Joel Matthew, CEO and Founder, Fortress Consulting (Chicago, IL)
Joel Matthew, Founder and CEO at Fortress Consulting, started his company after his experience selling advertising at CBS radio and television. When he “could not make the sale” because the companies he approached did not want to drive prospects to their poorly-designed websites, he took action. Joel figured he could solve their problem (and his) by finding creative agencies to build content and great technical website and app developers to get out their messages. When he could not find that marriage of creative and technical in one organization, Joel founded Fortress Consulting to “bridge the gap.”
Fortress Consulting began as an advertising agency, web designer, and app developer, but settled on being a digital marketing agency. (Joel says he loves the trackability and measurability of digital.) The agency’s focus expanded to include content development, video podcasting, and creating customized, tailored digital marketing strategies to drive increased traffic and revenue to client sites. Fortress serves clients worldwide in a wide range of industries but finds the “sweet spot” for its strategies and price points with companies with over $20 million in revenue.
From his seven pre-agency years in media, Joel learned customer relationship management and how to build friendships with customers. “Fortress family,” he explains. “That’s how we treat our customers and our employees.” Before COVID, he relied on face-to-face social interactions to forge strong client relationships. The pandemic has “leveled the playing field,” so that customers now focus on the “value you bring, who you’ve worked with, and your results.”
Joel continues to “show the love” for his clients by contacting them to see how they are doing and by returning to them a percentage of their marketing investment in the form of thoughtful, personal gifts. He reminds us that 80% of a company’s business often comes from 20% of its customers . . . and it’s those customers he wants to reward. While a business might need more margin in order to afford to “gift,” Joel says it’s not so much about the cost of the gift as it is about thoughtfulness. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance of really knowing clients.
Income streams for Fortress are diverse. Retainer clients for digital marketing, social, SEO, pay-per-click, content, or even integrated campaigns provide long-term recurring income. “Homeruns” come when the agency builds client websites and apps. Launching a site is a cause for celebration . . . celebrating the client in much the same way as does the earlier-mentioned gifting. Expanding services have brought in new levels of clients and the ability to justifiably increase fees.
Joel can be contacted at his agency’s website at gofortress.com or on social with screennames that are some combination of Fortress or GoFortress. He also started a higher education company this past year. Beyond Academics’ purpose is to “discover, design, and deploy” strategies that enable higher education and lifelong learning initiatives to thrive in the “new normal.” Information about Beyond Academics, which sits in the position of a “client company” of Fortress, is at beyondacademics.com
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Joel Matthew, CEO and Founder at Fortress Consulting, based in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome to the podcast, Joel.
JOEL: Thanks a lot, Rob.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about the focus areas of Fortress Consulting? What is it that y’all are known for?
JOEL: Sure. When I first started, I struggled with how to describe it because we’re part advertising agency, part web solver, app solver. So I just defaulted to saying we’re a digital marketing agency. It’s evolved over the years. We’re heading into our 10th year in business.
The way that I would say it’s presently constructed is a lot of brand strategy, marketing, consulting, go to market strategy, but then our bread and butter and our passion lies in digital. Digital for us includes website design/development, building apps, and then customized, tailored digital marketing strategies to get our clients more traffic and more revenue to their sites.
ROB: Are there any particular segments you focus on, whether that’s a size of firm or a particular vertical market?
JOEL: Yeah. We’ve gone through exercises to try to define this. As far as verticals go, we’re pretty broad, more of a generalist approach. We’ve got clients in real estate, in legal, in technology, in retail – everything you could think of. Higher education, large nonprofit. But that’s been really where we’ve focused: trying to serve everybody.
We now have focused that a little bit more. Our ideal target are companies over $20 million because, based on the price points and based on the strategies that we like to employ, that seems to be a sweet spot for us. But we’ve got clients larger, smaller, everywhere in between.
ROB: Is there a geographic pull around the Chicagoland giant area? Or has it become pretty dispersed on that side as well?
