How to use paid media to scale a personal brand that drives revenue, with Ahmad Munawar

February 16, 2022


Ahmad Munawar built a strong personal brand and organic social media following through videos and podcasts. He joins the show to talk about his journey building a digital advertising program in-house for his agency, Boutique Growth. In this conversation, we talk about:

  • Why he chose to nail one channel at a time: Facebook Ads, YouTube, then LinkedIn
  • Challenges to building a paid media program in-house
  • The impact of a strong personal brand on paid media performance

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to the Digital Marketing Troop where we go in the trenches with marketing leaders and practitioners to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m your host, John Tyreman. And I’m joined today by Ahmad Munawar, founder of Boutique Growth and the 90 Day Pipeline for B2B Consultants and Professional Services Providers. Ahmad, we’re here to talk about your approach to advertising on LinkedIn. But before we do, I’m on my third cup of coffee right now. I’m curious, are you a coffee guy? Tea? What’s your poison?

Ahmad Munawar:  I’m on my first. I’m down to one a day. Double Americano kicks me off in the morning. If I really need a kick in the afternoon then I’ll do a Matcha Latte.

John Tyreman:  Oh man, it’s like rocket fuel. For our listeners who may not be aware of your company, can you give our listeners a quick overview of Boutique Growth?

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, so we are a consulting and training firm specifically focused on B2B consultants and professional service providers who are looking to build marketing strategies that attract more clients at higher fees and ultimately grow their business. Our flagship program is called the 90 Day Pipeline. It is a done-with-you training program where consultants and boutique firms come in, they dial in their positioning, they dial in their offer and their messaging, they dial in their marketing systems, they dial in their sales processes and then they’re off to the races.

John Tyreman:  Sounds like you’ve had some practice pitching that. That was very succinct and to the point. I like that.

Ahmad Munawar:  I don’t… actually don’t do any podcasts these days. So you’d be surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about what we do to a public audience. Outside of that…

John Tyreman:  Well, you hit the nail on the head. Well, let’s talk a little bit about that. So you mentioned that your investment in digital advertising is a big driver of new business. Can you walk through how you’ve designed your advertising infrastructure?

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, so I mean, probably a good place to start here is the reason why we decided to double down on advertising and you know, and I’ve been in business now for… I want to say six, seven, probably going on seven, eight years, maybe. And in the beginning, it was fairly small. I was an independent consultant. And I would go in and basically sell myself as a fractional director of marketing to some consulting professional service firms. And I was pretty busy, but just kind of a solo and pretty time starved and didn’t have a real way of growing the business because I didn’t have any more time to deliver or serve clients. And I wanted to do something more scalable. And that’s when we built the 90 Day Pipeline, that’s about… we’re going on I think about three three years now-ish, give or take, since we launched that program as our scalable training offer. And that’s when we decided to really go all in on digital advertising as opposed to growing more organically. Because we had a scalable offer now that I could, you know, at the time, my goals were bringing in 5 – 10 clients a month was going to be a pretty significant achievement, that’s hard to do. Five short maybe, but once you get into 10 plus clients per month, it’s really hard to do with organic methods. And even if you could do it with organic methods, the time investment required to get organic to deliver that kind of deal volume. Obviously every market is different, but certainly in my space to generate that kind of deal volume from organic is a taxing initiative. And so that’s when we looked at advertising and said well, instead of spending our time and that’s how I started. I started with organic marketing and we got to you know, a relatively decent clip in terms of revenue on organic marketing, but it was time intensive. I was doing a lot. I was creating a lot of content and was on a lot of different platforms. LinkedIn was really the bread and butter, because of B2B. And eventually I said, well, what if I could pay for leads with money instead of paying for leads with time? I’m paying either way. The time I spend has value. So the time I spend on paying for leads, what if I could pay with dollars instead of time? Because money is replenishable, time is not. The two hours I spend on organic marketing and I’m not knocking organic marketing because we still do it. Organic is still the bedrock of a lot of what we do, right? But the two hours I spend on organic marketing, I’m not going to get back. The $2, really $2,000, but run with the example, right?  The $2 is spent on paid advertising. If it works, I can get that back over and over and over and over again. And I can scale my ads with money to a level I could never scale organic with time and that was kind of the impetus for us to double down on paid advertising.

