Thought leadership. Content creation. Owning a topic and being the authentic expert in that space. These elements are critical components of an agency’s business development plan today. As you have heard from me many times, it’s all about moving your prospects through the know-like-trust model so that when they are ready to buy, they already have faith in your ability to deliver.

But it’s not just about doing that from an arm’s length through content.  It’s also about doing that the old-fashioned way – face to face.

The agency business is really a relationship business, as we all know. So how do you start, nurture and grow your relationships today? That’s what I wanted to talk to Influence & C.’s co-founder and CEO John Hall about because he has the gift.  Fortunately, he outlined his strategies in his new book called “Top of Mind.”

John and I discuss the tangible ways of getting networking in this digital and analog age. Listen in as we chat about:

  • John’s new book “Top of Mind: Use Content to Unleash Your Influence and Engage Those Who Matter To You
  • How John’s book fits into his thought leadership content strategy
  • Why staying top of mind is a great strategy for developing trust
  • Short-term to long-term memory: consistently engaging people so that they remember forever
  • Why you need to make yourself approachable
  • Why showing your failings and foibles does not diminish your thought leadership
  • Why you must understand what is truly helpful for individuals
  • Why you must help people without expecting anything in return
  • How to tell people how you helped them without it sounding self-serving
  • Why you shouldn’t be too aggressive and should build a relationship over time
  • Why you need to start small with changing how you relate to others

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. Why John Wrote this Book
  2. John’s Theory on Thought Leadership Content
  3. What All “Top of Mind” Companies Have in Common
  4. Short-Term to Long-Term Memory and their Relation to Business
  5. How to Go from Thought Leadership to Actually Building a Relationship
  6. Why You Should Show Your Human Side as a Thought Leader
  7. How Simple Networking Fits into John’s Thought Leadership Equation
  8. Why Proper Networking is All About Intention
  9. The Biggest Takeaway from John’s Book

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t 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, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.  

Drew McLellan: Hey there, welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is Drew McLellan, your host, and as often I do, I have recruited a great guest to talk to us today about a topic that I think should be on the radar screen of agency owners. So my guest for today’s episode is John Hall. He is the co-founder and CEO of Influence & Co. which is a great agency.  Forbes calls them one of America’s most promising companies. But the reason I’m having John on this show today is because he has a book that’s coming out at the end of April called “Top of Mind.”   

The topic of this book, I know, is critical to agency owners and leaders, and it’s all about how to make sure that when someone needs something, you are top of mind, that you come to mind when they are looking to buy what it is you do. So the premise of the book is, really what do successful businesses and leaders have in common? And it is that they are the first names that come to mind when people think about their particular industries. So John’s book explores how do you achieve this level of trust that influences people to think about you in the right way at the right time.   

His book is partially some anecdotes of his own experience and other people’s experience, but at the end of the day, it’s really a step-by-step guide, where he’ll show you how to make sure that your brand stays front and center in the minds of decision-makers. Why this matters to you, of course, is because obviously you’re all looking for new clients. Part of it is humanizing your agency’s brand. Some of it is about building influence, and some of it is about being able to be a thought leader, which we talk a lot about at AMI. So John, welcome to the podcast. I’m anxious to talk about this today.  

John Hall: Thanks for having me and good job explaining it. I’ve been on like two or three podcasts in the last week or two and I think I might just hire you to give openings. That was actually well-said, so I appreciate that.  

Drew McLellan: Well, as you know, this is a topic that I have lot of passion around so … and I will also say the listing of the book on Amazon was very helpful in me being able to articulate exactly what the book was about, so I cannot take full credit.  

John Hall: If you were reading that off, that was nice and smooth, it seemed conversational, but I will tell McGraw-Hill that they did –  

Drew McLellan: They did a fine job.  

John Hall: Great. Well thanks for having me.


Why John Wrote this Book

Drew McLellan: So you’re a busy guy, you’re busy running the agency, so why write a book?  

