Connection – Zelen Communications

Episode graphic for "An Agency Story" podcast with Terry Zelen - title Connection - Hosted by Russel Dubree - picture of Terry in the lower right corner smiling.
Terry Zelen highlights the significance of truly knowing and being able to sell the services an agency provides. He emphasizes the benefits of being able to confidently answer clients' questions and guide them towards effective solutions. Terry also stresses the importance of transparency, allowing clients to speak directly with team members and receive immediate answers.

Company: Zelen Communications

Owners: Terry Zelen

Year Started: 2005

Employees: 11 – 25

In this podcast episode, host Russel Dubree interviews Terry Zelen, the President and Owner of Zelen Communications about his journey and experiences in the marketing industry. The conversation covers various topics, including the importance of understanding what an agency offers, the value of quality writing, and the need for transparency and accessibility in client communication.

Terry Zelen highlights the significance of truly knowing and being able to sell the services an agency provides. He emphasizes the benefits of being able to confidently answer clients’ questions and guide them towards effective solutions. Terry also stresses the importance of transparency, allowing clients to speak directly with team members and receive immediate answers.

Another key point discussed is the need for high-quality writing in marketing strategies. Terry mentions the positive feedback his agency receives for their about us page, emphasizing the importance of showcasing who they are as a business rather than solely relying on selling points.

Throughout the conversation, Terry shares insights and tips for agency owners, such as the value of being active on platforms like LinkedIn and channels that align with the business’s goals. He also discusses the significance of the “roadmap session,” a collaborative analysis of the business and its growth plans.

Enjoy the story.

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Show Transcript

Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.

Russel: 

Welcome to An Agency Story podcast, I’m your host Russel. On this episode, we are joined by Terry Zelen, the president and owner of Zelen Communications, where he and his team help companies optimize their marketing and website to ensure desired outcomes based out of Tampa, Florida. Terry’s 35 years as an agency owner certainly means you seen a thing or two, a self-taught advertiser with a background in Marine biology, Terry used his innate curiosity and risk-taking mindset to get his agency started. If you went to Outback steakhouse in the nineties, you may well have come across some of his work. And yet his story represents the long told tale of how your largest client can go away at any time. Terry still has a passion and a zest for the work he does. You’ll even love a story at the end, where he talks about taking a chance on good talent and he may even have solved a crime in the process. Enjoy the story. Welcome to the show today, everyone. I have Terry Zelen with Zelen Communications with us here today. Thank you so much for being on the show, Terry.

Terry: 

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Russel: 

My pleasure as well. If you don’t mind, start us off, what does Zelen Communications do and who do you do it for?

Terry: 

Zelen Communications is a agency that’s been around for over 35 years now, and we primarily focus on online marketing and custom websites. That’s our niche.

Russel: 

35 years. That’s a long time. We went through a name change as well so I can certainly understand where sometimes that’s a natural necessity. Sounds like you employed the kiss method in naming, keep it simple. We’ll get to more about where your agency’s at today, but go back in time. What was young Terry trying to do with his life?

Terry: 

I have a degree in marine biology, so of course, I went into the advertising and marketing business. My brother and sister went to Arizona State for advertising and neither one of them were in it, so I had to pick up the pieces. Somebody had to do it.

Russel: 

Make the marine biologist do it.

Terry: 

There you go, exactly. Self taught, finished college at the University of Tampa with a marine biology degree and minor in art. Went out to get a job and everyone looked at me and said, yeah, thanks, but no thanks. I actually worked for free for a small agency and cut my teeth on it. She saw I had some ability and sent me to a freelance agent who I worked through to get a full time gig at a small agency back then.

Russel: 

Wow. I think even for some folks at home, it might be hard to understand. What did teaching yourself look like back then? How do you teach yourself some of those skills?

Terry: 

I’m a designer and you can’t teach design. You can, but you can’t. That’s innate. It’s either in your bones or it’s not. But the teaching part was the Macintosh computer because it was coming out and I realized that was going to be the wave. There were only three agencies in Tampa at the time that had Mac computers on. I taught myself the Macintosh computer and I’ve been on it since the Mac plus.

Russel: 

Oh boy. Okay, so we have Steve Jobs to thank for that. I do remember that time period when in college, and dating myself here late 90s and there’s always the computer lab, mostly all PCs and there’d be two or three Macs. That would be sometimes the only computer that was open, would be the Macs, which is very opposite of the world we live in today.

