Matt Hodkinson, Chief Exec Agent, Influence Agents, introduces his agency as “mutinous.” He feels the old agency model of schmoozing for long-term retainers is not in a client’s best interest. Instead. Influence Agents tells clients from the beginning that it “will not be there forever” and targets a two-year client relationship with these small companies, which are mostly mid-market B2B tech companies.
The agency’s “sweet spot” clients are the IT Managed Service Providers and Value-Added Resellers – techie companies that rarely excel in self-promotion. Matt notes that these companies are “not the best at telling stories about how great their technology is, and certainly not doing it in a way that engages people in the right way.” They will often talk about solutions at a technical level – an ineffective approach at best. Effective marketing, he says, talks about challenges and heightens problem awareness and need.
Influence Agents coaches clients to “marketing greatness.” filling in the gaps, designing strategies, implementing technologies, and providing in-depth training to ensure long-term success. At the end of the relationship, the “educated” client owns the marketing knowledge and expertise as a company asset. Matt is in the process of creating a knowledge base of marketing strategies, which will be exclusively available for Influence Agents’ clients. Catch, set up the client for success . . . and release.
Influence Agents, a HubSpot Gold partner (almost Platinum), focuses on customer psychology – understanding B2B prospects’ emotional and logical triggers for making purchase decisions – and marries that with producing tangible outcomes – the metrics of revenue, qualified leads and customers.
To gather psychological information about a client’s ideal prospects, Influence Agents defines and identifies them, interviews them away from their work environment, and asks open-ended questions about the challenges they’re facing – in all aspects of business. By recording and reviewing the stories and examples these ideal prospects provide, Influence Agents can tease out trends and themes, gain an understanding of the challenges and pains these prospects face, and discover how to add real value to help these potential customers. Knowledge of what the ideal customer needs directs the marketing strategies Influence Agents develops for its clients.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Matt Hodkinson, Chief Exec Agent with Influence Agents based in Addlestone, UK. Welcome, Matt.
MATT: Hey, Rob. Pleasure to be here.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us what Influence Agents is and what makes Influence Agents great?
MATT: Okay, what Influence Agents is. We are a mutinous mob of humble humans and mutinous marketers who are hell-bent on helping our B-to-B clients to win more customers, basically. Behind the scenes, what that means is that we’re an inbound agency. We’re HubSpot Gold partners, bordering on Platinum. We’ve been partners for about 5 or 6 years now, 5-½, thereabouts.
Where our strengths are and what we do best, we focus on strategy quite a lot. We’re big on psychology of the prospects for our clients, really getting into their heads and understanding the emotional triggers as well as the logical triggers by which they make their purchase decisions.
We take it a little bit differently. We marry that very firmly with the desired outputs for our clients, because we realize that our prospects, at least, really put emphasis on the outcomes, the key metrics, the wins. It’s all got to be about revenue. It’s got to be about tangible metrics like qualified leads and customers, at the end of the day. So, we’re all about marrying the two.
ROB: You mentioned the psychology aspect. How do you go so far as to get into the psychology of essentially your clients’ clients? How do you get deep in there?
MATT: We don’t try to overcomplicate it, for one. We factor in the fact that many of our clients really are busy people. They don’t have the chance to go through the processes of interviewing all of their existing customers, for example, to find out why they bought from them. Also, when they do ask those kinds of questions, quite often they don’t get the answers they were looking for.
We actually go out and talk to people. I know it’s a crazy, wacky concept. [laughs] We get a thorough understanding, first off, of who are the ideal prospects that our customers are looking to connect with. We go and find them, and we have conversations with them.
But we don’t approach it with hard questions that are going to come at them at a closed angle, that are going to result in one or two answers that we want to hear. We’re not going to lead the witness. We’re going to ask them some questions around the periphery, really get to understand the challenges they’re facing – not just relative to marketing, for example, or relative to technology, because quite a lot of our clients if not all of them are in the B-to-B technology space.
We’re trying to get an understanding of what are the hurdles, where’s the friction in their day to day lives when it comes to both their business life, of course, but also their personal lives as well. What’s going to remove some of that friction and make their life easier? Not to be too evangelical about this, I think that’s really what marketing is all about. It’s not prescribing a solution before you understand the challenges and the pains, but really getting to know, how can you add value and really help people?
ROB: What does that process look like – of formulating better questions? Are there any either hallmarks of a good question that you look to hit, or warning signs of a bad question where you realize you’re going to lead the witness, or where you realize that you are leading to a yes/no question?
