Today’s interview is with the greatest marketer I’ve ever worked with, James Macfarlane. He was one of the first people involved in my agency back in 2010, at which point he was in his early 20’s. Since that time, he’s gone on to become one of the UK’s leading tech entrepreneurs, developing a series of astonishingly high-growth companies.
When I first met James, he had the appearance and manner of an 11-year-old boy that had just consumed too many e-numbers. But I quickly realised that beneath that stubble-free exterior was one of the shrewdest marketing minds I was ever likely to meet. 10 years on and James has indeed proved himself to be the most remarkable entrepreneurial talent, achieving success in a variety of industries, particularly mobile billing, and he’s now turning his attention to exciting ventures in crypto and AI.
James, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: First question then, what have you learned within consumer digital marketing that has helped you within a B2B context? Because my understanding is that your role has evolved, and as the company’s developed, you’ve become increasingly involved in some of the more B2B dimensions of developing the business.
James: Okay, so from a consumer buying habit point of view, if we take the digital world – and the digital world is like everyone’s impatient, there’s a lot of stuff thrown at you all the time and everyone is vying for your eyeballs, right? And the advertising market has made it even worse. So as a user, I frequently don’t know what’s advertising what’s not, even though it’s technically disclosed.
So what you end up with is a very busy marketplace that has evolved to become more effectively busy, right? But it’s still really busy, right? I feel like my web experience as a consumer is fairly stressful. I get hit with adverts and hit with lots of different kinds of things that I might be interested in, frequently going down rabbit holes.
So I think from a consumer digital side, the customer journey is really important to decide. You are fighting against multiple other very smart, capable companies that are all competing for similar consumers in the digital space. Whatever target audience you pick, you will be competing with other smart companies to get attention. And the important thing from a digital side is to grab that attention with something that is not misleading but creates an emotive interest. And then to move that emotive interest to a dedicated page that is solely focused on you, so you remove all the distractions. And then typically in a consumer world, a lot of consumers will buy irrationally, and by that, I just mean like they buy based on the emotion they buy based on what something means to them or the emotion that sparks within them, right? So a lot of people do not buy rationally.
To give it a really easy context: how much stuff on Amazon have we all bought that is just sitting in a cupboard? Like it’s not a rational buy, it’s something that you’ve bought emotively at the moment because you felt like you needed it and that product was sold in a way that either solved a problem for you or you thought would be cool or you needed or your partner needed it. And those are all emotions, right? And that’s all something that has been designed by the marketing company or by Amazon or by someone to spark that reaction or to increase their conversion rates.
So what you have is this human weakness of making irrational decisions based on emotion which is then exploited, probably unknowingly, by a lot of large marketing companies because that gets you better conversions, so it makes sense that that would iterate. So where is my point here in terms of where that sits on B2B? So B2B is a much more bespoke sale but the principles remain the same. And what I see in the B2B sales world is a lot of generic salesmen, right? So they’ll send a deck. They’ll speak to the customer. They’ll try and sell what they’re selling and then move on to the next. And it becomes like a game of numbers. Whereas, actually, the right approach from a B2B sales context is you do the same thing as the consumer.
You obviously have cold opens and warm opens. Cold opens are the toughest because warm opens you’ve already got like a level of trust because of the trust that is being transferred to you. But from a cold open point of view, you need to craft something that is personal and in-depth enough to spark interest, but not long enough to create boredom. And that’s a really, really important line because you either have someone on LinkedIn or someone who will email or call you and be like: “Hi”, and be very very generic and not know anything about the company or their company or what they’re selling. Or they will send you far too long a set of information so you just trail off and lose interest and subconsciously as a buyer or a decision-maker, you go: “This is going to waste too much of my time, I don’t want to learn about this.”
So your cold opens from a B2B world need to be in-depth enough to spark interest but not so in-depth that it inspires boredom, and to you, your business probably will be interesting, whatever, but like to the outside world, there’s a relatively short attention span for B2B. Especially if you’re dealing with decision-makers that have to make multiple decisions every day and are faced with new opportunities every day. Like how do you stand out? Showcase your product in a way that is unique to them and in-depth enough to spark interest. And if you look at that, that’s very similar to the consumer marketing piece. Because you’re competing with a lot of noise and you’re trying to take the user into a place with not as much noise.
