Mark Wright won series 10 of The Apprentice by pitching Lord Sugar his plans for building a new digital marketing agency.

After the show, he quickly attracted criticism from the digital community for a perceived lack of knowledge and some rather bold claims about revolutionising SEO. 

There were also a few glaring errors in the process of setting up the company.

But what does Mark make of all the controversy and how are things going over at Climb Online?

Here is a verbatim write up of our Q&A, with some of the questions kindly provided by our Twitter followers...

Firstly, how is the business going so far?

On April 5 the business will be three months old and we now have 81 clients live and running campaigns.

We just employed our tenth staff member yesterday, so it’s growing and growing and growing. 

We also have around four freelancers as well, so each week we seem to have more staff.

And you’ve mainly been targeting small businesses so far?

No, I wouldn’t say that. Our key customer would be achieving around £1.5m turnover with about 10-20 staff. 

Our clients range from one of the largest insurers in the country down to some small garages that have maybe two workbenches in their shops.

There is a vast array, but I’d say most of our clients are medium-sized businesses.

You said you have a product that was going to revolutionise SEO, can you explain what you mean by that?

Well basically I think when I say ‘revolutionise’ I mean I’m going to change the industry for the better.

SEO is something that customers have previously looked on as a dark art where they don’t understand what an SEO analyst is actually doing to their website or how they’re helping their business.

So we’re trying to make it easier for the customer to follow and also make results tangible. 

I think for far too long people have gone into a business and said, “Give me £300 and I’ll make you number one on Google.”

That is the wrong attitude. Search is evolving to the point that getting to number one on Google isn’t a target, you need to help businesses understand why having a good website is important, why creating good social media and content is important, and also about having good quality links into their website.

It’s a full strategy, not so much a product. 

We call it a product because we’re a business and that’s how we finance things, it’s through product, but SEO is a strategy based around good content and representing your business in an online space as well as possible.

You mentioned that you have an SEO platform you developed in-house. What does it do?

We’re in the process of creating a platform that is somewhere in between Majestic SEO and SEOmoz.

It’s a client-facing tool where they can check keyword reports, link opportunities, brand mentions, and competitive metrics, but also we can build the campaign work in, so we can investigate links and we can monitor it from our side and create content and update the site from our platform.

That’s something we’ve been working on pretty heavily for the past couple of months.

So the approach is the same, the difference is perhaps in how you’re educating customers?

Yes, it’s more from an education perspective. We don’t just do our work over the phone, we go out and sit down with our customers and do a full analysis and show them where their website is at that point in time from a compliance perspective and where their keywords are ranking as well.

But we never talk about the first page of Google, we seldom talk about keyword rankings, it’s all about good quality content, a good quality website, and an increase in visitor traffic.

Some people have a negative perception of the SEO industry, do you think you can improve that?

You’re never going to have all happy customers, because at the end of the day what we do is a form of advertising, and you’re never going to have 100% client satisfaction even though we do our utmost.

The main problem with the SEO industry at the moment is negative SEO and people with powerful skillsets going to the other side and harming businesses.

It’s something I’m seeing more and more, and where SEO used to be about improving keywords and getting sites up the search rankings, it’s now about doing that while also protecting businesses from the negative side of SEO.

I understand there have been negative SEO attacks on your own site? How have you dealt with those?

Ever since I won the Apprentice we’ve been subject to negative SEO attacks on our website.

We don’t know who by or why it’s been done, but I think it’s because we’re the new shiny toy, we’re signing off a lot of new customers and people want to prove that we can’t get our own website on the search results in order to suggest that we can’t help customers do the same.

I employ a guy four hours a day to disavow negative links and crawl the site using Google Webmaster Tools.

We have three or four pieces of software in place to stop negative SEO and DDOS attacks, but the attacks are huge and by people with vast skillsets.

Some people felt you had more experience in sales than in SEO, so perhaps didn’t have the experience to be running an agency. What’s your view on that?

I agree with them. I’ve got far more ability as a salesperson than I do as someone who could complete an SEO strategy.

To be honest, that’s my job. I’m not the guy who’s going in analysing the websites, writing the content, or building the links. 

My job is to train the sales staff, run the company, employ people and make the business profitable with Lord Sugar.

