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28 September 2021

Phil Gregory – Azeem Digital Asks Podcast

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In September of2020,  I was lucky enough to be a guest on the Azeem Digital Asks Podcast.  Azeem describes the mission of his podcast to:

“Lift the voices of women, POC, and the underrepresented and marginalised within the industry”.

Naturally, I was keen to get involved just to help Azim have another guest and to help raise awareness. Give it a listen and let me know what you thought.

Podcast Transcript:

Azeem
Right now you’re listening to the Aseem digital asks podcast, where I’ve talked to some of the top marketers in the industry and find out what makes them tick.

Hello and welcome back to the Aseem digital asks podcast. I’m really pleased to be joined today by Phil Gregory, who describes himself as a mixed-race SEO business owner in the all-white Peak District, labelled a failure for most of his life, he’s a militant and a fighter passionate about improving the web.
So I’m really interested to hear more from Phil, Phil. Thank you very much for joining me.

Phil
Thanks for having me. I’m very pleased to be here.
Azeem
Before you introduce yourselves properly to the listeners, I wanted to ask you a bit of an icebreaker question, and that is if you could change places with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

Phil: This is a great question. I think it’s going to have to be…The man with the most money in the world.
Now, I don’t want to sound shallow because¬† I wouldn’t use the money for myself.¬† ¬†I would change places with Jeff Bezos because if you had a trillion dollars just think of all the good you could do in the world.
There are so many projects that are deserving of a little bit of assistance, and that would be great to get your hands on that.

Azeem: Yeah, definitely. I feel a bit guilty for my answer because what I was thinking about this, I was thinking, oh, I’d love to be like a Hollywood film star, but you’ve got a much more sensible answer.

Phil: Well, it’d be nice …. Yeah. I think, you know, if I had 30 minutes before I was to die, I think you’d have to be, get my hands on some of that cash and use it really well.

Azeem: Yeah. I’m just harbouring small fading hopes of being the first Asian James Bond, but it’s never going to happen. So anyway.¬† Thank you very much for joining me today. Would you like to give the listeners a little bit of a better introduction?

Phil: Sure, my name is Phil Gregory and I’m the owner-director of Peak District SEO. I set the company up in 2017, but I, have been doing SEO since about 1998, where I was sort of forced to use computers when I was at university and accidentally stumbled upon the possibility of making websites and just thought, oh my God, this is so cool,¬† I must learn more about it.

Since then it’s been a roller coaster and today the business has been going well. I’ve got, you know, 20 plus clients and continuing to grow. So yeah, that’s Phil Gregory and Peak District SEO.

Azeem: Awesome, really pleased to hear that you’re doing well.
And also very interested to learn more. I imagine you must’ve seen so much change in the industry since the late nineties up until now. So let’s touch on that a little bit. At what point in your career did you realize that marketing was going to be the one.

Phil:
Well, I guess it was probably actually before I started working in marketing. At university, I was a complete computer noob. I couldn’t use a computer, didn’t own a computer. ¬†So I spent a lot of time in the I.T help suite, badgering the guys who worked behind the desk saying, how do you do this and that? How do you format a Word document?¬† I was like, I’m going to just learn everything I can’t, I can’t sit here and just be unarmed. So I had to know everything that I could possibly learn about how to use these computers.
And once I stumbled upon how to make a web page.  Then I had a light bulb go on for me, I thought; this is going to be really powerful for businesses in the future. ,

You’re going to be able to present everything and you’re going to be able to talk to your customers directly and maybe even sell online; because back then you couldn’t, you know, there was no ecommerce.
So the light went on really early, but I wasn’t able to act on it for some, you know, some, many years after.

Azeem: So thinking about that specifically, then, especially with what you’ve just said if you could go back to when you first began in the industry, knowing what you know now, what advice do you think you would give to you?

Phil:  I think really is the best advice I could give my younger self would be to focus on my strengths. When I first started getting into computers, as I say, it was about web design and stuff like that. And you know, I noodled around with that until I discovered SEO. Then SEO became my passion.

Web design took a backseat with all these associated things.¬† Making webpages, you learn Photoshop, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, HTML, CSS, PHP you know, online advertising, social media marketing. Now I’ve done all of these things and if I could go back, I’d say, “Hey, Phil sweep all that stuff to one side, focus on the SEO because that’s what you’re good at, that is where your passion lies and, you know, that’s where you’re going to make the most money from“, you know all the other stuff was fun, but in fact, it was a massive distraction and, you know, probably prevented me from getting ahead earlier.

