Episode 182:

When you think about or define a global agency, do you think of those giant conglomerates that started on Madison Avenue and have mushroomed into marketing behemoths? Well, that’s one model – but certainly not the only one. What if your global agency was set up more like a series of regional micro-agencies still under one banner?

On episode #182 of Build a Better Agency, I talk with Josh Steimle, who has developed a unique business model that is really working for him and the growing team at MWI.

We dig into it all: how to develop a cohesive culture across multiple locations, how to hire well, and how to niche down. What they are doing is still very unique in the agency world but seems to have the potential for replication – as many successful ventures do.

Josh founded MWI in 1999 while a college student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In 2013, he moved from Salt Lake City to Hong Kong to open MWI’s first international office.

Josh is the author of Chief Marketing Officers at Work: How Top Marketers Build Customer Loyalty, a TEDx speaker, and regularly presents at marketing and business events. He has written over 200 articles on marketing and entrepreneurship for publications like Mashable, TechCrunch, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Time.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Why there is more than one way to scale a business
  • How to rethink the global agency
  • Why hiring the right person is such a critical decision
  • How a niche service can land you big clients
  • Why even small events can pay off with good business opportunities
  • How to build credibility in the marketplace through strategic partnerships
  • Using credibility to sell your services
  • The ROI of giving away advice
  • Challenge and opportunity in building a global group of micro-agencies
  • Building an agency that is both virtual and face-to-face
“You can’t be an expert at everything. We had to hone in on and define what we were great at. We had to define our niche.” – @joshsteimle Click To Tweet “The two primary qualities we're looking for in a new local CEO is, number one: can they sell, and number two: can they lead and build a team?” – @joshsteimle Click To Tweet “We think we’re in this virtual age and everything's done by email and phone, but clients care a lot about being able to meet with somebody face-to-face.” – @joshsteimle Click To Tweet “When you're at the front of that room, even if it's just 50 or 60 people, you're naturally in a leadership authority position.” – @joshsteimle Click To Tweet

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Speaker 1:

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. Now in our third year of brand new insights on how small to mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. We’ll show you how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you. Make with 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Welcome Back into another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is Drew McLellan from Agency Management Institute. Always glad to have you back with us. Thanks for showing up. Whether it’s your first time or you are a regular, glad to have you with us. Today’s topic and guests are fascinating.

When I think about the conversations that I have with all of you when I am either in a AMI peer group meeting with you, or I bump into you at a workshop, or a conference that I’m speaking at, one of the things we often talk about is growth. And when we talk about growth, I think we assume that growth has to come in sort of the prescribed way, get a new client, add a couple more staff people. For many of us, even the idea of being a hybrid office with some people in our brick and mortar locations and other people being virtually located around the country or around the globe, even that feels kind of crazy and a little bit riskier. Let alone the agencies that have gone completely virtual, which we’ve talked about before on the show and the success that they’re having. But for many of us, even that feels very unconventional.

So my guest today has really taken this idea of agency growth and turned it on its ear. And he started out like many of us did, very traditional, brick and mortar location, in a second-tier market, mostly serving clients inside the state that he and the agency resided in. And then through a series of choices and, in some cases, unexpected consequences of those choices, all of a sudden he has developed a very different model for growing a global agency.

When I think of a global agency, I think of a huge agency, I think of those big-box agencies that we all think about or talk about. And what he’s proving is that there are lots of different ways to get to your goals in terms of the agency that you want to run and the agency that you want to build. And so I’m really fascinated to dive into this conversation and learn more about him.

So let me tell you a little bit about him. So Josh Steimle owns an agency called the MWI. He started it in the late-nineties. And he’s grown it to be a global force. But when I say global force, all the pictures that you have in your head aren’t actually what his agency looks like. And so I really want to just let him unfold that for us and explore it together.

And here’s my hope. My hope is that this triggers possibilities for you. This triggers ideas of, “Hey, I’d never would have occurred to me to build my agency that way, or to have a location there.” That’s what this episode is all about. It’s about possibilities and not taking the same path that everybody else takes. So I just want to jump into the conversation. So let’s do that. So, Josh, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Josh Steimle:

Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So give everybody a sense of, I know you started your agency back in the late nineties, if I remember correctly, give everyone a sense of sort of what it was in terms of size and the kind of clients you served and what it is today. And then we’ll sort of get into how you made that shift.

Josh Steimle:

Sure thing. So I started in 1999. I was a university student at the time. I was going to BYU, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, which is kind of a small college town. And I wanted to start a business and I knew how to design websites. So I thought, well, I guess I’ll start a web design business. And so at first it was just me freelancing on my own, but I had a name. I tried to make myself look like an agency.

