“How does one of the first international travel tour companies stay on top for nearly a century, weathering a pandemic that halted global travel completely? It combines modern marketing tools and top-notch content with tried-and-true practices, such as direct mail.
Forrest Leighton took over the marketing reins at PERSUIT in early 2022 and built his team from the ground up. Now, after a year, he explains how he did it, what he learned, and what he’d do differently if he started again today.
When Forrest Leighton took over as Vice President of Marketing for PERSUIT in January 2022, they had just celebrated the fifth anniversary of its 2016 founding in Melbourne, Australia. The company had battled through start-up life and driven significant growth, despite having no organized marketing efforts or a marketing leader. A veteran B2B marketing executive, Leighton had plenty of experience building internal marketing organizations when he joined PERSUIT, but he had never done it from the ground up.
PERSUIT, now based in the United States, is an outside-counsel management platform that enables client organizations to scope and receive competitive proposals from their law firms of choice. The start-up’s goal is to remove the pain from the RFP process and drive healthy competition among panel law firms. In short, PERSUIT takes the inefficient and painful manual processes out of finding legal counsel for (mostly) Fortune 500 companies.
“The company was putting an [automated] technology in a place where there was nothing before,” says Leighton. The old-school way to obtain outside legal help was for these companies to seek out people they knew, but there was no technology to help with the selection process. For Leighton, PERSUIT offered an appealing role because the company was in a category-creating moment, and he could build a state-of-the-art marketing department to support it.
“My history was in B2B marketing and also on the sales side,” Leighton says. “My previous jobs would be some form of a mess that needed to be cleaned up. This was the first one where I got to come in and build it—to make the mess, you could say.”
How did he do it, and what can you learn from his experience? We sat down with him and asked.
Q: The opportunity to build a marketing organization from the ground up is unique. Would you have welcomed some established guidelines to rely on, or do you think that a blank slate makes things easier?
Forrest Leighton: Well, it was not exactly a blank slate. There was marketing happening, but it was absorbed by other functions and not consolidated under one clear structure. The company also had great subject matter expertise in the form of lawyers, so there was a lot of gold hanging out there. I needed to figure out where the gold was and how to pull stuff from those other departments and utilize it in our marketing.
Q: You used a number of freelancers early on. What was the strategy behind that, and what types of roles/talents did you bring in to quickly get things up and running?
FL: In the short term, we had to execute the activities the company was committed to, but in the long term, I had to build an engine to help fuel growth. In my previous job, I had built a 17-person team, so I knew the reality of how time-consuming it can be to hire. We did not have the luxury of time at PERSUIT, so we relied on freelancers to fill the positions we needed immediately: a designer, an event sponsorship expert, and a marketing ops person to help ensure we had the data and tech foundation to be able to measure any activities, from in-person events to paid media. Our CEO was great about giving me the reins to hire. I’ve been at organizations where you start with junior staff, but I wanted to hire more senior people who could run their area and build teams as we scaled yet were still willing to get their hands dirty.
Q: Hiring can be a long and arduous task. What were your secrets to getting the right team in place quickly?
FL: I learned from a previous manager that no matter what you have in front of you, [you should] make the time to focus on hiring, because nothing will change the game faster than getting the right team in place. People underestimate the time it takes to hire the right person, but if you focus on it and push for what you need, your organization will be much better off in the long run. I had a clear picture of the profiles I wanted. Also, for our CEO, marketing was a new area, so when he asked me what jobs needed to be done, I had to clearly solidify the profiles we needed, and that helped me be precise. I like this about start-up land—our recruiting team understood that once we had the candidate, we could not hesitate. It took about six months to get people in and feel like we were building something, but we were definitely building the plane while we were flying it.
Q: What was the first real marketing lever you pulled as you were building the team?
FL: For any start-up, prioritization is the key to life. We had a million ideas, but you can’t do everything. Figuring out the things you are going to do is important, but you also need to determine what you are NOT going to do. You need to have a handle on what things will move the needle, and that’s why the metrics were so important. As a performance-driven marketer, I needed to make sure we had dashboards in place that could measure clearly whatever we did as best as possible. We are working in a B2B, many-months sales cycle, and we have prospects that are going to engage many times along the journey, so the funnel is not super clear. It’s not like they come in and then next week they buy. For us, they may join a webinar, then they come to a dinner a month later, then a rep meets with them 12 times, and then they buy. All of those interactions are critically important, but which one gets the credit? The metrics are never 100 percent, but when you have a view of what works really well, you can double down on that. And then there is a test bucket to put some budget toward where we try other things for a defined time period.
Q: Early on, were you simply trying to get the company name out there or to explain the product? Or both?