We employ some of the best SEOs in the country. We’ve got people that have come from Wonga, Google and Facebook.

I was never under the illusion that I was going to be doing that side of things myself.

My job is to create a really good, fun place to work and I’ve never said that I’m an SEO expert.

I’m quite the opposite, I’m an avid lover of SEO and the online marketing industry, but my skillset is focused on finding a new way of communicating it to customers.

We’ve seen a trend for agencies to move towards becoming content marketing agencies with a broader view of digital marketing, rather than specifically focusing on SEO. Do you think your focus on SEO is slightly out-dated?

We probably have around 15 of our 80 customers doing SEO, then we have a large majority doing paid search, Google Shopping, remarketing, or display.

We then have a PR model that we use in conjunction with another company for more integrated projects, so I completely agree with you.

I think SEO as we know it is slowing down or certainly changing.

With the constant algorithm updates from Google you have to have a full solution to the way you go to market.

That might be keeping your website and social up to date and running it with a remarketing and Google Adwords campaign. 

I think that approach is more sound than any other.

One of our followers asked how you would evaluate a site hit by the Penguin update. But I’m assuming if you’re not the expert that’s not a question you’d be able to answer?

Well look, Penguin as an update was based around the link-building algorithm and analysis would be purely based on scanning the site comprehensively for negative links and making sure to disavow those you don’t want.

But like you said, I’ve got a team of people with years of experience and the tools to do this.

My knowledge is somewhat better than most people you meet in the street, but in terms of analysing the impact of Penguin or Panda, I know enough to hold a conversation but it wouldn’t be up to me to go in and implement it.

What is your opinion on link building and whether recent updates have made it a less valuable tactic?

I’m seeing a number of things from the bigger campaigns I’m running.

Link building used to be the most effective way to gain search rankings, then content became the king, and now what I’m seeing is that some of the bigger companies we work with will come to us and only want nine new links but they’ll tell us exactly where they want them from.

I think link building is extremely important if you get the right links. It’s best to focus on quality over quantity and combine it with content that’s relevant for those links as well.

There’s been a lot of interest around your brand name. Did you check that the domain name was available before you chose the name Climb Online?

There are a lot of things about the Apprentice that people don’t know.

I submitted 100 potential company names before I went into the show, but when you’re on the Apprentice you’re not allowed a laptop or access to the internet.

So I had submitted the name Climb Online and the team came back to me and told me it was available, so we went with that.

I think about 8m people watched the final episode and the name they heard uttered for 60 minutes was Climb Online, so as a branding exercise I think it would’ve been negative to change the name of the company.

Also we already owned the trademarks for ‘Climb’ and ‘Online’ in regards to climbing search rankings.

SEOs can be quite vocal about their industry. Have you been surprised by their reaction to you?

The thing is that SEO is only one part of our business and it wasn’t even part of my original business plan. It’s something we skimmed over on the show and has become a huge talking point ever since.

We also focus on other industries like web development, PPC or display but they don't seem to get involved with the hype as much.

We do have SEO campaigns though and yes the industry has been quite vocal about us, but I am proud to be part of the industry and I want to help the businesses in it as well as the industry itself.

David Moth

Published 6 April, 2015 by David Moth

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

1720 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (23)

Comment
No-profile-pic
Save or Cancel
Ahmed Khalifa

Ahmed Khalifa, Natural Search Specialist at schuh

I'm confused when he is talking about his SEO/digital marketing knowledge. Depending on how you look at it, it's slightly contradicting when you compare the interview here against what he said on the show.

He said within the interview:
- "I’ve got far more ability as a salesperson than I do as someone who could complete an SEO strategy"
- "My knowledge is somewhat better than most people you meet in the street"
- "...I’ve never said that I’m an SEO expert"

Yet on the show, he said face-to-face to Sir Alan Sugar:
- "I understand online marketing better than anyone"

And here's the clip from the show when he said it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=cAIauPQVing#t=3495

Again...confused.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Steve Ollington, Head of Content at agenda21 digital

Demonstrably poor knowledge, and what little he has is out-of-date, and even damaging. His high profile entry into the industry combined with his snake oil selling of SEO, only adds fuel to the already bad name that it has due to others selling such a poor service for reasons of greed or ignorance.

almost 3 years ago

Ned Poulter

Ned Poulter, CEO & Founder at Pole Star Digital

I'm not going to stand as one of the naysayers and call bullshit on all of the above. After all, as a business owner myself, I have the utmost respect for Mark and anyone (whether through a TV program or otherwise) running a successful business. That said, there are a couple of things that I'd like to pull out, if anything as constructive criticism that I hope could help Mark and team out...