So that was like a long way to get there and then if you think about it from there, the problem is the majority of business development people don’t actually understand the product they’re selling, and that’s not their fault, but like in my world, the product is very technical. And if a decision-maker is technical when interacting with a business development person, they quickly get frustrated because they’re not getting the depth or spirit of answers that they want. So from a BD side, you open it and you move them onto the next stage, which is a video call with someone technical. So you manage the relationship So you’re that consistent party but then you also have someone who can provide deep, technical knowledge of what you’re selling. Because without that you become another generic product in a technical world where everyone does a lot of nothing.
And then moving on from that, it’s like a close. What have I learnt? B2B selling is emotive like B2C Selling. It’s just emotive in a different way and you need to know where your limits are from a B2B side whereas in B2C you can keep the entire journey probably without any kind of relationship forming between the customer and the person putting together the material.
Dan: So I think there is no more valuable skill in marketing than copywriting. Almost everything begins with copy, whether it’s a long-form article, short-form article, whether it’s a tweet or an email, whether it is a video script, pretty much everything begins with words. And I think there is often a real confusion between someone’s technical abilities as a writer versus somebody’s ability as a sales copywriter or a marketing copywriter. And I think they are such different things.
What’s your view on that? When you’re building your kind of sales and marketing team around you, are these skills you look for? Do you train those kinds of principles internally? Or is it something that you just think some people have a natural ability and other people don’t?
James: Quite an interesting question. So I’m gonna approach this from a B2B sales point of view rather than the B2C, right? Because the journeys are very different. And I’m approaching it from a technical space.
Basically what you have within a technical company, typically, is you have a team of very technical individuals that can build extremely technically complex and beautiful products, but those technical individuals are not great at communicating, right? They know what they’ve built is special, but unless someone understands what they’ve built, no one is going to use it, right? And they struggle to communicate what they’ve built right from a point of view that I understand.
On the other side, you have commercial people who are extremely good at relationship building. They are charismatic and they probably have very good roller decks, however, they’re not technical. So you end up with this almost like knocking of heads which is like the technical guys have built something that’s amazing, but they don’t know how to communicate it and because they don’t know how to communicate it, the sales guys don’t know how to sell it. So they end up either selling the wrong thing or not really understanding what they’re selling or not understanding how that would apply to the client, which is really damaging because, within a closing meeting, you need to be able to think on your feet. And if you don’t have a granular understanding of what you’re selling, at least from a logical point of view, it’s really tough.
And so the skill that is missing within that is the bridge between the 2. It’s like translating between French and English, right? It’s like you listen to developers you then iterate your product messaging based on their feedback – it’s a lot more understandable than like ones and zeros. You then sanity check with the developers to make sure you haven’t missed anything with your messaging and that the messaging that you have is correct right? Marketing – myself included – can listen to a developer and make assumptions that are wrong. So you need that kind of sanity check from developers and then suddenly you build something that the average person can understand and you can give to your commercial team. But without that bridge, you end up with basically something that you’ve spent a lot of money developing and very clever people have developed and people that don’t understand what they’re really selling and can’t connect with the product. You need to bridge between the two and translate between the two.
Dan: Like just developing that a bit further I guess the point that I’m getting at as well though is somebody can have fantastic communication skills, they can be a beautiful writer, they can understand all the kind of technicalities of great writing, they may have qualifications, degrees coming out their ears, but that doesn’t mean that they understand what it is to write great sales and marketing copy. That is a different skill.
I just wonder is that something that you still kind of cling onto? Is that a skill that you think is sometimes overlooked, perhaps?
James: Yeah, it’s a very intangible skill.
So a powerful skill that I have which I found as a superpower now rather than a drawback is like I’m the guy that clicks the Facebook ad which is like “Doctors won’t believe this”. And the difference between me and someone else is I sit back and I go: “Why?” Like why have I ended up here? And typically it’s normally because of a very carefully engineered process. And that’s kind of what sales is. It’s like taking someone along the journey of adopting what you’re trying to sell.
