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Ep. 23: Aaron Watson of Piper Creative

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

Aaron leads up one of Pittsburgh's top digital marketing shops Piper Creative and is the creator of the Going Deep Summit. Find out how he has "Flexed and Focused" to navigate the new economic landscape and business realties of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories is powered by Comcast.



So today is completely owned by Aaron Watson of Piper Creative. And that really cool dude I've gotten to know over the past couple of years. And as I've been assembling our 50 stories here of a tech in Pittsburgh with Comcast, I knew Aaron had to be someone we wanted to talk to, because he's always up to something very cool. And people probably know him best for he's going deep summit really growing big. And this year is like, I was gonna be massive. And of course, the whole COVID thing happens in the rescheduling. And, you know, it's all it's all nuts and we're gonna get to that but I'm excited to talk to Aaron today. So I think he's, he's people in Pittsburgh is just making a huge difference, you know, across the ecosystem, whether you're in tech or not, whatever that is, you know, he's kind of putting things together with marketing through paper, and then really trying to build community through going deep summit. So Aaron, thanks for hanging out with me today. Always a pleasure to catch up with you. It looks like you're doing well, despite all the craziness here.

Yeah, yeah. I appreciate you having me on and that word Exactly. Community is the whole name of Whether that is the, you know listenership of an audience for podcasts or YouTube channel, the attendees of an event, you know, community is both a strength of Pittsburgh and something that I'm very, very interested in developing and studying and understanding. Absolutely.

So let's start with your story real quick just the background on Monday Aaron Watson and I What got you to start you know, Piper I'm always I'm always always appreciate it. When when someone starts their own company because it takes a little balls to do that. I would never start my own company. I just I'm not a risk taker like that. So what's your story and led you up to being like, No, I want to start my own thing and call it Piper Creative

Yeah. So preceeding Piper, I had been hosting a podcast Going Deep with Aaron Watson for about three years. And it was really apparent to me that through that work, I was starting to about to develop a differentiated skill set. But also, you know, came to realize that having an audience having a community built around a brand story, a movement set of beliefs values, what have you, is a really, really powerful thing. And is something that is underappreciated by most of the brands out there. So a lot of what you know passes for some form of digital marketing today is paying some young person to post to like Twitter and Facebook for you occasionally. And that's like their digital strategy. And taking that a step further to be, you know, a trusted resource, a member of a pre existing tribe or community through the lens of consistent content production. So for me, that means the weekly podcasts that I produced the going deep podcast, or the thrice weekly business new show that I do with my co founder, Hannah, the Piper rundown, but it becomes this ongoing conversation where you're providing value through some sort of consistent demonstration of your expertise. And in order for other brands, other companies to be able to do that they need someone that understands the technical, technical execution of that, so We work with different clients, technology companies, lawyers, accountants, all sorts of different firms. And they've got more experience than me, Jonathan by like 10 acts like that, like they've been in the weeds doing their thing so much more, I could never, ever, you know, we're working on one right now, that's the, you know, the nuances of a piece of equipment is like, I'm never gonna be able to talk to you about that precise piece of equipment to the length that that they can, but they don't necessarily know how to convey that in a compelling 234 minute video narrative and do it in a cost effective, efficient manner. So we get to plug in, be that creative narrative infrastructure for them, so they can continue to build their brand and end up going a little bit faster.

It really seems like you're filling a niche here in Pittsburgh. I can't think of any other firms that are like approaching it the way you're doing this, because I think, you know, you can pay a ton of money for you for pretty deep storytelling and for people to put really glitzy fancy You know, production values on things, make your videos just pristine, but that video is not connecting to the community, then it's kind of worthless, right. And if it's something that a person can't afford, then they're not going to do it. So it's like, and it's not gonna work. So the idea that you're able to bring something at a really good price point, and then really get to understand how to plug that into the right community, I think is pretty cool.

And there's another really important element of it, which is enough humility to look at it and say, we don't necessarily know which one's gonna be the perfect, you know, full contact on the ball, absolutely hit out of the park. Let's get more at bats. Let's step up to the plate more times. And then we get to learn Okay, we tried, you know, in one day, we shot 10 videos, and those 10 videos went up over the course of two months. And over the course of those two months, we saw that these these three videos did well, those three videos did absolutely terribly, and these four were okay, that gives us real insight that we might have not otherwise had about our message about what elements of our story are compelling and by learning that We now get to make better subsequent decisions every step along the way. Absolutely. I mean, you're arming yourself with with actual data from all these other, these other videos that are working and not working as opposed to just on one. Well, it kind of worked. But you don't know anything else other than that. So I'm glad you brought that up. And as you said before, so you're working with the people at all different types of industries, which makes your job fun because you're working with age back one day, we'll hear the next like, what's that? Like? Yeah, I mean, I have to be able to think on my feet. And I'm very lucky that Hannah and the rest of the creatives on our team, they handle most of the technical execution in terms of lighting and miking and getting the right settings on the camera setup. Frankly, I'm like embarrassingly bad at that stuff. I actually had one of our one of our summer interns say like, so you started a company like this, and you don't even really know how to work the camera, huh? And I was like, yeah, it's kind of what a gaffer does. So get out of my face.

