A Strategic Marketing Merger: Why Invoke Marketing and Tank New Media Got Married

jon

When Jon started Invoke Marketing, a scrappy startup agency, he made things up as he went. As the company pivoted and grew, his clients also pivoted and grew, and agency and client interests diverged. Jon, in his eagerness to help, also took on too many clients who were poor fits.

Jon’s intense drive for growth and eagerness to help led him to take on clients that didn’t fit the services Invoke wanted to provide. Pushing too hard too fast led to making mistakes fast, and then moving on too fast to learn from those mistakes. Jon warns that agencies need to be careful about their growth rate and about making sure that they select clients who need the services their agency wants to sell.

When relationships were no longer mutually beneficial, some clients left, and Invoke found it needed to release others. That resolved the immediate “poor fit” problem, but financially? The company either had to reinvent itself fast . . . or “join forces” with another agency.

Invoke was a Hubspot Gold Partner. Surely, among Hubspot’s 4,000 partner agencies, Invoke could find another agency interested in a synergistic partnership. In his research, Jon was aware that he wanted to find an agency that would be good for his clients and one that kept him employed. Invoke’s assets included a great client base, Hubspot implementation experience, Jon’s ability to grow an agency (to 7 employees in 3 years), his leadership skills, and his passion for sales. (He notes that he understands marketing, but he is good at sales.)

Some of the 9 interested agencies wanted only part of what Invoke had to offer. The initial search to signing on as a partner with Tank New Media took a quick 4 months. Jon and one other employee remain anchored in Lancaster, the other 7 members of Tank New Media are located in Kansas City. (Jon says that Thad and Krista, at Tank New Media, Kansas City are “phenomenal marketers,” but don’t enjoy sales.)

Tank New Media focuses on brand experience, creating healthy partnerships with its clients, collaborating to develop the right strategies, the right solutions, the right tactics and building a cohesive experience across the entire relationship lifecycle. Proof that it excels in building relationships? Tank typically retains clients for about 4 years, a long time in the marketing world.

Jon has three roles with Tank: 1) new business development (selling), 2) working with client sales teams to facilitate sales (which includes a sales-aligned CRM system), 3) growth-focused leadership.

The “Why?” at Tank? Creating a great experience for customers, employees, and customers’ customers. Jon warns that customer relationships are important, but, even as an agency takes care of its customers, it also has to take care of itself. Overzealous attempts to keep customers happy can destroy companies. A company has to survive to be able to continue to support its customers.

Jon can be contacted LinkedIn, on Twitter, but probably most easily by email at jon@tanknewmedia.com.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Jon Martin, Director of Sales and CRM at Tank New Media based in Kansas City in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Jon recently joined Tank after starting Invoke Marketing, and the two companies merged. So, if you are a listener who says, “Hey, I’ve already heard Tank New Media,” you have not heard Jon, and I think you’re in for a unique story treat today. So welcome, Jon.

JON: Thank you. Great to be here.

ROB: Great to have you on the cast. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about what Tank New Media is great at and what Invoke added to that equation that made those two things great things greater together?

JON: Greater together, I like that. Pre-show we were joking a little bit, like I should’ve listened to Krista’s answer on this (because I actually didn’t) to try to make sure that we’re thinking the same.

When I think about what Tank is great at, I think Tank is pretty unique in the larger small business space. We’re at nine people right now. I just came from Invoke; I come from a very different background than Thad and Krista. My background is I’m the scrappy startup agency owner that just kind of made it up as I go.

There’s a lot of us that come from that background, and we’re really good at invading and really good at pivoting and those type of things, which can be good. But Thad and Krista both come from a larger agency background.

So, when we think about what Tank is great at, I think it is a combination of, first of all, really focusing on brand experience. Bigger than just the logo or the colors, but when a prospect or a customer engages with a brand, having a cohesive experience across the entire lifecycle stage. That focus allows us to really create healthy partnerships with our clients, and from those partnerships bring out the right strategies, the right solutions, the right tactics.

