Forging Agency Partnerships and Diversifying Digital Marketing with Jamar Ramos

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Jamar Ramos is the COO and Partner of Crunchy Links, the agency that says they’re not magical, they’re not sexy—but they do deliver results. 

They handle a lot: content marketing, PPC, affiliate marketing, and link building. Yet they don’t handle everything – at least, not directly.

Crunchy Links has become known as an agency that’s really good at forging productive partnerships with other agencies, all for the greater good of helping clients achieve their business goals. It’s a rarely spoken-about secret that these partnerships are vital for agencies that aren’t large enough to hire people to do everything, which is most of them.

Jamar also shares his perspective as a Black man working in the C-suite at a digital marketing agency, and with Black Lives Matter back in the public consciousness, discusses how the industry as a whole (dominated as it is by cisgender heterosexual white men) can do a better job of creating a space that’s welcoming for everyone.

The highlights:

  • (1:37) The wrong way to forge agency partnerships.
  • (3:19) How Crunchy Links came to make forging these relationships into a priority.
  • (4:32) How to vet another agency.
  • (6:22) Hidden benefits of agency partnerships.
  • (9:54) Deciding who will tackle what.
  • (12:26) Diversifying digital marketing.
  • (16:46) What individual businesses can do to become more diverse.
  • (22:40) Creating safe workspaces.
  • (26:50) Jamar’s causes.

The insights:

The wrong way to forge agency partnerships

Jamar led in with a cautionary tale before launching into the nuts and bolts of forging these partnerships.

Prior to Crunchy Links, he was working at a different agency. They brought in other agencies and consultants as well, but the motivation behind their actions was a pretty nasty one.

“The tactic was to upsell and steal. Keep getting the client to buy more and more of our services so we could steal them away from the other agency. I get it as a business model. But as a human being, it’s so gross and oily.”

He and Jack Treseler, CEO of Crunchy Links, left because they didn’t want to do business this way. 

“If we’re going to do something, we want to do it the right way.”

How Crunchy Links came to make forging these relationships into a priority

“We knew a lot of people in the digital marketing space. They run agencies as well, and they’d be like: we know you do SEO, we know you do content marketing, we know you can help consult on social media. We have a client and we only do SEO and they want some of these other services. Can you give us a whitelisting price and then we’ll contract with you for these services so we can help these clients.”

He points out that Crunchy Link really only has three people working for it. They can’t always do everything. If they didn’t build these relationships, the clients and their businesses would suffer. 

“In the end, all that matters is the client. You have to give them the goals. Whatever the goal is. If it’s more revenue, more leads, more traffic, whatever. It’s not oh, we want more money. If that’s your goal you’re putting yourself before the client. That works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.”

He points out if the client isn’t happy then they’ll eventually want to cancel, and everyone loses.

How to vet another agency

Jamar used a nice metaphor to explain exactly how he and the rest of his team choose other team members to work with.

“For years, I’ve played bass, and I sing in bands. So I don’t look for skills. I look for who do I want to hang around?”

He says that when you’re creating music, essentially every song you create is like birthing a child. And you want the others involved to respect your contribution to that, no matter how big or how small it is. You want to respect them in turn.

“So I would always play music with friends. The last band I was in, the two people I had on guitar, when I asked them in, they said they’d only been playing for X amount of time, that they’d only been in Y number of bands. I said: I don’t care. I’ve known you guys for three years. I know I won’t want to choke you out if we’re having an argument over music.

He says that’s what he values the most. A person’s skills will grow, but he has to be able to talk to his agency partners, to have a basis in friendship. That it doesn’t matter how skilled someone is if he only wants to be around them for 5 minutes at a time. 

Hidden benefits of agency partnerships

Jamar notes these partnerships are about more than checking tasks off of a client’s wishlist.

“It’s hearing totally different ideas about how someone does something. This can help you strategize. Oh, we never thought about that before, or hey, we can add this to our toolbox. Or: I don’t necessarily know if that would work for us because we’re working with a lot of different industries, we’re in a different sector.

