Why Every SEO Professional Should Study Branding

What’s Covered in this Article

When we put our content calendar together earlier this year, it took restraint to not jump straight into this topic. It’s an idea that I talk about often, just not usually in these exact words. For years, part of our agency pitch has included me saying something to the tune of, “Exact match domains and solid SEO used to equal rankings.” But, over the last 10 years, Google has rewarded authoritative brands more than ever. Today’s digital marketer must be technically excellent AND on brand. 

I usually use this pitch to help connect the dots for prospective clients that our agency “gets it” and begin to build trust that their brand/creative teams know that our SEO content won’t be trash but rather will be something that represents their brand well and achieves the SEO objectives. When the title for this article hit me, I realized that behind that pitch I’ve been giving for years is this belief — that every SEO should study branding. (I’m just talking about SEO today, but in my opinion, you could replace SEO with any of the other digital marketing channels like email, PPC, affiliate, etc).

To dig in, I’ve focused on three reasons that I believe SEOs should study branding:

  1. Because we’re all marketers
  2. Because Google sniffs out mediocre brands
  3. Because understanding a brand unlocks strategy

All SEOs are marketers

After giving up my pursuit of being a professional golfer in 2012, I found my way into a sales job at Red Ventures in Charlotte. I’ll forever be grateful that I developed an early foundation for how to sell, and through that, when I later joined the sales support team as an SEO analyst, it gave me a unique perspective to translate keywords and hero messages into what I knew customers were actually talking about on sales calls.

When I started talking to some of my new peers in SEO, I was shocked that most of them didn’t really seem to understand the products or the DNA of the customers that were buying those products. Don’t get me wrong, I was working with people that were MUCH more brilliant than I was, but we had had very different experiences up to that point. The problem I had was that I wasn’t a very good SEO yet. One of the first projects I ideated and owned start to finish was launching portableinternet.com. On sales calls, I knew a big selling perk was the ability to take even the home modem to other locations. What I failed to realize wasn’t smart — that I was building a site based on a keyword with very little search volume! (Side note: I think this is a testament to the encouragement of ownership and learning mentality that Red Ventures facilitated.  They were willing to let me fail in a controlled environment to accelerate my growth).

I bring this story up because I feel fortunate to have had experiences that made it obvious to me that in order to be great at a very specific thing (SEO), I need to understand the macro thing (marketing). Unfortunately, I have often felt like the exception when interacting with SEOs over my last 10 years in the niche. Being a great marketer at the macro level includes a couple key buckets of mastery.

Marketing strategy

I wrote extensively about this in my article on defining marketing strategy, which I’d encourage you to check out when you have a few minutes. In short, though, the best SEOs understand marketing strategy at all three levels:

  • Channel Level Strategy – this is the SEO excellence
  • Operations Level Strategy – this is knowing your funnel and how it impacts SEO
  • Leadership Level Strategy – this is connecting your actions to the mission/vision

If you want to be one of the best SEOs in the world, I’d encourage you to flip these upside down. Spend more time learning your leadership-level strategy and your operations-level strategy, before getting lost in the nuances of SEO. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be great at the various aspects of SEO, but if you can’t contextualize it, you won’t maximize your results.

Communication skills

World-class SEOs are also world-class communicators. They know how to communicate with peers, with people below them, and to people above them in the org chart. They know how to speak the language of different disciplines — i.e. branding — and they’re expert translators of all things marketing.

One of our clients, CCL, has coined the term  “boundary spanning” which is the skill to build strong partnerships with people outside the boundaries of your everyday job function. Some of the very best SEOs from my days at RV are now VPs and CMOs today, and every single one of them was exceptional at the boundary-spanning skills that differentiated them from the average SEO. Eppie Vojt, Christina Wells, and Jason Persinger are some of the few that come to mind.

Google sniffs out mediocre brands

As SEOs, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get into the “mind” of Google. We study algorithms and we obsess over the articles written by algorithm analysts. If you were in SEO 10 to 15 years ago, you still remember what used to work — i.e. exact match domains (hence the portableinternet.com idea). If you’re still in SEO today, you mourn the days when it was, well, just easier to rank sites.

In my opinion, the biggest reason that ranking sites is more difficult today is that Google values a strong brand more than ever. Whether you’re building an affiliate site, running e-commerce, or trying to get leads for a lawn care franchise, the authority that your website (aka your brand) wields is your most valuable asset. 

It’s easy as an SEO to simply focus on the domain authority or domain rating aspect of your brand’s authority, which we often correlate to the backlink profile, but if you’ve studied EAT much over the last couple of years, you know there is much more to it. Now as SEOs, we have to craft brands that demonstrate expertise, authority, and trust, and this is an all-encompassing endeavor. I actually think EAT is the best thing to happen to SEOs who want to be CMOs one day, because it has forced us to think more like marketers and brand builders. 

The bottom line is that Google sniffs out crappy brands. So, if your design isn’t up to snuff, if your positioning isn’t top notch, and you’re not standing out as an elegant brand in your space, Google won’t reward you if you just have good content and a few solid links (at least not for an extended period of time). So if you must create an exceptional brand to win in SEO, what does that look like?

Understanding a brand unlocks true strategy

If you’ve never managed a brand-building project before or at least observed a team building a visual and messaging identity, then you’re missing out. I got lucky and married an advertising major, which helped nurture a love for branding in me. This led me to discover my own love for copywriting, messaging, and branding at large. 

Over the years, what I’ve come to realize is that when you understand who a brand is and what a brand stands for at a fundamental level, you unlock a new level of strategic thinking. It’s almost like you break through into the fourth dimension. Maybe I sound a little crazy, but if you know you know.