Now that doesn’t mean that everyone has to adopt it. But it does mean you need to have a very good view of your market and you need to have a very good view of your user. And a strength I have is that I’m just an average Joe.
So a lot of industries I get into I’m actually the customer as well. So I can have perspective on what would grab my attention and whereas what you frequently get within business is like the people running the business are not the customers they’re going after. And so they get tunnel-visioned or messaging that means a lot to them internally but the customer doesn’t understand it.
Dan: I think often within marketing, we can waste a bit too much time trying to create magic out of nothing and we call that creativity.
And one of the things that you taught me was about I guess specifically from a competition perspective and the time that you invest, and you so often make things look incredibly easy and it’s like you just somehow have the answers, but yet I know that you have the answers because you spent a long time interrogating, investigating, digging into that space, looking at who the strongest players are, investigating them in companies’ house, reverse engineering their business models, speaking to people, picking up the phone – something that people in digital all too infrequently do.
Has your kind of philosophy evolved much? Do you still spend the same kind of time and energy really trying to dig into a space before you commit to it?
James: Yeah, so my opinion hasn’t changed on that. But I think the expectation has changed.
You said something like you don’t seem to work that hard but there’s an incredible amount of work that’s gone on behind it. And I think that’s a really fair judgment. The reason why I can do that is that I’m actually not doing it because it’s my job, I’m doing it because I’m interested in it, right? So when you’re organically passionate about something that you’re doing, you learn about it, you know everything about it.
And in contrast, I only get involved in industries that really, really interest me. And it’s funny because I get interested in the mechanism and design of a mechanism, right? So technology works really well and the reason why I know so much about whatever I do is because I only get involved in something from a business point of view if I’m organically interested in it. And you can’t fake that passion. You can work as hard as you want in something that you’re not interested in but you will never have the same time optimisation as someone who is organically interested in it because if you’re organically interested in something – and this is like a human thing rather than like a criticism of anyone – if you’re organically interested in something, you will learn it because it’s something that you will think about at night. It’s something that you’ll read up. You’ll pick up all the nuances. You will remember it and you can’t compete with that.
Dan: Couldn’t agree more.
So I want to go on to a question on technology. There’s obviously a lot of hype around the implications of new tech now, particularly AI. Although of course, all too often, what we refer to as AI is actually more of a rudimentary form of robotic process automation or some other form of technology that’s existed for a long time and it’s been rebundled and repackaged.
I’d love to get your perspective on where you see the genuine innovations taking place from a sales and marketing perspective?
James: It’s an interesting question.
So AI is a buzzword, right? Like every company now that sells, has AI. I think I heard something really good, which was like maybe 4 years ago, if you had AI in your product, it would up your valuation, now if you don’t have AI in your product you struggle to sell, right? So what you find is a lot of tech companies deliver AI-driven products. So one of the companies that I work with is called Genie so they’re a group of Oxford/ Cambridge graduates and they are creating something that will enhance copywriting and sales marketing and will kind of speed up research. And it’s based off like an AI-driven, NLP thing. So what does that mean? It’s basically a product that aids the user in the use of language, writing and research. And I think being involved in that company, what I’ve seen is we’re probably on the cusp of moving beyond just a buzzword.
Dan: I’ve always been interested in your approach to hiring, you always take such a pragmatic, practical approach to how you hire people. Now if you were to be developing a BD or sales role tomorrow or a team of people, what are the kind of 2 or 3 attributes you might look for in candidates for that sort of B2B Sales position?
James: Hiring BD and sales is really hard, right? Because people know how to sell themselves and so it becomes a little bit of a challenge, because a BD or Salesperson, even modest ones, can normally sell themselves in an interview, right? But the really great ones, you have to dig a little deeper.