He says it can also let digital marketers know when they’re on to something.

“Five other people understand the value of this. It helps you coalesce what you believe in when you hear it from complete and total strangers.”

He gave an example of a recent project for a client that works in lawn care and home lawn landscaping services. The client had a second agency whose sole job was to re-skin their website.

“So we got on a call with them and the client. Just thinking about how they think about UX, just talking to them about how we think about information architecture and internal linking—I started thinking about how before I always thought about internal linking just from an SEO space. As they were talking about how they were thinking about the website, it really made me think: I’m limiting myself in what I can offer clients if I’m only thinking about it in a purely HTML-type way.

He describes how they were talking about white space, where content went, how UX could gift a site with legacy SEO value. 

“I preached for years that you gotta think about SEO first, but [realized] maybe I should think about UX first, and then that will help inform my SEO which will inform my content marketing.” 

Divvying up the work

Garrett asked how Jamar navigates all the egos that can get involved when multiple agencies work on a project, and how decisions get made about who will run the project.

Jamar replied:

“Everyone has to be willing to crucify their egos.” 

He had a little fun quoting Reflection, by Tool:

Crucify the ego before it’s far too late

And leave behind this place so negative and blind and cynical

And you will come to find that we are all one mind

Capable of all that’s imagined and all conceivable

“It’s a beautiful sentiment,” he said. “If we get rid of the ugliest part of ourselves, we start to tear down those differences, and we only look for the similarities, and you realize there becomes a sort of hive mind where you can share different ideas. 

No one is worried when their idea isn’t taken because they know the best idea wins. And so people are more willing to speak up and share their ideas because they won’t get shouted down, they won’t get called stupid. 

No one is judging their idea on anything other than: oh, okay, this is what you’re saying? Well, that’s a good idea, but if we make this one little tweak from something Garrett talked about last week, all of a sudden it goes from good to great.’ 

Then when you go into that next meeting you come with 10 ideas instead of 3 because you’re like: I gotta take part in this. I want all my ideas to be heard because I can make everyone better.’

He says when you do this it tears apart all the walls people are building. 

As to who manages which project, it comes down to whoever has the best skills, the most experience and can handle it, and to no other factor. Even if they managed the last three projects. If they manage the next four, that’s what has to happen.

Diversifying digital marketing

When asked what’s bothering him with the state of Black people in marketing right now, Jamar replies: 

“I don’t see a lot of [Black] faces. Not only do I not see a lot of [Black] faces, but we’re pushed out and shouted down, and it’s disgusting.”

Jamar notes he’s been in digital marketing for 8 years, and yet his ideas are often discounted. 

“It’s an old boy’s club. Everyone thinks when they give up a little bit of power that means they lose all of the power. I’m not trying to take the power. I just want to be able to speak.” 

He says he is inspired by his niece, who is 16 years old. 

“I want to make sure that when she looks around she sees people that look like her. So she knows she doesn’t have a limited amount of industries to go into. That she can do anything she wants. 

And I want young Black men and women in digital marketing to see me and say, hey, he looks like me. He has a similar background. Because I didn’t know digital marketing could be for me. I stumbled into it accidentally. I lucked in.” 

He says he doesn’t want other Black men and women to luck in. 

“I want them to know this is for them.”

Jamar often talks about how Black people aren’t often invited to speak at conferences, or to do webinars or to be interviewed on podcasts. He notes that people often respond to this by trying to tell him all the things he has to do if he’s going to be invited to speak. 

The thing is, he’s doing that work, but it’s not enough on its own.

“So what does the industry have to do to make sure they’re going out and searching for these voices? 

As much work as I’ve done on myself to be able to speak, I can only do so much. I can’t invite myself and give myself this time to get up there and give a talk. I need a little bit of help. I can meet you 75% of the way right now. I do need you to come 25% and say: hey, I found you through X, Y, or Z. Or I saw a post that you did, I’d love to talk to you and see what you’re about.”

Building a more diverse agency

Garrett asked what first steps an agency can take to become more diverse?

Jamar outlined some fairly concrete steps that an agency can take. 

