Think back to the first year or two of your agency’s existence. Odds are, it was pretty hand to mouth. You survived but you weren’t eating ribeye every night. That’s where my podcast guest started too. Today, Aaron Agius is the CEO of Louder Online, one of the world’s leading digital agencies. He has used his aggressive style of thought leadership to help him pursue and land clients like Salesforce, IBM, Coca-Cola and Intel. But he still remembers the days when he charged his first client $200 and was grateful for the income.

In our conversation Aaron talks about how he learned to invest in himself, build his credibility and how making a name for himself became a priority.  It’s all in here including:  

  • Why you absolutely must work on and invest in the business (no excuses!)
  • How Aaron established himself as a thought leader through guest blogging and what he would recommend doing today
  • Why you need high-quality proposal documents
  • Why you need to be cooperative rather than competitive with agencies that you share a client with
  • Why Aaron has created smaller sister agencies in other countries instead of using freelancers
  • Aaron’s genius strategy for leveraging LinkedIn
  • How to prove the ROI of your work to a client
  • Why it’s the CEO’s job to stay on top of what’s coming next
  • Resources that Aaron himself uses to stay current
  • How continually writing blogs, being on podcasts, hosting webinars, etc. helps you keep the clients you have
  • Why you have to write for readers, not search engines

Aaron Agius is one of the world’s leading digital marketers according to Forbes. He is CEO of Louder Online, one of the world’s leading digital agencies with a global reach.

Louder Online is an inbound marketing agency, working globally with clients such as Salesforce, IBM, Coca-Cola, Intel and scores of leading brands, showing them how to technically optimize their sites, perform influencer outreach and link acquisition and produce and distribute content that drives significant lead generation and ROI.

Aaron is a highly sought speaker at Search, Content Marketing and Growth Hacking and many other conferences around the globe including the U.S, U.K, Brazil, London and Australia. His passion to help businesses is driven from his own experience. Aaron was at the cutting edge of the emerging digital marketing field over 10 years ago. He uses that lived experience and now translates it into revenue for clients.

He is also a regular contributor to some of the world’s largest editorial publications, including Entrepreneur, Hubspot and many more, with thought leadership on marketing and business growth.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/aaron-agius/) 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. The Evolution of Aaron’s Business
  2. How to Establish Yourself as a Thought Leader
  3. The Process it Takes to Become a Thought Leader
  4. How to Work with Other Agencies for One Client
  5. How to Find (and Keep) Great Talent for Your Team
  6. Leveraging LinkedIn to Grow Your Business
  7. How to Measure the Success of Your Work in ROI for Clients
  8. Why You Need to Stay Current with Digital Content
  9. How to Make Clients Feel Special from Your Engagement
  10. What Aaron Believes is Coming Next in the Industry

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we 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+ years of expertise 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. Today, we’re going to talk about evolving your agency and establishing yourself as a thought leader in your industry. I’ve got a guest that I know is gonna have lots of great stories that are gonna inspire you to take your agency to the next level.

Let me tell you a little bit about him. Aaron Agius is one of the world’s leading digital marketers, according to Forbes. He is the CEO of Louder Online, which you probably have heard about.

They are one of the world’s leading digital agencies. They have quite the global reach, offices in Sydney, LA, and New York. They’re an inbound marketing agency, they work globally with clients like SalesForce, IBM, Coca Cola, Target, Ford, LG. They didn’t start out that way.

One of the things I want to talk to Aaron about today is how he’s evolved his agency and has become a thought leader in doing so. He also has interesting strategies around using LinkedIn and some other things that we’re gonna delve into. Without further ado, Aaron, welcome to the podcast.

 

The Evolution of Aaron’s Business

Aaron Agius: Thank you for having me and thank you for the intro.

Drew McLellan: You bet. I’m excited to have you tell us a little bit about your evolution. As I was saying to you offline before we hit the record button, you’ve had an interesting run in your career, and an interesting role in how your agency has evolved.