FL: There was no doubt that there was a need for top-of-funnel marketing. The company had just started building a business development function, so they needed assistance there. Early on, we were flying blind in this area and trying to understand the marketing tactics we were using. For example, we were doing events, and we knew who the people were at the event and who the companies were, but how would we drive engagement with the right people at the right organization? We had to ask ourselves: How do marketing and sales come together to build whatever marketing tactic we use and make it as effective as it can be? I was going one by one to see the effectiveness of each marketing tactic. I found things that worked well and some that did not. This was one advantage of joining a company that did not have an established marketing organization. If you walk into an established company, it becomes a political thing to navigate. When it’s new, it’s easier . . . at least in that way.
Q: You took over an organization with no previous marketing function. How much of your early work centered around building consistent brand messaging?
FL: Well, that’s the word: consistency. We have so many smart people who are really good at pitching it, but they were pitching in different ways. All the times you touch people—from a salesperson on a sales call to a person working at a trade show booth—should have the same two-minute track. When the trade show booth, the PR, the content, and the sales reps are all saying the same thing, it helps the consumer, because they want it simple. They want to know how your company or product helps them. Whether it’s B2B or B2C, it’s all about messaging consistency, and when that consistency starts to hum, you can feel it in the organization.
Q: Regarding your messaging, did you settle on a tone of voice? And what does that sound like?
FL: For us, it’s about how to be bold. We are a B2B tech company in the legal industry, so the default setting is that it must be both wordy and “suit and tie,” but if we fall into that, it’s easy to be lost. Every legal tech company and law firm is trying to get to the audience we want, so we can’t do the same old stuff. We have to be a little bold, break a little glass, and be a little snarky or kitschy. It’s part of what defines the brand and who we are. That’s a piece that’s not comfortable for a lot of people. We are on a journey here, but we need to stand out.
Q: How much internal marketing did you have to do to get people inside the organization to believe in your strategies in the early days?
FL: In an organization with tons of tremendously intelligent people, they won’t agree all the time. That’s okay, but you do need to do some internal messaging. When you do marketing, you need to figure out how to bring people along for the ride. After all, I am new to this space, and they know the customer. For example, I hired someone who is an amazing storyteller but not an expert in this space, so we needed to bring the right people together to help tell the stories. It took a little while, but now I feel like we’ve got it. We know what our customer wants and how we want to talk to them. You want everyone marching in the same direction, but it’s not about someone dictating down. At the same time, while there needs to be buy-in, you can’t have groupthink either. We want input, but not necessarily consensus. If I can take expertise from one of the subject matter experts who know this space and our customer so well—and make it available for our sales or customer service team—those are bigger wins with so much value. If it stays in a person’s head, it never benefits the organization.
Q: You mentioned earlier the importance
of sales and marketing working together. How do you foster collaboration between the two teams?
FL: People think there should be a natural friction between sales and marketing, but I completely reject that idea. You can’t be successful unless everyone is on the same page, and if the marketing and sales teams are not working well together, the problem is leadership. Personally, I would not come to a company if I couldn’t get along with the sales organization. This means spending time on the front lines together and interacting with customers and prospects as much as possible. If you don’t have an innate understanding of their wants and needs—and if you aren’t able to pitch the product yourself—you’ll never be able to market it well. Understanding all these things helps build credibility within the organization outside of marketing, and so does having accountability and metrics to measure what happened with campaigns. I’m only married to what works. I want to do things that drive business into the funnel and convert.
Q: How did you determine what the right North Star was for the company? Did it help to narrow your team’s focus so they were not trying to do too much early on?
FL: Coming in, my first thought when people asked what we should do was that I had no idea! I had to go figure out if events work or whether we should do luncheons or virtual roundtables. There was a lot of learning and failing fast. Twelve months in, we have figured out a number of things that are working, and we are laser focused on getting more “at bats” for sales from our top-tier prospects. We are seeing great results from our events, but to get to where we want to go, we can’t rely solely on the things that have proven themselves—we can’t just do events. So we ask ourselves, “What’s the content piece or the social piece?” We need to continue to test new areas. We have begun building a true content engine that is now getting leveraged across all marketing efforts and is showing a great deal of promise. To say we have it all figured out would be untrue. We will continue to test and learn from everything we do. Maybe a year from now there will be 80 percent that we know is working. Our sales cycle is six to nine months long, so it’s a while from the first interaction to the conversion, meaning we need a lot of indicators. How much do I know about the buyer’s journey? As you get smarter, you can hone in on it and find the levers to pull and see what is repeatable. In the end, great service also drives referrals, and nothing is better than the head of a legal organization for a Fortune 500 company saying to the head of another organization, “You need to go see PERSUIT.”