Mason Interactive’s Brook Llewellyn Shepard On The Metrics That Really Drive Direct-To-Consumer Success

As competition in the direct-to-consumer landscape heated up, Brook Llewellyn Shepard founded Mason Interactive, a digital marketing agency for fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands, in 2009 to focus on strengthening the brands’ pay-per-click and display advertising, SEO and email marketing strategies. The agency’s client roster includes established corporations like Walgreens as well as emerging brands like Georgia Louise and Lumity Life.

“It’s just as fun to work with emerging brands as it is to work with a Shiseido or Walgreens, sometimes more” says Shepard, whose marketing experience spans more than two decades at companies such as Yodle and MarketWatch. “Dealing with founders that are so connected to the business and young brands that are trying to figure out how to go direct-to-consumer for the first time is a very different flavor than dealing with a board or a committee.”

Mason Interactive has helped investment firm Ancora Holdings’ brands Indie Lee, Vapour Beauty and Taos AER transform their marketing strategies. “In the two years since we onboarded Mason, our CPC marketing channels have become one of our most lucrative channels, and we see incredible ROI,” says Lexi McColl, digital marketing manager at Ancora Holdings. The agency’s ability to quickly adapt to and advise on new Facebook, Google and Pinterest advertising trends has been a game changer for the firm. McColl continues, “They keep us up-to-date with the many data and reporting changes that have been made in the past year. We can’t imagine a better partner for our brands.”

Clean oral care brand RiseWell hired Mason Interactive to boost name recognition and accelerate sales through paid media. After digging into the customer journey, Mason Interactive created an advertising program zeroing in on targeting users in two ways: social prospecting ads in conjunction with Google shopping campaigns to drive brand awareness and new customer acquisition, and remarketing campaigns aimed at reaching users already familiar with RiseWell’s products. Within six months, RiseWell’s sales increased by more than five times, while the brand significantly reduced its advertising costs.

Beauty Independent spoke to Shepard about the metrics brand founders should be relying on as leading indicators, how online privacy shifts could soon affect targeted advertisements, and how emerging brands can start to build first-party data now. 

Clean oral care brand RiseWell hired Mason Interactive to boost name recognition and accelerate sales through paid media. Within six months, its sales increased by more than five times.

What are a couple of the big seismic changes that have hit the marketing industry over the past decade that you think are important to understand?

Yahoo giving up their market position as a leader and letting Google eat their lunch was the biggest thing because Google was a bit player. Another would be the invention of socialized “push” advertising because you can’t search for something if you don’t know what it is. So, you had to discover it on social media. People using YouTube as a search engine is a shift. And the next seismic shift is a return to privacy. There used to be an oligarchy. You would advertise in many different places. We’re now a duopoly. You can play with TikTok and Pinterest—and we do—but, realistically, it’s Facebook and Google. So, we’ve got a duopoly coinciding with the erosion of privacy for the consumer, but that is changing. I believe privacy is going to swing back a little bit. Certainly, Apple is going to do their best to make that happen. I think we’re going to get a triopoly or maybe back to an oligarchy, but there will be more places to advertise in, and that’s going to take power away from advertisers and give it back to consumers. 

Can you explain the return to privacy?

iOS 14 is going to put privacy back in the hands of consumers. Then, what’s going to happen soon thereafter is Google Chrome is going to no longer let third-party cookies be tracked. That’s going to further reduce the efficacy of Facebook and Instagram advertising. We will go from being able to target anyone in any way to having fewer ways.

How do you see that playing out for small brands?

I think that brands without “superpowers” are going to have a very hard time. If you’re one more emerging brand and what differentiates you is just your founder’s quirky point of view, you’re going to have a harder time existing because it’s going to be harder to target people. If your product really is better for the environment or it really is cheaper or it really does work with more skin colors and tones, it does have something actually unique, and we call that a superpower.

Mason Interactive works with investment firm Ancora Holdings’ brands Indie Lee, Vapour Beauty and Taos AER.

How do you think the changes will benefit large brands? 

Clients with first-party data are going to do better. Brands that have mailing lists of subscribers or people that already believe in their brand and like you on social media—I call that first-party data—are going to do better than people that are trying to build a brand from scratch. 

How do you measure ROI?

I own my business and every penny counts, but I don’t look at every day or every month that way. I look at the cycle of the year. We have seasonality. Some of our beauty brands are bigger in early summer. Our women’s wear companies are bigger around Black Friday. I know that there are times of the year when my clients are going to sell more products, and I’m going to be busier. So, I look at the profit and loss very closely, but I look at it as, do I bring on customers now, so that they can grow later?

The brands that we see grow more quickly understand that. They’re saying, “How can I build an audience of first-party data now to capitalize on it later when there’s an event like Black Friday or back to school?” No one’s saying to not look at profitability. Rather, what we’re saying is to look at a longer period of time and understand I’m introducing them to my brand now, so they’ll buy later. Those clients that think they have to be profitable every single month actually make less money than the clients that say I’m willing to go to a negative or an even ROI while I build my brand and my audience. It’s not over the course of four years, it’s over the course of six months. 