I think the proof in the pudding for that is our retention rates. Our retainers, we’re usually keeping clients about 4 years or so – which for agencies is a long retention rate. A lot of us say we’re good at partnerships, but retention really proves whether you’re good at partnerships or not.

ROB: A lot of agencies have come and gone and disappeared within 4 years. [laughs]

JON: Exactly.

ROB: Tell us a little bit about the journey. You had Invoke; I presume that, absent whatever conversations and experience started with Tank, you would’ve kept doing what you were doing. How did this relationship with them start and evolve and eventually lead to a pretty significant deal – getting hitched in business, which can be complicated.

JON: [laughs] Yes. Like many things in life, business is complicated and business is messy.

What really drove the initial conversations, if we go back to some of the things I said about being great, I was the scrappy startup agency making things up as I went. As a company we could pivot quickly, but our selling retainers – what often happened is 12 months into a relationship, we’d realize that we had this customer on a retainer that’s no longer necessarily a great fit for our business because we’ve evolved, they’ve evolved, and really we’re just not the best partner for a mutually beneficial relationship.

As Invoke was growing rapidly, it came to a place in our group where we had too many clients that were no longer the right fit for us due to them pivoting, us pivoting, and frankly, me as an aggressive salesperson that loves to help people sometimes trying to help people that I shouldn’t have tried to help. Anyone out there that’s selling, you’ve all done this. “Oh, this person has such a good story. They’re trying so hard. I just want to help them be successful” – not realizing that you really can’t help them be successful.

There was a couple month process where there were clients that decided to part ways with us, we needed to part ways with some clients, and the finances of the agency dictated, okay, we can pivot really hard into a healthy place, or we can look at what it looks like to join forces with another agency.

Invoke was a Gold tier HubSpot partner, so I reached out to HubSpot and said, “Hey guys, you have 4,000 partner agencies. Are any of them looking to merge/acquire/do something with another agency?” There was about nine that reached out to us, so we started the process of, are any of these a good fit for us? Is there good synergy with any of these agencies?

I went through a couple processes and realized that a lot of them weren’t. But as we talked more and more with Tank, we realized that there were a lot of mutual benefits to us joining forces. I’ll be probably the first to admit that I’m not the world’s best marketer. I am a businessperson that’s pretty good at selling, and I understand marketing. Thad and Krista are both phenomenal marketers, but don’t really enjoy selling.

The strengths and weaknesses that we both possess worked together to say, hey, this could be a very beneficial relationship for all of us.

ROB: You met with some other agencies as well. First of all, I think it’s interesting fundamentally that you can talk to HubSpot and ask them, “Hey, I’m looking to merge,” and that they actually respond and have answers for you. I think that speaks a lot to how they run and manage their ecosystem. It may sound like a weird cult to people who have not encountered them before. It’s just in their nature to be helpful in those strange ways, because they know what’s good for business.

JON: Right, exactly.

ROB: What was it that you saw in maybe some of these other conversations with other agencies that helped you realize that they were not a good fit for you?

JON: Hmm. That’s a good question. There’s a couple things I was looking for as the agency owner. One was I had some really good relationships with my clients – sorry, I’ve got a tickle in my throat – had some good relationships with my clients and really was looking for a place that they could land.

As we sat down with some of these agencies, a couple of the things I was looking at was, one, I have some good clients. I don’t want them to feel like I’m abandoning them. Is this agency I’m talking to a good place for them to land? Can we keep serving them, can we keep providing success to them throughout this merger?

That was a big one. As I talked to some of them, I realized pretty quickly, they may be a good agency, but they’re not a good fit for my clients. They’re not a good place or a good agency to make my clients successful – for various reasons. Maybe it was B2B focused or only B2B focused. Maybe it was retainers, etc.

ROB: Some aspects of client size that could come into play, certainly.

JON: Exactly.

ROB: How long was the process from your initial outreach to HubSpot to the official execution and completion of that merger?

