As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Allan Levy, CEO of Alchemy Worx.
Allan is a serial entrepreneur with extensive experience building and managing companies. For almost two decades, Alchemy Worx has been helping businesses use their data to create, manage, and deploy marketing strategies that stand the test of time. Trusted by over 115 brands, Alchemy Worx has seen success in many different industries including apparel, cosmetics, jewelry, auto, food/beverages, financial, and more. We focus on test and learn practices, segmentation, calendar creation, and effective campaigning to grow email programs. Clients can see an 80% lift in email revenue during their first 12 months and a $19 cost per acquisition on social. Alchemy Worx works closely with the marketing operations teams of enterprise clients whose currency is one of finite resource and limited bandwidths. Alchemy Worx tailors’ programs to upskill existing resources with test and learn methodologies and to expand efficiencies in execution. Alchemy Worx has built a cross-industry practice around global and digital marketing transformation. We work with senior business leaders to inject digital channel constructs into the DNA of their marketing teams.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My backstory starts at age eight, when I was folding boxes at my family-owned retail store — so it’s safe to say I learned the lessons of retail trade at a very young age. I worked for my family business right up until college, where I then began working wholesale in the shipping room, but quickly moved to sales in my first wholesale job selling sunglasses. Fortunately, I landed in a company that was growing exponentially, giving me the agency to continue to move up the chain; moving from sales to sales manager, to Director of International Marketing and President of the Canadian and Latin American subsidiaries that I launched for the company.
Nine years later, I left that company and launched my first startup, a wholesale apparel company, I after soon launched an international sourcing company (with offices in 6 countries). I eventually sold those companies and launched another wholesale apparel company working department and specialty stores nationwide. In the late 1990’s I became interested in online retail, I sold off my apparel company and launched my first digital retail company. I raised venture capital for the first time and pivoted the business several time. Ultimately seeing a big opportunity in lead generation. At peak we were generating 175,000 new members per day on our websites. With a database of over 40 million we were generating most of our revenue from email. We began testing and segmenting everything and our business grew exponentially. In 2007 I saw a void in the market. Most retailers were just mailing their lists with minimal testing and segmenting. I launched SellUP to share what I knew about being smart with your data. Our early clients saw increases in channel revenue of 300% — 400%. We grew the business initially hiring and expanding our team offshore, then domestically and in 2017 with the acquisition of Alchemy Worx, in Europe, Canada and Australia.
Alchemy Worx is a full-service international digital marketing agency focused on audience management and retention strategies for more than 120 brands, rooted in a data-driven “test and learn approach.” Our expertise is in everything from customer acquisition via social media to best practices for emerging brand channels such as SMS and text messaging — finding ways to help brands build a customer base, and actually keep them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In 2008 a personalized email could simply include your first name in the subject line. We had significant success promoting Mother’s Day gifts with the subject line “A gift for <First Name>’s Mother. High Open Rates, great clicks and purchases. We decided to use the same tactic on Father’s Day for an electronics retailer using “A gift for <First Name>’s Father”. I was so excited when I saw how well the campaign performed. When I arrived at my meeting with the client, the Founder of the company wanted to meet with me. I thought it was to praise me — when I saw the look on his face, I realized there was a problem. While the campaign drove a high volume of sales it also drove the most customer service complaints ever. People wrote in about being abandoned by their father, the death of their father or just outright not liking their father. On the bright side we sent out an apology email and that did even better than our Mother’s Day email…
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?
There are a lot of people who helped me along the way. I have been very involved in the nonprofit world since 2001, where I have had board level positions, as well as been president of several different organizations. The people I worked alongside are some of the most successful businesspeople in New York. Having the opportunity to work alongside them and watch how they make decisions was a constant learning experience. Some became client’s, others referred me to clients, but all remain friends of mine.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I first started, it was right around the time the Internet was exploding. E-mails were a new commodity, and companies were absolutely clueless about how to use these tools, and what to do with the data they were now able to access. Our purpose at the beginning was to help companies make heads and tails of what to do with this information and how to use it to drive revenue, and actually hold some meaning. We started by answering questions for retailers regarding lead generation, and lifetime customer value by building conversion platforms, and by setting up welcome e-mails and subsequent emails to follow that would help drive revenue.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I have been through many challenging times in my business career. The lockdown of 2020 was one of the greatest challenges I ever experienced. There was no reference to pull from, everyone in my broader network was frozen as was I. I knew that my team was more scared than I was, so I acted fast. I created a daily stand-up meeting on zoom so everyone had contact. We divided the company into 3 groups High Risk Analysis, Opportunity — What are some clients doing well that can be shared with others, Emergence — Long term opportunity. The groups were effective in problem solving but most importantly they were effective in giving everyone an extended purpose. People are our most valuable resource; I am proud of how well our company works together as a team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As an entrepreneur, you know you’re going to fail. It’s just one of the parts of the job. But you need to believe that you’re only losing battles, and not wars. If you don’t take risks, and you don’t fail, but you’ll never move forward and you’ll remain stagnant. Having started multiple businesses, I’ve learned that taking chances is essential and necessary in growth and business. What sustains my drive is my passion. My passion to see my clients grow and succeed, and passion in growing my team — bringing in top talent and continuing to make progress through our people. Coming from my extensive background of over 30 years in retail and Digital Marketing, I find my passion in my people — training them and sharing that experience and knowledge.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
For me, the most critical role of being a leader during challenging times is being accessible and being able to adapt and pivot at any instance. In these sorts of turbulent moments, the people we manage are looking to us for advice, for a sense of security, calm and direction, and as a leader we need to be there for them. Be there for them in the sense of being present and accessible, now more than ever in our virtual times, where we’re not all physically together — listening to their concerns and thoughts and working together with them to create solution-oriented ideas. I pride myself on being accessible to my team and am proud of the collaborative, adaptive, support system we have built within our virtual walls
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Leaders can continue to inspire, motivate and engage their team by continuing to show up every day for the people that rely on them, continuing to engage with their team in a meaningful way, and most importantly by staying transparent through the good times and the bad times.
