Climb Online: Performance After 100 Days

Toward the end of 2014, a man called Mark Wright won “The Apprentice” in the UK, with his idea to create a Search Marketing Agency called ‘Climb Online’.

Just after the show aired, I ran a quick poll asking the question “Do you think Lord Sugar should have invested in ‘Climb Online’?”. After 45 minutes I shared the results in a post:

It’s now been a few months since the show aired, and Mark’s PR team have been in touch with various people to spread the word a little about what he’s been up to. They’ve put out a few of these interviews so far, with the interviewers broadly falling into one of three categories:

  1. Mainstream journalists – eg. the Radio Times.
  2. Digital Marketing blogs – eg. Econsultancy.
  3. People who they perceived had been vaguely critical of Mark.

They thought the blog post I’d written following the show was critical of Mark, and so they asked me if I’d be willing to meet up with him to find out how the business was going. I thought it would be fair & sensible to do that, and also interesting to meet Mark & his PR co.

I therefore spent an afternoon with Mark toward the end of March, at his PR company’s office. The conversation covered various areas from his company’s performance, to search marketing in general, to legal matters, to his plans for the future. This article summarises some of that, and my impression of Mark & the business. The full transcript runs to about 18,000 words, so I’ll keep information here to a summary of the bits I think will be most interesting/useful to a general audience.

[As one tiny note: Mark’s PR company asked me to remove the names of employee names – I thought that was fair enough. Other than that I haven’t altered the transcript, so there’ll be some of the usual ums and ahs of speech included].

Do feel free to add comments/questions/thoughts to the post, or drop me a note at @danbarker on Twitter if you have any questions.

Company Performance & Model

The normal start to something like this might be: “We met at Mark’s PR company. I was late & he was very kind about it. He was wearing the light blue waistcoat & tie he often seems to in publicity shots…” but I will skip right into the detail:

I picked up the following info from the chat:

  • Climb Online have roughly 80 clients at the moment.
  • They haven’t lost a client yet. (Mark was proud of this, though pointed out himself it’s still early days)
  • 63 of their 80ish clients are actually Paid Search clients, not SEO clients.
  • They’re up to around 10 staff.
  • Costs are, and have been, fairly high. The website cost ‘tens of thousands’, Mark says he spends around £13k a month on software, etc…
  • …But the returns are also fairly high: Mark mentions one client pays £6k fees per month. That’s probably not the average, but let’s pretend it is: £6k x 80 clients x 12 months = £5,760,000. Obviously the £6k probably isn’t average, but it’s also likely that the 80 clients will grow over the course of the year.
  • At a lower end, if we factor it down very pessimistically to 10% of the above it becomes a harder business model, but with the amount of leads, the fact it’s profitable at present, and the scope to grow, there is obviously lots of potential if they can execute well

Aside from the back of napkin calculations, the most interesting element among the above is the PPC slant: Every article you read about the company, Mark himself, or most opinions, talk from the stance of them being an SEO company. To those outside of digital marketing that probably makes little difference, but I think the perception within the industry is quite different between pure SEO agencies & pure PPC agencies (or those that lean one way or the other).

While we were chatting, Mark mentioned that the SEO angle almost came about by accident:

“The plan was nothing like Climb Online was. It was a … almost like GoDaddy. My business plan was for a company like GoDaddy. Domain and hosting registry, where you could do PPC services. The way that the show positioned it was to have SEO in there as well.

“Basically, when I went to the interview stage, I met with Claude and Mike and they said, “Why would you ever launch business model similar to GoDaddy.com?” They’re like, “That is ridiculous. Their marketing budget is in the hundreds of millions. The margins in hosting and domains is so small. You’ve got no background in that. However, you’ve got fantastic background in teaching people how to sell, paid search, and SEO is a very similar sales model.” I’m the guy that can train people, with the knowledge in the industry to go out and present it. They said, “If you present that business plan, you’re far more successful.”

“I modified my business plan and, obviously, I won the show. What we got was, I think, what Lord Sugar wanted, was something that was similar to ReachLocal. He’s always won for someone who does what they know. I was presenting from an industry kind of off the back of what I did, but then I went to pitching a business of one I’ve done successfully before, so I think he really liked that. “

As services, they therefore offer PPC as the main service, a specific Retargeting service, SEO, and a Social Media service. As I said, Mark mentions they’re charging a particular client £6,000 per month fees for paid search management. You’d expect those sort of fees for a small-to-medium sized company, rather than very small, which perhaps gives an indication of the size of some of their clients.

Mark also talks about some of the extra services they’re offering:

“Free brand protection. When any company works with us, we trademark your name with Google so people can’t bid on your brand term on ad words and we also trademark anything on your website that we can and the company name to stop trademark infringement. Now, we have that in place for us to clean up the search, but also to protect us in the industry. When we offer that to our customers, and we offer it for free, that is part of our SEO service, which I think is pretty cool, because if a normal small business wanted to do that it could cost them up to seven hundred pounds to do trademarking when we come along and do it for free.”

