Developing a Competitive Advantage by Owning Who You Really Are
August 9, 2019
Notes from the Show
In this episode we join Adam Landrum, CEO of Up&Up, and discuss developing a competitive advantage through authenticity:

  • “When we brand clients we help them become the best version of who they already are.”
  • “Be authentic to who you are; don’t make up slogans that you think the market wants to hear.”
  • “It is human nature to look at other organizations and think they have it all together.”
Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.

Susan: Welcome back. I’m Susan Tatum and today I’m talking with Adam Landrum, CEO of Up&Up Agency. Adam, welcome to the show.

Adam: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Susan: To give some context before we jump into our conversation, tell me a little bit about yourself and your agency and what the team does.

Adam: Yeah, sure. I founded Up&Up 18 years ago, and we are a higher ed brand and marketing firm, so we work with universities and colleges really around the country.

Susan: What specifically do you help them do?

Adam: We help them really create their brand strategies or their campaign strategy and digital strategy. On those three levels, we help them define that and articulate that to help them attract more of the right students to their schools.

Susan: So, it’s a pretty highly competitive area?

Adam: Well, yeah. It’s a very niche area but it’s, from a competitive set, a pretty well-defined industry.

Susan: From the standpoint of your competitors or of your clients’ competitors?

Adam: No. Well, really both. I mean, higher ed is becoming more and more competitive due to various reasons. One is because they’re having less students to attract, and then, two, it is competitive. There are several agencies in the industry who specialize in higher ed around the country.

Susan: How did you make the decision to specialize in higher ed?

Adam: Well, for us, we didn’t start out that way, but we started working with Clemson University, who was our first client, and shortly after that, we got a smaller school, Erskine College in South Carolina, but then UGA and University –

Susan: Go, Dogs.

Adam: Yeah. University of Georgia, and then having Auburn University. So, we sort of looked up one day and said, “Hey, we’re actually working with a lot of higher ed clients and we really enjoy it.” It’s a different type of organization. I sort of joke it’s half government and it’s half non-profit and it’s half for-profits. Those are three halves that I’m aware of, and that’s really how they operate.

But, you know, we love what they’re doing. We brand clients. We help them become a better version. Or actually, we don’t help them become a better version; we help them become the best version of what they already are. And that’s really what higher ed is doing, too. They’re taking a student and helping them become the best version they can be, and so it really aligned with our values and our perspectives.

Susan: Oh, that’s interesting. When we talked previously, we were talking about the “Me Too” syndrome, and you had some interesting things to say about how that manifests itself in the higher education industry. What do you see there?

Adam: Well, I think probably in any industry, you know, if you look at a bunch of accounting firm websites and/or their marketing, they all start to look the same in any particular industry like that. Higher ed is not innocent of that and they’ve been accused and the agencies have been accused of them all looking the same and saying the same thing. So, from the “Me Too” standpoint, what we encourage our clients to do is just to be authentic to who they are and don’t try and make up slogans for sort of what the market wants to hear. Just be who you are and then you’re going [inaudible 00:04:02]. So, it’s really that authenticity ingrained.

Susan: How do you help them determine what that is?

Adam: Well, one way is just from being objective and helping them see and own who they are. An example that we had: One of our earlier clients had an enrollment problem and we said, “Well, why do you have an enrollment problem?” and they said, “Well, you know, we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re small, and we’re a Christian school.” We came back and our advice to them was, “What we think you should own is that you’re in the middle of nowhere, that you’re small, and that you’re Christian.” I said, “Because there are students and there are parents who that’s exactly where they want to be.” They accepted that because that’s who they were and they owned it, and as a result, they ended up with their second-largest class in over 50 years.

Susan: How interesting.

Adam: Yeah, and we have multiple stories like that of, you know, turning what they think of as negative into – not turning it into a positive, but just more owning it and that becomes positive.

Susan: Becomes a competitive advantage.

Adam: Yeah. Well, we really think that your only true competitive advantage is to be yourself.

Susan: Do you have a process that you take them through or do you have like a discovery workshop or something that you take them through to help them discover what they really are? The reason I ask this question is that I find when I’m talking to people or you ask a person as an individual, “What are you about? What makes you, you?” they can get very passionate in talking about it, but then sometimes then you say, “Talk about your business,” and it becomes very generic.

Adam: Yeah. So, we do. One thing that you and the listeners would want to maybe know about me is I’m a recovering CPA. So, as an ex-accountant now running an agency for higher ed, we’re very process- and system-oriented, so we have what we call the Up&Up way, which is our proven process. I have countless stories of – you know, we like to say we do award-winning work with record-breaking results, and that is in our process.

