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Eating your own dog food and marketing your agency (featuring Aaron Strout)

Listen to the advice you give to clients and take advantage of it for yourself
Aaron Strout

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Is your agency doing a good job of marketing itself? If you’re like most agencies, the chances are that you aren’t taking enough of the advice you give your own clients.

On this episode, Aaron Strout, CMO of W2O Group, shares his experience as an agency marketer. He talks about how you get more out of the whole team, and why marketing matters beyond new business — including recruiting, M&A, and more.

Topics covered include:

  • The intersection of agencies and consulting firms, and how each is getting into the other’s arena
  • The role of a CMO in an agency
  • How the W2O marketing team functions
  • The impact of thought leadership in the agency space
  • Using events as an agency marketing tool
  • The software and services that provide structure to W2O’s marketing
  • Leveraging internal expertise effectively
  • How W2O measures marketing success for itself


About Aaron Strout

Aaron has 25+ years of integrated marketing, social media, mobile, event marketing, advertising experience, CRM and thought leadership with a strong history of building high performance teams. Prior to joining W2O, Aaron spent time as the CMO of Powered Inc. (now part of Dachis Group), VP of Social Media at online community provider, Mzinga, and as Director of Digital Marketing at Fidelity Investments.

Aaron is the coauthor of Location Based Marketing for Dummies (Wiley) and writes a monthly mobile/location-based marketing column on Marketingland.com. He is the host of the award-winning What2Know podcast (iTunes) which features industry leaders talking about innovation and best practices.


CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Chats with Chip Podcast. I’m your host, Chip Griffin, and my guest today is Aaron Strout. Aaron is the Chief Marketing Officer for W2O Group. Welcome to the show. Aaron.

AARON: Thanks for having me, Chip.

CHIP: It is great to have you here. It’s been a long time since we’ve connected in person, but I’m glad that you were able to join on the show to share some of your marketing insights for agency leaders. But before we do that, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about yourself and W2O Group.

AARON: Sure. So I’ve been doing marketing in some way, shape or form, I guess, for about 25 years now, which means I started when I was 12 years old obviously. And I was-

CHIP: You and me both.

AARON: That’s right, exactly. I was fortunate to grow up in the digital age, so my first job was at a direct marketing agency, small one south of Boston. Worked at Fidelity Investments for nine years, that’s really where I cut my teeth and learned all aspects of email marketing, website like banner advertising. This is sort of mid to late nineties. And then worked at two different startups that were focused on online community and social media and that took me to W2O in 2011. And I’ve been able to practice and apply a lot of that while I’d been there, which has been helpful.

AARON: And then to your question of what is W2O, we are an agency and our essence, but we’ve really expanded that into more of a consultancy as well. And part of what our clients appreciate about us is we hire a lot of very experienced practitioners. We have a lot of very deep experts in certain areas and we do focus mainly in the healthcare sector. We do have some tech clients still, and one of the sweet spots that we’re looking at going forward is in this intersection of health and tech since health is such a critical issue and tech isn’t going away anytime soon.

AARON: So we’re about a thousand people and we are in 15 different offices including London, headquartered in San Francisco and really helping clients across the spectrum of communications, integrated marketing. And really the foundation is in analytics and we have 110 person data science analytics and research team. And the goal there is to make sure that any kind of advice, any kind of solutions we create, really are grounded in facts, data and insights.

CHIP: And it’s interesting that you all have moved from sort of the agency space towards consultancy. Obviously the big consultancies have started to get into the PR and marketing services business themselves. And more and more agencies are thinking about how to be strategic consultant partners, not just on the communications side, but I think you guys at W2O have taken it to a level beyond what most in the agency-space have done so far.

AARON: Well, thank you for saying so, and I think just an interesting point about that. I have the most respect for the big five consultancies and have friends like Adam Cohen that works at Acccenture, who worked for us for a while. And I think what’s happened is, in their case they realized they give great advice and that they didn’t have arms and legs, and so it left clients sort of wanting it. Like, “That’s great, you gave me all this blueprint for what to do, but I need someone that can execute it.”

AARON: In our case, we had great arms and legs capabilities and we realized that people want something more than just a partner that has arms, and legs and especially in this day and age where everyone’s being forced to do more with less. It’s such a fragmented media landscape, you really have so many different tools in the tool belt that having the planning and the strategy combined with the execution is really critical.

