In Ep. 79 of Earned, we sit down with Adam Ross, CEO of Awin, the leading affiliate marketing platform that has achieved nearly $150 million in revenue.
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.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“We have to strip away all that complexity”: Awin’s Adam Ross on Connecting Influencer and Affiliate Marketing
Conor Begley: I think the world of creators and affiliates are obviously both colliding and connecting in all kinds of interesting ways. Affiliate is a very mature industry in that it's gotten to real scale. There are several players now that are well over a thousand employees, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
With that being said, I think what traditionally is associated with affiliate marketing is blogs, or properties that exist outside of social media. I think a lot of creators, or publishers, 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. Even now, after so many successful companies in the space, a good 20-year history, and 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 cumbersome a 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. We need to build more sophisticated entry points for those partners, better tools that meet their needs, and strip 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 are 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 build tools and technology that just make it so much easier for them. 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. Oftentimes affiliate marketing platforms are optimized towards desktop use, because you tend to be analyzing a lot of data and you need the 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 fully fledged affiliate or publisher account.
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 monetizable link for it, and get it in a format that makes it super easy for them to share it on their social platforms. That's basically it. Obviously they need to get paid, but the payments part is something that's sort of our bread and butter that we can do quite easily. But the other parts are way too complex. So that's how we're leaning into the opportunity and bringing the two industries together.
“You can stick it on the wall that you're a culture-first company, but you have to really mean it”: Adam Ross on Cultivating Awin’s Positive Culture
Conor Begley: [Awin’s] approval ratings on Glassdoor are off the charts. 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: 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 of 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, and 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 of 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. We spent a week in Australia last week. Not an easy thing to do, you're two days in the air for two or three days on the ground. It’s 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. I think that if you invest that time, you spend that time, then people enjoy working for you.
And the other thing which I’d be remiss not to say is that we've been quite pioneering in introducing what we call a 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 introduce 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 their families, time to explore things outside of work, so that when they do work, they're bringing their absolute best selves. They're bringing a hundred percent to it.
We've seen incredible results from that, from better employee retention, better ratings, and either the same or more productivity than 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.
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