MATT: One of the things we really strive for is not to ask those questions that lead them down either a yes/no or a very short answer you’re not going to learn anything from. We ask them to tell stories. We ask them for examples.
I remember in the really, really old days, when I was in corporate life and I actually went to job interviews, and they would ask, “Give us an example of the last time you had to lead someone,” or “Give us an example of the last time you had to have a difficult conversation.”
It’s a similar process to that, really. We’re creating scenarios in which we know that our clients’ prospects and their customers have been placed in a situation that would give important feedback to us that’s contextual, that does add value to the nature of the business that we’re dealing with.
Then we ask them to tell stories. We’ll get permission with the prospects to record the conversation, and we’re looking for key trends. We’re looking for themes, and that only comes when you get a really good volume response. So, we’re actually having quite a few conversations until we’re able to spot those trends and get a good basis on which to formulate our ideas.
It’s really about elevating the conversation away from situation. We’ll quite often ask those prospects not to be in the office when they’re answering these questions, because they’ll have their best blue sky, unaffected, truthful thinking when they’re in a personal space or away from the office – not immersed in that environment in which they find themselves for most of their working day.
ROB: Those are great thoughts. I’m going to go back to your introduction, because I did enjoy it and I want to go back to it. You said you’re a mutinous bunch. I have to ask – and this may be related – what is the mutiny against here? What are combating?
MATT: There’s a few things. What it boils down to is when I set up Influence Agents, I wanted to combat a few trends and a few themes in the world of marketing. I think it’s actually becoming more and more important, even as recently as this year, and it comes down to this. I think there are a lot of businesses out there that need ownership of their marketing systems, their marketing technology, the strategies and tactics that they’re using.
One of the trends that I’ve noticed working with other agencies and partner agencies and when I immerse myself in the local agency scene as well – there’s a few different communities of agency owners that I’m involved in – the things that I hear tend to lend themselves to agencies that want to get their feet under the table with their clients to retain them for as long as possible, and to drain those clients for as much revenue as they possibly can, be that through retention, through cross-sell, upsell, increasing the budget.
There’s still too much schmoozing going on, taking these guys out to social situations, plying them with drink, usually 2 or 3 months before their contract renewal. Even that in itself, tying them into long-term deals – and when they’re closing an initial relationship with the client, quite often it’s on the basis of a 12-month minimum relationship – I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to get away from the schmoozy, stereotypical Mad Men-style agency.
I think customers, clients, they’re more savvy than that. No longer is it about CMOs and marketing directors spending budget in order to get the same or increased budgets in the following year. They’re being held more accountable by the chief execs and the powers that be, so they’re having to produce results.
You’re not helping the situation by tying them into long-term, outsourced, retainer-style deals with an agency. If you’re doing that, they know that they’re being schmoozed. They know that it’s their own money that’s being spent across the bar when you’re taking that kind of approach to account management and client relationship.
Let’s be honest about this. Let’s not sell long-term relationships on the basis that it serves the agency over the client. Let’s share knowledge. Let’s give our clients and arm them with the strategies and the tactics that they need in order to ensure long-term success. And do you know what? If that means making yourself redundant in the process, then so be it, because that’s what serves the client best.
When you are a chief exec, at the top of the tree when it comes to our clients, at least, what we’re looking to give them is an asset that sits on the balance sheet inside their business that they can say quite categorically – if they’re looking for an exit down the line, if they’re looking to be acquired, if they’re looking to create inherent value in their business, what they can’t say to any investors, shareholders, or to themselves, is that a fundamental part of their success belongs to a third party company. That’s the traditional agency for me.
How we’re different, how we’re mutinous, is that we flip that relationship a little bit. We set the expectation that we’re not going to be there forever. Now, it’s not a short-term relationship either; we set the expectation around a 2-year timeframe.
What we’re looking to do during that time is first off go through the onboarding, go through the getting to know each other, go through that strategic phase of understanding their buyer personas and designing the strategy around that – but then working with our clients to educate them at the same time as we’re servicing any gaps that they’ve got in their skillsets and in their knowledge.
We do help them with content creation. We help them with implementing marketing technology – HubSpot, in most cases. We do help them with integrating that into the team, but also we’re sharing our knowledge. We’re not precious about the strategies and the tactics that we’ve got. We’ve learned them from somewhere else. We didn’t create them out of thin air. We’re not that good, to be frank. [laughs]
We have to recognize the fact that our clients want to know how to do this for the long term. They want ownership. They want it to be an asset to their business, and that doesn’t come with absolving themselves of that responsibility.