CHIP: Now obviously agencies do a lot for their clients as far as marketing, developing earned media, managing social and content and all that sort of things. Very few agencies have formal CMOs as W2O does, and of course that’s your role. So, tell us a little bit about how you see your role within W2O and what you’ve seen perhaps across the industry with others that may have similar positions in their agencies.

AARON: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think what’s interesting is when I started in 2011 there wasn’t a formal CMO position, I actually started more as like a strategy senior account lead. And over time leaned into the marketing piece and about three or four years ago, I guess, I formally became the CMO of the company.

AARON: And I’ll really give kudos to two people in particular. One is our founder and CEO, Jim Weiss. Jim has always been a big believer in doing things differently, and he had worked with a guy named Bob Pearson who’s written several books. And Bob is now just a consultant with us, he’s off doing very cool things and really living the life that he wants to live. But Bob was someone that truly instilled the power of being a thought leader, going out there and sort of sharing big ideas with clients, and teaching them the art of the possible versus just saying, “Hey, how do we incrementally get better by 1% or half a percent or a quarter of a percent?”

AARON: And so what’s been nice is, I have had that background of thought leadership, which I spent a lot of time doing over a few different companies. And then combining that with the nuts and bolts of what a good marketer would do, sort of drawing back on my direct marketing days of the early, early days. And so it’s been great and it does help us really punch above our weight for a company that’s only been around for 20 years, and is, I don’t want to say only a thousand people, but you look at an Edelman or some of the other big five holding companies, they are billion dollar companies where we’re in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But it does give us an ability to really show up in a powerful way.

CHIP: And so, I mean, is thought leadership really the core of what you’re doing? Is it just one piece of the puzzle? Talk to us a little bit about the mix.

AARON: Yeah. I would say up until probably a couple of years ago, it played a disproportionately large role. It is still a critically important piece of what we do. But one of the things now that we are focused on scaling, and once you get to that tipping point of about a thousand people, it is hard to just grow based on referrals and based on the expertise you have. You really have to get much more scientific about it. And we do have offerings now, like on our analytics side, that do sell almost more in a SaaS-like way. And anyone that’s worked in the SaaS software space, you realize that demand gen is really where it’s at.

AARON: So we’re balancing having this engine, this track ability with Salesforce, using their [inaudible 00:06:45] marketing automation, their Salesforce Cloud. Doing events, doing awards, doing PR, all those traditional things. But really still putting thought leadership on a platform. And one last thing I’ll say and then I’ll take a breath, is that with some of the events that we participate in South by Southwest, JP Morgan, ASCO. And then our own events like our Marketing Science Summit, we really try to make sure that we create an experience that’s grounded in thought leadership and bring a nice mix of people that blow minds and at the same time also provide some good pragmatic advice.

CHIP: And are you, when you’re putting together the work that you do, both strategy and tactics, are you drawing upon the overall resources of W2O Group? In other words, are you eating your own dog food or do you have a self-contained team that’s doing all the work? How do you execute in that fashion?

AARON: Yeah, it’s a mix of both. I have a six-person team, but then I do tap into our paid media team, our web development team, our creative team, our social media team. So we really do have the ability to eat our own dog food but, what I have found is is that there are times where client work always comes first. And so not having your own soldiers to be able to help rally and march things forward becomes difficult.

AARON: So I think we’ve struck a nice balance of having a nimble team. It will grow more in 2020 especially as we grow. But we are fortunate in the fact that we do get to tap into some of the greatest experts in the world, and I could never afford to house all that talent within my group, nor could we as an agency afford it. But borrowing five, 10% of different people’s time over the course of the year definitely helps.

CHIP: Now obviously you note that at a thousand employees you’re big enough that there are certain challenges to marketing, obviously at that size there are certain advantages. I think most listeners to this podcast would be jealous to have a six-person team that was marketing their agency. But, talk a little bit about on the whole, do you think it’s more advantageous or more challenging to be in a marketing role for a large agency like that?

AARON: It’s a good insight because it does have dual benefits, right? I’ll say one is, just from an internal communications perspective, which our team does oversee. We do have a tool called Workplace, it’s essentially Facebook inside of the agency. And that has been a godsend but it is hard, because you start to lose control over knowing all of the people, understanding who’s on point for all these different things.

AARON: So one of the things we are looking at is how do we really harness that internal power and the ability to communicate. And you can use that, by the way, externally for the advocacy [inaudible 00:09:27], so that’s where having that bulk really works. We work with a partner at Dynamic Signal and they’re really great in allowing us to amplify any news that we have, any thought leadership we have. CRM certainly enables a lot as well.

