The Messy Middle of Refining an Idea
I asked Marcus what obstacles he faced during those “messy middle years” between the lightning strike TAYA idea and achieving success with it.
“Some of the mistakes were: you want to find ways to say yes when you're in the sales process, just to make the sale. Somebody says, 'I don't want to hire a content writer, can my team each write one article a week?' You want to say ‘yes’ to that—but that's going to fail big time.”
Marcus learned the hard way the choices that doom content marketing programs to failure, leading to his strict framework requiring in-house writers, videographers, and complete buy-in across the organization.
In short, he learned to say “no” and set clients up for success by pushing back against them.
This resonated with me, as it’s easy as an agency owner to say yes, even when you know deep down it’s not the best path. Marcus learned to be more of an advisor guiding clients, rather than a “yes man” people-pleaser.
Why “They Ask You Answer” Resonates (and Sells) Years Later
“They Ask You Answer” is now in its 6th year since launching, and selling more copies each year. I asked Marcus why he thought it had such staying power when most marketing books quickly fade into obscurity.
“‘They Ask You Answer’ is built on the emotion of how to become the most trusted voice. Trust doesn't go away in importance. I'm not biased to any particular platform or tool...this is about principles like transparency and trust.”
He went on to explain:
“Most marketing books are platform-centric so they are finite in nature. But ‘They Ask You Answer’ is built on timeless principles.”
This showed me how powerful it is to zero in on universal human motivations and craft a book around those rather than tactical tips.
Tactics change, but principles stand the test of time.
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Coaching Over Campaigns: The Mindset Shift Agencies Must Make
As consultants who train and coach our clients, one perspective from Marcus really hit home for me.
He explained that agencies need to shift their mindset from service providers to trusted advisors in order to build successful long-term relationships.
In Marcus’ words:
"I believe there's a certain subset of companies in the world that want to feed themselves for a lifetime and I want to teach those companies how to fish."
The idea is to help clients become self-sufficient and supply them with knowledge and insights, not services.
This also involves pushing back when clients are headed in the wrong direction. Instead of blindly saying “yes” to client requests in order to make the sale, we need to get comfortable with productive friction. Our role is to guide clients and even push back at times if it's in their best interest.
“Agencies have learned to be yes men and women...they don't know how to say ‘no’ and have a productive conversation about it. You gotta be able to guide a client, say no, and persuade them positively.”
Another key part of being a trusted advisor is getting buy-in across the organization. It takes work, but the rewards are sweet:
This mindset shift isn’t always easy. But Marcus argues it’s absolutely critical in positioning yourself as an indispensable strategic partner rather than an order-taking commodity.
Lead with Questions, Not Answers
Throughout our discussion, Marcus emphasized the power of asking the right questions to influence and educate potential clients.
He shared a story from his years selling HubSpot about how he converted a long-stalled prospect into a client using just three simple questions:
“Can you definitively measure the ROI of your digital marketing right now? ‘No, I cannot.’ Okay, if you could, what's the value of that to your company? ‘Hundreds of thousands.’ Okay, so in order to get that hundreds of thousands in value, you need to spend $20k a year on HubSpot. Are you ready to move forward? ‘Absolutely.’”
Powerful stuff. As Marcus explained:
“For years when I was selling HubSpot I'd isolate the one problem that they had to solve and literally would never show 99% of what HubSpot could do...just the 1% that matters.”
The takeaway? Lead with questions, not answers. Allow potential clients to self-discover solutions rather than force-feeding them information.
How Does Marcus’ Agency IMPACT Stay Ahead of Marketing Trends Like AI?
A big concern for agencies today is how to adapt as AI and new technologies disrupt services they’ve traditionally provided.
Marcus addressed this head on:
“Immediately we went to the market and said, ‘Hey we're going to teach you how to use it in-house.’ Instead of being worried like a lot of agencies.”
Rather than viewing new tech as a threat, they get ahead of the curve and figure out how to integrate it into client programs.
I loved this attitude, as it’s easy to just keep doing things the way we always have. But proactively learning new skills and sharing them with clients turns disruption into opportunity.
This willingness to constantly evolve is likely why IMPACT has succeeded over the long haul while other agencies have fizzled out.
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Key Recommendations from Marcus Sheridan
Throughout our conversation, Marcus mentioned several fantastic book recommendations that I’ve since added to my reading list:
- They Ask You Answer (obviously—gotta re-read the updated version)
- Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller – Marcus said: "They Ask You Answer is the framework and the strategy for the content you produce–StoryBrand is the angle by which you deliver it."
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott – "Learning how to do directness with love is an absolute life changer."
- Good to Great by Jim Collins – "Best business book of all time."
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – "Best interpersonal communications book of all time.”
He also recommended thought leaders well worth following on LinkedIn:
I'm extremely grateful to Marcus for taking the time to share his wisdom and experience with us on Agency Breakthrough.
I learned so much from picking his brain—and just observing his communication skills in action.
While we only scratched the surface in this post, I hope these insights provide value in getting your agency or consulting business to the next level.
To wrap up, here are my key takeaways from Marcus Sheridan:
- Teach and refine your ideas before packaging them. This is how you develop truly timeless and impactful intellectual property.
- Have the courage to say no. Don’t be a yes-man if it’s not best for the client long-term. Set clear boundaries.
- Make the mindset shift from service provider to indispensable advisor. Move from being an order-taker to a strategic partner clients respect and value. This builds successful long-term client relationships.
- Ask more questions. Don’t force feed information. Asking thoughtful questions leads prospects to self-discover.
- Frame conversations around value. Don’t get lost in features and capabilities. Laser focus on the core problem and how you solve it.
- Constantly learn then teach. Don’t rest on your expertise. Always be learning new skills, tools and frameworks to pass onto clients.
If you want to go deeper, be sure to check out the full episode here. I guarantee it will be one of the most valuable hours you could invest in your business growth.
(Here's another extremely valuable hour you could invest in your agency... Book a call with ZenPilot to find out if you could make agency life less chaotic by implementing repeatable processes, workload visibility, and a single source of truth based on ClickUp or Teamwork.com.)
Thank you for taking the time to read this post and I wish you the best of luck on your agency growth journey. If you found this valuable, feel free to share it with an agency leader friend who could also get something from it.
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