The thing about Newfangled’s focus of working with agencies is that we get to work with some of the coolest, most interesting, and fun people on the planet. MJ Legault, co-principal of Origin (along with Danielle Kristmanson, who is equally amazing) is one of those people.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with MJ eating incredible food, drinking the finest craft cocktails (and cheap beer), seeing rock shows, and having a lot of all-around fun and incredibly interesting times all over North America–all in the name of figuring out the finer and more complicated aspects of business and, sometimes, life.
It was 5:30 a.m. on a freezing March morning when MJ and I were driving back to Vancouver after a weekend of skiing and deep business introspection with a peer group we both belong to when she told me that she and Danielle had decided that they were going to hire Newfangled to create their Lead Development Ecosystem.
That was two and a half years ago, and today I couldn’t be more proud of what Origin has accomplished. They’ve created an incredible lead development platform, which is comprised of a website, content and contact strategies, communication strategy, Salesforce CRM, and marketing automation. While each component part of their ecosystem is impressive on its own, what makes it extraordinary is the radical impact it’s had on the firm and their business development reality. By way of an intro, I think I’ve said enough. Let’s let MJ tell us all about it herself…
Mark: Basically what I’m curious about is, what’s been going on, you said there’s a ton of in-bound and you guys have been busy from that perspective. What does that look like? What’s the current reality of Origin?
MJ: So the current reality is, there’s a couple things that I think are coming into play that are leading us to getting all of this qualified in-bound. One of them is our thought leadership and our speaking engagements have probably doubled in the last year from what we were previously doing. That’s number one. And I think what we used to doing prior to our site being our site is we used to go to this speaking engagements and then pick up a ton of business cards and then try to follow up with people.
“As a new business person, (this system) has changed my entire dynamic in my conversations with prospects. I go in there feeling a lot more confident. And that is worth its weight in gold.”
And obviously what we’ve been doing in this last year is we only make the presentation back available to those who attend if they come to our site, fill out a form, and download the deck. And once they are in with us, obviously it’s a whole other relationship that we have with those prospects. So just that has led to a ton of really interesting things for Origin in the last year. Mostly because we now have them in our database, I have access to them, we have the whole marketing automation going over to them and they start to just receive our content and build a rapport and a relationship with us. So that’s one thing and just that alone is definitely a strategy that we are going to continue moving forward. I think there was a time we weren’t sure on the value of our speaking engagements. That time is gone. It’s so clear to us the importance of those speaking engagements for Origin. So that’s one part.
I think the other part has been our continued efforts to build and nurture our leads in our database. So we purchased a list just when the site launched and then struggled to find other means to keep building onto that database. So we developed another system in order to do that really working with our interns and our internal team to organically … to just really be spending a little bit of time every week to do some research and find who those people are and start to add them to our database. So that’s been another strategy that’s been interesting to us.
Mark: Yeah. With that strategy, the organic list aggregation, how many names would you say you’ve amassed through that channel specifically since you started doing it?
MJ: I’d say we are probably at a thousand right now.
Mark: Wow. Wow.
MJ: It’s a ton of work but it’s kind of an intern type of work where they read the initial request, they see if they see anybody who’s in a new position, they’ll create a list within our Act-On that’s just these people that seem like they would be good prospects or good leads for us. So, it isn’t ideal but it has worked for us in this last year because we didn’t really have another solution.
Mark: Yeah. That’s something that happens. In some agencies, you can’t just go buy a list or a very effective one and that’s hard when that’s the case. A common concern that agencies have before they get into this is that if I buy it and organically cull it, can I just start emailing people, is that okay to do? Have you found a lot of push back on that? Have you had anybody say “My God, why are you bugging me. You are a horrid person for doing this”? Have you had any of those situations?
