Joe Zappa, CEO and Founder of Sharp Pen Media, is an expert in the marketing technology space and joined Mike to discuss how marketers can maximise the impact of their marketing efforts.

Joe shares his insights into why constancy is important for long-term success, why marketers should dig deeper when developing personas and why he believes the AI generative phenomenon has been overblown.

Listen to the podcast now via the links below:

About Sharp Pen Media

Sharp Pen  Media specialises in content and PR for the B2B companies in the AdTech and MarTech space, including enterprises, startups, and marketing agencies.

About Joe Zappa:

As an experienced B2B Ad MarTech Journalist, Joe has spent several years creating content for B2B companies. He is now the CEO and Founder of Sharp Pen Media, an agency supporting businesses in AdTech and MarTech.

 Time Stamps

[01:11.09] – Joe discusses his current role at Sharp Pen Media and his career journey.

[06:06.02] – How do the marketing challenges of start-ups and established businesses differ.

[14:33.02] –Joe highlights some campaigns that have been successful in MarTech.

[17:59.04] – What impact is AI going to have? Joe shares his thoughts.

[24:49.09] – Joe offers the best marketing advice he has received.

[27:27.01] – Joe’s contact details.


“I think the generative AI phenomenon has been overblown… I think A. I. Is ultimately at present more of a tactical tool” Joe Zappa, CEO and Founder and Sharp Pen Media.

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Transcript: Interview with Joe Zappa – Sharp Pen Media

Speakers: Mike Maynard, Joe Zappa

Mike: Thanks for listening to marketing B2B Tech, the podcast from Napier, where you can find out what really works in B2B marketing today. Welcome to Marketing B2B Technology, the podcast from Napier. Today I’m joined by Joe Zappa. Joe is the Founder and CEO of Sharp Pen Media. Welcome to the podcast, Joe.

Joe: Thanks so much for having me on.

Mike: It’s great to have you and you’re a little bit different because you’re actually running an agency, but you’re running an agency that works with a very specific group of clients. So he really specialises in the marketing technology, which is why you’re on I’m really excited to find out and take a little bit of a look behind the scenes as to you know, how some of the guests who’ve been on our podcast might actually be doing marketing. So hopefully you can help us with that.

Joe: Yeah, I’ll do my best.

Mike: Okay, so, first thing, you know, we want to start out and find out how you got to where you are today. You start as a journalist, and now you’re helping marketing technology companies promote themselves. I mean, How’d you make that jump? That sounds like quite an exciting career journey.

Joe: Yeah, so I was an adTech martec. Journalist, I was the editor for five years of the mahr tech trade publications, street fight. And when I was doing that, I would edit the thought leadership islands and missions we would get. So basically, I was constantly interfacing with the marketers who were representing adTech and more tech companies, either fielding their pitches, reading that press releases, or editing their executive byline submissions. And when I started to transition from being a journalist to being a marketer, the way I did it was just to talk to all the people had been pitching me forever, and be like, hey, what do you do? Tell me about that. And then they would be like, you know, this space really? Well. you’ve edited these things, why don’t you try writing them? And I did. And it went well, because I had an understanding, having edited like, 1000 columns by adTech and MarTech CEOs, what works and what doesn’t, and what’s actually compelling to the audience.

Mike: So it’s pretty interesting, but what made you make that jump and go from being a journalist through to actually, you know, effectively starting your own agency?

Joe: Yeah, I was recommended to a company that needed a content marketing writer and realise that I really liked it. I got my start in journalism, editing the daily newspaper at my college. And there, I would do reporting and edit the reporting of others. And I would also edit the columns and work with the column writers. And I always really appreciated argumentative writing, sort of like a debate club, like I really love getting into the head of a given company or company leader, and figuring out like, Okay, I know about these trends in our space, what is this company’s position within the space? How do we differentiate them and make that argument? So that was something I loved about marketing from the jump.

