You might know Greg Ng as CMO and Chief Strategy Officer at online conversion agency Brooks Bell Interactive. You’ve probably watched his entertaining frozen-food reviews at FreezerBurns.com. And you might even know him from his former life as Chelvis, the Chinese Elvis.
But did you know:
- why he reads Entertainment Weekly with the same fervor as he reads Psychology Today?
- what he looks for in new employees?
- why marketers need to understand why fans love musician Justin Bieber?
- the unexpected business secret behind his FreezerBurns.com website?
- how he manages to get it all done in 24 hours a day?
- why he now owns more than three dozen Mr. Potato Head figures?
Read on, for answers to those questions and more! I spoke with Greg last week at his office in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Note: I considered running a shortened version of the interview, because this is a lot to read online (you should have seen the audio transcript!). I decided to run the entire thing, since Greg shares so much useful information about marketing, creativity, and more.
“Tasting Life”: What Drives Greg Ng?
On Greg’s LinkedIn profile, I noticed a former coworker referred to him as a polymath and mentioned how Greg had said his goal is to “taste life.” I asked Greg how he channels that energy and that creative stream:
“I don’t like to not know something. And the internet is great for that—you don’t have to go to the library anymore and pay late book fees and look things up in the card catalog. I can find info in 30 seconds.
“I’ve always been a curious person. I would say I know a little bit about a lot of things. This makes me more fun at a cocktail party, but I would fail miserably at Jeopardy! I couldn’t get past the $200 question, because I don’t know it that deep.
“When I don’t know something, I find out, and that has really allowed me to be very in touch and in tune with what I like and what I don’t like.”
“That ‘tasting life’ thing is not necessarily like a bucket list. It’s not like ‘Oh my god, I need to bungee jump and I need to sky dive and I need to swim with the sharks.’
It’s about when I do a side project, I do it full tilt. You know, when I go to — and my kids benefit from this — when I go to DisneyWorld, I get the full deluxe package. I want to never regret not doing something, and everything fuels itself.
I work harder so that I can afford to do stuff like that. And I document a lot so that I can remember to do stuff like that, and I try to teach those same ideals in my kids.”
He explained the difference between art, general marketing, and direct-response:
“I kinda modify the great quote that I heard once and that is “With good art, one hundred people can look at the same painting and get one hundred different interpretations of it.” Good general advertising is where one hundred people look at the ad and everyone gets the same thing out of it. Right? But it’s still very passive.
“Good direct response is [where] one hundred people see the same ad…not only do they all get the same thing out of it but it forces them and causes them to do something in addition — pick up a phone, click a button, take out a credit card. That is power.
“I can walk by a million billboards and recall them and tell the people about it. But did it make me buy that brand of soap? With direct response I’m making it so apparent to you that you cannot wait. You need to pick up the phone right now and order it.
“That’s the power of what we do and that’s why I do what I do. That’s what I get excited about.“
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What Are the Biggest Changes Since He Started in Marketing?
“[I] started in the direct mail space where the culture of testing and the culture of elements influencing psychological drivers has always existed. The main difference and the evolution has been how quickly we can track that data and how quickly and flexible we are in addressing further testing. That’s where taking it from offline to online has been so amazing. That’s biggest evolution since I’ve started.”
“We would launch direct mail campaigns that normally took 2 to 4 weeks in production time, but then you would wait for 6 to 12 weeks for those reply cards to come back or logs from the call centers to come back. All those BRCs being hand-logged or hand-scanned at the point of sale and then you’re measuring. Once you’re doing complicated element testing or segmentation, next thing you know, it’s the next quarter already.
“[With online direct marketing today,] we’ve run batch testing where we get an answer in less than three hours. And we can then roll out the winner or we can adjust the variables; we can adjust the frequency. All of that is why I’m in the online space right now.”
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Why You Need to Understand the Target Audience
Greg stressed the importance of understanding the customer, especially if their approach to life is very different from your own. I asked Greg about some of his most memorable campaigns.
“I worked on the loyalty program for DSW Shoe Warehouse called Reward Your Style, and it was the first loyalty program I worked on. It was my most memorable. It also had the greatest ROI.
“What I liked about it was not only they caused me to think about understanding an audience that wasn’t me. I’m now dealing with women who liked to drop $200 to $300 on shoes, who wanted designer looks but didn’t want designer prices.
“I need to get into the mind of that consumer, that demo. But also, from the technical stand point, I got to learn about how to grab sign-ups from a point of sale and then how to reward them via snail mail at the time. How do you deal with production value of the quality of the actual membership cards, so it didn’t break apart in people’s purses, or so that the ink didn’t rub off on people’s hands?
“It was really a huge education for me and one that I leveraged since then. It’s still probably one of my favorite projects.”