John Tyreman:  You make it sound pretty easy, but I’m sure that there’s a lot of pitfalls that come with kind of your, the learning curve with going into and setting up those ads and everything. What were some of the biggest pain points that you found in doing it that way?

Ahmad Munawar:  It’s not easy at all, and I apologize we’ve made it sound that way. It’s not easy at all. It is a hard game. And I’m not an expert in paid advertising. I mean, I’m the owner and we run ads but I mean I have smart people on my team that run the ads and setup strategy. It is a hard game. I would say the first thing that we did is we decided that we’re going to focus on one platform at a time. And that’s a pretty common mistake that people make is they’ll try to be everywhere all the time right away. And and I mean this even for more established brands with resources. You know, it’s really hard to just all of a sudden, click play on a digital advertising campaign on Facebook and YouTube and search and PPC and LinkedIn. It’s really hard to get all those things to work at the same time. So we decided to just double down on one platform at a time. Now this was three years ago. Facebook ads were still a thing. They’re less of a thing now. They’re still a thing, right? But three years ago was a very different environment. It was a lot easier to start running Facebook ads, it was a lot easier to get them profitable. It’s a lot harder now, for a whole host of reasons. So we started with Facebook ads. We spent about a year just working on Facebook ads, just dialing those in. And then we went to YouTube. And we spent again about a year just dialing in YouTube ads. And then most recently, we’ve gone to LinkedIn and we’re still kind of in the throes of getting that to really sync for us. But I think that’s one thing that we did that was fairly smart was just one channel at a time. Give it the time, give it the space, give it the resources because your budget is fixed. So if you spread your budget across two, three different channels, your opportunity cost is significant. Right? Where you concentrate your budget on one channel, get that to work, then add another, then add another, we found that to be a much more effective approach.

John Tyreman:  God bless Neil Patel and Eric Sue and I love their whole omni channel marketing philosophy and it makes sense in theory, but to your point yeah, if you spread yourself too thin across multiple channels that can be a recipe for headaches, wasted ad spend, inefficient campaigns and the like.

Ahmad Munawar:  And I’m all for it, to be clear. If you go right now, you opt into a Facebook ad, you’re gonna see me retarget you in YouTube, you’ll see banner ads on every website that you visit that has Google Display, you’re gonna see me remarketing to you on LinkedIn. Like, you are going to see me in your sleep. But it wasn’t like that on day one. You know, we took years frankly and we, you know, larger organizations with more resources probably do it faster than we did I’m sure, right? But it took time, is my point, to get there.

John Tyreman:  Of course, and the way that you laid that out makes perfect sense. I’m curious, why that order, why Facebook, then YouTube, then LinkedIn? It seems like LinkedIn would have been the majority of your audience. And given what you do, I’m curious why that order?

Ahmad Munawar:  So that’s largely going to be contextual to the time that we were in. So this is three years ago when we started paid advertising. Facebook was by and large, the easiest platform to get started with. Costs were the lowest, it was the most user friendly. And I started running the ads myself actually before I hired a media buyer. I started running them myself. I learned how to run ads. I don’t think I was very good at it. And pretty quickly I hired somebody but it was easy enough that I could get started with it on my own. And the costs are relatively good. And there was a lot of, I think this is a significant point, there’s a lot of training and resources and knowledge and best practices being shared on Facebook ads, less so on the other platforms. That’s why we started with Facebook. And then YouTube next because, as opposed to LinkedIn, because LinkedIn has traditionally been the most expensive platform in terms of costs. And so there was a time and I don’t think this is true anymore, and we’re seeing this to not be true, actually. But there was a time where like if you were if your deal size was not at least like 50 to 100k it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense because you could be spending hundreds of dollars on a lead on LinkedIn. And so you really needed a… it was for big agencies, it was for big consultancies, and we were selling you know, a $10k training program, right? It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I didn’t see a lot of evidence that it could work for a ticket size like ours, right? Your deal value is in the six figures? Sure, absolutely. But low five figures? Probably not. So that’s why we went to YouTube next. Now the whole landscape has shifted, costs are higher everywhere, Facebook is far more expensive, iOS 14 obviously making things very complicated everywhere across the board. Now all of a sudden the costs on LinkedIn aren’t so bad anymore. They used to feel astronomical. Now they’re not so bad. Plus, there’s some innovation on the platform there that’s making it I think more accessible for companies with a, you know, a lifetime value or initial deal size of around 10, 20, 30k And that’s why we ultimately decided to jump into LinkedIn ads as well.