And after about a year of that, I did hire some people. And I got office space. So then I felt like I had a real business. And for the next 13 years it was ups and downs, success, failure, roller coaster ride, just all sorts of crazy stuff. And in 2013, two big things change for the business. One was I brought on a partner who was really good at sales and I had never had that before. And that really jump-started things.

The other side of it was I got the opportunity to write for Forbes Magazine. And so I had a lot of leads coming in from the writing I was doing for Forbes and eventually other publications. And then I had somebody who could close those leads on the other end of things. So from 2013 on, things really took off and we grew, and now we’ve got offices in Asia, Europe, and the U>S.

And we’ve got about 30, 40 people full-time. And then we have a lot of freelancers and partners that we work with. And so today, the agency’s quite a bit bigger than that freelance business I had once upon a time. Although, funny thing is after 20 years, it still feels like the same business. It still feels like a lot of the same challenges, a lot of ups and downs still.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Josh Steimle:

It’s just that the problems are just bigger problems these days.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So how are the clients different from when you started versus now that you’re serving out of sort of three different areas of the world?

Josh Steimle:

Well, certainly, they’re different in that there are a lot more international because we have clients coming from globally now, rather than locally. For a long time, we didn’t have clients outside of Utah. That was our exclusive market. And now, I’m not sure we have a single client that is still in Utah. So things have changed definitely that way. Now we have clients like Marriott Hotels and Hotels.com, and a lot of larger clients that are paying more money. Whereas back in those days, it wasn’t so much of those big clients. But we still do work for startups and small businesses and companies of all sizes.

So it’s more just the volume has changed a bit. And I think obviously with that type of growth and more of a staff, we’re able to handle different types of work than we were able to handle back then and handle it better than we handled it back then. But in a lot of ways, it still feels the same. It’s still a lot of the same issues, dealing with clients, same questions come up, same issues with that client-vendor relationship still come up. And so in a lot of ways it’s still the same business.

Drew McLellan:

So a lot of people have agencies, 30, 40, 50, 100 people, and they sort of are still all in one location. So what prompted you to decide to create multiple locations In multiple countries in multiple time zones all over the globe?

Josh Steimle:

Part of this was the initial vision of the company. When I started the agency, the dream was, I want to have a global worldwide agencies. So that was the dream from the very beginning. I didn’t have venture capital funding. I didn’t have huge loans or any sort of financing to make that happen. I just had to start somewhere. So I started locally, but always I wanted to make this happen. It was never a possibility until 2013.

And once my partner came on and once we started generating a lot of leads from Forbes, that allowed me the flexibility to move to Asia. So I moved to Asia, I moved to Hong Kong, and I opened an office there. It was kind of crazy. It was just, “Hey, I’m going to try this out. I’m going to see if this works. I’m going to move to China.” I had never lived over here in Asia before, I had no experience, but my wife and I were looking into adopting a child from China. And that’s what kind of sparked that conversation, was more on the personal side.

But once we got over here and we got an office up and running, it was fantastic and things really went well. And so that’s what prompted us to go international. And then things just spread from there, where we started to talking to people and saying, “Hey, would you be interested in opening an office for us over here?” And so things have spread since then.

Drew McLellan:

I know you talk a lot about that one of the turning points for you in terms of the growth and the success was being able to write for a variety of publications, whether it’s Forbes or others. And that was five years ago. And now with things like the Forbes advertising council and other things, do you think that that methodology still has merit? Or do you think it’s been watered down?

Josh Steimle:

I think part of it has been watered down, but there’s a side of it that still has merit. Because one side of writing for these large publications is you just get the exposure, you get access to a channel you didn’t have access to before. And perhaps that side of it has been watered down a little bit, because if you publish on Forbes, it’s still great, don’t get me wrong, but it might be a little bit more watered down than it was five years ago. On the other side of it is the credibility where you go into a client and you say, “I write for Forbes. Here are some of my articles.” And that’s the same value as it ever was. When I walk into a client-

Drew McLellan:

[crosstalk 00:09:42].

Josh Steimle:

… and I can show them an article I wrote, then that’s impressive to them. And they take me more seriously. And it gets rid of a lot of the questions that often come up in that pitch process where people are trying to verify your credibility. As soon as I can show them, here are a bunch of my articles in Forbes, and Fortune, and other publications, they just check that box and they say, all right, this guy’s credible. And then I don’t get all of those questions asking about the business and how big we are and how much we’re doing in revenue and all the stuff. They just assume that I know what I’m talking about because I’m in those publications.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It seems like there was sort of a chicken and egg reality to your growth. One was the additional exposure that you got by being published in a lot of trade pubs and the other was the arrival of your business partner who had the sales chops. What do you think would have happened if one of the two of those things didn’t happen?

