Episode 165

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Content marketing is growing up. It’s no longer about throwing out random social posts, random blog posts, or making an infographic once a quarter. Instead, we need to begin asking the questions (for our own agency and our clients):

  • What are we building?
  • What can we become as a brand that is of value to this audience of people we care about?
  • Who can we be for our prospects, our customers, and our business partners?

And I think an agency’s role in that can be both exciting and profitable.

Why? Because one of the biggest frustrations for most agency owners is that it’s getting harder to have a seat at the client’s strategy table. Agencies are being commoditized and relegated to the status of order takers all too often.

But when we have strategic conversations with a client around how they can truly leverage content in a way that is much bigger than a set of assets — you help them become a destination. You help them become a media company. That’s when the game changes and you’re back driving the client’s strategy and having significant impact on their goals. You become a must have partner.

My guest today is Robert Rose. He was instrumental in the creation and growth of the Content Marketing Institute working alongside CMI founder Joe Pulizzi. Robert has written several books, including two with Joe. Their latest, “Killing Marketing” is about how innovative companies are using content as a strategy to turn marketing cost into a revenue stream rather than a cost.

I promise you — Robert and I will get you thinking in completely different ways about content, the way your agency delivers content, charges for content, and talks to clients about content.

Here’s the thing — most agencies will not have the courage to implement the future proofing strategies Robert and I discussed in this episode. Be one of the few that does.

I encourage you to take action — do something with what you learn from this episode. If you do that — you will be sought after — and I want that for you.

And if you found this episode helpful — you might also be interested in the 2-day “Content Marketing For Agencies” workshop Robert and I are teaching this January. Learn more here.



What You Will Learn About in This Episode:

  • How using content as a strategy can help solve a client’s business issues — and in the process — future proof your agency
  • Why your audience — or your client’s audience — should be considered your “pre-client database
  • Why agencies need to understand how to create content with a purpose and that it is no longer about creating more stuff
  • How all the content marketing assets created for a client need to connect together to tell a single story
  • How treating audience members like customers builds trust, then their walls come down, and they become much more open to sales messaging
  • How to create an owned content experience for your clients and help them transform into media companies
  • Why agencies need to have some sort of vertical specialization combined with a unique point-of-view of how they approach the world in order to be differentiated
  • How an agency can go about uncovering its unique point-of-view
  • Why midsized agencies looking to grow and become trusted business advisors to clients should focus on the strategic side because that is where the value is
  • Why if you can’t control the media — then becoming the media is a viable content strategy for agencies and clients alike

The Golden Nuggets:

“If the content isn't an owned media experience where the pieces are connected to each other — it becomes yet another thing the agency created.” — @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet “The biggest challenge for agencies is that they fall into the trap of looking at content as a widget coming out of a factory.” — @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet “If an agency doesn’t have time to do content well for themselves, they won’t do it well for their clients.” — @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet “Anyone can help a client create blog posts, tweets, and infographics. Helping to a client operate better is the critical piece.” — @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Robert Rose:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run. Traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. That’s why Agency Management Institute started the Build a Better Agency Podcast a few years ago. We help agencies just like yours grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and achieve more of what you make. 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 from Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. If this is your first episode, I’m excited for you because you picked a really good one to start with. If you are a regular listener, you are going to be gratified with how awesome this interview is and how interesting and thought-provoking the conversation is going to be.

So, my guest is Robert Rose, who many of you are very familiar with. Robert was instrumental in the Content Marketing Institute creation and growth. He has written several books, co-written several with Joe Pulizzi. His latest is Killing Marketing, which I think is brilliant. It’s not really about killing marketing, but it’s about marketing evolving, and I think we’re all seeing that already.

What we really are going to talk about today is what is an agency’s role today and in the future around content marketing for our clients. So, MarketingProfs and Content Marketing Institute do a research piece every year. In the 2018 piece that they just released this fall, they noted that 55% of the respondents, so CMOs, business owners, that sort of thing, expected an increase in their content marketing budget. I don’t think that comes as any surprise to anybody.

I think that content marketing is growing up, and I think rather than it just being about throwing out random social posts or random blog posts or making an infographic once a quarter, I think content marketing is now beginning to ask the question, “What are we building? What can we become as a brand that is of use to this audience of people that we care about, our prospects, our customers, our business partners? Who can we be for them that actually provides great value?”