Azeem: 
Really interesting to answer. Brilliant to hear that, especially from someone who’s got a lot of experience touching on that. What have you learned from your working career?

Phil: ¬†I think that’s a really good question. It’s difficult to say what I’ve learned, so much, probably so much that I’ve forgotten a lot of it (laughs) but I think it’s really key to focus on the basics. Nowadays, this is something that makes me laugh in the SEO community because I follow hundreds of SEO on Twitter and there are some who are hardcore, down to Earth, basic, brass tacks guys who just get all the way optimizing sites. Then there are all the guys who are more visible, flamboyant, always on the absolute apex at the cutting edge.¬† They’re always talking about, this new technology or telling us to learn this new piece of code or, or scan your site with Ajax … all kinds of new things.

I always say the best thing I’ve learned is to keep away from trends and fads, because I’m my experience,¬† what they end up doing. is, they sucking away your time. Only about 2% of those little trends and fads ever work out.
So as a self-employed businessman, I don’t really have the time to sit fiddling with fads I tend to wait and see what actually works rather than jumping on the bandwagon.

Azeem: That’s a great answer and something that definitely resonates with me.¬† Looking after the absolute basics is something that’s often overlooked, which, when you say it out loud, sounds kind of strange to actually hear that. When you hear that from someone like yourself, who’s got a lot of experience in the industry.¬† I think that will definitely ring true with the listeners.

Phil:
Well,¬† to respond again to that, I mean, just as an example, if there are any SEOs or marketers or web developers listening, you know, the amounts of businesses that are coming to me saying, “oh Phil, can you give the site an audit”?¬† I give the site an audit and it’s like, the site isn’t being compressed for mobile devices in any way, there are like 200 pages with no meta descriptions. I just think this is just basic stuff. I mean, nobody needs to be paying twice for it. So yeah. Focus on the basics, get all that. Right. And then go to the nuance.

Azeem:
Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. You touched there on your last answer, Phil, about the industry and others in the industry, which mostly brings me on to asking you about who has been a big inspiration for you in the industry. Who do you look up to and who is that person or who are the people for you that you really look out for?

Phil: Yeah, that’s a great question too. I mean, there are so many, obviously, I couldn’t really list them, but there’s a couple of people who stand out to me for different reasons.

The first is, and¬† I don’t want to be too cheesy cos, it’s so generic, but it’s Rand Fishkin who set up Moz. I’ve got to say he’s like the world’s nicest guy. You know, you couldn’t, you can’t fail to appreciate the effort he puts into every blog, post, every article, every video and he’s and he just oozes personality..and compassion.¬† Which, I¬† think is something that’s really missing in marketing you know? It can be a bit of a cutthroat, money-grabbing industry at times, rather than really personifies human contact.¬† You know, he’s the sort of person I would want to work for, or the sort of person I would want to hire if I could ever afford him.

Azeem: I’m sure if he’s. Which I imagine he will be. He’s going to love hearing that. So, yeah.

Phil: Then there’s another chap and now this one’s a more controversial one. He’s a good SEO,¬† He’s a no-nonsense type of chap, he told me, sometimes that gets him into trouble, but I quite like Barry Adams because he’s very blunt. He’s is he’s not mean, but he just calls a spade, a spade. *(Terrible terminology from a black man talking to an Asian man, Franz Fannon would have a Field Day)

Barry Just gets to the point.¬† I noticed that sometimes that rubs people up the wrong way, particularly, younger SEOs and marketing people who are a little bit more, shall we say “emotionally intelligent”. He’s my generation. He makes me chuckle.

Azeem: I heard also that Barry is a big fan of AMP.¬† So he’s going to love that…(laughter).
Brilliant two brilliant answers. I’m sure they’ll both be happy to hear that. Especially coming from someone like yourself. I just wanted to ask you, then you’ve mentioned that you’re a self-employed business owner. You’ve been that way for a while now. What are the sort of biggest challenges that you’ve got now and how have you overcome them?

Phil: My challenges now are outside of SEO in so many ways. It’s about running a business. You know, my, when I wake up at night thinking about the business and go to sleep at night, thinking about the business. It’s all about how can I improve the service I deliver?¬† It’s all about how can I scale the business? Bring new people in good people that I can afford to hire, or also who are keen to learn SEO and grow. That is the number one challenge I’m facing.
Scaling the business.
I’m taking some action with that, working with a business coach to basically move my business to the next stage so that we can take on more clients and also bigger clients.