Terry: 

It’s true.

Russel: 

I don’t know if they have computer labs anymore. That might be a dated question. I’ll have to ask my son, he’s at school. If I can get ahold of him, that is. Sounds like you had a pretty successful career, obviously a transition in your journey. What were some of the initial steps? Not starting your agency, but prior to what were you doing?

Terry: 

I came into the agency world, I worked for a small shop. When you’re in a tiny shop you get to learn a lot of things and you get to wear a lot of hats, which is a great experience for somebody getting into the business. A lot of times when you go into a larger firm, you’re a cog in a bigger machine and you get to do one thing. There’s a big advantage to seeing a bigger picture, what happens in an agency, by working in a small shop. Worked for a couple of small shops over the years and then transitioned out. Was trying to freelance, failed miserably at that. I didn’t have the contacts necessary to pick up my own clientele. And then met another designer that was freelancing, said she was joining a large agency, at that time it was the second largest in Tampa. I went in and they had gotten all Macs. They trained their entire staff. In one week they taught them the entire Adobe creative suite, which meant they knew absolutely nothing. They had continental airlines and they were trying to set up a brochure and no one knew how to set tabs. They were ecstatic to see that I knew how to do that. They gave me a shot and I was there for about three and a half years and realized I wasn’t meant for corporate. Left to design furniture for about a year and then realized I wanted to go back to the agency business and started freelancing for a number of agencies.

Russel: 

Okay. And as I understand it, somehow, some way, tell us more about it. You picked up a pretty large, well known client, even maybe more well known back then. Tell us a little bit about that.

Terry: 

I met some folks that were at the largest agency in Tampa and they were going to go out on their own and they needed to not reveal that they were leaving. Mutual friends connected us and I helped them develop their branding. They only lasted about a year before they realized some people work and some don’t, but she ended up going in. She had the accounts of Publix, which is a very large grocery chain down here, and then she also had Outback Steakhouse. Outback invited her to come in and become the new marketing director. She gave us a shot. We got a table tent to do first and she said, if you don’t mess this up, there’ll be more work. There were probably about five other small agencies like ours that were working with them. She liked that. She would like to work with local talent and smaller because she had a vision for what she wanted, but they kept a national firm to do their broadcast and media buying. By attrition, we ended up with the whole Outback Steakhouse account. The only thing we didn’t do was television or radio and that ran for about 10 years. It was a great run.

Russel: 

Was that pretty much right out the gate?

Terry: 

we Had managed a few accounts but nothing on that magnitude. We were one of their vendors of the year, three years in a row, so we got to go on their big annual retreats. Those were a great deal of fun. They were a fantastic client. It’s so different now than what they were back then because everybody was very much invested in that business and growing that. It was a fun, fun account.

Russel: 

Did that take a lot of pressure off of having a bigger client like that early on or did it add more pressure in that I’m guessing maybe a lot of your revenue was coming from that particular client?

Terry: 

It’s a fine line there between having all your eggs in one basket and not. We had a number of other smaller clients but when the marketing director who was there, she was released and the president of Outback came to us and said, as long as I’m here, you’re here. And about two weeks later, he wasn’t there.

Russel: 

Oh, no.

Terry: 

So we were shown the door in a very gentle way, but we managed to pick up another developer client pretty quickly after that. We didn’t have to let anybody go from the team. We didn’t skip a beat and picked up a big development account. We work in three silos, predominantly medical, builder industry developers, and also in the restaurant industry, we’ve got a lot of experience in those three silos.

Russel: 

35 years is a long time to have any business for that matter but especially you’re an agency and as you mentioned earlier, all the technology shifts and different way marketing is done is obviously vastly different than it was back then. What’s kept you around all this time?

Terry: 

We were always on a growth pattern up until about 2008 when the sky was falling. A lot of agencies were damaged by that, which along with a lot of different businesses in general, cause that was a very difficult time for everybody. I think our saving grace was we were very early adapters of internet, so we were doing websites and some online marketing at the time when it was still a little bit new. WordPress had hit the scene. We’d adapted to that very quickly. That was our saving grace because a lot of people, I would say in all honesty our mix of product was probably 85 to 90 percent print collateral materials, things of that nature, and maybe 10 percent web. After 2008 it shifted, almost complete inverse. We were doing 90 percent web online services, pay per click SEO, retargeting social media, and 10 percent print collateral, traditional advertising if you will.

