If you are looking for a growth marketing playbook, stop reading now, because you won't get one from Tuff. The agency's founder Ellen Jantsch makes it clear: There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to growth.
The team at Tuff knows their stuff — and it's precisely why they are not selling "magic" or any kind of "mysterious secret sauce." Instead, they are betting on transparency and experimentation, and it seems to be working well: The agency was warmly recommended to TechCrunch multiple times via our growth marketing survey. (You can share your own recommendations here!)
For instance, Luke Oehlerking, VP of Product and Strategy at solar company Zenernet, explained that Tuff fitted the bill for its ability to "truly move the needle with measurable results" while acting as "an extension of [Zenernet's] own team." This doesn't necessarily involve offline meetings: Oehlerking and Jantsch are both based in Colorado, but Tuff's team is fully remote, with global clients. Client work aside, Tuff also launched Growth Guide, a remote growth marketing training program for founders.
We asked Jantsch about all that, and found our conversation an interesting complement to our interview with LA-based agency MuteSix: Both share a focus on results and creativity, but Tuff is focused on a wider range of sectors than DTC, while also being smaller. Let's find out how it works.
Editor's note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
What is Tuff? Why did you launch it, and how big is it now?
Ellen Jantsch: Tuff is a small (20-person) growth marketing agency that partners closely with startups and scaleups to help them increase revenue and sales. While we have found success working with teams in nearly every industry, from early traction startups to large enterprises, there’s certainly a type that fits us best. The most basic guidelines: If a prospect is looking to acquire new customers and scale their company through modern channels, tools and frameworks, we’re almost always in.
I started Tuff as a one-woman show because I wanted to do meaningful work with companies (and founders) I liked. While growth was always in the cards, I’ve always been most focused on creating a great place to work with people that care about helping companies with unique ideas as much as I do. After nearly five years in business, I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to check quite a few of those boxes I created for myself in the very beginning and added a handful of others along the way.
What range of services do you provide?
Our bread and butter is building efficient, holistic, growth-focused marketing strategies. We do this with our method that’s been battle-tested and has proven itself no matter the industry or company life stage. Then, we stay hungry for research and execute to a T, consistently optimizing and refining to find maximum efficiencies.
Throughout it all, we lean on all members of our team. Egoless and curious, we share hypotheses and findings with our partners and each other to find more streamlined paths to growth. But what really sets us apart is our method. Radical transparency is the name of the game. We believe that collaboration and showing our work is the only real way to build foundations for trustworthy partnerships.
Our list of tactics includes but is most certainly not limited to PPC, social ads, technical SEO, content strategy, creative, email and conversion rate optimization (CRO).
Are your team members generalists and/or specialists?
We hire for two core roles at Tuff. We have growth marketers who are big-picture strategists, as well as channel experts who are deeply experienced in a particular type of marketing. Each account we work with is paired with a growth marketer and at least three to five different channel experts depending on what we’re testing. Your growth marketer is your map maker and wayfinder — keeping goals clearly defined and the whole team focused on creating the smartest path to growth. Your channel experts are the in-the-weeds, watching-every-dollar-spent efficiency finders and optimizers.
What are the pros and cons of hiring an agency like Tuff, compared to an in-house marketer?
Finding a full-time hire is a great option for many companies. But they come with their own set of pros and cons when compared to a plug-in growth marketing team. The major benefit is the expertise and time they bring to the team. Pulling a full-time, smart marketing hustler that can squeeze the most out of a small budget and stay in lockstep with everything else you have going on can be a huge asset. The biggest downsides and risks are finding the right fit, investing the high cost and hoping that they can remain your go-to even if it becomes time to test tactics that fall outside of their wheelhouse. Ultimately, an in-house hire is right if you’re already confident in the channels that work for you and just need someone to help you refine and grow those 1-2 channels.
When you hire a growth marketing agency, though, the major, overarching benefit is that it typically comes stacked with a full team that can get a holistic view of your business, collaborate to identify the best course of action and delegate execution tasks to true channel experts. With an agency, you can often reallocate resources as you learn and move more quickly because the team has a long history of experience.
Have you worked with a talented individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Respond to our survey and help other startups find top growth marketers they can work with!
