79 - Adam Ross, Awin

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This is a podcast episode titled, 79 - Adam Ross, Awin. The summary for this episode is: <p>In Ep. 79 of Earned, we sit down with Adam Ross, CEO of leading affiliate marketing platform Awin. To start, Adam explains what affiliate marketing is, and how Awin helps connect companies to affiliate partners with engaged consumer audiences. We discuss why affiliate marketing is relevant to any industry, and Adam reveals how Awin is working to unite the influencer and affiliate marketing industries for a more seamless experience. We hear how Awin competes with social platforms’ native affiliate marketing programs, as well as giants like Amazon and Shopify, by providing superb opportunities and customer service to their affiliate partners. Next, we switch gears and talk through the growing pains involved in building a company with over a thousand employees, and hear how Awin successfully brought several acquisitions into the fold. We discuss the challenge of balancing company growth with profitability, before Adam shares his experience transitioning from COO to CEO. To close the show, we learn how Awin has cultivated such a positive company culture, and why Adam supports a four-day work week. </p><p><br></p><p><strong>In this episode, you will learn:</strong></p><ol><li>What affiliate marketing is, and why it's relevant to any industry</li><li>How to scale a company thoughtfully and sustainably</li><li>The power of promoting a positive company culture as CEO</li></ol><p><br></p><p><strong>Key Takeaways:</strong></p><ul><li>2:50 - 8:20 What affiliate marketing is, and the sectors that benefit the most from it</li><li>9:22 - 11:56 How Awin aims to make affiliate marketing easier for creators</li><li>28:05 - 31:22 The challenge of balancing company growth and profitability</li><li>34: 27 - 38:02 How Awin cultivates a positive company culture</li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Resources:</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.awin.com/us" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">AWIN</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with the Guest(s):</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/adambross" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Adam Ross’s LinkedIn</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with Conor Begley &amp; CreatorIQ:</strong></p><ul><li>Conor’s LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/conormbegley/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @conormbegley</a></li><li>CreatorIQ LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/company/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Follow us on social:</strong></p><ul><li>CreatorIQ YouTube -<a href="https://www.youtube.com/@TribeDynamics" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @TribeDynamics</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Instagram -<a href="https://www.instagram.com/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ TikTok -<a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@creator.iq" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creator.iq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Twitter -<a href="https://twitter.com/CreatorIQ" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @CreatorIQ</a></li></ul>
How affiliate marketing plays a vital role in the thriving creator economy
02:14 MIN
The sectors that benefit the most from affiliate marketing
02:07 MIN
Making affiliate marketing easier for creators
02:34 MIN
How to approach scaling a company
05:16 MIN
Balancing company growth versus profitability
03:17 MIN
The power of promoting positive company culture as a CEO
05:28 MIN

Conor Begley: Adam's track record of success is pretty unbelievable. From 15 employees to close to 1500, 98% approval ratings on Glassdoor, and building one of the largest players in the affiliate space, I think you're going to learn a lot today. We hit affiliate in the first half, leadership in the second half. Remember, if you do enjoy it, be a friend, tell a friend. Thanks guys. Enjoy the show.

Announcer: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the Creator economy with Earned by Creator IQ. Here's Conor Begley.

Conor Begley: Hi everyone. Welcome to Earned. Today I've got Adam Ross, the CEO of Awin, on the show. Welcome to the show, Adam.

Adam Ross: Hey, Conor. Thanks for having me.

Conor Begley: I'm excited that we got to make this happen after our dinner in Las Vegas at the, where was it? Was it Bouchon, where they gave way too many fries, four pounds of fries?

Adam Ross: It didn't feel very French. Normally when you go to France, it's little tiny portions. This didn't feel particularly French, but we'll forgive them.

Conor Begley: Vegas has a way of overdoing it, I think. Well, just for those that don't know, Awin is an affiliate marketing platform. You joined 19 years ago when it was 15 employees and you spent the last 15 years as COO mostly, and then more recently, the last couple of years as CEO. And Awin's got over 1200 employees now, $ 150 million in revenue. You guys have made it very profitable, so roughly$ 50 million in profit. So really cool, excited here about that journey. It's super impressive both to be involved with the business for that long and to see it evolve into what it is today.

Adam Ross: Yeah, thank you. It's been an amazing ride. Just to think about how different the company was at the beginning to where it is now and the different experiences and challenges along the way, it's been incredible. I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity.