JON: First conversation to completion was about 4 months, which sounds long, but it actually was very quick. When I reached out to HubSpot, I had I think nine agencies respond in the first 36 hours. So that part went super, super fast.

Then from there, it was a 2 or 3 week process until basically we had a letter of intent to merge, basically saying, “Hey, we’re going to merge. Here’s some of the rough numbers of the plan for that.” And then it took like 3 months for the attorneys on both sides to work out all the details, all those fun things.

ROB: How much do you have to pay attorneys to get such a thing done?

JON: I’m not exactly sure what Tank paid. I dropped about $3,000 in attorney fees.

ROB: Wow. That’s why you don’t like to talk to attorneys. [laughs] It just gets expensive really, really fast.

JON: Very fast, yes.

ROB: You don’t have to get into too much detail, but how do you go about figuring out – every agency can be pretty different, every merger can be pretty different. This process, there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all way that agencies merge.

But how do you think about who pays, how much? And is this just a way of some people getting a job and just joining up customers, or how much do you pay each other? How did you do that dance? Some of that you probably encountered a little bit in the process of feeling out these other partners as well, I’d imagine.

JON: Yeah. I talked to nine different agencies; I think probably four or five we got to a place where we were throwing rough numbers around.

A lot of it comes down to where the value is at for that specific agency. As agencies, it’s very much of a knowledge game and a people game, right? You can always find additional customers. You never know exactly what customers are going to stay.

For some of them, me having a background in sales, having grown the agency to seven people in 3 years, they loved the aspect of, “Here’s an aggressive person that we can bring on our staff that’s really good at sales. He understands the aspects of growing a business.” For Tank, that was one of the things that was super valuable for them. As a smaller agency, they were looking for some additional senior leadership, some additional people that really understood the work that it takes to grow an agency.

For other agencies that I talked to, they just wanted my client base, and they were going to kind of take me because they had to, to keep those clients, but there wasn’t that much value that I as an individual brought to their team because of what they already had in place.

One agency that we talked to, they were really looking for a team that could implement HubSpot, so for them, my cohesive team that could implement HubSpot was the biggest value. They didn’t actually really want my client base because it wasn’t a good fit for them.

So, it was interesting because throughout each conversation it became apparent of what’s valuable, what’s not valuable to this company, and then does that match what I need out of this merger? One of the things I needed merging my business was I needed a job moving forward. This can’t just be an acquisition of my customers; this needs to be a merge of culture, a merge of skillsets, some of those things.

ROB: Right. I think one of the hard things, when you think through this, you only get to sell it once. You have one company to sell, and, after that, you’re kind of locked into it for a while. So, there’s a certain sense of finality to it.

JON: Yes.

ROB: How does it feel being in different geographies? How have you made that work so far? What have you been learning so far not being in the same town? It sounds like you’re in a pretty significant new business function for Tank, and that’s not in the same place as a lot of the team.

JON: Correct. Just to give some context to my role, basically I have a split – well, probably a tri-role. One part of that is new business development. I am really the only person selling, bringing new business in for Tank. Krista did that previously for Tank; I’m taking that off of her plate so she can focus on other things.

The second part of my role is really working with our client sales teams to do sales enablement, CRM implementation, some of those things. I’ve done sales for the last 10 years, and I think like a salesperson – which, side note, is very different from how a marketer thinks. For me, it’s easy to have the right conversations with sales teams on what it looks like to have marketing support you, what it looks like to have a good CRM in place that supports the actual sales process, not what marketing thinks the sales process should be.

And then the third part of my role is working with Thad and Krista on the leadership of Tank and helping Tank grow and figuring out what our next steps look like, etc.

It’s an interesting role. There’s two of us here in Pennsylvania, there’s seven in Kansas City. I don’t think there are necessarily good or bad dynamics – at least, not yet, because it’s all so new. The merger became official in June, so this is pretty fresh for all of us. We’re still figuring out what this looks like. Going from a one-office organization on both sides to a two-office organization, what are the rhythms, what are the communication things that we need to put in place to facilitate a healthy culture?