JOEL: It’s all over. Yeah, we have clients outside of the U.S. as well now – France, Canada, all over. But I’d say about 60% is in the Chicago market and 40%, we’ve got clients on both coasts and south and pretty much all over now.
ROB: That’s such a fascinating aspect. We really haven’t talked much on the podcast about how there are so many agencies and consulting firms – and these clients you’re talking about, these are meaningful, material – $20 million in revenue is a real size client. There are probably a bunch of agencies and development partners in their local area that they could work with, and they might like to meet up for a meal or coffee. But generally they just don’t. You don’t see an agency that’s hit any sort of meaningful size and scale – I don’t see them where they’re just in their local area.
How has your journey been in finding these clients outside of your geography? How do they come to you?
JOEL: That’s a great question. I look back at my career, 7 years in media and corporate for large corporations and television and radio, and I look at what I learned at each of those places, and one of my findings of what I learned from my time in television was customer relationship management and building friendships with my customers. I really took that when I started Fortress. We have this phrase, “Fortress family,” and that’s how we treat our customers and our employees.
A lot of that is entertaining and face to face and taking them out for games and taking them out for drinks or dinner or whatever that looks like, but especially with COVID, the game has changed. That is basically off the table. So now it’s all about what value you bring, who you have worked with, what results you can show. It’s kind of leveled the playing field a bit.
So that’s how we’ve been able to attain clients from all over the country. They see what we’re doing for our clients that we started with locally, and it’s more of the thought process of “How do I get some of that?” Now especially, people who work from home, they’re virtual, they’re remote, and it’s less about taking them out to a nice dinner than it is about, “Hey, jump on Zoom, tell me how it’s going and let’s connect.”
But there still is that personal aspect where you want to know what’s going on with them in their lives or their families and what they’re about, a vacation they just took, so you have those human touchpoints as well.
ROB: Is there anything in your client entertaining – have you adopted any sort of gifting strategy or something to still show some love, even though you can’t get together? Or has it been more on the personal side?
JOEL: My wife and our CFO are not fans of this, but I’m big on gifting and going big on this. I look at it as a certain percentage of the revenue, and our clients get hooked up. I want something that’s going to impress them and something that is going to be memorable, not “Hey, here’s a branded phone charger” – which is actually what we did last year, which I still think is kind of lame.
But yeah, I want to go big for the guys that – they say 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients. I’m going to take care of those guys in a major way.
ROB: You mentioned as a percent of revenue; even if you said 1% of client revenue is a gift, that’s a meaningful thing. How many people are on your team right now?
JOEL: We’ve got 15 here in Chicago and then we’ve got 40 guys overseas.
ROB: You extrapolate that out – this is, I would imagine, a multimillion dollar business. So even 1% of revenue is a lot of money on gifts.
JOEL: It is.
ROB: How do you think about giving the right sort of gift for the client? Is that natural to you, or by having a meaningful allocation, do you find you can give an impactful gift without knowing exactly what they want?
JOEL: It goes back to that personal aspect of knowing your customer. When Apple released AirPods, I was going to get AirPods for everybody. I found out from talking to people that some people didn’t like AirPods. They liked the Beats version better because they worked out and it was a better fit. So just talking to people and knowing your customers helps with that.
But I get a lot of joy from giving gifts and taking care of our clients, so it does come naturally. I see it as they’ve been with us for this long, and I want to make sure we take care of them and surprise them in some kind of meaningful way.
ROB: I want to take some notes on that. It’s such a good point. Some agencies you talk to keep a very thin margin and are very efficient, and they can deliver lower cost, but I’ve found that with that comes a limited ability to be generous in how you serve them and how you give back to them. So I think it’s good to think about how to run a business with enough margin to gift the customer well.
JOEL: Right. Yeah, it doesn’t need to be anything big; it’s not necessarily that you have to spend a lot of money. It’s just the thoughtfulness of it is huge. For one client who I knew was into working out, we got him $99 Beats headphones and he was very excited about it. Obviously, they can all afford it themselves, but there’s just a different element when your thoughtfulness goes into it.
