A Big Idea: The International Geek Exchange

As a part of our Big Idea series, I wanted to share more detail to a special pilot program that I took part in recently and will be presenting on in Dallas at State of Search later this month. It’s the International Geek Exchange that Toni Voutilainen, a senior PPC specialist of the Tulos Agency of Helsinki, Finland proposed to me after meeting at SMX East in NYC. I happily went along as a willing test subject to see if an international agency exchange was not only possible, but a worthwhile use of time.

Sure, it’s not the first idea of its kind, I’ve heard of CEO swaps and product teams rotating between each other while under the same company, but what made this particular swap different was the level of sharing and time that each party committed to in the pursuit of a dedication to the craft and polish of a trade- search.

How it worked

First, Toni came to the Portent office in Seattle last December. Then I went to the Tulos agency in Helsinki for two weeks in September (I couldn’t do a month – he was able to bring his family, I was not). Each Geek agreed to provide their own CPU/laptop and the agency provided a desk space, wifi/internet connection and inclusion in any team or company (non-client facing) meetings or trainings. It was agreed that neither Geek could “work” on any client account to avoid any working-visa type issues, but could consult, answer questions and give opinions. The Geek would carry on their own “home” workload (albeit 10 hrs ahead or behind) as best they could from the remote location. Additionally, since I work with multiple services as a division head, I was allowed to lightly interrogate the other services at Tulos, including SEO, CRO, Analytics and Operations (Yes, we signed NDAs too).

What did it cost?

  • Airfare
  • AirBnB
  • A few meals (both agencies provided a meal per diem for the Geek)
  • Team meals (taking the Geek out with the various teams)
  • Some patience and understanding on behalf of the agency that was missing their Geek

In some respects, it was cheaper than attending a conference and far more interactive. Toni even did the math in his own blog post.

What did you learn?

That “what did you learn” is a terrible question, but when you reach a certain level of experience or expertise in a given industry, it becomes less “what did you learn” as in which lever to pull to get a 10% lift, and more of an expanding of experiences that will shape the bigger decisions and policies you put together that may affect a much larger group of people or even a company.

Personally, I got a first-hand look at not only another search agency, but how another ecosystem and culture worked. Now I get to steal and borrow everything I liked and they can do likewise. The biggest difference I think between sending a senior specialist that works directly on client accounts and a vice-president that oversees a division of four different channels (PPC, SEO, Social, Analytics) is that I have the ability to directly roll out and affect change in my own agency with a higher impact, faster. You might think that this seems like a mismatch of a swap but, honestly, I think we sent the right person to start with and so did they. I can tell you after 8+ years in the industry, I needed to not only see the inside of the “trenches” of these departments and the entire company, but without the distraction of my own agency.

Specifically, if you really want to know what I learned – it was actually quite a bit about Yandex from Tulos’ Yandex expert and got a tour of their ads UI and Direct Commander (AdWords Editor equivalent) as well as some very good insights around CRO and Analytics offerings and workflow.

And, most importantly, by not being constrained by clients or profit margins,  both companies were able to share knowledge and experience on a level that simply can’t be taught in a classroom of given at a conference.

Was it worth it?

Yes. When boiled down, this was a very simple, not overly complex program, but a part of a big idea that was technically executed upon by two individuals with a LinkedIn and Skype connection. After 8+ years in the industry, I can say that it was the kind of fresh air, reassurance and having the “brain space” to go and have this experience has not only renewed my interest in the industry, but in what I’m doing and what I’m bringing to my own agency as well.

Plus… we’re not alone in the world!

One thing we definitely appreciated on both sides of the world is how very alone we can feel sometimes with our own internal trials and tribulations, whether that’s with clients, keeping up with the industry or testing and trying new technologies and platforms. By getting to compare notes from an operational and business standpoint (I had coffee with their operations head), not just search, this feeling of “you know what, we’re doing just fine” was a welcome feeling on both sides. Obviously every company will have its quirks and problems and most often we get the filtered slant from our friends about their workplaces and colleagues with guarded information or a focus on the negative and here in the Geek Exchange, there’s very little hiding all that with a front row seat.

How can I get in on this?

You’re in luck, Toni and I want to expand the program and we’re looking for a few good agencies to conduct some experiments in this big idea with us.

Recommendations to consider first:

  • Two weeks minimum commitment, anything less is not enough
  • Ability to schedule any meetings/trainings at the agency being visited ahead of time. Block calendar time with the right people, even if you don’t have an agenda yet
  • Able to provide an org chart/seating map to the Geek
  • It’s good PR. You should promote it more formally on social channels and cross-promote
  • Show off a little – if you’ve got a Geek that likes to speak or write, get them on your blog or as a guest presenter
  • Geeks should be senior or above in competency of search knowledge and a top company contributor
  • Geeks should also be able to influence or change department or company policies with their learnings

We’ll be launching a site later this month and I’ll be linking/posting my State of Search presentation here, so stay tuned for updates!

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  1. I love this idea and, were I still working for an agency, I would bite the hand off of anyone who offered me the opportunity to do something like this.
    (that sentence is meant to sound positive – biting of hands notwithstanding)
    As an independent consultant I can’t match the “exchange” bit of this but I’m sure there are tonnes of geeks/organisations out there who should take the opportunity to do things like this *very* seriously

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