You seem to be contradicting yourself a lot…
I'm sure the press attention and the reaction from the industry isn't helping this, but there are a few things that could be interpreted an disingenuous. Examples above include: "But we never talk about the first page of Google, we seldom talk about keyword rankings" vs. embedded Tweet that you sent in the article above and also various snippets I've seen across your social media channels.

Specifics, specifics.
Some things that you mention are a little confusing and downplay your knowledge a little bit, granted these are minor things but I still think that perhaps a second opinion may be good prior to publishing things. An example in this article is your referencing other ‘industries’ e.g. “other industries like web development, PPC or display but they don't seem to get involved with the hype as much….” These are (with the possible exception of Web Development) 'channels' that are a part of the digital marketing industry. Not 'industries' in their own right.

“Not JUST SEO”
I actually like your change of tack to state that Climb Online is more than just SEO. As a viewer of the show, I think that SEO was primarily the focus of your business plan - or at least how it came across after editing. Understanding that you offer PPC and Social Media as well, I think helps avoid some of the confusion experienced by many - especially those in the industry. After all, SEO is a confusing enough discipline!

It may appear that I'm being pedantic, but in an industry as vocal as ours, I think that some aspects (such as those pointed out above) are worth honing. If anything, this helps to build your personal (as well as Climb Online’s) brand and ensure that your collective communication is inline.

All in all, Mark is right about one thing - the digital marketing industry is growing rapidly and will continue to do so as technology encroaches on all aspects of out life. If you ask me, there’s plenty of work to go around and I wish the best of luck to those trying to do it for themselves in any respect. Good on them.

almost 3 years ago

Philip Armstrong

Philip Armstrong, Online Marketing Coordinator at Just SEO

Interesting to see a response to some of the questions being asked about Climb Online from Mark himself, and especially interesting to see how well the company is doing at the moment.

I would also be curious to find out:

Why is it that after working on it for 2-3 months, the site appears so bland and content thin?

If Climb Online employ some of the best SEO’s in the country, is there a reason they appear to have done very little SEO on their own website? Reference: https://jseo.com/business/lord-sugars-seo-company-fails-to-climb-online-but-still-manages-to-bag-new-customers/

As a paid search agency, as well as SEO, why do Climb Online not have a perceptible PPC campaign of their own?

As a side note, I don’t think most online marketers are criticising Mark or trying to shed light on Climb Online’s mistakes for the sake of doing so. Rather I think that after making some bold claims, many people in the industry expected those claims to be at least half met. This is especially true when, with all media attention, Mark has a degree of influence on the perception of online marketing and how professionals in the industry conduct themselves.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Steve Ollington, Head of Content at agenda21 digital

What about the outsourced poor quality link building in spite of assurances of 'ethical, whitehat SEO' Ned? I think taking money from small businesses for stuff that won't help them and may even harm them under a pretence that it will grow their business is worth calling BS on. IMHO.

almost 3 years ago

Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert, CEO at Brainlabs

I honestly don't know why the guy is still getting so much stick - "Fake it 'til you make it" is revered in the start-up world because it's impossible to start with the full package. His success or otherwise cannot be judged on how the company began, especially as we only saw part of the story on TV.

I think any business owner, myself included, would be cringing if the world had seen their journey from the start!

almost 3 years ago

Simone Castello

Simone Castello, Digital consultant and trainer at www.simonecastello.co.uk

Surely I am not the only one who educates clients? That's the difference between hiring a consultant and an agency. He is mixing the two approaches by giving the agency a personal touch. Not sure how he can sustain that as it grows.

almost 3 years ago

Ned Poulter

Ned Poulter, CEO & Founder at Pole Star Digital

I can't comment on that as I've not seen any real evidence to support the claims. Sure, I've heard things - but then again I've heard a lot of things about a lot of agencies. If I was open to believing these all on first glance then I'd test my professional integrity in doing so.