John Hall: There’s quite a few reasons actually. Really, from what our company does, we built a lot of thought leaders up and influencers and it was in a very specialized way of doing thought leadership content coming from them and getting byline and op-eds published all over the major media outlets and blogs. As we were doing that, this was somewhat of a strategic move of the company. As we looked at it and we said, “Okay, well we’re known in this space for doing this in this specific niche. However, what’s the vision of the company? Where do we see it in five years?” And truly, we said, “Well, the vision of the company as we see it being a leader, is creating content from key employees to influence specific target audiences. So when you do that, that falls under a variety of different ways you can do that.  

There’s different platforms, there’s different mediums of communication, and so for us, it was actually really, really big on saying, “Okay, well a book is a part of an integrated thought leadership approach and we hadn’t done it as a company,” so we started … One, we partnered with a couple book publishers as well as looked at it and said, “What truly builds influence?” One of those things is, honestly a book. A book is a core asset that can be used, some people use it as a glorified business card, which is fine. It’s actually a very effective business card. Other people look at it as true thought leadership. And so for us, we wanted to be true thought leadership, and we said, “Okay so, this is … ” It was hitting several birds with one stone.  

One, we were testing out a process and a product that we were looking at doing ourselves, so offering a service for clients to do that. Two, we truly believe in thought leadership, obviously, and we do an amazing job at getting content from us and then getting our company written about. We’ve got those two areas down. And so we looked at that as for us to be a leader in the space, we do think a part of it’s a book, and honestly, the last thing was it was kind of a barrier from me at the stage of my own brand. There was three speaking engagements last year where they said they accepted me and then they said, “Hey actually, we didn’t know you didn’t have a book.” One was a Forbes event and they said, “Hey, everybody else has a book.”

When I talked to a good friend, Len Herstein who runs Brand ManageCamp, a really great guy, he said years ago, he goes, “Look it’s … some of these speakers here, Andrew Davis, Jay Baer, a lot of these ones that are speaking at great events like his event, they have books and you don’t”. So it was a barrier too. So those are some of the main reasons. There’s a variety. I have some personal passions of wanting to do it as well and also we just came upon the right topic where I think people rush into a book and they say, “Well great, let’s do a book,” and they don’t think it through and their first idea isn’t always their best.   

There was a moment … I probably had four or five topics before that I wanted to do a book about but there was this right moment where I spoke at a couple events and I talked about this idea of “top of mind” and engaging people at the right moment and moving from short to long-term memory and it just hit with them. They go, “Wow.” I had several people, other speakers that were good friends come up and say, “That was a really amazing part of your speech. I like that.” And that’s what made me be, you know, it’s the right time and I had great support from my co-founder Kelsey and the rest of the team and then it’s all from there.  


John’s Theory on Thought Leadership Content

Drew McLellan: Awesome. So let’s dig right into that core idea of thought leadership content. So talk to us a little bit about the core idea of the book because, you know, there’s a lot of talk and a lot of written content around creating content and thought leadership but your book takes it at a really different angle. So talk to us a little bit about your theory around all of this.  

John Hall: At first was the acknowledgment and the realization of some people and myself with my own success, in addition to other people around me. I was like, “Why the … ” There’s a formula of how these people create so many opportunities for themselves. There is one friend of mine where I was like, man, Jeremy Johnson is an example, who’s an advisor to our company who started 2U, he runs Andela now. But I’m like, “Man, this guy just screams success.” Like every time he touches something success comes his way and he’s smart, one.  So that’s key but then I started looking and seeing the similarities of how people like him and others engaged people and what I found out is that, it wasn’t just Jeremy.  It was across the board.

There’s so many people that are successful because they’re so engaging to people that they stick with them.  And I looked at and researched him. I studied him and said, “All right well … ” So there’s these people that do this in this one-on-one group setting in person.  There’s got to be a way to scale that and then I started looking at people that had influence and kind of saying, wait a minute. These people that built these massive platforms did similar tactics but they might’ve added something differently or had a unique tactic that they used to stay on these people’s minds at the right time and engage them so that they wanted to come back, wanted to come back for more. And it was interesting that when I looked into it, across the board with all these entrepreneurs and leaders, they all had these different ways of engaging people so that they stuck with them.