Conor Begley: It's funny, we actually had a CEO of a business called Elemis recently on where they had been involved in the business based in the UK, been involved in the business, the co- founders, for I think it was 33 years. And I think that career path is just much more common in Europe than you see in the US. In the US, you see people constantly hopping from one company to another. But I love the continuity. I think you just get so deep into the category, you understand it so well.

Adam Ross: You do. I think it's also unusual here. Even within our own company, we're fortunate to have a lot of tenured people that have been with the company a long time, but I don't think that's the norm. Obviously, in order to get higher salaries, sometimes it makes sense to move between jobs quite frequently, and you see the same thing in the UK and Europe. It's just we've managed to buck the trend a little bit, and I suppose a little bit of that comes from leadership.

Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. Continuity of leadership. We're similar. John and I are I think 12 years in and have no intention of stopping, and we've got a lot of people that have been there for seven, eight, nine years. It's pretty cool. Let's talk about affiliate marketing for a second. I think most people know what the word is. I think a lot of people generally know what it is, but I'd love to hear it from your perspective, just what is the industry? How do you describe it? And then secondarily, what is the role that Awin plays in that market? How do you guys participate? Why do people pay you money?

Adam Ross: Good question. So affiliate marketing really is, it's about connecting advertisers or anybody who sells goods or services online with a whole network of people that have access to online, engaged consumer audiences. And really, that makes it incredibly diverse and varied because when you think how many different companies have access to engaged online audiences, there are many different types of what we call affiliates, or more recently we try to call partners because it better expresses that diversity. And so we have about 250,000 of these partners on our platform all over the world, and we're connecting them to about 25, 000 of these advertisers. And we're using technology to do that so they can find and discover each other through our platform. And generally speaking, or certainly throughout the long history of affiliate marketing, most of those relationships are monetized on a pure CPA basis. So everybody in digital marketing will be optimizing towards CPA for sure, but in affiliate marketing actually most people are paid on a pure CPA basis. And I think that really differentiates the industry a little bit and it's given it a lot of success. It means that people trust it. It's certainly a little bit risk- free because of that approach. At the same time, and I think more recently, there's some limitations to that. And it's interesting because obviously you're working for Creator IQ and we're both trying to optimize in the influencer marketing industry. And influencers, for one, CPA is a good tool for them to monetize, but it can't be the only part of the picture. There's lots of value delivered further up the funnel. And it's actually the same for a number of affiliate partners. They get rewarded on the last click and for sales, but oftentimes they're driving a lot of value further up the chain that isn't properly rewarded and probably isn't very well exposed by platforms like ours at the moment, so we're trying to fix that because of this huge opportunity in that.

Conor Begley: Some of the times, when you do optimize purely for CPA, you have people that are just catching it at the bottom. They're not actually the ones driving the purchase, they're not the ones that are actually convincing somebody to purchase the product. They're just the ones that are getting that last click. And so how do you get the people that are driving the inspiration and the discovery of the brand at the top of the funnel? I think it's really important.

Adam Ross: And one of the things we did recently was we acquired a multitouch attribution company to exactly address that problem, and so we really want to work in a much more strategic way with our clients to really understand what we do interacts with all the other digital activity they do so that they can know exactly where to place their bets. Where does it make sense to shift budget to make sure that they're constantly filling the funnel, and at the same time still working with a whole range of really exciting traditional affiliate partners that can bring a sale over the line? It can be quite complex and it's very different depending on the sector, depending on the country, and so you really need to do this based on data. With this technology, we want to expose that to people and we want to have much more strategic conversations with them to help them make those right decisions. And when they do that, their campaigns really flourish.

Conor Begley: What are the categories where affiliate marketing is most successful? And this can include both you guys as well as there's obviously other players in the space, but what are the big categories for affiliate?

Adam Ross: Amazingly, it works in most categories. I would say retail probably is the best. And speaking from Awin perspective, certainly retail is our largest sector, no matter which market you look at. But really it works for finance, it works for telco exceptionally well. As I said, anybody that's selling goods or services online, provided they are digitally savvy, they have a website that works really well, that converts customers well, then there's opportunity within affiliate marketing because really, within affiliate marketing, you can partner with any type of site, any type of service, anybody that has that engaged, online audience. And so really, that makes the potential quite limitless, and that makes it a super exciting sector for the people that work in it. But also, when times get tough or when, for example, during the pandemic, you see that sort of diversity come to the fore when some sectors are suffering, other sectors flourish. And because we have this vast portfolio of clients, and I'm not just talking about Awin, I'm talking about the whole industry, you really see that benefit. There's always opportunity for advertisers in affiliate marketing and also for the publishers that have access to those audiences to promote those advertisers depending on what's going on in the market. And one interesting anecdote I always like to tell about the pandemic is so clearly there were some advertisers that suffered particularly in the travel space, so travel took a huge dip during COVID, but then you had certain sectors, and they were different in different countries. So the anecdote I like to tell us in the UK we had the gardening space flourish, so people who were selling garden seeds and gardening tools just went crazy because the weather was amazing here during the pandemic in the UK and everybody was out in their gardens planting things.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Adam Ross: Now, in Germany, it was erotic stores that flourished during the pandemic.

