Chris Yoko is President and CEO of Yoko Co, a digital marketing firm that focuses on working with organizations that have a passion or purpose beyond mere profit.
Why would a marketing agency choose to work with that “slice” of the business landscape?
In 2014, Chris’s small team questioned why they loved working with some clients . . . and others . . . not so much. Their newly-formed Advisory Board challenged each member of the team with two questions: “What do you want to accomplish with your life?” and “What are you living for?”
You may ask, “What do personal questions like these have to do with a business’s operations?”
As it turned out in this case . . . Everything.
What Yoko discovered was that each member of his team shared a vision similar to his own: that each, in their individual lives, wanted to make an impact on the world.
A marketing agency typically has a list of strategies and services designed to promote its client companies’ messages, enhance awareness of its client companies’ capabilities, and improve its client companies’ bottom-line results.
Yoko Co. did not have a world-changing message itself. And, as is the case with most agencies, it did not interface on its own behalf with “Joe Public.” How could the agency channel this newly-identified passion?
Yoko and his team discovered that they could have an “amazing amplifying effect” on the impact the agency’s clients made on the world—but only if the agency and its clients were philosophically aligned. If Yoko Co. wanted to make a difference in the world, the agency had to work with companies that wanted the same thing.
In order to align the company with its employees “passion,” the 25% of clients that lacked that passion, “to impact the world,” had to be “fired,” but diplomatically – a process that took about 3 months. Yoko handled the “breakups” in such a thoughtful and supportive manner that two of the “dismissed” clients referred new clients that were a good fit for Yoko. Once the “housecleaning” was complete, free time increased 40-50%. For the remaining clients, who were a “good fit”? Yoko has been able to produce industry-leading results.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Chris Yoko, President and CEO of Yoko Co. based in McLean, Virginia. Welcome to the podcast, Chris.
CHRIS: Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Yoko Co. and what makes Yoko great?
CHRIS: Yoko Co., as you can imagine, is a digital marketing firm, but we have a focus on working exclusively with organizations that have a passion or purpose beyond mere profit. We understand you have to have profit to keep an organization moving forward. It’s kind of like gas in a fuel tank. If your goal is simply to get to another gas station and a bigger gas tank, you’re usually not the right person for us. But, if your goal is really to help make some kind of meaningful impact and improving the world as well as going on that organizational or business journey, then those are the kind of people we love to support.
ROB: That’s fascinating. How did you arrive at that customer focus?
CHRIS: It’s a bit of a longer story, but basically in 2014, we had a small team, and we had some clients we were just loving working with, and we had a handful of clients that we were at the point where we were really wondering why we were doing this at all, and should we even keep doing this?
Around that time, we put together an advisory board of some incredible people, and essentially they challenged me and asked a lot of questions around, “How do you feel your business is aligned with what you want to do with your life?” I realized that up till that point, it had been a lot of the flexibility. I liked being able to control when I would work and how we would work and do some stuff that I thought we could do very well and got a chance to explore both the strategic and creative sides of the work that we got to do. But it was not aligned philosophically.
As they challenged me to do that, we also went through an exercise where we asked our entire team, “What do you want to accomplish with your life? What are you living for?” In slightly different phrasing, we all said the same thing – we realized that might’ve been one of those things that drew us together. Since we all had the same impact we wanted to make, we realized as an agency we don’t necessarily get to have a ton of direct impact, but we can have an amazing amplifying effect on the impact of our clients. If we wanted to really have full alignment with what we wanted to accomplish with our lives and what we want to do as a team, then we needed to be aligned with our clients.
We chose at that point to fire about 25% of the clients that we felt did not align with that objective and found out we had 40-50% more free time. While it was a scary choice at that point, we did find that it was, in terms of performance, just outstandingly better. The results we were able to achieve for the clients we felt really well-aligned with were both improved over the clients we didn’t feel aligned with – but that would be expected – but it was also better than the industry norm in those industries.
