Interview with John McTigue, co-owner at Kuno Creative
You can learn a lot from your fellow agency owners, but it’s hard to find time when you’re both available to chat. In my new interview series, I’ll be asking digital marketing agency owners how they got started, where they spend their time, and how they’ve overcome obstacles at their agencies.
First up is John McTigue, co-owner of Kuno Creative. Kuno does inbound marketing for SaaS companies, highly-specialized product manufacturers, and healthcare providers. Their main office is near Cleveland, Ohio, but their agency has 30+ team members working across the United States.
At the recent INBOUND conference, Kuno beat over 1,800 other partner agencies to win the “Happiest Clients” award for the third year in a row.
We spoke last week by phone from John’s ranch in Texas—topics ranged from how he divides his time to how Kuno keeps agency clients happy. You can follow John on Twitter at @jmctigue.
In the Beginning: How the Agency Came to Be
Karl Sakas: You merged Awakening Technology Company with Kuno Creative in 2004 to become Kuno Creative. Why did you choose to become a co-owner of Kuno Creative?
John McTigue: My partner, Chris Knipper, and I had been working together for several years, really starting in 2000 when he founded Kuno Creative. Kuno Creative at that time was pretty much of a traditional marketing company—three or four people putting out mostly print advertising, print collateral, and marketing strategies. That’s what people were doing back then.
I had started my own web development company. My background is in the oil and gas business. I was working for Shell Oil and some other oil companies in Houston many years prior to that; then the Internet came along. In 1998, I left the oil industry and started my own little business doing web development, in its early stages.
[Chris and I] found each other online, believe it or not, on the equivalent of freelancer.com back then. I had my own little company and he had his, and we got together, and I started building websites for his clients and that became kind of a full-time job for me. So we decided in 2003 to get together. By the time we had everything wrapped up, I merged my company into Kuno in 2004 and we became partners.
KS: It sounds like you already knew each other, you knew what it was like to work with each other, and you were doing complementary work. It sounded like the natural next step.
JM: Exactly. It was actually more expensive for him to have me as a contractor, so we decided to share the business. It made sense for both of us and so we got started.
I’ve been in Texas the whole time. The main office is in the Cleveland, Ohio, area and we hadn’t even met in person until 2003. It was an early remote-working sort of arrangement.
KS: And all this before Hangouts, before JoinMe.
JM: All of it, yeah. There really wasn’t anything like that. So we did everything over the phone and by email.
Why Clients Pick Kuno Creative Over the Competition
KS: Why do your clients pick you over other agencies? That is, what do you think you do better than your competition?
JM: Over the years, it’s really the marriage between Kuno and my little company. They did very outstanding design and content work. Marrying that with the web was a very natural fit. We made really nicely designed websites—high-functioning, business-oriented websites. That’s our background. Those are our roots and it’s still prevalent today.
People pick us because we do the best stuff. We do the best content, the most attractive and most effective websites.
And we have a lot of experience in certain niches. Nowadays, it’s SaaS software companies, and also highly-specialized product manufacturers making dental drills and other machinery. We also have a strong background in marketing for healthcare providers like small hospitals and doctor’s offices. Those are the three niches that people know us for.
KS: One of my clients in Denver had mentioned Kuno as one of the agencies he aspires to be like some day. After hearing you speak before, he noted you said, “Kuno doesn’t try to be everything to everyone. You have a niche and you focus on that.”
JM: That’s really true and we’ve developed a reputation for that, for being really good at a few things. We don’t try to be an agency of record. That’s kind of crazy. We’re a small agency and over the years we’ve developed a strong relationship with HubSpot, too. People come to us as they’ve heard of us directly through our content. We eat our own dog food. So we do outstanding Inbound marketing and people find us that way.
KS: It’s a lot easier to talk to someone that’s come to you than the other way around.
JM: Yes. We practice what we preach. People see that and they go, “Okay. I want to do that, too.”
Overcoming Challenges—Focusing on Culture
KS: What’s a challenge that your agency has overcome and how did you do it?
JM: The biggest challenge every agency has is finding talent and keeping them happy. We’ve worked really hard on that in the last few years, putting together a recruiting process and an onboarding process for new employees. We hired someone to head that whole thing up and she’s a really smart…she doesn’t have a huge HR background, but she loves it and she has really kind of taken over that whole wing of the company.
