Now more than ever before, you have to differentiate yourself as an agency but with so many channels out there to consume content and distribute it in, how do you do it?  Two words – thought leadership. Agency owners talk about the idea of thought leadership and the importance of it but never seem to get off the dime. They just don’t know how.

My podcast guest John Hall has thought leadership down cold. As the the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co, he spends his time advising agencies on how to differentiate themselves with thought leadership and leverage the content they are creating. John and his team have helped agencies position themselves as leaders by creating content that is helpful, unique and truly their own.

Join John and I as we lay out a blueprint for you to finally get that thought leadership done:

  • Thought leadership: why it’s something you have to do
  • Creating a thought leadership content marketing blueprint
  • Why your blogs should have the author’s name for a byline — not the agency’s name
  • Strategies for creating content that isn’t generic
  • How to build thought leadership into your schedule so that you actually spend time on it — and what to do if you can’t
  • Finding the ideal mix for publishing content on your own site vs. externally
  • Big mistakes agencies make with their content
  • Why thought leadership content marketing is here for the long haul

John Hall is co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency that helps companies and individuals extract and leverage their expertise to create, publish, and distribute content to their key audiences.

In five years, John has grown Influence & Co. into one of the largest providers of high-quality expert content to more than 1,000 of the world’s top publications. Under John’s leadership, Influence & Co. was ranked No. 72 on Forbes’ “Most Promising Companies in America” list in 2014 and was named Empact’s “Best Marketing and Advertising Company of 2014” at the United Nations. Influence & Co. was also recently mentioned in Inc. as the No. 1 company dominating content marketing.

John has weekly columns for Forbes and Inc. and has contributed to more than 50 publications, including  Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, The Washington Post, and Mashable. John was recently recognized as a “must-see” and one of the most authentic speakers in Forbes. His talks have inspired thousands of leaders, marketers, salespeople, entrepreneurs, and others to improve their performance.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. Thought Leadership and What It Means
  2. The Pros and Cons of Content Coming from the Agency Rather Than an Actual Person
  3. How Agencies Should Approach Their Thought Leadership Content
  4. Thought Leadership Content Best Practices
  5. How Often You Should Be Developing Content
  6. Common Mistakes Agencies Make When Creating Content
  7. The Longevity of Using Thought Leadership as a Marketing Strategy
  8. Final Advice from John

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, should you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency Podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line, bringing us 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Thanks for coming on back or for joining us if this is your first episode. As you all know, my goal is to bring you interesting folks who are going to talk about how to grow and build your business so that it serves you and your employees and your clients to your dream’s content. Today’s episode is going to be awesome.

Lots of us have talked about the idea of thought leadership, and then the importance of it, and many agency owners really want to tackle thought leadership but aren’t sure how to do it, and our guest today is going to tell us all about it. Let me tell you a little bit about him. John is actually a repeat guest. My guest, John Hall is the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co, a company focused on helping brands and individuals extract and leverage their expertise to create, publish and distribute content, to gain influence, visibility and credibility with their key audiences. In less than four years, John has grown the company into one of the largest providers of high-quality expert content to the world’s top publications.

They have been recently named by Empact the ‘Best Marketing and Advertising Company of 2014’ at the United Nations, Inc. recently mentioned them and called them the ‘Number One Company Dominating Content Marketing’, and they’ve won lots of other accolades as well. John, as well, has been recognized by Forbes as the ‘Number one Keynote Speaker For Digital Trends’, and I’ve heard him speak. He’s a great, authentic speaker and offers a lot of value and content, so I know that today’s conversation is going to be rich for all of you. He has a weekly column for both Forbes and Inc., and he’s contributed to more than 50 publications, including Business Insider, The Washington Post, and Harvard Business Review. He lives in Missouri with his lovely wife and his daughter, and has a great passion for sharing his experiences and expertise with students to help them create more opportunities for themselves.

John, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

John Hall: Thanks for having me.

Thought Leadership & What It Means

Drew McLellan: Just full disclosure to the listeners, I have been a client of yours for the last several years, and you guys certainly have helped me position myself and AMI as thought leaders in the agency space, so I can speak from first-hand account that what we’re going to talk about today really works and can be very powerful in growing a business. Just want everyone to know that John and I know each other professionally that way as well.

John, let’s talk about this idea of thought leadership. It seems like in the last few years, it’s like a hot buzzword, but it’s not really something new, is it?

John Hall: No. I mean, not at all. I mean, this strategy has been around for a while, and it’s the same thing as content marketing in general, is that the last five to six years, it become a big buzz word, but I mean, John Deere was one of the first … A while back, I think it was the ’20s or ’30s or somewhere around there where they started a magazine that was a content marketing campaign. Same thing with thought leadership is that thought leadership, there’s been the leaders of companies that have been out there communicating and educating audiences to ultimately gain trust for years. It’s just now becoming such a trend because a couple of reasons.

