Mike Villar wants to put the romance back into advertising
By Lace Nguyen
A battle-hardened marketing veteran, Villar wants you to practice constraint.
“Relationships escalate one step at a time. Selling without a story is like asking someone to marry you on a first date,” he told the dozen startup employees at Saola, an accelerator program run by 500 Startups.
The entrepreneurs come from a handful of early-stage companies; their biographies are combinations of data scientist, Silicon Valley veteran, Ivy League graduate, programmer, competitive gamer, mathematical physicist, computational biologist, 3x founder, and defecting corporate lifer. To some of them, ‘sales’ is a dirty word, an oil slick contaminating the purity of science.
That’s why 500 summoned Villar: a storyteller who’s obsessed with “putting narrative to data.” Villar said f– you to sales (as we know it) a long time ago. He levitates above the content scrap yard. He’s seen the matrix of advertising and he doesn’t want you to flush that precious venture capital down the toilet by buying tone-deaf Facebook ads.
Before choosing a career in business, Villar spent five years in pre-med: “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. After taking comparative anatomy and slicing people open, I realized that this was not working out for me.”
Wired for science, he follows a data-driven approach to marketing. Villar peppers his talks with acronyms from ARPU to CAC to UGC SEO, using metaphors culled from poker, casino, and slot machines. If you start to see a theme here, you’re right.
“Paid marketing success is just controlled gambling,” says Villar.
The guy has digital marketing down to a hard science. Back home in the Philippines, Villar runs an agency called Growth Rocket for ecommerce clients, most of them based in America. In his former life, Villar failed miserably at starting up (twice) and lead marketing for a few companies including ZipMatch, a real-estate marketplace (also a 500 portfolio company).
In 2016, ZipMatch sent Villar to Distro Dojo, another startup program under 500. Villar still fondly remembers the intensive program: “The beauty of programs like these is that you gain access to experts. Apart from Saalim, there were a couple of other experts who flew in and just looked at the products and rapid-fired ideas to improve.”
When Saola Director Saalim Chowdhury put out a feeler on his LinkedIn to see whether anyone was interested in coming to Vietnam to mentor startups, Villar was among the first to answer.
He continues: “I miss the pace. I miss the problem-solving. The problem-solving in startups is unparalleled, something you’ll hardly see in a traditional, established enterprise. Everyday you’re solving a new problem. That makes you feel alive,” he says.
While pushing the startup founders to conduct growth experiment at the same high speed, Villar also wants them to reflect on the core of their stories. Amid a whirlwind of a week in Vietnam, Villar sits down with 500 to talk paid marketing, founder support, and modern customer courtship.
Have the 10K-foot view
“To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Villar cites the law of the instrument as the main reason marketers are wasting resources.
He advises against hiring marketing specialists who promise they can make anything happen with just SEO or Google Adwords. Having consulted companies across industries and stages, Villar recognizes the importance of having a holistic understanding of your arsenal before planning a marketing strategy.
To have complete command of such arsenal, leaders need to share that vision with the whole team. Villar explains: “People need to be able to correlate the work that they do for the company with the bigger picture, and not a lot of companies do that. You need to be able to zoom out and have the 10K-foot view, as opposed to being myopic.”
Jab, jab, jab, right hook
Back in 2017, Cision anticipated that “the biggest change [to paid media] will be a pivot to storytelling and relationship building.”
Villar echoes other marketing professionals in this emphasis on story: “There’s no sale without the story; no knockout without the setup. Remember jab, jab, jab, right hook. If all you do is throw right hooks, you will get KTFO’d.”
Naturally drawn to narratives, Villar enjoys worldbuilding with his son. He shares that his own personal mission is to read his son a bedtime story every night until he’s not interested in bedtime story anymore.
The stories that both father and son most enjoy are the choose-your-own-adventure type of stories, which Villar makes up along the way. He explains: “For example, I’d tell my kid a story, ‘You are an intergalactic astronaut who fights evil. You see a spaceship in the horizon, what are you going to do? Are you going to approach it, or are you going to run away?’ That kind of story.” Just as an entrepreneur’s path is never defined and linear, a story that’s not set in stone can keep your mind nimble and agile.
Extract the ‘why’ from the data
A story, by definition, needs a point. In the age of information overload, knowing how to harness the power of data by extracting insights from them seems to be more art than science. One thing that’s baked into the DNA of a good marketer is the capacity to combine technical and emotional prowess, rationality and intuition, a worship of metrics, and a healthy dose of risk-taking.
Villar recognizes that in digital marketing, there are so many data points that sometimes people are obsessed with vanity metrics such as email open rate, click rate, post engagements, etc. He urges each marketer to question how and whether each metric influences their brand, and how they can together drive the bottom line.
Take care of your engine before burning more fuel
When asked about a daily habit, Villar cites meditation as the most nourishing. As with many startup founders, a lot of what he does is self-imposed suffering. Villar recommends guided meditation as an antidote to the hectic fever of running a business, a way to resist our era’s obsession with productivity.
Villar knows too well that entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of work-life balance, but agrees that a part of VC funding should go into making sure founders don’t crash and burn.
Sitting in the 500 office with a coffee in his hand at 6 pm, he shares: “I don’t buy into this hustle-until-you-die culture. At the end of the day, you should still care for your health. Hug your kids. Do whatever makes you happy.”
He then returns to taking evening calls with his team based in Los Angeles and Manila.
About the Author
Lace Nguyen is a PR professional serving Promethean figures in the technology world.