An Interview with James Van Elswyk

While GeekWeekTLV is at its peak and seasoned marketers have flown in from all over to “geek out” and talk native, performance and scaling, we caught up with Purple Leads Founder & CEO and event host, James Van Elswyk – the man who eats, lives and breathes Media Buying.

James’ had quite the journey, both as a big-league Media Buyer and a valued educator. From flying solo to overseeing an exceptional marketing team with tons of budget spend a month, he’s here to tell us all about the nuts & bolts of building a team from scratch, how to stop grinding, and start scaling campaigns, and learning from learners and earners.

Our plan was simple – to pick James’ brain as much as we can, and we got more than we hoped for. So, here goes, no BS, no fluff.

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<< You’ve recently returned from Affiliate Summit West and your very own GeekWeek event in Vegas. How was it?

It was amazing. What was very nice about the event was that it was a small-sized event. Everybody had just finished their Q4’s, and a lot of guys were involved in eCommerce. Since the season was kind of over, everybody was very open to sharing, both the people that we’re teaching and the people that we’re learning and show their landing pages and images because they were done. Also, we had someone teaching Snapchat on Thursday, but we all just kind of started working on Monday so by Wednesday, before we even started the sessions on Snapchat, people were already launching campaigns. You had like 15 people that were very good, high-level affiliates all kind of working together, so this made the event special for us.

<< Based on Vegas and your own experience in general, what new trends do you think will take over 2019? For example, if you’re an experienced affiliate who needs to consider employing new strategies, what methods, verticals, and even challenges would you focus on?

Snapchat for sure. We have a course coming up on Snapchat. One of our speakers would also speak, Matt Smith, he has been consistently making 5K and up to 20K of profit a day, and he got in pretty early, but now I see a lot of other people also getting in. I know someone who’s spending 50K a day, I know someone who’s spending a 100K a day in Q4, probably less now, someone else who’s spending 10K and getting back 40K, so you have a lot of people making money on Snapchat physically. And then I started running it myself, and now I also make a very good profit. So, I think that this is a traffic source where the CPM is very cheap, let’s say $4 in the U.S. and $2 in the UK, for example, compared to $20-$40 CPM on Facebook, so it’s still so cheap and there’s still a lot of room for people to make money there.

The other thing for affiliates that are just getting started, don’t have a lot of budgets or looking for cheaper opportunities, the traffic is so much cheaper on Snapchat. It costs less to test… everything is less. So, I think Snapchat will be THE big platform. They just released reports as well that their earnings are up because of advertising.

We’re working a lot with Snapchat Israel and the general manager here. They are really putting efforts into getting advertisers on their platform, and they are way helpful. I don’t know how they did it, but their staff already knows how the platform works. Not only do they have good customer service and support like an American company, but they know what to do and what’s going on, and I think that this is going to make it very easy for people to onboard Snapchat. But I think it will last for about a year. The good money is now, for the next six months or so, but I think you will quickly see those prices go from $4 to $8. It is what it is. More and more people will get on the platform, and they’ll start making more money. Snapchat’s policy, which is looser now, will get tighter, the type of offers they want will get tighter, and the competition will drive up the cost.

One thing I’ve noticed about launching on Snapchat is not that it’s cheaper, but I’m doing mainly Lead Generation on the platform right now, and the quality of the leads is way higher, and I believe that’s because people are fresh to the ads. The people that are hanging out on Snapchat are probably not hanging out on Facebook. The people on Facebook have already seen the ads about a million times, and the people on Snapchat are fresh, so when they’re a Lead and they call up, they are very interested. So, I think, six months on the really sweet money, and then a year, long money.

<< But isn’t the demographic on Snapchat a bit too young to really be considered high quality?

It’s younger. I wouldn’t say it’s very young. We’re targeting ages 22-45.

<< Are there 45 years old on Snapchat?

There are quite a bit. It’s shocking. But when you have enough of anything, you’re still going to end up with a bunch. It’s not Facebook, and it’s not like grandparents are using it, but there are quite a few people on there, and at the end of the day, it works.