Russel: 

What was that transition? I mean, were you, Were you up all night reading books? How did you pivot the business in terms of its focus in such a short amount of time?

Terry: 

I’ve always been a techie myself. Going back, when Apple didn’t used to have accelerator cards in their computers, there were third party companies and there was one in particular was probably the lead in that, they were called RasterOps. They made accelerator cards And at my last agency nobody there understood what they did, but we ended up picking up the account. I ended up being the account executive and the art director on the account, so it was a lot of fun. But I’ve always naturally gravitated towards the tech so we were already very well positioned for that. We have someone on our team now that all she does is research. We’re always looking to find the next tool, what’s going to help us as an agency and our clients to get better results. We’re actually now doing a lot of research into AI and how that can benefit us. We’re of the mindset of adapt, flee, or die. We are always learning, and I think that helps us as an agency be better and our clients get a better result.

Russel: 

That’s pretty unique, something I don’t feel like I’ve heard a lot you have a full time researcher in the business. How’d you come up with that? Sell us on why that’s been such a good benefit for you.

Terry: 

She actually came to us as a social media expert, and we were lacking in that regard. We were outsourcing our SEO, but we decided that the company we were with started to fall behind. I sent her to courses on SEO, and then also on pay per click. We put her kind of through the paces on both of those channels, and she picked everything up quickly, and then I realized she was happiest when she was doing research. What we did was, she still manages parts of those, but in her spare time, which isn’t much, literally, I’ll send her sometimes two and three articles a day, say, look, this may be junk, but let’s see what it is. It’s proven to be good for us. We started using artificial writing a year and a half, almost two years ago and it was very clunky back then. From an SEO standpoint, it’s helped us. We were using writers. The turnaround time was long. The cost wasn’t high because we outsourced, but there’s been a lot of benefits from using AI. We still keep traditional writers because you can’t write everything with AI. You need that quality of writing for certain things, but we do use AI for certain tasks.

Russel: 

Been in this business a while now. What does the future hold? Where are you trying to go down the road?

Terry: 

Our focus has always been on custom websites. We like to do things that are difficult that most other agencies don’t want to tackle. We do very difficult e-commerce solutions where there’s multi-tier pricing or there might be thousands of SKUs, which is not something the average agency would take on. Then also doing fulfillment projects. Gospel Music Channel, we were brought in when they were doing their pre-launch, they were trying to get on cable networks. We were brought in by a consultant who we had worked with before for HSN. At the time they were looking for some help and they wanted to do a fulfillment project for 5,000 churches. We’d never done anything on that scale. We’d done a few fulfillment projects for Outback, but we said, of course we can do this. We figured it out. We had to find a printer locally that could do the inline customized printing, which we sourced. Then we brought in an outside resource that could help us package everything and get it done. Very successful. They ended up getting on to the national scene and we were happy to be a part of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with some great companies over the years. We’re a smaller firm in the scheme of things on a national level, but that makes us much more agile and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. We can move quickly and stay out in front and customer service I think is key. We try and respond to everybody within 24 hours or less if we can. It’s all relationship built. I think the one thing that most people will comment about on our website itself is that there’s a page on the site and everybody has an about or about us page. Our site says not about us, and that’s where we talk about the relationships. That’s our desire, is to build lasting relationships with clients and become more of an arm of their business. View us as their marketing department, if you will, rather than a vendor. I think there’s been a lot of value to positioning ourselves in that way.

Russel: 

Do you still get excited when you wake up in the morning as you did 35 years ago, or what does that look like for you on a personal level?

Terry: 

I still love design. I’ve always been drawn to it. I’ve had other businesses over the years. I had an interior scaping business. The marketing director and I from Outback tried to launch a line of apparel and home furnishings. And then I tried to launch another business, which I ran for a few years, but design has always drawn me back. It’s something that I’m very happy about. The challenges that are with web and trying to continually push the envelope on what we can do as a team on a website and create more engaging sites. It’s a combination of the design and the tech behind it that keeps it interesting. How do we achieve better outcomes for our clients? How do we better track those outcomes? GA4, It’s a very different form of tracking than GA3. Two things I get excited about, the technology and the design. I think that keeps us going and I feel that we’re still ahead of most of the agencies in our market from that standpoint. And we enjoy that position.

