Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a successful and growing PR agency based in Chicago. She has two books to her credit, and runs the very popular Spin Sucks blog, which also serves as the unofficial water cooler for the PR community.
In this conversation, we explore everything from the business of PR to writing books, building an online community and more.
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About the Show
Chats with Chip features conversations with public relations and communications leaders, innovators, authors and visionaries. It is hosted by Chip Griffin, a longtime PR professional and veteran podcaster.
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CHIP GRIFFIN: Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a successful and growing PR agency based in Chicago. She has two books to her credit, and runs the very popular Spin Sucks blog, which also serves as the unofficial water cooler for the PR community. I’m very pleased to have Gini as my guest today. Welcome.
GINI DIETRICH: Thank you, sir. How are you?
CHIP GRIFFIN: I’m doing very well. How are you today?
GINI DIETRICH: I’m great. I’m excited to be hanging out with you.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, I’m very excited to have you because as you well know on the Round Table podcast, it’s sort of become the Spin Sucks podcast since just about every week we have a topic from your blog.
GINI DIETRICH: I don’t mind that one bit.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, I’m sure you don’t. I’m sure you don’t.
GINI DIETRICH: Well, I don’t.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And it’s great. It’s great to have a good source of content. And so maybe that’s a good place to start this conversation. I mean, what caused you to start the Spin Sucks blog? Why did you say I should do this?
GINI DIETRICH: You know, it’s funny, we tend to test new theories on ourselves first, and it was eight years ago. It was eight years in September that we started this blog. And really we did it because we were hearing about this blogging thing. You know, people like John Bell were talking about it. Hardly anybody was doing it, especially in our industry, but John Bell did. I think there were a couple others. Mitch Joel probably did back then. So we wanted to just see what it was and if there was any value for our clients. And so we just launched this blog without knowing what we were doing at all.
CHIP GRIFFIN: But it sort of evolved over the years, right? Today it seems that you’ve got a real editorial calendar and a direction, and a lot of things that people in the early days of blogging, and frankly even today, aren’t thinking about all that much.
GINI DIETRICH: Yeah, I will admit that we didn’t have an editorial calendar or monthly themes until this year. It was probably 2010 before it started to build any traction. We had no idea what we were doing. And back then, nobody really talked about search engine optimization for blogging or categories or tags or any of that. You just sort of had to figure it out. So yes, we did. We spent three years trying to figure it out. To this day, I don’t know why I continued to put resources against it because it was such a big failure, but I’m glad I did.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, in a previous conversation not recorded, which is probably good for some of our conversations –
GINI DIETRICH: Very good for some of our conversations.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – and we’ll try to make sure that we don’t regret recording this one — you talked about how it’s really been a good driver for your new business activity.
GINI DIETRICH: Mm-hmm. It’s interesting because we have a very engaged community. But I would say that the people that are in the community, we don’t do business with. They refer business to us a lot, but the people who use the Google and they look for a PR firm or [for general?] communications or whatever and we pop up, then they read the blog and they say, “Oh, I like the way these people think.” And then they call. So it’s a driver from that perspective. It also has become a really good referral piece because the people who participate in our community send us business or send us leads.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And what do you think is the reason why people are so active? I take a look today and so many sites are talking about eliminating comments or they launch entirely without comments or –
GINI DIETRICH: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – comments that do exist are just so vile and disgusting that you just don’t even want to bother with them. But you have really built a community that has active and engaged — comments that really add to the overall discussion.
GINI DIETRICH: You know, I think it’s a couple of things. My husband makes fun of me because on my birthday I always respond to every single person who wishes me happy birthday on my Facebook page. And he’s like, “You don’t have to do that.” But that’s my natural inclination, is to respond to people. And because that’s my natural inclination, when people started commenting on the blog, I responded back. It didn’t even occur to me that maybe you shouldn’t do that. That’s just my natural inclination. And I think people were kind of impressed that they were like, “Oh, if I leave a comment here we can actually have a conversation.” And usually the comments that I would leave back would ask questions, or do ask questions, that sort of delve deeper into what the person has said. And that continues the conversation. So, a good half of the comments on the blog of course are mine. So you see these huge numbers of comments and half of them are mine. But I think that helps with the conversation, for sure.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, I would agree. I think that any time you make it a two-way street. Because if you look at just comments on a Facebook post, if I respond to something, someone will typically respond back –
GINI DIETRICH: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – and then it sort of builds momentum on its own. So I guess that explanation really makes quite a lot of sense. Have you had negative experiences with the commenting? Obviously everybody from time to time has disagreements, but have you had issues over the years where you’ve regretted having the comments?