Josh Steimle:

Well, if I had gotten access to Forbes and these writing channels, I would have gotten a bunch of leads, but I was not good at handling leads. I mean, my business was getting leads for years before this, and I don’t know if other agencies do this, but I do not like picking up the phone. I don’t like answering it. I don’t like making calls. I like emails. I’m an email guy. So I would get phone calls coming in saying, “Hey, I want a pitch from you. I want to hire you. I want to talk to you about doing business.” I’d let that sit there for three or four days before I’d respond to it.

So by the time I called people back, either, A, they were angry at me and they didn’t want to talk to me because I hadn’t responded for three or four days, or they thought I was lazy and just slow. And then they didn’t work with me. Or, on the plus side, I got the clients who were the most patient, slow moving themselves. Which, in a way, actually turned out to be great for me because I got a bunch of clients signed up who were very patient and not in a hurry.

But I was losing a lot of business before. So if I’d gotten picked up by Forbes and I didn’t have my partner, I just would have had more lead flow but I’m not sure it would have turned into more business because of how poorly I was handling that lead flow. Once I got my partner on board, then it was great because that lead flow had somewhere to go, there was a bucket to put it in.

Now, if I hadn’t gotten the Forbes opportunity, I would’ve had a guy who was great at closing leads, but no leads coming in. So that probably still would’ve grown the business. I think my partner was probably a larger part of the success or more essential to the success than the Forbes side of it was. But the two together was amazing. It was rocket fuel.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So how has your business grown? So you started as a webdev shop and it sounds like that’s really not what you do today. So how has your business evolved in terms of what you do and how you service clients? And how much of your own business growth and evolution is reflected in what you do for clients?

Josh Steimle:

When we started out, it was mostly webdev. It started out web design. Then we moved into e-commerce and content management systems. Around 2004, we started doing search engine optimization. And that led to doing paid search as well. And by 2007-ish, we had 20 services listed on our agency’s website. And I know this happens to a lot of other agency owners as well. Because clients come along and they say, “Hey, can you do this? Can you do this?” And of course you say, “Yes, I need the money. So I’ll do that.” And then you add it to the website because you figure, “Hey, I can do this.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Josh Steimle:

And you ended up with 20 services on your website and then nobody knows what you do or what you specialize in. So that happened to me as well. And over the years, we’ve tried many times to cut back and say, okay, we do not do branding and logos and business cards anymore of that. We just don’t do that. Maybe we do websites, but we don’t advertise that we do websites. It’s more, we’ll do the SEO, but if they ask for a website with the SEO, then sure we’ll do the website still.

So we’ve had to pick and choose what we focus on. And for years, mostly what we focused on was search engine optimization. That was our main core service. And over the past few years, we’ve still kept that as a service, but we’ve really gravitated more towards social media and creating content. Which is a lot of what I’ve done personally with building my personal brand and writing for these publications. It’s been content, content, content. So over time we’ve picked up more and more clients who are coming to us asking for content.

The work that we do for Marriott Hotels, it’s all creating content. The work we’re doing for Hotels.com, it’s all creating content. And then we have a lot of other clients where we’re managing their social media spend, we’re managing their social media content. And that’s become more of a dominant thing for us just naturally as that’s what clients have been requesting. And so while SEO and paid search, those are still things that we do, they’re not quite the percentage share of the business that they use to be.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it makes sense that you gravitated to and that clients find you more credible in the way that you’ve grown your own business. So the way they found you was through content. So it makes sense that one of the things would want from you is content. You’ve already demonstrated your expertise of it.

Josh Steimle:

Yep. Whereas we used to show up everywhere in the search engines for all sorts of terms. And so yes, we are getting the SEO work too because people trusted us there. So yeah, that seemed like the services follow what I do personally, to some extent.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think for a lot of agencies, I think that’s a lesson of… I think at a certain point in time, you telling clients that channel this or tactic that is the best thing since sliced bread. And then they look at you and say, “Well, but you don’t do any of that?” Or, “I don’t see you doing that.” I think it’s a little bit of the emperor showing up without any clothes on sometimes.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So talk a little bit about managing multiple offices. Because I know you not only have multiple opposites in some of the other countries that you’ve talked about, but you also have multiple offices inside the U.S. so it sounds like you have a lot of micro offices where there’s a handful of people in a particular city or country, right?

Josh Steimle:

Right. In Hong Kong was really our first separate office because we had our U.S presence. And we had people spread out but it was more virtual offices. We had people working from other locations but we weren’t necessarily running separate full offices with sales and all the different parts of an office there. So when I moved to Hong Kong and we opened an office there and we hired somebody on, that was really our first foray into, let’s start a completely separate office with separate leadership, with separate fulfillment, separate marketing, separate sales, separate everything.

