Episode 69: Brent Robinson
Brent Robinson is a 2004 Walton MBA alumnus and the CEO and Chief Thought Officer of Modthink Marketing, an agile marketing agency in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Modthink provides digital media solutions to many clients including subject matter experts in the Sam M. Walton College of Business.
00:07 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.
00:26 Matt Waller: I have with me today Brent Robinson, the founder and CEO of Modthink Marketing, and we are talking about a unique approach that Modthink Marketing has taken where they are engaged with the Walton College in digital marketing, a significant digital marketing campaign that we're involved in. But at the same time, they're hiring lots of interns from the Walton College and from the rest of the university to actually work with us on this major project. And I personally, as dean, really like this because part of what we're about is serving as a catalyst for transforming the lives of our students that's actually in our vision statement. And I thought, rather than just hiring a firm that would help us with digital marketing that we don't know from Adam, we hire one that the CEO and founder has his MBA from our program, his offices are just down the street from our business school, and he's willing to hire our students to actually do the work. And so the students wind up getting paid, the students get unique valuable experience, and we get people working on digital marketing with us that really know a lot about what they're working on because they're going to school there. In fact, a lot of them are seniors. So, Brent, what made you open to going along with this kind of a strategy?
02:09 Brent Robinson: Okay. So, small business, there's three full-time people, and we've... I think, currently right now, we have 12 interns that are working with us. With social media and the other things that we're doing, these kids know more about it than you and me together will ever know. They've forgotten that much, and so they're digital natives and they're really good at it. And I think I had an experience a few years ago, when I talked about I've had really good experiences with interns and I had somebody tell me, "Yeah, I don't wanna hire those millennials. You have to redo their work all the time, you just have to watch everything they do." And I've not had that experience. I actually had Davis Tries, one of my interns came up to me one time and I tried to micro-manage something, and he turned to me and he said, "Hey, I'm a millennial, I know what to do." And he did. He knew how to work the spreadsheet, and he knew how to do the analytics. He had the class that was teaching him on these things, and I trust it. It works. These kids just know so much.
03:14 Matt Waller: Yeah. I've been extremely impressed. But one of the things that I'm impressed with is that you give them real responsibility. You're not having them staple papers together or enter numbers in a spreadsheet. They're doing the real, even account management, to some degree. The students are interfacing with me...
03:36 Brent Robinson: Oh, absolutely.
03:37 Matt Waller: Directly, and with the other faculty, and that's not always easy to do.
03:42 Brent Robinson: We talk about giving them a job title, and we get them business cards so they feel that they do now have a job title. But I make a big deal about not having them put "I'm an intern" on their LinkedIn profile. I make sure that you put what is your position, and we'll talk about it and say, "Where is it you want to end up in your career? Let's figure out what job descriptions would make the most sense for you." Some will come back and say, "Well, I think I wanna go into account management," so junior account executive. And others wanna work in content, so it's a junior equivalent of what they want to work towards.
04:23 Matt Waller: You mentioned that part of the reason this has been so successful is because of the way you screen and hire them.
04:33 Brent Robinson: Oh, absolutely.
04:34 Matt Waller: Tell me a little bit about that.
04:36 Brent Robinson: Okay. The way this came about was, back on my days when I was at Collective Bias, back when we were first getting started, it was a small, small group, start-up situation. Literally, there was one conference table in one big room, and there were eight of us elbowing, trying to get room to work. Yet you had to get along, you had to wear a lot of hats. But at the time, Tony Hsieh, Zappos. Tony Hsieh had just sold Zappos to Amazon for, I don't know, a billion, a billion and half, or something like that, and the thing that came out of it, he wrote a book called "Delivering Happiness." Tony Hsieh, tells in his book how, when he had his first company, when they started hiring people, they were hiring based on resumes. He had hot shots from MIT and from Harvard, and all these other things, and he said, "They hired on skills and that was it." And he said, "They had really smart people there. They reached the point where the value of the company was between Oracle and Microsoft vying for the company." But he said he got to the point where he hated coming to work. There's not a camaraderie, and he said it really came out when the two companies were vying and he said people started making side deals, you couldn't trust what was going on.
05:56 Brent Robinson: He vowed he was never gonna do that. So, when he got to creating Zappos, he had come across this research from USC, that was called Tribal Leadership where David Logan and other researchers looked at all these companies and looked at how well they performed based on culture. And the companies that were investing in their culture and had an open culture were performing much better than the others in the study. And they had been doing this research for about a decade. So, he took a lot of the ideas from that in Zappos. This was that thing where all the funny questions come from that you get asked. Collective Bias, we adopted that, we started doing that, and we got rock stars. We just found great people who were cut out to be a part of that start-up lifestyle, and it was fantastic. So, when I started Modthink, I was like, "It works, I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna do it again." And I tell you, we get some of the best interns that work for us, best employees. They are improving their careers by being interns at Modthink.