I read an article, the way you talked about the fact that your first client was a buddy of yours who owned a plumbing business, and now you’re working with the likes of Target and SalesForce. Help us understand the evolution of your business and how you made that happen.

Aaron Agius: Yeah, it’s been a journey. We have changed a bit. I guess we weren’t even a consulting agency to begin with. We started off in affiliate marketing and just doing whatever we could to try and make money. We started off driving traffic to hotel and accommodation websites. I think we, it’s just that we made money. We made 40 cents online and then turned that into $400 the next day. Then that actually into friends and other people noticing that we’re able to drive traffic and saying, “Why don’t you …” Our agency was developed from there.

That is still a big leap from going from there to the large companies that we’re working with at the moment, and I think probably … One of the biggest things is that we’ve built a lot of credibility indicators around ourselves that are needed in order to be considered to work with some of those companies.

We made sure that we were doing things like being published in certain places and being members of certain places. We made sure that we were doing networking and getting speakings, it was really a combination of working a lot of different areas to make sure those credibility indicators were ticked. Then it came down to confidence in what we were doing and our approach to clients.

Once that was happening, it’s a matter of people seeing us at those events, inbound leads coming through, people contacting us through content that we’re creating on Forbes or Entrepreneur or other places like that. We started getting larger and larger clients from there.

Drew McLellan: You didn’t even have an agency background though, right? If I remember right, you were an IT guy, right?

Aaron Agius: Yeah, correct. I was in IT. My co-founder was in marketing for IBM, head of sales and marketing for Austro/Asia. When we decided that we were going to try to figure out how people were making money online, we tried to combine our skills and that led us down the path that we fell into. I was also a full-time firefighter at one stage. Yeah, I’ve had a diverse background.

Drew McLellan: As you were, first of all, one of the points I want to make because this is something I talk to agencies about all the time, is you immediately invested in yourself and your agency as opposed to the cobbler’s children have no shoes, we can’t market ourselves because we’re so busy helping the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker. You made your own, sort of creating a profile for yourself and a name for yourself a priority.

Aaron Agius: Yeah, we did after a certain period. When we started off, the only thing that we wanted was make money online, be a digital nomad, travel the world, and be happy with that. Eventually, it started becoming more than that and we started wanting more. When we decided hey, we’re gonna make this agency a proper agency and make it work, then yeah, we spent a lot of time working on the business, not just in the business. Yeah, we didn’t have those excuses that you just mentioned of being too busy working on clients.

Drew McLellan: Right. At what point did you say to yourself, okay, because at one point you were living in Thailand, right? You’re working, in essence working from home doing this. Now all of a sudden, was it when you started adding staff? When all of a sudden did it feel like for you, okay, this is getting “serious” or permanent as opposed to we’re gonna be nomads just making money while we travel?

Aaron Agius: Yeah, that’s a good question. For me, I sort of came to a whole thing around confidence level. What was happening was, my co-founder said from the beginning, “We need to be doing this proper as a company.” I was saying, “Yeah, look, we haven’t stuck it together enough yet. We haven’t got enough credibility indicators. We’re not there yet.”

It took me a long time to build the confidence. Then what was happening was naturally, I was on interviews such as this, or I was getting featured in different expert roundups or networking with people. That stuff was happening naturally and I was thinking, a lot of these places when I’m talking, the people I’m talking to, the things that I’m listening to, not learning much anymore. I’m providing a lot more value than I’m taking from other people.

Then that started giving me the confidence that yeah, we actually do know a whole lot more and we should have started doing this self-investing and growth of the agency a long time ago, because we could have done it. There’s a lot of people out there that are doing the …

 

How to Establish Yourself as a Thought Leader

Drew McLellan: That gets to an interesting point of thought leadership. A lot of agency owners covet being asked to serve on a speaker’s panel, or speak at a conference, or be interviewed.

How did you begin to get on other peoples’ radar screens so that you became the expert that was sought after?