One, thought leadership content marketing is obviously growing, but also, there’s this natural connection, a human to human connection that people want with the company. And that hasn’t become as important until recently where people I guess were in the era of the informed customer, and people know there’s information out there about companies, about products, and so they know they can find it, but just think about how you prefer to consume content. Do you want to say, “Hey, this is Apple talking to you”, or “This is Jim from Apple or Sara from Apple who’s educating me on this where I know that they know their stuff, and I naturally have followed them and paid attention, and they’ve earned my trust”? There’s this progression and this trend towards this authenticity and the human to human connection within brands which is putting a lot of budgets, which is putting a lot of focus on investing in thought leadership. And instead of being like this vitamin where people are like, “Hey, it’d be cool if we did it and took this vitamin. It’ll make us stronger”, instead, it’s saying, “Hey, this is a painkiller. We have to do this because if we don’t do this, our competitors are going to do this.  We’re not going to control their information out there about our company or our service, which is going to be a problem, so this is something we have to do”. That’s the reason why it’s become a bigger thing recently.

Drew McLellan: I think the other influencing factor is just the internet and the access to the channels. While John Deere might have put out a magazine, they had to go to A, the expense of publishing the magazine and printing the magazine and getting it to the right people, and now, I think with the internet, I think that’s part of the explosion of content is the distribution channel has gotten so much more accessible, don’t you think?

John Hall: Absolutely. I mean, you’re hitting the nail in the head right there, is that like I said, we’re in this era of the informed customer, and what’s that’s meaning.  There’s so many channels to consume thought leadership content and distribute it that didn’t exist before, and you have to differentiate yourself, and also, people are starting to realize that they want to control the content that’s being distributed. In the past, PR was like, “Okay. If I get picked up here in this outlet, that’s great. I’m thrilled about it”, but that’s not control. You’re basically at the mercy of the reporter or the journalist, and things could be worded differently or depending on what the situation is, but with this, there’s so many ways to distribute and you can also control and make sure you’re getting the right information coming from you.

The Pros and Cons of Content Coming from the Agency Rather Than an Actual Person

Drew McLellan: One thing you said that I thought was interesting was this idea of rather than the company talking at you, you really want a person talking to you, and I know that for a lot of agencies, they may have a blog or any newsletter, but the author is genericized or absent because they want it to come from the agency. Can you talk about that choice and the pros and cons of that?

John Hall: Yeah. I mean, I don’t like that honestly. I mean, it’s subjective. I mean, I would say we do more of getting the bylines from the authors. The reason why we go in that route is because that when we looked at how people were engaging and interacting with content, and what we realize is that there’s this natural I guess on the buyer’s journey, and you can just …

What I always tell people is that you can obviously test this out yourself, but also, just be logical and think, “Okay. If I’m a potential customer, how am I interacting with this content?” Now, if I immediately look at a piece of thought leadership content and I just see it as a general article, I kind of end and I’m like, “Okay. That was a good article, and I might look somewhere else to read a piece of content”, but as I am really intrigued, I’m naturally curious where it came from a lot of times, and so if you see that, “Oh, it’s from Rebecca Johnson”, you’re kind of, “Okay. Interesting”, and there’s a couple of things that can happen.

A, you can be like, “You know, I’ve met her at an event when I did interact with this company”, or it comes to this where, “I want to know more stuff that’s coming from her”, and you might give them a reason to reach out, and so what we’ve learned is that for clients that initially just had a branded content with no person at the end to humanize it, less people ended up reaching out to the brand. And so, granted it was that person, which if you don’t want people to reach out to that person, then it changes things there, but what we realized is that people, when it was coming from someone, they not only followed more, but they also reached out more. When I interviewed them afterwards and said, “Okay. You’re interacting with the content. What did you like about it?”, and it’s like, “Oh, now, I actually follow all of Rebecca’s content”. Even if it’s not on the site, it could be on her Forbes column.

It could be on this column, and so, then you start to create this really good following. However, the only thing that goes against that is that then, when you start building up a following for someone, a lot of companies freak out. They say, “What if that person leaves?” We could spend a lot of time on building up a brand for this company, and for agencies for example, if you invest in one person and they leave the agency, and you didn’t have a non-compete or something, you just built up a brand for someone that could go to another agency and take off things. It could actually hurt, so what I say is that it doesn’t mean you don’t do this. What typically I advise companies is that don’t put all your eggs in one basket a lot of times.

You can. If it’s a sole proprietor or if it’s a small company, it’s fine because most of the time, that person has an ownership stake that they’re not going anywhere.  But for me, we invest in Kelsey’s brand or we invest in getting content from Kelsey, myself, Alyssa … She’s our VP of Client Services, Britney who leads our content, Josh who does a lot of our biz dev. We’re in five or six people that we’re investing in getting content from them, and if one of them were to leave, it’s not as much of a worry because we’re getting so much consistent content that people are overall not just looking at individuals. They’re following our brand, and so what I would say is that we’ve obviously seen benefits in creating the people behind the brand, but you also have to be fairly thoughtful about, “Okay. What happens if they leave and what happens here?”