If you don’t, then let me first try to boil down a few bullets on what it means to understand a brand at a fundamental level.

  • You understand their why
  • You know who their customer is and what matters to them
  • You can articulate how the brand’s why and what matters to the customer intersect

I could spend a lot of time going into each of those three, but for time’s sake, I’ll link up more on those as we have relevant deep dives on each. For now, a challenge that every SEO should take is to spend a day in the shoes of their copywriter. See if you can write an article that passes a brand’s creative director, and pick the client that is most protective of their brand!

Turning brand knowledge into SEO strategy

If you were able to graduate from your copywriting challenge, then you’re one step closer to playing chess vs. checkers as an SEO. Now is the time to combine your well-developed technical SEO, keyword research, and link-building prowess with your newly found (or renewed vigor) for your mastery of all things brand.

Here are some of my favorite ways that I believe being a brilliant brand strategist can be applied to your everyday SEO work:

1. Link-building asset creation 

If you have done much link-building in your SEO career, you know that your success is only as good as your pitch. What is also true is that your pitch is only as good as your asset. It requires resources and time and money, to create a high-quality asset. And, it often requires some buy-in and alignment with the rest of the marketing team.

When you’re able to think from both a brand and an SEO perspective, you have a huge advantage. First, because you understand the why and the customer, it’s easier to come up with an idea that gets you and others excited. Second, since you can think like a brander/marketer, you can get others to buy into its value by connecting its value to the leadership-level strategy of the company.

The result here is better ideas, faster buy-in to build them, and better results when you pitch for placements.

2. Keyword identification

If you ask me, doing exceptional keyword research is an underrated skill for SEOs. It’s one thing to aggregate a keyword list by compiling lists from competitors. It’s another to really scrutinize that list and narrow it to the ideal set of keywords to target for your brand. Winning so often comes down to prioritizing the keywords to execute on. If you pick the wrong terms to pursue, it doesn’t matter how well you execute, you won’t get the best possible results. Being able to connect the dots between the brand and the keywords increases the likelihood that you will tackle the right things in the right order.

On an entirely different note, sometimes keyword research has to be more creative in nature. If you’re building a new category, or pursuing a niche that is more fragmented, you have to be able to get creative with your research. This is where SEOs who are great marketers can flex their branding muscles and create a keyword list from a blank sheet of paper. When you know the customer and what matters to them, you can find different angles for content and identify keywords that might be less competitive and available for an innovative approach to win those SERPs.

All said, lots of people do keyword research. The best SEOs leverage an intimate knowledge of their brands to build and refine keyword lists that prioritize a winning set of keyword targets.

3. New content approvals

There are more than just three advantages to being great at branding, but for the third one I’ll highlight today, I thought I’d pick a slightly different topic. The last advantage I’ll showcase is that well-rounded marketers are often the best at getting their ideas sold within the organization.

It may feel obvious after how much I’ve pounded home the point in this article, but when you can connect to the company’s why and understand how to span boundaries in the organization, you become a natural salesperson by default. Why? Because you clearly see how to connect everyone’s roles to the greater purpose.

Working in the agency setting for nearly 10 years, I’m no stranger to hearing clients be very protective of their blogs for “branding purposes.” SEOs seem to scare them, often times because they haven’t spent time with a next level SEO before. It’s a terrible feeling to know that you have a content idea with a high likelihood for success, but the brand team won’t give you the real estate on the site to publish content. I promise, if you prove yourself as a branding strategist, your success rate on getting approval for your new content ideas will increase dramatically.


So, I’ll ask you this question — do you see yourself as a great marketer? Not a digital marketer or an SEO, as a marketer in the broadest definition of the word. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to use this blog as a jumping-off point for falling in love with branding and marketing at large. Whether you intend to stay in the SEO discipline for your entire career or you want to become a broader marketing executive, discovering a passion for branding will be a secret weapon that propels you past your peers.

If it feels like a stretch to say you could ever be passionate about branding, I’ll leave you with this thought. One of the most memorable quotes that I recall after spending time with Ric Elias while at Red Ventures was this. Many people know that Ric loves basketball and he said that oftentimes people would come up to him and say “You’re so lucky to get to do something that you’re passionate about.” Ric’s response forever redefined passion for me. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the tune of, “Passion isn’t something you are born with or gifted, passion is developed through hours and hours of investing your time, energy, and resources into something. Over time, this investment develops passion and you can soon find yourself loving something that you never imagined you would.”

So if you don’t feel passionate about branding today, take it from Ric. If you want it badly enough, you can develop it. As always, I would love to hear other thoughts, reactions, or comments. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at alex@thegritgroup.io. I’m happy to grab a drink — virtual or in-person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!

5 Characteristics of a Digital Marketing Superstar

As a sports fan, I love watching how the game changes over time. In basketball, many would say that Steph Curry changed the game, with about 22% of shots coming from three in 2010 vs. almost 40% taken from the three point line in 2022. In golf, distance, power, and the availability of in-depth analytics has changed how people play the game. But, as many like to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Digital marketing is riddled with constant change — from new ad platforms, to algorithm shifts, to the hottest topic of the times: ChatGPT. Amidst all of this change, someone recently asked me to describe the characteristics of great digital marketer in 2023, which sent me down an internal dialogue that felt worth sharing. 