I think an agency’s role in that is super exciting. I think it’s an opportunity for us. Every one of us who owns an agency has been complaining because it’s harder and harder to get to the C-suite of the client’s table anymore, that we are being relegated to being order-takers or to a procurement department.

I believe that when we start having strategic conversations with our clients around how they can really leverage content in a way that is much bigger than a set of assets, but that you really become a destination, a media channel if you will, that when you do that, now all of a sudden the entire game changes, and we are back driving strategy for our clients.

I think an interesting thing that I want to talk to Robert about is whether or not we also have the execute. Could we be the strategic partner and either not execute or help the client execute internally, if that makes sense? So, I’m going to dig in to that, for sure. I think this is one of the ways, I believe this a way for agencies to future-proof themselves. If we do not understand content, and if we do not understand how to bring it to a strategic level for our clients, not just making stuff, but making sense of the stuff, making a bigger purpose of the stuff, creating a sense of place and differentiation and a destination, if you will, if we can help our clients do that and we can stay alongside them as they build up that strategy, we become a very valuable partner.

Now, we’re doing what the Accentures of the world and the McKinseys of the world are doing. Now, we’re helping them solve business problems, and it just happens to be that some of the execution is marketing, but some of it is not. Some of it is bigger than that, and there is no reason why your agency cannot be the one that brings this to clients.

I believe this so strongly that I asked Robert to join me, and we are going to co-teach a workshop in January. So, January 23rd and 24th in Orlando, Florida because you know that’s where I like to be in January, we’re going to be on Disney property and we are going to talk about how does an agency structure, package, and sell this content strategy, this bigger picture thinking, and if you want, too, the execution along the way, but how do you do that in a way that is so compelling that it becomes a very sticky thing with clients, and it really does improve your retention, and also improve how you’re seen in the organization? Now, you are a strategic partner. Now, you are an adviser. Now, you are like the Accentures of the world. By the way, that also means you can charge a premium price.

So, Robert and I are going to dig in to that for two days in January. We still have a couple of spots open, more than a couple. We probably have about 10 spots open. So, if you want to check out the workshop, go to agencymanagementinstitute.com and check out. Under Training, you can find the workshop schedule, and you can sign up for that.

In the meantime, whether you’re going to come join us in January or not, I promise you this next hour is going to get you thinking in a completely different way about content, and the way your agency delivers content, charges for content, and talks to clients about content. I am really excited about this conversation.

So, with that, welcome back to the podcast, Robert. Glad to have you back with us.

Robert Rose:

Thank you very much, my friend. It’s always great to be here.

Drew McLellan:

Agencies struggle with this content thing. We’re so used to clients asking for a thing, and we figure out how much time it’s going to take to make the thing, and then we tell them how much the thing is going to cost, and then it’s our job to do the thing in the amount of time that we said it would so we can make money, right? So, I think that that causes a lot of angina for agency owners when it comes to content. Don’t you think?

Robert Rose:

It does. It does, indeed, causes angina. Kudos to you for pulling that word out.

Drew McLellan:


Robert Rose:

I think what you’ve got is you’ve identified it perfectly, which is we look at content as a thing. This is a problem. It’s honestly the biggest problem that I end up fixing when I work with the clients that I work with, which is getting them out of this mindset that content as a thing is simply a replacement for a short marketing campaign or a collateral piece or a catalog or an ad.

If content isn’t a focused, thematically connected program, in other words, looking at it as an owned media experience where the individual pieces of content are connected to each other. Ultimately, it just becomes yet another thing, an asset that the agency is creating. So, the biggest challenge that I see with agencies getting and stubbing their toe here is they’ve fallen to the trap of simply getting in to be an execution machine. They look at content as a widget coming out of a factory and, quite frankly, end up looking a little like Lucy and Ethel at the end of that conveyor belt with all that chocolate candy coming off of the end of it, where they just continually can’t keep up.

Of course, it then becomes commoditized. Of course, it’s not as good as it can be because we’re not looking at it as a strategic program that is ultimately there to build an audience. We’re looking at it simply as an asset that can ultimately support a campaign. Of course, content is more expensive and harder to do and takes longer than an ad or a piece of collateral material or a brochure because it needs to be thought-provoking. It needs to be inspiring. It needs to be educational. So, it does take longer, should cost more, and is more than just a thing.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, I have so much to react to that. So, not in any particular order, number one, if you’re under 40, go to the YouTube and Google Lucy and Ethel chocolate factory and you’ll understand what Robert is talking about.

