In December 2018, I joined Rob Kischuk - founder and CEO of Converge - on the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast to discuss how Inbound Marketing and HubSpot have enabled The B2B Marketing Lab, as well as our clients and customers across the globe to scale and grow.
Please see the video and transcript below!
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Verity Dearsley, Managing Director at The B2B Marketing Lab based in central London in the UK. Welcome, Verity.
VERITY: Thanks so much for having us here today.
ROB: Fantastic to have you on the podcast. Why don’t you start off by telling us about The B2B Marketing Lab and what makes The B2B Marketing Lab great?
VERITY: The B2B Marketing Lab, we are a HubSpot partner. We were the first Diamond Partner in the UK; we’re the largest one in London.
Our inbound journey started about 7 years ago. Our background historically was PR. I think it probably set us up from a slightly different angle than a lot of inbound agency routes came in, because we didn’t come with web as a background. We came very much with content. Our original PR team were very much content creators and generators.
But we were starting to find I guess some frustrations in terms of tracking ROI of the PR efforts that we were doing. Traditionally there’s a lot of fluffy metrics within that space. We knew that we were making an impact on our clients’ businesses and their business bottom lines, but we were really struggling to find the right technology stacks and the right reporting metrics to prove that.
I joined the business about 7 years ago and was initially tasked with finding some of those technology stacks and, in the early days, spent an obscene amount of time crawling through Google metrics and numbers. I stumbled across what was 7 years ago quite literally a little product called HubSpot and was tasked with deploying it both for ourselves and, I think along with a lot of other agencies, deploying it quite quickly for some of our clients.
So, I definitely would say I got hands-on pretty early on, and 7 years later we’re very, very pleased that we backed the HubSpot horse, as it was, because it’s enabled us to grow another business out of it and be very successful at what we do.
ROB: That horse has certainly grown over time. Coming from that PR background, how do you think being engaged with HubSpot changed you, and how do you think your unique perspective in PR has perhaps changed and perhaps developed in the product since you started working with them?
VERITY: That’s an interesting one. I think, when we first started working with HubSpot, inbound marketing itself wasn’t a particularly well-coined term, certainly not in the UK market. I think we were quite an early adopter as such. People were starting to get a handle on the idea of content marketing.
So, there was a fair amount of evangelizing in the early days of tying the synergies of that, which is, if you’re going to be paying to create great content and then existing with a very static, Brochure-web-based website, the two just really didn’t go hand-in-hand.
We were working with a lot of companies who maybe had a web agency or someone internally, where websites sat with IT rather than as a marketing function, and really helping them to understand the value of blogging and the value of gating some of that content in order to use it in your lead generation.
I think the major shift that we’ve seen in the business, and that HubSpot has then seen within its product stack, is that then doesn’t end at marketing. How do you then drive that to help create a better sales process and create a better customer engagement process as well?
ROB: Super-duper interesting. You have grown, I think quite famously – at Inbound you gave a talk: “To get to Platinum” (and we’ll talk about Platinum and Diamond here in a second) – “To get to Platinum, you just have to sell, but to get to Diamond you have to scale up your business.”
I think many agencies face this challenge of transitioning from “I can sell” to “How do I operate a business that goes beyond me and beyond what I can sell and execute easily?” Tell us a little bit about that transition and things that you might have shared that you believe are helpful in that journey.
VERITY: Sure. It’s a very interesting one, isn’t it? Most of us, when we start that journey, you get onboard, you understand the HubSpot proposition, and most agencies have some form of preexisting client base, whether or not that’s technically from Inbound or whatever their company or network was doing beforehand. I think initially everyone focuses on quite literally how you flog as many licenses as quickly as you can.
But where you start getting to those Platinum numbers – I’m just trying to remember roughly how many you have to build. It’s about 10 Pro licenses as such. But it’s the level of managed and ongoing service retainers that you need to maintain simultaneously, not only to hold that ranking within HubSpot, but really that’s where our retained revenues come from, from an agency perspective.