I don’t profess for these to be everyone’s top 5, but here’s what I came up with to answer my friend’s question based on my current beliefs:

  1. Critical thinkers
  2. Creative problem solvers
  3. Love to read
  4. Good with numbers
  5. Almost recklessly fast

Great digital marketers are critical thinkers

Earlier this year we had the privilege of hosting Tim Kullick, former COO of Red Ventures, for a lunch and learn event at Grit. One of his comments that has made its way into a number of my conversations this week is “culture is what you will tolerate.” Initially, the word tolerate is a bit of a turn-off to me, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue.

At Grit, if our mission it to strengthen brands by driving profitable revenue growth, that demands our team understands our partners’ businesses. One of the greatest skills a digital marketer can develop is the critical thinking ability to learn what makes different businesses tick.

A great example of this can come through in an email marketing calendar brainstorm. If you’re in charge of putting together a 12-month email plan, being a great critical thinker means that you:

  • Understand the seasonality of the brand and how that impacts buying habits
  • Get the customer and know what they care and don’t care about
  • Know how much you can discount based on margin profiles
  • Grasp what kind of topics will trigger your audience to engage

It’s one thing to know how to build an email in a platform. It’s an entirely different thing to build an email program that outperforms its comparable brands over and over. In my opinion, the best digital marketers in the world have exceptional critical thinking skills, that allow them to break down brands, audiences, and markets quickly so that they’re able to attack them from the right angles.

If you find it challenging to learn a new business, I’d encourage you to start sitting down with friends or colleagues who run or are part of different types of companies and spend an hour asking them to explain it to you like you are five. It’s humbling — but I’ve done this hundreds of times since starting my own business and I’ll keep doing it because I never want my ego to be the barrier to growth.

Creative problem solving

This second characteristic is one of my favorites. Partially because I love working on both the creative and analytical sides of our business, but mostly because I get fired up when someone finds a way under, through, around, or over a wall that appeared impossible to get past. 

A moment of self promotion here. A project that I’m still proud of from my time at Red Ventures is when schema markup was just getting more prominent. I was part of the DirecTV SEO team and it we all knew NFL Sunday Ticket time was money making season for the partnership. I came up with the idea to put event schema markup onto a couple of our domains and got DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket sale promotion to pull through as an event which gave us extra real estate on the SERP.

The problem (or opportunity) was to get more visibility for NFL Sunday Ticket. Event schema definitely wasn’t meant for this type of use case (and Google probably wouldn’t allow it today), but this is an example of creative problem solving that allowed me to hack the system and find incremental clicks.

I learned this type of behavior by being surrounded by some of the most creative thinkers that I’d ever met. My peers and bosses were constantly hacking a tool to do something it was intended to do, but they needed it to do. This DNA of finding clever ways to accomplish a goal is something that I’ve found consistently displayed by people I’d consider superstar digital marketers. 

In my current role, where I spend a good portion of my time selling new business and/or leading M&A, this type of creative problem-solving has become essential to help me find creative deal structures when negotiations pick up. Things are never black and white. There is far more than A or B. If you want to be an elite digital marketer, start finding new ways to do the same thing. Train yourself to think outside the box and develop your creative problem-solving skills — I promise it will pay off.

Disclaimer: when you become amazing at this, you may find that you’re getting people to do things for you/with you almost too easily! Use the power wisely. As Spiderman’s late uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Readers are leaders

“Great artists steal.” Controversial, but also true. Why do I bring this up? Because oftentimes my best creative problem-solving has come from “stealing” an idea from a blog article or email newsletter that I read the day before. This is why a love of reading is my third characteristic of a great digital marketer. 

In a fast-paced environment, it isn’t possible to keep up with every single change that happens within the digital world, but it is possible to consume significant amounts of content from those who are aggregating insights about the changes. All the top performers that I’ve spent time with begin their days by reading a daily newsletter like MarTech, Search Engine Land, Morning Brew, or something like that.

It can be easy to get caught up in executing the work that’s right in front of you, demanding your time and attention, but when you make the effort to set aside even just 15 minutes a day to read, it makes all the difference. Too often, when we simply put our heads down and do that work that was flashing in front of us, we miss important cues to consider adjustments to our strategy. The best are the best not only because they execute with excellence, but even more so because they’re executing on the right things more often than others. I don’t believe that reading is a silver bullet for great strategy, but it definitely doesn’t hurt!

Side note: If you’ve read this far, odds are you fit the description of an avid reader, so good on you!

Good with numbers

My fourth characteristic of a great digital marketer feels like one that simply could not be left off of the list. We all know that access to endless amounts of data is one of the best parts about being a digital marketer. We have the ability to measure our campaigns and tests with great precision, allowing us to make data-driven decisions, and generally speaking, more confident decisions. 

If you want to outperform your peers, falling in love with your data is a great first step.  If you haven’t checked it out already, I recently wrote an article on measuring what matters, and how to know what matters, that goes into great detail with some of my thoughts about being good with numbers. For the sake of this article though, I’ll touch on another part of what it means to be good with numbers.

When I think about the people I have known during my career who have been “best with numbers,” most all of them have been exceptional at mental math. At Red Ventures, this felt like an unspoken test for analysts’ talent. Writing this feels a little harsh, but it’s just an observation that I thought was interesting during my time there. By no means am I saying that you can’t be a superstar in digital if you can’t do mental math, I mean we have calculators on our phone and Excel on our laptops for that, right? That said, if you’re someone who struggles with mental math, I would encourage you to find some ways to work on it. Worst case, you find yourself with a nice party trick for dinner parties.

Of course, being good with numbers is a lot more than mental math. A more practical skill that helps someone stand out in this area is the ability to recognize trends in data that others might miss. This could look like, remembering something from two years ago that connects and correlates to a current trend, or spotting an irregularity in a report that ends up being an error. This eye for finding the story within the numbers is a special skill, one that comes easier for some than others, but one that can be learned by simply spending time putting in the work.