Mike: That sounds really cool. So I mean, you’ve got your first, you know, if you like, freelance gig, how do you think grow the agency? I mean, what were the next steps to go from from that one sort of freelance role into building up to be an agency that that obviously now is quite a big force in the mahr tech space? Yeah,

Joe: interestingly, I think the journey for an early stage agency or a freelancer trying to become an agency owner in marketing is not so dissimilar from that of a really early stage tech company, which is to say that I wouldn’t have recognised it as this at the time, but it’s basically founder led sales in the beginning, right, you’re setting up your shingle, you come up with a basic positioning statement, and you are working your network and talking to everyone you know, and see, like, who will work with you? Once I had that sort of critical mass of clients, I made a pretty classic like Freelancer agency owner transition when I just couldn’t do all the work myself, right. Like I went from one or two clients to six to eight. And by then it was like, Okay, well, I’m writing like, three articles a day, on top of trying to market the business and manage things like that’s not gonna happen. So that’s when I had to hire people and start really running an agency.

Mike: I mean, that’s awesome that you managed to grow like that. So where are you today? I mean, you know, how far have you gone? And what is sharp and media? Do you feel clients today?

Joe: Yeah, so we have about a dozen clients and adTech and MarTech ranging from really early stage startups to billion dollar plus revenue companies. We do marketing strategy, content and PR for our clients. I basically view it as two different personas. One is a probably fairly early stage company. I mean, they might have been around for 20 years, but they’re still small ish, and that they don’t really have a marketing team or a marketing strategy. So for those clients will come in and we’ll bring in a multi time adTech martech CMO, and we’ll create your marketing strategy out easily with you with the CEO or the CRO, whoever’s in the picture. And then the other client, which is probably more relevant to your audience is a more mid market or enterprise company that has a marketing team and a strategy already. And with them, we’re usually working with the director of comms or VP of content or whatever it is. And they’re I view our role more as making their life easier. So generally, they work with us because they have worked with freelancers or agencies before who didn’t really get adtech martech. And they want to come in and like, not have to explain, like, what’s a DSP? What’s like B2B intent data add? What is the third party cookie, these kinds of things we just come in. And we know that and we try to make their lives easier.

Mike: And hopefully everyone listening knows what all those abbreviations are, because they’ve heard other people talk about them. So. So that’s great. I’m interested, you’ve got those two very different personas where you know, it sounds like the startup, you’re basically are the marketing department. Whereas the more established companies, you know, you’re working for a marketing team, to these two very different companies or types of companies. Do they face the same challenges? Or are they facing very different problems?

Joe: I think on one level, there is a similar challenge, which is sort of my hobbyhorse, which is that, like a huge challenge, and adTech and MarTech, and more broadly, B2B tech marketing is differentiation, or transcending commoditization. Right? So even when you have these more established companies that have a certain level of awareness and product market fit, I think still, there’s often a challenge of okay, you know, we help companies sort out their data, right, first party, third party data, whatever it is, and privacy is a huge issue in that space. So we want to write a byline about, or we want to write an executive byline for our CEO about the third party cookie going away. So this is very common, right. And this is what I experienced as an editor was I edited hundreds of these third party cookies going away, what do we do now columns, and I still see that even with very mature companies is that you have to work together to figure out okay, let’s reset. Like, we’re, we might have a marketing team of 10 or 50 people, we’re pretty advanced. But do we really have a differentiated message? And do we have a way to talk about the news that relates to that differentiated message? So that I would say is the similarity? I would say the difference is that those early stage companies, they need that marketing strategy, right, they probably don’t have written down anywhere like, This is who we are, this is who our competitors are. This is why we’re different. This resonates with our customers. So especially for the younger companies, I think you need to do that foundational work of understanding who the customers are and what resonates with them.

Mike: Wow. So that sounds like two very different challenges. I mean, it sounds like those startup companies, you really are starting from scratch, even if they’ve been around for a while if they’re small. They don’t have that they plan the strategy, the frameworks to do it. The Enterprise comes in Why do you think that they’re still, you know, writing the same articles? And I’m I agree, though, third party cookie going away? Is that storyline that keeps giving right, we then see they get rid of it? Why do they keep going back to those same storylines, rather than finding something new?