It’s situation by situation, but I would say in 90% of the cases, it makes more sense to make sure it’s coming from an individual representing the company, rather than just always speaking from a brand point of view.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I think it’s tough to form a relationship or trust a company in a different way than it is to make a connection with a person. I know that … I’ve been blogging since I was seven. Maybe I was six. Anyway, a long time, and a lot of times, I’ll meet somebody who’s been reading the blog for years and they’ll say, “You know what? I feel like I already know you”.

John Hall: Yup.

Drew McLellan: For my agency, it shortens the buying cycle significantly because they already feel that connection. We’re further down the Know-Like-Trust funnel. Right?

John Hall: Yeah. Something I was going to add to it that’s a funny story, and we just saw each other at BOLO, and it was something that Tyler, one of the guys that throws that conference, he came up and he said to me, he goes, “Man”. He said, “You’ve been on my mind this whole last year”, and it was really funny just because it came up. I’m like, “Really? I’m on your mind a lot?”

I joked around with him, and he goes, “You know”. He’s like, “Your content has just consistently stayed on top of my mind where I feel like we’ve still talked a lot this year, when in reality, I haven’t seen you in a year”. And so it was a clear example where we last hung out is that it was simple as people have this natural connection to people, and so if I didn’t have that byline on there, Tyler would have said, “Hey, you’re staying on top of my mind”, and it put us in a situation where it creates that trust even more, and so for what you’re saying, I completely agree.

How Agencies Should Approach Their Thought Leadership Content

Drew McLellan: Yeah. For agency owners who are thinking about creating a thought leadership position for their agency, one of the things that I noticed that a lot of agencies do is they write generic marketing pieces that any agency could put their logo on, so how to do video marketing or whatever it might be.

How do you help your clients or how would you suggest agency owners think about their thought leadership content creation in a way that is really content that they can own and it’s unique to them? How do they go about that thought process?

John Hall: There’s a couple of things. If you can almost imagine like a Venn diagram, I look at thought leadership content a couple of ways. I say, “Okay. How can you truly, exactly how you described, have this unique spin on it?”. And I look at a lot of times, it’s the expertise of the firm. Firm has unique expertise, dealt with a specific type of client or area enough where they have information that other people might not have, and so there’s that factor where it’s relying on the expertise.

Then, there’s also content that you know that this audience is wanting, and that’s where … I’ll give you an example. Like the trends article that I just did. I just did three trends articles in Forbes and Inc.. Is that a piece that other people can’t do? No.

I mean, no. There’s a lot of trends articles, however, we took some of our unique expertise and we added that into the content of what they were wanting, and that, just those … I was just going over with our marketing team. Just those articles brought in over 400 leads to us. When I mean leads, I mean people that filled out information. We have their information, getting them on the phone.

When you look at that, that was a clear example where it’s like, “Man, they wanted to hear this”, and especially when you look at our content compared to the others’ trends articles, it outperformed the others that are going in the area. And so you’ve got to look at, “Okay. What are these kind of overlaps and these unique things that’s related to us?” Also, something that comes up with a lot of agencies and people that I advise, I say, “What are your content triggers? You’re living in your own business, so your VPs, your leadership should all have content triggers”. So the question is, “What is a content trigger?” A content trigger is anytime you are explaining something to someone that’s a potential client or a potential let’s say stakeholder that’s valuable to your brand, you’ve got to write that down.

You have to jot it down, whatever is the easiest way. Send it to your marketing team or whoever is in charge of this, and they need to know that is a content trigger. So if you’re talking to someone like it was a few months ago when someone was asking me about, “Hey, I’m freaked out on the nearest Google changes and how it’s going to affect SEO, and this, and how it affects my own content”, and I go, I explain things to them, and I wrote it down.I gave it to marketing, and now we have in queue a piece of content to answer that question because that’s something that after I explained it, he goes, “Man”. He goes, “That’s really … I get what you’re saying”. He’s like, “This will be helpful”, and so that’s a trigger to me. It was question.  He really wanted an education, really thought it was valuable. Someone who would be a great client and partner to us, and so that’s what I would say is that you can do a content trigger process, which is a very tactical way of doing it.

The only thing that I would say last is the differentiating factor. The differentiating factor like Joe Pulizzi and the Content Marketing Institute. He referred in one of his speeches to the ‘Content Tilt’, and I could relate to it because it’s what tilts you towards someone or a brand because it is unique or it is different. For us, I’ve always called that the ‘differentiating factor’ is that you can either do it by the way you’re communicating it. Rand Fishkin did Whiteboard Fridays or whatever where that was a different way to communicate a message, which differentiated him. Or you could do which is hard because it’s hard to nail the next Periscope, Instagram, like what’s going to be the next thing to invest in?

Drew McLellan: Right. Right.

John Hall: I mean, there’s a lot of ways you can look, and that’s a little harder. I mean, what we try to do is for us, written content online is the easiest to scale out of quality level, and that’s why we focused on it. And so really, it falls into places. You’ve got to nail down the expertise, the unique content triggers, and then also, what the audience truly needs to hear.

