How to Rapidly Grow a Media Buying Agency with Mike Corak


As VP of Strategy for a super fast-growing digital agency, Mike Corak knows something about creating a successful content marketing strategy, for both his own agency and his clients. He also knows how to help clients to see the value of content marketing.

And Mike’s client list is impressive, including big shots like Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, ConocoPhillips, FedEx, Fujitsu, Nike, Office Depot, and Walt Disney.

Mike shares with us the tools that work for his agency, including lead generation, onboarding strategies, and how they’re scaling to deal with their growth. A must-listen for all agency owners.

Listen now and you’ll hear Mike and I talk about:

  • (02:55) Introductions
  • (06:35) What type of customers do you work with?
  • (10:36) How are you landing clients? Relationships or a sales engine?
  • (11:25) What does your lead generation system look like?
  • (14:45) Which verticals do you have traction in?
  • (17:55) Please describe your client onboarding process
  • (23:55) How does content marketing fit in with the strategy?
  • (27:55) Please describe a content strategy for a client
  • (31:25) What would you say to a client that is on the fence about investing in content marketing?
  • (37:55) What makes content helpful and why is that important?
  • (40:55) Why did you raise money to start?
  • (43:27) When did you raise the money?
  • (44:55) What is the mix of public and private companies you work with?
  • (46:15) Which type of client is easier to land?

Resources Mentioned

More About This Episode

The Bright Ideas podcast is the podcast for business owners and marketers who want to discover how to use online marketing and sales automation tactics to massively grow their business.

It’s designed to help marketing agencies and small business owners discover which online marketing strategies are working most effectively today – all from the mouths of expert entrepreneurs who are already making it big.

Listen Now

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Connect with Trent Dyrsmid:


Trent: Hey there, bright idea hunters, welcome back to episode number

125 of the Bright Ideas podcast. I am your host, Trent Dyrsmid,

and this is the podcast where we help entrepreneurs to discover

ways to use digital marketing and marketing automation to

dramatically increase the growth of their business. So, if you

are an entrepreneur looking for proven tactics and strategies

that will help you to increase traffic, conversions, and

profits, this is the podcast that you want to listen to.

In this particular episode, I am joined by a fellow by the name

of Mike Corak, who is the Executive Vice President of Strategy

for a very rapidly-growing three-year agency by the name of

ethology. I say “rapidly growing”, because within three years,

they are already at somewhere between 70 and 80 people. The

client roster that they have is impressive, to say the least.In this episode, Mike and I are going to talk about four main


The first is how they are generating leads and creating

a sales engine that is scalable. The second topic is the actual

processes around scaling the business with respect to onboarding

new clients: what that looks like, what processes they have,

what tools they use. We then transition to talking about content

marketing, how to develop a strategy, and the types of

conversations they have with prospective clients that aren’t

fully convinced that there will be a sufficient ROI for content

marketing, which is referred to as “earned” or “owned media”

versus what they may be already accustomed to, which is “paid

media”.Finally, we are going to round up by talking about their funding

that they received from an incubator called Tall Wave, why they

did it, how they did it, when they did it, and so much more. We

are going to get into that episode in one quick second.

My announcement to begin with is this: if you are looking for a

list of tools that I use to run Bright Ideas, and I get a lot of

people asking me about this: you can get that list by going to So, what’s up with that URL? Well, I am an

affiliate for many of the tools that I use, so as a thank-you to

you if you’d like to use my affiliate links to get any of those

software tools-and most of them are software-I have a couple of

different bonuses that I will give you if you send me your

receipt after the purchase. Everything is explained at So if you care to do that, thank you so

much for supporting the show and my family.

With that said, please join me in welcoming Mike to the show.

Hey Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike: Hello, thanks for having me.

Trent: You are very welcome. It’s a pleasure to have you on. So, I

want to talk about a whole bunch of things in this interview, so

to let the audience know what’s coming, here is what we are

going to be talking about. We’re going to talk about how you

have scaled your agency and some of the tools and processes

involved in that. We’re going to talk about content marketing,

the strategies behind it, how to achieve an ROI, and why it is

or isn’t worth it compared to other types of content, or rather

other types of ways of promoting oneself. And we are going to

finish up by talking about some funding that you got from a

company by the name of Tall Wave.