ROB: Very cool. Very good mutiny story. That gives us some ideas behind the principles with which you started the company. Now, more logistically and practically, how did you come to the point in your career where you decided to start an agency?
MATT: Ooh, okay. We’re going back a little while now. It started off as a side hustle for me, I must admit. I was an IT consultant for a long time, so I came very much from a technical standpoint.
I worked with a number of different technology clients in the B-to-B space who created great products, very technically minded, served their customers well just by the provision of tools that made their lives easier, but when it came to marketing those tools and technologies, I think it’s fair to say – and I hope I’m not reinforcing any stereotypes here, but those that are technically minded don’t tend to be the best marketers.
They’re not the best at telling stories about how great their technology is, and certainly not doing it in a way that engages people in the right way. The temptation is to talk at a technical level and to talk about solutions rather than – effective marketing, for me, talks more about the challenge than it does about the solution and really heightens the awareness and the need.
So, I worked inside those organizations for a long time. A few things happened, really. One of the things was the last clients I worked with, it was a really toxic culture, to be perfectly honest. It convinced me that I didn’t want to work in that environment.
While I was having this side hustle, training myself in the latest SEO techniques and social media marketing, at the same time I gained a bit of notoriety and fame. I started making appearances on BBC television talking about social media marketing, digital marketing. Covered a few stories there. I got a regular slot on BBC Radio as well.
With all of that came a bit of interest, a bit of demand from other businesses to work with me, and the agency organically grew out of that. The time came when, with the immense support of my wife and family, I was given permission to exit the very safe environment of IT consultancy and almost like a permanent job, and to risk everything, really, to start Influence Agents. I’m so incredibly thankful for that opportunity.
It’s just organically grown from there, really. It’s a passion of mine because what I love to do is grow businesses, including my own, but also to see the difference that we can make to others. We don’t pitch ourselves to big businesses where what we do makes a big difference in the grand scheme of things and deals with big numbers, but it’s kind of lost in the successes elsewhere in the business. We’re not looking for the fame of dealing with big brands and having those logos on our website for the sake of it.
We’re dealing midmarket. Small businesses, really, still, they’d be turning over typically anywhere from 2 million to 50 million pounds on average. We’re not talking about huge household names, and I love that because the difference that we make is very, very visible. We just love to see it, and that’s the kind of stuff that we thrive on and that drives us as a team day to day.
ROB: That’s exciting, and I can totally understand what you’re saying there. You see it so often, where the technicians who build the business are perhaps not the best marketers. You said you are primarily B-to-B?
ROB: Is that a lot of software, or what are some other perhaps interesting corners of B-to-B that we should be thinking about?
MATT: The vast majority of our clients I would say are software vendors or software consultancies, IT businesses, IT support, and they’d be reselling a lot of products. We’ve got a lot of traction in that channel, whether our channels partners out there, Microsoft partners, Sage partners, HP partners – there are whole networks of MSPs and other value-added resellers as well as consultancies. That’s our sweet spot.
The business is having the message fed to them by their vendor partners. “This is the solution. These are the product sheets.” They’re taking that very solutions-led approach again. We help them to niche that message and also to strip it back to more of a challenge focus and really get to the core of what it is that’s needed out of their solutions offering.
So yeah, it’s B-to-B tech. It’s that for a reason. As I said, I used to work in that sector; I spent 17 years actually working in IT. I wanted to run a mile from it right at the end, but you’ve got to work with topics that you understand.
Where I saw this working really well for us is sometimes it helps to be able to speak at a technical level, to use the jargon and to understand it when people are speaking it to us. Eventually, somewhere down the line or somewhere along the funnel, we’re going to have to start talking about solutions, and it really helps us to be able to – for me specifically within the business, being able to translate that to others who are more marketing-focused.
ROB: That is such an interesting corner of the market, that whole MSP/VAR mix of things. One of our earlier guests was super deep in that whole world. I had a friend who asked me to be on a panel at ChannelCon a few years ago, and that was a whole new world and ecosystem that I was unfamiliar with.
But what you’re saying makes even more sense when you’re talking about IT-oriented folks and all the processes they have to get in place to serve those customers well and all the technical people they have to bring in. It’s very clear why marketing would be a challenge in that world.
MATT: Yeah. Rather selfishly as well, it’s a huge market. There are too many channel partners to go around the number of agencies that are out there.