Aaron Agius: It started with written content for us. It started with doing guest posting, and then regular contributions, you know, the whole trading up the chain idea and guest hosting for some of the lower value sites using that as a reference point for some of the higher value ones.

I was getting all the way up to some of the best editorial sites in the world, like Entrepreneur and Search Engine Journal, helping to post, all those sorts of places. In a sense though, that was done to boost those credibility indicators that we could use in order to leverage positions, speaking positions. I then used that, moved over to speaking expositions and started doing well on that circuit and on continuing as well.

Drew McLellan: Do you think that that is still as viable a tactic today, the whole guest blogging and sort of working your way up the food chain, or is there so much content and there’s so much noise out there that that’s been diminished?

Aaron Agius: I think just like anything that used to work better and was new, it doesn’t work as well as it did. Again, I would certainly do the same thing. I would just take a few shortcuts in getting there. I think, I do think it’s valuable.

There’s so many reasons for doing content in these places. There’s a lot of people that are doing it, thinking, I’m going to get referral traffic or links from these places or whatever else. For me, it was definitely the branding aspect of it, the thought leadership aspect.

The fact that I get loads of emails from people saying, “Hey, can I get your comment on this? Can I include you in this expert round-up?” Just lots of opportunities that only showed themselves once I was seeing places.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I know you do this kind of work for your clients as well. Are there, did you employ certain strategies in terms of, was your attitude I will write for anyone anywhere? Were you more targeted? I know as it grew and as your reputation grew I’m sure you were more targeted, but in the beginning for agency owners who aren’t doing this, what was your initial strategy to sort of get on peoples’ radar screens?

Aaron Agius: The strategy was start on your own website, or our own website so that we had proof that we could write. Then from there it was reaching out to industry-relevant publications, then always when they just took awhile to get into.

What was successful for us was looking for introductions from other people who already contributed and so we, once we did that, we were doing some of the best places in our industry. Then the strategy was also I wanted to do some of the best editorial publications globally. That sort of …

Drew McLellan: That went broader, right?

Aaron Agius: … Industry, yeah, covered marketing and things not just in search and content marketing.

 

The Process it Takes to Become a Thought Leader

Drew McLellan: All right, so you were starting to get published, you were starting to get invited to speak. You were starting to build a brand and a name for the agency and for yourself. That, for many of the listeners, I suspect, that’s still a huge leap from doing that to sitting in a conference room pitching Target or SalesForce.

Walk us through, because it’s gotta be more than confidence, you have to have opportunity, you have to have the right things to say.

How did you build all of that from sort of at that point, at that point did you have multiple offices? Were you just working at one office? What was the breaking point for you where you got a client where you were like, “Okay, this is a name client that is going to open the door to other name clients for us.”

Aaron Agius: Yeah, we’re still a completely distributed team. We have a presence in a lot of different countries around the world, but what we still operate distributed. In terms of how we got to that point, we still had … The confidence made a big deal of difference because you could talk. That was a big thing for us.

One of the other things I was saying that, you know, speaking to some people, other people that we knew in agencies that were successful and seeing that really their pitch documents and proposal documents, the exact same data that ours did, except that they spent $1000, $1500, on a proper, nice design for it. Custom designs that are nice and fluffy and bright and all sorts of things.

What I tell people about proposals nowadays, especially to agencies that are wanting to grow and attract these new customers is spend the time, energy, and effort in getting some properly-designed, high-quality proposal documents together. It just makes a much different, much bigger impact in terms of for agents to use and what you stand for.

I’ve found that surprising, because I even found that some of our data that we used to provide was better than these other big agencies, and yet their designs were a whole lot better and they were closing customers because of that, often. That was another area that we focused on. Then in terms of how we were getting the leads, it’s pretty much having to get, so 95% of our leads come through inbound marketing and come through the fact that we are speaking to these places and that we do contribute to publication.

It’s a whole, it sort of feeds itself. You’re doing it for branding, and then you’re using the credibility indicators to be able to speak to these big agencies, who are then finding you because you’re speaking to these places. And it’s sort of self-perpetuating.