We realized we really had a chance to do something special and amplify their impact more than if they had worked with anyone in our industry, if we were working with those people we’re really passionate about. So, we chose to work exclusively with them.
ROB: Interesting. How long did it take you to ramp down with those clients? Any tips or thoughts you learned from that process that you would take with you?
CHRIS: Yeah, it’s a delicate thing. No one likes to get fired, especially not as a client. It took longer than, at the time, I wanted it to, but I think looking back, it was probably appropriate. It took us about 3 months to untangle ourselves from all of those relationships.
The reason for that was even though we didn’t like the mission some of those clients were working on – and some of them were tougher-to-work-with people; fortunately that’s not a thing we deal with anymore. At the time, we still wanted to make sure they had a positive experience with us and at the end of the day, they’d say, “We really did like working with them,” and when they went to work with somebody new, they’d try to get the best out of that relationship.
Being able to explain it gently – it’s kind of like the breakup talk. The “It’s not you, it’s me” thing wasn’t exactly what we did. We just said, “Hey, we realize that there doesn’t seem to be a direct alignment, and we’ve noticed our ability to perform with those we feel really well-aligned with is far better than average. We feel like because we’re not going to be able to generate those types of results, because we don’t feel like we have that alignment, we’re not really serving either of us if we continue to force the relationship. We want to make sure we don’t leave you in a lurch. We’ll continue to support you. We can make some recommendations on people you might want to consider moving over to.”
We served as liaison. We introduced most of our clients – I think all but two – to other firms and made the handoff pretty gracefully, to the point where two of the organizations that we fired actually provided referrals for us that did turn into really good clients because we were very clear about what types of people we wanted to work with, and they were able to identify that. Because they had a good experience with that transition, I think it left them feeling pretty positive about our relationship as a whole.
ROB: Nice. How many people were on your team at this time? Were there any of them that did not want to come along for this ride and the change of direction?
CHRIS: There were five full-timers. There were a handful of contractors and stuff as well. But the five full-timers, all but one were really well-aligned. The one who wasn’t made things pretty clear and was able to step out on their own terms.
ROB: That’s pretty helpful. This sounds like a pivotal moment in the company, and it probably wasn’t exactly where you started. If we rewind a little bit further back into the history of Yoko Co., what led you to start the company? Tell us about that origin story a little bit.
CHRIS: I’ll try to give you the quick version of this, just to give some context. I’d moved out to the D.C. area to go to school. Have you ever heard of the book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad?
CHRIS: A friend of mine got that for me after high school and I think I read it in a day. I loved it. I was telling my parents, “This is what I’m going to do! I’m going to become a real estate mogul. I’m going to own all this real estate.” They were like, “That’s awesome. What money are you going to use?” I was like, “Ooh, that’s a good point. I have $6,000 that I’ve saved up to pay for college. I’m not exactly going to be buying houses.”
But what I had done is played around with making websites on my own all through later middle school and high school. What I realized I could do is as I came up to go to George Mason, I took the classes and got my real estate licenses before I came up. I was like, I’ll able to practice real estate up there, and at least I can use some of this information.
Turns out when you sign on with a broker, they mostly just tell you to go sell homes to your friends and family. I had to explain that my family was now hundreds of miles away and my friends and I lived in a dorm room and had $8 between us, so there was not going to be a whole lot of real estate transactions there.
What I ended up doing was I invested in building a couple of websites that branded me as an expert for people that wanted to invest in the D.C. market from out of town. It took a little while to figure out which of those switches would work and which ones wouldn’t and doing a lot of the upfront marketing to get discovered, especially in times when search engines were just becoming a thing.
But I was able to connect with a couple of investors, mostly outside of New York, Philly, Pittsburgh, and helped them invest in this area. Paid for school. Really liked working in that business. I really liked working with my clients. Despised working with other realtors. I don’t know what your experience in that world has been, but I’ve found for 5-10% of real estate agents, it’s a real profession for them, and for a lot of other people it’s a fun, wacky thing they do as a hobby.
