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For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Justin Allen, COO of What Works Studio, a digital marketing agency located in Baltimore, Maryland.
Justin shares valuable insights on adapting to change, prioritizing customer feedback, and fostering a culture of innovation. He emphasizes the importance of learning from failures, leveraging data for decision-making, and embracing digital transformation. Justin also highlights the significance of building a strong brand, investing in sustainability, and effective leadership for long-term success in today’s business landscape.
Watch the episode now for some profound insights!
Data-driven decision-making empowers businesses to make informed choices and achieve measurable results.
Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode of E Coffee with Experts. I’m your host Matt Fraser, and today we have a very special guest on the show, Justin Allen. Justin is the Chief Operating Officer at What Works Studio an award-winning digital marketing agency. His leadership and vision have been instrumental in the success of the company. What’s even more impressive is Justin’s diverse background. He’s a self-taught electrical engineer and an active musician and has done production work for live events, which has given him a unique perspective and appreciation for the creative process. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Justin to the podcast. Justin, thank you so much for being here.
Hey, thanks for having me, Matt.
Hey, no problem. Hey, what were your hobbies and interests growing up, and how have they influenced your career path?
Yeah, I was into music and writing. I had visions of myself being a wandering bohemian menstrual, tortured poet all of the above.
And yeah, I got to chase some of those things. I tell people I’m a recovering bohemian.
Cool. Is that how your high school students would describe you? Or what would they say? How would they describe you?
I was voted most unique in high school, so I don’t know. Cool. But right on.
Yeah. What was the turning point in your life that made you want to become an Entrepreneur?
So I was working for a startup a medical device company that was out of Johns Hopkins in an incubator and when I met my wife, she was just starting, she was just starting this agency, which at the time was a one-woman shop, and Oh yeah. I was looking at it becoming a writer. She had started this agency and together we collaborated actually, it was her idea to start we were looking at different ways to leverage the Internet to start companies. So we didn’t have to work at some point.
When she was working in PR, she became familiar with a publication out of DC called Biznow, which got a lot of clouds and eventually was sold. It was a commercial real estate online. I think it was just an email magazine at the time. And, looking at all the different internet businesses and how people were, creating businesses and leverage from digital tools and not necessarily capital kind of inspired us to go look out at the universe and try to figure out how to launch a business. And I think it was her idea of looking at Biznow to start what Weekly magazine. At the time I was doing implantable surgical devices that are compatible with MRI environments.
The design that I had worked on had been licensed Research had stopped, development has stopped and I had a lot of free time when I was on full salary. So we took that idea of hers and we launched a magazine together, which was Weekly Magazine, which was published for seven years. It was incredibly exciting. It was a ton of fun. We hit right when DSLRs became ubiquitous and the internet opened up its bandwidth to allow for big, beautiful photos.
This was before or right around the time hip thematic, or it was pre-Instagram. Was it hip? I forget what that app was. The one that we came out with before Instagram. But Instagram eventually overtook it. It was before we had, photography everywhere and, photography-driven, social media platforms.
So the magazine took off and was super exciting. But what we realized was that media in that vein especially Hyperlocal Media, which is why a lot of these types of publications went away, is really hard to monetize in any substantial way. But what we saw was that. It was driving business to her one-woman marketing shop where she was doing marketing and PR.
And I was helping out a little bit here and there with the marketing stuff. But once we realized that we were building a content marketing engine with the magazine Yeah, agency I started putting my energy into the agency and started helping her build that.
So the magazine was driving business for you for marketing engagements.
At the time, we haven’t heard of content marketing., there was the understanding that if we had this magazine that it could lead to business for, what she was doing on the marketing side. But I think the idea of having a concerted content marketing play wasn’t necessarily what we were thinking.
We were thinking more about email marketing but it ended up being a lot more successful than what we understood in the way that we developed it at first. The magazine was an act of love and passion for publishing.
That’s pretty amazing. What do you consider to be your greatest success in your career so far, and why?
Ah, wow. That’s a big question. I think, if you go to our website, we have a lot of really awesome case studies. In one of our campaigns, The Be More Give More campaign, we raised over 5 million in a single day for local nonprofits in the Mid-Atlantic, and that was in the Baltimore region. And that was enshrined in a permanent exhibit on philanthropy in the Smithsonian. Our Mr. Trash wheel persona that we developed for Healthy Harbor in Baltimore generated hundreds of thousands of blog posts, and articles almost too many to count several earned media hits, without any pitching became Discovery Channel’s number-one story of the year. Wow, and generated a global audience on a very small budget. And then, with Light City Baltimore, we’re proud of that. We generated millions of dollars of economic impact for the state of Maryland.
Year one was the largest amount of grant money given to the arts community in one go up until that point. So all those things are amazing to look back at but the truth is that some of that was luck and good, and having the right timing and not knowing what we didn’t know and not putting blinders on and not limiting ourselves and our scope and imagination.
But where we’re right now is scaling and creating replicable processes and a scalable company and doing it without all the flash that we had in years past is also a big success, for me as a Professional Development and managing a team and finding success but doing it more quietly. Yeah. Which I think is where we are right now. I think, building a scalable company has been rewarding.
How instrumental is it, do you think, and important if you will, to have proper SOPs in place and a system?
For instance, McDonald’s has a system. They plug people into the system to make money. Michael Gerber and I mentioned this book, quite a few in the episode, in the podcast, Michael Gerber’s book, email three Visited, which is, recommended by many different gurus, if you will, to read talks about creating the systems before you even start the business. How has the development of those systems impacted, your business and growth, and mindset and culture?
You can’t grow past a certain point without processes in place. It’s, yeah. It’s the difference between having a mom and pops organization and having a company that operates as an entity on its own.