Drew McLellan: Now today, do you have different criteria for the clients that you work with? Are you structured in a way that you can still work with smaller brands that maybe are not obviously the budget level or the brand level that some of your big name clients are? Are you really now moving to mostly working with big global brands?

Aaron Agius: We only work, at the smallest end we work with funded startups and then through to enterprise. We decided pretty early on that small business was just not for us.

There’s a lot of agencies out there that, you know, I’m not saying that all of the agencies that do small business are doing this, there’s a lot of agencies that are happy to just operate on the fringe and learn more where they’re bringing on small business taking a few hundred dollars from them, not doing anything that they should be, losing money for a few months, and going again. It just wasn’t ethically right for us to do that. I find that if you haven’t got a few dollars to spend, it’s really hard to be successful in SEO and content marketing if you’re trying to pay an agency to do it.

I also didn’t like being, with small business, you’re typically the only marketing spend that they have goes onto SEO. They’re calling you frequently saying, “Where’s our rankings? Where’s our leads?” The reality is they need to wait six to 12 months often before the results come in.

Then because you’re their only marketing spend, they’re not doing any PR. They’re not doing additional content, any other brand awareness. It’s not an environment where their SEO and rankings can really thrive. We decided to get out of small business pretty fast.

Drew McLellan: When you serve a client, are you typically working in conjunction with other agencies, or are you the only agency in the mix?

Aaron Agius: Sometimes there’ll be PR agencies, and sometimes there are design agencies. We don’t do any design and development.  And any PR that we do is really sort of online PR, which is from our link acquisition perspective anyway, or a brand growth perspective.

 

How to Work with Other Agencies for One Client

Drew McLellan: You know, that’s an ongoing challenge for agencies today. More and more often they are finding they’re not the only fox in the hen house. They’re not the only agency in the mix. How do you make that work with other agencies? How do you collaborate in an environment where it’s so competitive and people are always trying to steal chunks of business from each other? How do you make that work effectively for you and for the client?

Aaron Agius: We start off making sure that the partners or the partner agencies that are involved, that they know a priority for us is making them successful, just like making the client successful. Showing them that we want to be on the same team and want to help promote what they’re doing.

We haven’t found personally that we’ve had anyone encroaching on our business that’s been a partner agency in any way. Maybe we’ve been fortunate, but I think focusing on making sure everyone’s successful that’s involved is pretty critical from the onset.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, I think a cooperation attitude rather than a competitive attitude is almost required, but I think for many agencies that’s a difficult corner to turn.

Aaron Agius: It is, but the other thing is, I’ve come back to the statement on confidence a couple of times, is our confidence level in our services and knowing that we, there’s not many people to compete with, means that we’re comfortable in those sorts of positions.

If there’s another agency involved that’s a design and development agency, they have their specialty.  They’re gonna say that they do their SEO on content well, then they’re not gonna be as good as we are because they’re doing multiple different services. That key confidence that everyone’s focusing on their specialty.

 

How to Find (and Keep) Great Talent for Your Team

Drew McLellan: This is great. I have so many more questions I want to ask you, but I want to take a quick second and pause. Lots of the podcast listeners have been asking me about other resources that AMI can offer them, or introduce them to, to extend their learning beyond the podcast. I want to give them that information, and then we will get right back into the questions I have for you.

I hope you’re finding this content really helpful. I just wanted to take a quick pause and remind you that on top of the podcast we also do a lot of live workshops for agency owners, agency leaders, and account service staff. If you’re interested in the schedule, check it out at AgencyManagementInstitute.com/live. Let’s get back to the show.

You talked earlier about being a distributed team. Are you finding challenges, lots of traditional agencies are struggling to find great talent, to find and keep great talent. Is that an issue for your agency, or have you cracked that nut?

Aaron Agius: It’s a challenge for us. The place where it’s important in our business to have the best talent is client-facing. Our back of house, there’s so many people that can do the back of house stuff, that can run data, that can run tools, that can go back and manage on different websites. It’s what happens with that data, how it’s packaged, the story that’s told, the analysis and delivery to the clients that makes the biggest impact for us.