And it took a few starts to get it right. We hired a few people. They weren’t the right people. And then finally, we found the right person who could head up that office. And then things really took off. And once that worked out, we felt like, “Okay, we’ve got something here. We’ve got a formula that seems to work. Let’s see if we can do this again.” So we hired somebody in Tampa, Florida, several months ago, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to set this up the right way from the beginning and see if we can make this work in the U.S.”

So we hired somebody. You could call it a franchise. I mean, it’s not a franchise, but we’ve basically set this person up as the owner of that office as kind of a local CEO and said, “We’re going to give you support training, obviously the brand and marketing support, but really you’re on your own. You’ve got to go out and close deals. Bring this work in. We’ll help you get the work done back at our headquarters, but you’ve got to go out and sell and make this happen, and then build your team out there.”

And our leader out there, Taran Hercule, she’s done a great job and things are working out really well. And the key we found with growing these separate offices now is it’s all about hiring the right person to do it. You hire the right person to do it, you almost don’t have to provide any oversight. They just take it and run with it. If you get somebody in there who’s not the right person, then you’re providing all sorts of time and support and training and it still doesn’t really work. So the key for us been finding the right person who really gets it and has the ability to make happened.

Drew McLellan:

And so for you, it’s not really that you’re closer, or your partner is closing deals and then you’re just farming the workout wherever you have bodies that have time, but each of your locations is sort of acting as an agency unto itself?

Josh Steimle:

That’s what we’re shooting for. We’re trying to get that kind of model. So what we envision happening is that as these separate offices grow, they’ll eventually… For example, so Taran’s out in Tampa, Florida, right now. And it’s just her, she’s just doing sales. That’s all she’s doing, is selling. And then she’s farming the work back to our headquarters.

Eventually, she’s going to run into this issue where she says, “I need an account manager here locally who can go meet with clients in person.” So she’ll hire an account manager. And then she’ll say, “You know what? I really need a webdev or an SEO person or a social person here in the office who can go meet with clients, who gets things locally here for the local clients.” And she’ll start running into friction working with the main office. So she’ll go hire that person locally.

And so the idea is, as she needs to, she can grow that local office and start pulling the work away from the headquarters and take local what needs to be local but then outsource what makes sense to continue outsourcing. Because we have our head office, we can give her that flexibility to hire as she wants to, rather than saying, “Hey, I’ve got enough work to keep a social guy 25% busy, but I need that 25%. So I have to go hire a full-time social guy.” She doesn’t have to do that. She can outsource to us until she gets up to 80%, and then she can go hire a local social media guy.

So we’re able to give her flexibility, and it’s more efficient overall, financially, to start these offices that way. And that’s how we’re hoping that we can get a bunch of these offices up and running. What we found is that it’s very easy to get an office from zero to a million in revenue. And after that, then the challenge get a little bit trickier as you move from one to three million in revenue. So we said, well, why don’t we go start $51 million offices? We know how that business works really well. We can help these people manage $51 million offices. And then we’ve got a $50 million agency. As opposed to saying, let’s go start one office and try to grow that from zero to 50 million.

Drew McLellan:

So do you worry at all about culture? So a lot of agencies that are virtual today worry about bringing everybody together, are they creating a common culture amongst all of the offices and all of the different locations. Are you concerned about that or are you allowing each office in essence to create its own culture and environment and sort of social mores inside of how it functions?

Josh Steimle:

It is a huge concern for us. And we feel like culture is a critical part of our business. And so when we’re hiring these local people to run these offices, making sure that they have the right culture fit is huge for us because we know that they’re going to create the culture for that local office. And so we have to get the right person with the right culture fit to begin with. And then we have to really maintain contact with that local leader to make sure that the culture that they’re building matches the culture that we want to build for the entire company overall.

And there are definitely challenges there, but, again, it goes back to hiring that right person to begin with. If we get the right person to begin with, our jobs a lot easier. If we get the person that’s not quite the right fit, then everything falls apart.

Drew McLellan:

So are you bringing everyone physically together at all? Or are you thinking, somebody may work for my company for 10 years and not meet everybody else at the company?

Josh Steimle:

Ideally, we would want to bring everybody together at least once a year. It hasn’t worked out that way because finances and just affordability of bringing all these people, especially people from Asia. Bringing 10 people from Asia to the U.S is expensive and we just don’t have the budget for it right now. So we haven’t done that, but we do a lot of back and forth. So we’ve had different people from different offices visiting each other, getting together as leadership. Our leadership team is everywhere visiting people. So we do what we can with our budgets, but we haven’t been able to bring everybody together. But I hope that we can soon.

Drew McLellan:

It sounds like the model is, basically, hire a standalone salesperson who, again, fits the culture, understands the business, all of that, but really your first hire on a new market is, in essence, a director of sales who eventually will become a general manager or whatever title they end up being? But hire a sales person, if they can sell enough to justify more bodies then they become a full fledged location or office of the agency, right?