Joe: I think it’s because things evolve in your industry. And there was probably a point, if you’re a mature company, where you did the exact type of exercise we’re talking about with the early stage companies, right? Somewhere along the line, you got together with your executive team and the leaders of the marketing department, you talked about who you are, and how you’re going to be different, you interviewed a handful of customers figured out what resonates with them all that foundational work. But that goes stale, right? Like you need to do that basically, once a year, to understand how to insert yourself into the narrative of the industry and provide value to your audience. When you don’t do that sort of strategic work on some sort of regular basis, you end up taking the easy way out, which is no individuals fault. It’s just what happens when like everyone is busy, and you don’t have the time to set aside for that strategic reflection. And so then you end up pumping out commoditize insights, right, where it’s like, in adtech, and martech. We’ve all read, you know, 50 by lines on how to prepare for the death of third party cookie, and then we end up saying basically the same thing. So I think it’s it’s keeping up with the dynamism of the industry. That is the challenge. But what would you say? Because you work with a lot of companies on similar issues?

Mike: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s interesting, we see a lot of themes that are fairly consistent. So if you look at the world of industrial automation, there’s a huge theme around net zero. I mean, it’s a massive topic. But I think in a way, companies in our space are actually quite good at putting their own, you know, really specific view on it. Because the way you get to net zero in terms of saving as much carbon and, you know, sequestering it or doing whatever, as opposed to the carbon you’re missing. There are different ways to do that. So you can do that and have a strategy around capturing that carbon you can have a strategy around, generating energy in a more environmentally friendly way. If you can have a strategy around more efficiency, I think we see those big topics, but there’s lots of different ways to attack them. I think one of the challenges maybe you face is that, you know, something like a third party cookie, there’s going to be one industry solution, there’s going to be consistent, and people can’t very easily come up with very different answers. Is that fair? Do you think?

Joe: Yeah, there are there are two or three solutions. But ultimately, if you have 100 companies talking about two or three solutions, you’re still gonna end up with that commoditization challenge.

Mike: Yeah, absolutely. So becoming commoditized and not differentiating. I mean, that’s a classic mistake that people make. I mean, do you see other mistakes being made in the marketing technology space where, where companies are maybe missing opportunities, or perhaps just simply doing things wrong?

Joe: Yeah, one is consistency. So I think that, you know, we mainly do content and PR for our clients. And something that we see a lot is that companies are stuck on the MQL hamster wheel. So they’re stuck only doing marketing tactics that can be easily attributed to leads. And that’s fine. Like in the beginning, you should do that, right. Like if you’re an early stage company, and you need leads to survive, and you don’t have a reliable acquisition channel, you should focus on marketing tactics that will clearly grow your business. But as you mature, and let’s say you’re a an eight figure revenue company, and you get all of your leads from SEO, that might be an acceptable tactic to management, because it’s easy to understand, right? Like we spend this much we write these articles, we can easily track them, people come through, they submit a demo request. But ultimately, to grow beyond whatever stage you’re at, you’re going to plateau with that MQL focused SEO tactic, and you’re going to need other tactics. And that’s where understanding that being a part of the industry conversation, and regularly getting in front of your audience does pay dividends over the long term is important. If you can find like a version of Twitter, right? Like people will say an industry Twitter’s like adTech, Twitter, or whatever it is, if every major thread that happens in that industry, you are a part of and people are looking to you as an authority. Or if you’re speaking at conferences, and people recognise you as a luminary on this or that issue, like that is going to generate gains for your business over the long term. And I think where a lot of companies go wrong, is they just give up on it too soon, they don’t want to do anything that can be easily measured in terms of lead output. So they have their main lead strategy, but then they like try out content, they give up on it, because after three months, they’re like this isn’t clearly generating leads. The other thing I would say is that companies focus too much on their own product, which is harder for their prospects to remember than they might imagine, like, my new product details are very important to the people working every day on the product, they’re not as important to the customer base. And the key is to make your customer, the hero of the story, not your product. So I would say those are two things I see often.