It's kind of true, but but what my role in the end, the fun of my job is that there's all these different folks and You know, one of the examples with the lawyer was like, I think I only have like two or three stories that's like, you've been in this industry for 30 years, if you're telling me you only have three stories, you need to have a much deeper conversation about what you've been doing for the last 30 years and how you've gotten this far. But But getting to unpack and unroll that with people and and play with the different pieces of their narrative. And then also just, you know, the basic blocking and tackling of the way that you structure a sentence, the way that you move from the passive to the active voices, you talk about what you do, these are some basic best practices of communications of sales. But getting to help tailor that with the client means that I get to apply the skill set kind of horizontally across all these different verticals. That's so awesome. So much fun. So what is changing during COVID? I mean, obviously, our litany of zoom meetings, but like business terms immersion are people approaching you because they want to do more video now. Like Like, what do you see out there?

Yes, so So folks are actually coming to us. And they're saying to themselves in some way, shape or form we'd allocated to our budget that we would be doing events and whether that was maybe not as grand events as you guys do over the council. But if they're doing seminars or workshops, or some sort of teaching vehicle that's no longer viable. We had one person that we're working with right now. You know, they tend to go into schools for their seminars, like we don't even know if school is going to happen. If they are they're definitely not letting more people into the school than otherwise necessary. And so they're saying, Well, you know, we'd set this money aside in our budget, we still want to generate demand and build brand. Let's try something new. And hey, you know, we've seen Aaron's podcasts pop up here and there, they're, hey, we're looking for someone who can help us kind of produce this content in a way that's not going to absolutely break our back from on a cost basis. And our ability to step up into that role, I think is an important part of the Pittsburgh story because Pittsburgh has to be better as storytellers in order to continue to grow. We have so much talent talent here, we have so many, you know, great organizations and community developers. And that story, both internally and externally, is going to be a really important part of the next chapter.

I couldn't agree more with you on that. I mean, it's just so important, all the way around. And how do you see things moving forward? I mean, it knows can predict how long this is going to last. But I get concerned now, because I see people are like, yeah, I want to do stuff. But then what's it gonna be six months from now or a year from now, when maybe going are going to allocate budgets the same way? How are you trying to prepare a little bit more for the future? Are you just trying to ride the wave as you go here? What What's your plan?

Yeah, I mean, we've spent so when things really kind of froze and locked down in late March and into the middle of April, we took that time to look, look internally, and I was actually, you know, doing a little meeting with another agency owner here in Pittsburgh yesterday. And we were just talking about how it was a great opportunity to make sure our systems were in line to make sure that our kind of internal processes were efficient and pointed the right direction. And now personally and at Piper, we're ready to look externally and take this message out to more people because it is of the moment. You know, Shopify is founder and CEO, Toby lukey said, we basically got 2030, early The, the, I don't know, if you've seen the different ramp ups, and, you know, the adoption of e commerce, the adoption of these kind of different Digital Trends, they've all been accelerated by, you know, 257 10 years, depending on who you're talking to. And so we've been building paper as a solution for the future. We weren't in any way shape or form, you know, living in the past. And I think a reasonable criticism for us was that we weren't completely living in the present. We were so like, imagine in five years imagine in seven years, yeah. And so now things have kind of caught up. And we just see, you know, frankly, like our rallying cry for the years focus and flex, because we want to focus on the things that we do really well and we want to flex on people a little bit. We're pretty freakin good at what we do. We've we've kind of figured out what it is that we do well, and so The next steps forward are, you know, maybe you're downsizing or office, maybe, you know, everyone's cutting costs in some way shape or form and and when that translates into people losing their jobs, it's an absolute tragedy. And there's a whole other conversation to be had there for what's going on in the job market. But at the operator level at the, you know, Marketing Manager level, who now maybe is working with two thirds of the budget and two thirds of the team and still is, you know, responsible for getting results. We know that people listen to podcasts, we know that people are searching on YouTube all of the time for answers to their questions for brands and stories to engage with. And if you're not there, and if you're Miss allocating your budgets elsewhere, then that's really going to come back to bite you. And so in terms of a six to 12 month window, we're ready to execute on that we've already executed on socially distance shoots where all of our staff is masked up distanced up where the cameras are already set up. The mics are And you, as the business owner as the voice for the brand, walk to your spot, we've got the light set up your mic yourself and we Boogie. And that has worked. We've produced online courses for different brands, we've produced a number of different pieces of media in that format.

Who would have ever thought that? Yeah, man, you got to keep the distance. It's pretty old way of shooting. Yeah.