We’ve worked really hard to make sure that our employees know what they’re supposed to do. They get reviewed. They get evaluated. We talk to them all the time. We try to involve them in as much decision-making as possible and we’re consciously trying to improve our culture on a regular basis.
We’ve learned a lot from HubSpot and from other companies that are really outstanding at developing that culture that attracts people and also keeps them happy and engaged. So that’s the biggest challenge—and it’s the one we focus on more than almost anything else at this point.
KS: If you can get culture right, everything else falls together.
JM: Yes. It’s hard to define what the culture is, especially at the beginning. But as you evolve and work with more and more people, it starts to fall into place and it’s really challenging when you have remote offices. I’m in Texas on a ranch and we have people in Austin, Texas. And we have people in Cleveland. We have people in Raleigh, North Carolina, and we have another person in Atlanta.
It’s hard to keep that all working together well, but I think technology has helped a lot with that. We use Google Hangouts, we use GoToMeeting. We use Google Docs for collaboration and Basecamp for project management. So we’ve really worked hard on the process and also the tools for keeping people connected.
KS: I saw that you’ve won HubSpot’s “Happiest Clients” award three years in a row. Congratulations! What do you think is your key to success in that?
JM: To give you a little background on that Happiest Client award—it’s actually a measurement specifically of customer success using the HubSpot platform. So it has a lot to do with the metrics, like traffic, leads and customers. It also has to do with how much engagement there is on the website, people clicking-through on emails, and so on. All of those things get rolled up into this CHI score, which stands for “Customer Happiness Index.”
We won because we have the highest average CHI score of all the other agencies, which is the average of all your customers. And the reason we’re so good at that I think is that we pay attention to those numbers really closely. Our customers have the benefit of a team of experts on our end, and we literally design the programs for them around increasing key performance indicators.
Usually it’s some combination of standard metrics like traffic and leads, but also things like acceleration of leads down the pipeline. So we’re really quite sophisticated about how we do that and we innovated a lot of things with the HubSpot platform to help us monitor those KPIs and to help move those things forward. If it’s any one thing, that’s it—that we’re really all about the numbers.
Areas of Improvement—Focusing on Internal and External Communication
KS: What is one area of your agency that you’re hoping to improve in the next year and how do you plan to accomplish that—without giving away any secrets, of course?
JM: Well I kind of alluded to it before, but the biggest problem we face is communication. We’re regionally distributed. We’re all very busy every day. So staying in touch and being on the same page about all the different things we do is a huge challenge.
You can’t have 20 meetings a day. That doesn’t work. So how do you organize those things so that the people in the company are on the same page—about an account, for example, or about a project, or about some internal marketing? You know, there are all these different things and we have different people on different teams. So it gets complicated. And then, don’t forget, you have customers as well. You have to stay in touch with customers on a regular basis. So how do you manage all that communication?
It’s a big challenge and we’re learning. We’re learning from our mistakes primarily. We have these tools I mentioned that help a lot, but we still have to organize it and we’re definitely working hard on that. Just trying to understand how to stay in communication without blowing things up. It’s a big challenge.
KS: I find agency owners often will say, “Well, is there an all-in-one piece of software that’ll do everything for me for agency matters, project management, accounting, control communication, and so on?”
There’s not really a perfect all-in-one solution. Workamajig is good at doing a lot of things, but there are a lot of people who hate using it. There’s also a really steep learning curve. One client had an employee working part-time for six months just to transition to it, and then you need to keep doing ongoing training.
So a lot of it is really finding a combination of a few tools that work, tools that are good at what they do and accept there’s not going to be a perfect, magical solution to everything. It sounds like you’re moving in the right direction.
JM: We’ve been together for a long time, so we’ve been through three or four generations of those integration projects. Every time you switch, it’s a huge disruption to drop one tool and start another one. So we’re trying to converge on something that we think will last.
As a result, we prefer to go with the best-known solutions out there like Google Docs and GoToMeeting and things like that. You’re right, there is no perfect solution yet and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Once you get that solved, you have to figure out how you’re going to allocate your time and resources to communicating. How are you going to set that up so that everybody does it and doesn’t suffer from the process itself too much?