MJ: You know what’s interesting. We’ve had none of that. We’ve had none of that. And I think there’s two reasons for that. One is that we only chose to put people on our list when we know that the content we are providing to them will add some kind of value to their professional life. So we’re not putting random or, people that don’t fall within our target list don’t make it to that list. So that’s one reason. And I think the other reason, frankly, is that our content is good, it’s relevant and people tend to enjoy it. So I’m not saying that we’ve had no unsubscribes. We absolutely have, but that percentage is so low considering the fact that a lot of these leads are really cold to us. They didn’t know Origin before they got the newsletter. So we’re going to continue that strategy with one exception. In Canada, the rules have changed here. So we’re being incredibly cautious with our Canadian newsletter subscribers and have them separated in our database. And definitely I would ask permission before sending our newsletter to any Canadians.
Mark: Of course. Yeah. You’ve got to do that. So that’s pretty interesting. With CANSPAM, the US act, it’s pretty soft. But the main perspective on it is that as long as you are sending an educational message to a highly targeted prospect, you’re in good shape. And what we see there, time and time again, is what you said. If you comply with CANSPAM in that way, then it’s going to be effective marketing as well. But that’s of course only possible if you’re well positioned. And you guys obviously have had that nailed forever. How long? You’ve really been occupying this outdoor sports marketing thing forever, right? Since the start of the firm?
MJ: It’s been really our focus over the last ten years. A solid ten years where we started saying no to other clients that didn’t fall within that niche. I’d say for the first ten years of Origin, we had that positioning but it was a bit softer. We would still take on other clients that didn’t necessarily fall within that niche. And ten years ago, Danielle and I made that decision that this isn’t furthering our business and it’s actually really polluting both our internal staff, as well as our expertise and our message to our client. So ten years ago is when we started saying no, frankly, and it’s been good. One of the things that I was going to say, and this is discussion that I’ve had with some of other agencies’ principal friends of mine, and I think it’s kind of important to talk about, is what it really takes from a content standpoint. What it really takes for that to be successful. And I’m sure you work with a lot of principals that have seen a lot of success and there’s probably different formulas that work for different agencies.
But I wanted to tell you that for us at Origin, the two things that have made it successful for us is, first, we named a person in our team responsible to manage Origin as an account. And, prior to doing that, we would always put billable work before any kind of Origin marketing work. And as a result we never did Origin marketing work. Or we did it only on those super rainy days where no clients were coming in and it was incredibly difficult for us to keep any momentum. So by finding one person at Origin who was responsible for Origin as an account has a number of hours dedicated every week to ensuring that the Origin account is managed, and seeing Danielle and I as clients. It’s changed everything. And it’s tied to her bonus. It’s tied to her job satisfaction. That’s been a really, really positive change for us as opposed to either taking it on as a principal or expecting somebody to really lead the Origin marketing without it being part of their real job description. So that’s one thing that I think has dramatically changed the approach.
And the second change for us is that we’ve just made it really part of our whole process. So, developing a case study or a portfolio piece used to be something that just required having no billable work. Or it required a magical day where the writer had nothing to do. So that isn’t the case anymore now that we’ve made it part of our system, part of our process. That’s been really a massive change for us.
Mark: This is huge. So this person that you’ve dedicated, is this all that they do for Origin? Is this their full-time job, managing Origin as an account? Or do they do other things as well?
MJ: No. Origin represents thirty percent of her time. That’s what it takes for us. We’ve played around with that number. We thought “maybe it’s half of her job”. And it turns out that it’s exactly thirty percent of her time that is dedicated. And now that we have systems in place, when we look at the impact of that, the cost versus the return, it’s ridiculously inexpensive. That’s been really good for us. And the notion of of tying it into to her bonus and her real job description is also really important because we used to treat it, as I said … there’s always an Origin account manager. It’s just that that person would fight everybody at Origin to try to get studio time or to try to get a copywriter and that just doesn’t happen anymore because everyone understands that the Origin account is that important as many of our other clients. It’s been a real shift in our culture, I would say.
Mark: That’s great. She is responsible for managing these things so she probably manages getting these emails together, assembling it, maybe manages the content calendar. But she’s not the person creating all this content, right? That contents created by the firm, right?