So at the right times they were given opportunities because there was one where a client of ours got funding at just the right time. Just the right moment. He’s like, “Okay, well we got funding and it really took us to this next level” and I go, so instead of being like, “Cool, that’s great like you’re just awesome and this cool company,” I go, “How did that happen?” And he goes, “Simply, all I did was I actually … At first nobody wanted to invest in the company but every month I did a newsletter. And I did this newsletter that … and they didn’t ask for it. I had their email, they did opt in initially but every month I would say, ‘Hey guys, here’s what’s going on.'”

It was a quick two-paragraphs and then it would have a very transparent personal message that said, “Here’s how I honestly feel how we’re doing.” Some of those months were “I think we’re doing pretty shady right now. I think we need to do this.” Or “I think we’re struggling. This is … ” And it was very, very honest. And over time he ended up getting this attention from all these different investors and he was staying on top of their mind. Every month they started looking forward to it. Then all of a sudden, at the right moment when he just sent the email and he said, “Hey, at this point we’re going to really need funding,” they all jumped at the chance. They all … It was unbelievable.

And all he did was he just simply engaged them every month consistently and he was super honest about what was going on and he ended up really sticking with them compared to other companies. And he ended up getting funding from who he wanted at the right time, and he used a “top of the mind” strategy to stick with them and an opportunity ultimately came to them that resulted in a business success.  


What All “Top of Mind” Companies Have in Common

Drew McLellan: So lots of people send out e-newsletters and that sort of thing. So when you looked at these people who were top of mind, who were engaging at sort of an Uber level that was different for you than everybody else, what did they have in common?  

John Hall: It’s all different types of things that they did but the similarities were that they, one, offered something that was truly valuable. They actually had something that they thought about the people rather than themselves and they did it very consistently and they also knew their audience well and knew what would play to them. As simple as it is, there are some people that do the newsletters and it’s crap. Like you’re reading, you’re like, “This is not good stuff.” What I liked about … and I’ll tell you the guy, the guy’s name is Patrick and what was cool about it is I just told him, “So what did you do that was different?” And he goes, “Well I hate e-newsletters, those drive me nuts. So like I honestly just wrote it from the standpoint of like, ‘Hey guys … ‘” almost like they were friends.  

“And I said, here’s what’s going on and just the update and I didn’t sugarcoat it. I didn’t do … ” I think that was different because everybody BS’s or a ton of people BS how their company is doing. In his case, he didn’t. He was honest. He said, “We really screwed up,” and what he did was he humanized himself to those people and they felt like they were investing in somebody they trusted more. And that’s what, when it comes down to it, every single one of these little things, like whether it’s differentiating yourself, whether it’s being focused on the audience more, it comes down to trusting people. So what I tell people to do, is you’re on a trust totem pole with everyone. Everyone in your life, your wife, I’m on a trust totem pole with you Drew.  

Hopefully I’m high up there at this point, but I look at it as that every time you’re engaging them you’re trying to go up that totem pole and there’s different things that can do that.

There’s things where content, even thought leadership content, only gets you to a certain level. There’s also other things like, for example, something that I just did with someone where they were very, very vulnerable because they had just had a falling out with their partner. Now, that’s where I want to be there … the right time for them.

Anytime somebody is vulnerable you don’t capitalize and say, “I’m going to take advantage of this.” No. You identify and you say, “This is a chance for me to develop a real relationship of trust because this is when people need us the most.”  

So that’s where some of these people were, for example, they saw that somebody was struggling … Oh, one of the business leaders found out one of his friends had just let go 70 people in their company.

Drew McLellan: Yikes.