GINI DIETRICH: You know, no. I haven’t. I can probably think of maybe five instances where somebody has left a comment where I’m like, “Dude!” One last year where it was somebody that’s big in the industry, and I called him, and I said, “This comment is really kind of out of character, and I’m concerned that something happened?” And he goes, “Oh, my gosh, Gini, I’m so embarrassed. I was drinking last night and I was fired up about something else and I just fired off a comment. Can I please delete it?” And I was like, “Yes, you can.” So there really hasn’t — You know how everybody says, don’t read the comments because people are so, to your point, vile. But on Spin Sucks it hasn’t been like that at all.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. And actually, that particular example goes to one of the lessons I always teach in my social media trainings that I give to folks — particularly younger folks — which is if you’re too drunk to drive, you’re too drunk to Tweet.
GINI DIETRICH: Thank you. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and off of Twitter and blog comments, and…
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, in Vegas you should just shut the phone off –
GINI DIETRICH: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – and then pick it up at the airport on your return.
GINI DIETRICH: You really should. I actually had to take the phone away from a girlfriend once. I was like, “Give me your phone.” I put it in my purse.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. Well I remember even in the days before Twitter, there were times when I would be with business colleagues and we’d get wound up on something that perhaps a colleague had done and we’d crank out an e-mail sitting there at the bar at 11:30 at night.
GINI DIETRICH: Right. Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And the next morning, you’re like, “Jeez, you know, maybe that wasn’t the most diplomatic way to handle that –
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – that disagreement.”
GINI DIETRICH: Yeah. I’ve experienced that as well.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, so obviously you’ve done a lot in the online sphere, but you’ve also been someone who has written books, and that’s something I have yet to do, and frankly it’s on my bucket list of things that I want to do and know I should do from a professional standpoint. I’m curious how you found the experience of writing it, and how you found the results from it.
GINI DIETRICH: The writing experience for me is phenomenal because I love to write and I love the discipline of putting thoughts to paper. The marketing piece of it sucks, which is weird because I’m a communicator. That’s what I do for a living. But it’s different, I think, marketing a product or a service for a client than to do it for yourself. And I’m just not good at that. So that part of it I don’t really enjoy. But I’ll tell you what, it helps with speaking fees. It helped me increase my speaking fees almost quadruple. It gives huge credibility. When you go into a new business meeting and you’re up against two or three other firms, and you send a book as a thank-you note, you almost always win because that’s huge credibility. So from that perspective, it’s been very, very valuable.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And so, what’s your writing style? How did you do it? Did you sit down and just crank it out in a condensed period of time? Were you one of these folks who says, “Okay, I’ll do 1,000 words a day.” How did you mechanically go about achieving your goal?
GINI DIETRICH: I did an hour a day, and I can write about between 750 and 1,000 words in an hour. So yeah, it was an hour a day. And I would set the timer and I would not have any other distraction. I would close all social media and everything, and I focused for an entire hour on that.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And are you a laptop person, desktop person when you write? I’ve noticed so many different styles that people have for when they’re cranking out large numbers of words.
GINI DIETRICH: I have a MacBook Air which I use because I can write anywhere. In fact, when I was writing Spin Sucks, I wrote in Paris while I was there for my anniversary last year. So you can write it anywhere. But I used — oh, what’s the software called? I can’t remember. Hang on, let me look. Scrivener –
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yes.
GINI DIETRICH: – which allows you to move chapters around and things like that. It’s much better than a Word document.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And how would you say the experience was? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Was it about what you were expecting? Or did you say, jeez, I should have done this five years ago?
GINI DIETRICH: I would say probably that I should have done it earlier. That said, Spin Sucks has always been the book I wanted to write, and I co-authored “Marketing in the Round” first, which I think was really smart on my part because it gave me the experience of both being disciplined about writing long form, but also marketing the thing, which I wouldn’t have done as well with Spin Sucks if I had done that first.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. And did you write with a contract in hand? Did you write and go get it published after the fact? How did that work for you?
GINI DIETRICH: Oh, no, I wrote with contract in hand. Yeah. I think for somebody like me who’s very deadline-driven you kind of need that because for me, if I didn’t have that looming somebody holding me accountable, I’d be like, “Ah, I’ll write that tomorrow.” and then starting to keep putting it off. Right?