Conor Begley: Oh my goodness.

Adam Ross: So that says a lot about what people in Germany do in their spare time and what people in the UK do in their spare time. Yeah, a little insight into European culture there for you.

Conor Begley: Oh my goodness, I love that. One of the things, and part of the reason that I wanted to have you on and have Awin on, is I think the worlds of creators and affiliates are obviously both colliding and connecting in all kinds of interesting ways. And I think affiliate is a very mature industry in that it's gotten to a real size. There's several players now that are well over a thousand employees, in the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. And so with that being said, I think what traditionally is associated with affiliate marketing is blogs, properties that exist outside of social media, but obviously over the last call it five, 10 years, the percentage of time that people are spending with these other types of partners or other, I like to call them publishers, these are all publishers that are trying to build audiences, and I think a lot of them have not traditionally monetized via affiliate. So from your perspective, how do you see these two ecosystems interacting over time and how do you see that changing in the coming years?

Adam Ross: Traditionally, affiliate marketing has been quite complex for people to understand. And even now after, as you say, so many successful companies in the space, a good 20- year solid history, pretty much every major brand in every major economy doing affiliate marketing, it still requires explanation. And there's still a certain complexity to it that I think is a barrier to further growth. And then when you look on the publisher side or the partner side, traditionally it's been, again, extremely complex to understand it. Even signing up to affiliate networks to get access to those brands is too much of a cumbersome process. And as we want to further diversify the partner base, and as influencer marketing and affiliate marketing come closer together, one of the things we've realized is that we have to strip away all that complexity and really look at each different partner type and the different monetization challenges that they have and start to build more sophisticated entry points for those partners, better tools that meet their needs and stripping away some of the other stuff that exists in our platform that they're just never going to need. And so, one of the ways we're really trying to tap into this opportunity is to look at the different partner types, and there are many new ones entering the space, and really build tools and technology that just make it so much easier for them. An influencer marketing is a perfect example. An influencer is looking for new ways to monetize, to easily connect with the brands that they love, and they can do that through affiliate marketing. But if you look at the experience at the moment, it's just completely alien to what an influencer is used to. First of all, they're going to be mobile first and they're going to want a mobile experience. And oftentimes, affiliate marketing platforms are optimized towards desktop use because you tend to be analyzing a lot of data and you need the sort of screen real estate to make that happen. But an influencer doesn't need that. They just need a very simple way to sign up, perhaps using their social media credentials rather than having to go through the complex procedure of setting up a proper, fully fledged affiliate or publisher account. And what they want is access to products and links and brands in a very simple way. They want to find the product or the brand that they want to promote, immediately get a monetizeable link for it, and get it in a format that makes it super easy for them to share it on their social platforms. And that's basically it. And obviously they need to get paid, but the payments part is something that's bread and butter and something that we can do quite easily, but the other parts are way too complex. And so that's how we're sort of leaning into the opportunity and bringing the two industries together.

Conor Begley: Obviously, Amazon is the number one brand we track in terms of coverage. They get the most discussions from influencers globally of any brand, and a huge portion of that is affiliate links to Amazon. Obviously Shopify has some of their own affiliate solutions, discount codes and other things, and then the social networks also have played around with this, right? Whether it's Meta or not TikTok necessarily yet. But how do you think about your role in that ecosystem and your interactions with those players? Because obviously, the disadvantage for them is they're very much a walled garden in a lot of cases, but the advantage of them is they have size and scale and be a native tool. So how do you think about your interaction with that ecosystem over time?