Mike: That’s amazingly similar with what we see in our industries as well, I think the product is really interesting, and I totally get it. I mean, I used to be an engineer, I used to be developing products, you know, and products were two years of your life. And he put this huge effort in and it really matters to you. And it’s very hard to have a marketer go and say, customers aren’t that worried about particular features or particular products, what they care about is over whether you’re the right vendor with a right sort of range of capabilities to be able to work with them. That’s hard when you’ve spent all that effort and all that time on one particular product or one particular feature.

Joe: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Ultimately, you are selling to a person. And unfortunately, that person, like let’s say your product is, you know, five hours out of their week, they just don’t have that same level of attachment to the intricacies of the product as you do. So the way I try to coach people out of that is to focus on the person or the persona, right? Like, who is this person who’s using the product? What do they want to achieve? And how are you going to help them? I’m sure you do something similar?

Mike: Yeah. I mean, it’s a, I guess it’s a fairly standard approach, but it’s very effective. I’m interested to move away from some of the challenges. Let’s look at something a bit more positive. I mean, where do you see martec companies getting it? Right? Are there any particular campaigns you’ve run or seen that they you think really crush it in the world of martech?

Joe: Yeah. One example I like to go to is our marketing strategist, Paul connect and he was the Chief Marketing Officer of an adTech company called beeswax that had a nine figure exit to Comcast. And what Paul realised when he was working at beeswax was they were working with media buyers, so brands and agencies, and they were having trouble with sales cycles. Your sales cycles were really long, they couldn’t really figure out Who is truly our ideal customer? And how do we use that intelligence to bring in the right people make the sales cycle shorter and then make happier customers. And what they ultimately realised was that they had this sort of intricate and granular tech that really resonated with a persona that they ended up calling control freaks, which is funny, because it almost sounds insulting, right. But that’s the exact idea of it was that they didn’t resonate with like the average media buyer, they resonated with companies that had built out data teams and people who really wanted to get into the weeds on their media buying technology. And by reworking their marketing and their sales pitch around this persona of the control freak. They were able to bring in the right people shorten the sales cycle and have happier customers, because they were no longer foisting this, like relatively granular tech on people who just wanted something easy, right. So I think that’s a great example, because it shows what we sort of learned in marketing 101, but then tend to forget, because it’s hard, which is that the most effective positioning will actually turn away the majority of the people who see it, but it will really resonate with the 20% of your potential market, you need to be super successful.

Mike: Yeah, and I love that as well. Because I think in B2B, it’s so easy to, to almost think of personas in terms of checkbox characteristics, you know, size of firm, what role they are, you know, how many people in their team? And actually, I think that that control freaks is really interesting, because that’s much more about that person’s behaviour and how they think, and really not so much about what they actually do. And I totally agree, I think that can be really, really effective when you really get under the skin of your customer.

Joe: . Yeah, I agree. I was talking to another startup founder recently, who runs a text messaging solution that helps small businesses communicate more easily with site visitors right to turn online visitors into leads. And he was saying, like, there’s a hard condition for our prospects, which is they need to have website traffic, right? Because then if not, that solution, obviously won’t work. But then there’s a softer, more like persona driven condition, which is they have to care about communication. And they have to want to improve and sort of have this understanding that there would be value and a solution that would help them more effectively communicate with their customers. And that’s not like you could have a 10 person business where they have that desire. And you could have 100 person business where they’re like, oh, no, this is never gonna work. It’s not important. So you’re right, it does go beyond firma graphics, is great.

Mike: I mean, I could talk about personas for ages. I love PreSonus. But I’m aware of the time I think we ought to talk about some of the other topics. I mean, one of the topics I feel I can almost never do a podcast without is mentioning AI at the moment, you know, I’m interested as another agency owner, where are you using AI? And where do you see it going?