MJ: Exactly. So really her responsibility is … she’s managing all the Origin projects. That includes sending out of our monthly newsletter, updating our website on a monthly basis with new case studies and portfolios and ensuring that those are done properly. It includes doing all of the pieces of the Origin marketing. But, as you said, her responsibility is really to assign tasks and manage people and keep everything on budget and on timeline. But the content creation itself … within three or four people at Origin who really are thought leaders. And for whom it comes easily to actually develop that content.
So that was another little thing for us. I don’t know how other agencies have approached it but when we first started with our newsletter we wanted to be loving and say “Anyone can contribute at Origin” and “If you want to write a post, just do it”. And it turned out that not everyone wants to and not everybody is comfortable doing it. We’ve since changed that and made it more those couple of people that have a true expertise that they can share.
Mark: That’s probably typical. We always recommend two to four thought leaders. Two to four people inside the firm who really do know what they are talking about and enjoy sharing that knowledge.
MJ: Yeah. That’s where we are at. We’ve got five contributors currently and that’s working really well for us.
Mark: And one thing I love about your thought leadership and the way you promote it through your newsletter is that when I get the Origin email each month, it’s a great balance of objective expertise that anybody can use, some promotion in the fact that you usually always have a case study usually towards the bottom of the email, but also the whole thing just gives me a vibe of who Origin is. It’s brand is so consistent. It’s makes you look smart. It makes you look like you’re working with great clients doing great work. It makes you feel … it gives the impression that you’re incredibly intelligent people but also people who must be really fun to work with. So you’re checking all the boxes.
A lot of agencies go too far in different directions and just write thought leadership. And you have no idea the personality who’s behind that intelligence. And some it’s all promotion. “Here’s our great stuff … here’s why we are so wonderful”. And that’s all there is. And there’s nothing really for a potential prospect to get into because you don’t really care about that agency yet, right. Yours is a wonderful balance of that. You look brilliant but approachable and you’re being very generous with your knowledge.
“I used to write content based on what was interesting to me, what I was passionate about, and what I had strong opinions about, and quickly realized that wasn’t the approach that we needed to take.”
MJ: Thank you. I’d say a couple of things that have lead to that. One was, actually working with you when we first developed our site, we did spend a bunch of time thinking about our persona and that changed a lot for us because, frankly, I used to write content based on what was interesting to me and what I was passionate about and what I had strong opinions about and quickly realized that wasn’t the approach that we needed to take. And so by really focusing on who is really our persona and who is reading our content and what are their challenges and interests… It’s just shifted, obviously, our approach.
The other thing is soliciting feedback. We’ve really … now that the Origin newsletter sort of used to come from this really random email address at Origin, it now comes from me. I’ve solicited feedback to our newsletter subscribers in terms of what types of topics would be interesting to them or what are some of the key issues or challenges that they are faced with. And that helps to really feed our editorial calendar as well.
Mark: Do they proactively offer this? Do they reply to the email and say “hey, this is what’s on our minds”?
MJ: Absolutely. Yeah. So there are two things. There’s often a question or a call to action or a way to get some engagement in some of our newsletter articles. And now that our email comes from me, I do get people writing back saying “hey. I’m Jay. I just read this thing and I wanted you to know I’ve seen this other project that might be interesting for you to look at”. So there is that reply and that engagement that is happening. But the other thing that is happening, is we do have this marketing automation so anybody that has joined our newsletter will get an email from me a couple months after joined where I engage them and ask them about how they feel and if there’s any topics that are of interest. And the response rate to that has been actually quite high. People do have things to share and they do have topics on their mind.
Mark: Again, it’s so simple. Why not just ask.
So one nugget of pure brilliance right there that you had the past few minutes was you used to write about what was of interest to you. … Of course you did. Everyone does it. You have to get out of that … get out of that perspective. To really have the empathy to get away from ourselves and truly write for our audience and have our content be a gift to our audience almost … But it’s hard to not write for yourself. It’s hard to get excited about not writing for yourself.