KS: Exactly. And keeping clients updated. My view is if you’ve done it but the client doesn’t know about it, it’s like you haven’t done it.
JM: Exactly. You have to train your clients in many cases to accept that communication flow and how to use it. That’s another struggle in itself.
KS: So much of it’s about expectations management. When I was an agency PM and director of operations, a lot of it was around training clients to understand that using the system is the best way for us to take care of things. You know, if you leave it in my voicemail or email me directly, I can’t act on it as well. Whereas, if you’re using a centralized system, we can do it better for you.
JM: Right. And the benefit to clients is that you have more visibility about what we’re doing, sooner. You can get things done faster. You know, all those communications benefits roll to clients as well as the agency.
Favorite Agency-Management Advice: Complementary Skills
KS: What is your favorite piece of advice on running an agency and why is that your favorite?
JM: I think the best thing that Chris and I ever did was get together, because he could have run the company himself and he still does a lot. He’s mostly in charge of operations and I’m in charge of external relations. You know—evangelism, thought leadership, public speaking. I do most of the high-level blogging. We’ve divided the pie in half that way.
You can’t do everything yourself if you’re that kind of an agency. And a lot of these things you can’t really delegate, either. You can get assistance with it, but you can’t delegate being a thought leader or being the CEO unless you have a lot of money and then you can hire somebody else.
It’s worked out super well and it’s kept us on an even keel. We’re really like best friends, even though we’re in completely different cities, which is probably a good thing that we don’t step on each other’s toes. But we’re constantly in communication and we get together regularly.
A lot of times we overlap on accounts, especially at the beginning or during business development cycles. We’ll meet up in places like New York and San Francisco and so on. It’s great.
[The division of labor] really has been super effective and I don’t think we could have done it otherwise. I really don’t. If you can find that someone you can trust and enjoy working with, that’s the first move you should make when you start an agency.
KS: Ultimately, each of you can focus on your strengths rather than trying to do it all yourself.
JM: Right. I mean, I totally suck at bookkeeping and finance and all that. I don’t even want to know. It’s sort of like, “Tell me what the bottom line is.” And he really doesn’t enjoy public speaking or blogging that much. So it’s a perfect kind of marriage in that sense.
KS: Makes sense!
What’s Next for Kuno Creative
KS: As we wrap up, do you have anything else you want to add?
JM: Sure, the question of “Where do we want to go from here?” That’s another big question that an agency owner should ask. “How big do I want to get? What’s my comfort level? What’s the exit strategy?”
I don’t have the answers to all those things, but you have to constantly be thinking about that, because the moves you make will impact where you go and how fast you get there. Chris and I talk about it all the time and it really helps.
It helps guide whether we hire one or two people this month or this quarter. For instance, what kind of clients are we interested in working with? That’s changed over time. And how do we service them? What kind of services do we provide? That’s changed over time and you just have to be prepared to change. You have to be prepared to pivot, and we’ve done that a few times.
My advice to other agency owners is don’t be locked into one strategy and don’t take your eye off the ball in the future, because you’ll get beat up if you do that. You’ll get overtaken by the competition and you won’t be happy, and your people won’t be happy either because they’re always behind.
KS: I’ve noticed a version of that in the past couple of months, from agency owners who started doing more traditional marketing and advertising. One said, “I despise the term ‘digital marketing'” and another person said something similar. You also get the sense that they may not have evolved fast enough and they’re struggling to keep up. Whereas, if they were focusing on the future, like you advised, digital would be part of what they’re doing now.
JM: That was the subject of my talk at INBOUND this year. It was that as an agency owner, you really have to think about what’s coming and be changing now. You can’t wait for things to happen. It’s getting very, very competitive out there, even more so than it has been, and a lot of people are learning how to be inbound marketing agencies.
So we’re all competing with each other now and you have to focus on the thing we talked about at the beginning—what’s your differentiator? What do you do that’s better than everybody else? And also focusing on a vertical or a specialty or something like that, that you can win at.
And then you’ve got to be prepared to really pivot in a lot of different ways kind of how you build your agency and what kind of partnerships you’re prepared to entertain. There’s going to be a lot more of that—there’s got to be a lot more consolidation, a lot more partnering going on. There has to be because we can’t all just slice up the pie and expect to survive.
Question: What’s your favorite takeaway from John McTigue’s advice?