Russel: 

I understand why. It sounds like you love what you do and that passion sends you down a lot of interesting paths. One of the things we talked about before we hit the record button is something that would be helpful for other agencies, and the notion that it seems intuitive, but maybe not always quite so. You had a pro-tip for agencies that you mentioned, so if you don’t mind sharing that?

Terry: 

For what it’s worth, I’ve always been where I will meet with most of our clients. I interact with them because we look for that relationship where they feel like they’re getting to speak with us and not the account service all the time. We want to have that relationship where they feel like they can pick up the phone and call me. I think what’s helped myself in general is I oftentimes am selling that client on a particular service and without knowing it, I don’t have to know it to the nth degree, but I do feel like personally, the more I know about a service such as pay per click or SEO or retargeting, the better my client feels about engaging us to do that on their behalf. I’m not outsourcing that. We do all of it in house. We do our own pay per click, our own SEO. We have to partner with a third party company to do retargeting, but we also do the social media aspects and understanding the benefits and the proper types of channels for the right type of client. Cause everything doesn’t work for everybody. If it’s a B2B client, you don’t necessarily want to be on Twitter and certainly not TikTok, we want to be on LinkedIn and channels that will make sense for them as a business. I think it’s inherently important that you understand what you’re selling, if you will, as an agency owner.

Russel: 

And talk to me a little bit, I think I’m hearing there, what I see and identified in a lot of other agencies that have been around for a while and are successful, is eating their own medicine, the cobbler’s kid has no shoes approach and mentality that can be very pervasive in our industry. One of the ways I think what that comes from, beyond the benefit of doing your own work is that it seems like a lot of agencies in that sense, push their boundaries a little further for their own work that then those learnings that they can pull back into their client work. Has that been the case for you?

Terry: 

I’d like to say always, but that wouldn’t be true. A lot of times we’re going without shoes over here because the cobbler is busy doing other things, but we’re actually developing a new website for ourselves right now. We brought on to our team a fantastic UX UI designer out of Peru, and he approached me on LinkedIn and enjoy working with him. He’s pushing the boundaries of animation and engagement on the site. He and I worked on the home page for almost three months. I hope it’s good. We think it’s pretty good. We’ve spent a lot of time with it. We’re actually developing a conceptual site more than a validation site. It says, here’s who we are, here’s what we’ve done, pat ourselves on the back and trying to explain how we do business differently as an agency. I think that will be helpful to us and our clients to understand who we are in a very immediate way, rather than us trying to sell ourselves and say, here’s how we’re different.

Russel: 

Show them, not tell them, it sounds.

Terry: 

Yeah, exactly right.

Russel: 

I think that is a important thing with a lot of maybe more technology heavy type companies and agencies is that a lot of times they are principle driven. Whether they are or they’re not, that you can be on the spot and answer questions and guide the clients towards solutions and how things might be constructed without having to say the old, let me get back to you on the questions they might have. Has it worked out well for you in that sense?

Terry: 

Yeah, I feel it’s worked out well for us because I know a lot of other agencies and agency owners and they outsource. Let me get back to you is exactly what happens, and the client would like to have answers now, or be able to speak to the person in control of that facet of their marketing. Not every agency wants to let others know the man behind the curtain. I think that we’re very transparent in that regard that, you can speak to anybody on our team if you have questions about a specific process or why we are trying to promote this type of advertising. Our goal is always to try and do what’s best for the client and not sell them the next new thing, if you will. Threads, for instance, has come out from Meta and it seems to be bombing right now, but everybody’s trying to compete with TikTok, which we, quite frankly, don’t use TikTok and we’re actually pushing back on Twitter. The audience is difficult to build. There’s a lot of time spent there that could be spent elsewhere, generating more sales or leads or expanding the brand on those platforms. We try to do what’s best for the client and not all platforms work for everybody. As I said before.

Russel: 

What’s the road ahead? Are you trying to grow this business five more times? Are you trying to push the envelope or keep on keeping on and doing what you’re doing on a daily basis and seeing where that leads?