MJ: I find … what we have found though, and one of the things that’s been interesting where it’s still writing for myself to some degree, is every three or four months what we’ll do in our content editorial calendar is I’ll pick a series of either clients or potential clients, people within our industry that I really want to work with or have enjoyed working with or admire as marketers and we’ll develop a series of interviews where I’m not exactly writing so much as just chatting with them and interviewing them and sharing back their thoughts to the rest of our audience. That some of the most fun work that I’ve been able to do. And those have a really positive response rate because everybody wants to see what their peers are thinking or their competitors are thinking on a hot topic. That’s be a really fun, interesting way to not only engage with clients and prospects but to also see the reaction from some of their competitors. It’s been great.
Mark: I think this video right here is evidence that I believe in the same thing. But you’ve been doing it for years. You’ve been doing it for at least two years now because I remember the first round of the outdoor sports video series you did … that was the nature of it, was interviews with people who’ve done work that you’ve really loved.
MJ: I think there’s definitely value. And especially when you are talking within the niche of the outdoor sports and recreation world. It’s fairly small and a lot of people know each other … in tight competition. So there’s definitely value in opening that up and letting people hear from one another as peers. We’ve seen a lot of interest in those posts. It continues to be part of our strategy for sure.
Mark: One of the themes here that this conversation is touching on is how complex this really all is. There are a lot of aspects of it. You’ve got the public speaking. You’ve got the website. You’ve got the content strategy, the thought leadership, the management of all that. Creation of the content among four or five other people in the firm. The way you are dealing with your email strategy. The way you deal with automation. They way you deal with CRM. The way you deal with content acquisition. There are a lot of different disciplines here that all come together to create an actually effective development program. All that, is of course resting on this bedrock of you, of who you really are. Of the fact that you actually do have expertise to share. I think what happens a lot is people underestimate how much has to go into this. It’s not something you can just kind of wing. It’s something that takes concerted discipline.
MJ: I would totally agree with that. And that’s been my advice when I talk to other principals that have contacted me or that have seen what we’re doing and want to get some tips. The first tip is don’t underestimate what really goes into it. It isn’t going to magically happen because you have a new website. That all of the sudden the phone’s ringing and there’s tons of new traffic to your site. But that’s not reality. It does take … and for us it’s really been a process. Making sure there’s a way to make that our weekly ritual at Origin and the normal thing that we would do. So it isn’t completely overwhelming in any way. It’s part of what we do. We have a Monday morning marketing meeting where that account’s manager talks about … she and I get together. We look at our content calendar. We assign what’s going to be happening this week. We look at what are the projects we just completed last month. What are the one’s we are going to put in our case study. What are some of the upcoming thought leadership or speaking engagements that we should be looking into. It’s a part of every Monday. That’s what we do.
So I think for us at Origin that discipline is the only way that it could become not overwhelming. And obviously different principals will approach it different ways. But for us, that Monday morning marketing meeting is just as important as my Friday financial meeting. They are just on the same level now. That’s been part of making it successful, I think.
Mark: Yeah. And you’re a principal. It’s not something that’s being delegated. You’re actively involved. Now there are others, obviously, quite actively involved as well but your head is in this. It’s a significant portion of your responsibility to be responsible for business development so it makes sense that you be the one at the leadership level who would involved in this primarily. Knowing how much work it actually is … You’re fully in touch with the reality of the investment. It’s really not as much investment long-term as it is just time and energy. Going back to where you were three years ago with the old site and the old email approach and going to know, knowing how hard it actually is, would you do it all again? Would you go back to scratch and do it all again?
MJ: Yeah. There’s no question. There’s absolutely no question in my mind. When we look at the response and the result that we’ve had and the change, it’s been amazing. From a financial standpoint, you’re kind of aware of this, but Origin’s had incredible growth over the last two years but certainly in this last year where we’ve … it took a little while before we started seeing some of the results. We’re definitely seeing them now. That’s the other thing I would say is that this isn’t instant gratification. It took a while for us to figure it out and build our content and build our process. But, yeah, I would absolutely do it again. It’s been worthwhile, one hundred percent worthwhile.