Almost recklessly fast

I may have saved my favorite characteristics for last. When I wrote this headline, it got me pretty fired up, because it felt like I was able to do honor to the skill in the way it came out. The very best in digital marketing move incredibly fast. When a new ad format comes out, the best have a test running within the day. When a weekly report shows a downward SEO trend, the best have already read three articles to understand how their trend compares to the market and have implemented a new H1 on the page. 

There is a value to being deliberate and making calculated bets. Time is our greatest resource and spending it in the wrong places is one of the most common ways to squander it. That is why I love the “almost” part of this characteristic. So what is the difference between being recklessly fast and being almost recklessly fast? Well, that is why I put this one last — because oftentimes, the almost is made possible when the other four characteristics are present.

When one is a strong critical thinker, a crafty problem solver, a constant reader, and good with numbers, those skills give the best the ability to quickly deduce how to make fast decisions when new information becomes available. We all wish that it was easy to be great, but whether we like to admit it or not, we also know that it isn’t easy. If you want to be a decision-maker and unlock the skill of being almost recklessly fast, you have to put in the work. 

Want to work on this? Here are a couple of tips that might help:

  • Create a decision-making framework and start doing it every time. When you find yourself encountering the same types of decisions all the time, a framework can provide stability to help you know you’ve checked all the boxes to make an informed decision. The first few times you use your framework, it might add time and make you work more, but do it enough and you will start to move through it unconsciously and the speed will come before you know it.
  • Give yourself a deadline. Sometimes you already have a great framework, you just haven’t set an aggressive enough expectation to achieve an almost recklessly fast status. If you’re doing something new in 1 week, set a goal to do the same task in 1 day the next time. If you’re taking a day to make a decision, challenge yourself to make it in one hour. As we discussed earlier, culture is what you tolerate, and if you tolerate longer decision-making windows, you’ll never move fast enough to beat the best.


There are so many things I could have chosen to highlight the characteristics of a great digital marketer, but I hope you enjoyed my list and took something away from it. I’d love to hear what other traits you have found in the great digital marketers you’ve spent time with.

Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at alex@thegritgroup.io. I’m happy to grab a drink — virtual or in person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!

What Matters and How to Measure It

What’s Covered in this Article

Data-driven digital marketing is table stakes at this stage in the game. Sadly, this is probably one of the most overused and poorly executed philosophies today. 

Here’s what I mean. Digital marketers and digital agencies alike love to plaster data-driven decisions into job descriptions, marketing copy, and best practice blogs. The problem I see is that when it comes to putting that into practice, here’s what happens:

  1. Digital Marketer puts together a report and a slide deck outlining the traffic, conversion, and lead generation trends vs the previous period, speaks to why the trends are what they are, and then recommends next steps.
  2. Manager or Client responds with something to the tune of “our development queue is full for the next 3 months, we will need a business case to get these initiatives into an upcoming sprint.”
  3. Digital Marketer gets frustrated that their work isn’t being prioritized, struggles to interpret what kind of business case that manager/client needs to see, presents a haphazard business case, and then waits, hoping that their project makes it through.

In the business context, making data-driven decisions should be defined as something like this, “Data-driven decisions also need to be business-driven decisions.”

Unfortunately, the clumsy interaction I described above plagues digital marketers, and marketers at large, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Hopefully this article helps marketers like you  go from data reporter to data-driven business leader.

Knowing what matters

In marketing, it’s all about knowing your client and measuring what matters most to them. One of the points from my recent post about the keys to being a great marketing leader is to “know your funnel.” A slight variation on this is to say that you need to understand the economic engine that drives the business. If you didn’t go to business school or simply tried not to fall asleep in managerial accounting like me, then it can feel daunting to hear a phrase like “understand your economic engine.”

Here’s why this shouldn’t scare you. All you need to know to understand your economic engine is these three things:

  1. How much do people pay you for your product/service?
  2. How much does it cost you to deliver that product/service?
  3. How much money do you have in the bank?

Pretty simple, but the devil is in the details, so let’s break this down.

How much do people pay you for your product/service?

If you’re a marketer who does SEO, it’s really easy to obsess over keyword rankings and organic traffic trends. If you’re an email marketer, it’s very easy to mull over click-thru-rate and open rate data for hours. What is true in both of these cases is that it’s also very easy to lose sight of the big picture. 

When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters for SEO and email marketers is this: did my work create more revenue for the company? If you don’t know how much people are paying for your services, then ask! 

Side note: if you’re the leader on your team and you haven’t provided this context to your team, then start now. As an entrepreneur and small business owner, I’m always desiring for my team to “act like owners.” If you want your team to do the same, get them the data they need to do so, starting with how you make money.

How much does your product/service cost?

I can imagine that as you read this, similar to how it feels while I’m writing it, it seems like child’s play. I mean we’re talking about margin — the difference between revenue and cost. It doesn’t get much more simple than that. But, I’ve watched too many marketers miss the forest through the trees when it comes to true data-driven marketing.

Knowing what people pay you AND knowing how much your product/service costs to deliver, gives you the data you need to understand how much you’re willing to spend to earn a new customer. Note: this information might not be available in every company — you may only get a target CPA or an average sale KPI, but the principle still applies. 

Now, it’s time to take it a level deeper. For my math and finance fans, thank you for making it this far and not laughing at me. For my digital marketing folks who have been coasting on impressions and visits, now is the time to really dig in.

Here is the secret: If you want to be a true data-driven marketer, there are two concepts you must master. The first is fully-baked cost of delivering a product/service. The second I’ll talk about in the next section.