John Hall: So he goes … It was a tough day for him. He said the last thing he wants … So what he did was he bought a book and he wrote a personal message and basically said, “Hey, I’ve been through some rough times. I don’t know what you’re going through but just know that I’m there for you, whether it’s to help rebuild, to help advocate, anything I can do.” And I ended up talking to the person he wrote that to and they go, “I will never forget this guy.”

The guy who wrote it, his name was John and he goes, “I will never forget John. He wrote me that when I was bad … everybody like, you know, almost like people get away from you and this person said, ‘I’ll be there for you.'” Now I do that. I do that for every single … In the last four weeks I’ve sent probably 10 books. The book I’m sending right now is “Essentialism” and it’s written by Greg McKeown, he’s a really nice guy. It’s about what’s essential in your life and are you focused in the right places? I think the tagline is “Disciplined … ” “Pursuit for … ” It’s like, “Pursuit for Less … ” and I sent that book. I sent it to somebody who just had a really struggling part of his life and I sent that book.  

I said, “Hey, I just wanted you know that I don’t know what you’re going through but at the same time this book has been valuable to me. If I ever can do anything and be there for you, just let me know.” And I did this. The guy came up and he gave me a hug the next time I saw him. That was such a big trust moment. Now, that’s in-person.  That’s a gift-giving one.  It’s hard to scale that. But you can identify all these things that happen but it all goes back to building trust, whether it’s through a content platform or those individual moments I’m doing everything I can to have more people trust me because if I do that, more opportunity is always going to come to me especially when I do it consistently because I’m going to be on their mind and their long-term memory. So I’m the person that’s going to come up when they say, “Here’s an opportunity. I need to call John Hall.  


Short-Term to Long-Term Memory and their Relation to Business

Drew McLellan: So talk to us a little bit about the idea of this short-term to long-term memory. Tell us a little more about that.  

John Hall: Sure. So short-term to long-term memory, it’s actually like … There’s obviously some science behind it but you if type in “memory” and “short-term” or “long-term memory,” just study it a little bit, you’re going to find out that like … It’s kind of funny how it works. As crazy as it is, it’s not hard to understand. If you’re trying to go to short-term memory from long-term memory, there’s these neurons that fire at once and the more they do that, the more they fire together, the more it goes from that short-term to long-term memory and I became a little fascinated by … It’s a process called consolidation so you can type in “consolidation” and memory and things like that.

But like the more you look into it, it makes sense. If you are consistently engaging people at the right moment at the right time, you’re going to stick with them. And like the example that I give in the book is my sister, this is kind of a goofy example and you’ll make fun of me, but at the same time when I was … My sister just got married. She is 41, just got married and when she was a teenager, she used me as a party favor and she had me do all these tricks and things and like one of them was-  

Drew McLellan: I didn’t know you offered that service. I may tap into that myself.  

John Hall: Drew for you, I’ll do it but not for money at this point in my life. But the thing that she would do is she would have me come and sing to her friends and some would be like Cabbage Patch Kids songs, others would be like Andrew Dice Clay. It was bad but at the same time those …  

Drew McLellan: Wow. That’s quite a range.  

John Hall: It’s quite a range, but I was at her wedding earlier this year and the people that were there when my sister and other people … They remembered everything about it. It stuck out in their minds so much. And it’s because I hit on something that engaged them and I did it consistently. I didn’t just do it once. I was there … I think she probably called me down once a month for like six or eight months. And I did that and they remembered it. At the same time I also remembered it.  

So I remember singing in front of those people and doing the Cabbage Patch Kids song and they were engaged with me. I remember they were smiling. They enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. It’s something that stuck and it was consistent, so it remained imbedded in my long-term memory that I remembered it. And they go, “Yes! Do you really remember that? You were six,” or “You were seven,” or whatever the age I was at and I go, “Yes,” (singing). So I actually could still sing the damn Cabbage Patch Kids song from when I was six and so that is something-  

Drew McLellan: Wow. It’s such an insight into your soul right there.  

