Chip Griffin is the Founder and CEO of Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA), where he helps PR, public affairs, and marketing agency owners grow and thrive in their industries. SAGA supports agencies by providing business news, insights, and consulting to help them improve their processes and increase profit margins. In 1997, Chip became the CEO of Townhall.com, a company that operated a policy-oriented web portal. He also co-founded CustomScoop, an early online news clipping service company, and launched his first blog in 1999.
In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran interviews Chip Griffin, the Founder and CEO of Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA), about building a PR and marketing agency. They also discuss the early days of podcasting, the types of challenges agencies face, and current growth opportunities in the agency world.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- [02:20] How getting a computer in fifth grade sparked Chip Griffin’s love for computer programming and consulting
- [05:17] Chip talks about becoming a CEO at 23 years old, starting an agency, and working as a Chief Digital Officer
- [09:34] How the idea for creating CustomScoop came about
- [10:48] Chip’s experience transitioning to CARMA after selling CustomScoop
- [12:40] How starting a blog in 1999 led to new business opportunities
- [20:25] The evolution of podcasting
- [21:26] What inspired Chip to start SAGA?
- [23:04] The types of challenges agencies face — and current growth opportunities in the agency world
Resources Mentioned In This Episode
- Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA)
- Agency Leadership Podcast
- Chip Griffin on LinkedIn
- Gini Dietrich on LinkedIn
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Rise25 Cofounders, Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran, have been podcasting and advising about podcasting since 2008.
John Corcoran 0:00
All right, welcome everyone. Today we’re going to be talking about how to grow a marketing or PR agency, how to get more clients, how to get more referrals, overcome the hurdles that agencies experience, how to scale up, how to hire all of those sorts of things. My guest is Chip Griffin. He’s a world renowned expert in agency growth who has been around the internet for 20 plus years. So we’re gonna have lots of interesting discussions. Stay tuned.
Chad Franzen 0:24
Welcome to the Smart Business Revolution podcast where we feature top entrepreneurs, business leaders and thought leaders, and ask them how they built key relationships to get where they are today. Now, let’s get started with the show.
John Corcoran 0:41
Alright, welcome everyone. Welcome to the show. I am your host, John Corcoran. I’ve been hosting this show since 2010. And have interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs, founders and CEOs ranging from Netflix to Kinkos, GrubHub, Redfin, you name it. And this is part of our agency growth series, aimed at helping agencies to grow profitably. And if you’re interested in this topic, digital agencies, you go check out some of my previous episodes with guests such as Jason Swenk, Carl Smith of Bureau of Digital, David C. Baker, kind of a world renowned expert as well, an agency growth, Roger Hurney of off Madison Ave, go check it out. And of course, this episode brought to you by Rise25, where we help b2b businesses to get clients, referrals, and strategic partnerships with done for you podcasts and content marketing.
And my guest is Chip Griffin. And Chip has got a really interesting background and experience in a bunch of different areas. He’s the Founder and CEO of SAGA, which is Small Agency Growth Alliance. They help PR, public affairs, and marketing agency owners to create better businesses, providing news, insights, consulting, to help them to improve their processes and profit. And we’re gonna talk all about that. And way back in 1997, he became the CEO of Townhall.com, which is a company that operated a policy oriented web portal. So he and I overlap in terms of we both lived in DC, involved in politics involved in the internet, podcasting, we got so many things to talk about, and really excited about that. He also co-founded CustomScoop, which was one of the earliest online news clipping services, which was a new thing back then now. It’s all over the place. And fun fact, he launched his first blog back in 1999. He has been podcasting since either 1999 or 2006, depending on how you categorize it, Chip. Such a pleasure to have you here today. But I want to start first with as a kid, back in fifth grade, you had a computer that was kind of handed to you. They said, this doesn’t really work that well. And if you can figure out how to work it, you can use it and that kind of lit a fire and use it tell us a story.
