Leadership Edge: “To avoid burnout, over prepare and plan proactively” With Amber Kemmis VP at SmartBug Media

I had the pleasure to interview Amber Kemmis, VP of Client Services at SmartBug Media®. Over the past five years, Amber has become an expert and a thought leader in digital marketing and marketing automation, all while helping to scale SmartBug® to 85 full-time employees through a period of rapid and significant growth. Amber originally […]

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I had the pleasure to interview Amber Kemmis, VP of Client Services at SmartBug Media®.

Over the past five years, Amber has become an expert and a thought leader in digital marketing and marketing automation, all while helping to scale SmartBug® to 85 full-time employees through a period of rapid and significant growth. Amber originally aspired to help people as a psychologist, but life threw her into the world of digital marketing at a sales training and recruiting firm, where she worked as the Director of Marketing and learned a lot about sales methodologies, selecting the right sales talent, and aligning sales to marketing. After that, Amber couldn’t help but pivot her focus from using psychology clinically to using it digitally through inbound marketing, sales strategies, and training.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Mypath to marketing has been pretty unconventional. Growing up, I wanted to help people by counseling them through tough times, and specifically using the advancing research of the brain to do that. So I pursued a degree in psychology. As a college student who had bills to pay, I took an administrative job with a consulting firm that was flexible with my schooling. The job quickly went from answering phones to learning about marketing automation and digital marketing strategies, and I soon realized that marketing was no longer about billboards and advertising in the digital age. It was becoming very data-driven as people began to use search engines and digital channels to help navigate their day-to-day work. My “aha” moment came when I was introduced to inbound marketing — the idea that if you educate your customers at all stages of their journey, they will more easily find you online. I saw that I could now help people navigate their problems by creating digital content and providing it at the very moment they need it.

From there, I decided to transition my career toward digital marketing and eventually made my way into the agency world, where I’ve spent the last six years helping clients grow their companies through inbound and digital marketing.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Keyword-stuffing and relying heavily on keyword data was big when I entered marketing, and I didn’t shy from jumping on that bandwagon by finding very particular terms we could use to win the top spot on Google. Ironically, I loved the human element of marketing, but I got so focused on what search engine optimization gurus were telling me about keyword research and data that I veered far away from creating content and a web experience that was human-centered. The biggest lesson I learned from focusing too much on digital data is that you can’t forget about creating content and digital campaigns that are genuinely valuable to the people who are consuming them.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I am truly my own biggest critic, and it wasn’t until I was helping to write a couple of case studies for two of my clients who saw significant return on investment from the campaigns I helped to strategize and build that I really felt I had been successful. It’s funny because I had already reported back the results months before that to the client and their celebrations internally for the success were long over, but I had to see their return on investment in a big, bold header to feel I was successful.

What do I think made these clients and, as a result, myself successful?

First of all, we all deeply understood their businesses and, very importantly, their customers, which allowed us to create campaigns that were persona-centered and supported all stages of their Buyers’ Journeys. I understood their businesses so well that it helped me create a solid content strategy: a demand gen engine that is still running today.

Second of all, I knew that strategy is only as good as your ability to execute it, and I was effective at operationalizing the strategy both for the client and for our team.

What others can learn that I wish I had done sooner is to celebrate the victories as they happen. Don’t wait until you see it in the front-page headline to celebrate the success.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When I first interviewed at SmartBug, I was extremely hesitant to join an agency. I had hired agencies when I worked in-house, and they all failed to deliver on my expectations. I just didn’t want to be a part of a world that did that. In my interview, though, our CEO talked about how he had similar experiences with agencies and was determined to create a company that did live up to expectations and really cared about the bottom-line results.

Fast-forward to six years later, and I can confidently say that he and our team have created that. Although we stand out because we’re a 100 percent remote company, I think the fact that we’re an agency that does live up to expectations and consistently delivers quality client work is what’s most important to me.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My biggest project right now is wrapping up everything for my maternity leave that will start any day, but it’s amazing what you can create when you know you need to ensure your team of 45-plus people will be able to operate in your absence. I think the most exciting thing is that I’ve helped to completely revamp how we onboard new team members to our client services team. Normally, the managers do most of the work, but I wanted to leverage SMEs throughout our department to add their perspective and deliver the trainings. It’s not finished yet, but I think that crowdsourcing the content is going to not only give new team members exposure to others in the company and prepare them for their roles, but also leverage the expertise of more than a dozen people.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Overprepare and plan proactively. Too many marketers prize agility, which is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of preparing for the future. This comes into play with organization and planning, but I also mean it in the sense that you shouldn’t be building campaigns that will only create demand for the next few months. You should also be creating campaigns that will benefit you six months to years from now. Because marketers have pressure to drive more leads and results today, they easily lose sight of campaign initiatives that will make an impact many months down the road. Combine this with agility and it will always feel like you’re operating in a day-to-day manner, which will lead to burnout.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I swear I’m not trying to get any brownie points with this one, but it would definitely be our CEO, Ryan Malone. He has very high standards for his own work and the work of others around him. Through feedback and many tough conversations, I have learned to have a really high bar when creating work, and that has led to my clients receiving great work, which, in turn, means I’ve been successful.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

Without hesitation, it’s HubSpot and the inception of inbound marketing, which helped to turn the company from a small startup into a now publicly traded company. Rather than doing what most software companies do — promoting their product and touting the features and gadgets of the tool — HubSpot founders created and promoted a methodology to marketing that, while complementary to their product, did not directly benefit sales. They gave away free education and training around inbound marketing methodology and focused their efforts on that instead of promoting their software. By building a community of inbound marketers, they were able to create not only a memorable campaign but also an entire discipline of marketing that has, in effect, created a successful software company.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

A successful “blueprint” for a campaign would be persona-centered, contain SMART goals, align to that persona’s Buyer’s Journey, and leverage multiple channels and mediums to engage that audience. For example, if the goal was to drive more leads for your company’s marketing technology platform, you’d start by defining the exact goal of the campaign, leveraging existing data where possible to set a SMART goal. Part of that SMART goal would be to define the target persona, which in this case would be a marketer. Let’s call her Marketing Mary.