Fully-baked cost of delivering a service was first introduced to me by my friend Nick Eubanks in one of his articles about why his minimum engagement is $30k. So thanks Nick for the assist here.

What is it

Fully loaded cost of delivering a service, at least in my personal definition, means understanding how to allocate all the other costs of running a company into the per unit economics of your business.

What does that mean

Borrowing Nick’s breakdown for a minute, here is how he mapped out the fully-baked cost for running his agency.

Operating costs example

In the image you see, Nick broke down the annual cost for all the overhead and other expenses that go into running an agency business. Notice especially the non-billable labor line item at the bottom (this is all the time that his team spends that isn’t billable to a client — aka — management, leadership, internal strategy meetings, etc).

He then divided those costs by the total amount of time available on his team to determine how that cost gets distributed at an “hourly cost.” By totaling up the hourly costs, you’re able to add $21.92 to the cost of your labor, preventing you from giving away all of your margin by pricing too low.

For every business, these types of costs are critical to understand. In e-commerce, knowing your fully loaded costs is critical to managing your margins, and from that,  your cash flow.

As a marketer, it’s your job to push for this level of data. If you don’t, then you are setting yourself up for frustration and failure. To crystalize the point, let’s imagine two different leaders who you might be making a business case to.

Leader 1: The leader who doesn’t know this and is actually in over their head. This type of leader can often be very nervous to make a decision (mostly because they’re subconsciously aware that they don’t know how to validate a good decision). As a marketer reporting to this person, if you don’t come to them with a business case that understands revenue and fully baked costs, no matter now much sense your idea makes, this leader is going to struggle to pull the trigger and therefore be slow to approve your initiatives. Your job here is to help them help you.

Leader 2: The leader who really knows their stuff. This type of leader is never going to accept a half baked idea. If you haven’t done all of your homework to truly map out the business case, then your idea is dead before you even pitched it. It might feel demanding to satisfy this type of leader, but it’s your job to make sure that your good ideas are pushed through by stepping up to the demands they have. Know your numbers, and then even your mediocre ideas might get through just because the risks and rewards are clear from the jump. 

Bottom line — as marketers, I implore you to step up. It’s too easy for marketing to get labeled as a cost or a nice-to-have on the P&L. I’m biased, but I believe marketing is the glue of most all organizations, so let’s make sure our business cases stick!

How much money is in the bank?

I couldn’t finish this post without jumping fully into the deep end, so let’s do this. How much money is in the bank? Such a simple question, but a very vulnerable one. Having bootstrapped my company for 8 years, I know what it’s like to stare down the barrel of missing payroll and have to figure out a plan. I can still remember when a friend and advisor told me very early in my days as an owner, “Alex, you need to grow some hair on your chest.” as I somewhat panicked to him about not making a payroll. 

I was really frustrated at the time, but in reflection, it was what I needed to hear in that moment — and it might be what you need to hear going into this final section. Talking about money is difficult. Nobody likes it, most people avoid it, but the best embrace the reality of it and learn not to fear it. 

When marketers don’t know how much cash is in the bank, we have no way to understand the risk we are asking leadership to take when we propose a new investment. I’ve always been a pretty transparent leader, sometimes to a fault, but it has allowed me to see how people respond to knowing how much money is in the bank. I’ve seen what happens when marketers/leaders don’t respond well — they generally do one of two things:

  1. They back down and don’t push for something they believe in. Why? In my opinion, it’s often because they’re so afraid of the 10% chance that it could fail, that they won’t risk their reputation despite the 90% chance it’s good for the company.
  2. They enter into a spin cycle of searching for the silver bullet, wasting hours and hours looking for a way to make their proposal foolproof, but the problem is, nothing is foolproof. So instead of trusting their gut and their research, they waste their time and the company’s time on a fool’s errand for the perfect plan.

It feels kind of harsh writing this, and I hate it when I believe that I’m saying or writing something harsh, but I felt like this had to be in here. Marketers have to be able to face the pucker factor. Can you stare the bank account in the face, with a full understanding of your economic engine, and still make a recommendation? If the answer isn’t yes, then you are simply rolling the dice, and eventually the odds turn, and you will crap out.


Our purpose at Grit is to cultivate virtuous leaders who change the world. Often this can be interpreted as kind of fluffy or pie-in-the-sky type of purpose statement, but what we talk about a lot internally is that if you want to be a leader that changes the world, effectiveness is required. 

Similarly, our mission is to strengthen brands by driving profitable growth. In order to fulfill this mission, you must measure what matters and know what that is. Which just to recap is simple (but not easy). You must know these three things:

  1. How much do people pay you for your product/service?
  2. How much does it cost you to deliver that product/service?
  3. How much money do you have in the bank?

If you dig into these three things, face your fears, and trust your work, I can promise you that your projects will end up in the development queue more often than not!

As always, I would love to hear other thoughts, reactions, or comments. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at alex@thegritgroup.io. I’m happy to grab a drink — virtual or in-person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!

7 Keys to Leading Marketing Teams

What’s Covered in this Article

At Grit, we spend a significant amount of time discussing leadership. Heading into 2023, one of the charges that I gave the team was to believe that if each of us can improve our leadership by 10% this year, the compounding effect of that leadership growth will outperform even a 50% improvement in our technical skills. While these percentages are less than scientific, the intention is clear. Leadership growth over indexes on its ability to impact our organization’s performance.

The topic of leadership is far from lacking in quality content that business leaders and marketers alike can consume. Nonetheless, I thought I’d share several things I’ve learned over the last 10 years about how to lead a marketing team effectively. By no means is this an exhaustive or perfect list, but hopefully, there is something in this list that either (A) provides a new perspective to consider or (B) provides a timely reminder or affirmation for you to lead your team with confidence.