Before we get into any of that, most of my audience probably

doesn’t yet know who you are or much about your firm. They need

to know who they are listening to, so if you would take a moment

and just introduce yourself first, maybe a minute or something

on your firm.

Mike: Sure, I’d be happy to. I’m Mike Corak. I run the strategy group here

at ethology. What that entails is the research and strategy

functions of our offerings. So, my team will come in–either in

a new business scenario and client side after they become a

client–to help assess needs, create strategy and plans, and

then make sure the projections and components we have in the

planning are paying off for clients ongoing. So, we’ll have

planners assigned to accounts. They will watch results and work

with the teams to continually make sure we are hitting the mark,

if not exceeding it, and we’re also looking for ways the clients

can grow.

Sometimes that’s in our current scope and sometimes beyond, but

it’s a model we used from a place I came from, iCrossing, which

many of you have probably heard where we really separated

account management and account coordinator functions from

strategy to provide more support there. It really paid off and

it’s helped us grow pretty quickly.

My background, before coming to and starting ethology, I was at

Off Madison Ave. which is a regional agency here in Phoenix. I

came there to help relieve Jay Baer, who had sold his agency,

Mighty Interactive, to OMA, so Jay and I go way back. We got to

work together there for about three years or so, as he was

starting to taper off per his sale agreement. Prior to that, as

I mentioned, I was at iCrossing and a couple other places. So

long career of doing a lot of strategy and planning,

specifically. It’s been great to have that experience of

starting that up from scratch.

ethology is a full-service digital agency. we are headquartered

out of Scottsdale. We’ve got offices in Portland, L.A., Chicago,

and we have some feet on the street in New York, so hopefully

that becomes an office toward the end of the year. We specialize

in content marketing, digital strategy and planning, search and

new media and social.

Trent: So very much a full-service agency.

Mike: Yes.

Trent: Really quickly, what does a customer look like for you guys?

How big of an organization, and if there is an industry-specific

focus, what is that?

Mike: As we started from scratch and gone the way up, as you can imagine,

we have clients of many different sizes. What we like to say is

a best client fit for us is somebody who may consider themselves

a challenger brand or brand that’s really trying to grow

themselves, achieve specific goals, and reach the next level.

For us, one of our clients is Farmers Insurance, on a larger

scale. While that’s a giant company, they are seventh or eighth

in the insurance business. That’s a perfect fit for us. That’s a

company that’s very aggressive, wants to move up the notches,

and we can really help them achieve their specific goals.

We also have much smaller, regional clients, too. Those are

great, too. I think the clients that are best fit, beyond being

challenger brands, being aggressive, and having specific goals

are the ones that want to work on metrics, hold programs

accountable, and that’s what we love to geek out on. We love to

project, see what potential is, and continue to move programs


Trent: What size of annual revenue would that second group be, do you


Mike: That’s a good question. Sometimes, regional players like Conn’s Home

Plus is one of our clients. They are in about five states with

expansion plans, and they are a publicly-traded, $2 billion

company that you probably haven’t heard of. But then we have

other clients that are looking at revenues more in the $20

million category or below. So, there’s a wide range there, and I

think that’s kind of what happens when you are only three years

old, like we are at this point.

Trent: So your company is only three years old?

Mike: Yes, so I left Off Madison Ave to start this idea about four years

ago. I came in under the Tall Wave umbrella. Jeff Prewett, who

was the President of iCrossing for a long time started Tall

Wave. It’s sort of a funny story, and when I left iCrossing, he

told me, “At some point, I want to do this again. I’ll give you

a call when the time is right.”

He had heard I was skipping around, looking for opportunities in

New York. He gave me a call and said, “Hey, I think I’m about

ready for you. Let’s have a talk.” I said, “If you are looking

to start an agency, I’m interested, and would love to come work

with you on it,” so here we are. We’ll get to it a little later,

but Tall Wave’s a shareholder in ethology, and we consider Tall

Wave our parent company and that we are part of the Tall Wave

family who invests in a number of companies and then helps


Trent: You are right, we will get into more details toward the end of

the interview. Before we get into the onboarding process, part

of the thing I am also very interested in with scaling is has

your initial success come largely because the management team

has one heck of a Rolodex, and you guys have all been in the

industry for a while, and you were able to reach out to existing

relationships, or would you say that you have built a very

effective lead-generation and selling system that is now being

executed on a day-to-day basis by sales reps?

