Episode 228

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Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, a global marketing agency that specializes in partner or affiliate marketing. Initially, I planned on spending our time debunking the myths around affiliate marketing space (which we still covered), but our conversation took an interesting turn and instead we focused on Acceleration Partners’ growth journey. Robert described the transformation of his agency from five employees to several hundred in multiple countries – all in less than a decade. As you might imagine, it was not without some difficult crossroads.

Robert is the author of the new Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller, Elevate on how to build capacity while setting and achieving agency goals while helping the individual team members do the same. On top of sharing an agency leader’s perspective of the story behind Acceleration Partners’ growth, Robert discusses the inspiration behind his written content and what it means to him.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here: https://www.whitelabeliq.com/ami/

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • Robert’s role as the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners
  • Robert’s view of affiliate marketing in the agency world
  • How Robert took his agency of five FTEs and grew it multifold
  • How agency culture played a role in the immense growth of Acceleration Partners
  • How Robert holds his team accountable for maintaining Acceleration Partners’ culture

The Golden Nugget:

“It is not a competency unless you have five to ten people doing the same thing.” @robert_glazer Click To Tweet “If you don’t know what you want, how are you supposed to find the right people to help you get it?” @robert_glazer Click To Tweet “To me, “world-class” means it scales, and it’s high quality.” @robert_glazer Click To Tweet “As soon as we made the decision to shut down everything but partner marketing, our growth rate doubled in 6-9 months.” @robert_glazer Click To Tweet “When we are specialists, we can command a premium price, and we have a depth of expertise that garners the attention of the types of clients we want to serve.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Robert Glazer:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency, owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today’s interview was one that I thought was going to go in one direction, and the guest was so interesting in a completely different direction that we changed course right in the middle of a conversation. And so, like always, I have my agency on our hat on when we have these conversations. And I just went in the direction that I thought you would find most interesting and valuable, and I thought it was pretty fascinating.

So, I’ll tell you a little bit about our guest in a minute. But first, I want to give you a couple reminders. Number one, I will be a little sad if we don’t see you at the Build a Better Agency Summit. We are about 50% sold out. We can’t add more tickets after we sell out. The fire department says no. So, if you are inclined to join us or bring your team, please head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and check out the summit. We’ve got amazing speakers.

Here’s my goal with this conference, is I want to create a conference where you are there to connect with other people who do what you do every day in a very collaborative, friendly, non-competitive way. I want you to both teach and to learn. So, we have environments where you’re going to be sharing what you know and also where you’re going to be learning from some of the world’s smartest and best people in their areas of expertise. We are going to focus on the business of your business.

So, we’re going to talk about the things that matter to you in terms of profitability, in terms of growth, in terms of sales, in terms of getting the barriers out of your way, whether they’re legal challenges or imposter syndrome. So, it’s really going to be a great two days. And if you are an AMI member, remember that you can join us for the optional half day on Monday the 18th. So, the conference is the 19th and 20th, but you are an AMI member, either an associate member of the Gold Level or above or you’re in one of our peer groups, you can join us for a member-only day where we are going to do some more learning and sharing.

And then we’re actually going to have dinner together the night before the conference starts. So, please head over. Check the amazing speakers, the amazing opportunities to learn and to connect with other people. And I hope you join us. All right. So, today’s guest is an agency owner. About less than 10 years ago, his agency had five or six employees. Today, they are over several hundred employees in four different countries, and their specialty is in partner or affiliate marketing.

And so, the agency is called Acceleration Partners, and they are based out of Maryland, but also all over the world now, today. And they are a global performance marketing agency. So, they are working in partner and affiliate marketing with big, big brands. The CEO is named Bob Glazer. And so originally, I invited Bob to come on the show. He’s written a book called Performance Partnerships: The Checkered Past, Changing Present and Exciting Future of Affiliate Marketing.