ROB: [laughs] Right. I have not had too much experience with realtors other than friends. We bought our house quite a while ago. But I have definitely seen different levels of engagement in that profession.
CHRIS: It’s probably for the best then. There’s all kinds of people that are like, “I’ll do it, and if I happen to sell something, I’ll buy myself a new car.”
If I want to drum it up, I tell people I sold that business, but basically I handed my list off to a friend who was also a realtor and said, “If you close anything, you have to take me out to dinner or you owe me a referral fee.” But after that I got a chance to play around with a couple things. I worked in radio sales, I worked in inside sales, and did a small stint as a bartender as I figured out what I wanted to do.
While I was in radio, I met a couple of folks that were investing in marketing agencies here in the D.C. area. They liked what I had done with one of their clients, and I took them out to lunch and was just giving them some marketing suggestions for things they could do digitally.
They brought me on as the managing partner of their D.C. location. At the time it sounded like there were more locations, because they said, “You could be in charge of the D.C. location.” Turns out there was only the D.C. location, and the other ones didn’t exist yet.
I learned a lot through this experience. They mostly grew through acquisition. I had a small earn-in equity share. As we grew, so many things – it was like a comedy of errors. If I was a better writer, I could probably turn it into a screenplay and sell it to Hollywood as an “It’s Always Sunny” meets “The Office” kind of thing.
It grew through acquisition, so they would basically buy specialty firms. “Oh, we’ll buy a print shop and a radio shop and a TV production shop, and then the way we’ll leverage that is we’ll cross-sell services to each of the agencies across this network that we create” – which is a cool idea if you integrate all of these organizations.
But what ended up happening is we didn’t really do any integration. We didn’t get to put the culture together and get them all on the same side, so there ended up being a lot of frustration and a lot of infighting. These were all people that had been pitching against these other mediums for 10-20 years in some cases. Assuming that now that they all had email addresses that ended in the same thing, they were all going to be on the same team all of a sudden is not realistic.
The primary owner was also super litigious. I think we had about 50% of each firm that got acquired either quit or got fired, and about another 20-50% of those people that left ended up getting sued. It was just a really miserable work environment.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was we were working with a lot of luxury brands, especially in hospitality – and this was around the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. The economy took a turn, so things like cruise travel and hospitality and vacation trips and stuff were definitely being shortened or not being purchased at all.
The cruise lines we worked with would say, “Hey, if we have a ship that leaves Baltimore in 2 weeks and we ask you to help us market it and you want to design a postcard, by the time you’ve designed it, we’ve approved it, it’s been printed and posted, the ship has literally set sail. It’s too late. It’s moving too slowly for us. What can you guys do to accelerate this? And also, we’re getting killed, so we need to move our marketing budget back.”
I went down, met with them. This was a chance to do a lot more digital marketing, so I was excited about that. We had an idea to do kind of Groupon before Groupon was a thing, where if there were a bunch of rooms closing out, it was for every friend you add, you both get 5 bucks off your room. Then if you both add another friend, all three of you get 5 bucks off your room. It would grow that way. We were going to promote updates on “Here’s how many rooms are left” on Twitter and just really try some of those mediums out. They were excited about it; I was excited about it.
I came back into town and explained to the ownership what it was we were getting ready to do, and they said, “We make a lot of money off of their direct mail. You need to convince them to go back and keep the direct mail campaigns as they are.” I didn’t feel good about it. I said, “I don’t think that’s the right play. I don’t feel good about doing that.” They said, “You don’t really have a choice. We already booked your flight.” I said, “I do have a choice.” I had a banker’s box at the end of my desk, and I pushed some stuff into it, acting very rationally, and that was the choice to leave.
So that was the genesis of building my own company . . . or starting my own company. I took about a month off. At that point it was just, if that’s the way they’re treating people and that’s the way they’re treating clients, there’s definitely a better way to do that. That was basically all I’d been exposed to at that point, so I decided to strike out on my own and get things started.