Mike: That is a great question. It’s a constant discussion here from pre-

company launch to today, there is no question that Rolodex

helped in the beginning and still pays off. In fact, if I go

back to the business plan we created for ethology, part of what

we projected in the beginning was revenue from people we knew

and companies who had started sniffing around, wondering what we

were doing.

So, personal contacts close much quicker. There’s a lot of trust

built already. It’s much easier to get those sales, and to bring

those clients in.

At the same time, from jump, we realized we had to create a

revenue and lead-generation machine. I would say that we’ve got

a pretty good system at this point. This is really the year

where we are starting to put the gas on it. I will describe that

a little bit here. We do some thought leadership, and have a big

network of companies that we are talking to. There are people in

charge of keeping those leads warm and relationships solid for

the time when those companies may go to RFP or there may be a


There’s a thought leadership component that bring those in. It

could be webinars, podcasts like this, speeches at events and

the like. I sit on the SEMPO board. That’s one example. We have

some other people on boards, too, so all the normal things you

would do for in-bound, lead generation, helping to feed the


From there, we built a system to be able to help companies see

what opportunities look like up front, before we work for them.

One of those pieces is called “Digital Opportunity Reporting.”

In essence, we do some initial auditing of various companies

digital execution components and see how they are doing, and

provide them with a report card of where we see opportunity and

where they are doing great and have those discussions.

We’ve found that putting a little skin in the game up front gets

us much quicker to close, or at least gets us in the pipe. It’s

obviously been a challenge to come in without much of a brand

that people know about it, so it’s a way we can demonstrate our

expertise and have some real discussions around a client’s


Trent: Do you charge for this?

Mike: No. We just do it. We’ve actually built systems in the background to

help us do that, so our subject matter experts–heads of the

departments–participate in this, but we’ve built a number of

tools to help bring back various data points so we can get to

that data pretty quickly and start those conversations.

Trent: Is there any chance you would have a sample report that I could

include for the show notes for this episode?

Mike: I could probably clean one that wouldn’t give away the farm, and yes.

I will work on that–probably not the whole thing because it’s a

hundred slides or so, but I would definitely be willing to give

you some of that.

Trent: Terrific. Myself and my audience will appreciate that. There

are a few more questions I want to ask. From a strategy

perspective, you have to decide at the beginning, “Who do we

want to go after? What kind of customer do we want?” Then you

have to get a list of those customers or create content to put

in place where they are going to find it or a combination of

both of those things so that you could even have an opportunity

to present a Digital Opportunity Report. So, talk a little bit

about what happens to get that very first lead or conversation–

however you would like to describe it–what are you doing there?

Mike: No problem, and I think I skipped a question about industry focus, so

I’ll hit that really quick leading into this. There are a couple

of verticals where we seem to have gathered more clients than

others. We don’t want to be a vertically-focused agency if we

can help it. Our goal will be to serve clients across many

different industries. However, for whatever reason, we have made

some good traction in finance and insurance, travel and

hospitality, healthcare, and a few others. There may be a

symptom–in retail, too. I think that may be a symptom of where

those industries are–definitely not with the leaders–but with

the other brands, they seem to be a little behind and have

interest in catching up to the competition. I think there’s been

some benefit there.

What we try to do in terms of targeting, as I said before, look

for those companies that may be number three, four or five in

their vertical, and try to understand why that is, see if there

is a deficiency in digital that we can help sell. If we do

target them, we’ve got a team that will do some cold-calling, a

necessary evil, or do some LinkedIn targeting, those kinds of

things, and try to find those people. We will invite them to

thought leadership components, and see if they’d like to attend

a webinar, those kinds of things–and try to get their

permission to use their e-mail there. That may be one way in.

Other times, we may offer up–if we know that they are in market-

-that Digital Opportunity Report I was talking about. We may do

that in certain cases to actually get that first meeting, though

that’s time intensive so it’s not every time. But for a special

brand where we think there is a good fit, we may do that.

Trent: For the lay person, how do you determine–this is very

interesting that you look for companies that are third or fourth

in their vertical or their market. How do you do that? How do

you figure out if they are third or fourth?