Robert Rose:

Oh, sorry about that.

Drew McLellan:

I find myself doing it all the time. Number two, as I’m listening to you talk about it, it’s also the same problem that agencies run in to when it comes to creating their own content. So, the idea of everyone in the company just write a blog post on something you want to talk about or however it is that they make content, it’s the same thing. It’s that we have misidentified it as a quantity game as opposed to really having an overarching understanding of how all the pieces need to connect together to tell one single story. They’re not all disparate pieces that you just publish once a week so that you have content.

Robert Rose:

That’s right. That’s right. The only exception to that is if you feel like you can offer some news-oriented or topically oriented feed that would feed something that’s not already there, right? If you’re going to tell me news or marketing news, no, that’s already well-covered. There’s already CNN. There’s already USA Today. There’s already cmo.com. There’s already every Ad Age, Adweek, et cetera. So, you’re not going to cover the general news better than any other media company out there.

So, barring that, the real question is, what is it you’re trying to deliver of value through content to your potential clientele? As Andrew Davis so wonderfully calls them your pre-customer database, your pre-client database. What is it of value that you can teach? What is your point of view on the world that you can bring that no one else does? If we can’t answer that question, in other words, if it’s simply so many times when I talk to agencies and I say, “What is your differentiator?” they say, “Well, it’s our people.” It’s like, “No, it’s not.”

Drew McLellan:

… or we’re a fully integrated marketing agency.

Robert Rose:

Yeah. Exactly right or our service, right? So, none of those things are true differentiators. Your differentiator is going to be your point of view on how you solve clients’ challenges. So, express that, deliver it, actually deliver it through content and you’ll find that the content itself actually starts to take care of itself. I think when I look to somebody like Andy Crestodina and what he’s doing with Orbit Media, and the way that he approaches original research and expresses the point of view that they have on content, SEO and other elements, that’s someone who gets creating a media property that differentiates them as a brand.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So, part of the challenge then, of course, is clients. I’m guessing this is where you’re leading us is when clients say to us, “I need content,” we start talking about, “Okay. Well, we can do an infographic a week, and we can do two blog posts and four Instagram posts,” and blah, blah, blah. We’ve started at the end rather than the beginning. So, of course, then it becomes commoditized and it becomes difficult to have a client understand, to your point earlier, which is it should be more expensive because it’s harder to do. They don’t get it because they don’t understand how it’s different than any other generic piece of social media posting or anything along those lines, right?

Robert Rose:

That’s right. That’s the hard, but also most profitable piece of the shift that has to happen in order to make content marketing truly a practice worth practicing in the agency, which is we have to get beyond that commoditized execution of assets based on some creative brief, and instead, lead the client down an advisory and consulting to a differentiated point of view on the world and teach them, lead them to say it has to be more than just a weekly infographic or a monthly blog post or a quarterly white paper.” It has to be connected to some sort of owned media experience, where their customers are going to want to be part of that for some length of time.

If all we do are produce assets that are behind the gate that, ultimately, customers pay for with data, all you’re doing at that point are producing assets where the commodity is only going to be as good as the last campaign that promoted the piece of content. In other words, you’re only as good as the last Google campaign that promoted the white paper that drove 14 leads. You have to get beyond that and to build something, invest in something in value that’s going to show them long-term investment value that grows. The only way to do that is to, quite frankly, connect all those pieces together.

Drew McLellan:

So, it sounds to be and, again, this perhaps suggests my age, but it sounds to me like what you’re talking about is what we’ve been actually doing for decades, which I come from a brand-centric point of view at my agency. So, really, what you’re talking about is how do you help your clients truly define how they’re different from all the other choices out there, and then that will begin to inform, A, what kind of content to create, what that content should be teaching and helping with, and who the audience is that’s going to care about that content, right?

Robert Rose:

That’s right. That’s exactly it. The way I typically frame it is I say it gets us back to the origins of marketing, which is to say let’s go to our four Ps and let’s truly develop a content product for our clients that will ultimately further their marketing and sales aspirations, which means getting into their brand and find out what it is in their brand that differentiates them in the marketplace, transferring that differentiation into some experience. The reason I call it a product is because it ultimately has all of the markings of the four Ps. It is a content product. In other words, it is a media experience. It should be promoted. It needs to have content so that it has place. All of the things that we would normally associated with developing something that is worth investing in is truly where content will earn its keep.