Thought Leadership Content Best Practices

Drew McLellan: For agency owners who are listening and thinking, “That sounds great, but how do I get it done?”, I think a lot of agency owners want to build a thought leadership position for their agency, but it gets lost. It’s the silly “cobbler’s children have no shoes” argument. They have a hard time getting it done inside their own shop, and certainly, they can hire folks like you to do it, but if they want to do it internally, do you have any best practices? How do you get it done for yourself? You’re obviously not hiring it outside of your own company, so how do you in the midst of your crazy day where a client’s calling and fires to be put out, how do you make sure that you get your content done? How do you stay disciplined to do that?

John Hall: Sure. Honestly, I hire my own company out. I’m actually the client that goes through the exact process that you go through. So to say that, I actually hire myself the same way, but what I would say is that if you break down the process of the Do-It-Yourself model, what I always tell people is that you’ve got to do it right from the start. So you’ve got to look at it and you have to say, “Okay. What falls into when I’m doing thought leadership content or any form of content coming from it?” First of all, it’s the strategy.

It starts with a blueprint. It’s a crazy step, but it ranges between 30 or 50%. Everybody throws different numbers, but it’s less than 50% of people actually document their thought leadership strategy, so they don’t even … They just do it, and that’s a first challenge is that you don’t have a blueprint to go off of or something to touch base on how, what we’re doing. “Are we following goals?”, so you’ve got to sit down.

The first thing that I would tell you is that to write a blueprint. I don’t care how simple it is, but get that outlined. Get that down. Then it’s, “Okay. How do we get this knowledge and developing the content?’

Now, for me, that’s challenging. To be honest with you, Drew, I’m not a good writer. I know I write all over the place, but I’m not. I actually have never had it as a great strength.  However when I go through our process, that’s where I actually get to extract my knowledge, and then develop into content. You’re a lot better writer than me, so it’s a different process for you, but when it comes to the agency owners that are listening, you have to look and you have to say, “Okay. Am I like a Drew where I’m a better writer than a John?”

In that case, I’m just going to need a process that has me where I’m putting down thoughts from my blueprint and actually getting it to a pretty finished form where then somebody can develop the thought leadership content. For me, I need more help, and so you’ll have to look at it and say, “What do I need to do to execute?” I can do an interview and somebody can record it, and then develop it from there, but I need to get a solid writer in place. But you’ve got to get a content creation process that fits what you need, and don’t try and half-ass it. If you start, just say, “Oh, I’m going to do everything myself”, then you start pulling away from your agency.

Drew McLellan: Right.

John Hall: You start pulling away, and then you have this opportunity cost is, “Am I developing content all day or am I running a company?”, and so that’s where whether it’s hiring it for my money. It could be just looking at other resources as well, and so you’ve got to get that down, and then it goes to the distribution where, “How are you distributing it? Are you going to form relationships on your own?” It’s hard to immediately go after a Forbes or an AdAge or something like that, so you’re going to want to start targeting niched publications. You might know … Let’s say you know Jay Baer or you know one of those people or you know Drew.

You say, “Hey, I’d love to contribute to one of these places”, and you start there. Don’t start off trying to take over the world because as soon as you try to get on the highest cut, the one place you want to go to and you don’t get it, you get frustrated, it gets turned down, and you stop doing it. So start targeting niched sites, places that you can, the kind of low-hanging fruit. Get a content process going, and then once you get that going, those opportunities are going to come because you’re consistently getting that content out there where people are catching and they’re seeing you a little more, and it’s a little easier to aim for those higher sites. And so that’s the natural Do-It-Yourself model is that you’ve got to nail those three things down. What I would tell people who want to do a Do-It-Yourself, create that blueprint, get the execution plan. If you honestly feel like you can do it, then do it.

Do not hire it out if you can do it and it’s not going to affect running your company. Every time, I would advise someone to do that. If you can, then you for sure need to go and find a resource. It might be one part of that. It could be all of it, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself on, “What can I do really well?”, “What can I not?”

If you can do it really well, do it yourself. If you can’t, then you need to find the resources in each one of those specific areas to execute.

Drew McLellan: Let me see if I can paraphrase. Number one, build thought leadership content triggers, so every time you answer a question that you think is more universal than the one person who asked it, have a way to collect that, whether that’s Evernote or Wunderlist or a post-it note, whatever it is, so you’ve got content ideas.

Number two, have a pretty good sense of your own skillset, so both where you have strengths and weaknesses, and then augment that either with your own staff or hiring it out if you need to.

Number three, it’s about consistently publishing and recognizing that you have to walk before you can run, so odds are, you’re not going to have the cover story of a TradePub in your area of expertise or niche right off the bat, but if you start creating content for perhaps regional associations or their trade publications, you can grow into the A-list publications that you want. Right?

John Hall: Yeah, and the only thing I would add to that is that with the publications, if you end up … The whole goal is consistent content here because you want to stay on top of people’s minds. That’s the beautiful goal of thought leadership, content marketing is that you can stay on someone’s mind in a very natural educational way where they think of you when they’re going through the buying process or when they can help you or draw attention to your brand. And so the thing about that, those niche clubs and those places there, a lot of times, they don’t have the two-month wait time. You don’t get stuck in their pipeline, and so no matter what, even me … If you look at me right now, I’ve been doing this for three years.