That scale point is when you have to focus not only on sales, but also on making sure you’ve got really robust implementation processes, client management processes, and just all of the internal stuff as well. Bringing in headcount to non-client-facing roles becomes quite a scary point within a business because you’re taking on higher overheads that you’re not necessarily immediately getting return on investment for.
But we looked at it and went, we absolutely have to double down and focus in on our own business to make sure that we could keep up not only the sales pipeline to build that growth, but also making sure that we had the right people in place and the right processes in place so that you weren’t churning customers along the way.
ROB: For sure. What was that first non-revenue hire for you, and how did you wrestle through and justify that first move?
VERITY: We moved in three very interesting ways. The one thing that I talk a lot about – the concept of being the cobbler’s children. I don’t know how much that resonates, but when you’re in agency life, you spend your time running around keeping the clients happy, because inevitably – happy clients, money in, business keeps running.
But focusing on your own marketing and your own activity becomes really challenging. A lot of the time I know that people maybe have a couple of people in their account teams who, when they’re not busy, focus on their own website, their own content creation, their own marketing strategy. You fast realize, as I’m pretty sure everyone listening in on this will understand, there’s no such thing as “not busy” in an agency. [laughs]
For us the first thing that we did was moved one of our most senior members of the account team completely outside of client services and focused in on our own marketing strategy. We worked quite closely with HubSpot, with the agency support team that they have, to reevaluate all the stuff that we do for our clients, like what we were focusing on, who our buyer personas were, did we have a structured content calendar, was our website properly speaking to those right buyer personas, what was converting, what wasn’t converting.
So, we built a designated marketing team. We’ve now got two people internally from the marketing side of things and one designed content creator. We went from selling being purely just mainly myself and my CEO to actually having designated BDR roles. I’ve got three BDRs now.
And we hired an HR manager, and that was a big one for us as well. We realized that the quality of our services is really tied to the quality of the time that we have, and that you’ve got to not only find great new talent, but retain the talent that you have, build structured processes. We have a team coach that works with all of our juniors and our account managers on their growth within the business.
ROB: Excellent. I think its’s compelling and often unique, to your point, to be able to exemplify through your own marketing the services that you wish to provide to your clients as well. To your point, the cobbler’s children often have no shoes. That’s something we do here quite often for sure.
VERITY: It was exactly where we were, and to be honest we were so guilty of it ourselves. We sat down and did an audit of where we were, and we were like, well, we haven’t really looked at our buyer personas in like 2 years. The level of content that was on our website, to be honest, was shocking.
Especially if you’re trying to bring on new clients to trust you, you have to appear to be best practice. I think that’s really been the biggest change for us in the last couple of years: turning the microscope onto ourselves. It’s a painful thing to do as a business owner, because we don’t like to think that we’re rubbish at things, but you’ve really got to identify them. Holes in anything will only get bigger if they’re left unattended.
ROB: Indeed. Personally for you, did you expect that you would be in an entrepreneurial venture like this in marketing? How did you find your way to such a career?
VERITY: [laughs] No. No, I did not. It’s a really interesting one. My journey, for full transparency behind this, was I studied theatre. My father ran a PR agency that was never any form of family world domination plan to get me to join the business.
But I guess I’ve always been quite a tech-savvy individual. I’ve always enjoyed getting to grips with technology. I joined on what was honestly supposed to be a project basis, to find the right technology stack or answer to the problem with the expectation that I would hand it back off onto a different member of the team at some point. Truthfully, I just found myself really enjoying the role of building a new brand and helping find a new logo and work out a new positioning.
My biggest thing that I enjoy working with for my clients is problem-solving. What are the challenges that our clients are facing with their marketing, with their audience, with their content, with their sales strategy, and sitting down with people and going, “Okay, I don’t necessarily have all the answers yet, but I’m pretty sure we can work together. We’ve got the right processes here to build something that works.”