John Hall: That is a transparent view of my soul and my love for Cabbage Patch Kids. But no, that’s … I told that story to a guy named Paul Spiegelman, who … really, really great guy, started Small Giants and he’s a culture expert and he told me, he goes, “Man, John that is an interesting story.” I go, “Yes.” He goes, “You know what? I want to be the Cabbage Patch Kids to everyone when it comes to company culture and being someone who is there for them. I want to be the Cabbage Patch Kids song for them.” And I was like, “You’re right. You do.”

Because 20, 30 years down the road if Paul is still known and people stick it’s that, “Wow. There’s somebody who is really smart, who’s helped me out with culture. I’ve read his content, really got me through good times or hard times. I’m going to think of Paul,” there’s going to be a ton of opportunity that comes to him. And that’s where that short-term to long-term memory, is key.

But you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to be engaging and differentiate yourself so that you are what I call, this thought leadership content.  

Either you need to be industry-leading, where it’s stuff they haven’t heard before that helps them stay ahead of the curve. It had to be data-driven so information and data that they don’t have prior and they actually are like, “Wow, this justifies the thought behind this.” And then there’s the educational or how-tos, so actually educational things to make people better in their trade or what they do so that they value that or being amusing. So that’s the idea. If I walk through industry-leading, data-driven, educational or how-tos and then I’m using it.  And if you can hit one of those or hopefully it’s sometimes all of them-  

Drew McLellan: Right, or multiple.

John Hall: Yes, exactly, or you can hit them all at the same time but that’s what you’ve got to be thinking of and you’ve got to do it consistently and if you can do that you can move from that short-term to long-term memory.  


How to Go from Thought Leadership to Actually Building a Relationship

Drew McLellan: I knew this was going to be a great conversation and you are really delivering it so far. I want to take a quick second and pause because lots of our listeners have been asking how they can learn more. Either through our workshops or some of the other things that AMI offers. So I want to take a quick minute and answer that question and then we will get right back into this conversation.  

If you’ve been enjoying the podcast and you find that you’re nodding your head and taking some notes and maybe even taking some action based on some of the things we talked about, you might be interested in doing a deeper dive. One of the options you have is the AMI remote coaching. That’s a monthly phone call with homework in-between. We start off by setting some goals and prioritizing those goals and just work together to get through them. It’s a little bit of coaching, it’s a little bit of best practice teaching and sharing, it’s a little bit of cheerleading sometimes.

On occasion, you’re going to feel our boot on your rear end, whatever it takes to help you make sure that you hit the goals that you set. If you would like more information about that check out Okay. Let’s get back to the show.

So one of the things as you’re talking, I’m thinking about and cataloging that Cabbage Patch song for later use but I’m thinking about, you know, a lot of people are putting out content but I know one of the things that you talk about and model in the way that your company works with other people, is this whole idea about, at the end of the day it’s still about relationship and it’s hard to create relationship with arm’s-length content.   

So how do you recommend someone go from, again, I’ve written a book, I’ve got a podcast, I’ve … whatever their platform. I’ve been published in Fast Company, whatever their platform is, how do they go from that to actually creating and sustaining relationship?

Because kind of underneath what you’ve been saying is, you have to be around consistently enough that on the day the opportunity presents itself or the person is ready to hire an agency or whatever that specific is, you have to be top of mind. So how do you bridge that gap?  

John Hall: You want to make yourself approachable. That’s the key thing is that if someone’s going to reach out to you, they have to feel comfortable doing it. And it’s hard to scale to millions or thousands and thousands if someone hasn’t met you in person. So, I’ll give you an example of my content. I just pulled this up. This is an article I just wrote for Fortune the other day. It’s “Ways to Keep Pride From Ruining Your Growth”.  And when I wrote this article, it was fairly, I mean about as transparent as you can get on the issues that I’ve had with pride.  

The one I put is remind yourself daily that feedback is a gift and I put, “No one enjoys hearing his groundbreaking idea wasn’t great or he says ‘Uh’ too much in his speeches or that he shouldn’t have that second glass of red wine because now his teeth are stained red and he looks scary.” I wrote that and I said all these are things that happened to me recently and none of them were great or awesome to hear. So I try to, in my own writing, make myself a little more approachable there. So like even in the writing, you can make slight shifts to make somebody feel a little more … to relate to them a little more so they feel … so it does humanize you.