ROB: Right. If you reflect on the time you spent building Invoke, what are some things you might do differently if you were starting from scratch? It sounds like there’s an interesting way that you built your clients to realize that it wasn’t where the business was well-served with that match between the clients. What are some things you learned that you might do differently?

JON: Oh, man. I have like six bullet points here that are all very different. As I mentioned to you earlier before we started, I could probably talk about this for a couple days. As a fast-moving business, I had the – I guess I’ll use the word “pleasure” – of making lots of mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Looking back, it wasn’t always pleasurable but it was very educational. Maybe we’ll use that term.

I think doing things over again, there’s a few things I would do differently. I am quite aggressive as a businessperson. I like to be aggressive. But what I ended up doing because of my aggression was growing at a rate where, at times, I was forced to take on clients that weren’t necessarily the best fit for the services that we wanted to provide, but we were looking for additional revenue.

So, I think I would really be v. I think that’s the big one.

I’m in an interesting season right now, where I’ve gone from working like 80 hours a week down to 50 – which is a nice change – and have been trying to do a lot of processing of the things I learned building Invoke.

One of the things as I was processing through it is I realized as aggressive business owners, we like to go hard and we like to go fast, but sometimes we go so hard and we go so fast, and we make mistakes so fast and move on from them, that we don’t learn from those mistakes. We just know they didn’t work and start trying something else right away, without taking time to understand why they didn’t work and coming up with a better solution moving forward.

ROB: That’s a little bit. What else did you learn along the way? Some more notes here?

JON: [laughs] Some more notes here. Another big thing I learned was as people that are in leadership positions in business, a lot of thought leaders talk about how customer service is king. I’ve been following Gary V for probably 8 years, back to Wine Library TV. He’s had a pretty big impact, and he has a statement where he says the customer is king, as long as you want to keep taking their money – which is true.

But what both those statements miss is customer service only matters as long as the company is around to take care of those customers. So often, we get caught up in this trap of we want to provide this insane customer service, and in doing so we actually do things that hurt our company and hurt our ability to keep providing service long-term.

Keeping that context for me was so key, to figure out, “okay, sure, the customer is unhappy” – in the agency world, I think we all have this problem. When a customer is a little bit unhappy, it’s really easy to start providing some additional services. If you’re not careful, soon you can be delivering 25% or 50% effort over what they’re paying you for.

Well, that eats into your margins super fast. Maybe you succeeded in making them happy, but you took all your profit away because you over-serviced them, and now you built basically a habit of “Hey, if I complain, they’re going to give me more stuff, so I’m going to keep complaining so they keep giving me more stuff.” You just created this monster. Pavlov’s dog, if you will. [laughs]

For me, that was a big thing to say, yes, I do need to provide great customer service, but I need to do it in a healthy way for my business and keep it in that context.

ROB: That can be so tricky. Especially now, you have even more people in the business and you probably have account-facing people who are not owners of the business, who don’t pay the same penalty. They don’t think about the margin as much. I don’t know if you have any way that you’ve aligned your team to think about margin.

JON: At this point we haven’t really gotten there yet. That’s something that we’re working. But – how do I want to answer this? – if you set up your account team properly, they only have to worry about margin to a certain extent.

A lot of this comes back to what I said earlier when I was talking about what we’re great at. Because we’re focusing on the brand experience and facilitating the improvement of that brand experience, that bleeds into Tank’s “why.” If you’ve read Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, our “why” at Tank is really around creating a great experience.

That goes basically to three groups of people. One is providing a great experience for our customers, but simultaneously to that is providing a great experience for the employees at Tank, and then the third part is providing a great experience for our customers’ customers. We have that conversation early on. Before I take money from a company, we’re talking about how our “why” is creating great experiences, and that’s dictated even how we sell our services.

Because of that clarity and because of that understanding of this needs to be a great experience for you, our customer, but for us to provide a great experience for you, it has to be a great experience for us – if you’re breaking our systems and our processes, we can’t provide a great experience for you.