I’ve published all, pretty much every major site you possibly can. I still love contributing to HubSpot. I love contributing to CMI. I love contributing to niche places all the time. They’re not a name like Forbes, but they’re really, really good in specific industries, and I know that that content, like even though if I would try to get in let’s say do an HBR piece, the pipeline there is probably going to be long, and if my audience is waiting for a piece or they’re like haven’t seen anything from me for a while, it creates a problem, so it’s really …

Think about top of mind marketing because that’s one of the key mindsets that you have to do for a successful thought leadership campaign, and it definitely includes a big part of niche type sites and things like that, even if you can get into those larger sites.

How Often You Should Be Developing Content

Drew McLellan: One of the things that I always get asked by agency owners is, “How much?” How often do you think is the ideal mix to get published? Is it once a week? Is it once a month, and is some of that your own internal content? Was that own content like your own website? What do you think the appropriate mix is?

John Hall: Sure. The way to do it the right way is to look at it from a standpoint is that, “Where are people going to come for the most or where do I want them?” You want them the most on your site. That’s where you can convert them the most by far. Even if people see external content, they go to your site to check things out.

What is the message and what is the content there? For example, blog content, white papers, things like that, it’s important that they convert well.  They’ve got good messaging, they’re pretty detailed. They’re content that is good at converting people on your site. Now then, where you go from that is that then, those messages have to go out externally to really maximize the value there. Then, you look at, “Okay, those core themes”. Let’s say these three or four areas that we’re focusing on on our blog content.

For us, we might be focusing on executive branding on one, thought leadership or content marketing on another, and we might be let’s book writing or something with another tier there. Then, we break off, and then say, “What are different sites, different places? What types of content should be included in this?” Then, that’s how we generate our external strategy because then, a lot of the content is aligned with your onsite content so that when I publish let’s say to, I mentioned content marketing institute, there’s several links and references to our onsite content, which is not promotional. It’s aligned.

It’s more valuable for the reader that they can get a deeper dive into that, and so then you’re basically tapping into other channels. So when I publish to an Inc. or a Forbes, I’m tapping into their channel to get an audience that’s valuable to me, and then ultimately, wanting to educate them more and more. So the mix, it depends, but you want to have that natural … Like people sometimes look at funnel as a bad word. Funnel is not a bad word especially when you’re educating people. A lot of times, people said, “Oh, funnel? That means you’re trying to trick somebody into marketing to them”.

No. The educational funnel, you want to get their attention. After they show more interest, you want to consistently educate them. You’re drawing them in through education, then by the time they’re ready to get on the phone or talk to your company, it’s unbelievable how qualified they are, how educated they are, how great that lead is.  And so the mix is for us, we look at it and we say, “Okay. What do we want onsite? What do we want offsite? This is how it’s going to be strategically aligned”, so obviously, we have a pretty big …

I guess, my advice for other agencies, if you’re starting out, I would say one to two articles out a month externally is pretty good to stay on top of people’s minds, and you should probably have a weekly consistent blog post, or something on-site where it’s new content. As long as it’s consistent, that’s what’s important to me. You don’t have to have a daily one. It’s more of a, “Hey”, when people know like when they’re occasionally going to your site or checking you out, they know that there might be new content that they can either log into a content or their contact information, and then gets some content every once in awhile, but that’s what’s important is that consistency and that alignment to actually result in all that you’re looking for.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I’m a firm believer as you are in the educational thing. I find it fascinating this is what agencies preach to their clients, and yet, they have a difficult time wrapping their head around it for themselves, but I think every piece of content should answer the question, “Hey, prospective agency client. How can I help you get better at your job today?” I think when we focus our content in that direction and we really do help first and just let the selling happen by that Know-Like-Trust funnel, it does work over time and it doesn’t feel like selling.

It just feels like, “Gosh, you’ve been so helpful for so long. Of course, I would naturally pick up the phone and call you or shoot you an email when I’m ready to buy an agency”.

John Hall: Yeah. What happens is they start referring to your thought leadership content. Even if they’re not a client. They start sharing your content out. They start being an amplifier or amplification factors, and as long as you have that alignment with the content, you’re going to benefit from, at any stage, them sharing your content.

Common Mistakes Agencies Make When Creating Content

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. There is so much more that I want to ask you, and before we get into all of that, we need to take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back.

What are some of the pitfalls or the mistakes people make as they create content? Where do they fumble or drop the ball as they’re working on content, and what are some things agency owners or agency leadership teams as they’re working on their agency’s content should avoid?

John Hall: With agencies, I always go back to that same, whatever the cobbler whose kids don’t have shoes or whatever. I forgot the exact wording of it, but –

Drew McLellan: Yeah, the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

John Hall: Yeah. That is key with agency owners. We have a lot of agency clients, and I don’t blame them. I’m a client myself. Agency owners are all over the place, and it’s in our blood, almost like we’re like … It’s not an owner. It’s just it’s leaders as well where there’s creativity involved.