I guess the flipside of that is, we’re also a VAR. We have to see ourselves as that. We’re a HubSpot partner. We don’t lead with the technology, and we’ll only recommend HubSpot where it’s a good fit for our clients. We understand that whole relationship. We’ve got obligations to our partners, and we want to do a great job when we’re implementing the systems that we recommend, making sure that it’s a sustainable relationship and they get results from that.
I think we’ve got – it’s not a unique insight, but it’s certainly a very, very deep insight into that channel partner mindset and where are the priorities and where are the frailties in that sort of relationship. It’s too easy for the vendors, the providers of the software who are onboarding these partners, to think that the partner’s going to go out and be selling their stuff 24/7 and it’s going to be their main focus and their main priority. It’s just not the case, and it never will be.
It’s really about, again, removing the friction, understanding how you can support those channel partners. Part of it is, from a marketing perspective at least, helping them to niche into particular sectors with a particular solution, helping them to diagnose rather than leading with the technology that they might be pushing at that particular time.
I’ve spoken to a number of vendors who’ve said, “We want to push this cybersecurity product,” for example. They go out and talk about cybersecurity. Well, that’s great, but there are thousands of other partners out there all saying the same thing. A big problem in the client base that we work with is that they become a commodity because all of their competitors are saying exactly the same as they are.
It’s really about changing the dynamic, changing the message. You don’t have to tweak too many things before you can really, truly differentiate and make great gains for that kind of profile of business.
ROB: Very good stuff to think about. Matt, what are a couple of things you’ve learned from your experience building Influence Agents that you would do differently next time, if you were starting over?
MATT: Just about everything. [laughs] It has been a complete rollercoaster, as I’d like to think every business is. But if I were to do it all over again, I would get firmer on our proposition very, very early on, to start to eat the food that we’d only been nibbling at until recently.
It took us the first few years before we really did decide on this niche that we specialize in, in B-to-B tech. It took me a while even to get to the point – it was kind of a progression. First we decided, let’s be solution specialists. At first I think we said we were going to be a social media monitoring agency. There was a lot of buzz around that.
Then we pivoted into social media marketing, because a lot of businesses were asking us to help them to put their message out into the world and to attract and engage with a new and larger audience. Then we realized that actually, a lot of the stuff we were doing already with SEO and then in social media were dealing with the vanity metrics side of things. We needed to get deeper into the funnel.
This was another key learning for us. It doesn’t matter what kind of benefit you bring if the end result isn’t forthcoming – in this case, sales and revenue. You’re still going to get the chop. It’s that simple. Whether we set the expectation that our remit is to deliver higher rankings or more traffic or more leads into the database, the reality is if that doesn’t translate into sales, we’re still going to get cold at some point.
I realized that we had to be, effectively, a full funnel marketing organization early on. That was one of the realizations, probably about 3 or 4 years back.
Then in the last couple of years, really it’s been about the processes internally that we use to run our agency. I’ve known for some time that it’s been important, but when you’re – I don’t want to say trapped, but when you’re in that cycle of day to day servicing clients, juggling that with the whole sales and marketing side of things – marketing, by the way, for agencies, that’s a whole other topic entirely, because I know from experience and from talking to this whole community that we’re the worst at marketing for ourselves. It really is a case of the cobbler’s kids.
So, the process is really, really important, and the earlier you can get nailed down on repeatable, sustainable, and thorough processes, that’s when you’ve got a real business, to be perfectly honest. If somebody can take a sick day and things can just carry on, then that’s the Holy Grail, really, when it comes to fulfillment and delivery.
ROB: I love that thinking around the processes, and congratulations on navigating the trends. I feel like a lot of people jumped into social and got stuck there. I think a lot of people gave up before they were able to find some of these trends.
I think more recently, social itself and having knowledge there has fed itself very well into B-to-B, as you’ve had maturation of paid social in the forms of, in B-to-B, probably largely – would you say Facebook and LinkedIn are some of the key engines for you now?
MATT: Most are LinkedIn, especially with the B-to-B market. It’s not that we’re fighting against our clients’ perceptions of Facebook, necessarily – I think that is a challenge, but I don’t think Facebook’s algorithm for our particular needs at the moment is serving us all that way when it comes to a demographic target. The behavioral stuff is unparalleled, as you probably know. But yeah, LinkedIn is definitely there.
And you’re absolutely right; when it comes to navigating the trends, I think there was a point at which, soon after we on-boarded as a HubSpot partner, my concern was that inbound itself was a trend, was a theme, was something that might go away at some stage and we’d end up pivoting and reinventing ourselves yet again.