John Tyreman:  You’ve got a charismatic personality, and you’ve got some great speaking skills and you’ve done video blogs on LinkedIn. You’ve hosted a few podcasts. I’m curious, what kind of an impact do you think your personal brand has had on the advertisements that you’ve run on YouTube, Facebook and LinkedIn?

Ahmad Munawar:  This has been THE difference. And I don’t mean that as a boast. I don’t mean that to say look at my look at me, I’m so articulate. No, that’s not what I mean. Right? What I mean is, because I don’t think I’m articulate at all, but I am my own worst critic, right? What I mean is the use of a personal brand has made all the difference. The use of a face, representing the brand and the offer has made all the difference. The use of a human with a personality that does come out in the ads, because some of my ads are kind of funny. And so my ads are kind of quirky. And so my ads are a little bit sarcastic and the use of a personality in the brand that people can relate to and empathize with and see themselves in has made all the difference. And I say that again, not to boast about myself, but rather to really drive home the point that humans like to do business with humans. I don’t know anybody that wants to do business with a brand. It’s why all big brands are personified by spokespeople, not all, but most good ones. And even the ones that aren’t, there’s a founder that personifies the brand. What is Apple without Steve Jobs? And what is Tesla without Elon? Right? So I think it’s made all the difference. And frankly, it’s a big part of what we teach our clients:  don’t hide behind your brand. You can have a brand. It’s fine, have a brand, have a logo, have some nice colors, right? Have values. Have all those things, but don’t hide behind the brand and think that the brand can do all the talking for you. There’s nothing more powerful than having a human personify the brand that people can connect with. And that’s been a big difference for us.

John Tyreman:  Those are really great points. And I see that, but it’s not just the spokesperson, right? You can’t just put someone out there and say, Hey, go be the spokesperson of our brand. I imagine that there’s also the positioning of your personal brand, but then your personal brand within the context of the company brand. It’s also the offer that you’re putting out there, too. Can you speak a little bit about that dynamic? The positioning of your personal brand within the context of your larger brand and then the offer that you’re presenting?

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, absolutely. So you know it’s one thing for you know, Toucan Sam to be the mascot for, what is it? Fruit Loops? Am I getting that right? You know, that’s a CPG brand, where they have a mascot or some celebrity comes in and eats a bowl of cereal and they’re, you know, they’re the face of the brand, right? That’s one thing in the service business, which is the business that I’m in and I imagine a lot of your listeners are in, and I know you guys are in this business. It’s the experts or the experts who personify the brand. So our entire brand is really built around my personal expertise, professional expertise, and where I came from, which is really simple. I come from a B2B consulting background. Worked at Ernst & Young, worked at a small boutique consultancy, ran marketing and business development for them. And through that experience, came to learn that there’s really not a lot of good resources out there for marketers of professional services firms. That’s actually how I found your previous employer, Hinge Marketing, was in that search and I started eating up everything from Hinge and the very few other providers of information and resources. There were very few. And then I thought, well, here’s an opportunity. And I launched my own firm. And I got, you know, really into digital marketing through the previous experience, doubled down on it and my practice started doing things with clients. And now our positioning is that you’re not gonna find anybody else that’s at the intersection of B2B consulting and digital marketing like we are. There’s a very small handful of people. You have big agencies like, let’s say Hinge for example, that are working with big brands, but if you’re a small boutique consultancy, and you need someone to help you dial in digital marketing for a consultancy, which is very different from selling a SaaS product or a widget or shampoo or whatever, there’s very few places to go. I would argue that we’re the only place to go, right? So that’s been the nexus of our positioning and my story as a support of that.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, the expertise based sale is very, very different than the numbers game that there is in SaaS and some other industries out there. Can you speak a little bit to some of the results that you’ve seen from your investments in digital advertising? I think we talked about why you got into it,  we talked about the order of operations and the chance… the focusing on one platform at a time. We talked about the brand positioning and the offer. What were some of the results that you’ve seen?