Adam Ross: So with Amazon, it's an interesting one because they have such a dominant position and they control so much. And I think probably at some point during the pandemic they significantly decreased the commissions to all their partners. It's something that they can obviously get away with because there's a sense certainly that if you want to make money, you've got to work with them. And to a large extent, there's some truth to that. But where we see ourselves is giving publishers partners alternatives. We can give them access to similar products or often exactly the same products from a whole different range of retailers. And oftentimes, because they're competing with Amazon, it makes sense for those retailers to be able to beat them on commission and reward. Our message to the market is don't rely wholly on Amazon. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. We can be the alternative to that where we can give you much deeper access to a whole range of retailers all over the world, probably higher rewards, probably as good conversion rates, but less awareness. It's just not as well- known that you can have that alternative. And so, that's where we think we have a really important role to play. And also we know that our advertisers see that as well. It's an opportunity for them to compete, and especially the SMBs, they've got such a challenge on their hands trying to compete with that, and oftentimes they'll put their products on Amazon Marketplace and they don't realize they're getting the chances of that Amazon are going to eventually eat their lunch. Everything that they sell on there, if it's successful, the data's being tracked. And often, Amazon just issues copycat products even sometimes with exactly the same-

Conor Begley: If you get any real traction.

Adam Ross: Exactly. So yes, you've got to look at that as an opportunity, but actually if you look at it in the affiliate space, you can have an even better experience, you can have more direct relationships with those partners, and the partners can have more direct relationships with the brands, really trying to understand each other better, understanding each other's audiences, trying to work out what works, what doesn't work, and building much more successful and more sustainable relationships. I think that's the absolutely critical role we can play.

Conor Begley: Yeah, that makes sense. And how do you think about the social networks in Shopify?

Adam Ross: We have a lot of integration with Shopify, so it makes it super easy for merchants who have a Shopify store to very quickly spin up an affiliate program that actually often has a much deeper level of integration and a more sophisticated level of integration than anybody on other e- commerce platforms. Because all that work is done behind the scenes means there's more robust tracking, more automated features, which make running a program much more scalable. And so I think we can also play a role in that space to give Shopify advertisers access to our network of partners. And why would a partner choose to work with us over maybe something that Shopify spins up? Well, this is where 20 years of experience in managing that huge database of partners in multiple markets really comes to bear because it's hard to keep that group happy. They have a lot of requirements and needs, and particularly around the tracking of sales, which sounds easy, but is becoming increasingly complex as tracking systems evolve.

Conor Begley: Well, I remember being at dinner talking to someone from your team and they were saying dispute management, disputes between the partners, the brands or retailers. A huge part of your role is helping to manage those disputes, which I had no idea. I didn't really think about that at all as a concept.

Adam Ross: We have big customer service teams in multiple languages, in multiple markets that handle that huge volume of queries that comes through. And it's one of the things that we pride ourselves on and we've won quite a few awards. Publishers choose us as their network of choice because they know we're going to look after them in those areas. Publishers don't pay us money for that service, but we know that we have nothing to offer advertisers if it wasn't for the publishers, so we have to look after them. We have to make sure that their needs are met, and some of their needs can sound simple but are quite complex and making sure they get fairly rewarded for the work that they do is absolutely critical to that and is often misunderstood, and it's so fundamental to what we do. Tracking sales accurately. There are many platforms that do tracking and every advertiser in the world probably has an attribution solution that does that at a high level. But oftentimes, we find our tracking is a whole lot more accurate because it's specifically designed to make sure that each sale is captured, and that's actually a service that publishers need. And so when they understand that and they get frustrated when they're doing work and not getting rewarded, they realize if they work with a platform like ours, that's looked after and they can trust that.

Conor Begley: Yeah. That makes sense. Let's step away from affiliate for a second and let's talk more specifically running a company, leadership, some of these kinds of things, because I think that you've had a lot of experience there. So let's start with something that's very self- interested in terms of the question. We're at, call it, 40% of the size of Awin at this point, and I find that problems are consistent often from a size perspective. So when companies are at 50 million in revenue, a lot of the same problems exist from company to company. So you've grown through that size and beyond to more than double that. Given your knowledge there, what are some of the challenges that you think we're going to face at this stage of scale and what are some of the things that we need to be thinking about?