Josh Steimle:

Right. So the two primary qualities we’re looking for somebody in a new local CEO is, number one, can they sell? And number two, can they lead and build a team? Do they have that business background to manage and build a team?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s an interesting model, though, because I think about, if somebody said, I want to be a global agency if I said, “Hey, I’m going to go hang out with somebody who owns a global agency,” I think the assumption would be that they’re huge, right? That the agency, by its size, is ginormous, it’s a big-box agency Like the ones that we read about in Adage and Adweek. And what you’ve done is you’ve sort of turned the model upside down and said, well, we’re actually a bunch of micro agencies that are knit together to be this global force.

Josh Steimle:

Right. And we find that it fits a niche that is underserved in certain markets. Maybe not so much in the U.S, but over here in Asia, you’ve got two types of agencies. You’ve got tiny agencies where it’s one or two guys working out of an apartment, and then you’ve got the Ogilvy’s, the huge people. So you’ve got, on the one hand, people who can serve as a client who will pay a thousand dollars a month. And on the other side of it, you’ve got somebody who says, “Hey, our minimum is $5 million a month.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Josh Steimle:

And in between, there’s this huge void where there are a lot of businesses saying, “We need something more than just the one or two guys, but we’re not going to go hire an Ogilvy.” And so that’s where we come in and we fit. And we say, “Look, we’re big enough to handle your projects that maybe are 10, 20, 30 grand a month. So we can handle that size of work, but we’re not going to charge you millions like an Ogilvy, but we can get the work done that you need done.” And so that’s been our niche overseas.

Drew McLellan:

And so how is the story different in the U.S? Because that’s certainly not the case in the U.S., right? There’s a bunch of agencies of all sizes in most markets in the U.S. So are you targeting… Like when you pick Tampa, did you pick that market because there aren’t a lot of agencies there?

Josh Steimle:

No, we picked Tampa because that’s where we found person.

Drew McLellan:

Got it.

Josh Steimle:

So we found the right person first, we feel like we can build a business in pretty much any market in the U.S. It is tougher in the U.S., I would say, than it is overseas, just because there are a lot of voids and holes to fill overseas. But in the U.S., we still feel like if we get into a market, we can be successful pretty much anywhere.

So if we opened in New York, or Boston, or Chicago, we feel like we could make things work out there and work out well. And that goes back to the brand we’ve established and the credibility we have because of being in all these different publications and such. So we have a lot of visibility. And then it’s just a matter of having boots on the ground and being able to say, “Yeah, we’re local. We have somebody here. You can go meet with them face-to-face.” And if we find the right person to do sales, then it’ll work pretty much.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. I want to talk a little bit about how you approach a large international brand like Marriott, but let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and talk about that.

Thanks for checking out this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency. I wanted to interrupt very quickly and just remind you that one of the services that AMI offers is our coaching packages. And it comes in a couple of different options. So you can do a remote coaching package where we would communicate with you over the phone or over a Zoom call. Or, we also do onsite consulting where we would actually come to your agency and work with you for a day or a period of days to solve a specific problem, typically, that you’ve pre-identified and we’ve talked about on the phone.

So if you’re interested in either of those, you might go over to the AMI website and under the consulting tab, you will find more information about both our remote coaching and our onsite consulting. Let’s get back to the episode.

All right. Before the break, we were sort of talking about how Josh and his team is sort of creating a global presence in a really interesting in unique way. And a couple of times, early on in the conversation, he’s mentioned that they do some work for Marriott, specifically around creating content.

So when you’re approaching a big brand like that, who’s used to working with the Ogilvy’s of the world, how do you as a 30, 40 person shop, how do you have that conversation and how do you demonstrate… Because I’m sure their worry is, can you handle our work? So how do you have that conversation with them?

Josh Steimle:

So on the case of Marriott, and this happens with a lot of our other clients as well, we get in through a niche, or we get in through a relationship that allows us to get in where another agency our size might struggle to get. In the case of Marriott, it was actually false. They were looking for a specific type of content development. They wanted an agency that was based in Hong Kong that could do both English and Chinese language content development in the same shop. And they didn’t want to pay the huge prices either for this content development. It wasn’t that large of a project.

And then I happened to do an event where I was speaking. Actually, it was an event that I created and put on over here. We created event called the China Marketing Summit and we invited a regional CMO from Marriott to be a speaker at this event. So I met this guy at the event. It was our event, which gave us some credibility with him. And then he had seen our articles in these different publications and such. So when he had this need to create content for some of their Asia operations, he came to us and said, “Hey, I know you guys. I have met you at this event that you hosted, and I’ve seen your articles. Do you guys produce this type of content?” And we said, “Yeah, we can do that.”