Mike: It’s as simple as revenue and looking at some of the industry

information. There’s a million lists out there that kind of

rank, by estimated revenue, various industries.

Trent: Name one that you use, if you could. What’s one list that you


Mike: We’ve picked them off from Forbes, we’ve seen stuff out of the Wall

Street Journal. We’ll even look at lists with marketing spend

sometimes, too, out of Ad Age and those kinds of things. We are

on a constant look out. It might come from an industry trade

rag, what have you, a lot of different sources there.

Trent: So, all of this stuff is publicly-available?

Mike: Yes, and a lot of these companies are public, so they have to report


Trent: Absolutely. Let’s move on. One of the things I’ve never talked

about in an interview is the onboarding process for a client. I

have talked about selling in many interviews before, so folks,

if you are wanting that kind of thing, check out my podcast

library. There are no lack of interviews with agencies that have

talked about that.

Client says, “yes,” so now we have a process called “client

onboarding”, or whatever terminology you like to use. Describe

for me, Mike, the process that you guys go through to make sure

that expectations are set, to make sure that nothing falls

through the cracks, and that service delivery is aligned with


Mike: Sure. It’s something we’ve given a lot of thought to, and have made

some real, deliberate attempts to build a process that makes

sure exactly what you are saying: we are meeting expectations,

that the programs are going to achieve the goals that they

talked about, etc. The way we handle it, it starts before the


In that process, when we are working through our Digital

Opportunity Reports, uncovering opportunity with a prospect, we

are really getting into the process at that point. By the time

we gain a contract signature, we’ve already learned a lot about

their business. We’ve actually in a lot of cases done some of

the first steps of auditing, at least, what we can see from the

outside not using their analytics. Then, we have a pretty good

idea of not just the goals they want to achieve from a business

standpoint, but also the potential look at the package of

tactics and programs to implement to get there.

So, day one of that contract signature, as quick as we can get a

meeting, we have a discovery meeting to solidify that and bring

any sort of information that we haven’t been privy to in the new

business process to the table. From there, we assess what they

have and see if there are components we need to add to fill in

blanks and create the project plan.

From a tool standpoint, we are on a backend, we are using a

variety of tools: Basecamp, some kind of time-tracking software,

but right now, we are moving toward AtTask, which is a nice

software program that will allow us to house documents, do time

tracking, and all those things. It works out well.

Trent: Spell that name for me.

Mike: AtTask?

Trent: So, A-T, and then task?

Mike: I believe so, I’m looking it up now. I’ve heard a lot about it, but I

have yet to [inaudible 2036] .

Trent: And folks, if you are driving in your car, don’t try to take

notes. I’ll put all the stuff in the show notes, so I’ll give

you a link at the end of the episode so you can get all this.

Mike: Yeah, the promise from the program is pretty solid, and our VP of

Operations has spent a lot of time with them. We are excited

because it hits all of our needs in one place rather than having

to duct tape a number of systems together.

So, through the onboarding process–once we get through a

project plan–we, at that point, are typically starting some

sort of auditing and planning process. Through that process, we

are able to definitively document real business goals, make sure

we understand everything about the target audience, we are

auditing the current programs from a best-practice standpoint.

At that point, we have access to analytics, so we are able to

see how those programs are actually working and if they are

achieving those goals. Then we come back with a plan that the

client approves. At that point, we have projections, and the

expectations are very clear on what we trying to achieve. That

includes what we will need from the client to do our job and

what they can expect from us.

Then there is some sort of cadence of coming back to the plan

that is set up at that point. For most clients, it’s at least

monthly. Sometimes it’s quarterly. We are having regular

reporting meetings, but then we are having some meetings where

we are pulling the plans out and saying, “Are we achieving the

business objective that we set out to do? Are we seeing

opportunities where we can push those further?” We continue to

ideate there.

What often happens is we may not come in with have it being full

digital agency of record. In most cases, we are not. But, we end

up expanding services through it without really trying to sell.

It’s the idea of showing real need. If we are all confident that

taking on additional programs or tactics can help push the goals

forward, that’s the way we attack that. It becomes a real

partnership, and the majority of our clients have been here a

while. We are really looking toward creating consultative

partnerships more than delivering vendor, agency tactics. That’s

paid off well for us.

