Shared agency experiences, unique differences: #INBOUND15 recap

Agency conferences in 2018 - Top 20+ events for digital agencies
Written by: Karl Sakas

What happens when 14,000 marketers get together in one place? Lots of learning, networking, and fun at INBOUND 2015 in Boston!

With an event that big, everyone’s going to have their own take. Here’s my “10 things” recap from INBOUND 2015 based on my experience as a speaker, panelist, Happy Hour organizer, fan, and attendee.

1)  Meet your heroes.

Seth Godin and Karl Sakas at INBOUND 2015

First in line for Seth Godin after his opening keynote

“Hi Karl, nice to see you again.” I was first in line for the book signing after Seth Godin’s opening keynote.

Seth said this as he walked up, too early to have seen my namebadge—so he either has a photographic memory from meeting at his 2014 Impresario workshop, or one of his handlers had radioed my name to him as he walked over.

Totally unexpected, so impressive either way!

2)  Meet your fans.

Karl Sakas with winner Caitlin Sellers and podcast host Andrew Dymski

Me with book winner Caitlin Sellers and DoInbound podcast host Andrew Dymski

As a guest on DoInbound’s Inbound Agency Journey podcast, I offered a free signed copy of my new book to one of their listeners. Turns out the winner—Caitlin Sellers—was at INBOUND, so I was able to give her a copy in-person before one of my talks.

At the Partner VIP reception, an agency owner said to me, “I’ve read all of your blog posts.” I noted that was 125+ articles. She reiterated that she read them all… and asked for a selfie photo with me to send her husband, as proof that we’ve met.

I enjoyed meeting several of my clients in-person for the first time—90% of my work is remote, so it was great to make those in-person connections.

3)  Create connections.

Agency leaders connecting at INBOUND 2015

Hundreds of new connections in only a few minutes!

When you’re in the audience at a talk, you might introduce yourself to the person on your left and right, but that’s it. Yet you’re surrounded by dozens or hundreds of people who could help you and that you could help.

To solve that problem during my talk, I created an exercise to get all 600 audience members interacting with each other. I asked them to consider which way they lean on my High-Growth vs. Lifestyle agency continuum, and then to stand up to exchange cards with someone with similar values.

It worked—almost a little too well! It took me a while to get people to sit down again, since they were talking so much. Hundreds of new connections, in just a few minutes.

4)  Give free advice.

As an agency consultant, I understand what it’s like when doctors get asked for medical advice at cocktail parties. As a way to direct that, I have three channels for free advicespeaking at conferences, my weekly Office Hours, and my content marketing.

In my speaking book, I mention the importance of Q&A. If someone has a highly-specific question during Q&A—or after my talk at an event—I’m glad to answer it. Between sessions at INBOUND, I spoke in-depth with leaders at about 10 agencies on topics ranging from recruiting, team structures, and agency self-marketing.

They took the initiative to show up and to ask—I like rewarding initiative.

5)  See new ways of thinking.

Scale to Win talk cover slide by Karl SakasThe centerpiece of my talk was the assertion that if you want to grow your agency, you first need to choose your growth preference. That is, do you want a High-Growth agency or a Lifestyle agency? This answer informs every other decision you make.

In my post-talk survey, I asked people their biggest takeaway from my session. “Lifestyle vs. High-Growth” was the top one by far. One agency owner later shared that my talk “cursed” him for a week—he couldn’t stop thinking about where he fell on the High-Growth vs. Lifestyle continuum.

Several people mentioned my “S-I-T” agency services model gave them new ideas on ways to scale their services. Others mentioned my team structure advice—about the need to split Account Management, Project Management, and Subject Matter Experts—got them thinking about changes.

6)  Learn all the pieces.

This year’s Partner/Agency track theme was Growth. All of the talks focused on growth, ranging from how to structure your account team to how to sell your agency. Although a single talk wasn’t enough to cover everything, combining the talks gave attendees the info they needed.

In my post-event survey, an audience member mentioned they wanted me to dig deeper. That’s the downside of the 45-minute format—you can either go deep on a single topic, or introduce new concepts for people to explore further.

7)  Find ways to translate conference concepts to “back at the office” reality.

Knowing I couldn’t dig too deep in 35 minutes plus 10 minutes of Q&A, I created a free, 8-page workbook that audience members could use to turn concepts into concrete reality when they got back to the office.

Half the audience opted-in for the free workbook. As a bonus, the workbook program included $300 in prizes and—coming up—a $12,000 agency transformation Grand Prize.

I intentionally sent-out the workbook the Monday after the conference—since I knew people were more likely to complete it at the office rather than at the conference itself. (Although a few people requested early copies to start as they flew home.)

8)  Accept it won’t all fit.

Scale to Win audience photo via James Basbas

My first talk “sold out” at 600 people so the organizers asked me to do an encore

My first commitment was recognizing that I couldn’t go to everything. Some of the sessions had people lining up 45 minutes beforehand.

Seth Godin’s keynote had a live simulcast to the enormous lounge area, for people who couldn’t fit into the regular room.

Indeed, my 600-person breakout room “sold out,” with a line going out the door. HubSpot asked me to do an “encore” talk the next day, repeating my “Scale to Win” presentation for people who missed the first time.

9)  Get a global perspective.

Happy Hour attendees before INBOUND 2015

My pre-conference Happy Hour drew agency leaders from 6 countries and 12+ states.

I organized an informal Happy Hour on Monday night, for members of my Marketing Agencies group on

At the time, the group had members from 700+ agencies in 48 countries. I wasn’t sure how it would go—it was a first-time event, and people had to be in town a day early to attend.

Turns out I was meeting an unmet need—the place was packed, and conversations were still going when I left.

10)  The best planning looks invisible.

When I wrote the Director of Production job description as I organize the 2016 High Five Conference, I noted the ideal outcome is that “Things go so perfectly, no one notices Production.”

I look for conference logistics, but I bet they were invisible to almost every other attendee. HubSpot did an impressive job putting everything together—all the more so considering the scale of the event. When the biggest problem is “long lines for the open bar,” that’s a good outcome.

Kudos to my contacts on the HubSpot team: Al Biedrzycki, Angie O’Dowd, Ed Fry, Mary Green, Jami OettingOliver Baron, and Tim Dearlove, plus speaker manager Samantha Maxfield from Nth Degree.

Back in 2016?

Hope to see you at INBOUND 2016! It’ll be November 8-11, 2016 in Boston.

Question: What were your biggest takeaways from INBOUND 2015?

Image credits: Photo with Seth Godin by Mary Green. Book photo via Caitlin Sellers. From-the-audience photo by James Basbas. Other photos via Karl Sakas.


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