In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Matt Smith, co-founder and CMO of MaxAudience an UpCity Certified Premium Partner and one of the top digital marketing agencies in the United States. Below we discuss how MaxAudience has attracted the attention of Fortune 500 clients, how they’ve scaled intelligently over the last 15 years, and more!
Q: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today, Matt. Let’s get started by having you tell us a bit about your background and how MaxAudience got its start.
A: Well, our story is somewhat long. I went to Brigham Young University where I studied Business and Public Relations. I always knew that I wanted to go into something that involved communicating with the public, but back then I was more focused on getting the biggest bang for the buck for my education. I decided to go into finance and so in the ’90’s I ended up starting a financial company.
Financial companies back then were very based on paper; there was almost no online focus. That company did really well because we were doing something that all the banks weren’t: we focused on online. Early on we started to create an online database. We’d create landing pages and gather leads and as more and more people started to go online to apply for financial loans and other things, we became one of the first companies to really understand how to nurture those leads and that database. We ended up funding over $1 billion in loans, but we realized the fun part was the marketing side of the business. The processing and backend work was so time-intensive. So after about 10 years of building a very successful multi-million dollar business, we decided to make a switch to focus on what we love most. We had companies like Quickenloans and Lending Tree coming to us and saying, “Hey, we love your model and we’d love if you could help us implement that too.” Some of our first big projects were helping those large-scale companies transition to online. We sold them leads, helped them design their landing pages and run marketing campaigns to help them become the fortune 500 brands they are today.
After a while, we decided that even though we love the financial sector, it was time to expand. We got into manufacturing and industrial companies, then retail and e-commerce. We started to use our expertise in database management, email nurturing, marketing automation, and other fields to help businesses outside of the financial sector connect with their audiences in more meaningful ways.
Fast forward 20 years, now EVERYONE is online. The great thing for us is that few companies have been around as long as we have. Our experience is really what sets us apart.
Q: That’s amazing. Working with such large corporations at such an early stage had to have presented some unique challenges and unique learning opportunities for a young entrepreneur like yourself. How does working with such large companies compare to your work with smaller companies like the e-commerce brands you might work with today?
A: Absolutely. A lot of times when smaller companies look at our list of past clients and see Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Lending Tree, and others, they can get a little overwhelmed and start to think that they don’t have the budget to work with us. That’s just not the case! We’ve been around for so long that we’ve been working with some of these companies since they were early-stage startups. Incredibly, we’ve been able to build and maintain these relationships over the last 10 years and these companies have grown with us.
For the bigger companies, it’s not usually a comprehensive engagement. They’ll come to us with a specific problem like maybe they need help with LinkedIn; they want their internal team to learn how to market and connect with B2B audiences on LinkedIn. We’re experts at that! We know how LinkedIn works, we know how to acquire massive amounts of highly-targeted leads and then nurture that database. Our team can train them on how to handle LinkedIn, but they have the skills to handle the rest of their marketing. We like those types of engagements, but for us, the real fun is with the companies that have a big vision that want to grow big and fast. Most businesses need help with social, they need a better website, they need to figure out their brand and what their voice is going to be. We have a ton of fun with those companies focuses on growth because we can help design exactly how this brand is going to go out in the world and be perceived; we can help plant the seeds of success and grow alongside them.
Q: It sounds like your business has grown and evolved pretty quickly over the last 15 years. What challenges or pain points have you encountered during this growth?
A: You know, you go to marketing conferences and networking events and everybody’s always talking about their growing pains. I hear a lot of them struggle with finding talent, so maybe they start outsourcing or they’ll try freelancers or contractors. We’re incredibly lucky in that we don’t have that problem here in San Diego. Finding talent isn’t that difficult for us, and we have a team of really talented people, some of whom have been with us from the very beginning.
Our biggest struggle has been understanding that although we’re a full-service agency, that doesn’t mean we have to do everything for everyone. Sometimes a company will come in and say, “Hey, we want you to help us with offline marketing,” or, “We want to make a TV ad,” and although we have the resources and connections to make that happen, that’s not what we want to focus on. We’ve realized that there are some things that we are good at, and our skills in those areas are proven. It’s hard to say no to someone that’s asking you for help, we love our clients, but taking on an engagement that is outside of our expertise won’t help us grow. In those instances, we’ve had to learn to refer those clients to someone else.
Q: When you say you’re a full-service agency, what do you mean by that? I always like to clarify since so many companies seem to use that terminology these days.
A: Full-service for us means that we can do the work for them and we can also consult with them on how they can do it correctly in the future. Some companies that come to us don’t want a long-term engagement: they want to be taught how to do things correctly and then have those responsibilities transitioned over to their in-house team. That’s one of the ways we’ve helped Intel; they didn’t need us for all their marketing, but we’ve helped them become experts at LinkedIn.
Q: Interesting. Let’s pivot a bit and discuss how you’ve gone about building MaxAudience’s reputation as a leader in the digital marketing space.
A: Surprisingly, this is an area where I think we’re at a disadvantage compared to other agencies in the space. Because of the size and types of companies that we deal with, our clients aren’t always willing or even able to leave us a review (NDAs and things like that can be tricky!). Beyond that, even though we work with some large-scale corporations, we’re still a boutique agency at heart; we only keep about 40 or 50 active clients at a time.
The advantage we have is that we’ve been able to nurture some of these relationships for years and years, which leads to incredibly happy customers. If you read our reviews, you’ll see that our clients love us because of the results and amount of growth we were able to bring them. We’ve won multiple awards, and even have a National Excellence Award from UpCity sitting in our front desk area. Clients come in and they see that award, they see that we’re ranked high on your list and that our past work has helped other businesses grow and it gives them confidence. It allows them to feel secure when they go back to their boss or the board and say, “We’d like to work with MaxAudience.”
Q: I’m sure it also helps that you have offices in some of the biggest cities across the United States. What has that expansion taught you about running an agency? What lessons have you learned as you’ve opened each new office?
A: That’s a great question. Expansion is something that a lot of agencies struggle with. It’s hard having your employees in different locations. We’d love to have our account reps right next to us every day, but that’s just not possible. We have to have boots on the ground to go in and meet clients, learn about their business, build those relationships. Having that personal contact is key and has helped us be successful in each new market we go into.
Remote teams are a lot more common now because there are so many great tools and resources out there for communication and project management, but it hasn’t always been that easy.
Q: That’s a great bit of advice. Our last question today focuses on the relationship between UpCity and MaxAudience. Can you tell us a bit more about how that partnership got started and how your UpCity partnership has helped your business thus far?
A: Absolutely. I remember I was searching online maybe three or four years ago and started to notice UpCity popping up in the top rankings more consistently for keywords like “top SEO companies,” “top digital marketing agencies,” etc. We were one of the first companies that signed up for your Marketplace and right off the bat, we started to get reviews and focus on building out our presence on your site. We were able to generate quite a lot of reviews through that Reviews for a Cause campaign that you guys run every so often; it helps get our clients excited about doing something good for the community. From there, it just kind of blew up! Now, there are a lot of other great companies on your site, but because we were an early adopter I think we’ve been able to really take advantage of this partnership to the fullest.