1. Start with why

If you’re reading this and you know me at all, you aren’t surprised that I’ve put “start with why” as the first thing on my list for leading a marketing team. I’m obsessed with this concept that Simon Sinek crystallized with his book “Start with Why.” His Ted Talk from 2014 has over 61M views, and I believe marketing leaders everywhere should be obsessing over what Sinek calls The Golden Circle as a cornerstone to leading their teams effectively.

What is the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle focuses on three things – Why, How, and What – with the key being that you must start with why. Here are quick definitions for each of these:

  • What. These are the products or services that you offer.
  • How. These things make your organization special and/or set you apart from your competition.
  • Why. This is not about making money — this is a purpose, cause or belief. It is the very reason your organization exists.

What this looks like at Grit

  • Why. We exist to cultivate virtuous leaders who change the world.
  • How. We bring together the most talented digital and creative professionals, but bring a marketer-first mentality to amplify the results we drive.
  • What. We provide digital marketing and creative services to clients and our own Owned & Operated brands.

Why this is #1 on my list

I wouldn’t be true to my word if I didn’t believe that this concept was at the heart of being successful as a marketer. If you’re leading a team, but do not understand the purpose of your company (or the company you are marketing for), then one of two things will happen.

  1. You will fail to inspire your customers to take action
  2. You will fail to inspire your team to deliver

As a marketing leader, building relationships with your customers and your team is paramount to your effectiveness, and all great leaders are effective. If you want to be an effective marketing leader, spend the time to make sure you understand your why. If you don’t think the company has one, you need to develop it and make sure that the entire organization knows it, believes in it, and can repeat it.

2. Alignment with the leadership team

The first team that MUST be aligned with your why is the leadership team. A great marketing leader must be a master at building relationships with the various members of an organization’s leadership team, from CEO to CFO and everyone in between. I’ll be spending some time breaking down a CMOs role in relation to all other executives in a future article, but for now, I’ll stay focused on gaining and maintaining alignment with leadership and why it’s critical to being an effective marketing leader.

A few years ago, I was listening to the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast — if you haven’t listened, do! It’s amazing — and during that particular episode, he shared this insight: “People follow clarity, not character.” This almost enraged me when I first heard it. As someone who tends to lean on my character and intention to galvanize teams, this was a gut punch to think that none of that matters without clarity.

It hurt because at a fundamental level, it’s true. It doesn’t matter how charismatic or kind you are; if you can’t create clarity as a leader, people won’t follow you, and that is a problem. So, if you want to be effective in leading your team, put in the time to become someone who creates clarity, unifies your leadership team around that shared understanding, and communicates consistently to build trust within your organization.

If you feel like this is hard work, you’re right: it is. Everyone wants leadership to be easy, but the reality is that it isn’t. But then again, if it were easy, everyone would do it!

3. Cultivate a 20-mile march mindset

My dad spent the last 12 years of his career as the CEO of a private biotech company, which he later took public via IPO. One of the ways he described his job was to be a chief chiropractor. The organization was constantly getting out of alignment; his job was to pop it back into the proper place. 

I’ve spent just over eight years building The Grit Group, and as a small and bootstrapped company, I’ve learned firsthand what it looks like to stare failure in the face, but still find a way to keep going. I wish I could say I moved forward without flinching, but that would be a lie. Failing is scary. Fortunately, flinching or faltering is often the best teacher. 

A belief I’ve formed is that most instances that lead to organizations getting out of alignment stem from when individuals feel one of two emotions:

  • Fear. When things go wrong, it’s easy to over or under-correct. Leading out of fear fosters confusion and weakens alignment.
  • Confidence. When things go well, it’s easy to try to do too much. It’s good to be confident, but overconfidence can be just as harmful to alignment as fear.

Jim Collins talks about this in his book “Great by Choice.” In the book, he talks about the qualities of a 10xer — a leader who drove 10x the performance of a comparable leader during the same market conditions. One of those qualities is what he called “the 20-mile march.”

Twenty-mile march

I love the 20-mile march concept. Essentially it says that companies that march 20 miles every day — no matter if the conditions are good or bad — will outperform companies that march 50 miles on good days and 5 miles on bad days. 

It’s tempting as a leader to get greedy when times are good. It’s also tempting to change your plans when the going is tough. Great marketing leaders have a 20-mile march mindset, and that steadiness creates an environment where people are both supported and held accountable to perform with no excuses. (If saying no excuses is hard for you like it is for me, I encourage you to check out Extreme Ownership!)

4. Know your numbers

Speaking of extreme ownership, knowing your numbers is a must for every marketing leader. Having started my career at Red Ventures, a performance-based marketing company, I learned early the importance of knowing my numbers. While this was intimidating at times, it drove a discipline in me that I believe all marketing leaders need to have.

You may be asking what numbers I mean. For me, I’m focused on knowing three categories of numbers to effectively lead my team:

  • Know your revenue target. Your team needs to know the goal. The revenue target connects the dots to your organizational goal and keeps your team connected to how you strengthen the brand.
  • Know your funnel. Your team needs to understand the parameters they’re working within. Knowing your funnel means knowing what a customer is worth to you and what you’re willing to pay to acquire them. When you know those two things, you know how to optimize the rest of the funnel to fit the parameters.
  • Know your current trend. You have to know how your funnel is performing in relation to your revenue goal at all times. Extreme ownership of the numbers leads to accountability that drives results.

Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge itself is power.” For a marketing leader, this is no less true. If you want to lead your team well, I encourage you to master these three aspects of knowing your numbers and model them for everyone to follow.

5. The right definition of leadership

These last three keys are a little less about marketing and a little more about leadership in general. The best marketers in the world can be terrible leaders. To do it well, it’s important to be clear about what leadership truly means.

Leadership is, first and foremost, a responsibility — not a reward. To be very blunt, in many ways, being a leader should be undesirable. True leadership requires immense sacrifice and selflessness (which we all resist). My favorite definition of leadership is Servant Leadership.

Our leadership team recently attended a WinShape Teams retreat, where our lead instructor provided this definition of a servant leader, “A leader compelled by the unshakable desire to enrich the lives of others.” They also provided the following definition of leadership as a whole, “Leadership is the stewardship of your influence.”

There is so much I could say about this topic, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll leave it at this. While Google may offer countless of other possible definitions for such a common concept, I’d encourage everyone reading this to wrestle with the definitions provided by WinShape Teams. Even the simple act of creating space in your heart and mind to wrestle with this will be good for your leadership growth.

6. Hire for the intangibles

Part of leading a team is getting the right people on the bus in the first place. The more thoughtfully you recruit for your team, the easier it will be to cultivate a winning group. 

In my opinion, great leaders hire first for the intangibles (i.e. perseverance, entrepreneurial nature, positive attitude) and second for the skillsets (i.e. SEO, writing, sales). I’m not saying that you hire people who don’t know what they’re doing. But, what I am saying is that when you hire for intangibles, you get players who can figure out how to do and excel at almost any job you put them in.

It’s essential to know what intangibles are most important to you as a leader when considering the culture within your team. Because we want to cultivate leaders at Grit, the intangibles I focus on relate primarily to our virtues: gratitude, wisdom, courage, care, grit, and celebration. Make sure you know your list and have questions that you, and others on your team, know to ask to evaluate a candidate’s intangibles.

Lastly, when you hire more for intangibles, you need systems that allow your team to learn quickly and flourish. You must build the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for your marketing department, and then allow your team to master it and make improvements.

7. Leverage data — but, trust your gut

Lastly, great marketing leaders trust their gut. As we talked about earlier, data is vital, but it doesn’t always tell the full story. Marketing trends move fast; consumer behavior is a moving target, and therefore leaders must be able to rely on their gut to respond quickly to changes in the market.

Here are a few of my beliefs about trusting your gut:

  1. If you have done your homework, studied your craft, and learned your market, then your gut is often quicker to the answer than your mind, which can easily distract you with fear and over analysis.
  2. Trusting your instincts is a learned quality. Great marketing leaders must cultivate the habit with their teams by encouraging them to trust their gut continuously. Be intentional about finding lower-stakes moments to lean into this so that when the big moments come — it’s more natural.
  3. Speaking of the big moments, these are the moments when you don’t have time to think — you have to respond quickly, concisely, and with conviction. Learn to trust your gut under pressure. That doesn’t mean you will hit every shot perfectly, but perfection isn’t the objective. The best leaders embrace failure and leverage it to learn and grow.


I’ll close out this list by emphasizing that last bit: embracing failure. If you are so afraid to fail, you’ll never trust your gut. If you want to be a 10xer as a marketing leader, you have to foster an environment where people know that failing is part of the process. When you create this type of culture, people begin to lean into their instincts, and your team becomes more decisive, confident, and effective!

I hope at least a couple of these seven tips were helpful for you. I’m sure there are plenty of keys to great marketing leadership that I’ve left off, but I believe that if you can master these seven, you are well on your way to being an excellent leader. 

I would love to hear other thoughts, reactions, or comments about the characteristics of a great marketing leader. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at alex@thegritgroup.io. I’m always happy to grab a drink — virtual or in-person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!

Marketing Strategy Defined

What’s Covered in this Article

As with many things in life, you don’t know — until you know! As you gain more experience, your eyes begin to open up to the additional layers of understanding that you just couldn’t see before. At 16, I KNEW what love was when I started “going out” with my first legitimate girlfriend. Now having been married for nearly 8 years and having two young children, my understanding of what love is looks a little different. More mature, I hope!

Professionally, having started a business very early in my career, one of the things I “didn’t know until I knew,” was that my definition of marketing strategy at 25 was pretty limited. At that stage, marketing strategy focused squarely on what I’d now call “marketing channel strategy” – such as defining how to win in email marketing for an e-commerce company. Now eight years in and 60+ clients later, I’ve come to appreciate the additional layers of marketing strategy and how to leverage that understanding to amplify the results we drive for our clients and our owned & operated brands at Grit.

For the purposes of this blog, I thought I’d spend a few minutes walking you through how I think about the different levels of marketing strategy & how you can leverage that understanding to improve your marketing.

Recognizing the layers of marketing strategy

When you start to peel back the onion on marketing strategy, it becomes pretty easy to understand how you might hear a different definition depending on who you talk to. For example, imagine you ask an SEO specialist in your department what their strategy is. Which of these three responses would you define as the MOST strategic?

  • Our SEO strategy is to write 300 articles and build 100 links over the next year. (Tactical)
  • Our SEO strategy is to be the best-in-class at E-A-T within our industry. (Operational)
  • Our SEO strategy is to beat our competition by playing the long game and investing in the most white hat tactics possible. (Philosophical)

The answer? All of them qualify as strategic statements. So, while there might not be a black and white answer to which of these statements was the MOST strategic, the more important thing to recognize is that there is so much more to marketing strategy when you think about it in layers.

What are the layers of marketing strategy?