Yeah, those people are in our business, and they’re hard to find, and for good reason. Yeah, that’s the only struggle that we have, but typically we don’t need to find them too often. Most of our front of house staff have been around for greater than five years, six years.

Drew McLellan: Retention is a challenge in a lot of agencies; it sounds like you’re not having that issue. Why do you think that is? What have you created in your culture and the way you work with clients and the way you work with each other that makes you guys sticky as an employer?

Aaron Agius: Well, I only am very worried about our front of house staff as I mentioned. Our back of house staff what we’ve done is, because we use a distributed technique, we’ve actually helped create smaller agencies in other countries where we’ve said, “We’re going to teach you exactly what we do, we’re going to give our processes and systems and allow you to use them to set up and look after your own clients locally.”

We are your number one priority and we have a lot of engagements with them. We’ve essentially enabled them to be able to earn and create a business themselves while supporting us and doing just exactly what we need as a priority. That’s really worked for us, and it’s meant that automatically we put management levels in place without even meaning it.

We’re not just using freelancers and contractors everywhere, we’ve got proper management levels in place that means that we don’t even know if one of the lower level staff has moved on, because our managers take care of that.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, it’s a great model. I have a couple other agencies inside the AMI networks that have done the exact same thing. That they’ve built in essence mirror companies that deliver a subset of skills they need that also allow them to go on and earn income inside their own country.

What about the front of the house? It sounds like you’re able to keep those folks, and obviously I’m sure they’re in high demand and they’re very talented.

What have you done culturally to make working for you guys the right choice and a long term choice for your employees? Lots of agencies are really struggling with that, especially as you say in the client-facing or account services roles.

Aaron Agius: Yeah, so we’ve paid them well, firstly. I don’t mind paying these guys.  I know how valuable they are. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is given that we are a distributed team, there’s plenty of flexibility for them to be working in whatever they want to wear in front of their computer, there’s no travel time, they can do it in comfortable, they’re very comfortable. They can travel where they want. They can go and be in Thailand and move to Thailand and do it from over there. Periods of time, as long as they’re speaking with their video calls and maybe to the clients, so that flexibility and high pay is what’s made people stick around I believe. I also like to think that we’re nice.

 

Leveraging LinkedIn to Grow Your Business

Drew McLellan: Of course. One of the things that you’ve talked about in several interviews that I wanted to dig into is you have an interesting LinkedIn strategy in terms of your biz dev model.

Can you tell the listeners a little bit about how you leverage LinkedIn and what your strategy is around that?

Aaron Agius: I can. There’s a few ways that I leverage LinkedIn. One of them was that a long time ago when I first started, I created a group on LinkedIn called The Marketing Leaders of Australia group. What I then did was went out and invited all of the marketers, pretty much outside my clients, all the digital marketers, national marketers, CMOs, and all of those people into the group.

What happened then is they felt they were considered a marketing leader because they were invited to the group, and then I promoted a position of authority because I was inviting them to a group that I was a leader of. Then what I would do is distribute content, just curated content, to the group and invite them to create content and curate that as well.

What that would do was it would, when you’re a member of a group on LinkedIn, you get weekly data lists of the content that’s shared in the group and it goes straight into your email inbox. Essentially what I was doing there was building up scores of an email list of our target clients that I could get content into their inbox once a week.

That worked really well. If you remember the group, you can direct message the members of the group, the group broadcast. It was a great way of sharing content, positioning myself in the way that I wanted, and also running direct message campaigns to drive leads.

Drew McLellan: As you were driving direct message campaigns, was that, were you doing that in a mass way, or were you sending individual, like would you send a note specifically to me, Drew, about something you thought was relevant to just me, Drew?

Aaron Agius: A mixture of all of them. I wouldn’t say that we just ran one campaign. Over the years, we’ve run many for, you know, a cap based marketing through to higher-volume that was, “Hey, check out this content. I’d love to share more content with you, love what you’re doing.”