My friend has a $150 to $250 eCommerce product. He’s spending a 100K a day on Q4. Someone is buying it. So, I’ve been very surprised at, for example, Lead Generation, like credit card debt, which takes time to accumulate, age-wise. In America you have a credit card, you spend, then you have a debt and people are filling out a form to get help with this debt. They’re not kids and leads like this have been very good.

Student loan consolidation – that’s another one. It just makes sense. College-age, just entering the workforce, I think like 27-28 years old are probably a sweet spot. For some products, the re-bill rates are not good because you have younger people that buy something and then return it. So, we’ll see. Time will tell.

<< We presume most people know this about you. It is said that you started as a solo affiliate and now you’re overseeing a highly experienced marketing team with a 7-figure budget. Tell us about that.

We’re not spending seven figures anymore. We’re still spending a ton of money, but I always like to keep it clear.

Last year, after the Cambridge Analytica thing with Facebook, our revenue just took a hit, because we were doing Lead Generation, which is data collection, which kind of put us in a bad field. And then earlier this year, a few of my employees and myself had our personal Facebook accounts banned for 30 days. Facebook was still spending our money while we were locked out. Ever since that happened, I’ve been on a huge drive to work on other sources.
Our spend on Facebook, which was our big engine of spend, decreased quite a bit.

With that being said – how did I transition from a one-person affiliate to having a team?

The way that I did it, the way that I do it now and the way that I want to do it are three separate things. The more I learn about the business and its involvement, the more I would change what I did in the past. And the big thing is, I started, and I think most people make this mistake, but I was a one-man affiliate, so I thought I just need to train someone else like me to scale. And I hired three so that I could split-test employees. I kept two. One is still with me since we started here in Israel. But I realized that doing it that way isn’t the right way to do it. I think that if someone is a successful one-person affiliate Media Buyer, they should spend all their money to scale business-wise – like a human capital investment – into supporting roles; like a Video Editor, which is a much better return on investment than hiring another Media Buyer. Another media buyer is probably going to steal your ‘secret sauce’. It takes a long time to train a Media Buyer, whereas when you get a Video Editor, like an After Effects person, or a Graphics person, you can actually quantify the return on investment with this person. The amount that they can increase your CTR is going to decrease your CPC, so you can take a look at your cost before and after hiring this employee.

So, I hired three originally to split-test and ended up with two After Effects guys, and I saw a huge difference in the business – our campaigns were always lasting longer, and we always had new images to pop in.

I think that is something that I do now that is a big change, as instead of a Media Buyer, my second hire would be an After Effects person or a Video Editor and then after that, I would hire a Copywriter.

If you give Media Buyers two hours a day to analyze data and then do their uploads, that is like it. The one-person affiliate, they should keep the brains and the intellectual property in their heads and get tons of support staff until they’re left with the thinking. You know, it’s a brain job.

<< Let’s be honest, your specialty as a Media Buyer is to get media. But you don’t necessarily know how to write content, how to talk to networks or traffic sources.

Right. The best way to do this is to take a proper inventory of yourself as a Media Buyer, and all that means, you know?

The different tasks that you have as a Media Buyer will turn into different departments in your company someday – talking to your Affiliate Managers, and your traffic sources will go to Biz Dev. Doing Photoshop and editing videos will go to your video team. And when you continue to replace your personal roles with actual employees, suddenly you have this nice business. You can also hire some places that you have a severe deficiency. Let’s say on your Biz Dev side you have somebody that’s handling the networks for you. When you start to offer them a bonus for pay-bumps, they are going to probably start getting more pay-bumps than you did because you didn’t have the time to really focus on it. And almost all these types of roles, like if you’re smart with it, you can actually measure what happens before and after this employee, if you got your money back on them. That is what is nice with marketing, everybody’s roles are pretty much quantifiable.

<< For those who’re looking to grow into proper companies with a significant in-house team, I guess this is the main advice that you’d give them – to hire supporting roles?