I’ve never heard of another paid search/SEO agency offering trademark protection, but in honesty I think it’s a sensible idea: Something that differentiates them a little, doesn’t cost a lot, and is the kind of thing that can be added as an extra that’s valuable to the client. [side-note after several comments: I’m not commenting on the effect this has on Google]

Mark also talks of one of the other value-adds they offer as being transparent results in PPC. He’s noticeably more animated talking about paid search, technology, paid search, & sales than he is talking about SEO or Social:

“I mean, a guy that works for me, he can probably set up a campaign better than anyone in the bloody country. If you’re going to go and set up … If you’re a little man in Southampton that’s going to go and set up a Google adwords campaign against us, you’re going to go no good. You’ve got to be more innovative in the way that you think and the way that you’re building the campaigns and what you’re offering the customer. If you go in and do a pitch on a Google adwords campaign and I come in and do a pitch on our search product, I will blow you away because the tools we have are better. The way we report back to the customer on how many leads they’ve had. This guy’s like, “Well, you’ve had a conversion through your form six days ago.” I’m like, “Well, Sandra typed in ‘dentist in Southhampton’ and this is the call. We can listen to the call. This is the keyword. This is the time she came through. There’s Sandra in the chair having her teeth done.” That came from me. “

And he also talks a little bit about a paid search platform that they’ve been putting together:

“It’s interesting, I’ve handled a lot of proposals and I’ve shopped a lot of companies just to look at what they do and everyone’s got a different strategy. What I’ve decided to do … We do adwords management, right? Where you have an adwords campaign, we manage it. We charge you a management fee and you just go in and we change your ad words and it’s running smooth now. We have what we call our “paid climber”, which we’ve got our own platform for. Sits … Your campaign sits in our platform and the ads consider across Facebook, Bing, Yahoo, and Google, and it’s constantly monitoring for the lowest CPC and conversion rate and it will factor in where you’re getting the lowest CPA and start showing your ads there more. It’s more of a product than just adwords management because ad words management is quite boring”

He clarifies this a bit later on, mentioning the various networks it covers:

“You look what happens to some of the keywords in the past year alone. I don’t think … Okay, here’s what I think: I don’t think the competition is as great as the price rise in the CPCs. I think that Google are forecasting that the lifespan of Google ad words is coming to an end in the foreseeable. Let’s turn the dial up on the CPCs and make as much revenue from this as possible. Maybe. Maybe not. I think that’s what’s happened, because if I was at the head of that business, that’s what I would do. I would say, “Right. This has probably got three, four years left. At the volume that people are joining this, sort of, form of advertising, let’s increase the price, because they’re still going to see return. Make money from it. Then see what happens next. What we’ve gone away and done is say, “Let’s not concentrate all of our areas there. We’ll set the campaign up in our platform. We’ll show the ads on every form of search: Google, Yahoo, Bing, Right Media Network, Google Display, whatever it might be. YouTube. Show the ads there. Show it where we can get the lowest cost per lead. Then the customer is still winning. If that becomes achievable due to price, we’ll find the conversions elsewhere. That’s what’s working for us.”

And finally he talks about this in the context of the market:

“Marin’s good, Kenshoo’s good, Acquisio’s good, and a lot of agencies are building their own platforms. I mean, a lot. You know, this used to be unachievable and cost millions to do this stuff. It is now … It’s still expensive. It could cost you a hundred grand, but you could have a really good, responsive platform. I’ve trialed Marin, I’ve trialed Acquisio, Kenshoo wouldn’t touch us because we weren’t big enough, which was a real shame because they are a good platform.”

Digital Performance

Strangely, one of my own websites has ranked in Google UK for ‘Climb Online’ more or less since the show aired. As a result, I have a little bit of data for the search volume associated with Mark’s business. Here’s a graph of rough Google search impressions for the phrase (47,865 in total over 3 months). As you can see, the bulk of searches came at the start, but there are some upward bumps along the way (these roughly correlate with PR activity):

 

Mark himself says: “We’re getting up to forty thousand visits a day. Whenever Lord Sugar tweets the business, the site nearly crashes, just from, he’s got four point one million followers on Twitter. You get a percentage of that visiting your website, god … It peaks. The CloudFlare starts to throw a few warnings at us. Which is good. “

On the CloudFlare point, he’s referring to the content delivery network they’ve been using to protect against attacks. Along with the general trolling on social media, his site has had various negative SEO attacks and denial of service attacks. Mark & his team hadn’t anticipated that, and initially didn’t have anything in place to deal with it. He credits that as one of the elements that held up their website launch. Here’s the site that eventually launched:

This was one of the big criticisms of Climb Online’s digital performance – that the site launched so late (it fully launched more than 2 months after the show aired).

Here’s how the conversation went around that:

  • Mark: We had a website ready to go three weeks in. We just put it out a couple of weeks ago because we’re getting attacked so heavily that we couldn’t risk putting a website that’s cost tens of thousands of pounds out on the internet.
  • Me: That’s probably something I would have done differently as well. I’d have made the website cheaper.
  • Mark: But have you seen it? It’s a good website isn’t it?
  • Me: Well it …
  • Mark: It’s probably revolutionary.
  • Me: You’re playing on your charm now.
  • Mark: I’d say that, you know …
  • Me: It’s definitely not revolutionary. It’s a nice website, but it’s …
  • Mark: Well, I look at your website …
  • Me: As I said, I do not try to sell myself in the slightest. I’ve two websites. I really should have redirected one to the other one several years ago. One of my websites, I haven’t updated it since 2008. When I bought the .dj and when I bought the .co.uk one I just talk about general stuff, and that’s it. I don’t really tell anybody who I work for. I showed you that. That’s not out there anywhere. I don’t try to sell myself.
  • Mark: Would you say our site’s innovative?
  • Me: Well, to be honest, I deal with so many websites, no. I wouldn’t say it’s innovative. I’d say it’s kind of good. It’s responsive, which is great. It gets across some of your message, which is good. Really, you don’t need an innovative website. You don’t need a revolutionary website. Your gift is that you have a very public-facing profile and as long as the website doesn’t look bad, you’re fine.
  • Mark: Yeah. Interesting.
  • Me: I hope that doesn’t hurt you.
  • Mark: No, no.
  • Me: It’s somebody else that built the thing. I acknowledge, my website is awful.
  • Mark: No. No, that’s all right. I really like it. I mean, the thing that I … My little touch on it, you know, SEO, PPC, these things are boring, and what I went and did is I made Climb Online so we changed it to the paid climber, social climber, I wrote all the content. Then we had an illustrator go and draw all of the imageries and buttons that are on the website and we’ve trademarked all of those. We’re creating something different, which I think is quite cool. We could have just called it SEO, PPC and been like everyone else out there. It’s little things like that which I really enjoyed. Which is probably boring. Sounds horrendous.