Azeem:
It’s a Lockdown podcast. So I’m going to ask about COVID. How has COVID affected your business and how have you responded?

Phil: Well, I could see this coming from some way away. You know, when the news first broke in China, I was looking at it thinking, Hmm, this is there’s a tidal wave coming I think we’re gonna have to get ready for it.
I emailed all my customers and just said, “look, we’re here. We know what’s happening. We’re ready to respond”. And at first, it was like tumbleweeds, you know, nothing happened.

And then all of a sudden clients started to panic,¬† about the possibility of having to lay off staff, et cetera, et cetera. ¬†I probably immediately lost a third of the business. When I say lost, my clients phoned me up and they said, Phil, we’re just going to have to pause because we want to hold onto our money, which was really quite devastating to me because the business was just growing nicely.

But I’m pleased to say. It’s been a bit of a see-saw situation because but once people realised, actually, this isn’t too bad and we can adapt. We can pivot. We can come back, they phoned me back and said, right, we’re ready to go back on again.

So it’s picking up again now. (*Article recorded 2020. All is well in 2021)

I think as the country gets back to work we’re going to see more and more growth because the economy was heading in the right direction before this. So I think, now that have adjusted slightly, we are seeing more traditional businesses online, people have changed the way they work, working from home.¬† If anything I think the economy will come out a bit stronger.

Azeem:
Yeah, definitely. And that’s a really interesting one too because previous guests have all had different answers about responding to coronavirus. But I think you’re the first field that said. You were proactive and got in touch with your clients early on.

As you mentioned, tumbleweeds early on, but being proactive and letting your clients know, “look, this is something that’s on the horizon”, is brilliant. A great sign of a good marketer who’s on top of the latest trends. Speaking of which, how are you doing that? How do you continue to learn and gain knowledge in order to sort of stay in line with the industry..

Phil: Learning has always been a big thing for me. I wasn’t amazing at school. I’ll tell you that. I, you know, I think I came out of my initial schooling with no GCCS and I went back to school and did that in the sixth form. Then did a few more quals in college, A levels and then a degree,¬† so learning has always been a big thing for me.¬† ¬†I come from a hilltop town in the middle of the Derbyshire Peak District where men are men and people are scared. People traditionally work more in the trades and University or anything like that wasn’t really valued.¬† ¬†But I’ve always been obsessed with getting ahead, you know, and trying to pull myself out of what I saw as abject poverty, really when I first started off.

So I read a lot, I’m read all the books I can get. I’ve got a subscription to audible and I find that Podcasts are my go-to because they allow me to learn from my peers on the go.¬† I can be out for a run, walking or working in the garden, but I can still be taking all the key information from people who I respect.

Azeem: Good stuff. Thank you very much for the free plug. A lot of positives that you’ve mentioned about, I’m just going to flip that on its head a little bit now and talk about failure.

So what in the last 12 months has been the biggest failure for you or for your business and why do you think that happened?

Phil: Wow. Yeah, that’s a good one.¬† I think realistically, the biggest failure that I have is what so many business owners talk about,¬† the fear of imposter syndrome.

When you set up your own business, you just go from being an employee on day one to all of a sudden there’s, you know, some kind of supposed mastermind on day two.¬† ¬†Learning the ropes of running a business is quite tricky. You’re not just doing SEO, you’re doing customer relations, you’re doing accounting,¬† You’re doing forward planning, you’re doing staff management. And so in terms of failure, I think I judge myself pretty hard. I do drive myself quite hard.

I think communication, being able to communicate. To the clients and to staff members, just exactly what the vision of the company is and where we’re going to go next is my biggest failure. But it’s something that I plan to learn from, you know, you just going to keep going. In the first few years. The most successful business people of all time have all said, I failed multiple times to get where I am today and I accept failure.
It’s part of learning without failure, You think you’re doing brilliantly and then you can become arrogant and cocksure.

Azeem: or, yeah, absolutely. And then for those types of people who are like, as you described, In my opinion, failure definitely hits them harder.

So it’s, it’s an interesting one.

Phil:¬† We’ve all failed in life, haven’t we at certain things, you know, you might think you’re good. you’re in for a competition or a sporting event, you think you’re going to do well. And then all of a sudden, you know, you get shown by someone who’s worked harder or more dedicated and that’s going to happen even in business, you know?
I welcome it personally because my aim is to deliver the best service possible overtime.