ROB: Early on, when you mentioned website development, app development, there can be such a range of expectations, particularly on the website side. You can really get into some engagements where somebody has a small site and they want small changes and they expect it to be done with a very limited budget – how have you found to manage expectations on a minimum project size for web and mobile development? Has that come naturally from that $20 million minimum revenue target? Or how have you navigated that?
JOEL: That’s been a challenge for us too. Obviously, any entrepreneur knows that when you’re first starting out, you’re doing stuff for cheap just to get some experience or to build up your client base or network or portfolio, and then the floor rises and all of a sudden you’re doing a site for $1,000 and then it becomes $5,000, then it becomes $10,000, then it becomes $20,000 and so on.
It has been a challenge because, for instance, one of our clients who’s a private equity firm in LA has been working with us for years, so any time they buy a company, they come to us for all the branding and the digital assets and the websites. Three years ago, our pricing was probably a quarter of what it is now. Fast forward 3 years, now they’re coming to us and saying, “Hey, we need an overhaul on our site.” Our pricing is now 4x what we charged their portfolio companies.
But the feedback I’m getting is, “Wow, your quality has increased a ton. We can see you have people, you have a process,” so it warrants the price tag.
ROB: A lot of times that price tag grows gradually and you kind of grow into it. Has there ever been a proposal that you sent out and internally, your jaw hit the floor when you realized what you had written up and the price tag you’d put on it?
JOEL: [laughs] Yeah, I’m starting to have those realizations now more because we’ve actually grown quite a bit this year. Our average size of client has risen as we get into different services. But I don’t send anything out without the expectation that we’re going to win it and we’re going to get it. I very rarely leave a pitch where I don’t think we won it.
Not much of it catches me by surprise, but yeah, there were a couple deals this year where it’s like, hey, that’s an extra zero than what we’re used to, and it could be a game-changer if that comes in. So yeah, there are those.
ROB: Congratulations. Joel, when we rewind the clock on Fortress Consulting, what’s the origin story of the company? How did you come to start the company and what were those embryonic next couple of steps that made it into what it is now?
JOEL: I would say it was always a desire to start something and do something. I really looked up to my older cousins, who were entrepreneurs and business guys. They were my role models for starting something. That’s why I initially called it Fortress Consulting, because I wanted it to be broad enough where I could go in a bunch of different directions.
But ultimately what was the lightbulb moment for me – I was working at CBS Radio and Television; I met with five clients in a row and they were all like, “Joel, I’d love to advertise with you, but my website’s horrible. I can’t send people to this website.” So for me, that was my lightbulb moment. I was like, I have a background in technology. I know how to code. I could probably hack this together or I could find some people that can do it so that it would be a mechanism for me to get more advertising revenue.
Ultimately I started doing some research in the Chicago market for companies that could handle the creative side like an ad agency and the technical side of a web developer/app developer. I didn’t really see anybody talking about it that way. What I found in my research was there were a ton of very creative advertising agencies that were building beautiful things and creating great campaigns but couldn’t write a line of code.
On the flipside of that, you have all these great developers and tech shops that would launch a website and then just pat you on the back and you’re on your way and didn’t think about the creative side or business side of how to generate traffic, how to generate venue. What happens after we deliver this technology platform?
That was ultimately my lightbulb moment for creating Fortress. Initially our tagline was, “We bridge the gap between creative and technology.” That was how we started.
ROB: That’s an interesting mix. We’ve had this conversation a couple of times lately – the project-oriented nature of delivering a lot of websites and some applications versus the potentially ongoing partnership on the marketing side. But also, those are two different beasts. Delivering a software product or a site can be a little bit objective. It’s done and the client is a lot of times the client itself. With marketing, you’re getting outside of the client’s world and asking to get a customer or a consumer in.
How do you think about the different degree of accountability for results? For me, building a technology product, there’s a level of certainty to it, and there’s a high degree of uncertainty, I think, on the marketing side. But maybe you see it differently.