Trent: That is a perfect segue–thank you for sharing all that by the

way–that is a perfect segue to part two of our interview:

content marketing. Let’s talk about the beginning. I’m going to

guess–tell me if I’m wrong–that content marketing is something

that a large number of your clients, it’s a part of that plan

you develop for them?

Mike: That’s absolutely true. It’s such a nebulous word, right?

Trent: That was my next question, yes.

Mike: It’s kind of like “strategy.” We laugh about that on the strategy

team: what does that mean? It’s such an abused word, it’s got a

lot of meanings to everybody, and we joke that content marketing

is really sort of the same.

But to kind of take it up a level, what we find when we audit

either in the new business process or through our clients, we

are auditing a couple hundred companies a year, at least.

Really, across the board, on sort of the new business front,

especially before they become clients, we are focused on shoring

it up once they are a client. But we see that most companies

aren’t as exposed in the earned and owned categories as they are

in the paid. There’s a lot of opportunity there to build very

cost-effective marketing programs.

Content marketing in our world means a combination of solid

search and social and creative type of activities. The media

component of that may be to help make content more visible or be

a bit louder around that, but that core program of tactics is

really a powerful combination. We see deficiencies in a lot of

companies where those programs may not be integrated, or content

marketing as a word may be sort of the last piece of the puzzle

where it’s just defined as “We need ten blog posts a month”, or

“We need to create four infographics”. It may be that execution

piece, and if it’s missing the content strategy part, that

should come together.

Long story short, we are offering companies–and this is most of

our big clients, to your point–our offering works a lot like a

content strategy offering first with really good tactical

search, social, and creative services that go into that. It’s

kind of an interesting time. No two companies are really the

same in terms of staffing, either, so we are actually getting

into some operational consulting, too, but some companies we

walk into have a robust social team, but are lacking on the

creative side. Or, you may have a great search person, but have

a community manager who is not tied in, or they have all

agencies doing it and everything in-between.

So, what we are seeing is a real need for someone to come in and

say, “If you want to achieve these goals, here is what a program

would look like to do that, and here is what it would look like

in your custom situation given your internal resources,

agencies, or abilities, etc. We really try to attack it with a

custom approach and then figure out what role we can play. For

some companies that we work with–believe it or not–we are

literally the facilitator. We own the plan and program

management of it, and others execute the components. For others,

we’ll do the whole thing. As you can imagine, there are

different combinations.

It’s a really interesting time. We are seeing big companies

really struggle with whether they should staff these things

internally, and if they do, what pieces they should and where

they should still get help. It’s pretty exciting.

Trent: In my world of content marketing–so we can remove some of the

ambiguity from the world–I think of content roughly in three

buckets: big content, medium content, and little content. So

what’s big content? It’s a premium report of some kind, a

webinar, or whitepaper–something a fair amount of time and

effort went into creating, and you don’t create a whole bunch of

them every year. Medium content is typically blog posts, and

small content is social media shares, whether you are curating

somebody else’s content, or you are sharing your own content

across social media.

In the content marketing that you deliver to your content, Mike,

do you follow a methodology like that where there are those

three buckets of content, and are you creating at all for them?

Mike: That’s a great question. We don’t necessarily bucket them like that,

but I like that approach. It does make a lot of sense. What we

do first, from the content strategy side, is say, “Okay, what

does content demand look like in this vertical?” Through that

study, we then look at what content the company has, what is

paying off for them, and we look at the gap of what they may not

have or what needs to be improved.

Through that study, we will take a topical slice at it, using a

lot of search and social data to help them define what they

should be about. From there, we start understanding them by

topic: what is the kind of content that can make them stand out

or resonate? At that point, we prescribe the need and start

delivering against it. There’s definitely a difference in the

effort behind creating those different pieces of content

depending on budget, timing, and those things. It’s a real

consideration that needs to happen.

Trent: Are you blogging on behalf of your clients?

Mike: Yes, anything from blog posts to infographics. We may help them plan

a webinar or bring them to one of ours, even, as we have done in

the past. We don’t create video in-house, but we have some

partners that we’ll work with, so we may recommend a video

around a certain topic, and if the client doesn’t have resources

to do that, then bring in a partner. At this point, about

anything you can make, we have either done it or been the face

of making it happen for a client.