It’s not to say that we’d never do content for simple promotional purposes or that we don’t do newsjacking or that we don’t do one-offs, but let’s recognize when we’re doing those one-offs for the short-term benefit of some level of quick fast promotion to get a quick hit versus where we’re trying to actually invest in something that’s going to build a foundation for that brand differentiation and ultimately to drive more revenue, save more cost, whatever the business goal is.

Drew McLellan:

So, from an agency perspective, I mean, when I listen to you talk, I think, “My God! That’s what we’ve been doing forever in our business in theory,” that we have been helping our clients sort out who they are and how do they tell that story. So, is this more of a channel play than … I mean, we talked about it like it’s this brand new magic thing, but arguably, is content, the fact that it’s in your own properties, that you own the channels, is that what makes this different?

Robert Rose:

Well, it is, but it’s also in what we say because one of the things that we’ve been helping clients do since day one is to rethink the positioning and/or packaging of their products and services. So, if we look at it purely as a channel play, all we’re saying is, “Listen. How do I more cleverly describe your products and services across these different channels and ultimately find the audiences and identify the audiences that are looking to buy such things?” If I can position and package them in such a way that differentiates them from others in the market space, then I’ve done my job as an agency.

This is just a bit different where what we’re actually marketing, what we’re actually creating is content that isn’t about the product or service, but that delivers value in and of itself. A great example of this is I think what HubSpot does or maybe used to do is better phrased, but what HubSpot is so good at is delivering content that talks about the inbound marketing process.

Now, you can get value out of that content whether or not you ever buy HubSpot software. It’s valuable. You get the idea of the value of the content in and of itself, which naturally brings you to the conclusion, “Wow! These guys are the most thought-leading company in this space. What do they do? Oh, they provide software that supports this idea that they’re out there evangelizing. I’ve got to go investigate that.”

It’s taking that same model to our own business model and to our clients’ business models to say, “Yes, we understand intimately what it is they do from a product to service standpoint. How do I translate that out to a content value that’s valuable in and of itself without mention of the product or service? How does it solve a customer’s problem so that they naturally come to the conclusion, ‘Wow! Whoever brought me this content, I need to investigate what it is they do’?”

Drew McLellan:

Right. So, it’s like the baby center or what was the scissor company that did all the crafting content?

Robert Rose:

Yeah, it was Fiskars. They ultimately-

Drew McLellan:

They roll together, right? They create events.

Robert Rose:

It was a fantastic program. They sadly discontinued it, I believe, when they got acquired, but, yeah. For a long time, they used to have an entire website built up of templates and things you could cut out for arts and crafts and how-tos and all these amazing things you could do with paper and the way you, of course, cut it. It’s this wonderful resource site that became one of the most popular arts and crafts websites out there, and it ultimately brought to you by Fiskars who were the scissors company where you would, of course, need scissors to do all these wonderful arts and crafts.

Drew McLellan:

Before we delve in to this any deeper, I want to take a quick pause and then we will be right back. I wanted to take just a quick second and remind you about one of the core offerings of Agency Management Institute, and that is our Peer Networks. So, we offer them both for agency owners and also what we call key executives. So, if you’re a traction follower, these would be for your integrators. These are your right-hand people who help you run the business day in and day out.

So, from the owner’s perspective, imagine a business group or an EO group, only everyone around the table owns an agency. These folks become like your board of advisors. They become trusted friends that you learn a lot about their business and they learn a lot about yours. So, not only do you learn from us, the facilitators, but you’re constantly learning from your peer group as well. The same thing happens in the key executive groups. We bring them together and we help them learn how to help you bring your vision to life as an agency owner.

If you want to check out either of these peer groups, you can go over to the AMI website and look under the Networks tab, and there you will find information on both our live and our virtual agency owner peer groups, and also our key executive group. Check it out, and if you’re interested, let us know. We’re happy to have a conversation. Okay. Let’s get back to the episode.

So, it sounds like what you’re saying is that a big part of how we as agencies can serve our clients is to help them answer the question, “What is a part of my pre-customer or pre-client’s world that I can play a part of, that I don’t look out of place in, but I don’t have to be the star?”

So, Fiskars is a great example. I can be the presenter of these great craft ideas and these meetups for crafters and things like that and it makes sense that I’m there, that I’m a part of that world, but I never really have to say, “Oh, and, by the way, here’s the coupon for the scissors,” or “Look, our scissors cut better than other scissors,” because I’m hanging out with them and over time, they recognize, “Oh, my gosh! T