Just hire for what you are bad at, first off. And what’s going to have the biggest impact on your business, and not just financially, are also time and stress impacts to let you do what you do better. I also think that when you make these types of hire and you are trying to be organized with your business, you want to hire enough to buy yourself time to work on your business.

I think a lot of affiliates when they go to scale from 1 to 2, or 1 to 5, or however their scale happens, they must remember that working on your business means to give the same attention as working on your campaigns. You must take a step back and spend the time to think about it, structure it and build, and often that will lead to a decrease in profits.

When you want to scale you need to understand that your Media Buying will probably take a hit, you are going to be very busy training people; it’s going to be annoying. But you got just to think that you’re taking a step back to take a few steps forward. I would say, hire enough to schedule time for yourself, and hiring in the right order is how I would suggest scaling it out.

<< We’ve been following your iStack and Geekout courses and GeekWeek events. Where does that teaching drive come from?

I have always sat in a lot of different roles doing the teaching, and a lot of my businesses, I was kind of the forerunner on it. Like when I opened call centers first, I learned how to sell on the phone. It was a necessity for me to teach people my skill set. My knowledge job, there was always a necessity to transfer the intellectual property and the knowledge of how to do things in my head to other people.

I started to really teach at scale in the call centers because there is a super high turnover – there were hundreds of people that had to learn.

I got in the habit of teaching again and again, and it became very comfortable.

Then with this business, I started to train Media Buyers, which is just like training people in the call centers – sitting right next to them, and instead of listening to their phone calls and taking over-pitches, it’s looking at their campaigns every morning, spot-checking and correcting things.

But I didn’t think to teach it as a business until I spoke about a year and a half ago to do a case study to drive more affiliates to our network. People were super responsive, and I realized I was undervaluing the information I had and undervaluing the level that we were buying media.

You always think that everyone around you is better, and I know tons of people in the world are way better than me, but at that time I didn’t have high self-esteem for my media buying. After I spoke and I saw the response, I realized that a lot of people still didn’t know what I knew, and I didn’t feel it was something that would hurt my profit – to share what I knew. I just think that the platform is too big, and I noticed, for example, with our offers, I may run them internally, and we have our network offers, and we might all be running the same offer. It was never driving up my prices when I had other affiliates on my network running the same offers as me. Also, we had just finished doing Dropshipping – eCom at the end of 2017, Q4 2017, and we were able to make it profitable. We enjoyed the business, kind of, and we felt that eCommerce is a growing sector, bigger than anything else. But we didn’t control the quality of the product. And I saw the demand for education and a whole new marketplace for higher quality – the way I wanted to consume it – and I also saw the opportunity to be my own brand and henceforth control the quality and be able to stand behind the product, etc. So we decided to test this out as a business. So far, it’s been ok; it’s fulfilling.

You barely make money on the event business. I lost money on my last event in Vegas, but it doesn’t really bum me out, because I got so much value myself and everybody enjoyed it so much and got value. It’s like a long-term brand-building for me. The loss to me was like an investment into my brand in the future, because I have great testimonials, and everybody vibed it. But the real pivot for me in the grander vision of the education thing, which I really have never shared before and I probably should.

My focus is really to educate, not necessarily just Media Buyers that want to be affiliates or entrepreneurs, because 5% of the world has an entrepreneurial spirit, you know? It’s not a huge percentage. I think that when you teach somebody how to buy media, you empower them, you create job opportunities.

In the United States, if you understand how to buy media and you’ve already spent money, you’re going to make 70 Grand USD in the first year, and some Media Buyers get paid up to 200 Grand USD.

I just spoke to one of my clients, a very large solar company, and they hired a Media Buyer for like a $160,000 for the first year. This person is not even an affiliate, he has the experience, but it’s not the level that we had spent. He spent a maximum of like 7K a day, while some of my Media Buyers spend about 50K or more a day. So, I saw the value of this role and the way that you can help people that may not be able to get a job traditionally, people that are just coming out of the U.S. prison system, for example. They have a criminal record; they can’t get a job. But as a Media Buyer, no one cares about what you did in the past. They don’t care if you make a profit.