If I had to say like attributes – and these are intangible attributes but they mean a lot to me personally – someone who’s ambitious, someone who’s really hungry, someone who’s intelligent and wrap that all into a little bit of modesty, right? Someone who is hungry, ambitious and intelligent can sometimes be arrogant and if a BD person is arrogant, not only will they alienate your customers, they won’t learn your product and how to sell it. They’ll just go off on their own spree.
So modesty is a really important trait because if someone is intelligent and modest they will learn, if they aren’t, they will just continue doing things as they know how to do things because they’re always right.
Dan: A slightly different question again. Going back to a conversation we’ve had – this is probably 5 years ago this particular conversation – it really stuck with me. Often in sales and marketing, there’s so much to do all the time, the innately creative nature of these disciplines means that you could literally do a million different things on any given day, right? You can go in so many different directions and ultimately it’s about our ability to focus and to double down on the priorities and not get distracted by anything else.
And one of the things you once said to me is that in any given quarter, you would identify what are the 1 or 2 bottlenecks to your growth. Is that something that you still subscribe to? It certainly stuck with me.
James: I can empathise with the BD and marketing – especially the marketing side – there’s always a million things to do and that’s the beauty and also curse of it in the sense that the way that brands are normally built is you build the brand, you build the messaging and then you focus on the marketing. And the marketing is kind of like this never-ending loop or never-ending scope of work. But what you frequently find is if you get too bogged down in the scope of work, you never pull back and iterate your messaging. And messaging gets old.
So you can do all the content that you want but if your messaging does not resonate or is already dead with your audience and you haven’t iterated it, it’s like all worthless work. Equally, if you spend all your time on the messaging, you just end up in a boardroom for all your life and nothing ever gets done. So finding a balance between delivering like your proposed messaging but also getting space to take a step back and iterate your messaging is one of the toughest lines to walk in BD & marketing, in my opinion.
In terms of bottlenecks, it’s linked to what I just said, every company has a bottleneck, right? Like otherwise they would be infinitely growing. And that bottleneck in 1 year might be your pipeline the next year it might be your product line, it might be your finance team can’t create entities to sign deals.
If you try to solve every bottleneck you will never succeed because there’ll be too much and you won’t get anything done, but the skill is to take a step back, look at all the bottlenecks and identify the ones that limit you immediately. Or may become a risk in the next ‘x’ amount of time. And focus on those and ignore the rest, because as a business owner you can’t do everything at once. And it’s frustrating, but it’s true. You need to be able to prioritise your time as importantly as the people below you.
Dan: So one of the things I think that has defined your pretty remarkable career so far has been your ability to enter new markets and seemingly run rings around the established players. Now, this is increasingly a theme within a lot of quite traditional B2B and professional service markets, so incumbents that have done things a certain way for decades are suddenly challenged by tech startups that may know relatively little about the sector but nevertheless take huge market share due to their ability to productise, to build a brand, to create great customer journeys, prioritise growth over profitability and a hundred other things that traditional companies struggle with.
If you were one of the established players, what would you do to shield yourself against these startups?
James: So if a startup’s coming in and stealing your market share, the reason for that is they’re innovating or they have a messaging that works that you don’t. And that’s like the first red flag you need to see. Because if a startup is stealing your market share, it’s most likely because your product’s already old.
You can complain all you want but that startup is a commercial entity that’s come up with something that has resonated, like whether your product is better or not isn’t always the decision, right? They’ve come up with something that resonated, whether it’s the pricing, whether it’s like the messaging, whether it’s the actual product itself, it resonated with the buyers or decision-makers. And you need to make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of arrogance and it’s really easy to get defensive and protective when that happens, right? You just go: “Ah well, they’re rubbish or like ‘x’ or ‘y’”. But actually, it’s the first red flag that your business model is probably out of date in some way, and I’m not saying how crazily out of date it is, it just probably is. And the companies which fall behind are the ones that get stuck, either through arrogance or structure, in the same pattern of delivering the same thing over and over. And they’re not consistently challenging and criticising their own ideas. They’re just pushing forward with no thought behind it.