JOEL: Yeah, it’s definitely very nuanced and there are major differences. But the beauty of the way our business is set up is we have our recurring revenue from retainer clients who are on the digital marketing side or they’re doing social with us or they’re doing SEO or pay-per-click or content campaigns. Or often now it’s integrated campaigns. They’re on a monthly retainer with us. But then we hit these homeruns with these websites and apps, and those are the peaks and valleys of “I just closed this huge deal and this is major revenue on this project.”
But yeah, ultimately what we’ve been focused on lately is really defining the scope of what we do so that we have a clearer understanding of what “done” looks like – because “done” to us may be different than “done” to the client. So we’re very buttoned up on what the scope looks like.
But the beauty of this business and why I started, and my frustration when I was working in television and radio, is a client would hand me $250,000 or $500,000 to run a campaign and there would be no tracking or attribution or data or analytics. I would have to go back to them 30 days later and say, “Hey, how’d it go? Are you selling more cars?” or “Are more people coming to the bank?”, and I felt like that was such a blind spot.
So for me, that was one of the major reasons that I started Fortress. With digital, the beauty of it is every dollar they give us, I can track it and I can track it all the way down to the sale, down to the conversion. Based on the access levels that we have, I can track it from the ad to the click to what happened on the website to the actual sale. On the digital marketing side, it’s great. We’re really focused on data and analytics of proving the ROI. You gave me a dollar; I turned it into $1.50 or $5.00 or $7.00, whatever that looks like.
On the website side, it’s easier to quantify because you can see it, you can feel it. You know what your site looked like before and now you know how amazing it looks now, and you see it. What we’re getting at now more is just making that more of a celebration, a launch party for when we launch a site. It goes back to the earlier topic of gifting, making it more a celebration of “Hey, you guys launched. Congratulations. Here’s all this stuff.”
With the digital marketing campaign, it’s more of an ongoing, you’re in the trenches on a long-term basis. And we want to keep those guys on forever, but it’s a challenge for us to keep delivering quality results.
ROB: What are the core marketing channels that you and your team are focused on, and what are the things you’re maybe experimenting with right now?
JOEL: The core marketing channels – we’re really focused on content and video. It used to be “Hey, we’ll do SEO for you and we’ll do pay-per-click or search engine marketing and we’ll do social media.” A lot of it is focused on content now. We put people in three tracks, typically, on our social side. One is they’re not great at creating content and so we help them with that; they are good at creating content, so we can help them with strategy and scheduling; and then there are the guys that don’t know what they’re doing at all, and we can help them with strategy and content.
So content is really something that we’re focused on. Creating video. We have somebody in-house now who’s really talented. She’s originally a journalism major, but she’s got great skills on video as well, so now we’re starting to crank out these 1- to 3-minute videos, getting into helping our clients get on podcasts. Those are newer channels that we’re exploring now.
One of our clients that we helped launch their podcast were spending six figures a year in radio with programming and actually getting their content on radio. Since then, they’ve seen this shift to digital and podcasting and streaming, so they pulled all of their terrestrial radio, traditional radio budget and basically handed it to us and said, “Hey, navigate us into this digital world.”
So podcasting and creating content is a huge focus for us right now.
ROB: Got it. That makes sense because once you have the content, then the distribution mechanism can really vary with the client, vary with the strategy, vary over time, and vary with what’s working.
I would say amazingly, the podcast world still tends to be a little bit of a Wild West in terms of, if you’re a listener, finding something you want to listen to; if you’re a podcast host, finding guests; if you’re a guest, finding hosts. How do you look to navigate what can be a very dispersed world, I think?
JOEL: Yeah, you’re totally right. It’s almost like everybody you talk to has a podcast and it’s like, “Hey, subscribe here, subscribe there.” I talk about this with a few of my colleagues. There’s just saturation of everybody has a podcast. So now it’s, how do you make it more meaningful? How do you make it more impactful? How do you think creatively on how to deliver the content?