People that are in wheelchairs, for example, that don’t have access to about 80% of the job inventory because of their physical situation. Media Buying is all brain. It’s like truly a brain job. I want to open a school, with a physical firm location, where people could come to school for a year, maybe a year and a half, and get a full education on Google Analytics, Third-Party Tracking, YouTube, Facebook, Natives – build a Media Buyer – Photoshop, Aftereffects, all the pieces that you would need to be a badass Media Buyer. Then have them work in my agency for six months – three months in an eCommerce/branding style agency, and three months in full on CPA affiliate style. So now you have a year of education, six months of internship where you’ve already managed a budget.

Placing people into the workplace is super easy, so I feel very comfortable offering guaranteed job placements on the front side. For me, it’s just a super win. I’m creating jobs, I’m getting labor in my agency, and when I started to look at this type of education piece for me… again, I keep saying, I’m not making any money out of the education side, but I feel like if I stick with this, not as my big moneymaker or the core cash-cow of my life… but if I stick with it for the next five or ten years, I’ll end up with something awesome. I have a school where people can go and learn. Hopefully, get to the point when high school kids talk to their parents about going to a school to learn how to buy media instead of throwing away money on college in the United States. It’s like a bigger thing. So, I’ve been using this affiliate entrepreneur type of events I’m doing now to step up into this and generate revenue and branding, and stuff like that. There’s a much bigger outlook on this.

<< As someone who’s teaching and mentoring many people, who are your mentors?

That’s a very good one… There’s a bunch of people that I look at. I have to say my partner Daniel, who first and foremost comes to mind, because as a business person… like I’m a better Media Buyer, I’m a better salesperson, I have a lot of skill sets that I’m better at, but when it comes to business and the actual arbitraging of values, investing and analyzing opportunity cost and yield I look up to him for those skill sets in one area that I’m trying to change.

On a personal side, which I think is important, I have a lot of different role models when it comes to mindfulness and meditation. A lot of things that have been affecting my business as well that I find myself more focused on – my mind and my consciousness and the way that I think about things – it has had a huge effect on me with my personal happiness, but also with my performance. I read a lot of J. Christian Murdy; I have for a long time. I also have different teachers for meditation and mindfulness in L.A. and Jerusalem, so I’ve got my spiritual mentors over there, and Daniel my partner as my business mentor, and then my grandmother is my relational mentor, and I think it’s important to notice. I’m married, and I love my wife very much. I think we will be married until the end of time. But I’ve watched my grandmother and grandfather married for about 68 years. Recently my grandfather passed away, like last year, and I watched the last ten years of his life and what it was like to support someone so wholeheartedly. I saw the way my grandmother took care of him, and I see now the absence that he has left in her life. She has been my mentor as far as how to build a marriage and a family. So, there’s been a lot of teaching this year. I’m 42, and there’s been a lot of learning this past year personally.

<< So, GeekWeekTLV is happening now – February 10th to 15th – and let me tell you, we’re honored to having it close to home.

Thank you. I’m still happy to have one here in Israel. I wanted to do one in Israel since day one. I want to plant a flag here. I love Israel. In a few years that I’m doing this, everybody will get it and value it. It just needs to happen. I think that Israel has always been a big role in my Media Buying and I see the value here, and I always say the same thing, it’s like the cheapest cost per IQ in the world. Really, you can get the smartest people for the best price, and there’s no way around it – smart, hustling… I was very excited to do an event here, and I’m very excited about what we have going on.

The first day of GeekWeek will be at the Taboola office; then we’re going to be at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange with several speakers from YouTube, Snapchat, and Facebook. We have a day of just Snapchat, a day for eCommerce with Nick Shackelford. He’s top-notch, he’s very good, so I was happy to bring him here.

One of the evenings, Snapchat is going to host a reception as well. To have the involvement of two traffic partners and to have great people flying in – we have like 20 – 25 people that are flying in from the U.S., Canada, Australia – that is exciting. I’m really pumped for the event this week.