I do get your point about claims for 'ethical, whitehat SEO' though and think that its down to their messaging as an agency/brand. This, as well as a number of other things in the article above is something that us SEOs have heard for years and years, and at least some of it is pretty out of date, hence my comment in the first place.

I've got nothing against you calling BS on Mark/his team or anyone else for that matter, after all everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However I certainly don't think that Climb Online are going to go away any time soon, whether or not they are the snakeoil salesmen that many are making them out to be now, I certainly don't think they will continue in this way, no matter how green they are in the industry as people won't stand for it.

almost 3 years ago

Sarah Pooley

Sarah Pooley, Consultant at The Digital Doctor

I don't think Mark has done himself any favours in this interview. Undoubtedly he is driven and should be commended for that but he comes across as someone trying to justify his reasons for not being an expert in his field. If he had continued in the vein of 'To be honest, that's not my job' I would have given him credit for knowing his strengths and sticking to them, where I think he's gone wrong is try and talk about an industry he doesn't really understand. I could be totally wrong and Ned's comments I echo, but he appears to be plucking buzzwords out of thin air and putting them in the wrong context. Content is king and will always be king...

almost 3 years ago

Simone Castello

Simone Castello, Digital consultant and trainer at www.simonecastello.co.uk

Call me cynical but there are plenty of shady operators, it's about sales power and bullshit skills. The stuff I have seen beggars belief and yet people flock to this kind of agencies. I occasionally apply for jobs and the ignorance some marketing managers display is astonishing. A few times they had the audacity to ask me for the report I had prepared for their company but had not intention of hiring me. I often feel that the only reason I get to interview stage is that they want to pump me for information and they do all the time then hire somebody younger and cheaper.

almost 3 years ago

Duncan Wright

Duncan Wright, Director at BSA Marketing

I think that his business is no different from a lot of digital marketing agencies. In my view there are 2 aspects to marketing "Front" and Substance". Like many agencies Mark is big on the "Front". As a salesman you would expect that, but if he is pitching himself alongside the likes of MOZ (interesting that he referred to them as SEOMoz, a name they ditched quite a while ago!) he needs to have substance too, and his website does not demonstrate that. Nice design (Front) but very little substance (2 blog posts on 4th March. I presume this was around the date the site launched).

Good digital marketing is about delivering engaging, sustainable content that conveys a consistent, message and then communicating it out using the available tools (Currently social Media, email etc).

Too many agencies use front and a good sales patter to sell their services, but then struggle to follow up with the substance.

Or maybe it’s like the builders house that is falling down, the fact that he does not show his skills on his own property does not mean he is not a good builder! And lets face it, if he can afford to hire the best talent, and has anything about him as an entrepreneur, he should succeed. And at fees of £3k per month, he should have the resources to deliver!

almost 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

I can understand how boasts about revolutionising SEO from a relative novice would wind up the industry, and I know the comments are a mixed bag here, but it does seem to me that attitudes are softening towards Mark a little.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Bigsands Page, Social Media Curator at Steel Band Hire

I foresee a shift in digital marketing strategy with less companies relying on SEO, going forward.
Unless you are on the first page of Google results and preferably high up the page, then it is a failed campaign. In each sector there are a handful of companies that seem to have the first page totally locked down and secure, almost as if they have dropped anchor with no intention of moving. This is the challenge facing companies like Climb Online as they offer a service which seeks to dislodge those anchored on the first page. Instead of using SEO, companies will hire more established bloggers and also seek opportunities for a piggyback from sites which are already high up on the first page.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Bigsands Page, Social Media Curator at Steel Band Hire

Econsultancy needs a like button at the end of a comment and possibly a reply button.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Susie Culhane, Owner at DirectMarketing.Consulting

What The Apprentice and Mark Wright are doing for SEO can only bring positive rewards. For too long now we've suffered from suspicious attitudes and negative publicity. I like Mark's candid approach and the fact that he puts customer communication high on his agenda. I get far better results with my work when a client understands the SEO process and can get actively involved in promoting their brand online. Delighted that Lord Sugar chose to invest in Mark's business - those doing good work in this industry will benefit from potential clients having a clearer understanding of what SEO is, and from renewed interest in associated services.

almost 3 years ago

Ian Hammersley

Ian Hammersley, Managing Director at smartebusiness

Working in the industry for over 12 years, I found it painfully cringe worthy to watch the final of the apprentice. It was interesting to witness the huge lack of knowledge of the subject within the room.

