Power of the Pivot: Rova’s Joe Olsen Turned His Former Agency Into A SaaS Provider

A decade ago many “digital agencies” were primarily production shops sub-contracting out to the big agencies in big cities. It was a profitable business for several years, but many clients were not fully satisfied. Something was missing.

According to Joe Olsen, CEO of Rova, that something was the strategy that would wed digital production to their business goals. This unmet need introduced consultants into the room, who quickly figured out they could build their own in-house production units, or buy them, thereby owning both the client relationship and the work.

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Three years ago in Omaha, Olsen almost sold his digital agency, Phenomblue, to Accenture. Who wouldn’t listen to an offer like that? Instead, Olsen held on and worked to perfect the software his agency had created to track their sales pipeline and various key performance indicators (for themselves and their clients).

It was a pivot with positive results. Olsen eventually did sell Phenomblue to a local buyer, and now he and his venture capital-backed team focus full time on Rova—the software platform for client service teams that started out as Phenomblue’s in-house tracking and data solution.

Olsen says he doesn’t miss serving clients or working on projects. “I’ve always been a software engineer.” He compares the agency business to the construction business. “Even when there’s a retainer in place, you’re always adding in projects.”

Rova, which is based in Omaha’s burgeoning Aksarben area, officially launched in October 2016 and the Software as a Service provider is somewhat unique in Omaha today. “When you’re selling software, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Olsen says. Having something of value to sell does matter, and Olsen is both passionate and convincing.

“Agencies need to get more strategic. Their work is being commoditized,” he says. “Right now, agencies are trying to catch up. In five years, adding strategic value will be ‘table stakes’.”

Despite the increasing demands and a heightened level of competition, Olsen is encouraged by the discussions he has with agency principles every day. “A lot of agencies have never done this before, but they know they need to do it,” he says.

Rova’s team spends a significant amount of time upfront training agency client service teams on how to set up plans inside the system. Given that every client has unique needs and a distinct set of KPIs to track, Rova’s team can help set up a few initial plans that users are then able to work with and reapply for other clients or purposes.

Rova’s pricing starts at $750/month for their “Starter Package,” plus a mandatory $2500 upfront investment in training. The introductory package allows for five clients, which breaks out to $150/month per client. Olsen claims that the data, plus the agency’s analysis of it, is worth multiple times the investment.

Olsen reflects that whenever he would go on a new business pitch at Phenomblue and open his agency’s software and begin to walk prospects through the data, they won the pitch every time. “It’s more than ROI,” he says. Rova helps expose the integrity behind agency recommendations. “With Rova’s help, you can show clients why the recommendations make sense,” he says.

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About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.