Adam Ross: It's amazing looking at the life cycle of how a company grows, and one of the things I say to a lot of startup businesses is you've really got to value that time because there's never a time like it and you probably don't appreciate it when you're in it, where you have that true family spirit because there's a small number of employees and everybody knows everybody other's business, and I mean whether that's pure business or even personal. And that community feel that develops is so powerful because what tends to happen as you reach a certain size is your ability to really understand everybody, what's going on in their business and what's going on in their lives, it just dissipates over time. And I don't know if you've read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell where he talks about this actually, he talks about, I think the number he says is about 150. Once you get over 150 people, your ability to understand everybody and know everybody, it just goes. And that's when you start having to introduce processes and systems that make things more complex because you need everybody to still have that awareness, know what the business strategy is, know what's going on, but you can't do it on that personal one- to- one level anymore. And so it becomes critical that you develop ways to communicate, really effective ways to communicate, to make sure that your culture is understood, to make sure that the business initiatives are understood, and it becomes challenging. And then it becomes even more challenging when you start expanding beyond your home territory or you make acquisitions and you're trying to bring different cultures into the mix and you're trying to work across different time zones. And so, getting that part right as you move beyond 150 people into many more people and in multiple different markets and making sure that you stay in touch with your employees and your employee engagement is something that you actively monitor and optimize for is really the key challenge that you find as the company grows. The other challenge, of course, is that it's a bit like if you look at McDonald's, no matter where you go in the world, you get a Big Mac, it tastes exactly the same. And your challenge as a business scales is, well, how can you be sure that the service that you offer, that the product that you offer in all these multiple different markets is going to feel the same to the customer? And really keeping that front of mind, it's so hard because ultimately there are people involved. You've got to find the right people, you've got to train the right people according to those methods that you had that made you successful at the beginning. And then you've got to, to some degree, rely on them to deliver that service in the way that you want in multiple markets, in multiple jurisdictions. And it's an ongoing challenge that you have to keep focus on and probably never get perfectly right. But I think that's the biggest challenge to scaling that I can see.

Conor Begley: Yeah, there's a really cool company. I think it's called 3M. They do post- it notes and they subscribe to this methodology really aggressively, the 150 person methodology. And there's a lot of studies on this where basically that's where groups start to naturally fracture. Once you get above that, they split on their own. And so 3M, once a unit gets above 150 people, they split it. They force it to split. And they're massive in size and they've been profitable every year they've run the business for 30 plus years of running the business, and just been incredibly successful at that model. It's crazy. They do team- based determinations on compensation, so there's a pool of compensation and then the team decides how that pool gets distributed and everybody has the same titles, so there's no official titles. It's a fascinating company that's taken that very much to the far end of the spectrum.

Adam Ross: Yeah, that's brave.

Conor Begley: It's like a science experiment.

Adam Ross: Absolutely. Very closely related to this, it's just the development of silos that happens as a company expands. Everybody's trying to do their best work. They've got their hearts in the right place and they become experts in a certain field and they build a team of experts in that field and they try and do what they think is right. But the truth is that if you're one company, each team can't have its own separate goals and ambitions. You've got to have a central set of goals and ambitions that each team plugs into and feeds off, and it can't be a superficial thing. And I'm not standing here saying that we've got this perfect either. It's a big challenge of ours as well. Setting the right goals. You can't set goals, of course, that people don't feel they've had a chance to input into, otherwise they'll never buy into them. And then having them cascade through the organization so that everybody feels a sense of ownership of them, and that the different departments and the different experts in your company work together to make them a reality. It's such a frustration of mine when I see different departments or regions presenting and they're talking about something that we've solved somewhere else, or they're talking about something that really should be working so closely with the different central departments to solve and they haven't done it. It's only going to grow, because we're 1400 people now, and last week actually I was in Sydney, Australia where we have a really vibrant and growing operation. There, you have the challenge of you're literally upside down. It's 11 hours time difference at the moment. So most communication is asynchronous, and getting that right is challenging. Everything takes much longer, but it's so important to do it because otherwise you just got so much duplicated effort and wasted work.

Conor Begley: We're, again, much smaller than you guys. I can only imagine how that multiplies over time, but it happens to us all the time still where two groups are working on the same problem in opposite directions and you're like, " Oh no. Oh no." Or they're doing something that's already been done. It's like, " Oh no, don't do that." Actually, I think I'm curious about part of how Awin came together was through combination, right? Through acquisitions and different businesses coming together. One, tell me about those acquisitions, so what acquisitions and combinations have happened. And then two, we are likely to play the role of consolidator in the market. We've gotten to a certain size and scale within our category that we'll likely be buying new companies and integrating them into what we do. What would you recommend when thinking about new acquisitions that you've observed increase your rate of success in doing it?