Based on research conducted by speaking with past customers or those similar to Marketing Mary, we know that her Buyer’s Journey might start with research around her pain points. In this case, Marketing Mary needs to better demonstrate ROI of her marketing campaigns and, fortunately for you, your software does this; however, you don’t approach or attract Mary by talking about how your product does just that. Instead, you create engaging content with titles such as “The Principles of ROI for Marketing.” Now, you attract Mary not just when she is near the end of her journey and ready to decide which software to use, but at the beginning of her journey when she’s just beginning the search. This content gets distributed through multiple channels such as SEM and social media so that you can reach Mary wherever she is.

Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

As a marketing agency built on the foundation of inbound marketing, I think that we’ve already moved away from anything “salesy,” but now we need to shift our efforts to better leverage disruptive technologies to create completely customer-centered marketing campaigns. One of the biggest challenges in doing so, however, is that markets have become very saturated and technology can quickly drive up costs, causing diminishing returns. We need to move toward being very frugal with our resources and campaigns, meanwhile not leaning too heavily on technology to get us all the way there.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

First, I wish someone told me that creativity is just as important as data. I can only imagine the kinds of campaigns I would’ve been able to conceptualize if I had balanced creativity and a data-driven approach more.

Second would be to obsess less over details that won’t have a 10x effect. I’ve worked on many pieces of content that got stalled for weeks and months because they never seemed perfect, but content that’s not in the public domain is useless and those details probably wouldn’t have had a profound effect on performance.

The third is similar to the last, but it’s to not get hung up on microdata. For example, I’ve spent hours trying to dig into an analytics issue that, in hindsight, really didn’t have a huge impact on performance. As a marketer, it’s easy to obsess over small metrics that, when you look at the bigger picture, didn’t have that big of an impact.

The fourth one is less about marketing and more about a successful career. It’s to not let who you are stand in the way of who you want to become. It took me a long time to stop telling myself that I couldn’t do certain things in my career because I wasn’t even 30 yet or because I was a mom. When I finally realized that those things didn’t need to define my ability to succeed, I was off to the races.

Last but not least, one of my mentors always says that you’ll never forget your child’s school recital or baseball game, but you will forget the meeting you attended to miss that event. He’s right, and, although building a career is important if that’s what you want, it’s more important to find a career that doesn’t make you miss the memories you’ll never forget for the meeting that you won’t recall two weeks later.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?

If I didn’t say HubSpot as the top one, I’d be lying. I started using it in a small business and had zero marketing skills at the time. With the software being all-in-one — meaning we ran our website, email marketing, blog, social media, and reporting all on one platform — and a treasure trove of resources about the inbound marketing methodology, the small business I worked for at the time was able to have marketing campaigns and success that mimicked big companies with dozens of tools in the martech stack and large marketing teams. Even 10 years later, it’s still just as powerful to small business owners who can run their sales, marketing, and customer support teams all on one platform.

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

My top five books for marketing skills are:

  1. Buyer Personas by Adele Revella
  2. Influence by Robert Cialdini
  3. Web Analytics by Avinash Kaushik
  4. Contagious by Jonah Berger
  5. Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

I read most of these books earlier in my career. Now that I’m a busy mom, I’ve shifted to a lot of podcast-listening with my favorite being Unthinkable by Jay Acunzo.

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

I don’t just have one. There are many, but my mom and both my grandmothers are the most influential to me. My mom, Bernice, and my one grandmother, Teresa, helped to shape the creative side of me and showed me that you can make income off of creativity (both of them made various arts and crafts, and my mom now owns a floral shop). Being a bit more analytical and scientifically driven, I didn’t realize until well into my marketing career how much their creativity rubbed off on me and helped to inspire some of my best ideas.

My other grandmother, Alvina, is one of my heroes because she’s a stubborn German-Russian who doesn’t take crap from anyone and has lived independently since my grandfather passed away before I was born. Although she grew up in a time when women weren’t allowed to work (outside of the farm) and were told their role was to raise kids and do household chores, you would never guess it because she speaks what’s on her mind, won’t take no for an answer (unless that’s the answer she wants), and doesn’t look externally for gratification.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m a millennial mom of three who loves her career almost as much as her husband and kids. If I could inspire any movement, which I think is a movement that’s already happening, it would be to break down stereotypes around the ability to have a kickass career if you are young and also a parent. Having kids, especially early in life, and being a young millennial doesn’t mean you have to put a successful career on hold. It should actually give you more reason to take that seat that would normally be held by someone who has years of experience and no gremlins at home to tend to. It is possible to be a successful parent at any age with a great career, and I want people to know that they can do it and don’t have to choose one or the other, and that they don’t have to let something like age get in the way of success.

How can our readers follow you online?


@amberkemmis on Twitter

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