Because you want them to be like, “You know what? I can reach out to this person.” You’ll see that on this podcast, like when you say, “Oh, any way to reach out to you?” The idea that people try and act too busy and that you like … Yes, I don’t give out my personal cell phone to everyone but at the same time, I do at the end of podcasts like this say, “Hey, my email’s [email protected], you can reach out to me and I want it to be very easy for you.” Now granted, I’m busy. I travel a lot so if you get a one or two-word sentence don’t take it as I’m not interested.

It’s more that I just want to make sure that I am truly accessible because if you create a more open and accessible personality, then more people will reach out to you at that right time, that they feel connected to you, that you’re a person that they feel comfortable with. Then when … Even with your content, it’s unbelievable. After this article on Fortune, I probably had three or four people just reach out to me and said, “Hey, I’ve been following your content for a while. I just wanted to let you know that this article kind of stuck out to me and I really connected with it.”

And I go, “Oh, that’s cool.” Like that’s great that they felt comfortable enough and they didn’t even have any agenda. It was like, “All right.” I just wrote back and two or three of them were through LinkedIn and I just said, “Hey, thanks for … I appreciate the kind words … ” and got on the radar. But those are just some simple tips that you can do.  And even in my own writing, I’ll present myself as a little more open and I’ll say, “Contact me … ” here or “Contact … ” there.  So it’s key to make yourself approachable and connect the dots for them so they actually reach out and they have that idea in their head when they need you.  


Why You Should Show Your Human Side as a Thought Leader

Drew McLellan: I think one of the things that agency owners or agency leaders struggle with is that they want to position or present themselves as an authority and so, in their mind or their heart, the idea of presenting the more human side of them, the failings or foibles, feels like you’re diminishing your thought leadership.

Do you have a thought around that?

John Hall: No. I mean I just disagree with that. Just because you’re … If you put yourself on this crazy pedestal of authority you also lose your opportunity to gain trust. You can gain respect and you can be looked at as an expert. However, you want to build a real relationship and the relationship that I tend to like is someone who wants to … feels like they can connect to me and doesn’t put me on a pedestal. Even when you’re on a pedestal, it just sets the relationship up to like, if somebody looks at me in a pedestal way, it’s going to be really hard to do business with them because they’re just going, “It’s not going to be a win-win. They’re going to do whatever I say,” and that’s not good either.

You want mutual respect and you want … In my mind, it depends how you want the relationship built but I think it’s extremely important that, you want to come to their mind in the way, like in the moment that they have where it’s kind of … What I do is I call them “moment of vulnerability.” This is an example of that I give in a lot of my keynotes, is my wife is the smartest non-content marketer I know at content marketing me.

And what she did, I’ll try and shorten up this example, but we meet once a month to work on our marriage and to say, “Hey, what can I do to make you happier?” And she goes, “I want you to cook more, and one of the date nights,” and I go, “Okay.” And I did what other spouses do and I didn’t. I just kind of let it fall off the radar. I was the bad spouse there and she sent me an article about essential tools in the kitchen and it was from some blog. Then she ended up … I still didn’t do anything and a week later she sent me another article that was like, “What dumb spouses need to do in the kitchen” and my …  

Drew McLellan: Escalating the conversation.

John Hall: Yes, this was from a chef too and he joked around … I forgot exactly what it … It was something … and I could be wrong, this was a while ago to be honest with you, but bottom line is that it was content that actually related and it was like I could connect with it. And before our next date night she said, “So what about that whole cooking thing?” And that’s where the example I give people is that moment of vulnerability when the boss comes up and says, “Where’s the TPS reports?”

And you don’t have them done or where’s … If somebody comes to you and is like, “Oh, well why do we see our competitor being a thought leader all over in these publications? What the hell are we doing? We