The first thing, and it’s not magical or unique, it’s just more discipline and we know what works with it: Getting that research and insight and then going into strategy. So, where I think a lot of companies in our industry have an opportunity to be more successful is if we started with understanding the client first and taking the time to put that strategy together before we jump into what the result is. Sometimes the client, too, on the higher ed side is guilty of asking for solutions before taking the time to truly define the problem. We can –

Susan: That’s a really good point.

Adam: And our clients just slow down and let’s really understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish or trying to solve.

Susan: Yeah. I think that’s a situation that exists across industries.

Adam: Yeah.

Susan: Clients come to you with problems and they are looking for a solution and it’s not necessarily the right one. What drives companies to be “Me Too” companies? You sort of described discomfort with what they – this one example you gave, they viewed that as being a negative and they were looking at trying to hide that, or not hide it. What am I trying to say? How to get around it or de-emphasize it. And so, you had them turn it into a strength. Why do you think that these higher eds and organizations and all kinds of companies are so fearful of taking that approach and being different and owning it as you said?

Adam: That’s a great question, Susan. I think we probably – it’s human nature that we look at other organizations and think, “Gosh, they have it all together.” And, you know, we know how the sausage is made on our side of the fence, if you will, and so, I don’t know, there’s some self-consciousness there or, “Such and such school has a great reputation,” so we feel like we have to emulate or copy them instead of saying, “Hey, this is where we are and this is who we are.”

Some of my favorite clients are schools who say, for instance – well, let me say this. Most schools say, “We want to go after the elite student. We want to go after the cream of the crop and we want the best students.” Well, everyone’s doing that, right? But we worked with a handful of schools who said, “You know what? We take C students because if we didn’t, they wouldn’t go to college and they wouldn’t have this opportunity, and we’ve structured our university so they can succeed.” They’ve put like – for instance, if they miss a class, the professor would text them and say, “Hey, where are you?” Where, in a big school, that’s not going to happen.

Susan: Right.

Adam: Or another school in Ohio, they say, “We take solid B students and we turn them into A players.” I love that. They’re not trying to compete with the Ivy League or anything, they know exactly who their market is, they know who they can help, and they go help them. So, it’s just – you know, John Wooden, great basketball coach, they’d always ask how he’d prepare against competitors and he would say, “I don’t. We focus on our game and that’s all we have to do,” and he’s one of the most winningest coaches in college basketball. I think all of us can take a page from that book.

Susan: Yeah. I find this in my business, and I think the opportunity that you just described, one of the benefits there, when you do focus like that, on what you’re good at, you can speak directly to your market as individuals and really hitting on what they’re most interested in or what’s most important to them. The broader the target, the most generic the messaging becomes, right?

Adam: Correct.

Susan: So, in focusing these schools on B students or C students or whatever, you’re able to really hone the message to where it really strikes home with the people that would do best there, would be their best students and best “clients,” do they call them?

Adam: Well, they don’t call them clients, but yeah, they would call them their students. It’s another thing to consider, too, what our process generates is a win to the fifth, and that is what happens when you attract a student, you trick them into coming to your school, and you aren’t who you say you are, right? Nobody wants that, whether you’re hiring someone or attracting a customer. And so, you really want to attract a student that’s the right fit. Because if you don’t, then you’re going to have a retention problem. You’re going to have an alumni engagement problem. You’re going to have a culture problem at your school. And then you’re not going to have alumni who give.

And so, when you attract the right student, when you do an authentic brand to attract those who really want to be there and should be there, you get better enrollment, you get a better culture, you get retention, you get engaged alumni, and you get giving. You could do the tricks and all that stuff, but it’s a short-term fix that’s going to give you long-term problems.

Susan: Do you find that, when clients come to you, that they get that? Or is this part of an education process you go through with them? 

Adam: You know, it’s a little bit of both. I mean, again, in any industry, you’re going to have sophisticated marketers with experience who get that. And then some maybe not as much, but they maybe haven’t had the experience to know any different. Not that we know everything or are the end-all be-all, but we love to educate and at least provide a different perspective.

We’ll get a lot of requests like, “Hey, we need a new website for our business.” And we might sort of joke and say, “No, you don’t,” and they laugh at us and say, “What do you mean?” It’s like, “Well, what problem are you trying to solve?” and then we get into, “Well, our [inaudible 00:13:04] for branded content.” You know, “What’s your brand about? Who are you trying to attract? Who’s the user?” You have to sort of step back from it so that they can, I guess, sort of see the forest from the trees. It’s hard when you’re on that side, right? That’s not the only job you’re doing. That’s not your only responsibility, so you might not have the luxury to take that much time to zoom back. I think that’s some of the value that we’re able to offer our clients, which is a great opportunity.