“I would say if you need another example, I worked on the very first iteration of DunkinDonuts.com in 2001, where we established selling coffee by the pound for home delivery and for office delivery. It was a huge [project]: not only the design aspect and messaging aspect and marketing aspect, but also the technological aspect of running an ecommerce site.
“It was still fairly new for me and it was very new for the brand, too. We designed not only the shipping box but the invoice that came with it, and ‘how do you organize that content online,’ how do you motivate people to go to that site to buy and to be convinced that it’s worth buying.
“So that was a huge learning curve for me and one that I made mistakes on and learned from them since then, so it’s good.”
I asked what especially liked about the two integrated campaigns. Greg mentioned the benefit of working at a smaller shop at the beginning of your career, because you learn a lot quickly, and you’re involved in a variety of things:
“It’s not that I enjoyed designing an invoice. It was that it really opened my eyes to all the things that go into a program like that. Now, here at Brooks Bell Interactive, we’re very specific in what we do and don’t do. [Note: Greg’s company specializes in online direct response marketing.]
“It gives me greater insight as to all the decisions I’m making and recommending to my client: how does that impact all the other things?
“For instance, if we recommend in a display ad or a landing page to call a phone number versus click through to an online conversion page, I start immediately thinking, ‘can the call center handle that volume and what is the script that the call center is using and how are they tracking those phone calls to a specific campaign.’ … [It’s about] understanding all the implications beyond just what you’re particularly doing.”
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Time Management Secrets: How Does He Do It All?
I’ve wondered how Greg can possibly fit everything into a single day, and I asked if he has any time management secrets. He replied:
“That’s one of the most common questions I get: how do I get it all done? I am a multi-tasker, no question. My secret is kind of my curse as well. I’m very set in my ways.
“For instance, I know this evening exactly what I plan to do at 8:00, which means that if my kids aren’t in bed by 7:59 (and it happens quite frequently), it throws off my whole schedule.
“I’m always early or exactly on time. I plan out in my head. Part of that planning is not just work. Part of that planning is ‘from 8:00 to 9:00, I’m sitting down and watching Lost’ or stuff like that.
“I also don’t sleep a lot. I go to bed around 2:00 AM because I might miss something. I have a lot of people that I engage with on the west coast including my family. My 2:00 AM is their 11:00 PM Pacific time. So that’s how I get it all done.
“I watch a movie a day. While I’m watching, I’m editing a video or I’m writing a blog post or checking my email and stuff like that. Devices like my iPad or my laptop or [watching TV with] picture-in-picture. I’m frequently watching two shows at the same time. So I guess that’s my secret.”
I joked that nothing’s happening between 2:00 AM and 7:00 AM anyway. He corrected, “It’s actually 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM for me.”
Greg described how he takes vacations:
It was hard at first, but once I resigned myself to doing it, I was able to enjoy the vacation and relax. I came back ready to go. And that’s kinda how I exist.
He also uses Evernote to track everything.
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Keeping Up: Tracking Trends Beyond the Business World
I asked Greg what he reads, follows, and attends to keep up with trends. Greg stressed the importance of reading and consuming content that goes beyond standard marketing and business information:
“I’m a big believer in consuming media of all kinds. Always have been, both when I was doing more traditional general advertising as well as direct marketing.
“It’s important to know what’s out there. What are the other people seeing? For example, if I’m going to produce a banner ad, it’s important to know what other banner ads there are also running, what are people seeing, what are people thinking.
“It’s really important to understand the demographic. So my consumption varies. Like I said, I watch a movie at night. I read a ton of magazines [including] pop culture magazines. I read Psychology Today while at the same time I read Entertainment Weekly, religiously. I watch a ton of television. I listen to a lot of satellite radio.”
He noted he follows 300 different blogs in his feedreader. He reads some daily and others at least once a month:
“One of the reasons why I really like Twitter — and the people that I associate with and have conversations with on social networks — is that I can get a really diverse range of interest and stay up to date.
“For instance, I wanna know who the hell Justin Bieber is because for marketing to people who are in that same group, I need to know that. I need to know ‘is it someone to drop a reference about or not?’ I need to know who wins American Idol just as much I need to know who is the enemy in Real Housewives. And I enjoy that.”
Greg noted that it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of speaking only to business and marketing people, since those aren’t the target market for most campaigns.
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Convergence and the Rebirth of Offline: What’s Next
Looking ahead, I asked what he saw as the biggest changes in the next 5-10 years. He said, “I think people are going to start finding a newness in offline again.”
He noted that online won’t disappear, but with the growth in inexpensive personalization of offline content, “you’re going to start seeing more brilliant uses of offline in an attempt to be different from the mass of online.”
I picked up the can of tactical bacon on his desk and remarked that a printout of a photo of the bacon wouldn’t have the same impact as the physical product.