You can tell from this he really is very proud of the site. I think he oversells it a little, which naturally will lead to criticism from people who feel it doesn’t match up the ‘revolutionary’ claim. But – assuming the same pride transfers across to the work they do for clients – that’s a very good thing & .

On Criticism of Mark’s Digital Marketing & SEO Knowledge

Mark’s had a lot of criticism across social media. Some of that was based on things he said during his appearance on The Apprentice (actually I think pretty much everyone on the show gets some sort of criticism on social media as the show airs, as well as many gaining big fans). He’s also had quite a lot of criticism from people within the ‘SEO industry’. Some of that’s direct criticism for things he’s said; some of it’s concern & annoyance from people who work in SEO, and some of it is pure trolling.

I think really there are a few things at the root of the criticism:

  1. People like to point out mistakes, and they like to point out when they think people are not being entirely genuine.
  2. Mark positioned himself – or was positioned – as an SEO expert in order to win The Apprentice. His actions & words afterward didn’t completely match up with that.
  3. Mark is a very good communicator in real life, and on TV. But he’s fairly new to social media.
  4. Alongside all of the above: There are genuine trolls who just like to make fun of people, and/or try to get a reaction, and/or in some cases actually try to damage peoples’ businesses.

Mistakes…

On the ‘mistakes’ point, Mark makes a few during our chat. For example one of the first things he said to me was “I’m speaking at SEOBrighton next month. Have you heard of SEOBrighton before?”. The conference he’s talking about is ‘BrightonSEO’ – a point that will be lost on people outside the industry, but a mistake few within digital marketing would make. In the grand scheme of things, this is a meaningless error, but it’s a little tell that he is not the expert he sold himself as on the show.

SEO Expert?

He jokes about the ‘SEOBrighton’ thing a few times later after I point it out, and on the ‘SEO Expert’ point he’s completely up front:

“I don’t know that much about SEO, and this is the thing that I think most people are surprised when they meet me is they think I’m an SEO expert. My background is in paid search.”

These little mistakes continue as we chat, for example having told me he’s not an SEO expert he clarifies that he is an expert in other areas:

  • Mark: “PPC on the other hand you can ask me any question in the whole world and I’ll answer it as well as anyone at Google would.”

Very rudely, I then took the bait & asked him a PPC question:

  • Me: “What does RLSA stand for?”
  • Mark: “Mate I’ve no idea. RSLA…”
  • Me: “RLSA.”
  • Mark: “What does it mean?”
  • Me: “Remarketing Lists for Search Ads”

Again, that’s fine – 99.99% of the population won’t know what RLSA stands for either, but it’s another little tell that Mark’s a bit overconfident in his digital marketing knowledge.

Mark’s Background & the Company

Following up on the above, Mark’s experience was working for a firm called Reach Local. As I’d mentioned earlier they have a similar business model to his new company. He worked for them purely in Paid Search Sales. He clarifies that he never got involved in the SEO side of things – his background had been in the sales side of Paid Search.

“I never got involved in the SEO side. I was in the sales team for the PPC, then I went to sales manager, then I went to manager for the business, so my background had been in the sales side of PPC. Nothing technical about SEO. Now, my knowledge is far better than anyone you’d meet on the street, but am I someone that can implement an SEO strategy for you if you want? Open up your site now and said, “Right. We want some links. We want it W3C compliant, etc. etc.”? I’d be like, “I know everything you’re saying and I know that that’s going to be relevant, but I’m not the guy to do that. My team, probably one of the best in the country, will be building one of the SEO teams in the country to implement SEO strategy, but it’s not me sitting in there writing the articles, doing the links. That’s just not my thing.”

With that context, some of the criticism that he’s not an expert makes perfect sense.

New to Social Media

On the ‘new to social media’ point, I think this is perhaps the best example:

Read one way, that’s a friendly joke. Read another, it comes across as bragging & a bit aggressive. Having met Mark, it’s quite obvious that it’s the former. Prior to meeting Mark, I would have assumed it was the latter.

On Hiring

Having been open that his knowledge of SEO isn’t huge, I ask Mark how he goes about hiring people. A common difficulty in digital areas is that the people doing the hiring are less technically savvy than the people they need to hire.

“When I say I’m not an expert, it’s like, I never want to claim to be things that I’m not. I’m an expert salesman, an expert sales manager and manager of people, and I’m really expert in those areas. I’ve got a base knowledge of SEO. I’ve read, you know, I read search engine blogs. I read Moz. I love Moz.”