Joe: So where we think I can be helpful is in research and inspiration. So for example, if you are writing about location data, and you have a freelance writer who’s never written about it, a use case where I’ve found AI helpful is having that writer put into chat GPT, like write a blog post about three ways enterprises can use location data to grow internationally, right, and then that might provide them a basic education on the subject that’s going to be more efficient than if they were to go out and like Google seven different things and like read a bunch of different articles. Or another way would be very commonly established use case now, like, give me 10, subject lines for an email about X, Y, or Z. But overall, to be honest, I think the generative AI phenomenon has been overblown. And the reason I think that is because AI is ultimately at present more of a tactical tool. It’s not going to solve like foundational, strategic or critical thinking marketing questions. And I’m just of the opinion that those foundational questions like, Who are we? Who are we speaking to? What’s going to resonate with them? I think that comes from speaking to your customers speaking to industry experts and thinking critically, I don’t think it can really come from ChaCha beauty. And I think the obsession with generative AI comes from a problem in marketing, which is that we are very obsessed with like tools and tactics and efficiency. And I think often to the detriment of those strategic developments that really make marketing successful. But what about you, how are you using it? And how do you think about it?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, junk food is really interesting, because it’s very attractive because writing good quality content is really hard. And most people know that. A lot of people who are not specialist writers, they really don’t want to have to create that content. So that promise of generative AI to be able to create blog posts very quickly, is incredibly so octave, and I understand why people like it. I mean, we’ve actually tried, we ran a test using Jasper, which is still based on the same GPT model. And we did some editing to make it better. But effectively, we ran the tests, we decided we weren’t prepared to post the blogs, because they weren’t good enough. So we did some editing afterwards. And we put them up. And ironically, at about the same time, we obviously had some of our writers writing content. But also, we were doing a couple of articles on design, and we had a couple of designers contributing. And the designer, you know, blogs don’t do as well as the ones written by professional writers. And they probably shouldn’t do, you know, it’d be worrying if designers were as good at writing as people who do that as their career. So they had a much lower time on page. And interestingly, when we put the AI generated content up, it was about as good as the designers, even though we’ve had writers come in and try and edit it and facelift it afterwards. So, you know, kind of my view was, if you want to write blog posts that are as good as a graphic designer, AI is not bad, I think it will get better. But being an ex engineer, fundamentally, what AI is trying to do in generative AI, is it’s trying to predict the next most likely word. And it’s not quite that simple. It’s a little bit more complex, but it tries to predict what word would be most likely used. And that to me, says average. So I think you know, generative AI will will get to the point where it’s round about as good as the average person at writing. And obviously, when I’ve specialist knowledge that not everyone will have. So in terms of any one specialisation it will be average, I don’t see it getting above average, because by its definition, it’s not trying to be creative. It’s not trying to be new. It’s interesting how when you look at very short form content, you know, Google ads, headlines, or subject lines for emails, sometimes they’re the way GPT works, you can actually get some quite creative ideas. And I think for sparking ideas, it’s great, certainly, for summarising content is amazing as well, you know, if you want to summarise something down, or indeed, if you want to get to explain a technical concept in our sector, there’s lots of technical concepts that are quite hard to understand. And actually, AI is better than a lot of web pages and explaining those. So all of those things are fantastically helpful, but it doesn’t replace people. Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly not got that creativity. And I don’t think it will, I think what will happen is, rather than us having a, effectively a marketing copilot, or you know, a chat GPT that we consult all the time, I think there’ll be aI features accelerated into all sorts of different tools, and almost disappear. I mean, there will always disappear. And you won’t think of it as AI. But it will just be suggesting ideas to it will be helping you create content. And I think that that’s the future. And that is very exciting. But it’s not a it’s not like having a cyborg next to you. That’s a marketer.

Joe: Yeah, and it’s similar to how it works from a product or entrepreneurial standpoint, right. And that most of the successful companies that are using AI over the next five to 10 years, they won’t be quote unquote, AI companies. They will be companies that are doing similar things for companies doing now with AI to be better at it and X, Y or Z way. Another thing I would just add is that what you’re describing with chat GBT or generative AI pumping out average content returns us to the commoditization problem, right, that’s it’s like you’re using a tool that necessarily churns out commodity content, because it’s optimising for the average, and it can’t capture what is specific about your company’s positioning or expertise.