Adam Ross: So we have a lot of experience in this area. The company is full of these acquisitions across multiple different markets and cultures. I started in what was then Affiliate Window, which was a UK startup that became the dominant player in the UK market, and was then acquired by what was called Zanox back then, which was a European equivalent. It was a continental European equivalent of what we were. And so the idea was let's bring together the continental European dominant player and the UK player and build the biggest business in Europe in our category. And indeed, Zanox had been very acquisitive as well along its path. It acquired a company called First Coffee in France, which had merged, acquired another company, Benelux, which had merged. And then since then, during my tenure, we've acquired a company called ShareASale, which some of our US audience maybe more familiar with, based in Chicago, which has been a hugely successful acquisition. We acquired a company called Commission Factory based in Sydney, Australia, where I was visiting last week, which has again been another very successful acquisition. And then more recently, we acquired a company called Single View, which is the multitouch attribution solution I mentioned at the start, which is something that all our platforms can access and really helps our advertisers understand the whole industry in a much more sophisticated way. So lots of acquisitions along the way as well as really strong organic growth, and each of them bring a whole new set of challenges. So generally speaking, bringing those cultures together is not easy. When you're looking for companies, you're trying to find companies that share some of the same values. I think that's quite important. It makes that process easier. But nevertheless, every company has its own quirks and differences and ways to approach things, even if they're in the same sector, and so you have to work very hard on that part. Do not underestimate the challenges involved in bringing those cultures together. And then there's the technology harmonization. Again, platforms that largely do the same thing, although in different markets, can approach those tasks in vastly different ways and people get very attached to the way their platform does that thing. And bringing those together is no trivial task, and it requires a lot of time and attention, and it should not be underestimated. And even still, there's so much work we have to do to bring together the acquisitions that we've made, but we have been very successful in bringing acquisitions together in the past, which gives me a lot of confidence. And indeed, a lot of the people that are in very senior leadership positions at Awin came from those acquisitions. You bring in great talent, you bring in great ideas, great tech, as well as the very obvious one of increasing your market presence wherever you make those deals. So it's a very exciting thing to do, it can be very rewarding, but it's also filled with pitfalls and really you can talk for hours about them.

Conor Begley: Yeah, I think bringing in talent is an interesting concept. It's obvious, right? But presumably when you're acquiring these businesses, you're often acquiring a founder- led company or a company that's been created by entrepreneurs. And in some ways, I can imagine, I feel it with Creator IQ, we've brought in entrepreneurs on both sides and it's made the culture more entrepreneurial, which is tough to hire for, I think, of just available talent. So I want to talk about probably the least sexy topic out of the topics we'll talk about: profitability. Although it depends upon who you are. If you're the CFO, maybe it's the sexiest topic. So I think one of the things that's happening within the US markets, particularly over the last year or two as a technology sector has faced more headwinds from a growth perspective, or the software sector I should say, and you see this in the news. You've got Mark Zuckerberg out there. This is the year of efficiency, right? You're seeing significant reductions in team size for the purposes of becoming more profitable and efficient across almost every major software organization. And I think you guys were doing that well before it was invoked. You've increased your profitability dramatically over the last few years. What are some of the challenges associated with that? If you were a software entrepreneur or someone running a software company, how do you think about that balance of growth versus profitability? Or I can hire a hundred salespeople and grow faster, but that would impact my ability to be profitable. Talk to me about some of those challenges and how you think about that balance.