And really, I was going to dive deep into the affiliate marketing discussion. And we did get into that a little bit, but what we really ended up talking about was how he went from five to several hundred in multiple countries. The decisions he had to make, the choices, the consequences of those choices and some of the learnings that he has had as a leader. One of the other interesting things about Bob is that he produces an e-newsletter. It’s not really a newsletter. It’s really more of a weekly inspirational tip or story called Friday Forward.

And it started as something he just wanted to send internally to his team. And pretty soon, he found out that they were forwarding it on to family and friends, and it really resonated with a lot of people. And today, Bob’s Friday Forward has over a hundred thousand readers. And so, I want to talk a little bit about how that all came to be and why that matters to his agency and to him personally. So, let’s dive into the conversation, because I know you’re going to want to get as much of Bob as you possibly can. Without further ado, Bob, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Bob Glazer:

Thanks Drew. I appreciate you having me on today.

Drew McLellan:

So, give everybody a sense of your background, how you came into this crazy business and what you do day in and day out.

Bob Glazer:

Wow, that could be a long answer. My background was, I was always working with early stage companies, growth-stage companies, and I was very fascinated by the energy around that. I came to having worked on the strategy consulting side, then on venture side, and then on the operational side. One of the things I to understand about consumer businesses was that ultimately, success or failure was how you acquired customers cost effectively. And that led us to focus more on customer acquisition and growth, and eventually on partner marketing.

So, that’s how we got into the space. We’ve built Acceleration Partners from … Think eight years ago, it was … Maybe seven, eight years ago, five or six people to almost 200-person now, global organization in four countries, really diving into the fast growing industry of partner marketing and affiliate marketing. We’ve been doing the same thing for a while, but I think the world finally woke up to the really interesting opportunity on this channel. And that’s always been the same as other things come in and out for hype.

As we built the company, I really became passionate around culture and innovating and doing things in a different way. Marketing agencies probably use it as a poster child for high turnover, bad culture, not investing in their people. We’ve tried to have a totally different playbook in terms of how we build the business. So, I spend most of my time on the business, how we do what we do and on the people. I have a great team on the operational and product front lines, but I’ve had to fire myself from a lot of jobs as we’ve grown.

Drew McLellan:

Affiliate marketing has a nasty taste. I think there’s all kinds of perceptions around what it is and what it isn’t. So, talk a little bit about your view of partner marketing and affiliate marketing and how it is a viable service for agencies to offer.

Bob Glazer:

Yeah. So, I own this in my book, Performance Partnerships. The whole first third was, I’m the self-deprecating affiliate marketer. I think people like the self-deprecating lawyers, so I hope that strategy works. But I owned, in the first third of that book, all the bad stuff that the industry had done. But at its core premise, affiliate or now being called partner marketing, is a very simple thing. It is an outcome-based relationship where two people partner.

They use technology to track and the publisher or the person with the content takes some risks and they get paid when they perform. And for the company, they get to pay their marketing after they get the sales. So, people are always looking for a simple example of that. And let’s say Amazon’s got one of the biggest affiliate programs in the world. You post my podcast on your site. You put in the show notes, “Bob has two books. You click here, you can join and become a partner of Amazon and probably get 5% of each of those book sales that you drove to Amazon.”

So what I’ve found is, most marketing is win-lose, particularly in our auction world. So, something is effective. Everyone crowds into it. Rates quadruple. This is what happened with influencers. And then suddenly everyone’s losing money. Affiliate marketing is almost less of a channel than a methodology that says, “Hey.” It’s like business development needs marketing tracked with technology. We agree to the outcome. We agree to what it’s worth for us, and then there’s no budget. You can have as much money as you can deliver the outcomes that we’re seeking.

So, with a lot of the privacy stuff going on in California and GDPR, and publishers losing a lot of display ad revenue, we’re finding people are running into this industry. And from the brand side, they love paying for their marketing after they get the sale. And for the publisher side, they realized, “Hey, if I have a defined audience,” and rather than just throwing an ADNOC of what it is, you’ve seen CNN and Forbes and Buzzfeed and everyone building entire content sites and review stuff based on them doing the merchandising and picking where they want to send.