“People actually, and this is really funny … Someone tweeted “How Mark Wright Learned About SEO” and it was the “Moz’s Startup Guide, Beginner’s Guide to SEO”. Do you know I actually read that and I laughed because they were taking a piss. What’s wrong with a beginner guide to Moz’s SEO, you know? I don’t understand why … I actually read that whole thing and I thought it was absolutely brilliant and I think Moz are very top of their game with SEO. They’re really, really on it. I use it as a software tool for my personal campaigns and for our website, you know, to monitor keyword changes and link opportunities. I think it’s fantastic. It’s quite funny, but I don’t claim to be an expert. I have a very good knowledge of each section. I claim to be a sub-expert in paid search, as you’ve already tested me on.”

Separately he talks about this from another angle:

“Well, you know, if we look at the industry, or online marketing as a hundred percent, I might know twenty percent. This twenty percent here which is selling, managing, and training people on basic knowledge of online marketing. My guy, who sets up all my other paid search campaigns, he knows this much in the industry, but he knows the bit about paid search really well. The person who does my SEO, he knows thirty percent of the SEO piece really, really well, so it’s about getting one hundred percent for people. No one knows it all, other than the, you know, guys at Google who create the game that we play. Someone might know SEO ten times better than me, which wouldn’t be hard, but they can’t sell it near as good as I could sell it. But I can’t implement the campaign as well as they can so why don’t we just work together to make it that much easier for everyone. Let me be the face of it. Let me make online marketing perceivable and, you know, really … Help me make online marketing, you know, the shiny thing out there for businesses. Then people can go and implement the strategy any which way they want to. That’s, you know, no way’s the wrong way.”

And he expands on this still further:

“I’ve been very lucky with the staff I have. I have a knack for knowing people very, very well. I can sit with someone and I can tell your expertise straight away, even if I haven’t made you open up a website and show me how you can code, or show me how you build links, or put you on the weeks trial. I can sit with you and know in ten minutes whether you’re going to be the right guy and I don’t even read CVs. It’s just the … This is my power in business. You know, I may not have the same knowledge of SEO as someone, but I know your knowledge just as well as you do. Just through conversation I get people to tell me … When I first started interviewing for our Head of SEO role, I met with about fifteen different people and I said to me, “Describe to me what SEO means.” Every person gave me a different explanation.”

If I’m overly honest at this point, I think Climb Online will succeed, but it’s crucial they hire at least a few of the right people. I haven’t met Mark’s team – he heaped praise on them throughout our chat, but he also mentioned that he doesn’t read CVs. Elsewhere he also mentioned one of his employees and told me: “He was the Head of SEO for Wonga”. I thought to myself “I’m sure I know the head of search at Wonga…”, so I looked up the employee Mark was talking about, and here was his experience at Wonga:

It’s easy to make mistakes like this – he’s running a business that’s been going for 100 days, picked up 80 clients, and hired 10 staff. It’s hard in such a short amount of time to stay 100% on top of everything, and most likely the ‘head of SEO for Wonga’ comment was a slip of the tongue. But, if not a slip of the tongue, it may be worth checking on employees a bit closer. I think that’s particularly important around SEO as opposed to Paid Search. Whereas Paid Search is largely transparent, and there are very defined rules, it’s relatively easy to break someone’s site or business by getting things wrong from an SEO point of view.

On Paid vs Organic Search

We had a fairly long conversation around paid vs organic, and around the value Mark offers to companies. I thought I’d include some of that verbatim here as some of it was interesting, it reinforces their ‘paid’ perspective,.