If you’re not working within the rhythms that we’ve set up that provide a great experience for you and a great experience for our internal team, everything’s just going to break ad fall apart and it’s no longer going to be a great experience for the internal staff. It’s not going to be a great experience for our customers, and by default it’s not going to be a great experience for our customers’ customers.

Having that transparency around the “why” and around how we function has allowed our account managers to not have to focus so much on margins because the structure of our relationships protects that to a certain extent.

ROB: That’s a really deep and interesting set of thoughts around that. I think you’d do well to listen to it a few times if you’re thinking about how to deal with some of these situations in accounts.

What are you excited about, Jon, that’s coming up for Tank New Media or the broader marketing and agency world?

JON: Oh, man. There’s a lot of things I’m excited about, but I think the thing that I’m most excited about, being a salesperson and living in that world, is the shift, especially in the B-to-B space, back towards relational marketing. Away from tactics and push, push, push, coming back to saying: the best way for us to grow is by taking care of our customers, especially when it’s recurring revenue. Let’s provide a great experience for them. Let’s get recurring revenue. Let’s have high retention rates.

I was just at a session at Inbound a couple weeks ago by Sprout Social, and they were talking about some of the things that they’ve done in the last year or 18 months, something like that, around retention and some of the impact that that has had on revenue. It’s improved their revenue in phenomenal ways.

So the shift back to more relational marketing and more focus on relationships and people, I’m really excited about. In conjunction with that, a lot of the technology coming to the forefront that is facilitating that is really, really exciting to me.

We think about chat, but then we also think about the natural language processing, the machine learning, the artificial intelligence that can support some of those things. For instance, HubSpot in their CRM right now is starting to automatically transcribe your calls and then pull out the tasks inside of those calls for follow-up and automatically create tasks for the right people based on that transcription.

That’s a phenomenal use of technology to support relationships. It takes the sales rep away from doing a lot of manual menial work that doesn’t provide a lot of value to them, tends to get missed in CRMs – when you look at CRM adoption, sales reps actually using them is a big issue.

So when we can use technology to facilitate some of those things so that people responsible for relationships can focus on relationships, that excites me. I think that’s a really helpful use of technology.

The other one that kind of plays into this as well is the merging of sales and marketing and customer service into revenue growth teams – which I think at the really small company size happened organically because you have one or two people doing all of those three departments.

But then at your larger size, tools like HubSpot and some of the other ones in the field are allowing those three groups to share data, to have a really cohesive picture of what marketing is doing that’s driving leads, what sales is doing that’s helping us close those, what support is doing to help retain those customers, and then bringing marketing back in and saying, what can marketing do – knowing what tickets are open, knowing where our issues are, knowing where people are falling off, how can we adjust the education process both to our prospects and to our customers to solve some of these problems? That holistic approach is also pretty exciting for me.

ROB: That’s pretty neat. I think it’s smart, what you’re saying. A lot of small businesses want to act like really small versions of big businesses, so they may even try to build some of the same silos of sales and marketing, whatever else, instead of realizing that there’s a distinct opportunity to put all those silos under one lid and be remarkably more effective. I think that’s an interesting big picture that you’re pointing out there.

Jon, when someone wants to get in touch with you, where should they find you?

JON: You can find me on LinkedIn, you can find me on Twitter, but probably the best place to find me is email. My email address is jon@tanknewmedia.com. Or pretty much any social platform, I tend to be on – but depending how crazy my day is, I may or may not respond very quickly.

ROB: That’s fantastic. Jon, thanks for coming on the podcast. It has been a pleasure to meet with you.

A special thanks today to Krista Ankenmen, who you’ve spoken about a good bit today, one of our very recent podcast guests from our Inbound series. Congratulations to you and Krista and everyone for getting Tank and Invoke together and building something new, bigger, and better.

JON: Thanks, Rob. It’s been a pleasure.

ROB: Great to have you. Take care.

JON: Thanks.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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