Connecting business with customers

Creating value for clients in sophisticated digital marketing

Zach Clayton, CEO of Three Ships Media, has been successfully sailing the vast waters of digital marketing since he started his company in September 2009. The field seems to be a perfect match for him.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the way people communicate ideas, politically and commercially” says Clayton. “So to be at the intersection of media, marketing and technology, is an enormously exciting experience for me.”

Before attending Harvard Business School, Clayton started a small technology company called New Media Campaigns, while he was an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill. He says that role gave him experience with the technology side, in addition to his interest in media business. Three Ships Media combines all the elements of marketing services, data information, technology and media.
The company’s name is a play on the discoveries that can come with uncharted waters.

“It’s Three Ships, Christopher Columbus’ Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria,” explains Clayton. “For a lot of our clients, digital marketing is a new world, and I really like the allusion of helping them navigate their way to a new world.” Employees throw a big party on Columbus Day, in the spirit of the company’s name.

Though Clayton says he feels Three Ships Media is still striving and has many goals ahead, he attributes its current success to some big shifts happening in the world of digital marketing. He explains that there’s a massive migration from traditional media consumption to digital media consumption. Marketing is about going where the audience is, and that audience is now online.

“Marketers haven’t caught up, so just to make sure that marketing dollars are being spent where the audience is paying attention, there’s about a 50 billion dollar shift that needs to move from traditional to digital,” Clayton says. “Second thing is that in that shift from traditional to digital, there’s been a shift in power from sales to marketing. We live in a world where it costs nothing to distribute information, and so now marketers who distribute information are more powerful and play a more important role in the customer decision-making process.”

Customers today have a lot more power as well, because they have access to so much information via the internet.

“When you think about buying an automobile twenty years ago, you had to go to the dealer and the sales guy had all the information,” says Clayton. “You would ask him the questions, and he was the arbiter of information.  Who shows up at an automobile dealership today, not knowing anything? They’ve researched it online, they’ve gotten information and so the sales person doesn’t have this information monopoly anymore. That means he’s less valuable.”

With all these changes taking place, Three Ships Media is poised to be in an excellent position to help its clients migrate online.

“The great thing that I love about being in this industry is that our clients don’t have to be 100 percent right, and we don’t have to be 100 percent right to still create a lot of value, because there’s just such a big shift underway,” says Clayton. “If you’re just sort of right, you can benefit from this tidal wave of change in the way that people consume media and communicate with each other.”

Three Ships Media works with organizations across North America, such as AT&T, Verizon, American Airlines, Bayer, Intergy, and Eli Lilly.  Clayton says the work they do falls into two main categories.

“One, we’re either helping them improve the effectiveness of the way they communicate through providing research and insights,” he explains. “We have a large benchmarking database. We help companies measure their web and social media performance against their peers. The second thing we do is help provide services to companies to help them generate more leads or generate more customers.”

In today’s marketing climate, Clayton says his company is uniquely able to assist with customer acquisition.

“The conversation we want to have with the CMO or CEO is, ‘how do I double the size of my business in two years? And how do we use online marketing to do that?’

It may be surprising that Three Ships Media has been able to rack up such an impressive client list in so short a time, but Clayton explains that in his field, being young isn’t a liability as it might be in other industries. The public has taken notice.

“I think we’ve done a really nice job in establishing ourselves as thought leaders. We’ve had the Wall Street Journal cover our research. TIME magazine has covered our research. PBS was here the other day and did an interview for a national business TV show. Part of that is because we practice what we preach. We put out content on how the industry is changing and data that we’ve found that’s interesting.”

Clayton cites as an example a memo his company sent out that got forwarded all around Washington, D.C.  The memo was on the Scott Brown Senate race in Massachusetts and read, ‘Is anybody paying attention to what’s going on with social media, because if they are, they’d see that the amount of momentum this guy has relative to Martha Coakley is unbelievable, and the survey polling isn’t the indicator here at the moment. The momentum is the indicator.’

“So during the elections, the Wall Street Journal had me on as an election commentator,” says Clayton. “And part of that was them saying, ‘Hey, these guys called the Scott Brown race’. I don’t know if we called it, but we were practicing what we preach by saying, ‘If you look at the data, you will find insights.’ Those insights have business values, or political relevance, or whatever else, and I think that’s helped us raise our profile, helped us build relationships, and garner attention.”

Clayton claims that what social media has done for political communications is remarkable and says that he attributes President Obama’s election in large part to the power of YouTube and Facebook. The leader of Obama’s 2008 online digital effort was Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes.

“It’s also responsible for a lot of the coordination we saw in Iran, and for a lot of the coordination we saw in Colombia with the FARC protests and also in Libya,” says Clayton. “It’s becoming as important as social technology, perhaps maybe even more important than the telephone, because it scales. You’ve never had the social technology that scales in this way, which is why revolutions can happen so fast, which is why an unknown State Senator from Illinois in 2004 can be elected President of the United States four years later.

Biographies are a favorite of Clayton’s because he says they give him a flavor for people.  Some of his recommended recent reads include “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, and also Bloomberg by Bloomberg, written by media mogul, Michael Bloomberg.

In addition to business books, Clayton says reading up on strategy is enjoyable to him, and not something he even counts as work.

“It’s a real weekend for me when I don’t spend at least ten hours reading analyst reports. On a given week, I probably have five conversations a week with competitors and peers, and I probably spend every weekend at least ten hours reading. Analyst reports, looking at competitors’ products, that sort of thing.”

Clayton’s enthusiasm and belief in his company’s capabilities are palpable. It’s clear he takes joy in knowing he can truly add value to his clients’ marketing.

“I think what we do is just a fascinating opportunity,” says Clayton. “We get to help companies figure out how to do something new for them. So I spend very little time meeting with the accountant, interacting with lawyers, negotiating contracts or any of that stuff. I spend most of my time interacting with customers, looking at their numbers and thinking how we can help them grow their business. That’s the fun part for me.”

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