While it was a supposedly bad time to start a business, I didn’t really have a whole lot to lose. A couple of people whose opinions I really trusted said, “You have nothing to lose and it’s going to teach you to be really fiscally responsible. If you’re starting a business, you’re not going to spend wastefully because things are pretty tight right now, so it’ll probably teach you to be a little bit more bulletproof in the future.” That was the genesis story.
ROB: That’s quite a leap. After that, when did you reach a point where you felt like the business was at the next stage of viability, the next mile marker, the next level of belief in what it was and what Yoko could be?
CHRIS: When I’ve spoken with people – and maybe you feel this way too – you look back and you see all of these changes, and then you see the business grow, and you see a market improvement. You just see this ladder or this series of steps.
The first one from starting to taking that next step for me was I was working out of my house initially. I’d wake up around 10:30 or so, get to work. It would be 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning that I’d go to sleep, and I would just do it all over again. So I asked a couple of friends, “If any of you have extra office space, like a lunchroom, a lobby – anything I could do to get out of my house to be working would be great, just so I have a little bit of differentiation between my work space and my home space.”
A friend of mine who runs Washington Financial Group had some extra offices, and they said, “Hey, we’re growing. Why don’t you come squat with us for a little while?” We hung out in there. Got a good chance to – it felt a little bit more official to say that we had an office. Sure enough, you look at the stats and shortly thereafter, that was the next big step for us.
ROB: I’ve definitely had some people talk about that role of the space that you dedicate to your business as having an impact on how you think about it, for sure.
CHRIS: Yeah, a hundred percent.
ROB: It’s an interesting journey. What are some other things you have learned from your experience in building Yoko that you might do differently if you were starting over from scratch now?
CHRIS: Going back, you’d certainly be able to do things a lot more quickly, but that’s the nature of experience. If I could go back and tell myself one thing, I think the thing that I would focus on from the get-go is really the customer experience. A big part of what we focus on, especially now, is understanding that people bring their whole selves into just about anything they do, including work.
What I noticed in my prior organizations that I’d worked with, what I’d noticed in working with clients, friends that have companies, is that oftentimes, especially in the service industry, people treat their clients as sometimes a counterpart in whatever project it is. It’s just, okay, cool, this is their point of contact for this thing, and this is the only thing we’re going to talk about. Yeah, you might make small talk about the weather beforehand and that’s about it.
We realized there’s a lot more to it. I think the world as a whole is getting used to that as well, but really being able to understand and create a deeper relationship with people across the whole of who they are. What kind of things do they really believe in? How do we share common interests, whether it’s books, sports, art, whatever the case might be?
I find the better those connections are, again, the better results have been. If we were doing that just for the mercenary purpose of how to maximize profit in every case, it would probably feel a little hollow. But because we’re aligned and we’re working with these counterparts that also believe deeply and passionately about the change they’re making in the world, I find not only do we get along and we have these things in common, but now that we know this, we work together more efficiently and we’ve made an even bigger impact. That’s really cool stuff to be able to show people.
ROB: That’s great. That big picture thinking, right? What you’re talking about doesn’t help your utilization rate, but it certainly helps your long-term probably personal and relational workplace happiness.
Give us a little bit of a picture, a deeper dive, into what some of these customers look like. What are some of your clients that have this higher purpose, that have this passion and how do they live that out? If you can give us a couple of examples to really help us feel what you’re getting at.
CHRIS: Absolutely. They fall into two categories.
We’ve got the clients that know and understand what type of impact they’re trying to have and need somebody to help them execute or maximize it. Those would be clients as large as – there’s the nonprofit FHI 360, Family Health International. They do tons of different projects all around the globe. A lot of global economic development, working on really important causes – everything from drinkable water to fighting the HIV epidemic, across the board.
So, they understand what kind of impact they’re aiming to have, and that’s on the nonprofit side. We work with a lot of associations that are looking to advance the knowledge and advance their industries. They tend to know, “Here’s what we’re trying to achieve from our mission, and here’s the impact we can have on our members.”