Trent: What would you say–let’s imagine you are having a conversation

with a client who has come from the world of paid media than

“earned” or “owned media.” They are accustomed to an ad budget,

and maybe they have a direct sales force. They are trying to

generate leads with ads, and they have sales reps doing cold-

calling–what I call old-school, yet traditional approach to

marketing and advertising.

Then, the newer school of though is get more owned and earned

media, which is what we’ve just been talking about. You have

that client and that conversation, and they are on the fence.

They are saying, “Well, Mike, all that stuff sounds good. I can

see how it makes sense. Yes, I go to Google and I do searches

when I’m buying stuff. I kind of get it, but I’m a little on the

fence. Let’s talk about ROI. What is the ROI of all this content

marketing stuff going to be relative to the ROI of all the other

ways I can spend my money?”

Mike: That’s a very common question. It was extremely common four or five

years ago, but even still today we see a lot of larger companies

overly reliant on the media side. Now, one thing, obviously

media works, and it’s not uncommon to see companies at the end

of the process keeping media levels close to where they were and

finding extra ways to invest in the earned and owned because

they get a bigger aggregate return with all of it in

combination, working together.

That aside, what we try to show is the models, basically. We

will project out what we think can happen all the way through

the funnel from traction standpoint all the way to conversion

and also retention too, and then show investment in those

tactics and their return. Then we compare that with what we see

that they may be getting through the media side.

One part of media that is tricky is obviously offline. As a

digital shop, it’s ironic, but offline works. There may be

opportunity to make it integrate more with the online world, but

it’s rare for us to come in and say, “Quit spending that money

offline. You need to move it all online,” unless there is a real

big discrepancy there. We want to see that interest created

offline so when they come online, we can catch it.

But when we show the differences in efficiency, we use basic

search arguments to say, “If you were this much more visible,

here’s what that can mean. Here’s what the cost for that traffic

would be.” It’s kind of a no-brainer.

The important piece there, though, is really those integration

components, because in companies like that, we don’t always see

the media working together with the earned and owned sides to

produce the best results. We may see a heavy display by or pay-

per-click traffic that just goes to a homepage. We don’t always

see that media helping the content marketing components or

publicizing content or getting more visibility to important

messages, that kind of thing.

Another piece of what we do is audit how different programs are

working together and look for opportunity there too. It’s a

pretty interesting world. Those really big media companies

aren’t really brought into the conversation like that too often,

so they work independently from the earned and owned agencies or

pieces, and we see a lot of opportunity there to bring those


Trent: Do you think one of the advantages of creating content–so

we’ll call this in in the earned and owned media–is that once

the content is created, it is an asset and has the shelf life to

provide an ROI whereas paid media, if you stop buying it, it’s


Mike: That’s sort of what I meant when I was talking about that basic

search argument. There is an ongoing effect from having and

building assets. There is risk in the creation of assets–

sometimes the creation of assets is sometimes more expensive

than just buying the ad, but the long-term payoff should work.

That’s why, in the content marketing world, one hole I see is

the real integration with searching, and that’s not to say that

I don’t see blog posts optimized or some of that lower-level

tactical pieces. That is happening and that is great, but what I

don’t always see is the content marketing companies addressing

the bigger, enterprise needs like, “Is this site really as

visible as it could be?”

From a content strategy standpoint, is the website or social

outpost really set up to meet the users’ needs, be user-friendly

and efficient with that traffic and those kinds of things? We

like to take an approach where we address both the enterprise

and macro needs as well as the line-level content needs in

combination. We raise that visibility.

For Farmer’s for example when we came in, we saw needs on both

sides. So we actually started with some of the enterprise

components first to make sure any content we’d add to the mix

was working as well as it could. We started off with some pretty

old-school search approaches and content strategy

recommendations and actually helped them through from that

standpoint for a redesign which made the site more visible and

efficient with its traffic. Then when we started to stack on

more content, the whole ecosystem started to work better.