“If you have Black employees, ask them for people in their network who they think would make good entry-level position hires. Start going outside people who look just like you and that you already know and start taking the chance. Even if you know someone you don’t know if they’ll work out for you.”

Don’t have any Black people in your agency yet? Go to social media. 

“Look on LinkedIn. Look on Twitter. Look on Facebook. Do the work. If you see someone who is just a little bit rough, talk to them. Say, we wanna give you the start, we’re going to build you up, and then we’d like to see where you can take it from there.

Garrett asked what phrasing a white person should use when they broach that conversation to avoid being offensive. 

“Do it one-on-one,” Jamar suggests. “Invite them to a meeting. Take them out to lunch and say, hey, I wanted you to know, this isn’t a company thing, this isn’t about money, this is a personal thing, I wanna know. How should we be hiring? What should we be doing? Where should we be looking?”

He says it’s not as much about the phrasing. 

“As long as you’re coming from a place of realness, a place of love? Black people are super forgiving. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in these streets peacefully marching! We have to understand we’re all going to stumble. We haven’t talked about this. We haven’t had a conversation for long enough.”

He adds, “There’s going to be things that white people say that are going to be cringe-worthy, but we know you don’t mean it if we know your heart. We might tell you oooh, when you talk to a stranger don’t phrase it like that. We’ll let you know. And we can help if we’re actually brought into the conversation.”

He says the one thing you shouldn’t do is send an email.

“It looks like you’re trying to just fill a quota. And we don’t want to fill a quota. We want to be valuable and valued.’ 

Creating safe workspaces

Garrett mentioned that it’s probably pretty important to make employees feel safe while trying to have these conversations, and Jamar shared some stories about all kinds of times when he didn’t feel safe.

“I’ve had the CEO of a company that I worked at tell me the hat I wore made me look like a fake gangster. I looked at him and said: sir, fake gangsters don’t go to college and get degrees. I got a college degree. I just walked out. How dare you say something so gross? You’re the CEO? You should at least know better. I can’t stop you from having that thought, but you should have stopped it from coming out of your lips.”

A second story:

“I had another person come in and say, oh, I love your homeboy hats. There’s nothing about my hats that make them homeboy hats except for the color of my skin. Just stop it. Try: your hat looks cool today, Jamar. Boom! I can work with that.” 

He says a lot of people aren’t willing to learn when they are called out for making racist comments. 

“It’s like, oh, well, you took it the wrong way. No. Don’t put this on me. I didn’t take it the wrong way. There’s a thousand slings and arrows that we take every day, and when we point out one it’s oh well, you need to have a better sense of humor. No. You need to have a better sense of humor. One that cuts out the racism. It’s as simple as that.”

He goes on to say why “I don’t see skin color” doesn’t cut it.

“You make me feel my skin color every single day because you talk to me different.”

He notes complete strangers try to come up and fist bump him, or call him ‘brother’ right off the bat.

“I’m a professional. Let’s shake hands first. Let’s get to know each other first so I know where you’re coming from, so you know where I’m coming from. Let’s make sure we’re treating each other on the same level.” 

It’s not about “political correctness.” It’s about being respectful to a fellow human being.

What’s your right now cause?

Jamar has had a long struggle with depression, so asks listeners to support NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

“I think we make mental illness such a stigma. When someone does something: oh, you’re acting crazy, you’re being extra. That’s ableist behavior.

When talking about mental illness let’s make sure we’re respectful of the people we’re talking to in front of us and the people we’re ignoring.”

He also urges listeners to reach out to their family members and friends. 

“Hey, I haven’t talked to you in a while, I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” 

He says it’s important to really listen and not to make it into a contest of how bad your life is by comparison. He points out that a lot of people will be struggling with new mental illnesses they’ve never dealt with before after months of being cooped up and dealing with COVID. 

“Being able to be there for them is going to make sure they have a great foundation in the future, and that’s all I can ask of listeners.”

Connect with Kevin Indig

Want to reach out to Jamar, invite him to speak, or see what he’s talking about? 

Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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