Technically Speaking: An Interview with MeritDirect’s Data + Media Services SVP Chris Blohm

2017 is here and along for the ride is the steadfast proliferation of credible competition across the marketing technology landscape. For nearly two decades global multi-channel marketing leader MeritDirect has thrived as a data-driven, integrated direct marketing partner, elevating their clients’ marketing efforts to “Higher Ground” – a cornerstone of the company’s customer-first approach and corporate culture. We sat down with Chris Blohm, MeritDirect’s Senior Vice President of Data + Media Services, to discuss product development, 2017 marketing challenges, the pursuit of new ideas, and the importance of bringing top talent into the fold. The thought provoking discussion follows.

What was the genesis behind the founding of MeritDerit?

MeritDirect was founded in 2000, which as you know was a tumultuous time for businesses.  MeritDirect was established to be a safe-haven from which b2b and technology marketing organizations could base their customer acquisition, data management and demand gen strategies, embracing data and innovation along the way.  As larger businesses engulfed smaller players in our vertical, we observed the dissipation of a client-first approach. As a client-centric organization, this difference became our unique business proposition, as well as our stability and consistency.

Today, MeritDirect is a data- forward, omni-channel marketing business with a spotlight on digital, data, and analytics. Our tagline “Higher Ground” is really a rallying cry around an omni-channel marketing organization consumed entirely with our clients’ evolving needs. Such an ethos is derived from our founding desire to provide customers with a brassbound foundation through which they can conduct all marketing operations. This includes lead generation, email, and digital advertising, all while supporting customers using direct mail who’s goal it is to connect multiple points of marketing outreach.

What do you consider to be the most challenging elements facing modern marketers today?

The industry is putting a lot of muscle into attribution, specifically, which actions or combination of actions drives sales. The notion of multi-channel attribution is something marketers across the board are working hard to solve for. There’s much debate between first and last touch attributes and which one is a stronger indicator of purchase intent. Others look at engagements somewhere between the two. It’s a complex analytical formula and an integral challenge facing modern marketers right now.

Additionally, as the marketing technology landscape continues to explode, the amount of tools available presents a major challenge to marketers. They are continuously forced to ask: which marketing services are right for my clients? Which ones will allow my business to thrive, and how do I test and integrate these tools into my existing tech stack so everything works harmoniously? These are the big-picture questions modern marketers are facing and it will continue to be an uphill battle as competitive increases.

“It’s no longer just about selling a product. It’s about offering solutions that provide clear answers to difficult problems. The goal is always to identify your customer’s pain points and, in turn, guide them towards a viable solution.”

As a senior executive in a marketing, sales and ops role, what do you do consistently that you recommend everyone else do, too?

Test, retest, and test again; anything you do related to the development of a new product or feature requires rigorous experimentation, no matter how confident you are in a product’s application. It’s imperative that you set up the right testing methodologies so the product can be accurately measured.

On a personal level, I find music – particularly improvisational music– to be an excellent form of release. It keeps me focused and provides me with an escape from everyday pressures. There’s a distinct connection between the instrumental cadence of improvisational music and the manner in which various marketing technologies can be used in concert to complement one another. Like most marketing strategies improvisational music requires a solid foundation off of which to operate, which mirrors the structure and style of an account-based marketing and customer acquisition strategy.

When coming into a new company as someone responsible for operations and revenue, where do you start? How do you develop a well-oiled sales machine and ensure profitability?

When I started at MeritDirect we were a team of 15. Today, we’re 175.   Our CEO Rob Sanchez has been keenly focused on smart acquisition strategies.  Over the last six years, we have acquired five companies which have helped us vertically integrate and generate cost-savings, while expanding the services we offer to our clients.  Additionally, we’ve been fortunate to have very little turnover and many members of our team have been with us since the very beginning. There is a great benefit to this in that many of our legacy employees know where we came from and how we have evolved from both an operational and product standpoint. When it comes to developing employee loyalty and drive, and connecting that to profitability and overall business health, I believe the main ingredient is adopting a perspective that all employees straddle the lines between product, sales, and marketing.

“Product isn’t the only division with a unique view into where we need to evolve our technology. At the end of the day, everyone – regardless of department or title – is in sales.”

This ethos is a core pillar of our corporate culture and keeps our business laser-focused on profitability. Sellers are always on the front lines – receiving client feedback and discussing potential solutions with prospects. This insight fuels product decisions: specifically, where our offerings need to go and what improvements we need to make to ensure our services move our clients forward.

What do you look for when building a team and making those initial hires? Are there certain characteristics you seek out when building a sales team?

We look for talented, hungry individuals who are solution-oriented, motivated, flexible, and collaborative. We went from a small company to a midsized firm, and that growth calls for jack-of-all-trade types who understand what it takes to build up a business and a brand from the ground level. Creativity and synergy are also important characteristics, particularly at our stage of growth.

“You cultivate an authentic company culture that inspires people to march towards a shared goal rather than operating within individual siloes when you hire with curiosity in mind.”

How do you know when an idea is “the idea”? How do you bring an idea to life?

Occasionally you do have that “a-ha” moment. However, epiphanies aren’t always logical from a business standpoint. Occasionally, excitement over a new idea must pause to make way for more foundational projects in order to give a concept the chance to build upon the strength of what came before it.

“Sometimes innovation must take a backseat to revenue. There’s always going to be a friction between what we want to do next and what we need to do next to ensure profitability today.”

A number of factors contribute to research and development and strategic planning around new ideas. Sometimes the production runway is too lengthy, perhaps someone beats you to the punch, or the concept is no longer relevant. Even if you have made headway in the development phase, something might occur during ramp-up that alters the product’s position in the pipeline. It’s critical to factor in your timeline in relation to how quickly the landscape is changing, particularly when it comes to marketing technology.

Ultimately, it comes down to economics. Anyone naturally forward leaning and curious has times when they think, “this could be the game-changing epiphany,” but if you think about it rationally from a business standpoint, you have to ask “how expensive is this going to be to build? How long of a runway do we have before we see profitability? Where it gets tricky, is, if you know you can build something and have the financial and human resources to do so, you don’t always want to stop to consider what the P&L looks like or what the long-term ramifications might be. Regardless of the idea or the environment in which it’s introduced, when selling an idea up the food chain, the first question whoever signs the checks is going to ask is: how will we profit from this? How will this improve our business as a whole and help propel our customers forward? MeritDirect has made a considerable investment in the future, and in some cases it comes down to a “gut feel”.  No matter how forethought goes into the process, not all investments will be winners.

Sure, one could argue that a new and cutting-edge idea might work in the moment, but it’s important to recognize the fact that it very well could work better once you’ve invested in fundamentals that lay the groundwork for your next inspiration. There should be a linear methodology in which A comes first and B comes second.