Greg mentioned convergence, too:
“[No surprise, it’s] convergence of your personal data and your personal devices and how marketing overlies on that. Services like TriOut are a perfect example of where the future can be.
I’ve been championing online couponing for quite a while and all the pieces are there now. It’s just a matter of acceptance. The technology is there. When I first started talking about, not everyone had a smartphone.”
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Working for Greg: What He Asks Everyone He Interviews
I asked if there’s a question he asks everyone he hires. He wants passion, confidence, and drive. He explained:
“The number one question is, ‘why are they in this business?‘ The reason ‘why’ is not necessarily for the answer, it’s for how honest they are and how quickly they know the answer.
“When people interview, you get all kinds, right? Those who are nervous, those who are overly cocky, those who are totally have rehearsed it. None of those people ever kinda ‘pass’ for me.
“I need someone who is confident. I need someone who knows what they want, who also knows how to deliver. And the reason why is that I need to [be able to] put people in front of the clients. I need people to be collaborative and I need people to be honest.”
He assumes people know design and have a basic level of competence:
“I will hire someone with far less experience and way more drive. Great design is cost of entry, right? They wouldn’t have been even gotten to the interview if they weren’t a good designer.
“What’s that magical thing that sets them apart? It’s their drive. It’s that ‘I’m going to get this right. I don’t care what it takes and I will do it.’ Instead of ‘Yeah, I just couldn’t get it. Oh well. You know, maybe next time.’
“Drive and ambition are very important to me. And just being able to be a sponge, especially right out of school. A lot of schools teach that everything is about their portfolio. It’s not. It’s how they present their portfolio. That’s what it’s about. Persuade me that what you did is right.”
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Getting Started: Greg’s Advice for New Marketers
When he talked about consuming content, Greg mentioned:
“When I talk to people who are graduating in the creative or advertising or marketing space, my biggest advice for them is to watch and consume, to listen and read as much as you possibly can. Go to museums. Travel. Read a diverse amount of topics.
I asked Greg about his advice for people who are early in their marketing careers. He shared:
“It sounds cliché, but networking. Networking, keeping tabs. A dead end is not necessarily a dead end. You’re up for a position and you don’t get it. It is really important to maintain those relationships because you never know where you’ll be or they will be or the company will be.
“Some of my greatest colleagues that I’ve worked with, I’ve worked with multiple times. Some of my greatest leads or areas of opportunity or some of my greatest recommendations have been people that I kept tabs with over the years and it’s really about relationships.
“It’s really, really important and it’s not just how many followers you have, it’s how do you engage those relationships. That’s something that I preach more than I practice and it’s one of my resolutions, to not lose sight of personal relationships within our social networks.
“A lot of people will say ‘You know, I’m too busy. I don’t have time to Tweet today.’ Well, I think that’s the wrong approach. Listening is just as important as broadcasting. And so if you don’t have time to even watch your stream of what other people are talking about, then I would argue, you’re not really doing yourself any favors on Twitter.”
“Even when I don’t have a lot of time to Tweet, I watch and monitor. It’s more about being an active participant. That could sometimes be pigeonholed into producing content but really it’s more about active listening.
“You know, I never hold with high regard how many Tweets someone has made. Do I celebrate benchmarks? Of course. But it doesn’t matter to me if someone has 10 Tweets or 10,000 Tweets. For all I know those 10,000 Tweets are automatic Foursquare check-ins and stuff like that.
“It’s more about how many people are they engaging in this, right? And I know a lot of people say that but people don’t practice that.”
He lamented that Twitter doesn’t track the number of Direct Messages:
“I wish I had a total number of my DMs. I direct-message probably at least twice as many Tweets as I publicly post.
It’s building relationships, purely one on one. Not me “@”-ing you and everyone else sees it all. That’s great too. But conversations that you and I may have in direct message will now build an even deeper relationship. It’s just for you.”
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Who Does Greg Admire and Respect?
“I admire my parents. I know kind of a cliché answer but no question, my parents made me who I am. My dad is a great listener and my mom is a great creative and I use both of those to my advantage.
“I definitely admire my wife and I know that’s very cliché but she supports everything I do and that’s something you can’t overlook as giving me the power to do what I do.“
“In terms of more public people, I wouldn’t say as much admiration as respect. I really like people who take a chance on a concept or take a chance on an idea and run with it. In particular, I love Ze Frank. He came from the creative side but the way that he produces things then encourages interaction amongst people is powerful. I also love that he kind of jumps around. He does things whenever he wants. He’s brilliant. He’s definitely my creative inspirations.