Ahmad Munawar:  I mean, at the end of the day, the only result that really matters in advertising is what they call ROAS – return on ad spend. So our goal is anywhere from a three to 4x ROAS. That is for every dollar that we spend on digital advertising, we want to see $3 or $4 come back. If we’re making more than $4, that’s incredible. I’m dancing in the streets. But anywhere between $3 and $4, we’re very happy, we’re very profitable, we’re growing the business, and everything is very sustainable. And so that’s generally what we get.

John Tyreman:  You mentioned that you worked at Ernst & Young, you’re a chartered accountant. And I remember interviewing you on a podcast a few years ago. And one thing that really stood out to me was how you like to connect dots from various business disciplines. I’m curious, what’s one idea that you’ve come across recently studying accounting or economics or something other than marketing that you’ve been able to apply to marketing? 

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, it’s an interesting question because I’m a very analytical marketer. First of all, I’m an accidental marketer. Right? You know, I never learned marketing, never studied marketing, didn’t go to school for marketing. I mean, there’s the marketing course in business class, but I hardly even call that marketing. We were talking about the four P’s back then. Haven’t talked about that since, right? So I have no real formal training and marketing. I learned marketing in the school of hard knocks right, trying to get clients and win deals. Trying to like just like get some leads in the door from the early days. So my marketing education has been very informal. And one thing I think I’ve brought to the discipline into the field is a bright analytical mindset and approach that no doubt  draws from my accounting background. And I just fundamentally believe that everything happens for a reason. And so you know, we are very data driven. We have consultants that come in, they look at our, they look at our report to look at our spreadsheets like wow, you guys have a lot of data because at the end of the day, I’m an accountant. At the end of the day, when you like strip it all away, right? I’m just a bean counter. Okay? And the numbers have to make sense. So I think that’s been a real advantage for me, is having that financial quant background. And bringing that level of rigor and data analysis to marketing has been really helpful.

John Tyreman:  You think that’s, and I don’t want to say hindered, but there’s also the other side of the coin. There’s the creative, the artistic side of marketing that you need to be able to blend with that analytical side. Have you found it challenging to be able to do that?

Ahmad Munawar:  It’s a really delicate balance and that’s an interesting question. Because we’ve gone through seasons where our belief as a company was, it was all about the creative, the creative, the creative, the creative, and we would spend so much energy on creative and a lot of that paid off. And then we go through seasons where we come to realize it’s not about the creative, we have enough creative, it’s all good. We need to do more testing,  get more disciplined about our conversion rates, test more targeting, and, you know, I wish I could tell you that we had a really, you know, formalized methodology to this now. It’s been more art than science. It’s been more intuition and hunches than a really kind of formal approach. But I will say both are important, right? I mean, the creative no doubt. When you’re advertising, it’s not even a question, right? You have to have strong creative to get the attention that you need in the feed. But that’s table stakes, is the thing, right? So one way to think about it is creative is necessary to even be in the conversation at the party. That’s table stakes, right? Because no one’s responding to your ads. You’re not getting leads, you’re gonna run out of money really quickly. But then that rigor around data and optimization and looking at the numbers and iterating based on what you’re seeing, you know, kind of conversion rate optimization for lack of a better term. That’s what takes a campaign from you know, okay, so-so to great.

John Tyreman:  That’s what we found. too, is that feedback loop between the analytics and then the creative teams, and then if that communication isn’t there, and there’s no directional feedback from the analytics that you can derive to inform, hey, what’s the next test we want to do? If that feedback loop isn’t there, then you don’t have that ability to iterate, test and scale. And I think there’s that statistic from Nielsen, I think it’s like 2017, where it’s like 47% of an ad’s performance is driven by creative. I’d imagine that number is probably much higher today, especially, you mentioned iOS 14, the impact on Facebook, creative is just going to have more and more of an impact on an ad’s performance. So I think you hit the nail right on the head. 