CHIP GRIFFIN: Right. Yeah, I know, that’s certainly been my experience. I do a lot of freelance writing just frankly because I enjoy it even though I’ve got a couple of other companies where I have a lot of work to do as well. But I just enjoy that. So I do it.
GINI DIETRICH: Right. Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: But when I have the deadlines, it’s so easy for me to crank out the writing. But if I sit down and say, “Well, jeez, I want to do this to help market myself.” I always put that low on the list and keep punting it.
GINI DIETRICH: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’ll hold you accountable to that if you want.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, that’s not a bad idea. I probably should just put something out there publicly –
GINI DIETRICH: You should.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – where all sorts of folks shame me on it to get it done. So, in addition to the blog and the book, you have an actual agency. It turns out you’re not just a talking head. And it’s interesting because in the space that we’re in, there are a lot of folks I think that probably spend as much time promoting themselves as they do actually servicing clients. But you’ve got a real growing business that you have to deal with. How do you balance the content creation with client service, business development, and all those things?
GINI DIETRICH: It’s not easy. I actually write from 5 AM to 6:30 every day. And so that’s when I spend the time on our stuff. And then during the work day it’s all agency-client stuff. So I don’t spend any work hours on that promotion marketing for the agency.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. And what caused you to start an agency? What got into your head and said, this is a great idea. I’m going to start my own PR agency?
GINI DIETRICH: You know, it’s funny. I didn’t start it right after this, but I remember I was maybe 27 or 28 and I worked on the Ocean Spray account, and I loved working on that account. Our direct client contact was amazing. It was a fun account to work on. They let us try all sorts of things. And I remember that we were launching their 100% juices, and we had this great year. I mean, we had the Today Show, Good Morning America. From a PR perspective, it was a home run. And we were sitting in our conference room at the end of the year and we were going through our “dog and pony” show and talking about all the results that we had gotten, media impressions and advertising equivalencies and all that BS, and the chief marketing officer said, “This is fantastic, you guys, but we’re losing growers, the co-op is not doing well, the sales for the 100% juices isn’t where we thought it was going to be, and while you guys hit a home run from a PR perspective, it didn’t do anything for us.” And it was at that point that I thought, “Okay, there has to be a better way.” So I spent the next five years really digging into the business side of things and trying to figure out if there was a way to connect what we do every day – events and reputation and media relations and all that stuff – to actual sales. And it really wasn’t until the web allowed us the analytics and the data that we need that I really found the right formula. So it’s been probably 15 years that I’ve been trying to figure this out, and probably the last three that I finally did.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And what would you say was the key to figuring it out?
GINI DIETRICH: I would say really having access to the data and the analytics that the web has allowed because before that it was all about, “Has brand awareness increased?” And that’s so soft. But now you have all that access to that data that show you. “Oh, somebody came to our site from Custom Scoop, and then they went all over the web, and then they came back and they bought.” You know exactly where that lead came from even if they didn’t buy immediately the first time they came. Right? So having access to all of that I think is very valuable.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And you know, obviously some of those things are things that straddle the domain between marketing and PR.
GINI DIETRICH: Sure.
CHIP GRIFFIN: How do you see that evolution going?
GINI DIETRICH: I’m laughing because we’re having this big internal conversation right now, because it is, and I think that the industry as a whole is lagging. I, a couple of years ago got kicked out of a Linked In group, because I talk about how PR can help sales and increase those kinds of things, and the owner of the Linked In group was like, “You’re a snake oil salesman. PR is only for brand awareness. And blah, blah, blah, blah.” So he kicked me out. So the industry overall I think is lagging. But in the next five years, if we don’t figure out how to tie those two together and bridge that gap, we may not exist.
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s a dire prediction.
GINI DIETRICH: I think it’s true mostly because of the things that I’m hearing from prospects and from clients. We’ll go in and pitch a piece of business and we’re completely different. Our competitors go in and pitch media relations, and they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll get you on the cover of Ad Age, and we’ll get you on the cover of Ink, and we’ll do this and we’ll do that.” And we go in and we say, “Yeah, we can do all that but what we’re really going to focus on is if we get you on the cover of Ad Age, is it going to translate to X number of dollars for you in sales?” And because of that, prospects look at us like what’s the catch — what are we missing? So there’s a big divide for sure.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. Well, you and I have been in the PR communications game for long enough that I think we’ve seen some substantial changes from –
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – when our careers started.