ROB: I think in addition to the challenges you’ve already shared around scaling, you’ll also notice, if someone goes to your website, that not only are you in London, you’re also in Singapore. That seems like a whole other challenge of scale. How did that stage of growth and stage of opportunity come to pass in the business?
VERITY: It’s an interesting one, partly driven by my CEO’s mindset for world domination, I think. [laughs]
We partnered with a company in Chicago several years ago now called Be Found Online, who actually now is a sister company of ours; we have a joint venture with them. We were working with some quite large companies with some very big SEO challenges. When you’ve got 17 different websites in 15 different languages, that website management and SEO management becomes a very big piece.
One of our larger clients, we were managing all of their EMEA SEO requirements, and we needed a partner in the U.S., which was how we found Be Found Online. They’re based in Chicago.
The next big piece of the pie, then, was looking at, okay, we’re helping them with strategy on how they manage that in European markets and how they manage that in American markets, but how do we look to support the APAC side of the business?
Singapore was very much a goal for us. It’s still quite a fledgling side of what we’re doing. We have a team of two in Singapore versus the team of 35 that we have in London and 40 in Chicago. But I think it’s a very interesting market, and as soon as we started exploring it, HubSpot themselves also opened an office out in Singapore. I think it’s a solid life choice – wherever you see HubSpot going, follow quickly and build alongside them. It seems to have worked for us quite well in the last 7 years. [laughs]
ROB: Right. Sounds like they’re following you a little bit. [laughs]
VERITY: We’ll see. Their offices are always going to be bigger than ours, I can guarantee that. [laughs]
Yeah, Singapore’s a very interesting market at the moment because having moved from pretty much not doing that much evangelizing over here anymore – inbound has become a very standardized message; most people are aware of HubSpot and know that they’re looking to deploy that, so our go-to-market messaging in the UK has shifted quite substantially.
Suddenly being in Singapore markets where I think people are very comfortable with PPC spend and paid media spend, but inbound isn’t a message that is as clearly understood there yet – it’s been interesting to take some of that model back. You’re not just explaining process; you’re having to establish the understanding of inbound and why it’s important. It’s been an interesting challenge, and one we continue to strive to solve and get better at.
ROB: Very interesting. I’m sure you’ve learned some along the way. When a client starts looking at someone to help them with content and with international SEO, what are some of the perhaps missed opportunities and even pitfalls, perhaps, of trying to do international, multi-language SEO?
VERITY: The main one I think is having the fundamental understanding of how Google looks at your websites in multiple languages. The main thing that we see is a lot of people putting up either duplicate content or not managing language tagging properly on their websites.
Let’s say they’ve got a website focused on America, a website focused on Europe, and a website focused on APAC. A lot of the time those individual websites will end up cannibalizing their own traffic. That’s one that we talk to people a lot about. HubSpot’s made huge leaps and bounds in some of its functionality within their proper language tagging, Hreflang tag deployment on individual language pages.
I think my main thing with that is about making sure that there is a centralized understanding of how that’s going to work globally. A lot of the times, activity in region, even in product sometimes if an organization is very siloed, and people miss out on the helicopter view of how those different regions, how those different teams can be working together to support the overall growth of the business.
ROB: Thank you for sharing that tip. I’m sure a number of people would be pretty interested in that.
One thing that we’ve often found is when people come into an agency, come into entrepreneurship, come into building a business, they find there are things they were told early on that they have had to then sort of unlearn, and learn to find their own paths, whether it’s what suits well for their business or for themselves. Are there any things you can think of that you may’ve had to unlearn in the process of growing and building yourself and the company?
VERITY: I think the biggest one with this is just knowing what’s the right fit. I do understand that there is a certain luxury point that you get to within a business with this, but one of the biggest things that we talk to partners about is as soon as you possibly can, get fussier about who you work with. Work out who is the right fit and learn to be bold enough to walk away from the people that you don’t think are.