But then we also have this bucket of aspirationally impactful companies, where they know they want to do something impactful, but they might not know exactly what it is. In this case, with some of the associations we’ve worked with, we’ve helped bring sustainability a little bit more to the forefront of what they do.
We actually provided a discount to one of our clients that works in the automotive space just because they have the ear on the entire industry. We gave them a 10% discount in exchange for them promising to make environmental stability and sustainability a part of their bylaws, a section on their website about it, and a part of their annual conference so that they speak about the environmental impact of their industry as a whole.
So, there’s those opportunities as well, and then there’s a ton of organizations that fall into the commercial space, whether it’s technology, software as a service, or just professional service companies, that are really looking to make some kind of impactful change. They don’t necessarily always know where it is. Maybe it’s alignment with a charity or a cause; maybe it’s experiential differentiators. There’s a couple different things that we can get into on that side of things that really help them 1) act differently, but then 2) better monitor and measure the impact of what they’re doing, which ultimately helps them play out a little bit harder. It helps us punch through the target and get beyond just the vanity metrics.
ROB: That’s great. It’s really interesting, that boundary you’ve drawn on the type of client. I’m sure as you have built the business, you have also seen an evolution in the types of services that you offer. You mentioned early on you were doing websites. You were in the era of SEO. Then you were in the era of early social in terms of booking up cruises. How has the scope of services that you offer evolved with the business, and where do you think about drawing lines at what you do and don’t do now?
CHRIS: There’s a couple of elements that will play into it, and a lot of what’s been feeding it has been what’s helped get closest to impact. A lot of the work we did very early, as you mentioned, was really working on the website, doing some copywriting, maybe some light SEO to optimize the site when it launches. Then we’d hand it over to the clients and we figured they would run with it from there.
Then we would follow up. We’d say “Hey, how are things working?” “Oh, they’re great.” “What have you done with the website?” “We haven’t really had the time to do anything with it.” We’d look at the analytics and there would be a marked improvement, but it would just plateau. It would level off because they weren’t able to dedicate more time to actually leveraging it.
So, the things we started doing were, okay, let us help you continue to add content or to run campaigns to drive traffic. Once we started to drive traffic in, that naturally evolved to, okay, let’s also help you keep in communication with the people that you are bringing into the website. Let’s get them to follow you on social media, subscribe for updates, whatever the case might be. Let’s have ongoing conversations, and when the time is right and their interests align with yours, let’s make sure they know about that so they have an opportunity to purchase what you’re selling, to donate, to volunteer time, to get involved in some capacity.
And as we do all of that, let’s take a look at what channels and efforts are working most effectively and make decisions based on that. Let us help you close the loop, potentially, with your sales team or with your executive team to help them understand the metrics and help them understand what impact your actions have so that ultimately we get from a place where you are doing things from a hopeful perspective – “Hey, I hope whenever we do the website, we get this kind of result” – to more of a predictive pattern.
So okay, great, now we understand that if we make this change and we add this content and we drive another 10,000 visitors per month, we can expect 300 of those to sign up for this, we can expect 200 to do this, and so on and so forth. Here’s the impact that has on the organization. Here’s the impact that helps us have on the world. Really begin to move to a little bit more of that predictive and proactive model.
ROB: Is there anything that’s come up recently that you said maybe you’re not ready to do? Whether that’s Snapchat filters, something wild, I don’t know. What have you seen that’s maybe not quite right for Yoko yet?
CHRIS: The stuff that we don’t get into – there’s certainly a lot of it. Since we do video production, primarily for video for the web, people have said, “Oh great, so you guys can do a TV commercial?” That’s not really what we would get into.
Whenever we get into the largescale media buying, certainly not the side of things that we get into. We support a lot of clients that do media buys, but we don’t do them ourselves.