And so we were able to get this contract with Marriott. And it’s not a million-dollar contract, it’s much smaller. So it was something that we were able to pick up. But then it grows from there. So we start with that. And then we start adding other work. And then we start adding other regions. And it grows from there. So it was a combination of a niche service, a smaller budget that they needed help with, and then also having formed this relationship with the right person. And a lot of our deals do happen that way.

Drew McLellan:

Sure. Tell us a little bit about the event and have you replicated it in other markets? Because it sounds like a great biz dev opportunity.

Josh Steimle:

Right. It is great opportunity to put on an event and it’s a ton of work with a ton of risk, and it’s… I mean, even after starting the business and going through all the ups and downs… I mean, I started my agency in 99. So I went through 9/11 and the fallout after that, which almost put us out of business. And I went through the downturn in 2008, which almost put us out of business. And I’ve made all sorts of mistakes and had all sorts of issues with clients. Nothing has stressed me out more than putting on an event, a large event for hundreds of people. I mean, it is the most stressful thing I can imagine. Because you put all this time and money into this thing, and then a week before it happens, you have no idea if this thing’s going to be successful or not. And it’s not-

Drew McLellan:

Right. Is anybody going to show up?

Josh Steimle:

Right. You start having nightmares. You’re waking up at night and you have this image in your head that you show up to this huge venue that you paid a bunch of money for and like 20 people show up or something. You’re just like, “Oh, this is going to be a nightmare.” And then the day comes. And people show up. And everything goes okay. And there are a few little hiccups. But overall, things go okay. And you think, “Oh, okay. I’m alive.”

But it is such a stressful thing. So I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart. But it has been great for raising our visibility, because there’s just nature credibility that comes with putting on an event and getting even just 50 or 60 people in a room. Even just doing small local events is great because you get to be at the front of the room in front of a bunch of marketers, i that’s who you’re targeting with the events. And that’s what we’ve done, is we’ve targeted specifically marketers and trying to bring in these brands into our events.

When you’re at the front of that room, even if it’s just 50 or 60 people, you’re naturally in this leadership authority position. And so then those people that rubs off and people see you as the authority, and then they trust you, and then of course people work with people they know, like, and trust. So the events have worked out great for us. Now in [crosstalk 00:30:55]-

Drew McLellan:

What’s the formula? Is it a one-day event?

Josh Steimle:

Yeah. So we’ve just done one-day events. So when we did China Marketing Summit the first time, we also partnered with somebody who is experienced with events. We found somebody and we said, “Hey, you know how to put on events? We know how to create the content, how to make a credible to our audience, but we don’t know how to do all the logistics and the day of.” And especially in China, we had to do translation and all sorts of things.

So we partnered with somebody and we got 600 people out to this event in China. First-time event, 600 people. All-day event. We had the founder of Angry Birds there. He’s now a COO for a new company. We this guys from Marriott. We had a bunch of people out there. So it was great to get… We had a bunch of great speakers there. And there were a lot of hiccups, there were a lot of things that didn’t go right, but we had 600 people in a room and I got to be at the front of the room saying, “Hey, welcome, everybody. This is the China Marketing summit sponsored by MWI.”

And so the value that we got from that was huge. And we’ve done smaller events and other places, in London and elsewhere. And even the smaller events, even… We’ve done events with 10 people. And those events are great. So it’s definitely something I’d recommend to other agencies. Even putting on a 10-person, 20-person small training event where you say, “We’re going to do an all day workshop, and it’s going to focus on this aspect of marketing.” It’s a great way to bring potential clients in. And then you basically have an all day pitch in front of these people as you demonstrate your expertise and that what you’re talking about.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So the structure of your event that you did at China. So it’s an all day event and everybody’s in one room. You didn’t have breakout sessions. You just had basically a main room and you just rotated speakers in and out?

Josh Steimle:

At that event, it was all day in the same room. And I wouldn’t recommend that. I mean, it was a long event for a lot of people in the same room. But we were dealing with what we had to deal with at that stage. I would recommend more of the stereotypical event where you have a few keynote sessions and then you do breakouts and people can split up. But that just adds a lot of complexity to event.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, it requires a lot more speakers and a lot more space. And obviously that financial risk is greater.

Josh Steimle:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

So the mix… So on that day, if you had, let’s call it eight speakers, how many of those speakers were internal people to you and how many were external client? Because it sounds like you had this guy from Marriott speak. So you clearly had clients, CMO-type, speaking. So how did you decide on the mix of who to have as speakers and how much of you guys should be on the versus other speakers?

Josh Steimle:

So the way that we decided was it was based on who was available. And I was the only person in our company who felt comfortable speaking in front of an audience. So I was the only person from MWI who was on stage. Everybody else was a guest or somebody that we brought in as an expert. If we had had more people from the U.S who could have traveled over for that, then we would have had more people from our company represented.