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And obviously this is one of them, but one of the things that I’ve sort of observed over the years is that with the proliferation of outlets and the proliferation of digital tools where, sort of, everybody becomes an expert just by saying so –
GINI DIETRICH: Yep.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – that it’s put a lot of downward pressure on pricing for agencies. And I’m curious if you’ve seen that, and if so, how you combat that.
GINI DIETRICH: Well, I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard about it, but we haven’t seen it at all. It might hit at the larger agencies I would guess, but we haven’t seen that at all.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. So, having an agency, part of it is being a great communicator and coming up with strategies and bringing on clients, but part of it is the business side.
GINI DIETRICH: Mm-hmm.
CHIP GRIFFIN: As an entrepreneur, is that something you sort of knew that you wanted to do? Is it something you do by necessity because you like the other aspects of the job? How does that play out?
GINI DIETRICH: About five years ago, I had an advisor say to me, “Gini, you have to make a decision right now. You can either continue to be a kick-ass communicator, or you can change the way you think and become a kick-ass company grower.” And I went, “Oh, my job has changed.” So I decided to be the company grower. And that’s what I focused on. So yeah, communications is what I do. It’s what I know. And that’s what the company does. But really, my job doesn’t entail that anymore.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And how did you increase your comfort level with that? I talked to a lot of agency owners who said,Jjeez, I’ve never really been able to get myself comfortable with P&Ls and balance sheets and cash flow. I do the bare minimum to get by but I don’t fully understand what I’m doing.” Do you feel like you fully understand what you’re doing, or is this something that you’ve had to train yourself on?
GINI DIETRICH: Oh, I definitely had to train myself, and it was a very expensive lesson. I have a great CFO who’s so good. He teaches me stuff all the time. About three years ago, I said to him, “Mike, explain this whole balance sheet thing to me. I don’t get it.” And what we did because he knows how goal-oriented I am, he put some goals in for us to help, for lack of a better term, the balance sheet, and he said, okay, go do this. And so I spent a couple of years really focused on that one goal. And now my balance sheet looks fantastic, which I had no idea about five years ago. So it’s sort of trial and error and figuring things out, and it is very expensive, sometimes very painful.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, but you learn from mistakes. You know, that’s –
GINI DIETRICH: You do. You do.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – one of the things I always preach is, I talk to a lot of entrepreneurial groups and startup entrepreneurs, and you learn much more from failure than you do from success.
GINI DIETRICH: That is true.
CHIP GRIFFIN: It can be painful, but when you’re successful so many things could cause it to be an accidental success, whereas from failure you usually can trace it back to one, two, or three different things that you could have done differently.
GINI DIETRICH: Well, and I think success too allows you to get comfortable, and when you’re comfortable you don’t take any risk and you don’t try new things. So sometimes you’re forced to try new things.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. So, as you have built your company, you’ve done it in sort of the more modern way – shall we say – and that is you don’t have a big building that says Arment Dietrich in neon sign. Right? You have a team that’s geographically spread out. Was that a conscious decision? And how does it work?
GINI DIETRICH: Well, in November of 2011, we decided to go virtual for one year. And the reason we did it is because I was paying a landlord $12,000 a month and I wasn’t paying myself. And I thought, “Well this is dumb.” And I remember walking into the office one day and everybody was out. My assistant was the only one sitting in the office. I was paying $12,000 a month for it. She was the only one who’d been there for three days. And I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” So my CFO helped me get out of the lease, which if you know anything about Chicago and you know the reputation that the Mafia has here, that’s sort of the experience that I had, was it was not fun trying to negotiate out of that. But we finally negotiated out of it, and the goal was only for a year — just to save some money and allow me to take a paycheck. And in September of 2012, I said to my team, “Okay, I’m thinking about looking for new space. What do you guys think? And there was dead silence. And I said, should we not get space?” And everyone was like, “No, we love working from home.” So I made the conscious decision then to grow a virtual agency and have started hiring people who are best for the job, not necessarily because they live in Chicago.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And how do you make that work? I do a lot of virtual work myself and with my teams, and I know that there are challenges. Right? There is that benefit to that in-person serendipitous conversation you may have or observation you may make. So it seems to me you have to sort of go out of your way to facilitate those additional conversations. I’m curious how you do that and what challenges you’ve run into.