I guess though that mark 'had' to pick a business idea for the final, and he had a some knowledge and so chose this idea. If it wasn't for the Apprentice show, would anyone be following this company?

Over the last few years we all saw some massive growth of 'SEO specialist' agencies, that were nothing more than aggressive call centres. When google changed the rules, they were all wiped out over night, when all their clients got slapped. They were 'get rich quick' businesses, that did huge damage to the credibility of digital marketing.

Good luck, but i know we wouldn't want to be anywhere near the SEO industry, as its so hard to scale a business (especially if you have to deal with small clients) - nightmare - good luck mark, you've picked a pretty horrible business area...

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Pillai Ganesh, Digital Marketer at DigitalZolution

From my personal experience digital marketing agencies sole responsibility to provide results for their clients in terms of increase in revenue and improvement in their branding awareness.

What's the point of applying any sort of online marketing strategies if the potential customer;s visiting the client's website are not converting at all. Different type of clients need to be approached with different online marketing strategies to drive result.

I feel Mark is trying to overcome the odds here but guess it's not working. :)

almost 3 years ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Director at Ben Potter - business development mentor

If this interview had taken place five years ago, much of it would have been outdated. There is nothing revolutionary or original about his approach. Granted, he is right that many do see SEO as a dark art and indeed have had their fingers burnt. But decent agencies have been educating their clients, working to clear targets and delivering 'ethical' search strategies for years. Frankly, the industry would be screwed if such agencies didn't exist.

If anything, the lack of industry experience (two years does not make you an expert on SEO or 'the highest grossing salesperson in the industry', as he claimed on the show) and confused messages in this interview take us back a few years, not forward.

Saying all of that, I have respect for anybody who sets up an agency and believes they can do things better. I just don't agree that his means of making things better is in any way new or original.

almost 3 years ago

George Harris

George Harris, Founder at Web Method

As mentioned already, this is one of the most contradictory interviews I've ever read.

I have nothing against the guy at all, I think he's achieved an astounding amount. This is a terrible piece of PR though.

#1

"we go out and sit down with our customers and do a full analysis and show them ... where their keywords are ranking..."

and

"we already owned the trademarks for ‘Climb’ and ‘Online’ in regards to climbing search rankings."

Is followed by:

"we seldom talk about keyword rankings"

#2

81 clients looked after by 10 staff plus 4 freelancers.

BUT

"we go out and sit down with our customers". How personal can this service be?

#3

"It’s a full strategy, not so much a product"

BUT

"We call it a product because we’re a business"

His challenge is different to many other start-up agencies as he's started with a huge spike of customers off the back of the Apprentice and he needs to deliver, retain and grow immediately at scale.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Bigsands Page, Social Media Curator at Steel Band Hire

@Susie @Ian I like your points. Do you think it's time for the Apprentice to freshen things up a bit with a new person to replace Sir Alan who has had a good run? Also, I would like to see them expand the age range of their candidates to include some over 40, unless they think that people over 40 are not bankable. What's your view?

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

One thing is for sure, this article has had the most comments of any this week, which perhaps says more about us than it does about Mark...

almost 3 years ago

Morgan Jones

Morgan Jones, Digital Manager at Freestone Creative

@Stuart. Indeed. To quote Oscar Wilde:

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

SEO in a nutshell perhaps?

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Susie Culhane, Owner at DirectMarketing.Consulting

@Bigsands Page - thanks.
Sir Alan has the reputation to 'carry' the show so I think he is vital to its success, I had no idea there was an age restriction, but of course people over 40 are bankable, I'm sure the programme makers did their research in terms of what age group the viewing public want to see. It would be interesting to look at audience size of the Young Apprentice to see how it compares to the Apprentice viewing figures.

almost 3 years ago

Comment
No-profile-pic
Save or Cancel
Daily_pulse_signup_wide

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.