In a tough year it was rewarding to see Alchemy Worx bring in double digit growth, even after navigating some losses with our travel and entertainment clients. This year 90% of clients that signed with us in 2020 renewed a contract for us in 2021, which speaks volumes to my team’s success and ability to continue to deliver great work during this time.
There is no better way to boost morale that to see the fruits of your labor, and by being able to keep such a high retention rate, we’ve been able to continue being excited about the work we deliver to client and tackle any challenges that come our way, collectively as a team.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’ve always found that being upfront with clients and the team is important in building a system of trust. It’s never fun to share difficult news, but, as leaders, we’re able to use this an as opportunity to educate ourselves and learn the specifics of why this didn’t succeed, what we can take away from it, and how we’ll implement our learnings into our next campaign and future work.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This really goes back to leaders being agile, and not putting all their eggs in one basket during uncertain times. Of course, that isn’t to say don’t make a plan, but design that plan with the ability to pivot, and the ability to have multiple different outcomes. Overall, I think many leaders are going to walk away from this pandemic with the knowledge that it’s no longer enough to just plan, but necessary to plan for X, Y and Z.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Overcommunicate — make sure you reply quickly and follow up with clear and detailed information as soon as you can. Silence creates anxiety.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Not meeting their consumers where they’re at — One of the biggest and most common mistakes I see is brands missing the mark by not meeting consumers where they’re at. They’re sending e-mails when their consumers are on social! They’re on social when their consumers want to be reached via SMS! Wasting both money and time on their campaigns. Not reaching them on their preferred medium is such a stupid, and easy way to lose loyal customers. To avoid this, we need to look at the data of what’s working and what’s not, be nimble to pivot, and just listen to what our customers are telling us through their actions
- Incorrect messaging — Audience management is huge for Alchemy Worx, and the crux of how we operate and do business. How do we address the messaging, segment out our audience, and super personalize those messages is imperative for driving sale conversions and revenue? Too often we see first-time buyers continue to be served “first time offers” even after they’re already purchased; we’re sending the wrong messages to audiences who are in different cycles of their journey, and quite frankly probably annoying them. By segmenting your audience out, and sending more personalized, specific messages, brands can avoid over saturating their client base with messages that aren’t relevant or of interest to them.
- ·Not using data and metrics to advise strategy — Running with a strategy without looking at the data or doing testing is definitely another mistake I see way too often. If you’re not constantly testing subject lines, sales, formats, against each other to learn what is working with what groups, you’re throwing away money on marketing that won’t see the returns you’re looking for. The fix is simple: test everything, test often, test always.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
New business, revenue and retention are key goals for Alchemy Worx. In our day-to-day work with clients, we strategize how to generate more revenue from their existing customers base and how to convert people who sign up on lists to loyal customers through push messaging- mainly SMS, outbound Facebook, and e-mail marketing messaging.
It was no easy feat continuing to drive these offerings for our customers during a turbulent time where brand loyalty was fleeting, shipping was delayed, and products were flying off the shelves. When we looked at how we had to adjust our strategy to the adjusting times, we decided to anchor it in the data, and the numbers we could trust, and focus on meeting the consumer where they were, as that shifted during the lockdown. Data is at the heart and core of everything that we do, counseling us to look at the different types of customers and to ask the right questions that can better inform us on how we need to be talking to them — When was the last time they bought? Are they engaged?
When you’re able to look at what consumers have done historically, and what triggers them to take action, you have the tools to create the perfect way to talk to them, and how to deploy the right messaging at the right time.
The most important part for us is testing — we focus on test and learn practices, segmentation, calendar creation, and effective campaigning to grow our email programs. Our clients have seen an 80% lift in email revenue during their first 12 months and a $19 cost per acquisition on social through our programs, forging ahead and growing, even through a difficult economy. The proof is in the success.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Be present — No one wants to feel like they’re going through tough times along, and definitely not in the workplace. Morale is one of the main drivers for good work, and when your employees feel like they are on an island alone they won’t produce the same quality of work, or be as passionate as when they feel supported and heard. Be there for them when they need it and don’t stray far during fair weather — your consistency in being an active part of your business during the good will come into play exponentially during the tougher times
2. Stay agile — The future is uncertain, and it’s hard to predict what comes next. Staying agile in your work style, leadership style, and day-to-day projects management will go a long way in keeping the train chugging full steam ahead during turbulent times.
3. Lead with empathy and compassion- It seems like a no brainer, but this year especially, we have seen that our leaders need to conduct themselves with empathy and compassion. We’re all humans, doing our best each day in and out, and in turbulent times, being a strong support beam for your employees is necessary.
4. Listen and trust your people — Who knows better than what the business is looking like day to day than those who are on the front line with the clients? Building a team who you can rely on and trust is important for times when uncertainty sets in and we need to work together even more than normal to form-solutions and weather the storm.
5. Roll with the punches — Tough times don’t last, but tough people do — and when the times are tough, and out of your control, sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and roll with the punches. Continuing to put in the work each day and not give up is crucial for business leaders.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Why — What Next?” — it’s not enough to give an answer, you need to explain the answer and the impact it will have, as well as the actions that will be taken based on the learning.
How can our readers further follow your work?