Inbound isn’t necessarily for everybody, or they may not be at the scale or the level of internal buy-in. But for us, I’ve seen over the years – you start that journey where you sell to every man and their dog – if there isn’t a proper understanding and buy-in to the process from full C-level engagement, if you’ve got a very switched-on marketing manager but the senior members of the business don’t get it, you are going to keep hitting your head against a brick wall unless you can get in and spend the time with those people to make sure they’re on board.
The other thing I think is just knowing the mindset of the people that you’re engaged with. We’ve all had one of those clients who wants the absolute universe, wants to pay about 15p for it, and you’re driving results and they’re just not happy.
Sometimes it is really hard to fire a client and to walk away from those situations, but we’ve been in those situations before, where you look around at the general morale of the people around you and you’re like, “If we don’t lose this client, I’m going to lose my team.” And my other, much happier, more successful clients, we’re not servicing them to the level because you’ve got that one problem child that’s draining resources and morale internally.
I think that’s a big one, because obviously getting rid of a client means getting rid of a line of revenue that’s coming in, and no one really likes to do that.
ROB: For sure. It sounds like also, though, the combination of insisting on more engaged clients and getting away from the ones who are looking just to shop on the absolute cheapest price actually may end up with more revenue and a happier team. Is that fair or unfair?
VERITY: One hundred percent. I think you touched on a very interesting one there, which is resisting the urge to do the deal and maintaining your price. There was a fabulous advert that came out a few years ago by Stella Artois, and their tagline was “reassuringly expensive.” I think it was a print and a digital ad that ran. It was like a fake coupon, which was to pay $1.25 extra.
It’s always made me laugh because it’s one of those things where you think it’s really counterintuitive, but the last thing any of us need within this community is a race to the bottom on price and on quality.
Maintaining, holding fast, playing your expertise, pricing your expertise, and just making sure that you know if you’re building a team of experts – and there still aren’t an awful lot of inbounders around the world, or people that certainly get this and get it really, really well. So when you are in that pitch environment and in that client environment, make sure that you are selling your expertise and holding your price.
ROB: Absolutely. Fantastic. Verity, what are some things that are coming up for The B2B Marketing Lab or even for marketing in general? What’s got you excited and looking ahead?
VERITY: Ooh, that’s a good one. I think again, continuing with that territory expansion, our Singapore team are small and beautifully formed at the moment. We’ve got quite a lot of energy to look to scale that up.
I think potentially other markets, but I think the other side of it as well is HubSpot are changing their product on not even a day by day basis anymore. It’s like a minute by minute basis. A lot of what they’ve rolled out in the sales tools and the services tools – we have always come at this from being very much a hub of marketing expertise, so I think pivoting and looking at our business to start to look at being a growth consultancy or a growth agency, working with businesses to scale their business as a whole rather than working with marketing as a department.
I think we’re going to start to see that as a very big shift. I know it’s one that HubSpot themselves are driving and are trying to work out how best to do that within their partner community. So, I’m excited to see how that comes on.
I’m excited to see what other cool stuff they roll out, and I think they’re going to have some changes to their partner tiering program. We hit Diamond in 2017, so we’re waiting to see what comes next. We’ve been joking internally about the term of “Double Diamond.” We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but we just want to make sure that we’re on the front foot and that there’s no resting on our laurels, as it were. [laughs]
ROB: For sure. They didn’t roll that out this year at Inbound, but maybe we’ll get a Double or even a Triple Diamond just to get everybody a little bit more motivated and excited.
Very interesting what you’re saying, and very consistent with HubSpot. They’ve got the services, the sales, and the marketing side, and that strategic seat that marketing is taking for many people – even with consultancies, big consultancies, moving into, selling into the CMO – I think you have to move up the stack, or else it’s going to be challenging.