  • Mark: Oh, no thank you. Well, the thing is is I try not to … I don’t want to ever offend people, you know? I always want to be seen as someone who’s contributing to online marketing and I have my way and I’m very spoken about my way. If someone asks me my way, I’ll tell them my answer. It might not be on Google, under their new update. My view is my view and the industry and people choose to partner with me because I challenge things. I think that Google this year will make an announcement that people that do Adwords with them will get preferential favoring through SEO. Now, someone hearing that from the SEO industry would have my neck for saying that, but, if I put myself in Google’s shoes, and I’m running a business and someone’s spending money with me and someone’s not, I’m going to give that person favorable, favorable ways of dealing with my business other than someone who’s not. I’m sure that that announcement will come.
  • Me: You’re sure?
  • Mark: Yeah.
  • Me: Should we make a bet?
  • Mark: Well, it will happen and I think it will happen this year.
  • Me: Yeah?
  • Mark: Because imagine if they do that how many more people will use Google Adwords? If you say that’s going to help your natural listing?
    Me: Well it’s sort of the opposite. If that’s going to help their natural listings, then that’s really slightly less money for Google. From their point of view, the worse someone’s performing on generic search, the more likely they are to spend on Adwords.
  • Mark: Potentially. Potentially. I don’t know. It’s more … That’s not for us to decide, that’s for the customer.
  • Me: That’s for the customer?
  • Mark: That’s for the customer to decide. If you say, “You’re not ranking well on Google, so should you spend more money on SEO … “
  • Me: No, I’m talking about from Google’s point of view.
  • Mark: Oh, from Google’s point of view.
  • Me: The thing is that they do seem to … make it a bit harder to do organic search and also make it harder to manage your paid search stuff more granularly for small people.
  • Mark: Well, that, you know, I’m sure you’ve had an adwords account where you get the suggested changes drop down on the top right hand side, you click that, it doesn’t tend to improve the campaign. All it does is tend to make it spend a lot quicker and a lot more. I mean, Google’s a fantastic business and I think it’s just amazing. Absolutely amazing. What they do is they arm their Google Adwords platform, which is very complex, but they make it look very easy to use. That’s why I run Google Adwords and it didn’t work, and I go “let me open up your campaign” and they’ll have three key words and then no negatives. One ad’s running with six pound bids on the keyword and one ad’s whatever and it’s just spending money, not getting any conversions. No conversion tracking setup.
    You go, “Well of course it’s not working. You haven’t … ”
    They go, “Oh, well I know you couldn’t make this any better.”
    “Well, did you know you should have a local and international site of the campaign? You should have over a hundred and fifty negatives in here under this ad group here.” They go, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
    You say, “This is why … ”
    I’ve only got basic knowledge. If I give this to some … one of my campaign performance managers, they spend ten days building the campaign, doing keyword researches and SEMrush on your competitors, using the keyword planner, talking with Google to make this run effectively. You’ve built that in an hour and you wonder why it’s not working. No disrespect. If you’re a mechanic, I don’t know what to look for under my car. I don’t expect you to know what to use on the Google platform. Google have built it that way. People will go, “Oh, this looks pretty simple.” Click, click, click. It’s almost like a slot machine. Here’s my Visa card. Wonder if we’ll get any leads. It just goes [tonk 01:24:03], takes a thousand quid, and not much happens. Thank god it is like that because when we go in and work with their campaigner, we get good results. One thing that does frustrate me about this space is when I sit with a customer … Sorry I’m talking so much!
  • Me: Don’t worry about it.
  • Mark: One thing that does frustrate me is I go in and I sit with a customer and they say, “Oh, we don’t need you. I can do this all myself.” Now, that must even frustrate someone like you more who’s worked probably twice as long, definitely two or three times longer than me in the industry than me. I’ve worked in the industry for, say, five years full-time. Right? Learning, reading, seeing customers everyday. I know this much about an industry that’s this big. Right? So I’m here. John the plumber saying he can do it all himself because he goes and runs an Adwords account, it’s like me going and saying to my lawyer, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this one.” He’s done years of reading and studying and learning his craft every day. Six years of study to get there. Our industry is no different. People have read every blog, watched every update with Google, seen Adwords go from, sort of, a couple of keywords in an ad group to these massively granular campaigns that have changed businesses. People have still got to study and learn the same for us as they have for being a doctor or a lawyer. You’ve still got to beat at your craft every day and you can’t do it yourself. You need to use an expert. That’s why we exist, because my guys have been there ten years, reading, you know, search engine land and all of this Moz and stuff because they’re beating at their craft, and that’s why they should use us. Don’t know if you agree about that.
  • Me: Well, no. That makes sense. Yeah, or it’s something that changes all the time as well. Like you said, there’s new technology next week. You’ll have to read up on it. All those kind of things. I suppose that’s sort of why when you were talking about people that criticize you at the start, if they just perceive it as being you, and actually you’re saying “I actually don’t know that much about the industry.” That makes sense, because they’ve … They think you’re saying: “I know everything about this.” When really, as you say, you’ve got this team that you’ve hired. You say, I don’t know who they are, but you say, “These are the real experts.”

On Mark’s Targets

Finally, I ask Mark whether he has particular targets for the company, or for himself.

Mark: “For myself, I’ve always sort of wanted to be a businessman. I don’t know … I didn’t know what type of business when I was younger. I just wanted to be a businessman. Now I know I want to be in online marketing. The reason why is because it’s challenging. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. The amount of reading you’ve got to do just to stay in today’s game is a lot. I have targets for myself to grow a big company. I would like to be the biggest agency in the country in five years. Wouldn’t that be amazing for me to walk in and have, you know, the Periscopix, the Jellyfish, and when you walk in there and I’ve got a hundred guys selling. I’ve got thirty guys implementing, you know, SEO. I’ve got thirty guys running Google ad words campaigns. We’ve got people doing Google shopping. We’ve got people doing this. We’ve got people filming videos, or whatever. That is the dream, you know? The all-encompassing online marketing agency that is, you know, pushing the boundaries in the UK. That would be great. For myself, as an individual … “

“It all, for me, it starts with the client. As long as we’ve got happy customers out there, people in the industry can say bad things about me. That’s fine. I just don’t want my customers saying bad things about us. That’s all that matters. Start with the customer and work back […] touch wood, we haven’t lost a customer.”

I point out that the company is only 100 days old:

Mark: “We’re a hundred days in and we haven’t lost a customer. Which sounds like, “Oh sure”. You know? Whatever. That’s really important. We need people to be happy with prices we offer, service we offer, and the consultation they get from my staff. If that’s getting it wrong, then I’ve got people to answer to.”

Takeaways

Here are a few takeaways I took from my chat with Mark. Do feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments:

The Apprentice & Hostility: One oddity of The Apprentice is that it’s accidentally rigged in such a way that the winner’s chosen industry is often hostile against them. The purpose of the show is to take someone who would not normally be at the forefront of their industry, and place them there. In many industry’s that’s a lonely place to be; in digital marketing I think if you’re upfront with people they’ll embrace you. Mark made a few miss-steps around the launch of his site, and around social response, but I think he has an opportunity to fix all of that & seems to be trying to take that opportunity. From a ‘client’ point of view I don’t think it makes a huge difference if Mark is embraced by other digital marketers, but from a hiring & partnerships point of view it’s obviously important.