When they write about a product, they write a mattress reviews sending you to two or three mattress sites. So, that’s really what it is. It’s not an agency service like a lot of agencies love to … I always look for, do they have more services than people? Because to me, it’s not a competency, unless you have five to 10 people doing the same thing. It’s not a great add-on. You need a fair amount of knowledge of different platforms. You need some technology. There’s some other things you need. You really don’t want someone on your team approving affiliate applications every day and doing high-level pitches.

So, when we think of people who are really doing this, it’s they have a practice of five to 10 people. There’s certainly a lot of agencies that throw someone … Call them an affiliate manager, because they’re so afraid to say that they don’t do something, and they want to win that multi-channel proposal. But we’ve seen some pretty bad outcomes. It’s like Disney is running a brand licensing operation with a pretty crappy lawyer. You end up with the Disney brand on some products that you wouldn’t want them to be on.

And that’s very similar if you don’t run your partner program in a strong way, because you’re creating almost licensing and business development partnerships for the brand. So, one of our key … Brands trust us with their brand. And that’s why we work with a lot of the large global brands on these programs.

Drew McLellan:

So, what are some of the mistakes you see agencies making either when they step into the space or, as you say, they bolted on as an add-on? What are some of the things to avoid if you’re going to venture down this road?

Bob Glazer:

I bumped that up a question and answer level. The number one mistakes that agencies make and that we made is a lack of focus. So, if anyone out there has a less than $10 million revenue agency, I would tell you, go build your agency to 10 million revenue on a thing that you’re known for. Call Drew and his agency, because they’re the X people, or they’re the Y people. And we had these other services. We started offering search. We started offering these things, and we realized we could get it for smaller clients.

When we went to the table with a Target or an Adidas or an enterprise client, we were world-class at affiliate management. We had some really good capabilities in those areas, but they weren’t scalable. So to me, world-class is it scales and it’s high quality. I think you can have high quality without scale, which is what we had, or you can have scale without quality. So, my advice would be the same for anything, which is stopped trying to do everything and be everything. Once you get to 10 million revenue, then you can merge with a company that’s got another practice or you can buy another practice.

But if you have more services than people on your website, you are lying to yourself and you’re probably not good at anything. When you have 20 people doing one thing, then you’re probably high quality and scale. So, I’ve been on the board of some agencies, and I can tell you that we chased that star. We launched these other services. They were growing quickly, but they were 5% of our business. The biggest part of our business got less attention. And there was a cost to the sales and marketing and hiring.

And as soon as we made the decision to shut down everything, but partner marketing, our business growth rate doubled within six to nine months.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think a lot of agency owners are afraid to narrow, because they think it means less money, when the reality is … And I think you’re a perfect example of this, that when we are specialists, we can command a premium price and we have a depth of expertise that earns us the attention of the clients we want to serve.

Bob Glazer:

Yeah. And if you get to that 10 million where you really have an enterprise value, then you go buy and merge with a $3 million specialist firm in another area. Now you can look people in the eye and say, “We’re really world-class at both of these things.” But we get a lot of business from brands. Even large agencies are doing this. They sign it. They have no idea how to do it. And that causes a risk to your core business. The AOR concept I think is really blowing up. There’s a lot of other founders I’ve talked to. And it’s funny, I can always meet the same type of person, they’re an expert in something.

And when you say to them, “Hey, how can we work together?” They usually say, “We’re really good at this. We actually integrate with other agencies. We make referrals. We don’t want to be paid. We’re happy to bring a bunch of the best-in-class players.” And they’re just super comfortable about what they’re good at, what they’re not good at. They’re also not trying to set up a referral scheme and get paid. They’re just saying, “We’ll send you things that are good fit for us. You’ll send us ones that …”

I can always tell that person’s running a good company. That’s usually pretty profitable when that’s their mindset, when they say, “We know what we’re good at. We refer everything else. We have no pride about that.” Look, I’ve just seen this movie so many times now, and if you had played this for me eight years ago, I would have argued with you and said, “No, we’ve got to do these different stuff. We got to diversify.” And when we focused, our business blew through that $10 million.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think more and more clients are looking to agencies not only to deliver what they sell or do, but also, A, to play nice in the sandbox with other agencies, but B, to be a resource that says, “We have an amazing partner that does X, Y, Z, that we don’t do, and we’ve worked together 10 times.” Super seamless for you.

