Episode 182

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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 socia