GINI DIETRICH: Well, text messaging, i-messaging – which we all have on our computers – works extremely well. So those serendipitous conversations always happen there. Google Hangouts and Skype video we do a ton of. And in the beginning, I allowed text messaging and e-mail to sort of control it all. And now I’ll say, “Hey I need you on Skype for five minutes, because it’s such an easier conversation.” And it feels like they’re sitting across the desk from you. It doesn’t feel like they’re 500 miles away. So it works really well for us. The only time I miss it is when I just need brains to brainstorm for an hour. That’s hard to replicate.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. And do you bring your team together periodically in person, or do you really do it almost entirely virtually?
GINI DIETRICH: Once a year I make them all come to Chicago in January.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Wow.
GINI DIETRICH: Isn’t that nice of me? I figure if you work here I’ve got to see if you can actually make it through a Chicago winter.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, I suppose it also helps you keep costs down. I imagine that must be the least expensive month to get a hotel room.
GINI DIETRICH: Yeah, nobody wants to come here. Yeah.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. So, where do you see all of this headed? You’ve got the empire of content and agency, and do you have other arms that you see in the future? Are you just going to keep growing the ones that you’ve got? What’s the path ahead?
GINI DIETRICH: Well, I believe in seven different revenue sources, and we only have four right now. So we’re probably going to be building a content marketing suite that we’ll work with agencies on. There’s other stuff sort of in the pipeline that we haven’t really brainstormed thoroughly around yet, but yeah, I think there’s going to be at least three additional revenue sources for us.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. And is that just to get diversity? Is that because — one of the reasons why, for example, I added a product company was so that I could make money while I slept.
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Because billing hours is a challenging way –
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – to continue to grow.
GINI DIETRICH: Yes.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So it’s yes on both of those?
GINI DIETRICH: Yes. Passive income, I think, is really important, and a client can leave any time with 30 daysΓÇÖ notice. Right? So it’s really hard to scale a business and keep cash flow and employees paid and all of that when tomorrow I could get a phone call from my largest client and have him say, “We’ve decided that we want to put this on hold.” or whatever. And I’m giving you 30 days. So it’s really hard to scale a business that way.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, I think particularly, until you get to become a really large agency, I think that’s always one of the biggest challenges, because as much as you try to diversify your client base, at the end of the day, until you’ve got 50, 60 people, you’re not talking about enough diversity that you can avoid those big cash crunches if one of those clients leaves.
GINI DIETRICH: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And they’re so closely tied to people too, right?
GINI DIETRICH: They’re very closely tied to people.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Even if you’ve only got a client that’s maybe 5 or 10 a month, that’s probably paying for parts of at least a couple employees.
GINI DIETRICH: Yeah, for sure.
CHIP GRIFFIN: It’s hard as an agency for them to go idle while you go try to find a replacement.
GINI DIETRICH: Right. Well, that’s why consulting businesses have the people on the bench that they don’t pay while they figure out where to bring the next client in.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Right. So if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
GINI DIETRICH: Not build a service business.
CHIP GRIFFIN: You understand that’s your primary business, right?
GINI DIETRICH: Yeah, I’m fully aware. I would say, yeah, I would probably try to figure out much sooner how to productize some of what we do, and I certainly would not name the business Arment Dietrich.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Have you thought about changing the name?
GINI DIETRICH: Yes, we have, and of course we have such a huge brand with Spin Sucks that we have a DVA for that. So we have toyed with it a little bit, and maybe that’s down the line, but nothing in the near future.
CHIP GRIFFIN: No announcements to make here on this show?
GINI DIETRICH: No. Sorry.
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s okay.
GINI DIETRICH: You’ll be the first to know if I make that decision. How’s that?
CHIP GRIFFIN: I doubt I’ll be the first, but I would love to be one of the first.
GINI DIETRICH: You’ll be the first external. How’s that?
CHIP GRIFFIN: Okay. All right. Well, unfortunately that brings an end to the time that we have available to do this today. I’m sure we could go on for probably another three or four hours, and maybe some time we will.
GINI DIETRICH: You and I would be interested, but everybody else would be like, “Okay, enough with the agency business.”
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, I was going to say, if we continued this conversation, probably we wouldn’t record it, and then we’d go off on some really weird tangents.
GINI DIETRICH: Right. And miss staff meetings and stuff.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Exactly. Well, I appreciate you joining me, Gini, and I wish all the best to Arment Dietrich, and I look forward to continuing to borrowing from your Spin Sucks content to fuel my own content production efforts.
GINI DIETRICH: Thank you. Borrow away. I love it.