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, but that optimization piece, I think is really the competitive advantage at least for us, arguably, but you know, I would argue that a lot of folks who dabble in digital marketing big and small. That’s the problem, is they dabble and they want to campaign to work overnight. And overnight, sometimes meaning like three to six months overnight for some folks, right? When they’re not willing to invest the time and the resources to do the optimization required to actually get it to work. And that’s a big mistake. Of course, for the rest of us. We’re happy about that. Because it means we have less competition in the feed, but that’s really what it takes is that long game optimization is what makes advertising work.

John Tyreman:  Well, it’s challenging because it all depends on how your teams are set up. Right? So on one end of the spectrum, you can insource everything right? And on the complete other end of the spectrum, you can outsource everything, everything that has to do with digital marketing, but most companies aren’t in the position to have either end of that spectrum. So there’s some combination of in house specialization and outsourced support. So if you have a paid media specialist in house and you’re outsourcing the creative, there’s a little there that reduces that communication gap, that feedback loop, so then it takes a little bit longer to be able to iterate and test. And the same can be true if you’ve got in house creative, outsourced paid media. So that dynamic is critical in my opinion for the success of a digital marketing campaign.

Ahmad Munawar:  It’s what makes it really hard too, for small businesses, right? If your sub, you know, we’re sub $5 million, it’s hard to pay, you know, five grand a month or 10 grand a month to an agency to run everything for you. It’s a big chunk of change, right? If you’re a $20 or $30 million company, it’s a very different story, right? But for most small businesses, paying the fees required for a good agency, because good agencies are expensive, is tough. And at the same time finding, you know, kind of freelance contractor based talent who are actually good and can deliver is tough. And that’s a… it’s a big challenge for the industry. I mean, we’ve solved it because I’m a marketer, right? But not every small business is led by a marketer. And so I think if you’re not a marketer, you don’t have the background and you can’t build this thing in house. It’s a real challenge.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, and like you mentioned earlier, time is money too. So if you settle on a sub optimal configuration or dynamic between your creative and analytics teams, then that can be costly in the long run, too. 

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, absolutely. 

John Tyreman:  Ahmad, you mentioned to me the other day, you’re thinking about getting back into podcasting. Can you talk a little bit about your journey, your podcasting journey and what may have driven that decision to get back into it?

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, so when I was getting started in the business, I launched a podcast called Forecast. And my goal there was really just to connect with the who’s who in professional services marketing. And  I connected with yourself and Lee Frederiksen from Hinge, I connected with, you know, a lot of the big names in the space;   David C. Baker, Blair and Ian Brodie, all these guys. And it was a great experience. I learned a ton. I made some great relationships and it was a, you know, I think a key strategic driver of getting the business off the ground and getting me some exposure, and it was fantastic. And then we grew and we started running ads. And all of that stuff kind of went to the wayside right? And the podcast was no longer a priority because I was just too busy running ads and making sales and delivering right? And since then haven’t really come back to podcasting in a meaningful way. Now, fast forward three some odd years, we have a great team, the day to day responsibilities on my shoulders are lessening and so I’m starting to find that I have more time now as a founder to do more things like this, go on shows as a guest, launch my own podcast. I have at least one, probably a couple, in the works in the next six months. And so it’s always something that I’ve enjoyed doing. I love collaborating. I love the conversations. I love interviewing myself as an interviewer. And so it’s a passion of mine that I’m really looking forward to getting back to now that I have a little bit more time in the day.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, I echo that as well. I find myself enjoying the interview side rather than the interviewee side. So I am a curious marketer myself, so that’s why I’ve always enjoyed podcasts. Well, I look forward to seeing your podcast out there. I know I’ll click subscribe and listen to it. Ahmad, we’re coming up on our time now and if folks want to connect with you and learn more, where can they find you?

Ahmad Munawar:  Best place would be to just go to our website they’re gonna have links to all of our social accounts, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, etc. And you can hop on our email list, too, if you’d like to at that stage and you’ll get emails from me.

John Tyreman:  That’s the name of the game, right? Well, thank you so much for coming on our show today. It’s been a pleasure to catch up. 

Ahmad Munawar:  Yeah, likewise, thanks for having me.