Tony Welz, Principal at W2 Communications, shares his advice for growing a specialized boutique agency including fostering community with media professionals and conducting research reports. Tony also discusses the importance of collaborating with clients and adapting to the current market.
DOUG: Tony, can you get us started with your top tip if a communicator wants to really establish a specialty as a boutique agency?
TONY: For us, at W2 Communications, it really started with embedding ourselves in the community, you know, really trying to get embedded and working with organizations.
DOUG: Yeah. And your community is those that are interested in and have a need for cybersecurity, which is actually a huge community.
TONY: It is actually. So, it spans, you know, we work with the media every day, but we work with entrepreneurs, we work with technologists, we work with marketing folks. And it actually is a very big and sprawling community. It’s only gotten bigger in the last 20 years since we really started the practice. So, we actively do things like host events at conferences and do closed door sessions so that we can bring folks together.
DOUG: Yeah, and it’s so important to be providing educational information to your target group, your target client group.
TONY: Well, it’s important to provide that, but it’s also part of the part of our process is we don’t just want to be trying to sell a story every day. It’s a dialogue, right? We want to be engaged. We want and so we listen as much as we talk. And by bringing, and by hosting these closed-door sessions for a long time, we actually hosted a poker party at RSA, which is one of the biggest security conferences in the world and it was a purely media-oriented event with entrepreneurs and technologists there, but their one rule was no pitching. We’re here to listen to each other, we’re not here to talk about ourselves.
DOUG: That’s interesting and if you don’t mind, were you up in that poker event or would you prefer not to talk about it?
TONY: Well, actually, personally, I don’t play poker, so it was my business partner’s idea. I was the fly on the wall. I was basically getting folks drinks and hosting.
DOUG: That sounds like the good place to be. So, you don’t have to be a more expensive event than you want it to be. There are other keys that you’ve talked about, and lessons learned in building a specialized boutique agency.
TONY: Yeah. I think, you know, a lot of what we do is research, right? We really go into and organically we’ve grown into other areas. We started really very focused in cyber and public sector by nature of where we are based outside of DC, and we’ve moved into satellite and some other areas as well. Within the technology realm, all of the more organically organizations have come to us or we’ve hired folks that have that expertise. But it all goes back to making sure that we really understand the issues, understand what’s there. So, it’s the research and the focus that really brings us into those communities.
DOUG: Yeah. And as folks, we know that some clients have better stories to tell than others. Some clients are more effective storytellers. How do you go about cultivating effective storytellers?
TONY: So over the years we started as a straight PR firm, and then we we actually brought in a few reporters to handle more content for us. We brought in a digital agency a few years ago that’s really expanded our our bench. But at the at our heart, we are storytellers. So, it’s our job in my mind, it’s our job to go to our clients and say, okay, you’ve got a great story to tell, we just need to help you figure out how to tell it. We just need to figure out what the vehicles are. And each vehicle, whether it’s lead generation, whether it’s straight public relations, whether it’s something else, all of those have a different approach and we help them kind of refine that.
DOUG: Yeah, one of the things that we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic is clients seem more open to hearing and taking your advice, especially because things were changing so fast. What are some of the approaches you use and what’s been successful in making sure clients do listen and understand what you’re trying to convey? Not just that you’re dictating it to them, but that working together like you were talking about earlier when you were talking about poker, to get the best outcome.
TONY: Yeah. Think it comes down to, you know, for us, first and foremost, our ideal client is one that’s collaborative, one that’s willing to meet us halfway and work with us. And we have and we bring that authority to the table. We’re embedded in the community. We understand what folks are looking for. We’ve actually conducted research reports on our own. We have a former industry analyst on staff, so we did a CISO report last year that looked at what are the top concerns of CISOs. Prior to that, we did a ransomware report that really looked at what are the issues and how are CISOs and organizations dealing with that. We’re able to bring that context and that information to the table and then put it through the eyes of a media campaign or a lead gen campaign and say, look, this is what your customers, your prospects, your buyers are thinking about. So, here’s how we need to approach this, here’s how we bring it together. So, it’s not just about us constantly trying to push our own narrative, our own story, but it’s putting it through the buyer’s lens or the reporter’s lens so that we’re giving them something valuable as well.
DOUG: Research is also growing in importance. How are you using it to expand your firm’s capability?
I think adding the research component was a big expansion for us. And again, the woman that we have that heads it up is hugely talented and we actually were doing research reports on our own just to, you know, help inform our programs. And we’ve actually had to put a lot of that on hold because clients started coming to us and going, we need that for ourselves, we need you to help us do that. So, we’re working with clients again, white label research for them, where we’re looking at what their key issues are and helping them not only create a maybe a media asset, but also inform their sales model, inform how they’re approaching the industry. We did one research report. The original goal was we wanted as a media asset. Turned out it was so much more than that and media became third or second priority to what we did.
DOUG: I mean, having insights is so important, and one of the things that that’s driving is increased interest in using Metaverse environments. AI, there seems to be a topic about it, you know, every day that’s out there, given that you’re in this security space, is there anything that you’ve seen, learned or would advise clients if they’re stepping in or diving in with AI and the metaverse, what they need to be thinking about also?
Every new technology there’s a security concern and it’s really understanding what that attack surface is. What does that expose you to and think? We’re still learning a lot about AI. We’re still learning a lot about what Chatgpt is going to be enabling attackers to do. So, it’s really trying to figure that out before you leap in. AI has huge potential for defenders and informing solutions, but it is figuring out exactly where’s the opportunity and what’s the risk that that poses.
DOUG: This conversation is reminding me of a time that I heard Guy Kawasaki, who was the first marketing executive at Apple, describe how they had this internal debate when graphic designers were suddenly interested in their computer, but that hadn’t been part of their marketing plan. There was should we go with it? And he says, sort of go with what the market is saying. You seem to have done a really excellent job at sort of having an ear to what the market is saying about their needs for you to provide. Any advice on how maybe other agencies or solo practitioners looking to launch can do a better job of listening to what’s happening in the marketplace around them?
TONY: I think for us, we always try to meet our clients halfway. We try to go to where they are. So anytime we’ve looked at expanding our services, we’ve actually taken the lead from our clients. But more than that, whenever we look at a new client or look at the industry that we’re in, we really, we listen more than we talk. We basically go out and say and ask ourselves what’s happening in the industry? What do we need to be concerned about and really try to learn as much as we can. And I’ve been working with cybersecurity companies for over 25 years, and I’m still everyday learning stuff from our clients, from reporters, from everybody in the market. I think that and that thirst for knowledge amongst our team has been critical in us maintaining where we are in the industry and what we’re doing and how we’re helping our clients.
DOUG: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 37 years and we’re still learning every day. Though I don’t use carbon paper to keep copies of my letters anymore. Any final thoughts you want to add?
TONY: Yeah. I Think for us. Think we looked at and in the early days we looked at kind of being a general tech agency and think we found that boring and think being a specialist is actually a lot more exciting. We’re actually more embedded, we’re more engaged, and we’re able to provide better counsel and deeper counsel to our clients, which ultimately benefits them and benefits the rest of the industry. So that’s where we’re excited about what we’re doing.
DOUG: I think this will be a really helpful discussion for those who tune in. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.
TONY: Thanks, Doug. Appreciate it.