Adam Ross: It ebbs and flows with what's going on in the market. When times are good and cash is plentiful, being a more conservatively run company can sometimes feel a bit depressing, right? Because you can see a lot of startups or upstarts even coming into your industry disrupting and spending a lot of money to do that, and that can sometimes make it feel hard to compete. And then the tide turns, the economy worsens or you get into a period like you're in now and you feel, hold on a sec. These were really good decisions. We feel good now. We feel very safe and secure. Obviously, what's been going on the last few weeks with Silicon Valley Bank, and I think some of our competitors were even affected, I can contact my CFO and say, " Right, is all our cash safe and secure?" Of course it is, because we'll have definitely made the decision to bank with extremely large and robust banks, we'll have spread our cash very carefully, and we have that profitability to fall back on. It's really interesting to see this dynamic play out, and even in our conversations, how European businesses and US businesses really approach the market. It can be so vastly different. Finding the perfect balance is not easy. You could say you look at us and we've been successful with that approach and we've grown profitability. Could we have been even more successful? Could we have been more aggressive if we'd have been able to take the shackles off, if we had been able to spend some of vast amounts of money that we produce on a regular basis? Probably. But at the same time, it would've required more risk, it would've put more pressure on the business, and undoubtedly some of those initiatives would've failed and we would've had to clean up after that. It's an ongoing, interesting debate, but look, what's true is, and I think sometimes the US market, it really doesn't do itself enough justice or give itself enough credit. Some of the most incredible tech businesses in the world have come from the US and continue to dominate the landscape, and those businesses export to Europe as well. And it's very common for, of course, European businesses to do business with big US tech. They have to. But the same thing rarely happens the other way around, and there's a reason for that. There's a greater appetite for risk, there's more capital available. There's an understanding that you probably need to fail multiple times to build a business that's successful. Whereas in Europe, much more conservative, harder to get access to capital. It differs again in different European countries. I suppose the UK is a bit more like the US but still miles away from it, and continental Europe is even more conservative. And that can be frustrating because tons of ideas, tons of ambitious people where they can't get enough traction behind their businesses, where they have to demonstrate profitability probably before they're ready to do, so tricky balance. As I say, I feel good now to be in a position of profitability, but by the way, it never stops. We can have an exceptionally high EBITDA margin and our shareholders still want more, and so that drive for profitability never ends. And so it feels good right now, but a few years ago when I would've liked to have maybe been a bit more bold in the market, we have to hold back and be more careful.

Conor Begley: Well, I've got two more questions. The first question is, so when I was young, I told my mom that when I grew up, I either wanted to be a clown or the CEO of Microsoft. Those were my career ambitions. And so I'd like to think that today I'm some blend of those two things, I suppose. So you became CEO a little over two years ago after being COO for 13 years. I'd love to understand what's different about the CEO role versus a COO role. How has that changed? And then secondarily, your approval ratings on Glassdoor are off the charts. So you've got 98% CEO approval ratings. 95% of the employees would recommend Awin to a friend. What do you think has helped you guys create such a positive culture for the employees at the company?

Adam Ross: Okay, so the first part of the question, what's the difference between COO and COO? It's actually, I didn't anticipate this, but it's remarkably different. The COO, or we actually evolved the role with my successor, we've called Chief Customer Officer. It's an incredible role. It's very connected to so many areas of the business. It's responsible for the largest number of employees across the company. So you're dealing with a lot, you know a lot, you're very much on the pulse of the business, so it can be quite exciting and dynamic. When you move into CEO, it's interesting because you're responsible for everything, but you're directly responsible for nothing, if that makes sense. You have to have a high level knowledge of everything and be aware that ultimately if things mess up that it's on you, even though you might not directly be involved in all of those things. And the other amazing aspect of it is the context switching. So throughout the course of a day, you can be involved in such a variety of different discussions and meetings, whether it's client- focused or you're dealing with a complaint from a small customer or you're in a finance meeting or you're dealing with the shareholders or you're doing a podcast like this or another type of media interview. And all this can happen in the space of a few hours, and you can't let what happened in one of those meetings affect what happens in the other. So you can have a dire financial results meeting and then have to go into a media interview afterwards and pretend that everything's fantastic and nobody can know what happened.

Conor Begley: Are you referring to specifically today? Is that what happened today?

Adam Ross: I'm not referring to today. I've actually had an excellent day today full of really insightful meetings, and it's an absolute pleasure to come to you today and do this. So none of that has happened today, but this kind of stuff goes on all the time. That's the most remarkable thing. And I'm not expecting anybody to get out their violins. And it's often said, and it's a bit of a cliche, it's lonely, but it really can be. As I say, you're responsible for everything, and oftentimes there aren't people that can share that with you, and really they shouldn't. It's on you. You're managing this way, that way, upwards, downwards all the time, and that can be quite challenging. But it's also hugely exciting. It's a great privilege to be the CEO of a company like this, to have all those people working so hard for the cause, to set the agenda. As I said, it's a great privilege, it's a great honor, and I wouldn't change it. And then the second part of your question was about the culture and the approval ratings. This comes from really engaging meaningfully with employees. You can stick it on the wall that you're a culture- first company, but you have to really mean it. And that's about understanding the needs and the frustrations and what's going on with your employee base. So we do regular employee pulse surveys. We're regularly communicating with all our people as much as we possibly can, especially throughout moments of change. And I would say that in the past, the tendency was to try and make those group meetings super positive all the time. Only talk about the good things that are going on. People see through that. I think what's needed, especially in today's economy, is honesty and transparency. Talk to people about the challenges that exist running a company this size, some of the difficult decisions that have to be made, some of the vested interests that you have to meet and explain those to people in an honest way. Spend time with people, take the time to visit people. I keep mentioning Sydney last week. Because of the jet lag, it's all I can think about. But we spent a week in Australia. Not an easy thing to do. You're two days in the air for two or three days on the ground. Very intense. But to sit with people, to look into their eyes, to understand their problems, to help them with some of the challenges that they face, there's nothing that can replace that. And I think if you invest that time, you spend that time, then people enjoy working for you. You get good ratings. And the other thing which would be amiss from me not to say is we've been quite pioneering in introducing a, what we call flexi week, which is effectively a four- day work week for all our staff. They get paid for five days, they work for four days, and it's something we introduced to restore a bit of work- life balance for people. It's incredibly intense working for us, we have hugely ambitious plans, and we were seeing people getting burnt out, so we've given them the one thing that they really can't get anywhere else. We've given them back time. Time to be with our families, time to explore things outside of work, so that when they do work, they're bringing their absolutely best selves. They're bringing a hundred percent to it. And we've seen incredible results from that, from better employee retention, better ratings, and including productivity measures, either productivity the same or more than it was before. So it really proves that if you respect people in that way and you give them that balance in their lives, they pay it back to you in spades.