There are great ideas, and so I just told you one of the most important things is staying consistent and top of mind. With agency owners, it’s so hard for them to get ROI out of it, and so a lot of agency owners start off, and they’d say, “We want to do this, and we’re going to focus on it for 2016”. They do it for one month, something else pops up, and then they’d think about it, “Oh, crap. In April, we need to get started on this again”, and they never get momentum. They never actually do it consistently, and it ends up being this haphazard thing put together, and then it doesn’t work, or they start off by like …

I had one agency owner that was like, “Yeah. We got no traction to our blog, and we wrote on our blog for a year”, and I’m like, “What do you mean? How were you drawing people into that blog?” “What do you mean?” “Did you think people were just going to randomly just think, ‘I need to go to this agency’s blog and have no form of …’?”

Drew McLellan: Right.

John Hall: You have to have a build-up, and you have to have a strategy to consistently grow. Years ago, we had a couple thousand people. I mean, now, our list is huge with people that are subscribing and interested in our content, and it’s grown over time. It didn’t happen overnight, and so I would say the first mistake agency owners do is that even if they do things in content or you could have writers have that, they just don’t have the focus and they jump all over the place, and that’s why it’s vital to have that blueprint and have those things be in track, because then you know this is why we failed. We clearly didn’t execute in month two, three, four so that’s a key …

Yeah. When you think about a monthly newsletter and it goes out three times, that’s a concern. And it’s nothing like I would never say, “Oh, you’re an agency leader, so you’re a bad leader because you didn’t do it”. No. There’s a lot of times where you might be doing good things because you’re running the company, you’re creating opportunity for the company, however, you’ve got to be honest with yourself on whether you can execute.  And so that’s where I would say that’s the biggest challenge that I see. Another one is just it’s like with that strategy alignment, like they’re just not aligning content. If they are creating it, it’s not like …

They’re either missing it and wanted to stay, and so they might have good external content where they’ve been published a lot of places externally, but their onsite content sucks. Or they have no call to action where for some people, especially in specific areas that are very specialized, white papers and solution guides are valuable because they, a lot of times, are being downloaded too. Or you can have, like for us, we do templates. We do a variety of infographics and things like that, so you’ve got to also test that out, and when something doesn’t work, if we create a infographic for someone and it doesn’t do well, then we try solution guide. If solution guide doesn’t do well, then we keep moving and testing that out. And I think a lot of times, people don’t do that as well, and you can’t blame them, A lot of times you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re like, “Okay. Screw this area”, and it takes a while for you to revisit. And so you’ve got to look at it, you’ve got to test, and that’s why the blueprint is vital to tracking that success.

Drew McLellan: I think the other thing too is a lot of times, agency owners are impatient, and so they start something and it doesn’t get traction right away, and rather than continuing at it, knowing that it’s a slow burn kind of a thing, when it takes some time, they pull the plug prematurely, probably just about the time they were starting to get on somebody’s radar screen.

John Hall: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

The Longevity of Using Thought Leadership as a Marketing Strategy

Drew McLellan: Yeah. In terms of thought leadership, will there come a point in time, do you think, where this will no longer be a strategy that is of value? Will there be so much thought leadership stuff out there? Sometimes agency owners will say, “There’s so much noise already out there. I don’t want to contribute to the noise, or I don’t think the noise … I can’t be heard above the din”. How do you respond to that?

John Hall: One, that’s a lazy answer in saying, “Oh, there’s so much noise out there”. There’s been noise in so many different marketing techniques for years, and it doesn’t mean you don’t do them at all. What happens is that it just becomes like almost a … To answer the question directly, I do think there’s going to be a time where there’s a diminishing value, but you get something in place, and then over a certain time, it becomes a little less and less value because you’ve established that. What I’m seeing is that I think it’s going to turn into more of a, I would say right now, it’s like something that can differentiate you, and it still is, but it’s becoming less and less as more and more do it, but then it starts being like an assumption that your company should be doing it.

It’s like the thing is, is that even though a lot of social marketing has become less effective, does it mean that you shouldn’t have a Twitter profile or a Facebook profile? No, but years ago, for people who are going to start, yes, there’s a higher return I guess you could say, but with thought leadership, I would say that … This is honestly a worry that I had when we started this company just to be super transparent.  Is that when we started it, I was like, “I mean, is this something that’s like a trend or something that people are getting excited about?” Then, when I thought about it more and more, I thought of it as simply as when you think about it, the knowledge of the company is one of the best ways to form a relationship, to educate an audience, to really form a connection with somebody, and when you look at that, that is something that’s not going to go away. There’s always going to be unique expertise.

There’s always going to be smart people that you’re hiring. There’s always going to be this thing where knowledge is being used in different ways. I think it could change. For example, I think right now, marketing is huge in thought leadership. I think that thought leadership, the next thing that’s going to be pulled in is recruiting.