Brand Marketing: Climb Online is doing very well from a leads & closing point of view. I think the ‘leads’ part basically indicates ‘brand marketing’ can be very successful within digital marketing. Most SEO/Search/Digital agencies use direct response & relationship building to grow their clients (ie. largely B2B channels). Mark himself mentioned Go Daddy earlier – another company that’s done very well from ‘above the line’ advertising, targeting smaller businesses.

Albeit much smaller than GoDaddy, I think that’s basically the formula that’s working for Mark: He is in the position of having gained a massive amount of ‘general population’ publicity as someone who offers digital marketing services, and it has driven a lot of leads. That is something that other search/digital agencies – if they are able – could learn from. On the surface that perhaps sounds hard, but in reality it’s not too difficult to appear as a talking head on TV News, etc.

Mark Himself: Mark comes across as a very nice guy in real life. He’s obviously a good salesman, and that’s a big focus, but he is also an open, honest man who genuinely cares about what he’s trying to do, about learning, about his team. He has handled the big pressure, and the interesting position he’s ended up in very well so far. He’s had a lot of criticism, yet is still happy to turn up at big industry events like Brighton SEO and to chat to anyone who’s willing to say hello.

Mistakes: The original post I’d written on Climb Online referenced a series of mistakes I thought Mark had made. Mark & his PR company explained that some of that was due to the mechanics of the TV show. I still think some elements were mistakes, or perhaps naivety/good faith: Not finding a way to get the domain name climbonline.com (I was offered it at one stage for $2k), not getting the site online earlier, etc. Others have been super critical of smaller things like minor SEO issues on his site, etc, but I think he’s done well focusing on publicity, starting to find his feet growing a team, and figuring out his product offering, etc.

Company Focus: It’s very obvious that the larger focus of the company at present is Paid Search, with SEO & Social being smaller. I think that may change, as they’re in the interesting position of having the ability to drive digital marketing leads in high volumes from smallish businesses, and with that no doubt come requests for web design, email, content, and more. The challenge will of course be growing a great team, building partnerships & trying to smooth his ‘industry-facing’ profile, client service, and of course pure executional focus. These are big tasks, and I very much look forward to seeing how the business continues & where the focus moves.

The Big Question

In the original poll I’d run at the end of the show I’d asked whether Lord Sugar should have invested £250k in the business.

I thought it would be sensible to run an update now that the company is up & running: On the basis of what’s happened since, and what you’ve seen of their performance, what do you think?

Should Lord Sugar have invested in 'Climb Online'?

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As ever: Do share this post if you found it at all interesting, and do comment below if you have any thoughts – I always try to be balanced, but your opinion may differ.

20 replies
  1. Andrew McGarry
    Andrew McGarry says:

    Considering that digital agencies are more common than colds these days, what’s one more?

    I think the rep management service suits them better with social & trademark coverage. SEO has been making the web ugly for over a decade and it’s an industry full of who can shout the loudest. People mistake the best marketing for the best product or service whether it’s Moz, Wordstream, or many other examples. At least Moz has spent a decade improving the services they provide. In the beginning it was seen as SEO for rookies. Times have changed and they cater for experts far better now too.

    Climb Online is essentially doing the same thing. It may annoy some but there’s far bigger names with better marketing than a service/product that you’re happy to write for free for in return for exposure as “expert SEOs”.

    People’s egos, eh?

    Reply
  2. Tom Roberts
    Tom Roberts says:

    Excellent interview. Enjoyed reading every minute of it and credit where credit’s due – I think you kept an impartial and objective perspective.

    I have my doubts – but not about the business and its success. Yes, digital agencies are everywhere and it is a very saturated market. So it’s all about standing out and differentiating yourself. The fact is that you can’t even do that with your methods or approach now – what SEO or PPC method can truly be “bespoke” or “innovative” for a business?

    So what is Climb Online’s differentiator? It’s Mark himself (and a certain peer, of course). Winning The Apprentice speaks for itself and the exposure Mark has got from that has clearly paid dividend. And will continue to do so – as I can imagine that, for the next year at least, if someone is going to look at SEO or PPC for the first time as a UK business, they’re going to gravitate to Climb Online. But Mark himself looks to be made for this exposure and how to run with it (which might explain why he won). He’s confident, has sales experience, good looking bloke (as fickle as that is, we can’t ignore it) and the sheer fact that he’s become almost this status symbol (good or bad, however you want to look at it) in the industry will mean that he already stands out from 90% of his competitors.

    To draw a hugely arrogant comparison, I run my own agency and I get a number of client referrals getting in contact with me – because they’ve seen me, heard about me, or seen me on the Moz Q&A. The key difference for my business is – as awful as it sounds – me. People want to work with me on their projects and that’s what gets me ahead of some others (clearly, those that have worked with me are too polite to reveal my gross ineptitude, to which I’m grateful for). And I play to that – I maintain a big presence on the Moz Q&A because I know it can be a lead generator (while still helping out some people where I can). Do I agree with all that Moz say and do? No. In fact, I often think the opposite, but I know that putting myself out there can help “differentiate” my business.

    And on reflection – is that such an arrogant or terrible thing? If people ask me for recommendations on companies – three that more often than not come to mind are Skyrocket, Business Casual Copywriting and Stone Temple. Not because of the businesses – I’ve never worked with them – but because of their personas: James Agate, Joel Klettke and Mark Traphagen.