But that worked out fine. Even though I was the only guy from our company speaking and all the rest of it was focused on other people that we had brought in, just the fact that I was the person opening things and doing the introduction. Everybody knew that MWI was putting on this event. And so the credibility still came back to MWI.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Josh Steimle:

If I had had one or two other keynotes that could have been delivered by people from my company, I’m sure that would have been even better. But I would definitely hesitate to make it more than 10 or 20% of the content coming from your agency, because then it turns into just a sales pitch and people start feeling like they came just to hear you do sales to them. You don’t want that.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, I think there’s a… I think one of the themes of sort of your success is building credibility through partnerships, being seen as a conduit to trade pubs to the guy from Marriott, whoever that is. So I think part of what you’re modeling is that sometimes it’s not how much you know but it’s about who and the fact that this is the crowd that you hang out with and they invite you to participate. So clearly, by the credibility standards, you are worthy of being with them and you can sort of borrow from that esteem, right?

Josh Steimle:

Right. You can write other people’s coattails that way.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Josh Steimle:

And the other side of it is I really don’t like sales. I just have a hard time with sales. I actually love sales. I think it’s great. I think sales is a noble profession and everything, I’m just not very good at it. I’m not very good at talking to people in person, I feel like. And so when… I really enjoy writing. And I enjoy creating content ahead of time. And so when I started writing for Forbes and I found out, hey, I can write content, and then people come to me and they’re already sold. They already want to work with me. I don’t have to go through that whole process of education and convincing them. Then that really woke me up to the power of content marketing. And I thought, I’m going to put my focus on this content marketing, because this is great, I don’t have to do any selling.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Josh Steimle:

And so that’s the same thing with the events. Doing the events, I don’t have to sell. We just put on the event. I get up and talk about what I know. And we give away our secrets. And then people come up and say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing here. We want to hire you.” And I said, “Great, this is awesome. I don’t have to go through that whole sales process.” So I’m a huge advocate of content marketing as a way for people who are perhaps a little bit sales averse to skip that process and go straight to closing the deal.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. No, it makes sense. Well, in some ways, I think that’s a big part of the future of our business, is I think helping clients understand that methodology and the value of that methodology and then being the ones that help them build out those programs. Right?

Josh Steimle:

Yeah. Because this is the same way that I do things on social media. I don’t like going on social media and saying, “I’m having a black Friday sale. I’m selling this. Come get this, there’s a discount.” I’d rather go on social media and say, “Here’s the challenge I ran into the other day with a client. And they had this marketing issue. And here’s what we talked about. And here’s the strategy we came up with. And we tried it out and it worked. And maybe you can use this strategy in your business, too.” And we give away that type of advice, and then people come to us and say, “Hey, I love what you did with that client. Can we work with you, too?” That’s the process that I like to follow.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.So as you look down the future, right now your business model is pretty unique, this sort of global set of micro agencies. Do you think that this is going to become more common as people get more comfortable with virtual employees, with employees from other countries, with not having everybody in the same brick and mortar space? Because I think you’ve taken it to an extreme that very few agencies have done so far. And it’s working. So nothing breeds success like somebody else being ahead of you and being successful. So I suspect other people will sort of follow in your path. How common do you think this is going to be?

Josh Steimle:

I think it will certainly become more common because we’re starting from near zero, so it can only go one direction. But I don’t think it’s going to become very common. And the reason why not is because it requires the leadership to go live overseas and most leadership doesn’t want to do that. How many people are going to pack their bags and say, hey, I’m going to move from Minnesota to China? Most people aren’t that crazy.

I happen to be that crazy. I thought it was a great adventure, great opportunity to come over here. So I came over here and I did that. But without doing that, it’s very hard to open an agency somewhere if you don’t have experience in that market, because it’s so different from what you’ve grown up with China, especially, is one of the most different markets from the U.S. and the world.

And so if somebody said, “Hey, we want to start a China agency but I’m going to stay in the U.S. as the CEO of the agency or the founder, and I’m just going to go hire somebody online to open my office in China. Or I’m going to find somebody in Minnesota who’s got experience in China and I’ll just send him over.” It’s going to be very difficult to make that successful. Somebody who’s at the top has to go and live in that market, at least at first. Because you just have to have that firsthand experience and really understand what it’s like on the ground. So I was willing to do that. I just don’t think a lot of other agency owners are going to be willing to do that. Or their spouses aren’t going to be willing to do it.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So if you dial it back a little bit, though, you didn’t move to Tampa, right?