AARON: But it is hard and I will say the thing that’s probably the hardest about getting big is, we just did three acquisitions and they’re in the MedCom scientific strategy space. So this is not a new area for us, but it’s an area where we haven’t been as deep and as capable as we are now. So that’s a whole new area that I have to work with the team and figure out what’s the best strategy going forward, is adding new events and new publications and new types of content.

AARON: And then the other is just the true scaling, right? So in the past it’s been focusing maybe on two or three leaders with the plans that you put together from a social media perspective. And now it’s probably more a seven to 10 people that you’re starting to focus on because they represent different disciplines. People get busy, they have a lot on their plate. So, I love the challenge and it’s certainly one that I wouldn’t have any other way. But it does, it definitely presents with some good, some bad and the other.

CHIP: Now obviously at your scale you’ve got a ton of talent out there within the agency in all the different offices. Do you find that they are in general willing participants in the thought leadership? Are you having to chase them down to be helpful? Are they sort of banging on your door saying, “Hey, we want to do things, don’t hold us back.” How does the talent play into that mix?

AARON: We are fortunate in the fact that I think most people, because of the power of what we have, people see that when someone puts out a blog post or someone does a podcast or someone has a video or whatever, that we can turn on the marketing engine and we can all of a sudden bring in a lot of engagement. And so I think for those that aren’t timid about doing it, then they love that. And I have partners like Gary Grates or Chuck Hemann, who I think you know, and they’re regular contributors and they understand how it works.

AARON: And so, I would say the only thing that I’m really sort of looking at is I do have some incredibly, insanely smart people that are really deep experts in their space. People like Brian Reid and Rita Glaze, and they’re so busy with client work and bringing in new business that it’s hard sometimes to find time for them to do a webinar or to write a blog post. So one of the things we’re working on is finding ways to make that easier for them and to facilitate that. And the more turnkey without getting [inaudible 00:12:03] I think is really critical to enabling the people, the right people. But we are blessed in the sense that our cup runneth over and it’s rare that I’m out there begging for content. If anything, it’s just making sure the content we’re putting out there is aligned with our purpose and our goal.

CHIP: Right. And that is obviously an advantage that the PR and marketing space tends to have, is that a lot of the talent tends to be willing and able to create some of this thought leadership content. Whereas, when we have clients sort of banging on the door and saying, “Please, can you help us? Please, can you help us?” And that is different I think overall in the agency space.

AARON: I totally agree.

CHIP: So, as you look at your team, are you operating in the same way that a marketing department might in say a SaaS business where you have targets for lead generation and things like that? Is it more of a softer brand building exercise? How are you measuring success, what kinds of goals do you use as guideposts?

AARON: Yeah, it’s a little bit of all of those things. So our KPIs, our key performance indicators, are, we look at the volume of earned media coverage that we get. We certainly look at the web traffic with CRM and marketing automation, which is a newish thing to us. We’ve been working on it for about a year, but now we are looking at things like MQLs, marketing, qualified leads, and SQLs, growth of our overall database. We look at all of the metrics you would around e-newsletters and emails, open rate and deliverable and click throughs and things like that. Similar with banner advertising or display and paid social. We’ve been doing a lot more with paid LinkedIn recently because we’re finding that’s an effective tool.

AARON: But we do, we have awards. We feel like wards are a good proxy for our brand health and awareness and how are we doing and how good is the quality of the creative. Are we winning things like best place to work for, that’s a really important one to us because that says that our employees like us and they care. And part and parcel of that is Glassdoor, which for a long time was our bane. And now we’ve really started to turn that into an asset where we put regular employee branding-type videos and content in there and then have worked hard to manage that.

AARON: And definitely by managing, and I mean not gaming it, but a lot of people, sort of like Yelp, you tend to get a lot of five and one stars on Glassdoor for people that leave that are not happy with you that then go and find Glassdoor and use that as a place to [inaudible 00:14:31]. It’s always untrue, by the way. You don’t have as many people that proactively say, “Hey, I love my job, I’m going to go in and post a review.” So one of the things that we do try to do is just remind people to go in and leave open and honest answers, and really help balance out because it does help with recruiting. It helps with employee satisfaction, and it is a good way to make sure that we’re showing up correctly in the [inaudible 00:14:55].

CHIP: Yeah, I think that’s a great point too. And something that a lot of agencies overlook, and that is that part of marketing is not just about generating new business. It’s about managing your talent pipeline, all the way from recruiting to retention. And making sure that you’ve got good communications both internally and externally on the talent front is a really valuable component of the marketing aspect of an agency.