I think thought leadership and recruiting is going to turn into a major play on how you recruit people where the content reaching potential recruits is going to be content that’s coming from key players that would potentially be hiring them in ways that’s showcasing their expertise that’s putting them as an industry leader because everybody wants to work for people that are the smartest in their area. Even if you have a ton of people doing that, there’s still this direct contact with people where you’re not only going to find value in it in marketing. You’re going to find it in recruiting. You’re going to find it in other areas that are coming. It could be training.

Something we realized there, I was talking to a client the other day, is their content marketing being shifted to be in use for the recruiting as well has decreased their training time, has got them higher qualified people because they’re more educated when they’re being hired, and it was an agency actually. When you look at that, the agency was able to use their own content marketing campaign to get better recruits, to cut down on training time, and I don’t see that going away. I see it being a core part of companies moving forward. I think it might take different forms and I have different values, but I still think it’s going to be a valuable core piece.

Drew McLellan: Just like we started the conversation, content marketing isn’t new. Helping people and being useful, whether you’re the Butterball company and you’re giving turkey recipes, and you’re doing that by slapping a recipe into the packaging of the turkey or you’re doing it online. I think the channels may change or I think the concept of creating relationship and people wanting to do business with people that they know, like, and trust, I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

John Hall: No. I mean, I think trust is never going to go away in different aspects to gain trust. I mean, they never go.

Final Advice from John

Drew McLellan: Right. Right. Yeah. I agree. As we wrap up our conversation, any final thoughts for agency owners who are feeling like they want to embrace this first thing after they do the blueprint? What is the easiest first thing for them to do? Is it just to start creating content, just to start getting fire up the machine? How would you recommend they get started after the blueprint because I know you said that’s the first step?

John Hall: Yeah, and also, don’t shoot for the stars. This is another mistake that people make is that they get their blueprint in place, and they have a blueprint similar to ours. We’ve been doing it for three years or four years almost. We know what we’re doing, and so of course we’re going to be able to do that scale. Now, I mean, we want to do it, is you want to say, “Okay. Here’s our plan to grow”.

This happened the other day with the client, is that they want to start it off on doing eight or 10 articles a month. I was like, “No. We’re absolutely not going to do that with you”. That’s something where you’re setting yourself up not to execute, and that’s something that’s common with agency owners. They shoot for this skies and get super excited about something, and what I’d like to see from people who are listening to this is say once you get that blueprint down, this is what we’re going to do.

We’re going to shoot for two or three or four at max articles getting out and developed. Something’s that not above that, if you try to do that, it will not only … The quality will go down, but the opportunity cost on your time. So what I would do is start by looking at them and saying, “Blueprint’s in place. What is the starting execution? What are the two articles here?”, and also, you might look at it and say, “Hey, instead of having to spend all these resources towards it, let’s look at it from a standpoint of maybe we can get this content externally, and we can do blog summaries, and also, we can aggregate this content, then do a white paper at the end of the quarter”. Some of the stuff I told you, look at your own situation, and look how you can kill two birds with one stone because starting out, there’s not going to be a ton of resources towards it unless you hire it out.

If you hire it out obviously, they’re less concerned, but if you’re just truly doing it yourself, you want to hit as many birds with one stone as you can. And so start doing that and plan that out so that it’s limited resources being used. You’re still executing on some of the things I’ve talked about with getting that funnel on line, then you can build off of that, and then as you see some success and staying consistent, then you can put more resources, and even more, and then hopefully you go down the track as we do in some of our client area and our clients do, and then you keep building, and then it ends up being a very successful campaign.

Drew McLellan: I know you have a bias, but do you believe five years from now, agencies that have not engaged in some sort of thought leadership or content marketing for their own agency, do you think they’ll be successful five years from now?

John Hall: I mean, yeah. I mean, I think some will. The thing is that this is something that can be a differentiating factor and can contribute a lot. I think a lot of people would lose a competitive advantage. I think they won’t get this talent that they want. I think that …

I mean, honestly, there’s some agency owners I know that are just crazy amazing sellers that are just hustlers, like good hustlers. They just are always working where I think they’ll still find a way to survive for sure, and I think they’re still going to do well.

Drew McLellan: Right.

John Hall: I think that the … It’s simple as like we look at this, and you’re right. I am biased, but I see this with clients, and I want to do something I didn’t believe in, but I see it as a part of us growing this company and staying at either staying at the level we are now or in growing, and being a true leader in the industry. This is a check mark across the goal. Like when we’re putting our strategic plan as a company together, we’re saying that, “This is a big part of our strategy in the next five years that we want to be the place that people go to for this”.