The other part that I think is really … that we haven’t talked about necessarily that is really powerful and meaningful to me, is the amount of knowledge and power that I have now when I am just communication with my prospects. And I never had that before. And just the confidence that it gives in terms of being able to go behind the scenes and to look at what some of my prospects are consuming on the site and how often they are visiting and what are their patterns and that arms me with so much information that my conversations now with prospects are a lot more meaningful. And as a new business person, I go in there feeling a lot more confident than I used to. And that is worth its weight, as well, in gold. It’s just been … it’s changed my entire dynamic in my conversations with prospects.
Mark: Got it. So it’s about the marketing intelligence that these systems have created. So prior to instigating a call with somebody, you go into the system, watch what they’ve done in the site, you watch which emails they’ve checked out, which content they’ve read, what they’ve downloaded, you can basically do an inventory on them, so that you can, not tell them on the phone you’ve done this inventory on them, but intelligently guide the conversation based on what you know they care about.
MJ: Exactly. And this just happened to be last week where I noticed that there’s somebody that’s a prospect I had been in touch with months and months ago where they sort of decided to go with another agency and I didn’t necessarily think of them. And then I noticed that they had been spending a lot more time on our website and specifically looking at brand development type of content, reading all of our case studies about brand development, reading all of the top leadership pieces and articles that we have published on that very topic. And I could see multiple people from the organization coming back and doing the same thing. And so it arms me with the confidence to give them a call and just say “I don’t know. I haven’t heard from you in a while. Let’s chat”. And obviously they’re like “MJ, that’s amazing timing. We’ve been thinking about Origin systems”. Those kinds of conversations happen and have led now to I’m finalized proposals for them this week. This just wouldn’t have happened because I wouldn’t have had the confidence to just pick up the phone and call this client that had rejected us a few months prior. It really changes my confidence level.
Mark: Having the confidence to make the call is one element but timing is everything, right? You knew when to make the call because you’re watching.
MJ: Yeah, and I am. And that is also again as part of just process that’s adding my normal morning ritual now as I have my espresso in the morning I just look at the activity on our site from the previous day, and it’s really revealing to me. From a content publisher standpoint, it’s really interesting to see what they consumed and what’s being liked and shared. That side of it’s really interesting. But also from a sales and business development standpoint, I’m fascinated by those people that I thought would never come back to Origin that are coming back and reentering our world and within the realm of possibilities.
Mark: Yeah, and that’s the thing, life is long and we as business owners expect our businesses to last forever, in our minds. Blaire has a line that I love and it’s “Everybody is going to hire you, it’s just a matter of when.” And that’s just so great. I just love that idea and it makes a lot of sense to me. And so one thing that people get concerned about when they think about this is OK, I’m going to have this massive amount of data that records everywhere, tracking every single thing. We’re never gonna have the time to actually make any meaningful sense out of it. Your idea, first thing in the morning, get the espresso, sit down, spend what like 15 minutes or so? Looking through this? Right. And that basically gives you your game plan for bus dev for that day of the week.
MJ: Yeah, for me, it’s definitely a 15 minute thing. I would say I do, I’m gonna admit, I’m a tiny bit creepy when you send out a newsletter and I’m really just looking at what’s happening as a direct result of that in terms of who’s reading what. I find that really fascinating. And it really helps to plan right away our next month’s content. So we don’t do that in a vacuum. We really look at what’s been most popular and what’s been most clicked on and what’s been shared. That’s a big part of helping to inform. When a newsletter gets sent out, I think I spend probably more time than I need to digging into that and looking into it. But outside of that, yeah, it’s not like the data, in our case anyway, has been overwhelming. It’s sort of up to us and up to me, how much time I want to spend with it and how detailed I want to get with it.
Mark: Yeah, sure, sure, that makes perfect sense. Well I guess we’re basically at the top of the hour here. But, thank you, MJ. You’re a real inspiration. You really are. The way you’ve approached these tools, the way you brought your own discipline to this and the real heart of Origin to it and seeing the marketing system you’ve created is just wonderful and I’m so happy for you and for the way the firm has grown. It’s, like I said, really inspiring to me
MJ: Wow, thank you, it’s been fun.