Azeem:¬† Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And what you’ve said there resonates with me massively. I think my opinion is there are parts of the industry that are in a race to be first, the first to do this, the first to do that.
But I think going back to what you said earlier, about getting the basics right. And what you’ve just said there about, you know, delivering the best you can for your clients. It’s very underrated. If you’re the first to do something… it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the best.

Phil:¬† It’s also about refining, you know you may have a fantastic technique.¬† You may have a fantastic process that you roll out. It’s making money for you, the clients are happy, but it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be refined. It doesn’t mean that it’s the most optimal. So, you know, I’m always looking for improvements.

Azeem: Awesome. Speaking on that then, let’s talk about right now, obviously with confidentiality in mind, can you share with our listeners what you’re working on right now?

Phil:¬† Yeah, well, I can I’ve got some pretty decent clients coming in at the moment. A big company who work with industry. Obviously, I can’t reveal exactly what they do, but it’s basically about creating an environmental solution for heavy industry.¬† Again, that’s something that resonates with me, you know, we all know heavy industry exists. We all know it’s a big polluter, which causes me a worry, I’m a bit of a Greeny. This company are actually taking strides to tackle the toxic elements of the work that must be done. So, by helping them to market themselves and take a foothold in the market, and that’s where I come in and I’m really proud to help companies who are trying to change the way we do things.

Azeem:¬† Great stuff. Sounds really interesting. Definitely keep us posted on that. I’ll be sure to check that out. Yeah. Just before we finish, I asked all of my guests that “if you and I were to swap roles, what question would you ask yourself that I’ve not asked you?

Phil:¬† Okay. I’ve got one serious one and I guess a flippant one. Has your ethnicity affected you, In the business community, within the marketing community, because obviously there are not many people of colour working in this industry”. ¬†and if there are, there are only a few of us who are visible, not that I think it’s massively important. I think your attitude is far more important than the colour of your skin or your background..

So that’s a serious question. The Flippant One, “is SEO dead?

Azeem: Given that you’ve asked it you can go for it.¬† Do you feel like your ethnicity or, or your skin colour has held you back?

So I’d say probably in the early days maybe, Yeah, because it was quite universally white.¬† The industry nowadays, you know, 20 years have passed it’s different than when I was at uni when I was struggling to put myself out there. Nowadays most people seem to have a much more broad mind.

I’m seeing people of colour getting into good positions, standing up on stage, demonstrating their expertise, just the same as everyone else.

So,  You know, when I first set up the business, I was panicking about it, especially living in the Peak District. As I say, even though I grew up here, I thought, well, how will people respond to me as a business owner? Are they going to trust me with their money? Is it going to be about the work I do,
Or is it going to be about their perception of me, but so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and you know, I think we live in a new world.

Azeem: Yeah, absolutely. For me, I would say pre-COVID probably. Yes. So I’ve written a few blog posts about this on my website, which you can check out. I’ve also given a few conferences talks about this.
I had a couple of moments where I was attending conferences with a notepad and pen, trying to take in as much information as a court. Like these are people in the industry who’ve been chosen to speak at conferences, and then just something happened at one conference. Took a second to sort of scan through this lineup.

And I just thought, well, everybody is white here, where are the people of colour? And as you mentioned, there are not many people of colour in marketing in general. So I looked around in the crowd and there were people of colour there, but the entire lineup was white. And I just thought, well, there’s some kind of disparity.

I wondered; Is this just me making an issue out of something that might not be an issue or is this genuinely a bigger thing? So, I went away, did an anonymous survey where I spoke to the industry last year, asked them for their thoughts and feedback, all anonymous, because sometimes people want to speak about things, but are afraid of putting their name or their company to it.
So I did that and got some really, really interesting results.

Then I looked at conference lineups and I just thought, well, this is really sad to see that there were several conference lineups where I found one conference that had one black speaker over a few years who was the same black speaker every year.

This year before COVID hit the entire lineup was white. So obviously he must’ve been busy this year, but I look at that and I think, well, there are lots more marketers of colour who are doing really, really great things and deserve to be put on a stage. But as you’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of work being done by numerous people in the industry to raise awareness of not only black people but black indigenous people of colour to say, look, we are here.
We have a voice. We are doing good things.

Yeah, absolutely. I think sometimes part of the issue is probably with me that I probably want to see progress happen faster than it is, but I also recognize that these types of microaggressions and issues have happened for a number of years now, and to expect change to happen just at the click of a finger, it’s probably not realistic, but I think it’s a sign of passion, Deffo.