So how do you stay ahead of the startups of this world that are like taking your market share? Well, they’re probably doing something that you’re not and it might be very, very small. It might be very, very large, but like most companies, the companies that succeed and iterate and constantly criticise their product are the ones that survive. The ones which put their head in the sand and become protective and they know best and there’s a level of arrogance there, those are the ones that get disrupted.
It’s very rarely the first movers that actually take the dominant Market share. It’s the companies that iterate on the back of it. So if a startup is taking your market share, you need to work out what they’re doing really quickly.
Dan: You’re still a very young man but should there be a James 2.0 at some point, a mini Macfarlane and he or she wanted to follow in their father’s considerable entrepreneurial footsteps and had an interest in marketing, what one thing would you encourage them to really kind of focus on?
James: I’m not gonna answer your question directly because I think it’s more than one thing. So I think marketing as a phrase is too general. And I think if I’m building someone for success by doing a marketing role, there’s a certain out of steps. So first of all, look at where the most intelligent people are going in the world, right? And by intelligent I mean they’re both intelligent and they’re fulfilling the same goals as you, right? That might be monetary or that might be something else. So like look at that and look at the areas in which they’re focusing on right then look at those areas and work out if you have an organic interest in those areas. If you do, and the most intelligent people that you know are focusing on those areas, you’re going to have a very easy job of building a career in marketing or sales.
The thing that really hampers marketing and sales is the fact that people – this is not me trying to have a go at the question but it’s like it’s generic, right? – and actually truly great people in marketing sales have an organic interest in what they’re marketing or selling. Don’t focus on the fact you want to do marketing or sales, focus on the industry you pick and then the level of interest that you have in that industry. And also are people jumping into this industry or are they jumping out?
Dan: One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that remarkably few people are interested in marketing.
I think what people are interested in is a particular subject matter or an idea of what marketing is all about because it sort of sounds creative and fun. Actually, the majority of people are more interested in a particular discipline, they might enjoy writing, they might enjoy design, they might enjoy coding, they might enjoy community management on social media or maybe it’s a particular subject matter. The number of people who actually give a shit about marketing for marketing’s sake, actually like taking a business to market, in my experience is astonishingly small, astonishingly small and I guess going back to your earlier point, you can’t you probably can’t fake that.
James: Yeah, and you see companies fall into the same trap of hiring a marketing team – and I’m not pointing fingers at anyone – but the marketing team that’s too generic, right? Or a sales BD team that looks like the same person as 10 people in the team, right? Because those people wanted to get into sales and BD, whereas actually, the biggest sales and BD person, the biggest impact you’re going to have, is someone who’s actually interested in what you’re doing and aligns with the ethos that you’re creating.
A really, really easy example for me is cryptocurrency, right? So to the outside world cryptocurrency is a confusing thing that creates wealth and takes it away and if I look at it from the top-level, what you have is like Bitcoin, scams and get rich quick, right? And so as someone looking at that tertiarily, you kind of go this is confusing, right? And that’s where I was six months ago. And I got introduced to the layer below BBC news or Daily Mail, right? And this was like the innovation going on in space and as soon as I took a closer look at it, what I could see was some of the smartest people I have ever met or interacted with flocking towards innovating this space for like true utility. And for me, that was one of the strongest signals that this is a very interesting space to learn. Because there are very interesting problems. There are very intelligent people. And for me, that’s a signal that like this is a good market. I need to learn more about it. Am interested in it.
I’m the normal average Joe that 6 months ago just knew the BBC news site, right? Suddenly I can interact with these very, very intelligent people but they have no idea how to communicate with the Daily Mail audience, right? But I am the Daily Mail audience so if I learn what they’re building and then start to tailor it towards a message that I would understand 6 months ago, suddenly the amount of value that I add to like the smartest people in the world is actually really high, because they don’t have that skill.
That’s an anecdote of how to find something that you’re interested in that provides the goals you want and more importantly, it pushes your knowledge every day, right? If you do something you’re not interested in, you’ll just clock in, clock out and you’ll look back in 40 years and think what the hell have I done with my life?
Dan: Exactly, yeah. On that positive note.
That’s absolutely amazing. I’m tremendously grateful for your time today. I really, really enjoyed it. Thank you.