Then we’d comment on their vaulting and their profile that they are liking or sharing in terms of content. Try to build a relationship that way, and then third or fourth message, somewhere down the path would be, “Look, I think we’re going to love to get in on a call, is that something you’re interested in?”

Drew McLellan: The success rate of that sounds like that worked well for you. Are you still doing it today?

Aaron Agius: Within the very first month that I started doing that, I closed a client that was about $5000 a month in revenue. They’re still with us today, and yes, we still do it today. Yeah, we’ve got a whole lot of stuff happening on LinkedIn. It’s somewhere I enjoy marketing.

Drew McLellan: You said you had a couple other strategies around LinkedIn. How else are you leveraging that?

Aaron Agius: One of my favorites is using it as a distribution platform for content. There’s ways of connecting up social distribution and scheduling tools like Buffer to connect to loads of different groups within LinkedIn.

What I did is connected to 50 or something marketing groups, connected them on Buffer. Whenever I had to distribute content, or wanted to distribute our own content or curated content, I was doing it at set times through Buffer to these groups.

Some of them have millions of different people involved in them. It was a way of getting, of looking like I was everywhere and in many different places with many different people, in an audience that I didn’t have to create.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, that’s a great strategy, yeah. I’m assuming what you did was you identified content creators who were always putting out good and strong content so you knew that you could sort of leverage that content on a consistent basis, right?

Aaron Agius: Yeah, exactly. Everything, it’s something that I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, everything comes down to having great content. It’s what fuels every marketing channel. It’s essential to have that no matter where you’re going and doing it on.

 

How to Measure the Success of Your Work in ROI for Clients

Drew McLellan: One of the things that your agency talks a lot about is sort of measuring the ROI, that at the end of the day if you’re not driving more money into your clients’ cash registers, if you will, then it doesn’t really matter about the clicks or the likes or whatever.

A lot of agencies struggle in their partnership with clients, figuring out how to, especially for things like content. I was just with a bunch of agency owners today, and they were talking about how do I prove the ROI of content for my client, especially if my client, their CRM system or their sales database or whatever is not as robust as I would want it to be?

Are there strategies around how you embrace a client and help them figure out how you guys are going to document and measure success in ROI?

Aaron Agius: Yeah, there’s, what we do is have a look at conversion. We get access to analytics. Have a look at the conversions, sorry, that our sites are currently getting, our client sites are currently getting, and we go ahead and make sure that we’re looking at lower values associated with those conversions.

Then when the estimated traffic increases, we’re able to say, “This sort of traffic increase would mean this sort of conversion and increase,” and bring it back to it’s dollar value to show an ROI for what they’re spending.

There’s also, there’s so many when you’re talking about how to measure content marketing in a self and individual pieces of content, that’s a tricky one. I actually just made a whole blog post on that on our website a few months ago that breaks down how we do it. It can be tricky for me to try to explain it in this call would be difficult, but I encourage people to check out the blog post as well.

Drew McLellan: We’ll link to the post in the show notes so people can go read that, so that’ll be awesome. Your clients are probably large enough that they have more sophisticated tools to measure conversions and sales and ROI.

As you are growing the business and maybe before you were working with the likes of Coca Cola, but you were working with smaller, maybe regional businesses, did you have different strategies for how you measured ROI, or have you always done it in the same ways?

Aaron Agius: We’ve always tried to do it, there’s often gaps with people in their analytics where they’ve messed up their conversions and not assigned dollar values to them. That’s tricky. We’ve always aimed to do that, and I don’t know whether you will or won’t be surprised, but a lot of these big companies aren’t actually set up in as a sophisticated manner as you’d assume.

A lot of their data is missing or is destroyed because it’s split up in multiple different programs, it’s quite amusing when you get some of these big companies, the impression you thought you’d have working with them versus what actually happens behind the scenes.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, I think along the way I was with an agency the other day who made the comment th