Conor Begley: Yeah. To reinforce your observations, we do pulse surveys as well. And I think one of the things, prior to being acquired, we went through a very difficult period as Tribe. We'd been doubling, doubling, doubling. We lost access to Instagram data due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. They shut off their API, which was critically important to us. Lost a ton of clients, went from doubling to, and then made some changes in terms of how we targeted clients, and we were tight on cash. We were incredibly transparent with the team, which again, scared a few people. We lost a few people, but then the people that stayed just built an incredible amount of trust and camaraderie around that, hey, we're going to figure this out, et cetera, and did. Most of that team is still here. And then we came to Creator IQ, we started surveying people and we found, we want to hear the bad stuff. We don't want to just hear the good stuff. And we started investing in that. It made a big difference. And then we also had, prior to that, during the pandemic, introduced every other Friday off. So we didn't do four days, we didn't go as far as you guys, but every other week we did a four- day work week because we also saw our people getting burnt out because they were at home. All they were doing was working all day, and Creator IQ adopted that as well. And it's been game changing, and so huge fan of those policies. I really appreciate you taking out the time and calling me from across the pond. Excited to continue to get to know each other better, and congrats again on all the success. It's really impressive to see.

Adam Ross: Oh, it's a pleasure. It's been great talking, and I'm sure we're going to have lots more chats as we further develop the relationship between Creator IQ and Awin.

Conor Begley: Absolutely. All right. Bye, Adam.

Adam Ross: Bye-bye.

Announcer: Be a friend, tell a friend, and subscribe. Earned by Creator IQ. Creator IQ is your all- in- one solution to grow, manage, scale, and measure your influencer marketing program. Ready to unlock the power of the creator economy? Get started with a demo today at creatoriq. com.


In Ep. 79 of Earned, we sit down with Adam Ross, CEO of leading affiliate marketing platform Awin. To start, Adam explains what affiliate marketing is, and how Awin helps connect companies to affiliate partners with engaged consumer audiences. We discuss why affiliate marketing is relevant to any industry, and Adam reveals how Awin is working to unite the influencer and affiliate marketing industries for a more seamless experience. We hear how Awin competes with social platforms’ native affiliate marketing programs, as well as giants like Amazon and Shopify, by providing superb opportunities and customer service to their affiliate partners. Next, we switch gears and talk through the growing pains involved in building a company with over a thousand employees, and hear how Awin successfully brought several acquisitions into the fold. We discuss the challenge of balancing company growth with profitability, before Adam shares his experience transitioning from COO to CEO. To close the show, we learn how Awin has cultivated such a positive company culture, and why Adam supports a four-day work week.

In this episode, you will learn:

  1. What affiliate marketing is, and why it's relevant to any industry
  2. How to scale a company thoughtfully and sustainably
  3. The power of promoting a positive company culture as CEO

Key Takeaways:

  • 2:50 - 8:20 What affiliate marketing is, and the sectors that benefit the most from it
  • 9:22 - 11:56 How Awin aims to make affiliate marketing easier for creators
  • 28:05 - 31:22 The challenge of balancing company growth and profitability
  • 34: 27 - 38:02 How Awin cultivates a positive company culture


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