Another thing they mentioned at Inbound – and I don’t know if this is just for those who were there to think about it or whether you’re seeing this move out to the clients – they talked about moving from the sales funnel that we’ve all thought about into this flywheel metaphor that Brian Halligan mentioned.
What have you seen in terms of client thinking or your own internal thinking? Were you already adjusting that way and it gave some language to it? Is it something that may not resonate with clients who are more visual and in that funnel-thinking? What do you think?
VERITY: The rise of the flywheel is an interesting one. Actually, I interviewed Brian Halligan when we were at Inbound about this, just to get him to explain the thinking behind it a bit more. To be honest, I think the whole topic of it was a bit shocking to a lot of us, “the death of the funnel.” Everyone was like, hold up! Literally everything I do all day, every day, is funnel-tied, funnel-tied, funnel-tied.
In all fairness, I don’t think the funnel is dead. I still think strong reporting metrics on where leads are within their marketing and sales journey, I still think people are going to need reporting metrics on those.
Where I think the message becomes far more important is about that customer-centric focus. We’re seeing it, I think, even in our own clients. The role that the CMO has within an organization – the website used to be run by the IT team and there would be a head of PR that dealt with all of the PR, and marketing was kind of this weird dark art that no one really knew what it was.
I think now, even technology stack discussions within even businesses, marketing is starting to get looped in within those. Understanding customer success as well as lead generation and lead acquisition, marketing and sales are getting involved.
For me, we are engaging more with a higher range of job titles and speaking to a complete C-suite when we’re looking at these solutions. The major thing where I see people will continue to struggle is if they keep that very siloed mindset of “marketing owns X, sales owns Y, and then account management owns Z.”
They really all should be feeding into each other with the idea of, with the customer at the center, how do we improve marketing, improve sales, and improve our customer retention or client services team?
ROB: That’s an interesting perspective.
VERITY: Brian Halligan might kill me for telling him that I don’t think we killed off the funnel, but I’ll have that argument with him another time. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Wow, we’ll have a little verbal boxing match over the future of the funnel. Maybe that can be a breakout session at Inbound in 2019.
But, I see what you’re saying. How do you make it so that we don’t think about – and it’s certainly in their own self-interest to not think about sales, marketing, and service as three different things, that it’s marketing’s job to get something into the funnel, it’s sales’ job to do something with it, and service’s job to deal with whatever kicks out the other side. I don’t think anybody wants to run a business that way, but maybe sometimes we do, and that’s what we need to think about.
VERITY: I think there’s a fine line with it, isn’t there? Everyone’s got to have responsibilities. You can’t spread yourself so thin from an expertise standpoint that you stop being effective at the things that you do. But I think the major shift is better communication between those teams.
I know it’s been very important for us as we’ve scaled, making sure that the ideas aren’t necessarily all driven from the top. I think it’s another concept where this changes slightly, that customers or even your juniors or even your managers within the org, they’re a different generation that are coming up through businesses – They think differently, they have a different experience with different technology products.
So just being open, both within your own agency and also when working with your clients, to make sure that you’re on the hunt for the good ideas and you’re not ignoring the voices that may have them just because they don’t fall into the traditional job role or job level that we’d be expecting.
ROB: Fantastic. Verity, when people want to find you and they want to find The B2B Marketing Lab, where should they find you?
VERITY: Our website is www.b2bml.com. You can find us on LinkedIn, you can find us on Twitter, and you can find us on Instagram. Feel free to reach out to me and my team. You can always jump on our website and even have a live chat with us if you would like. Be very happy to hear from any of you.
ROB: The cobbler’s children do have the shoes of the customer chat on the website.
VERITY: They have some very stylish shoes that are continuing to change and evolve on a daily basis. [laughs]
ROB: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Verity, for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your experience and your knowledge. We all certainly appreciate it.
VERITY: A real pleasure. Thanks so much for your time today. Have a great one. Thanks, bye.
ROB: Thank you. Bye-bye.