Yeah, but, you know, ultimately, we're optimistic. I'm my backgrounds in sports. I went to national championships at the University of Pittsburgh for ultimate Frisbee. And I've always been of the belief that like when the chips are down, it comes back comes down to the people that that want it more that are ready to compete that have, you know, the the mindset that they're just going to put the next foot in front of the other and get somewhere as opposed to just standing still and twiddling our thumbs and that's the that's the mindset, that's the ethos that we've adopted a Piper. And I think that's ultimately why we're gonna emerge from a stronger than we were Before

I love your attitude on this, and I'm hoping anyone that's listening to this or watching this is getting a little get a little juice, because it's like, yeah, exactly the attitude, you should all be taken here. And I know you're taking that same attitude towards going deep summit, which is why I'm really pumped that you move this ahead a year, you have a chance to cool out a little bit around here and figure out what it means in a socially distant environment to put on this event. So give our listeners a quick, a little little background around what the summit is all about. And talk about what we can expect in 21, which is like, actually closer than anything.

Yeah, it's crazy. Um, thankfully, 2020, at least 50% over already. But this is the third going deep summit was supposed to be in March. Obviously, we had to postpone that. We kind of tentatively said, hey, maybe this summer and then as he got more data and we saw people struggling to wear masks, we still have a ton of people there just frankly uncomfortable. I have friends who have like weddings later this year, and they're trying to figure out what to do. And so it just didn't seem like the prudent move. We pushed it off to 2021 We still have a fantastic lineup of speakers including local tech CEO Jim Gibbs from meter feeder. We have a fantastic DDC marketer Marco Miranda's, we have writer David perot, Jasmine Cho talking about her cultural heritage and kind of thinking in a more perspective. So there's a lot of topics there. And the idea of the day is it's designed to expand your mind, fill your heart and grow your tribe. And we very intentionally set it up for a Saturday, we very intentionally started the morning of a Saturday because it kind of self selects for a certain type of person, we're gonna have less fear they're taking their Saturday.

Exactly, exactly. And you know who it is that you're going to be meeting if you show up there and if you buy that ticket, and you know, it's gonna be a few less people than we otherwise would have planned to, because we're going to cap it from like a safety perspective in terms of how many people are there, but there's still going to be this amazing opportunity to commune together through the lens of Trying to better yourself trying to get access to a new idea and trying to meet someone else who's also up to something interesting. So I have such a great time, every single time I go to summit because there's so many cool people there and I meet someone new. It's my event and I'm meeting new people there. So I can't even imagine for the other folks that get to show up. And whether they're listening to the podcast, or they just love those types of events in Pittsburgh. It's a really cool day that we get to share with one another I can't wait for to come back in April. And it's also the basis just to kind of wrap everything up for which we launched Piper. So the first summit was a month before we launched Piper. And we used everything that I had learned from audience building community building on digital platforms to host the first one, we had more than 100 attendees. We sold tickets, sponsors, speakers, all that good stuff. And that was the basis of like, Hey, I can actually drive a result drive transactions in the real world, in through the lens of these digital platforms. So I actually know what I'm talking About and can actually back it up, as opposed to the kind of risk that you see in the world of digital marketing, which is a lot of people calling themselves gurus telling me this, that and the other thing about how to do everything, and they don't have the practical pragmatic on the ground execution that gets results. And that's the other thing that everyone is. They're always worried about this, but particularly in the circumstances of COVID. You know, you want something that's going to work. It's like, you know, never, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. No one wants to make that risky decision right now, that says, Man, I've just submarine my career because I put all my eggs in this, you know, terribly, you know, basketball holes. And the idea that when you work with Piper, we're still relatively young, we're still relatively unproven compared to the kind of, you know, 25 year old companies out there, but at the same time, we are the agency in town with the biggest YouTube presence. We are the agency in town with the most podcast downloads. So if that's the direction You want to go You can't find a better partner the Piper.

Lots of good stuff in April 2021 April 17 2021 downtown Pittsburgh at the union trust building with such a beautiful auditorium up on like the 18th floor were Frick had his own private show.

Yep used to be Henry Frick's personal private theater. It is gorgeous. They've renovated they put millions of dollars into the building so it's very well speak for a great Saturday in April that is for sure. My key takeaways from you Aaron are focusing and flex; focus and flex are  Piper's rally and cry let's go and 100% I think that is completely freakin cool. And I can't thank you enough for talking to you today. Like I said, you know these folks in Pittsburgh I can say this is like my new tagline. Now as you're making Pittsburgh proud dude Simple as that because we need more folks like you doing what you're doing because that's what's making this work. For a better place we've got a long way to go that's for sure but man with with women and men like you're doing what you're doing in Pittsburgh, it's it's got itself a fighting chance, that's for sure. And I can recommend people I'm glad you're doing everything that you're doing here to Jonathan.

We're trying man we are definitely trying our best that is for sure. But we said we can't do without having members like you it hadn't looks like unit community. They're out there taking those risks, and hopefully having a good time while they're getting getting getting their hair out their whole game on so and thanks again and another can't thank Comcast enough for making this happen with us telling us our 50 stories.

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