There’s a fair amount on the potential integrations side that, depending on what they’re doing – if they’re integrating their back office with their CRM, we might help them set up their CRM, but integrating it and setting it up for their entire back office or customizing Salesforce, things like that aren’t the things we do. It really aims to be around web presence and leveraging that in the most effective way possible.
ROB: Yeah, customizing Salesforce can be an entire business unto its own, so completely understood why you might stay out of there.
CHRIS: This is true.
ROB: Chris, what is coming up for Yoko and perhaps for the broader marketing world that you are excited about?
CHRIS: I think a lot of the new technology we get a chance to play around with is really, really intriguing. At this point there’s new platforms literally every day that you can get a chance to play around with.
But I think some of the stuff that’s really exciting is being able to do more and more in real-time predictive analytics. Being able to take a look at, great, here’s how we are ranking right now and here’s what kind of traffic that’s generating, and if and as we add content or play with these different variables that we can change, here’s the almost immediate impact that that has.
With some of what’s happening in the machine learning/AI space, it doesn’t seem like it’s there yet – at least, nothing that I’ve seen publicly – but it’s got to be really close to getting to a place where that’s going to be able to automatically suggest content.
I think there’s going to be a little bit of a disruption where we get a lot of a second round of spammy black hat based on AI reverse-engineering search protocol and things like that where you see a bunch of content that is gamed to seem useful and triggers all those engagement metrics, but ultimately is either potentially dishonest or misleading.
I think that’ll get drummed out, hopefully fairly quickly, and then I think it’s going to be a really interesting space where you can have a little bit more of a 1:1 relationship on what information is most useful for that person in that specific circumstance and be able to match them up with the information that’s going to be most useful for them. I think that’s a scenario where everyone involved in that equation comes out ahead.
ROB: That’s very insightful, the prediction of next waves of black hat tactics, but also I think we see with you the experience and the patience of understanding that those are very ephemeral advantages. They’re going to go away. It sounds like you’ve learned over time not to chase those rabbits as they show up and disappear.
CHRIS: Yeah. It was frustrating early on because it was like, “How come we weren’t able to get that person that high that quickly?” And then 2 months later, “Oh, they’re not even on the list anymore. What happened there?”
You see a lot of that come and go. We see it a lot in the SEO industry especially. There’s still a fair amount of them. Not as many as there used to be, but a lot of those fly-by-night operations that would use those tactics. It would get you a short little bump and make you feel good, and then you’d get drummed out.
Whereas ultimately, if you do it the (I think) more honest and impactful way of putting out information that’s really useful and being a resource and not being afraid to make the ask when it’s appropriate to make the ask, you’re going to find that appropriate balance without having to trudge into any of that darker territory.
ROB: That’s great. It sounds like you always come with the element of strategy, and the tactics come and go. You’re not promising this infinite gain from the tactics, from the next hot SEO tactic, from “oh my gosh, organic social is changing the world,” “ooh, remarketing is great in ads,” “oh, let’s do influencer marketing.” You can do any of those things, but it’s not the main course.
CHRIS: Yeah. Ultimately it has to be focused on the things that generate that impact. I think a lot of people get lost and caught up in chasing those vanity metrics, and that can be disastrous in some cases. I’m sure you’ve probably seen some examples of this stuff that gets a ton of likes or gets this many views or it gets this much traffic, and then you begin to look a little bit further down that rabbit hole and you see it has no impact on the organization or the business whatsoever.
ROB: Sure. A lot of people who are slightly outside the industry have certainly pushed us down different avenues at times. Once upon a time, people outside the industry really liked this idea of offering people SEO-like tactics for social media, and it really sizzled in their minds, but it never really landed with us because we’ve always been in the space of being very practical and delivering on something meaningful with longer results than just taking advantage of some momentary gap in the market.
ROB: Chris, when people want to reach you and when they want to reach Yoko Co., where should they find you?
ROB: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Chris. It’s great to meet you, and thank you for sharing all that you’ve learned.
CHRIS: Thank you very much for having me, Rob. I appreciate it.
ROB: Have a great one.
CHRIS: You too.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.