Phil: Yeah, I would agree with what you’re saying. As I said to you before we started this podcast, I’m coming up for my 47th birthday and society’s massively changed in the time that I’ve been alive, but sometimes it’s two steps forward one step back.

So yes, I want to be more visible myself and I want other people of colour, whether they’re from Asian backgrounds, black backgrounds, or whatever, to be more included, but I don’t want tokenism you know, I don’t want to be on the stage as the only black speaker, just because I am the only black guy in the room.

I want to be there because I’m a REAL person.¬† I think that that’s more critical. We don’t want to EVER be token.¬† People tell me that there’s a lot of tokenism at the moment, and I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be recognised for what I do.

Azeem: Yeah, absolutely, and again, I completely agree with you there.
I think there is to an extent, but it’s just a case of trying to balance that. And as you’ve rightly said, we want people to be on stage, regardless of what skin colour they have,¬† on merit and how good they are, how knowledgeable they are on that subject, rather than let’s just invite Joe blogs or Jane blogs, because they’re black and we need to tick a box. that’s just the wrong way to do things.

Phil: So what about SEO then? Is it dead? (laughter)

Azeem: Well, for me, if it dies, there’s always PPC, but I know that we’re awful. A few fail. I don’t think so. I think it’s evolving. That’s my two pence. And as you’ve rightly mentioned, you’re somebody who’s got a lot more experience. In this industry. So you’ve probably seen a lot more change in SEO than I have.
It’s an ongoing cycle of change. And although we do need to make sure the basics are looked after, I think a small proportion of us or a percentage of us should have a slight eye on what changes are incoming. Think of a ranking change, for example, you’ve got to respond to that fairly quickly.¬† Otherwise, you could be in trouble, something like that.

Phil:¬† ¬†I’m in agreement with you. From my point of view, SEO isn’t dead. For the simple reason, we’re not talking about technology or technology changes here.¬† I see it because I live in a rural area.¬† Half the businesses here still aren’t fully online. So, there are hundreds of thousands of businesses still to come online. Forget e-commerce and big marketing like that. We’re talking about just getting businesses online, first websites….getting people set up getting people found. Getting them registered with all the relative accounts where they can raise their visibility.

You know, there’s easily 10 years of SEO work, basic grunt work to be done. Across this country. And then if you think about, compare how advanced Britain is with many, many other countries in the world, SEO, isn’t dead and it isn’t going to be dead for some time.

Azeem: Brilliant answer. Unfortunately, we are nearly coming to the end of this podcast, which is a shame cause I’ve had a really great discussion with you today, but I always end with one question.¬† Which will end up in me curating some sort of playlist.

So when you need to get deep into your productivity zone, what is your go-to song? Artist’s playlist what’s in your ears?

Phil:¬† Great question. It’s tricky this actually, because a lot of the time I like silence when I’m working. I rarely play music when I’m working. But,¬† when I’m on a roll, it has to be, and this is going to shock people.
Iron maidenRun to the Hills. It’s just a fantastic song with a galloping beat. And it makes me feel invincible.

Azeem:
This is super interesting to hear Phil because if you listen to some of the other episodes and some of the ones that are due to be released, I’m absolutely positive that I’m missing something here as a lot of marketers listen to a similar genre of music you’ve mentioned there. For me, I just couldn’t. I can’t do it.¬† ¬†I would, you just want to rock out at my desk.

That’s the type of stuff I would listen to if I’m in the gym. So for me, I liked listening to classical music or some sort of piano music, just very low contact. So I don’t pay attention, no lyrics, just something there, but I can just imagine you are now sitting at your desk, rocking out is the rest of your day.

Phil: I think probably what I’m doing a crawl or something like that, rather than when I’m actually writing copy.

Azeem: Brilliant Phil. You’ve been a great guest. Thank you very much for joining me. If people want to find out more about you or get in touch, how can I do?
Phil: Well, I guess the easiest way would be to jump on Google and type in Peak District SEO.
There you’ll find every page going about me. Or if you want to connect with me personally, then you can do it on LinkedIn. I have a big smile on my photo, so I should be pretty easy to find.

Azeem: Yeah,¬† the people listening will definitely see that, especially when I put out the teaser for this episode, it shows the photo of you looking probably no more than 19, which I’m incredibly jealous of.

Phil, thanks very much for joining me. I will let you have the last word on this podcast.

Phil:¬† Thanks very much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you and thanks for giving me this opportunity.

* To listen to all the other episodes of Azeem Asks Click this link. 

 

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