One of the nice things that we’re doing with this podcast that we just helped launch for a client is they have the content, they interview these high level thought leaders, and then at the end of it, they have this roundtable, almost like kitchen table talk of dissecting what they just learned or heard about. So you get to hear from the same people over and over again. I thought it’s just such a great idea of differentiating yourself in the podcast space.
ROB: Got it. When you think back on this journey, Joel, of Fortress Consulting, what are some things you have learned along the way that you might do differently if you were starting over today?
JOEL: I look back and I think everything, the good and the bad, are all learning lessons. So I don’t know what I would do differently. I think what has helped make us successful is I’ve really latched onto mentorship and putting smart people in a room and trying to learn as much as I can from them. I would probably accelerate that more.
One of the learning lessons for me that I’ve learned as our team has grown is I was always quick to hire and slow to fire, and that was a major learning lesson for me. At first it’s like, “Oh hey, you want to work for us? Cool, come on, you’re in” and not as focused on, do they fit our culture? Are they about our core values? Are they the right fit, not just with their skillset? Now we’re pivoting that into much slower to hire. They have to fit a lot more boxes to come on board with us. And then just having a shorter leash on the flipside of that too, not to drag things out that need to be nipped in the bud sooner.
ROB: How do you think about that filtering for culture? A lot of times results can be objective; culture fit can be subjective, particularly when it comes to how you do the work. How do you ask those questions up front?
JOEL: I attended a conference and I was floored because they had something called their Culture Deck. It was modeled after Netflix – they have their Culture Deck, and it is like 100 pages about what they’re about, what they stand by, what they believe. So we created ours, and we called it Fortress Foundations. It was eight things that we’re about – seven or eight things; it’s evolving.
We have it up on a poster on our wall in our office. So now we’re focused on hiring based on that. We actually have it on our website too. We’ll have people that want to come work for us see that and say, “Hey, I’m on board with this. This is what I’m about too.” So it helps with that cultural fit when you have it documented, you have it displayed, and you proclaim that “This is what we’re about. This is who we are.” You’ll start to find more of those people gravitating towards you.
ROB: What are some of those key things for you?
JOEL: It’s evolved. The number one thing is “We over me.” It’s focused on what we can build together as a team. I tell people all the time, even though I’m the owner, it’s not about me. It’s about what we can do together as a team. We’ll go further as a team than we will with me just as an individual. That seeps into how we tag-team on work together. You’ll have designers jump in and help do quality assurance testing on a website, and we’ll have developers give feedback on design. We’ll have copywriters that sit in on a sales meeting. It’s focused on teamwork.
Really, when you asked about why I started and what was the push, it was really I saw how it was in corporate America, how it was just this rat race. There was no love, no loyalty, politics and all the above. Really, I strive to create a culture and team where that didn’t exist. We’re at a good size now where it’s not an issue and we’re all rowing the same way at the same speed.
So “We over me” is one. Another one is “Family first,” which is something that is antithetical to what you hear at a business. But I really do firmly believe if you don’t have peace and happiness in your family life and personal life, you’re not going to perform at your highest when you’re in the office. So if somebody has a personal issue or issue with their kid or a loved one, I’m like, “Get out of here. Go handle it and then come back when you’re ready and you have your game face on.” I really do believe family is first. I expect everybody to have that balance between work life and home life.
ROB: It’s so valuable, and I think it really helps set apart an independent firm versus – we were talking beforehand a little bit about how people can go work for a big, big company and they can optimize their entire career around salary. That won’t always happen in an independent consultancy or agency, but they can like coming to work and they can like who they work with in a way that sometimes you just can’t on the enterprise side.
JOEL: Right, exactly. It’s interesting; I’ve hired two people that I used to work with in corporate. One was a manager level and one was more on the analyst side, more of the level that I was at when I was there. I joke around with them like, there’s a whole reprogramming process here where you don’t have to worry about somebody micromanaging you. You have authority. We’ll hold you accountable, but you have authority to make decisions, and if it’s the wrong decision, it’s okay. We’ll deal with it.