Josh Steimle:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

So inside a country, let’s say I’m an Australian agency owner listening, and I’m in Sydney. In theory, I could do what you’re doing by hiring sort of that sales person leader and letting them sort of carve out a niche in another city. And then build infrastructure around them or let them eat off of sort of the mother ship of the infrastructure.

Josh Steimle:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew McLellan:

So it could work inside a country?

Josh Steimle:

AbsolutelY.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Josh Steimle:

And certainly, in other countries that might be very similar to your own. Canada and the U.S. are not terribly different cultures, speak the same language. And so maybe going from the U.S. to Canada or vice versa wouldn’t be that big of a deal to do it that way. And the value here is that there’s still a lot to be said for having somebody in your city when a client is hiring. And so we think, oh, we live in this virtual age and everything’s done on email and phone and teleconference, but clients care a lot about being able to meet with somebody face to face.

If you’re able to say, we have somebody in your city and you can go meet with them face-to-face, there’s still a lot of value for a lot of clients in that. And that’s a large part of the benefit of opening these offices, is just being able to say, “Yes, we’re in your city and we have somebody you can go meet with in person and get comfortable with them.” So yeah, within a country, it’s not that hard to open up that kind of office. So I think that is becoming more common and will become more common in the future.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s been fascinating to let us peek under the hood with you and see what your methodology is and where you’re headed. What’s next for your agency, do you think? Is it more locations? Is it something else different? What do you believe the next evolution for you guys is going to be?

Josh Steimle:

The next step, really, is just refining this and making it more so. Because we’re kind of in this in-between area right now, where the model we have is to have a headquarters, MWI-HQ, and then to have all these satellite offices in different places. And right now we’re still figuring out a little bit about exactly the details of how that works and what the separation is. And we’re in the middle of transitioning our HQ to say the HQ is just leadership.

To give you a little bit more of a peak under the hood. The way that we run this from a financial perspective is that the local agency keeps a certain percentage of revenue local. And then another percentage of that goes to HQ. And so we know that if this local agency gets up to a million in revenue, that we get a certain percentage of that every month coming in from them, they know that they get to keep a certain percentage of that local. And we give the local leader a lot of autonomy to spend that money as they see fit, whether it’s for hiring, or marketing, or pay themselves, or whatever they want to do.

So in that sense, it is a lot like a franchise, there’s a lot of local control, but they have to follow a few rules. And so as that money comes back to our HQ, eventually we’ll cut off the HQ so that the HQ itself provides no services whatsoever. Every service will be provided by a local agency. And then the only way that HQ can make more money is to grow these local agencies and to open more of these local agencies.

And that’s where we want things set up. So that HQ does nothing itself other than support these local agencies and help them to grow. Because that will provide the incentives for my leadership team to say, “Hey, we want to grow. We need to open more offices. We need to help these offices grow.” Whereas now we are split a little bit, because HQ is still responsible for a lot of fulfillment. And so that splits the priorities so that, “Hey, well, let’s do a better job at the work. Let’s work on customer service. Let’s work on retention directly rather than helping the local offices take that over.” That’s where we’re at right now.

Drew McLellan:

It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Josh Steimle:

I hope it works.

Drew McLellan:

I hope so, too. Well, you certainly have proven so far that you know when to pivot and when to take the risks. And that seems to be paying off for you. So it’ll be fun to watch the next evolution unfold.

Josh Steimle:

Yep. It seems to be working so far. So we’re hopeful.

Drew McLellan:

This has been fascinating. Thank you for coming on the show, for spending the time, and for being so candid about your business model and sharing both the things that worked and didn’t work. I’m grateful that you were willing to do that.

Josh Steimle:

Well, thank you, Drew, for having me on. It’s fun to talk about.

Drew McLellan:

All right, guys. Josh, if people want to track you down, it sounds like you share a lot of good information on social media that you guys are generous with your content, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?

Josh Steimle:

People can connect with me on LinkedIn and also my website, joshsteimle.com.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. Perfect. All right, guys, this wraps up another episode. My hope with today’s episode was to get you thinking that there isn’t one way to do this. And there isn’t just the tried and true way. There are lots of ways to get to your goals. And there are lots of ways to create the agency that you want to create. And the only limitation is your own imagination, your own willingness to take risks, as Josh was talking about, and your willingness to endure the bumps along the way. But clearly as his story tells us, there’s some good things that happen if you were willing to take that ride. So hopefully this got you thinking a little bit.

As always, I will be back next week with another guest. In the meantime, a couple of things you can do for me. One, if you can go to wherever it is that you download your podcast from, Stitcher, or Google, or iTunes, and leave a rating and a review, that would make me very happy and grateful. So thank you in advance for doing that. That’s how folks find us. So I appreciate that. And also if you need me in the meantime, you know how to catch me. I’m at [email protected] We’ll be back next week. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 4:

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe to this. Don’t miss an episode.