    In all business you have a pull towards someone who you respect or admire, but I think this is especially true in a field like digital marketing – where all of your activity, both in terms of work, advertising and promotion, is in front of your eyes on your screen (and often in the same place). So the fact that Climb Online has this big persona in Mark makes me think they’ll do very well. That, of course, does come with its own pressures – and having so much put on Mark’s shoulders makes the occasional overconfidence and knowledge shortcomings (astutely highlighted in this interview) all the more visible – but that’s probably the easiest part for Mark to work on. The harder parts – the charisma and persona presence, which Mark certainly has, are already taken care of.

    Once again, an excellently conducted interview.

    Reply
  3. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    Anyone who says “PPC on the other hand you can ask me any question in the whole world and I’ll answer it as well as anyone at Google would” and is then, in the next breath, not able to say what RLSA is has to be questionable. Surely any PPC salesman worth his salt would know what RLSA is?

    Great interview BTW.

    Reply
  4. Graham Everitt
    Graham Everitt says:

    Another sizeable error is where he talks about his USP on the trademark protection. Registering it won’t stop anyone bidding on it, it’ll only allow you to stop people using your exact registered mark in their ad copy!

    Great article, impartially presented, but the transcripts just remind me that the only people to call themselves experts in something aren’t.

    Good figures for a startup though, clearly the publicity on the apprentice is worth more than the investment!

    Reply
    • Ian Williams
      Ian Williams says:

      Hi Graham,

      I thought it was just me! But I went to the Adwords policy, which clearly states that:

      “Google will not investigate or restrict the use of trademark terms in keywords, even if a trademark complaint is received.”

      Not to hate on Mark, but its clear he is promising something he can’t do. Anyway, I wish him well and its a shame that people have gone out of their way to try and disrupt his site and business.

      Ian

      Reply
  5. Jim Banks
    Jim Banks says:

    80 clients and 10 staff, some of which might be back office, some sales people, some finance, some operational….Impressive growth but in danger of over-trading.

    No lost clients inside 100 days, not sure that is so impressive.

    Did a search for the agency as a Google Partner https://www.google.com/partners/?hl=en-GB#a_home and nothing listed, but 100 days in you could forgive it for not qualifying. Hopefully with 80 clients the spend level will be right, the experience level should have all the staff listed as Google qualified professionals and adopting best practise.

    Watching with interest, I’d love to go head to head against the guy who can set up a |campaign better than anybody else in the country.”

    If the majority of the clients are PPC why interview for a Head of SEO?

    The trademark stuff makes no sense

    “Free brand protection. When any company works with us, we trademark your name with Google so people can’t bid on your brand term on ad words and we also trademark anything on your website that we can and the company name to stop trademark infringement. Now, we have that in place for us to clean up the search, but also to protect us in the industry. When we offer that to our customers, and we offer it for free, that is part of our SEO service, which I think is pretty cool, because if a normal small business wanted to do that it could cost them up to seven hundred pounds to do trademarking when we come along and do it for free.”

    It’s wrong on so many levels. You can’t just trademark anything on your website. It costs from 170 pounds and can take up to four months to register, so currently inside the first 100 days of trading nobody is being protected for anything.

    If Mark has 80 clients and they all take advantage of the free trademark offer it will cost his company at least 16,000 pounds. If they all cancel after the trademark is granted I hope his terms and conditions stipulate it will need to be paid for.

    I’m all for the industry having personalities and Mark is definitely one of those, but I’d love to see the agency dining out on it’s results for clients rather than the fact he won the apprentice. Perhaps in time it well and I’ll stand and applaud when it does.

    I’m impressed you wrote again Dan and have been as impartial as you always are, but, I am sitting on the fence still on the model.

    Reply
  6. Col Skinner
    Col Skinner says:

    Love to see such a thorough interview delving into the business itself and staff, unlike the more recent inferviews. The one thing I am yet to see proof of falls into your On Hiring section. He talks about having a knack and knowing how to pick expects. But all it takes is 5 minutes searching on LinkedIn to see that several staff members have no prior digital marketing experience and are very young.

    Then in the Econsultancy interview he also says “We’ve got people that have come from Wonga, Google and Facebook.”. Again a quick search on LinkedIn for his staff finds one team member who, during his time working a non Digi Marketing role at Wonga, worked on a joint project with Google and Facebook. Now, if that’s who / what Mark is referring to then he’s bending the truth a fair bit. Which is a dangerous game played by many a salesman.

    Saying that I wish him all the luck and thought he was very brave to do the Brighton SEO chat.

    Reply
  7. Rob Watts
    Rob Watts says:

    Nice write up Dan.

    Having listened to the chat at brightonseo I’ve certainly tamed my initial view and think he’s a nice guy and wish him well as an individual

    He’s a little naive in some regards but then perhaps that’s the same for all of us in one way or another. The thing that really stuck out in the interview above was his comment around google giving ppc spenders favourable treatment. For ,me this illustrates a lack of knowledge is some of the debates and history that brought google to where it is today. There’s always been a clear separation between paid and organic and most would agree that any public move away from this position would be the start of a very slippery slope, increasing pressure from regulatory bodies opening them up to all manner of allegations relative to the whole shaboogle being query after query of advertiser influenced results.