Bob Glazer:

Right. We get along with them. Come on. The whole thing about writing two checks is really not that hard. And the perception that these large agencies are integrated in their work is largely not correct in some cases. So, they have these services, but those two agencies may work better together than a large integrated agency where the SEO team doesn’t talk to the affiliate team.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So one of the things I think that you’ve done that has certainly earned you a lot of attention is you talked about the amazing growth that you’ve had, five to six people to 200-plus people in four countries. Part of that is building a culture where you defy agency odds and actually keep people for more than a couple of years. And I know you’ve invested a lot of time and attention into building that out. So, talk a little bit about how you came to that epiphany that that was important, number one, and then we’ll talk about some of the ways that you’ve done it.

Bob Glazer:

So, there’s presentation I gave, where the sports car going around the track, and they’ve got it up in the pits and they’re changing all the tires. And somewhere along the way, when we were in this hybrid phase, I realized we had a choice. We could be that company where we would do a lap and we’d have to change out all the tires, which are people, through either turnover, burnout, or whatever. Or we could try to find the right people, grow them, build them, and do that a different way.

And build an organization that really developed people to help be what we needed. And I just decided that’d be much more fun and much more aligned with my personal values. The churn and burn, it was not the type of business I wanted to wake up and go to every day. Look, it’s profitable. Probably more profitable. It’s just not how I wanted to live my life. So, what we have found is that engaged employees deliver a great service, and it’s hard to have a great service. And there’s five core tenets, I think to me, of building a great culture that we’ve learned over the years.

Maybe it’s three and two modifiers. So, you need to have a vision. So every three years, we write a vivid vision for the next three years. We write what the company is going to look like. We share that with employees and prospects. And we just crushed the last one that we said that we were going to do over three years. We went to the countries we said we were going to win. We wrote the book. We did all that stuff. It was a very encompassing thing. Second is you need real values.

So, we have three core values. They’re talked about every day. You have to live them. Everyone could tell you what they are. It’s own it, embrace relationships and excel and improve. It’s in your check-ins. It’s in our awards. That’s what we value. We don’t hide from that. There are a lot people who say in the interview process, “Oh, own it. That’s awesome,” but they’re not own it. And we see that really quickly, when we ask them to write one of our after-action reports on mistake they made, and they blame everyone else in the universe versus their own actions.

So, we see pretty quickly. And in the interview process, be like, “Look, this is what it means. This is what “own it” means. We’re a fast growing place. You own it. You make decisions. You’re comfortable making decisions on your own. This is what embrace relationship look like. This is what excel and improve looks like.” We are always trying to get better and improve. If you’re someone in the phase of your life, looking for a chill, middle lane job, not the right choice. So, we try to be really transparent about what we value.

And then the third is the systems and processes that bring those together. So, we use a bunch of operating management systems where everyone’s quarterly goals are clear, their weekly objectives are clear. It all ties to that three-year vision. Everyone has a scorecard. It’s fully public, including mine. So, everyone understands how we’re marching towards that vision in support of our values with full accountability. And then the two modifiers, I think, for organizations are consistency and clarity.

So, the vision’s consistent. The values are consistent. The scoreboard’s consistent, and those things are all clear too. I think the frustration … A lot of those systems are also designed to insulate the entrepreneur from the company. So, when we commit to our goals, they’re written in stone. They’re put out for the quarter. I can’t go round everyone’s desk and be like, “Drop what you’re doing and do that,” which founders like to do. So, we have a discipline around that.

I have this belief though. I don’t think there’s any universal definition of a great culture. I think that there are some things that we think are great about cultures, which I would agree with, like treating people well and paying people well, but a truly great culture is ali