What are some of the strategies you’ve used to develop those and put them in place?
Right now I am interviewing, I’ve gotten to the point where we have several in place. We use a backend platform called Teamwork. It’s like Asana and Monday. Oh yeah.
All those things. Right now I am interviewing a process consultant to come in and help me take it to the next level. We have lots of processes in place, but I need to know what I don’t know. So I’m bringing in a second pair of eyes to help facilitate that next phase of process integration. That’s awesome
The traction method of the methodology of running a business. That’s something we, as a company use as well. How do you approach or how do you approach just curious risk-taking and decision-making in your agency?
In the past, we were probably less risk averse, which allowed us to create home run case studies which are the bedrock for our agency, but moving forward, Evaluating risk is on a case-by-case basis where it is just about a conversation and listing the pros and cons and determining is the return worth the risk? Is it aligned with our long-term goals? Is it something that we need to do? Is it something that we can stop and think about? For a little while? I’m, at this point in my career, I’m a big fan of sleeping on it. And yeah, that level of discernment before making any big decisions.
That’s so valuable nugget right there. Sleeping on a big decision, and, weighing all the pros and cons is probably one of the best things to do.
I would agree with you. Sleep on it. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to refresh yourself and wake up in the morning. And, I have a better look at understanding what does it mean to have a strong brand message and why is it important for businesses? You mentioned some of the brand’s key things you’ve created that Mr.Trash, I think Mr. Trash Wheel, yes. And things like that. That’s pretty interesting.
But today more, more so than ever. Being able to stand out in the noise and position and differentiate from others like you or others who you know, who might be confused about whatever it is that you’re trying to do.
I think it’s super critical for companies that are trying to be seen. It can be critical for some companies B2B companies. Enterprise B2B companies oftentimes will have a very vanilla, very safe sort of brand message, and they’re going more off of service.
If you’re scrappy and competitive and, you’re trying to create points of leverage, having a very clear brand message is critical in that.
Smaller companies can take risks with that, right? Where a larger company likely won’t take risks, but to stand out of the crowd I recommend, I wish more of my clients would allow us to take larger risks without them presenting themselves. So yeah, that opportunity to do that if you’re so inclined.
I think it’s one of my mentors, indirect mentor has said boring marketing gets boring results as Dan Kennedy. And people tend to want to be vanilla and safe and not take a strong position or stance on something when, if you try to be everything to everyone, you’re the success the results that you will get will not be very good. They’ll be very boring. Jason’s point that I’m thinking of right now is there’s a gentleman who started an e-bike drop shipping business, and he was trying to target everyone and anyone and everyone who wanted to buy an e-bike, right? Then he changed his messaging to only Target and his messaging and his pictures and his descriptions, everything to only Target hunters.
So he eliminated 90% of the market and only focused on the 10, and his sales went to 3 million a year in AR, So 3 million in annual revenue. Yes. It’s an amazing story. So it’s and he just knew who he was, he figured out who he wanted to target a Pacific demographic and persona. Created that persona and then created the messaging.
So yeah, you’re right. Vanilla and shooting everywhere isn’t gonna get you anywhere, what do you think some common mistakes are that businesses make when crafting their brand message?
I think a lot for smaller companies, not having a brand message is a mistake. A lot of organizations don’t think about their messaging until, a certain point. I guess having messaging from the beginning so that you’re clearly defining the parameters of your business and conveying that, or even non-profits conveying that consistently across all of your channels is critical. I think generally and I believe this is an old-school way to think about marketing I think generally not listening to customers not exhibiting empathy. And having your message be about you rather than having it be, how it pertains to the customer and the audience. There’s some hint of a value proposition baked into that. I think that is a lot more effective.
Yeah. Amazingly, you say that because I even had a car dealer that I worked for and their tagline focused on them. Their tagline focused on them rather than on the potential customer. I even reworded it to say the same thing, but have the focus on the customer. But they didn’t like it. And so it’s really hard when people hire you for your expertise and then don’t take your advice because they think they know better. If’s Plumber comes into your house, you hire that plumber too, you don’t tell a plumber how to fix the pipe.
Was it an owner-operated business? The car dealership? Yes. Yes. Yeah. Family-owned, yeah. That is a challenging place to be when the owner-operator is in the mix because, and then because then brand and branding and all of those things become, even with companies that the owner-operator isn’t involved. But especially with these kinds of company branding and brand message and all those kinds of things becomes, more like marketing therapy than what is logical? I had a branding exercise take a year that was a family-owned business, so it took a year.
It was a branding and website.
Yeah. No, I understand. I’ve been there done, I know what exactly what you’re talking about. Okay, so what role do the target audience personas play in crafting a brand message, an effective brand message?
It’s, again, I think that’s just a critical component.
Yeah, if you understand who you’re talking to, then you understand how you can speak to them if you’re, you would speak much differently to a suburban mother than you would say a hunter. Absolutely. Maybe a corporate executive, all of those, then, yeah, the colloquialism and the way that you connect with those people, engage with those people in their language, in their tone being sure to bring in the things that they care about into the conversation. All of that is wrapped up in those audience personas. We develop them pretty much for every plan that we do for people.
That’s, yeah it’s critical. I, I would I feel like we’re just getting started and there are so many more questions, but I know we’re coming to the top of the hour time-wise. And I would love to invite you to be back on the show for a second episode to talk about the second part of developing a brand message. In the meantime, how can our listeners connect with you online if they choose to do?
sure. You can always go to our website which works studio.com. Yeah, just drop me an email, Justin. It works.
Fantastic. And you’re on LinkedIn as well? I am. Okay, great. We’ll make sure to put that information on your Website and LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Other than that, I just wanna thank you for being here, and again, I really would like to invite you to come back and do the second part. Sure. Right on.
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