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?
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.
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
grabtrentsbonus.com. 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
grabtrentsbonus.com. 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
howtocleananything.com. 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
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
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
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
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 Mike.Corak@ethology.com.
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
brightideas.co/125 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 brightideas.co/love, 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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