AARON: Yeah, I mean, I would argue that talent and finding good and retaining good talent is one of the hardest things to do. And especially in our space where we are focused on healthcare. But I would say, any sort of really specific industry, it’s hard to get the right people. And, that is back to the point of scaling, keeping up with the talent and making sure that you don’t lose people out of the bottom of the bucket as you’re filling the top of the bucket. And, so it is something that … I partner very closely with our Chief People Officer, Deborah Hankin, and Casey Cole and her team with the leads People Experience for us, because of the fact that it is such a critical thing and they’ve been amazing partners and really helping us to build that muscle.

CHIP: And just about every one of my agency clients will say that one of their biggest challenges is finding the right talent at the right time. And so, if you built up the reputation where people want to come work for you, that’s a real benefit, and it’s an important part of the marketing function I think.

AARON: Yeah. And part of that too is, even though awards and things like that aren’t always specifically geared at recruiting and maintaining, there is a level of pride. And particularly creative talent, which is always hard to get the best people and to make sure that they feel satisfied because a lot of them aren’t looking for the most money. They want to work for a brand where they can do meaningful work and feel fulfilled.

AARON: And I think more and more people, this Millennial generation, not to overgeneralize there, but they are more purpose-driven than maybe some of us, the Gen Xers or baby boomers. And it is something that people need to take seriously. We’ve always talked about user experience in terms of websites and product development. I would say that that people experience is really one of the most important skills and being able to partner with our HR folks and the creative teams and others, is something that we find critically important.

CHIP: And building that reputation can also help on the acquisitions front, which obviously is something that you guys have done a lot of, you already alluded to that. But there’s a lot more M&A activity taking place in the agency space and if you’re either looking to be acquired or you’re looking to acquire firms, reputation plays into that in addition to the hard bottom line numbers.

AARON: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It’s really, really important because people don’t want to be acquired by or acquire a loser. They want to know that you’re smart, that you’re growing, you’re working with the right clients. And adding to that is, we did take on private equity four years ago and then actually added a new partner earlier this year which has facilitated some of that. And so, you very much have to make sure that you’re showing up in the best way possible and you want to be open and honest because you can’t be … they find out pretty quickly if you’re not authentic. And so it does really up the game in terms of making sure that they see your best self and that once they’re in the doot, that they continue to see that best self.

CHIP: Now obviously most of the listeners here, as I said earlier, aren’t going to have a thousand employees or a six-person marketing function. But if you were working for a smaller agency or you were talking to someone who was running marketing for a smaller agency, what are the things that you would advise them to be focused on first? What tips would you have for them to get jump-started on their marketing activities?

AARON: Well, I think the first thing I would say is truly understand the buying cycle and the buyer path of your customer. And part and parcel of that is really understanding, building out personas. And making sure you’re careful about them, that you’re not doing it in a exaggerated way that it’s like, oh, if it’s a tech buyer, let’s say director of IC or VP of IC, and it’s going to be a male who’s in their mid forties, that might be a lot of them. But try to really think about what are their characteristics? And don’t assume they’re just going to be on LinkedIn and they’re not ever going to be on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And so, sitting down and not having 20 personas but having a good core four or five.

AARON: Second is, making sure you’ve got a good marketing automation platform. There are a lot of them out there. There are companies and tools like HubSpot in our native Boston area, but looking at things like Marketo or Eloqua. And being able to use those, or even simply, a MailChimp or some sort of email service provider.

AARON: And then don’t forget about the thought leadership piece. And it can be as simple as doing a podcast like this, which is not simple by any stretch, but if you commit to it or having a thought leadership platform, so doing blog posts. So easy to do on places lik Medium now or even just doing it on LinkedIn, having your CEO do it or your head of marketing. Those would be the three things that I think probably can have the biggest bang for the buck.

CHIP: And they’re all things that are very much within the reach of an agency, even if it’s only a five or 10 person agency. And so, whether you have marketing as a full time responsibility or it’s just a piece of what you do, maybe you’re the owner yourself and you’re doing it, I think those same pieces of advice apply throughout the life cycle of an agency.

AARON: They do. And what I would say is, if no one is dedicated to it, making sure that you do have a schedule. Trying to adhere to that, not biting off more than you can chew. So if you said, “We are going to do eight thought leadership pieces this year,” and you schedule them out and you stick to your guns, that’s not impossible to do. And if you say, “We’re going to put out an email once every four weeks or two weeks,” or whatever, it doesn’t have to be complicated, we’ll build our database. You can do things like that where if you just keep yourself on task, that I’ve seen, has made a huge difference in terms of staying honest.