I think the reality is that inbound as a concept is pretty much a stayer. It’s not about any particular strategies or tactics necessarily. The way that HubSpot themselves, who I think are the custodians of the term “inbound,” the way that they’ve talked about inbound in recent years has really changed and morphed.
You raised the issue around pay-per-click and paid channels, and I think HubSpot have been talking about that now for the last 2 or 3 years, whereas before that it was seen as a bit of a dirty word in the inbound space, that it really didn’t fit.
The reality is, I think a lot of these channels, especially in this noisy space, if there are opportunities to be more targeted, even hyper-targeted, with your traffic acquisition and connecting with your audience, and you can do it in an inbound-y way, if you like, then that’s certainly the way to go. You’ve got to open up as many channels as you possibly can that fit that remit.
ROB: Right. I think that has come around. You look at some of the companies that are doing some of that, putting ads in front of people depending on where they are in the pipeline – putting an ad in front of someone that helps them in their journey of finding information they want is absolutely helpful. Interrupting them and annoying them with something that’s not relevant is not helpful. It probably took us all a little bit of tension and time to figure that out.
MATT: Yeah. It’s strange; I think the best thing we can do as marketers is really respect our own experiences and views in this.
Let’s just remember, I’m connecting a lot of the time with marketing directors, chief marketing officers. I respect their time, and I respect the fact that anybody in that role is going to be less susceptible to the underhand or the black hat or even gray hat tactics that you might employ with somebody else, other personas. I think we’re incredibly savvy as marketers because we understand what’s going on under the hood.
So I think there’s even more emphasis there, to be thinking about, “What kind of messaging would I want to receive? What would be the first touchpoint? What would be the language that I’m using? What would be the tone? What would be the call to action?” Still, we face too many pitches on the first contact, the marriage proposals on the first date that we still talk about.
It’s sad to see, but it’s indicative of this lazy approach now. It’s contributing to the noise, it’s contributing to content for content’s sake. We talk about all these things a lot, but I think it’s long past time for it to change. I’ll hark back to what I said right at the beginning about the psychology of the buyers. We’ve really got to understand people’s motivations and what’s going to allow them to connect with us on their terms rather than continue to use these pushy messages.
I think that’s the thing to remember. Pay-per-click and paid channels and retargeting, all these things, they’ve never been outbound, pushy channels. It’s impossible for a channel to be pushy, I think – with the exception possibly of those pop-ups. It’s all around the messaging. If you create enough value in that initial conversation starter, that initial offer, then the channel is kind of irrelevant.
ROB: I love that thought around content for content’s sake and the channels aren’t the ones being pushy, it’s us. Thank you for distilling that down.
What’s coming up for Influence Agents that we should be looking out for and excited about?
MATT: Ooh, interesting question. If I knew what was happening next month – I’d love for someone to tell me. [laughs] It’s fast-paced, it’s ever-changing, but going into next year, we’re working a lot on educational programs.
I mentioned obviously that we want to be educating our clients and our partners and handing over some of the strategies and tactics, and I think a great way to do that is through online programs and e-learning to an extent. So, I’m going to be working on recording a lot of content that’s going to educate the market on some of the strategies we use internally. It’s going to be exclusive access; you’ve got to work with us to acquire that knowledge.
This is a key learning, again, for me. I’ve got so much stuff in my head that I assumed for a long time that other people know and that it’s common knowledge type stuff, and it really isn’t. I think it’s time to put some of that value out there in a more digestible format.
We can only work, as an agency anyway, as an agency partner, with so many clients. I think extending that reach and helping more people to realize the value that we as a team can offer is very much on the agenda. There’s going to be a lot of screen recording, a lot of using this podcast and microphone and all of that type of stuff in the next few months.
ROB: Related to that, Matt, when people want to find you and Influence Agents, where should they look to find you?
MATT: The website’s a good place to start, influenceagents.com. As I say, we’re big on LinkedIn, so if you can find me on LinkedIn, I’m always happy to chat. But just don’t send me that un-personalized introduction message that is all too easy to do. Do introduce yourself. Give me a reason to connect, and I certainly will.
ROB: Send the cold connection followed by the immediate pitch for services? [laughs]
MATT: Exactly that. [laughs] It happens every single day.
ROB: Absolutely. Matt, thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your experience.
A special thanks today to a previous guest of ours, Clodagh Higgins, who was so kind to make this introduction. I think this is good evidence of the great people that she’s connected to as well.
MATT: Go, Clodagh! Thanks, Rob. It’s been a pleasure.
ROB: Thanks, Matt. Take care.
MATT: 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 email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.