Trent: One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the power of

long-tail traffic. I have one site that has nothing to do with

my business. I had this site years ago. It’s called It’s got 600 pages of content on how to

clean stuff. And that site ranks number one for the word

“cleaning.” It gets 3,000 visitors a day, every day, like


And it’s just a testament to the power of how Google looks at

websites, the volume of content that’s on them, and how much

significance they place around having a lot of content around a

relative topic, because to be honest, how much focus was put on

keyword development really wasn’t the primary focus. It was just

writing content which would be helpful for users. The irony is

that it was created years ago, and that’s where Google wants

things to be now, so this may be dumb luck on our part, but


Mike: Luck or genius. I would argue that you taking the approach of being

user-focused was always the right answer. It just took Google a

while to catch up to that. That’s why in our process, when I was

speaking about helping brands figure out what, topically, they

should be about: we take that very literally. We actually create

taxonomies through the content strategy process to really help

them rally around certain topics. That discussion oftentimes

talks about what you can authentically own in a conversation.

Where can you be really helpful, not expect something back, and

provide your expertise and in kind, over time, as Jay Baer would

say from utility, just be really helpful there and be a good

participant in the community.

That’s really table stakes now. That’s sort of the basics. A lot

of companies aren’t taking that approach, but if you can have

the best content, answer the right questions, and you can

provide the best user experience when you are doing so, that’s

going to pay off for you. There is an idea of targeting certain

topics and being very expansive around that topic. There is an

idea in there about being very user-friendly in that, in having

an efficient experience where people can get what they want

answered quickly. They can share it if they want to. They can

interact in the way that they need to. If a toolset should be

there, they have it. If a topic is easier to explain in a video

format, they’ve got that. It’s really that idea of putting the

user hat on.

The changes with Google and the engines to becoming more

semantic, and this idea around hummingbird is really about that.

For Farmer’s–I’ll use them again–in the old days, there was a

difference between auto insurance and car insurance, because

everything was keyword-based. Now, engines are becoming more

semantic in nature, where they understand that car and auto are

the same thing. They want to provide the best results whether

your site is being car-specific or auto, or maybe a combination

there. That’s a very basic example.

A site like yours that’s all about cleaning, where they can tell

you have many different topics, they are going to give you some

advantage around anything related to cleaning even if your

keywords don’t match exactly. That’s the advantage of taking

that approach.

Trent: Indeed. Let’s transition, because we are getting toward the end

to the final topic we promised to talk about and that was your

funding by Tall Wave. I’m particularly interested in this

because it’s not often, unless you have some intellectual

property or software I’m unaware of, it’s not often you see

professional services for getting backing from professional

investors. If there is something beyond professional services in

your firm that I don’t know about, point that out of course, but

why did you do it and how did it happen?

Mike: Going back to the iCrossing model, there was investments from jump

there and the idea was if you bring some funds in the beginning,

you could be very aggressive around hiring the right people,

creating the right systems, etc. could you move forward faster

than you would if you did it all organically with self-funding?

With the iCrossing cases, the answer was yes. In eight years,

the company went from zero to being sold to Hearst for whatever

it was, $325 million, becoming the largest independent digital

agency at the time.

That’s a model we are all familiar with. A number of us come

from it, and we have the same ambitions. The goal here isn’t to

stop at our current size of 70 to 80 people. It’s to get much

bigger and do something much more disruptive on a bigger level.

With that in mind, Tall Wave, as I mentioned before, is kind of

our parent company. We evolved out of Tall Wave. Tall Wave is

one investor. We have a couple others that have invested in

agencies before, too, so that combination is pretty impressive

and deadly in the sense that everybody on the board has done

this before.

So they come from bigger agencies, all of these investors have

invested in professional services before, so not only do they

understand how it works, they’ve been able to introduce us to

clients, have seen certain challenges we have bumped into and

they’ve helped us get through them. It’s nice to have that

experience there. When we looked at that combination, Tall Wave

is our largest investor with the biggest stake, but there are a

few others in the mix as well.

Trent: When did that investment happen? Did you guys have a brand new

venture with a committed management team and zero customers, and

approach Tall Wave? What did it look like?

Mike: We started it as part of Tall Wave. As I mentioned, I left my last

position about four years ago, and ethology is just over three

years old. During that time, we came in, made a couple hires

with this in mind. We were called Tall Wave Media at the time.

We started bringing some clients on. At that time, we were doing

zero execution. It was all strategy and planning. Early clients

were some local companies all the way up to Conoco-Philips where

we helped them do some digital planning and it helped them look

for opportunities and improve their efforts.