I’m not a Harvard MBA, so I’ve never been the type of business leader who uses the perfect language to describe business structures and principles, etc. So, imperfections included, here is how I like to think about the levels of marketing strategy.

Leadership Level Marketing Strategy

Within this layer, marketing strategy can almost sound like business strategy. My dad recommended the book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” to me a number of years ago. My initial thought was “This is going to be too old school to apply to my world.” A classic example of you don’t know until you know. 

In the book, they walk through 22 timeless marketing principles and this opened my eyes to how marketing leadership at the highest level impacts everything beneath it. Some examples of the principles in the book include:

  1. The Law of Leadership:  It is better to be first than to be better
  2. The Law of the Category: If you can’t be first, create a new category
  3. The Law of the Mind: It is better to be first in the mind, than first in the marketplace

These are examples of marketing strategy that establish the foundation from which everything else is built. As a leader of a digital marketing team and an agency business, learning how this Leadership Level Marketing Strategy looked enabled me to zoom out the right questions to diagnose an issue. For example, if SEO traffic is degrading, if we ask leadership level strategy questions, it may be that problem wasn’t the quality of the SEO strategy, but rather we had set ourselves up for an uphill battle by failing to pick a category that we could be first in (Law of the Category). This isn’t to deflect responsibility for delivering SEO results, but it does mean that on the front end of pursuing partnerships, we evaluate more than just your SEO to help determine if we can deliver a win or not. We want to know how sound your up stream marketing strategy is to better understand how that will amplify or depress our efforts.

In our own work, these three immutable laws of marketing are also principles that help us select the right industries to pursue as we build our Owned & Operated brands. It is generally hard to find a niche that lacks competition, so being able to discern how to differentiate within a niche so that we can create a new category is a good way for us to build a foundation from which we can be successful.

There is likely far more I could say about this layer, but hopefully that resonates or at least gives you a taste of what that type of strategic thinking sounds/looks like.

Operations Level Marketing Strategy

Once the Leadership Level Marketing Strategy is set, you have to move into operations. I generally think about marketing strategy at this level as building the system and understanding where to allocate your resources. After all, many can craft a strategy and a plan, but what really matters is operationalizing the plan and executing.

I know I’m stating the obvious here, but not every channel is going to work for every brand. Although this does seem like common sense, you’d be surprised how many times people have come to Grit asking for paid social, when what they really need is stronger PPC and SEO. In today’s age of information access and social sharing, it is easy to be swayed by the influencers and case studies that make you feel like you’re missing out on a silver bullet. Even seasoned professionals aren’t impervious to it.

This is also the layer, in my opinion, that establishes the funnel and the economics around winning. The best Operational Marketing Strategists are diligent about knowing their funnel and disciplined about measuring it. Two of the biggest questions to answer in this area are:

  1. What is a customer worth to you?
  2. What are you willing to pay to acquire a customer?

Once you know the answer to these two questions, you can provide your Channel Level Marketing Strategists with the guidelines they need to craft their plans for growth.

Channel Level Marketing Strategy

For most agencies, this is where you spend the majority of your time. Channel strategy. The channel strategy layer is where the rubber meets the road, and you have to develop specific plans to inform and direct execution.

I love spending time in this arena because it is what I grew up in the early part of my career doing. As an analyst at Red Ventures, I was constantly trying to identify and execute on new things within SEO to drive performance. SEO Channel Strategy included thinking of things such as:

  1. Testing the buildout of resource-style backlinks to increase DA and drive traffic.
  2. Pivoting from targeting head term search queries to pursuing a long-tail strategy to attack smaller geos.
  3. Rebuilding a page’s content template to incorporate more EAT principles (although this wasn’t around back in the day).

Channel strategy can be really fun. As you get closer to the execution of work, creativity flows and you get to find new ways to deliver a message or package an offer. But, as I alluded to earlier, a risk of falling too deeply in love with channel strategy, is that you lose track of the bigger picture.

So, no matter where you are in your career, early or late, if you’re spending time on Channel Level Marketing Strategy, make sure you are coming up for air to ask the bigger questions: (1) Are the economics of our funnel where they need to be? (2) Is the company targeting the right category, one where we can be first, or are we too broad?

There are many other ways to demonstrate the different levels of marketing strategy, but I promise, the more time you spend forcing yourself to think about each level, the more well-rounded you will be as a professional, and most likely you will find your work yielding stronger results.

The importance of connecting the dots

When I started to recognize and appreciate these different levels of marketing strategy, it began to help me interact with people in a different way. Even for small companies, it’s easy for teams to get knocked off course when your leadership level strategy isn’t understood or leveraged by the various channels. The more removed your front-line technicians are from the higher level strategy, the more likely it is that your marketing will be less effective.

At Grit, we have SEOs, email specialists, designers etc, but I always make an effort to emphasize that we are all marketers! Don’t get me wrong, specialization is important and valuable, but I personally believe that the best specialists also tend to be those who are able to connect the dots the fastest through all levels of marketing.

So, if you want to add value, focus on being a teammate who knows how to zoom in and zoom out to be effective. Channel leaders, ask questions to the Leadership Level Marketers to help contextualize your priorities to what they are focused on. Leadership Level Marketers, spend time with your Channel Marketers to emphasize the vision and reinforce how your company wins at the highest level. You have to be intentional about having these conversations. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to wander off course.

Hopefully this was helpful! Stay tuned for more on this topic as I’ll dig into understanding the dynamics of who does what for companies large and small. Titles can be deceiving — so I’ll look to provide some guidance on knowing how to approach VPs or CMOs for different size companies, with an understanding of what marketing strategy means to them.