But there’s this whole corporate reprogramming that I joke around with our team about. This is a different way of doing business that I find the team really buys into. It fires them up, and it’s just a different vibe, different mindset here.
ROB: Excellent. Joel, when you think about what’s coming up for Fortress or for the broader marketing world, what are you excited about? What’s next?
JOEL: I’m really excited about the ways that people are consuming information and consuming content. I have another company that I’ve started this year in the higher education space. We’re all about how students are learning – and we don’t even want to call them students anymore; we want to call them learners and focus on lifelong learning. You can’t do the same things over and over again.
As much as the pandemic is tough on people and has forced us all to think differently and shift and disrupt, it’s a good thing overall. Businesses are adapting, people are adapting, people are pivoting. They’re innovating. I’m excited to see what comes out of this, and I think the people that are doubling down on marketing and advertising and learning more about who they are and their customers are going to come out of this 3-4 years ahead of their competitors that went into self-preservation mode and just tried to survive it.
ROB: We’re certainly entering a new season as well, because a lot of the pandemic ad inventory has been aligned with the election. Now that we’re post-election, for the most part – we’re in Georgia; we still have a Senate runoff here – but I would imagine to an extent, there’s inventory freeing up for people who are ready to double down. What have you seen?
JOEL: Yeah, that is absolutely true. I spent 7 years in the media, and during political times it was overrun with political, and political got special rates, so it’d bump out other advertisers. We’ve got several clients that were just waiting for this election to end so they could start releasing budgets and really getting after it. But yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s less clutter now. I wish there was clear, definitive answers on things already, but we’re heading into a season where marketers can really stand out and ad dollars are slashed.
I was talking to another agency owner just yesterday about it, and he’s like, “Man, all our friends in media are getting crushed. They’re getting their ad budgets slashed and people are tightening up.” But that means that it’s an opportunity for the advertisers that do want to be there to get great rates, to get placement that they normally wouldn’t have, to have their budgets go further than ever before.
ROB: Wow. That’s definitely fascinating. I take your point about – two things. Number one, there’s still some remnant political advertising going on. Number two, there’s still some uncertainty that clients are probably not ready to fully pull the trigger on until we have tremendous clarity. I would just say when we have one person who says they’re going to be the president and one person who says they’re not, that’s probably going to be the real comfort level for people.
ROB: [laughs] Hopefully that’s about as unpolitical as I can say that. I don’t know.
JOEL: No, you’re right on.
ROB: [laughs] Very good. Joel, when people want to track you down and when they want to find Fortress Consulting, how should they connect with you?
JOEL: They can go to our website at gofortress.com. You’ll find who we are, what we’re about, some of the work that we’ve done, and what we do there. But yeah, the best way is to go to our website or follow us on social. We’re at some combination of Fortress or Go Fortress as our screennames. But the website would be the number one place to go at gofortress.com.
ROB: If people want to dig into the work you’re doing in the education space, what is that?
JOEL: I’m glad you asked. That’s at beyondacademics.com. That’s something that we’re really excited about, me and our other two co-founders, about what the future of education looks like and how that industry is going to completely change in the next year to 3 years.
ROB: Just on a little detour, nuts and bolts, in terms of structuring, how have you structured that venture alongside Fortress? Are they completely separate? Are they linked in any way?
JOEL: They are completely separate, but the beauty of Fortress is it’s almost like Beyond Academics came meetings and our copywriters and our developers and just lay out what they need. So we’re able to support Beyond Academics through Fortress, and it’s just a great relationship where essentially Beyond is a customer of Fortress, and we get to see this whole thing develop from just a concept to where we’re at now.
ROB: Fantastic. We’ll get that into the show notes. Joel, thank you for joining us. Best wishes to you and to Fortress as you finish out the year.
JOEL: You as well, Rob. Thanks very much.
ROB: Be well. Bye.
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