I think that if you do that and you get the logic, because very few agency owners disagree. They value thought leadership content. They know that it’s important to get out there for a variety of reasons. It’s legitimately just a time commitment that they have the issues with, and so what I would say is that the short answer is yes, people will still be fine, but at the same time is that you also will miss out on opportunity.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

John Hall: I assure you of that. You also will just the way that we’re heading with this thought leadership content, it’s such a core part of the company and it’s being used in different ways where it’s a knowledge bank in the middle of the company that will be pulled in a variety of ways, whether it’d be dealing with training, recruiting, PR. There’s so many ways. If you don’t have that core there, you’re going to have some disconnection across the companies, and that’s what I’ll see is that there’s never going to be this central messaging and content that can be used and it’s going to be end up being still this sporadic approach where your social is doing one thing, your PR is doing another, your recruiting is doing another, and so I think they’ll miss out on a lot.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I think at the end of the day, there will be some that survive, but it’s harder and harder not to be a commodity if you don’t differentiate yourself, and one of the ways to do that is thought leadership, and I think it also allows you to maximize your efforts so that everything adds up and connects to each other as opposed to having all these disparate parts that aren’t working together to propel you as far ahead as possible.

John Hall: Yeah, and it also depends on your model. Are you the cheapest? Are you the …

Drew McLellan: Right.

John Hall: Yeah. If you’re the cheapest and you’re going for the price, you’re going for the people that only care about price, so investing in something like this and if you can sell it, then it’s fine, but I think most agencies, they want the quality clients.

Drew McLellan: Right.

John Hall: I think at least the ones I know want the quality clients, and I think that when you look at all else being equal, let’s say prices minus, plus 10%, and you look at all the differentiating factors that it can apply, I guarantee you, one of those differentiating factors is the branding of the agency, and also the relationship and the way that they look at those individuals leading the agencies. That’s going to be a factor that comes into play, and if you’re looked at as you didn’t do this and all else is equal, of course I’m going to go with the firm that I feel like I’ve been educated by, I feel like I’ve seen more in different ways. It’s a no-brainer, so I think it’s a differentiating factor worth looking into.

Drew McLellan: I think of it as just like today having a website for an agency is sort of a, “Duh”. It’s a table stake. You can’t really do business without it. I think having some position and some thought leadership around some area of expertise, eventually, that will become table stakes for agencies as well.

John Hall: Right.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Okay. This has been awesome as I knew it would be. Hopefully our listeners have gotten a little inspired to get off their duffs and commit to doing this and doing it well and following your model of doing that. If folks want to learn more about your company, and again, happy to say publicly what I’ve said to you privately is you’re right.

I’m a proficient writer and I’m a pretty quick writer. There is no way I would be able to produce the volume of content that I do and be able to reach out to the kind of publications that you guys give me access to without you guys, so I’m personally pretty grateful that I found you guys many years ago. If folks want to learn more about you and how you might be able to help them, how would you suggest they go about that?

John Hall: I mean, for me, I’m not too cool to put my email all over the place just because … I always joke around is that there’s a lot of people that hide stuff like that, and they say it’s because of effectiveness and I get too many emails. Honestly, I’m fine with just emailing me. I think email management, I guess I’ve gotten decent at it over the years, but I at least try to get back to anybody within 48 hours with a quick response. If it’s going to take me longer, then I’ll say, “Hey, this will take me a week or two to get to”, but the way I believe in thought leadership, whether it’d be one person trying to help out and educate or a thousand, or millions, it doesn’t matter. One relationship can really do a lot.

I know, and so if you want to reach out to me, you can just email me. It’s [email protected], and so that’s pretty easy. Then, also, you can follow my content. I mean, we drink our own Kool-Aid, so look at our blog. Look at my Forbes column.

If you tweet or you comment on my piece, I comment back on every single comment that anybody writes with my own content. It’s something that I do in my spare time when I’m not doing the agency stuff. It’s fun for me, so just reach out in one of those ways and I’ll definitely interact with you.

Drew McLellan: Also, your company’s website, which is also has a lot of great content around this idea of thought leadership, and as you said, lots of templates and tools for agency owners to explore, so gang, make sure you check that out as well. John, thank you very much for sharing your expertise and for being so willing to map out for folks how to do this on their own. I appreciate you sharing that very much.

John Hall: Sounds good. It was good catching up with you. You’re a good guy that I always love staying in touch with, so definitely … If any of your people reach out to me and they need my help, feel free to forward it on. I’ll do what I can, help them out.

Drew McLellan: I will do that. All right. That wraps up another episode of Build A Better Agency. I can’t tell you how much I love spending this time with you. Thanks so much for listening.

Hey, speaking of thanks, another way we want to give thanks is we built a new tool that I would love you to check out. We’re calling it the ‘Agency Health Assessment’. Basically, you’re going to answer a series of questions, and based on those answers, the tool is going to tell you in which aspect of your business maybe you need to spend a little extra time and attention to take your agency to the next level. We’ve identified five key areas that really indicate an agency’s health, and we’re going to help you figure out where you need to spend a little more time. To get to that free assessment, all you have to do is text the word ‘Assessment’ to 38470.

Again, text the word ‘Assessment’ to 38470 and we will send you a link so you can do that at your leisure, and hopefully that will give you some new insights and some direction in terms of your time and attention in the agency. In the meantime, as always, I’m around if I can be helpful. [email protected], and I will be back next week with another great guest and more things for you to ponder. Talk to you soon.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build A Better Agency brought to you by HubSpot. Be sure to visit to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-size agencies. Don’t miss an episode as we help you build the agency you’ve always dreamed of owning.