    Whilst we all know that organic serps are effectively created by economic activity, it’s a clear separation when one isn’t directly influenced by the actions of the other by the guys running and taking the payments from the advertisers to directly influence organic outcomes.

    I hope you took the bet and made it a large one.

    Reply
  8. Matt O'Toole
    Matt O'Toole says:

    I think he came across well and it was good of Kelvin (and Dan here) to give him a chance to express himself and deal with some of the flak. He dealt with it with good humour and came across as a nice guy, if not particularly knowledgeable in SEO and other areas. He does appear to suffer from ‘foot in mouth’ disease, though. Some of the stuff they’ve done (their link profile, the 1 page basic holding page, the use of Meta KWs, his choice of KWs, the contradictions and yes, that Google ‘prediction’… jeez!).

    I also noticed the comments about TMs too and just thought he was talking off the top of his head there too. It came across that he seemed to think they were actually registering trademarks with Google (legally speaking). That’s the way I read it anyway. He also claimed in the EConsultancy interview that they’re TM’d the word ‘online’. Really? I find that extremely hard to believe. There aren’t actually many reg’d TMs with the word ‘online’ in them:
    https://www.ipo.gov.uk/tmtext.htm

    I only checked Class 35, which should be the most appropriate classification for what they do.

    Very easy to lose your credibility in an industry like this. He just needs to tone down the bravado, educate himself a lot more and be a lot less grandiose in his claims and the business might do OK.

    Reply
  9. Alex
    Alex says:

    That website cost tens of thousands? – sorry but he was ripped off in a big way. I develop high performance websites for a living (none of this WordPress rubbish that I keep seeing companies being ripped off with from so called “Top Development Agencies” *chuckle*) and on the face of it, it’s only worth £1,000 at most.

    I am actually shocked at this.

    Good article none the less – Kudos

    Reply
  10. Eva Wilkes
    Eva Wilkes says:

    Great article and analysis – thanks! Just a quick note on the trademark feature – other comments have picked up on it being a little nonsensical, Google’s own Adword’s policy states that:

    “Google will not investigate or restrict the use of trademark terms in keywords, even if a trademark complaint is received.”

    … so offering it as a feature seems all the more gimmicky.

    Reply
  11. Mark Preston
    Mark Preston says:

    I finally got a little time to read through this article.

    Personally, I have no doubt that Climb Online will become successful within the digital marketing industry. As Mark Wright started with £250K capital, was on National TV and partners with one of the most influential business people within the UK. The only reason it should fail is if Mark takes on the wrong technical team.

    Mark does seem to land himself in it by stating big claims then falling on his face but maybe that is in purpose to create a viral buzz.

    I read that after the show aired, he received more than 6,000 leads (stated by Mark himself) and now has 80 clients. From a leads – sales conversion point, it’s not great.

    I do think that certain people need to stop giving mark such a hard time and let him get on with running his own business the way he wants to.

    Dan, this is the best article I have read about Mark Wright and Climb Online.

    Reply
  12. Ben Potter
    Ben Potter says:

    “You know, I may not have the same knowledge of SEO as someone, but I know your knowledge just as well as you do”.

    What does that even mean?

    To build credibility, Mark needs to stop contradicting himself where his ‘knowledge’ is concerned. The reality is he knows very little about the mechanics of SEO or PPC. At times he admits as much but then comes out with comments like the one above.

    Those of us that have been in the game for many years have worked dam hard to educate the market against a backdrop of charlatan, snake-oil salesman only too happy to prey on naive business owners. When someone with as little knowledge as this is getting so much publicity my primary concern is that it is undoing so much of our hard work. Especially when certain claims, such as the trademark issue, are not factually true.

    As a salesperson in this industry your knowledge needs to be tip tip – this doesn’t come quickly. It’s developed over many years. Mark would do well to have a little more humility where this is concerned, both for the benefit of his own reputation within digital circles and the industry at large.

    Reply
  13. Jose Ferreira
    Jose Ferreira says:

    “When any company works with us, we trademark your name with Google so people can’t bid on your brand term on ad words.”

    This is not really possible, is it? Google won’t block search terms (only using brand terms in ads).

    Reply
  14. don juan
    don juan says:

    Mark’s full of shite. He managed nothing for about a week and he’s just a salesman. His PPC knowledge is a joke and his independence in this market backed by a market trader can only be detrimental to knowledgeable, intelligent agencies.

    Fair play for beating a bunch of egotistical wet lettuces but salesmanship alone doesn’t convert into honest, caring service. What a joke!

    Reply
  15. Hero
    Hero says:

    I quite liked Mark whilst watching the series and was rooting for him, which was surprising as I have an allergy to salesmen like him, and Roisin, because she was, well, bloody good (until she fell at the last hurdle, that is).

    Putting aside all other things said about him and his business and all that – one thing upsets, or rather, saddens me: that despite the magnificent rise of online in the mainstream, it’s still the wild west out there. It’s an absolutely VAST landscape that no one can navigate through any more, and it keeps getting bigger and more confusing. You have such a plethora of companies offering every service under the sun, with so little differentiation points between them, where the only way to select some for a tender process is if you recognise any names – so it’s becoming like any other industry led by face/name recognition, rather than actual value. Then you have all the decision makers who are still to this day impressed by the most superficial of pitching and sales techniques that incorporate buzzwords and every acronym under the sun to make them sound like they know what they’re talking about.

    Good luck to Mark et team, but I’d like to see him pitching a savvy client like you, Dan, and see how he fares there.

    Reply

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