07:08 Matt Waller: Yeah, there's no question about it. And, in fact, what your company is doing with the Walton College is quite complicated, and I don't think it's ever been done before the way we're trying to do it. Because part of what we were thinking about was we wanted to create a marketing program that would be difficult to emulate in the sense that we would have processes that delivered value, because we view marketing as a way to add value to our constituents and honoring our values with our marketing. So, having students involved in that, it sounded counterintuitive at first, because here we're gonna build these marketing processes that are difficult to emulate with students, one, that are inexperienced, two, that drop the ball sometimes.
08:04 Brent Robinson: They do drop balls.
08:06 Matt Waller: Although I do, too. [laughter] And they turn over. They graduate, they take other jobs, because this internship, these internships you're providing set them up for unbelievable jobs. In some ways, you would think this is counterintuitive, but what I've realized is this is actually better, because this requires us to develop processes that are so good that the strategy will be upheld even if there is high turnover.
08:41 Brent Robinson: Yeah, your nail on the head right there. And I think it's been a real challenge to have to come back and say, "Okay, do we have this process worked out?" And I think part of our growing pains has been learning from those mistakes. And when you have the interns through one semester to the next switch out on you, all of a sudden is that process working is laid bare pretty quickly.
09:09 Matt Waller: If you think about the strategy, I knew we wanted to develop a great marketing program for the college. When I say that, I don't mean marketing department, 'cause we have an academic department called marketing, but I'm talking about the marketing of the college. And on the one hand, by using a lot of interns, you have to have great processes. But on the other hand, by having a bunch of interns, you have young people that know how to reach some of our constituents, especially students, one, and then, two, potential students. And we look at not only the demographics of our various constituent groups, 'cause there's many, we do look at the psychographics of those constituent groups and create personas, which is good for the students to see as well. It's a great learning, because there's such a tendency in companies to just focus on demographics and not think about the psychographics, but the two combined are way more powerful.
10:17 Matt Waller: So, the students are learning this in their classes in the business school, and then they're doing it when they come to work. That's got to be the best case scenario, because people learn so much better when they actually do it as well. But the other thing is that I know... Because we have an omni-channel strategy, where we're using video, podcasts, blogs, social media channels. Each persona may be involved in each channel, to some degree, but certainly certain personas were more dominant in certain social media channels, like Instagram, for example. The other thing I like about the students is they're not afraid to criticize this. One of the students came to me, one of your interns came to me and said "All you post about is the university and your college and stuff. Are you a human being?" [chuckle] You need to reflect that in your Instagram. I was treating it almost like LinkedIn. And she said, "Could you post once a week, at least, about your family?" I said, "Yeah, I could easily do that. I'm with them a lot." [laughter] And so if you look at my Instagram feed, you can see that...
11:51 Brent Robinson: Yeah, there was definitely a change.
11:53 Matt Waller: There's one post about my family every week. But I really like that about the students.
12:00 Brent Robinson: Yeah, they bring up new ideas all the time. So, we've been doing the podcast, doing this podcast, and doing the production, and Lindsey Wagaman is a big part of that. She works a lot with you. And as we've gone through this new cadence we're working on in the current project on LinkedIn, she came across the application waves, and said, "I think we ought to try to start doing this." And it's a little snippet tool that you can use to capture one-minute segment of an audio of a podcast, or a video, or something like that, and you put it up there. It's one of those things that you get so much more traction. As opposed to somebody having to listen to an entire podcast, they can get a little sample of it, and decide whether they wanna use it or not. That came from one of the interns, just, "Here's new things that I'm looking at. Let's... "
12:52 Matt Waller: Well, I know a part of leadership, an important part of leadership, is providing motivation. But when someone comes up with a good idea, if you respond to it quickly, and if you really like it, say why you like it. If you don't like it, don't be rude about it, but explain why you think you may not like it but still compliment them for giving you the idea. Well, in this case, I really did think it was a good idea. And so within seconds, I responded and said, "Lindsey, this is fantastic. Thank you for being a boundary spanner." You hire all these interns, they don't have experience, they're majoring in all kinds of things, how do you decide what to assign them to?
13:42 Brent Robinson: We have certain things that we're trying to do. It's full service. We do paid media, we do social media, LinkedIn, micro-influencer, and different things like that. Writing is a big part of it, but how we get them to decide what they're gonna do is we'll have an idea of where, through the interview process of the position, we may be hiring for that, we want them to work on, but I'll give them free rein to explore different ideas. So, I've had a lot of folks come in, and they'll go one direction, but then we'll find a place for them to pivot.
14:17 Matt Waller: I'm sure you have quite a few students apply for these jobs, so how do you determine which ones to hire?
14:23 Brent Robinson: All right. Once we get a pool of students coming through, we'll go through and do a... We'll go through an initial interview, which is typically a phone call, to find out if they have certain skills. But what we're really looking for is, one, do they have specific experience. And, two, do they sound like they've had experiences where they can learn. If it feels good, we'll bring them in for what we call our cultural interview. And that's when we bring them in to the conference room. You've been there, it's the Fulbright building. It can be intimidating. The team will be there in the meeting, so there will be six or eight other people in the room, possibly. And everybody goes around the room, and we have this series of questions that everybody gets to pick their favorite. It's the silly stuff, like, "What's your superpower and why? What's your favorite quote? What are you binge watching right now? What's your guilty pleasure?" It disarms people. And we get into a dialogue. It's not just hitting somebody with a bunch of questions. You suddenly find out, "Wait a second, they're interested in video games. What video games do you play?" There's always a conversation that happens.