We were being asked by a lot of companies, “Can you now come

help us do it?” By a lot of companies too. That was a little

unexpected at that phase, but we had our eye on the ball of

making it a full-service agency at some point, so that was a

good early sign.

What we were able to do was get a good chunk of revenue going,

show that the model was working already, and basically create a

business plan like anybody would at start-up phase. Here is what

unique about this opportunity, here is the revenue that we are

already getting. If we added these kinds of people and made this

kind of model, we are pretty confident we could achieve these

kinds of numbers.

Trent: Cool. The focus on public companies: are all of your clients

public companies?

Mike: No, there is a good mix. I would say it’s probably fifty-fifty right

now, and there’s no desire to have a certain mix. It’s not

really a thought.

Public companies are easy to get some numbers on because it is

out there. You can see where exactly they stack and make some

estimates on what they spend on marketing and the like. That’s

good. There are a number of private companies that we work with,

too. Some are really big too.

Delaware North Corporation is a giant company that nobody has

probably ever heard of. It’s family owned. They own a ton of

various hospitality components. They own some sports arenas and

run a number of others. There’s a good mix there.

What we are really trying to find is what companies have enough

revenue where marketing should be a focus, so that’s our first

cut. And then if we can figure it out, let’s see what they are

spending on marketing and advertising so we can understand how

we can [fit in].

Trent: I’ll wrap up with this one: do you find that it is any easier

or harder to land a public company as a client than a private?

Mike: Great question. There are two pieces to that. I’ll take the public

out, let’s say a larger company. In a larger company scenario,

they tend to have many more partners than the mid-tier to

smaller-tier clients. So when we’re in a prospecting case with

a really large company, it’s important for us to think a little

bit more tactically and think about what specific services we

could offer that we are really good at, that we could come in

and have an immediate impact on.

In many cases, those companies are still figuring out content

marketing. They don’t always have a partner for content strategy

and those kinds of things. We also may catch them with an RFP

outright for search, or something too where we can reply right

to that. But we have to figure out how to package ourselves

around these things, if that makes sense, versus saying we are

full-service, because they don’t want the full-service agency.

They don’t have one partner that does it all. It’s not how they

do business.

On a mid-tier to smaller company, it’s more likely that they do

have an agency doing many different pieces, or they could be

interested in someone who does half of what they need, or maybe

even full service. So in those cases, we’ll come in and we’ll

show our full breadth of offerings and have that conversation.

They both have their unique sales challenges. I don’t know that

either are easier or harder. It’s about how you are able to gain

entry and position yourself that really breeds success. Coca-

Cola doesn’t want to hear that ethology is a full-service

agency. They’ve got a zillion partners. They want to know what

you are really, really good at where we may consider you for a


Trent: All right, before we sign off, sorry, I should ask one last

thing for people who would like to get in touch with you, what

is the way for them to do that?

Mike: On Twitter, I’m @MikeCorak, C-O-R-A-K. You can hit me up there. you

can hit me on LinkedIn, too, it’s /MikeCorak. Feel free to

message me there too. If you’d like to send me an e-mail, I’d be

more than willing to accept that. It’s

Trent: Mike, thank you so much for making some time to come on the

show and chat with me about this. It’s been a wonderful

interview, and I appreciate your time.

Mike: Thanks, Trent, I really appreciate it. You’ve got a great podcast,

and I’m honored to be on it. Thank you.

Trent: Great, to get the show notes for this episode, go to and if you enjoyed the episode, I’d love if

you’d take a moment to help me spread the word about the episode

by going to, where there will be a pre-made

Tweet, and all you have to do is click on it. That is it for

this episode. I’m your host, Trent Dyrsmid. Thank you so much

for tuning in, we’ll see you in another episode soon. Take care.


About Mike Corak

Mike Corak is the Executive Vice President of Strategy at ethology, leading the strategic planning and agency services teams. An agency veteran, Corak has developed and implemented winning digital and integrated strategies for hundreds of companies over his 12-year career, including Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, ConocoPhillips, FedEx, Fujitsu, Nike, Office Depot, and Walt Disney.


Prior to ethology, Corak led the interactive services, strategy and client management teams at Off Madison Avenue and iCrossing. Corak serves on the board of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization), helping drive the search industry’s trade group initiatives in research and best practices education.



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