Terry: 

It’s twofold. We are growing the business. We’ve brought a partner on actually a year ago, Friday. She was a client, but I’ve also known her for 30 years. She came in, she was going to go out and start her own agency again and I said wait a minute, why don’t you come in with us? After long discussions, we’ve come together and she’s very polar opposite to me, which works great. She’s much less of a creative, which is a good thing for everybody involved. And then we hired a new salesperson as of Monday. We have been a referral agency for the past 32 years. We’ve had a salesperson on our team for the last two and a half. That was the first one we ever brought on. It was always referral. We’re adding a second person to try and grow the agency over the next four to five years and see where we can take it. We’re also launching another business. We do a lot of real estate and we always said we need to validate that we are knowledgeable in that regard. Through research and working with builders, I’ve served on the board with the Builders Association here locally for six years and on the statewide for three years now. We found that there was a void for builders and realtors, especially during COVID. There wasn’t much product for sales, so there was a lot of people looking for homes, real estate agents trying to sell homes, and there wasn’t anything available. We’ve built an aggregator site that we hope to launch in the next month or two, which is a totally different business for us, but we did a lot of research and didn’t find another product similar to it, but that will truly validate our knowledge. We have looked at it that if we can build tools or online real estate, that makes the agency more valuable to our clients and to ourselves if we want to sell the agency down the road, I think that was a no brainer for us to develop the product.

Russel: 

Awesome. I love a good growth story. Excited to see how that goes for you. As we wrap up here, last big question for you, Terry. Are entrepreneurs born or are they made?

Terry: 

I honestly think that they’re born, but sometimes what is it? Necessity is the…

Russel: 

Mother of invention.

Terry: 

But I’ve had probably four or five different businesses over the years. I’m naturally inclined to taking risks and not working for somebody else. I think it was more that than anything else. But my brother and sister both have had their own businesses for years and years longer. My sister longer than I have, and my dad always wanted to be an entrepreneur and my mother would never let him. It’s odd that the three of us all own our own business, always have owned our own businesses so I tend to believe that it’s inherent.

Russel: 

Okay. I love a good case for the born. It’s definitely the lower percentage of the born, made, or in the middle. If people want to know more about Zelen Communications, where can they go?

Terry: 

Our website is zelencomm.com and that’s Z E L E N C O M M dot com. My email is tzelen@zelencomm.com. If I can impart any pointers to somebody else who’s coming into the world of marketing, I’d be happy to do so.

Russel: 

You’d be a good person to go to. 35 years is nothing to shake a stick at. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Terry. It was an absolute pleasure to get to hear so many different parts of your story. Obviously you’ve gone through the evolution of marketing, at least in recent times, so thank you for sharing all the different parts of your journey today.

Terry: 

I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to podcast@performancefaction.com. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.

Terry: 

I think one of the funniest things is giving people a chance. We have brought in young people that had no experience whatsoever and gave them the chance. One gentleman comes to mind. He was a student at the University of Tampa and a young guy, was trying to learn how to do marketing and advertising, but he was a programmer. He was an interesting young guy. He said when I was never outside playing sports, I was learning a new language and programming instead. We brought him in and he worked for us for three years and I gave him a project one time and it was a hospital came to us and said that, we’re brand new. We need some kind of a 3D fly through on the exterior of this new facility. It was massive. I gave it to him on a Friday. He came back to me on a Monday and he had this incredible little 3D animation for me. I said, wow, Christian, how long have you been working on 3D? And he said, I started on Friday. One year the FBI came to us and they interviewed us because he was looking to do an internship with the FBI to create these animations for cases to show what a crime scene looked like. He made it through with flying colors, did the internship and he now works for Home Depot in Atlanta out of their main office doing their IT and has soared up the ladder. And it’s, we gave him a shot and I think that a lot of people say they don’t want to work. We hired a young college student now. She’s been fantastic. She’s been with us about three months and we can’t wait to hire her when she gets out of college.

Russel: 

That’s awesome. Did you say he did end up working for the FBI?

Terry: 

He did. He got the internship for the summer and the guy who interviewed me said, man, I’ve never seen it. It’s like this kid, everybody I’ve interviewed about him, because they go through a pretty rigorous process to have them come in and freelance internship. He got it and it was a great experience for him and it was pretty neat. He’s a fine young guy and we were happy to have had him while we did.

Russel: 

I love a good taking a chance story and probably somewhere out there, your ability to do that, you solved a crime. Indirectly.

Terry: 

There you go.

Russel: 

Your an official crime stopper.