15:45 Brent Robinson: And then after that... I don't wanna give our secret sauce away, but our secret sauce is then we'll say, "Hold on a second, we want a side bar." And so what we'll do is, "We need to talk for a second." And they'll start to get up, and we'll go, "No, no, no, you sit here." And we all get up, and we leave. And we go have a conference. We usually go outside, a little side conference, and talk about it. "Does anybody have any red flags? Do you have any concerns?" And if everybody's in agreement at that point, then what we'll do is we'll come up with their homework assignment. And they'll always have a presentation and a writing assignment. And we'll usually try to find something that came out of the conversation, and put it into some of the parameters and things that we're looking for. And if they have a specialty that we're really focused on with our developers, we had them do some conversations about agile development and using AR. Right?
16:41 Brent Robinson: So, they'll come back and we'll say, "Hey, listen, we really enjoyed talking to you, and if you're interested, we'd like to have you do a homework assignment." And my favorite is, I'll say, "Okay, when are you gonna turn it in for us?" Almost all of them will say, "When do you want me to?" And I'll say, "I'm not in charge of your schedule." You know your schedule, when do you wanna turn it in to us?" It gets them into that mindset of what we're gonna bring them into, "I'm not gonna babysit you, and I'm not gonna tell you what to do. You've got your schedule, you figure it out, you tell us when you can come in." And I've had folks that'll say, "Oh, it's gonna take me two weeks." Or other folks will say, "I'll begin tomorrow." You get a good view of people when they go through that cultural interview.
17:26 Matt Waller: I think it's really... I think, for ourselves, it's good for the students to have an interview like that as well, just being exposed to that. One other benefit to the students of an internship like this is they are having to write quite a bit. For example, Lindsey has to write emails to me, and explain things in an organized and concise manner, in a professional manner. And that gets back to something I wanted to make sure I covered in this podcast. The values of the Walton College are represented by EPIC, excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. And these internships are forcing them to do all of that. Excellence is important because they're dealing with professors and staff that are not tolerant of low quality, and they'll notice it, and they'll point it out, so that helps them...
18:25 Brent Robinson: And to that point though, the students will take that seriously. And there is coaching that I have to do on the other side of that, to say, "Hey, it's okay, you're getting feedback, this is your client, do this." They're pushed to do a lot, and they... You give them that opportunity, and they rise to the opportunity. From right off the bat, I had an intern that very first yea, when we got started we had an intern. And I go back and I look at the young people that came through Modthink, and they're doing amazing things now. Amazing stuff, and I'm so proud of it. They're not just Walton alumni, they're Modthink alumni. And I have had interns who have gone off to do a different intern with the corporation, and then they came back multiple times and said, "I'm learning so much more here that I can apply and then I can use.
19:19 Matt Waller: Yeah, because sometimes students take internships with companies where they're doing something so narrow.
19:26 Brent Robinson: Very narrow, yeah.
19:27 Matt Waller: They don't really get a big picture of the business or what's going on, whereas in this case, they see the whole business.
19:35 Brent Robinson: But the thing is, is they get to see, "Do I want that much broad approach," or, "Do I want to be in a narrow?"
19:45 Matt Waller: Yeah.
19:45 Brent Robinson: And I've had folks who've come in and said, "I loved it, great experience, but I know I don't wanna be an entrepreneur."
19:51 Matt Waller: And excellence, the E in EPIC, it really is one of those things that you develop as you grow, because you get stronger in your discipline, you learn how to do things with excellence as time goes by. But I think of... Like Lindsey, just as an example, she's majoring in supply chain management. She's doing an internship in marketing, broadly speaking, 'cause she's also learning a lot about account management. And now she's gonna go to work for Procter & Gamble in supply chain management. But that learning that she's picked up, in terms of dealing with an account, and in terms of marketing, is gonna be valuable in supply chain management.
20:39 Brent Robinson: Right now, Trey Robinson and Lindsay Wagaman are the two seniors that are about to graduate in May, but they've been with me since they were juniors. And they've reached the point now where they actually are managing some other interns and have management responsibilities. Now, you talk about delegation, learning how to delegate, that is one of the hardest things. There are people our age that still don't know how to do it, and these guys are being confronted with that right now. And as sharp as both of them are, they've struggled with learning how to delegate. And we've had to walk through it and talk about it. But I know that's gonna help them as they get into their first career, the first jobs after they graduate.
21:29 Matt Waller: I hope some of the other small to medium-sized businesses that might be listening to this podcast will take a shot at trying this with interns, take a shot at giving them more responsibility, expecting more of them. Because, as you say, people rise to the occasion, especially if you've hired the right people.
21:54 Brent Robinson: I love the experience I've had with them. And if you do set the expectations up there, I've over and over again just been surprised and love the stuff that we've gotten back.
22:09 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast, one word. That's B-E E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be EPIC.