Susan: It’s hard, yeah, when you’re involved in the work yourself and it’s the old forest from the trees thing. It’s really difficult to step back. I find that it’s always good to have third-party, a little bit of looking in, for just about anything, really, now that I think about it.

Adam: Yeah.

Susan: You know, when we were talking before, I think we were talking about the benefits to Up&Up from when you started to focus. Can you talk about what was the transition like from – because I think you said you started of being a web design firm and not with a focused audience.

Adam: Yeah. In 2001, 2002, we founded as a web firm that primarily did web strategy, so really, same philosophy. The philosophy hasn’t changed. It starts with strategy. But we served all industries and a pretty wide range of companies, and that’s really hard to market to. And so, when we found that we had this concentration in higher ed, the pros and cons of that is like, well, that gets a lot easier to market to because they go to the same conferences, they speak the same language, you know who all the players are in terms of who the VPs and who the presidents of the school are, so you actually know who your prospects are. So, there are some great advantages there.

As the recovering CPA that I am, there’s also a term that we learn that’s called concentration of risk. There’s risk that if you put all your eggs in one basket and in one industry, if something happens to that industry, then you could be in trouble.

Susan: Yeah.

Adam: And in sort of balancing that, I decided that, yeah, this makes sense. We think we could be more valuable to our clients and we could build [inaudible 00:15:51]. I think looking back ten years ago, that was the right call.

Susan: You just hit on one of the things that I hear with businesses hesitating to focus and that is, “Well, what if this opportunity comes along and I miss it? You know, this random – outside of what we’ve decided to focus on?” They’re so afraid that, “If I focus here, then I’m going to lose here.” But it rarely happens that way. I mean, you can still take those opportunities if they come along.

You had mentioned the types of people that want to come and work with you and the change that occurred when you began to focus on higher education. Tell me about that a little more.

Adam: I’ll go back to the first part of your comment, too, of people scared to focus. What came up for me when you said that was, we all have a little bit of a fear of missing out.

Susan: Yeah.

Adam: But marketing is about focus and it is about – I always like to say you’ve got to say no to a bunch of stuff, which is really you saying yes to what you want to be about. At some point, you have to just take the leap, and it is somewhat of a leap of faith. So, that’s just my thoughts on that comment.

In terms of attracting team members and employees to Up&Up, once we went all in on higher ed, I think at one point – it’s not the case now, but at one point – other than me, I’m Gen X and I like to joke that I’m half Millennial, but our whole team was Millennials. Millennials are very purpose-driven, they want to make a difference in the world, want to make an impact and there aren’t many things I think better at trying to make an impact than providing someone an education.

In terms of being able to help our clients effectively educate future students, I mean it’s just a very rewarding thing to be a part of. So, that’s been very attractive to being able to find people to join Up&Up.

Susan: Would you say then your employee base or your team is stronger now than it was before or they share a vision or mission that they didn’t have before?

Adam: Yes. I think our vision is much clearer, mission is much clearer. Before, you know, we were serving anybody and everybody but with a horizontal focus in terms of digital marketing primarily. I just think that dilutes the vision a little bit more, so you can speak much more clearly to your employees and give them the direction that a lot of them really are yearning for. So, yes, that made that easier as well in terms of differentiating.

Susan: Okay. Do you have any particular advice that you would give to a business owner or the head of an organization that was kind of knowing that they should focus or differentiate themselves and they’re just kind of waiting for the push to take that step?

Adam: Oh. That is a great question. I mean, I’m not a classic MBA student who would say, “Go do a ton of research.” I’m a more intuition and gut type of entrepreneur. So, my advice to people saying, “Hey, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, how do you know?” and I say, “You don’t. You just jump.”

I’m sure there’s googols of research and data that you could analyze to make this decision, but at some point, at least in my experience, you’ll know when it’s time and you just need to have the courage to make the change.

Susan: Just do it.

Adam: Just do it.

Susan: Thank you, Adam.

Adam: Yeah.

Susan: I think that about wraps it up, but for our listeners that might want to get in touch with you and learn a little bit more about what you’re doing, how’s the best way for them to do that?

Adam: Probably reach out to me through LinkedIn. You can send me a direct message there and also find me at our website. It’s You can go to my Team Bio and find my LinkedIn profile and shoot me a note.

Susan: Okay, great. Well, thank you again for joining us. This has been really interesting.

Adam: Susan, thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Susan: Take care, Adam.


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