For brands launching, how soon before they launch do they need to start building their first-party data?

Immediately. I wouldn’t wait for perfect to be the enemy of good, and I wouldn’t wait for my Shopify site to be poured over by 16 consultants. If I were a founder coming up with a brand today, I would reach out to dozens of micro-influencers or people that I thought represented different facets of my brand. I would try to establish an honest, sincere relationship with them. I would probably end up giving them a product, but in a sincere founder-to-founder or person-to-person way. I would let them do what they’re so good at and in their own authentic way. If I’m choosing the right influencers, they will get the word out about my product. 

How much should brands be investing to develop a level of brand awareness that is meaningful? 

Advertising wouldn’t come until later. A lot of clients ask us how much, and we don’t have a stock answer for that because every client is different. You have to tell us how many sales you want and, then, we can give you a budget. It’s not our position to tell you what the budget should be. It’s our position to strategize with you on how to get the sales that you want. 

What if I want to take my sales from zero to $50,000 a month?

As a rule of thumb, if you’re in a new market or it’s a brand new product, your customer acquisition costs are going to be two times your average order value. If the average person spends $50 on your product, we can expect in the first month or first quarter of working together to expend $100 to get that customer. That is the reality of the pay-for-play environment that we’re in.  

How do you help your clients determine which channels to use and allocate investment across those channels? 

We have a series of models that are unique to our agency, and we can put our client’s average order value, customer acquisition costs, gross profit and shipping costs into those models, and forecast things out. If you’re more of a science-based company or a company that requires more research or is backed by a doctor, you’re going to lean more heavily into Google, let’s say 70% versus social. If it’s a subscription model and people have to evaluate to see if it’s worth signing up for a 9-month subscription, that’s going to lean more heavily to Google. If you’re an impulse buy, “Wow, buying this today is going to make me feel good,” you’re going to tend to spend closer to 70% on social and closer to 30% on Google. 

What role does Mason Interactive play in helping develop brands’ messaging and collateral?

We’re a full-service growth agency. We’re using media buying, SEO, email marketing, consulting and, now, a range of design services to grow our clients digitally. We have to look at the whole picture, and clients have to have an omnichannel approach if they want to be successful today. What we’re really good at is taking that message you’ve created and getting it in front of your ideal audience.

Mason Interactive Founder Brook Llewellyn Shepard

What level of analysis is really useful in order to really drive decision-making?

“How am I tracking towards my overall/holistic business goal?’ is the No. 1 key thing. The second thing I look at would be sessions. The way we think about a client’s website is as a leaky bucket. More customers are always going to fall off your website and not buy than stay in your website and purchase from you. That is a constant. So, if your website is a bucket of potential customers leaking out, you need to constantly fill that leaky bucket from all different parts of the funnel so that when they get to the bottom, you’ve got really good high quality water to drink or sales to make. You should focus on the quality of the sessions regardless of where they come from and follow the data.

How does a brand follow that data? 

I can make an assumption that Snapchat is better than TikTok, but I don’t know that until I track the sessions on my website. At the top of the funnel, the sessions aren’t about how many sales did I make. The sessions are about, how long did I stay on the site? How many pages did I visit? Did I subscribe to your email list? Did I add to cart? Did I look at a store locator? Did I look at reviews? Those are sort of micro-conversions that indicate quality of the session. Sessions in my evolving opinion drive the client’s success.

What about on the social side? Where do the number of followers, engagement, etc., fall on your list?

Those are more important to the founders than to the advertising ecosystem. They are proxies, but I don’t know that they directly translate into sales because the quality of the followers is a different issue. 

How important is email marketing in what you do?

Smarter people than me have said that email marketing is the secret weapon of social media, and people undervalue it. It comes back to the first-party data question. If you own a file of people that have bought from you before, the easiest, cheapest way to make more money is to email them saying, “Please buy some more.”

If you’re really innovative and the client’s focused on sessions, because they know the sessions are a leading indicator of sales and the cost per session is too high or the number of sessions isn’t high enough, there are fixes. For example, send an email to the database. That sounds sort of obvious, but not every client has an email calendar of when they want to send things.

Most people are not doing the basics of blocking and tackling. We help with the basics like, are you marketing to website cart abandoners? Are you following up with newsletter subscribers the right way? If someone looked at the brown product versus the blue, do you email them with the product they saw? Are you upselling with, “People that bought this, also tended to buy this.” 

How important is it to choreograph the campaign through the different channels?

It’s critical to success. We need to have a global business goal. You need to be fluid in the data because strategy, execution and consulting all work together. An example of that is SEO versus media buying. A really good way for me to go out of business in my orange hat company would be to buy the keyword “hat” on Google. That would not be an effective use of my budget. Instead, if I can use SEO to show up for the keyword hat and not pay for every click, that would be a phenomenal success and business game changer for me. So, those two different disciplines talking to one another or choreography is hugely important.

Interested in working with Mason Interactive? Connect with Marketing Director Mira Valjakka here.