CHIP: Yeah. And I think one of the mistakes that I see a lot of agencies make is they give up too soon on marketing activities. And as we all know, and we would advise our own clients, it takes time. You can’t expect to have a victory right out of the gate, in all cases you’re going to need to kind of be consistent and keep pressing forward on it. And so not giving up and being consistent is a huge piece of being successful when it comes to marketing in any industry, but particularly in the agency space.

AARON: Truer words were never spoken. I honestly believe that that is one of the biggest issues is, because marketing is an iterative art. And it is one where, with things like building a database, email marketing, automated marketing automation, it only gets better and meaningful as you do it for several months. Thought leadership, if you put one good piece out and then never do another one, you don’t build on the benefit that you get from it. So I wholeheartedly agree with you on that one, Chip.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, before we wrap up here, I’d like to take just a moment and have you look around the corner if you would a little bit, and what are the things that you see coming from an agency marketing standpoint that you’re keeping an eye on that may be useful tools or useful approaches in the next year or two?

AARON: Well, I guess a couple of things. This probably won’t surprise anyone but getting really targeted with your marketing. So there’s a discipline called account-based marketing and the essence of it is, if people haven’t heard of it is, you don’t need to sell to a thousand people or a million people. I mean, maybe you do if you’re Frito-Lays and you want to sell to everybody in the country and then that’s a whole different approach.

AARON: But let’s say you do work in B2B and you know that, here’s a list of 20 companies that I’d like to work with. Instead of boiling the ocean, going in and saying, “What is it that these companies need? How do I get in the door?” And it’s not cold calling the hell out of them, it’s not spamming them with these emails we all get of like, “Oh, apparently you’re ignoring me.” It’s like, “Yes, I am because I don’t want your service.” But really thinking about what are they putting out on LinkedIn? What are they saying around their earnings, or are they doing a thought leadership? Where are their leaders speaking? And making sure that you’re really focusing on that. So again, that’s not anything new, but I think people are starting to really sink their teeth into that.

AARON: And then the second is just being focused on innovation but in a meaningful way. So how are things like artificial intelligence or machine learning, or how are augmented reality playing a role? Are there meaningful things that you can do to really be game-changing? Making sure your website is staying up and current with the evolution of how websites are evolving. And making sure it’s not stale old content, that it’s got the right mix of videos, that it’s mobile enabled. And optimize, it’s not just a, “Oh, you can see this on my mobile phone, on my smartphone.”

AARON: So I guess those would be a couple of the things that I would say I’m keeping an eye on and I would recommend other people to keep an eye on as well.

CHIP: [inaudible 00:24:03], I love your point about ABM or account-based marketing because it also ties back to what you were saying earlier about personas. And if agencies really understand who their right clients are and who the buyers are within those clients, that will help them focus their activities so that they’re really investing what limited time and resources they have available and the proper things are going to produce results.

AARON: That’s right.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, Aaron, if someone is interested in learning more about you or W2O Group, where can they go?

AARON: I would say for W2O, if you just go to W2O Group, and it’s a O, not a zero. So w2ogroup.com and we’ve got lots of info there, including our blog and events. If you want to find me, Twitter is an easy place to find me. I’m @AaronStrout, A-A-R-O-N S-T-R-O-U-T. And then lastly, we do try to give a gift to the world like you’re doing, Chip, with the podcast, on the What 2 Know podcast. It’s What, the number two, K-N-O-W. And you can find that on iTunes, Stitcher app or Spotify. And we have a lot of fun guests. We’ve had Katie Couric on the show, we’ve had Tyler Florence, we’ve had Dr. Eric Topol and lots of other smarties in the [inaudible 00:25:15].

CHIP: And that is definitely worth a listen. And I think you do that in video too, if I recall correctly, is that right?

AARON: I used to actually. We had a Live from Stubbs, yeah. We did one with Al Roker and we had some bands on there, which was a lot of fun, like Lord Huron. But like we’re seeing right here, this is a much easier experience to sit down and record remotely versus having a whole video crew. So we did that for a time, just audio now.

CHIP: Well, and honestly, Aaron, nobody really wants to look at me, so I don’t need to do this in video.

AARON: Same with me my friend, same with me.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, Aaron, I really appreciate you taking the time today. This has been some great advice for folks. We’ll include links to all of those resources in the show notes, and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken. And again, my guest today has been Aaron Strout, Chief Marketing Officer with W2O Group.

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