Mike: Yeah, and the thing is, is sometimes something agencies aren’t very happy about talking about, but a lot of what we do, doesn’t actually really resonate. And actually, typically, when we look at content, I’m sure you’re the same, you know, a small percentage of content is responsible for the vast majority of engagement on any website, or, you know, in any publication. There’s a few really hot stories or topics that people really like. And so generating average is not a good idea, because average content gets well below the average number of views is the exceptional content that really drives success. I mean, do you agree with that?

Joe: Yeah, I do. And I also think that speaks again to the consistency point of right of you show up every day, you participate in the industry conversation, and you know, one out of five pieces, or tweets or LinkedIn posts or whatever it is, are going to have an outsize impact. But if you’re just pumping out the same thing every day, and optimising for average, you’re far less likely to see that outsize impact from the best pieces of content.

Mike: And I love that if you’re optimising for average, you’re not going to see outsize impact. But that’s a quote that I think we should leave with on the podcast. This has been fascinating. Jonah, I think it’s been really interesting. I could talk to you for ages. We have a couple of questions. We’d like to ask everybody to try and get some idea of what are the good things in marketing and one of the things we’d like to know is what’s the best bit of marketing advice you’ve ever been given?

Joe: I think really good advice that is given often but not followed is that if you really want to market a company effectively, especially as an agency where you’re not immersed in that product every day, you have To talk to customers. So as I said, we do that with early stage companies for sure if we’re setting the foundational marketing strategy, but I would just exhort your listeners to, of course, be sure they’re communicating with customers, but also if they have agencies or freelancers to let them either talk directly to customers, or at the very least, like get transcripts or sit in on customer calls, because it’s from talking to customers and hearing what they love about the product and how it makes them do their jobs better, that you’re really going to understand how to reflect the best parts of the product back to the target audience.

Mike: That’s great advice. I love that and understand the customer in terms of careers. I mean, you were a journalist, and then moved into marketing. What do you feel about marketing career? Would you advise young person thinking about marketing to go into the career? Or would you say there’s better places they could be?

Joe: Yeah, I definitely would. I mean, I went to a sort of liberal arts college and friends of mine who went into business right out of college, they went into like consulting or finance, there was no sales or marketing classes or major. And I didn’t even really know what marketing was when I was leaving college. And I wouldn’t have done it differently, necessarily, but I do think it would be really helpful for kids with more of a writing aptitude with more of a qualitative brain to understand that communications and content are out there, and that there are, you know, 10s of 1000s of jobs in these industries, because you can participate in business and sort of have a more standard, secure career path. Without just like living in spreadsheets every day. Of course, there’s another part of marketing that is living in spreadsheets, and like the data science people are the more quantitative brain folks, they have lots of options in business that include marketing and many other things. But I would especially just talk to college students, early career professionals who are more writing or qualitative, focused, and say like, there are a lot of really good business jobs out there for them.

Mike: That’s great advice. I love it. Joe, I so appreciate your time. I’m, you know, really valuable your insights if people are interested in contacting you and finding out a bit more whether they’re from a Mar tech firm that needs help, or perhaps just somebody who wants to ask you about something you sit on the podcast, what’s the best way for them to contact you?

Joe: Yeah, you can find me either at podcast dot sharp pen or just Google Joe Zappa, LinkedIn. And I’m sure I’ll pop up. That’s fantastic,

Mike: Joe, it’s been a great conversation. It’s great to talk to someone who runs another agency in a slightly different sector. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Joe: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Mike: Thanks so much for listening to marketing B2B Tech. We hope you enjoyed the episode. And if you did, please make sure you subscribe on iTunes, or on your favourite podcast application. If you’d like to know more, please visit our website at Napier B2B dot com or contact me directly on LinkedIn.