Chip Griffin 2:35
Yeah, first of all, it’s great to be with you, John. And I’m looking forward to the conversation. Back in fifth grade. I was I was sort of that that difficult kid because I was smart. But I tried. I like to challenge the teachers and cause problems from from that perspective, not not disciplinary problems, but just challenging them and pushing them to their limits. And so they happened to have a computer that they had gotten through a grant. And they said, you know, we’ve got this trs 80, we don’t know how to use it. Maybe you can busy yourself by doing that. So you spend less time nagging us. And so I said, Sure, I’ll take the challenge. And and I taught myself how to program in basic. And this was to really date myself. This was a computer that plugged into a TV via an RCA connection. So it’s just a really old school and which is really
John Corcoran 3:22
what the how the early computers operated. They didn’t even have monitors back then. Yeah. And
Chip Griffin 3:27
in fact, there was no hard drive, there was not even a floppy drive, which my kids don’t even understand. Where’s the memory that it was? It was a cassette tape. So the old black cassette recorders that you had in school that teachers would play things on, that was where you saved your computer
John Corcoran 3:41
programs. Wow. Yeah, super early days. It’s amazing. What can I say? And then that kind of morphed into in high school instead of going and working in the hotdog stand. You actually were doing computer consulting? What did that look like back in those days?
Chip Griffin 3:57
Yeah. So back then it was sort of taking on whatever projects were needed. So I would help people set up their computers, I would do some computer programming. I recall one program that I wrote for a nonprofit organization that basically did raffle tickets, and sequence them and all that kind of stuff. I did desktop publishing for various organizations, creating programs for events and that sort of thing. So it was a whole mishmash of different things back in the 80s It’s amazing.
John Corcoran 4:20
Each of these ideas have there are now probably a dozen or so different companies that have created multi 100 million dollar or billion dollar companies around these individual kernels of ideas that you were playing around with back when there was nothing to nothing of the sort.
Chip Griffin 4:40
So what you’re basically telling me is I’m a failure because I didn’t run with it.
John Corcoran 4:44
It’s also like, you know, an embarrassment of riches. You know, when you kind of see this when new technologies come along, whether it’s you know, ei or something sorry, AI or something like that, where it’s like there’s so many different ideas, and it’s hard to know which are going to be the winners. Then which are going to be the pets.com. And just too early,
Chip Griffin 5:03
right? And, you know, it’s one of the reasons why I encourage people to experiment with things, learn about different things. And you want to try to find the ones that are a good fit with whatever you’re doing in your current business and things that interest you, because those are the ones you’ll have the most success with.
John Corcoran 5:17
Right? So tell us about town hall, because this is an interesting one it What was it? And you had a kind of a funny story where you thought they were joking when they offered you the job at 23 years old, of being CEO of this company? Yeah, so
Chip Griffin 5:31
So townhall.com, at the time was a public policy portal, sort of an old school directory of sites with compilations of some of the information that came from them. And they had a CompuServe forum for those of you old enough to remember those. And so I was having a conversation with the chairman of the board who I knew very well through some prior work experience. And he was asking me for suggestions on who their next CEO should be. And so I gave him a few names. And he said, Actually, we were thinking about having you do it. And I just started laughing. I thought he was joking. We were sitting there having a nice pizza lunch, and I thought he was for all the world joking with me. So no, I’m serious. I’m like, Oh, okay. And so that’s, that’s how I ended up getting that job. It was certainly unexpected, but it was a great opportunity.
John Corcoran 6:16
It’s like the old story of how Dick Cheney became vice president. He was head of the commission to decide who would be vice president and he chose himself. Right, right. Now that wasn’t you choosing yourself in fairness? Not Not at all. Not at all. You’re recommending others. And they said, Oh, how about you?
Chip Griffin 6:33
Right, then, in fact, they had come into the meeting, obviously, anticipating that they were going to ask me and so I think they were just curious who I would suggest maybe it was a pre interview question or something? I don’t know.
John Corcoran 6:42
Right. So your next step after that, is Griffin Strategy Group helping companies to create websites and online apps? I think this is very early 2000s. So very different world in terms of the software solutions, pre WordPress, what was that? Like?
Chip Griffin 6:57
Yeah, so it was certainly very different. In fact, I wrote my own content management system, because there wasn’t a WordPress out there that existed at the time, because my clients weren’t able to edit HTML themselves. And I didn’t want to be doing it for them, because that wasn’t a cost effective solution. So I wrote some software that allowed them to make simple updates to their websites and put content on it. And so yeah, this was the late 90s. So I did a lot of work for media organizations, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, that sort of thing, basically, an extension of the connections I had made when I was in Washington, DC.
