a lot of money so I got a little extra money and got to be the cool Dj. So I think I was doing that about the same time.
Where did I go on my last vacation? I’m stumped, man. It may be someplace in California that I just went for a weekend. We are planning a big vacation coming up so that got me thinking nope, it hasn’t happened yet.
Usually lunch because lately over the last year I have been doing intermittent fasting, so I haven’t eaten. I have something with a little green tea caffeine right now. Just because I need to be on this, but I don’t usually eat until noon, So being able to sit down and just chill during lunch is great because it is my first meal of the day.
Ah Come on man! Well, I get up about 6:30, and I’m a guy that stays up late as well. I do my standard work like 9-5 but I like to get my piece in the evening. I have a six-year-old child, so that’s the time when I can watch what I want on the Tv, but I am usually up around 6:30. When I get out of bed a little bit later, 7:30 or so.
As a mobile Dj I was into lots and lots of stuff but the thing that stayed was. I like electronic dance like EDM, but hip hop, I use to rap. I have cases of about six or seven hundred CDs and if you were to check most of them would be hip hop music.
You can find me at Adamhelweh, My website is adamhelweh.com and the agency is secretsushi.com, and anywhere that you find any of those online. Adam Helweh on Twitter, LinkedIn, as well as Secret Sushi on Twitter and LinkedIn. I would love to connect with anybody, just say where you heard me and I would love to connect.
Thanks for having me and you too.
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