How do you charge clients, and why?
Most performance marketing agencies pocket a percentage of the amount of ad spend they're managing or of revenue generated by their tactics. Neither of those methods is wrong by any means. But we deliberately built our pricing system differently: We charge flat-fee retainers based on the number of services we're plugging in at once.
Why? Because growth marketing is fickle. Sometimes, even the best GM in the game can predict that a mix of PPC, SEO content and social ads is the golden ticket. But when one of them underperforms, it's not a sign of something gone wrong, it's a sign that it's time to try something new. The way our process functions at Tuff allows us to seamlessly sub in new services or team members to try something new (like CRO or creative development) without a hitch until we find the mix that’s just right.
Can't your clients simply all follow the same growth marketing playbook?
Scaling any business is hard, and growth marketing is not a [magic] trick. I’ve yet to see a playbook that you can take from one business and apply to the next and get consistent results.
We work with more than just e-commerce businesses; we flex into SaaS, fintech and B2B industries and it’s forced us to truly develop a model/process for growth and not just a playbook, meaning our channel and tactic mix is always different.
I think something that we focus on more than most is quick, fearless testing, then finding ways of operationalizing the early wins so they can become repeatable. It’s one thing to coax wins out of champion channels, and it’s another to know that your big-picture strategy is going to hold up under the pressure of scale.
Your site mentions "rapid experimentation" and "quick wins." Can you detail how Tuff does that?
We know that even our most experienced growth marketers can develop an original growth plan that doesn’t drive results the way we want it to, despite extensive research and strategizing. That’s one of the reasons why we like growth marketing so much, there’s no gilded road to success.
So, instead of setting a strategy in stone, we’ll start every new partnership with a plan to test a range of different tactics within our chosen channels and check in every single day to gauge performance, reallocate budgets, glean insights and prioritize quick wins. After a few weeks, we’ll be able to emerge from our sea of data to outline what worked, what didn’t work quite as well as planned, and our game plan for driving longer-term success.
How do you make sure these early wins hold up under the pressure of scale?
In our earliest weeks of a partnership with any of our clients, we’re focused on not only driving quick wins, but designing our tests and articulating our hypotheses in ways that not only uncover insights for the following quarter, but for the next year and beyond.
More so, I think some of our strongest attributes as a team are our hunger to keep learning, our curiosity and our fearlessness when it comes to adapting, even if it means turning away from a tactic that’s held up for us in the past.
One of the best ways to illustrate this is the intro message a new prospect sent us last week: “Our current agency was great — until iOS 14.5 and then things went south because they only knew how to do the one thing.”
True, we saw CPCs [cost per click] shoot up and CVR [conversion rate] plummet soon after iOS 14.5 came out just like every other growth marketing team on the planet. But what allows us to scale is the same thing that allowed us to get every one of our clients back on track post-iOS 14.5: fearlessness, curiosity and adeptness.
Why did you choose to have an in-house creative team?
Ad creative is truly distinct from brand creative and, simply, we had a heck of a time finding agencies or even freelancers that could produce content optimized for ad channels on a tight budget and an efficient timeline.
Around the same time that this problem started to hinder our ability to quickly and efficiently optimize our campaigns, there were a handful of founders that reached out looking for a growth marketing team that could drive revenue growth and also validate/battle test their messaging and value props. So, we tried it out: We designed a few tests to measure the effectiveness of different value props, created visual assets that represented those in a clear, efficient way, measured the results and found that it all just clicked.
Long before ad creative was brought in-house, though, we had been working with a set of incredibly talented UX designers. Over the years, CRO became a much more tried-and-true element of our growth marketing strategies, and when the seeds of the ad creative team started to sprout, we knew that bringing creative in-house would anchor everything in place.
How has being a remote team fared out so far?
We’ve been a remote team since day one and this helps us be really thoughtful about ways we communicate internally and with our clients. Aside from setting the growth strategy for each company we work with, choosing the tools and executing tactics, we’ve learned how to be master communicators.
As a remote team, we’ve had to put a lot of time and energy into creating a culture rooted in transparency and authenticity. I like to think that this seeps into our client relationships, too. The more informed, honest and clear conversations we can have as a team and with our clients, the better work we will all do.