“I really like Richard Saul Wurman, who is an information architect. He is one of the original architects of TED, the TED conference. I really like the way he solves problems visually. And because I like to learn about a lot of things, sometimes it’s hard to learn about them. He has a number of great books that really show impact in a very concise, clear way graphically. My favorite is called Understanding U.S.A. It’s all interpretations of Census facts, but in ways that you can easily interpret. You can tell me a stat. That’s great. That’s fine. But what does that mean? You know, give me some relevance to it.
“Edward Tufte is another example. To communicate a complex concept efficiently is amazing. I love that.”
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Embracing the Blurred Line Between Work and Play
I asked Greg how he’d describe his position as VP, Creative at Brooks Bell Interactive. He said:
“I’m responsible for the creative product. So I manage designers and art directors and copywriters, but most importantly, I manage the delivery of the creative. I make sure that it meets expectations of the client.”
“It’s also my duty to push, you know, raise the bar on the creative side and to really challenge my creative team to come up with innovative ways to solve complicated problems, different ways to grab attention or to persuade. So it’s important for me to consume a lot of content, to consume a lot of media, to stay up to date on new technology, but most importantly, understand how to communicate that to my team.”
I asked my obligatory ‘What do you do for fun outside of work?’ Greg said:
“You know, it’s funny. A lot of things that I do that people sometimes would consider fun things outside of work, I consider part of my work.
“Like I love to watch movies lot. I like to play poker. I like to play soccer. I love to eat, and that’s kinda part of my business too. My perfect day is, all day watching a movie and then going to a great restaurant and talking about it.”
I noted that an important part of his approach to life is not just doing it, but also sharing the experience with other people.
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How He Ended Up with 38 Mr. Potato Heads
I asked what most people might not know about him. He noted, “I’m pretty public with all that stuff,” and continued:
Greg: Well, people might not know that I collect Mr. Potato Heads.
Greg: They’re all behind you.
Karl: [Turns around] Wo—oh my god! I should’ve looked before. Wow!
Greg: So that’s probably something that my co-workers obviously know, but not too many other people know about me. I probably have about 20 there. I have about another 15 at home.
Karl: How did that come about?
Greg: You know, Darth Tater was my first one and it was only because my wife thought I would find it funny because it’s a play on words and because I’m a big Star Wars guy, and then ‘isn’t it funny that Mr. Potato is branching out into licensing?’ And then it just started snowballing from there. And as you can see, I have tons. In fact, I have 3 others that were just ordered because Toy Story now has a Buzz and Woody.
Karl: Is there any Mr. Potato Head character they haven’t made you think they should make?
Greg: Oh. That’s a really good question. I don’t know. No, I think I’m pretty satisfied with what they’ve made.
Karl: Okay. So you don’t have a direct line to their creative team…
Greg: No. I really need to.
He also makes linoleum-cut prints:
“All my works have kind of evolved around graphic interpretations of nature — typically leaves. A lot of my work is a real bold graphic, almost like traditional wood-cut type forms, evolving around leaves.”
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It’s Better Than a Hobby: The Business Secret Behind FreezerBurns.com
Greg runs a popular frozen-food review website, FreezerBurns.com. It started as a hobby, but I discovered that he’s turned the website into an educational laboratory to help his day job at Brooks Bell Interactive. He explained:
“I constantly test. Not only the actual content or length, or tactical things like how I export my files, but I also A/B test my site with Google Website Optimizer [EDITOR: Google has since transitioned to Google Analytics Content Experiments after sunsetting Google Website Optimizer]. I element-test my home page and things like that.
“It really gives me insight into how people consume video content. What motivates people to watch, what motivates people to subscribe, what motivates people to come back. And that type of stuff has helped in how I make recommendations for clients, it helps in how I can speak about analytics on video, which is always getting better, and so that has been exciting to me.
“It’s less about what the content or focus or gimmick of my content is. It’s great to be able to commit to an idea and stay dedicated to it. I’ve been doing it for less than two years, but I’ve been producing at least two episodes a week for last two years. And that type of commitment to it in addition to my day job has made me a better person.”
“I’m constantly learning from it. For instance, [at Brooks Bell Interactive,] we want to produce a landing page that has a video on it. Well now, I have a lot more information on where the video can be hosted, the pros and cons of putting it on YouTube and embedding it on that kind of page or hosting it, what about the link, what about the content and what about the way you add a call to action and stuff like that. I feel like I’m doing experiments with both sides of my head and they’re helping each other.
“I think that’s one thing that people might not know about FreezerBurns. A lot [people talk about is] the content, the concept of the show. What I think a lot of people don’t know is how much back end work that I spend to truly learn about how people consume online video. It’s been nice playground for me.”
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Thanks for sharing your experience and insights, Greg. I’m sure everyone will enjoy learning from you — I certainly have!
Do you have any followup questions for Greg? Share them in the comments below!