John Corcoran 7:29
Got it? And you became after that Chief Digital Officer, back when that was not a common title. Now, almost every big company has got a Chief Digital Officer are lots of them do. Was that a title that you came up with yourself? How did that role come about?
Chip Griffin 7:50
Yeah, it was. So I had been doing some consulting work for public affairs firm based in DC. And so they had talked to me about transitioning from doing some consulting for them, I’ve been helping them set up a digital department structure and things like that. And they said, Well, you know, we’d like you to come and run it. And we were discussing potential titles for it. And so I threw out Chief Digital Officer, and they said, Sure, that works for us. And so that’s how I ended up becoming one of the first Chief Digital Officers for any PR or public affairs firm in the world, as far as I’m aware.
John Corcoran 8:22
And I’m wondering what it was like for you like in that role, where there wasn’t the same appreciation for the importance of a digital approach? Did you find that you were in meetings where you’re the advocate for, you know, taking a digital approach? And there are people who are, you know, used to doing things the old school way? I mean, we’re talking like late 2000s, I think probably Yellowpages was still significant back in those days, you know, and it wasn’t even that long ago, but it’s just a different approach today.
Chip Griffin 8:52
Yeah, well, I will say that, that this particular firm was, had always been pretty forward thinking in the use of digital and experimenting in different ways to use it, they just really hadn’t pulled it together in a cohesive department. And so you know, it was a very receptive environment internally, within the firm. Obviously, with some clients, it was a little bit different. And so there was a lot more convincing that some clients needed as far as not just that they should be engaged in digital communications, but how they should be doing it. And I think that was a challenge because back then everybody just said, Oh, you just you just do this. You just do some comments, and you just, you know, put out some blogs and maybe play with this thing called Twitter. I don’t know it must be good, right. And we’ll be all set. And I tried to explain it had to be more of a strategic approach and not just throwing everything at the wall.
John Corcoran 9:35
Yeah. Now your your next step after that, uh, you end up developing CustomScoop, which is one of the early online news clipping services. Tell us about where that idea came from. So actually,
Chip Griffin 9:47
I developed that back in I think it was 2000. Okay, so I did it. At the same time that I was running my agency Griffin Strategy Group, because I obviously would that I was selling time but I was looking for a way is to diversify my revenue streams. And I had been talking with some other owners of agencies. And so we came together in partnership to create CustomScoop. As we’ve talked about, I had a bit of a computer programming hobbyist type habit. And so I wrote the first version of the software myself. Anyone who knows technology would be horrified at how I did that we won’t go into the details here. But it was it was written in a computer language that should not be used for writing an online news clipping service. But it was it worked. And we were able to go out and sell it. And, and so we did great things with it. And when I ended up going to that public affairs firm, I ended up taking a leave of absence from the firm of became chairman of the board at that point. And then subsequently, we sold CustomScoop to an international business that was consolidating those kinds of companies around the world.
John Corcoran 10:50
Got it. And now oftentimes, when people sell a company, I’ve interviewed so many entrepreneurs that end up being miserable afterwards, they think it’s gonna be okay, they end up a few, you know, maybe a year or two, and then they end up leaving, because it’s just something they just don’t mesh in the new environment, you end up joining karma, which is the company that acquired CustomScoop, and, you know, even becoming global CEO, you had 500 people or so, reporting to you and talk about what that experience was, like being in that large of a company after, you know, being in scrappy startups.
Chip Griffin 11:24
Yeah, so I mean, it’s a company that very much had, and still has a startup type culture. And so despite its size, you know, very entrepreneurial, very creative in their approaches. And for me, it was a, it was a great experience, because I was able to get involved in international business, which is not something that I’ve done, or had done previously. And so it exposed me to how businesses operate in a lot of different parts of the world. And it is, it is quite different for most people who are very US centric in their business operations, it is an eye opening experience that can help you, I think tremendously, particularly in in an increasingly global economy that we all have to thrive in. And so I find a lot of benefits to it. But I you know, as you mentioned, there are challenges going from being an owner to an employee. So I did it for a few years, but ultimately decided that entrepreneurship really is my calling. And that’s when I created SAGA to be able to, to help other agency owners and and other entrepreneurs, run their businesses and get what they want from it. And I often have that conversation that you just mentioned, you know, you have to understand if you’re going to sell the business, here are the here are the downsides. It’s not just all about getting a nice big fat check and retiring to Tahiti.