Joe Pulizzi on how to sustainably grow your marketing agency

Joe Pulizzi on how to sustainably grow your marketing agency
Written by: Karl Sakas
Joe Pulizzi headshot

Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI)

I’m interviewing marketing industry leaders to share their advice and stories. Next up is Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI).

In my interview below, Joe shared how agencies can scale faster, how he recommends agencies to brands, and what you can learn from things being hard when you get started.

Joe is a long-time evangelist for content marketing. He is the author of several books—including Epic Content Marketing and the forthcoming Content, Inc.—and he oversees the annual Content Marketing World conference.

Joe is based in Cleveland, Ohio. I spoke with him in Raleigh, North Carolina. Be sure to follow Joe on Twitter at @JoePulizzi and @CMIContent.

Interview summary: My top 5 takeaways

  1. Choose a niche for your agency, and focus on building an audience in that niche.
  2. Do your own marketing well, for prospective clients to even consider your agency.
  3. Building a loyal audience lets you scale your agency faster, because you can choose to do high-margin work for the clients you want to serve.
  4. Speak—and create other content—in an area where you’re passionate.
  5. Running a business—and doing content marketing—is hard at the beginning. Embrace the struggle and be patient. It takes time.

Speaking with Joe was great. See the full transcript below for my May 2015 interview with him.

Joe Pulizzi panoramic photo at Triangle AMA, by Karl Sakas

1) What can agencies do better?

[Many agencies] are willing to take just about any kind of project and any kind of vertical, which is fine, but they almost treat that similarly to how they market.

[That is,] the marketing for a lot of agencies is either non-existent—because they’re working in the business—or they don’t focus on a particular niche. [For] content marketing to work, you really have to focus on a very defined audience and a particular content niche, and [then] build an audience over time with that.

A lot of agencies don’t want to do that because they’re like, “Well, I want to focus on all these audiences.” But I say, “Look, you can still take business from all those audiences, but let’s market to just these people. If somebody comes in a different way—not with the target market—that’s fine. But let’s focus on being great to this audience.

[For] agencies to really be successful, we’re seeing more and more specialization, especially in [client industry] verticals. I think [if you want to grow, you need to be an] expert—not only the service expert, but the content expert over a particular topic.

The problem is that with content—even the content agencies—they’ll go and do great work for their clients, but it’s the “shoemaker’s shoes” right? They won’t do it for themselves.

[When a brand asks me,] “Well, who would you recommend as an agency?,” I always say, “First, go to the agency and see if they’re doing it for themselves. Do they do content marketing for themselves?”

So, if you’re thinking about doing search engine marketing, or content creation, content distribution, [or any other] agency type work, then you better be doing it well yourself, or I think you are going to be left out of the purchase decision.

2) CMI has been on the Inc. 500 an unusual three years in a row. What’s your advice on creating sustainable growth?

Well, the dirty little secret on that is this—once you build an audience, you can scale at a much faster level and you can choose the clients that you want, versus taking what you get, and it’s a big difference.

I totally get it—in the beginning, when we were struggling and didn’t have an audience—a loyal audience—that followed us, we took a lot of consulting projects and things we probably shouldn’t have taken because we’ve got to keep the lights on.

But as we grew an audience—and now we’ve got over a 100,000-email audience and multiple other types of projects [where] we’ve built audiences—now we’re able to get the type of projects we want, and recurring annuity-type revenue in our sweet spot that makes sense for us.

And when you have all these options, it makes scaling easier because then we’re taking the high-margin types of projects we want to work with, the type of people we want to work with—and it makes all the difference in the world.

[Once] you build a loyal audience, you can pretty much sell whatever you want to them from a service standpoint, if you’re an agency. But the problem is, most agencies don’t get to the point where they’re nurturing an audience.

It’s almost like, “Oh, okay. Well this project’s ending, we need a new project” or “We just hired these people. We’ve got to keep them busy,” instead of saying—“Here’s our niche that we are going to be the leading expert in the world at. We’re going to build a defined audience around that.” And honestly, the business will be there if you do that for 15, 16, 17 months and you’ll start seeing that loyal audience start to deliver in revenue.

3) You’ve spoken 450 times in the past eight years. Who do you learn from as a speaker?

Joe Pulizzi at Triangle AMA, by Karl Sakas

Joe Pulizzi speaking at Triangle AMA in Raleigh, NC

Of course I’ve always followed Seth Godin. You know what I love most about Seth Godin is the fact that he’s published every day for like, the past thirteen years or something like that, and he’s never missed a day.

The reason why Seth is successful—he’s a great speaker, he’s an amazing author of books, but the most amazing thing about him is, he is probably the best publisher on the planet because he never misses a day. He always talks about ship date—he never misses a ship date. I think that’s what makes him successful.

I look to people like that who can deliver consistently. I love the Scott Strattens of the world, the Jay Baers, the Marcus Sheridans of the world, because they all have different speaking styles.

That’s what I love about speaking and actually about content creation, because there’s no one right way to do it. You can focus on the things you are passionate about, you could focus on the areas that you really believe are important to your clients, differentiate yourself, tell a different story and be successful—and all those people have done that.

4) What’s the interview question you’ve never been asked, that you wish people would ask?

Oh boy, that’s a great question. I’m never asked the questions about how hard it was in the beginning.

A lot of people look and they see the Inc. 500 stuff and it’s going really well. Don’t get me wrong, we have a great, amazing staff of people, we’ve built what I think is a great company and we’ve got amazing customers and readers. But for the first three years, it was a struggle—there was a point in 2009, two years after the business started, where I literally was within a day or two of stopping the whole thing.

I didn’t think it was going to work because I wasn’t patient enough with the business and with letting the audience come around, because it takes time to build a loyal audience. At the time, I was impatient—I mean, I’ve got two kids to feed, I’ve got things to do.

So I like talking about the struggle because I think people resonate with that—because if you look at content marketing, most people are struggling right now and they don’t know why. In a lot of cases it’s because they’re just not patient enough and they’re not looking to just build an audience instead of looking for the quick hit.

Question: What’s your top takeaway from Joe’s advice

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