Above: Michael Collins
Adwerx has enjoyed an impressive rise to success since its founding in 2013, with its hyperlocal digital advertising platform now being used by more than 500 enterprises and 400,000 sales professionals. But the Durham, North Carolina-based firm, which provides personalized advertising at scale for the real estate, mortgage and related industries, underwent a change at the top when Founder and CEO Jed Carlson stepped down for personal reasons in June of 2022. His departure was followed by significant layoffs the next month.
In January, Adwerx unveiled its next chapter in leadership with the appointment of advertising and marketing technology executive Michael Collins to chief executive officer. Prior to coming onboard with Adwerx, Collins served as an operating partner for private equity firms where he helped companies grow through capital and operational expertise. In this interview with myself and RISMedia Founder and CEO John Featherston, Collins explains how the Adwerx opportunity intrigued him, ripe with the possibilities of the small- and medium-sized (SMB) digital advertising space. “You don’t see too many opportunities in a great space with a great head start and a great distribution model,” says Collins. He shares with us his strategy for first stabilizing Adwerx then moving full speed ahead toward the company’s next chapter.
Maria Patterson: Congratulations on the new role, Michael. How did you come to Adwerx, and what most attracted you about the position?
Michael Collins: I think it’s a very exciting opportunity. I’m an AdTech, MarTech guy—most of my career has been spent on the technology side and service side of digital marketing. Until recently, I was working as an operating partner at an investment firm helping them identify other firms they could help grow. One area of the market that has made me very excited is the SMB and the hyperlocal digital marketing world. It’s still very wide open. The SMB space is a very large market with no dominant player. So when Adwerx came around, what I saw was a digital marketing platform that was focused on the SMB space but had a really great distribution model for how to enter into that space.
Clearly, had been operating more in line with the previous tech environment, back in the good old days when capital was cheap and everything was pedal to the metal and all around capital growth—which worked out well, getting big market footprints and making great progress, but the environment’s changed and the opportunity to come in and solidify and stabilize the company in the current environment, and get ourselves ready for really aggressive growth in the second half of the year, was very exciting for me. You don’t see too many opportunities in a great space with a great head start and a great distribution model and a supportive investor group. It aligned very well with what I believe I do well and what I believe is a very good market opportunity, so it was really too good to say no to.
John Featherston: Welcome to residential real estate, Michael! What is your strategy over the next six to eight months for Adwerx?
MC: Our next six months are going to be very inwardly focused. We’re just in the process now of transitioning the company from a high-burn model to a solid, stable EBITDA-positive model. One of the things I was most grateful about when I showed up at Adwerx was the quality of the team internally. We are right in the middle (at press time) of doing a fundraising round to have fresh capital on the balance sheet. We’re going through that effort to stabilize the company, making sure we’re great at everything we do. Making sure we’re highly efficient at everything we do, and to get ourselves well positioned so that we can really put our foot on the gas.
We are spending this time to really go deep on the product market fit on all our existing products in the real estate space, making sure that they’re delivering as much value as possible. So when we put our foot on the gas—right now we’re assuming that will be around the middle of the year—we won’t just have growth, we’ll have highly efficient growth. I wish I could have some very exciting, sexy announcement that we’re doing super-cool stuff that nobody’s ever seen before—we will be there someday again, but the industry is shifting, and we need to respond—be well positioned to really start that heavy investment and growth again once the market gets a little more transparent.
MP: What do last year’s layoffs signify in terms of the company’s stability and growth?
MC: So much of the tech industry was operating in a top-line growth and full-steam-ahead model because capital was cheap and there was marketshare for grabs. As that changed, Adwerx and so many other players in the tech industry had to change as well. Those efforts were before my time, and since my time, we’re trying to reshape the business for the current reality.
JF: Where do you see the best avenues for company growth?
MC: On a couple fronts. Number one, our enterprise product for brokerage continues to have revenue doing very well in a time when many of our competitors have seen drop off—so I think our traction in the marketplace and our enterprise platform remains very strong. Where I think we can step up our game—where we have a product set but plan to escalate and expand it—is with those top-producing agents. They have a different set of needs, and we have a great service offering for them. I think the opportunity there is tremendous. We have a great service offering, and I think there’s a lot more we can do in that space.
JF: Tell us about your Top Producer platform.
MC: What we refer to as TPP is a bundling of services for those agents who need a higher level…that white-glove treatment automation needs. They have different needs than that agent who’s selling one, two, three or four transactions a year. It will promote their listings, it can target zip codes, it can service their sphere of influence, their email list, reach specific individuals, all in a more recurrent fashion so they can better plan their business.
With a few mouse clicks you can get access to, for instance, premium television inventory to promote your own small business. In the past, all that stuff was out of reach to everyone except the big brand marketers of the world. We can now bring that down to individuals in local markets. It’s fun stuff, exciting stuff.
JF: What type of reception have you had from mid-level producing agents and agent teams to that service?
MC: There have been high levels of curiosity. I think there will be an adoption process to get comfortable with it. Certainly, if you’re running ad spots to a larger audience, it’s a higher price commitment than if you’re just putting banners out there to a specific geography or a small number of people whose email addresses you have. So it is a bigger commitment; I think that takes some getting used to. There is high interest. We are still on the learning curve on our side to be able to train and inform our clients of the benefits of it. I’m quite bullish on it. I think what we’re seeing elsewhere in other verticals is that, for the first time, the SMBs are really waking up to the opportunity and getting comfortable with the opportunity for connected television—individually addressable television spots. If we talk again in a year, I think there will be a great success story here for us and the agents we serve.
MP: In a time where everyone’s cutting expenses, how do you make sure your services stay off the chopping block?
MC: What I found very interesting coming in, is that we’ve seen our revenue hold steady, which is tremendous, and I have a theory on that. My theory is with days-on-market increasing, with inventory increasing, the number of levers that can be pulled and knobs that can be turned to accelerate transactions is fairly small, and marketing is one of them. What we are seeing, and I’ll attribute it to a world-class sales organization, is a lot of our clients digging heavier and harder into marketing to keep their cash flowing and keep their businesses moving, and getting a step up on the competition by marketing more than the next guy. The proof is in the pudding, and the proof is our revenue’s holding very steady. In a market that’s under pressure, I am more than happy with steady.
MP: Who do you see as your biggest competition, and how are you setting yourself apart?
MC: Our biggest competitors are those who are affiliated with a larger enterprise platform for brokerages—such as kvCORE and Lone Wolf. I think just by our tenure and the fact that we’ve been around and because of our scale, we have a little bit of a head start and a broader market position. One of my challenges is to make sure we continue to deliver that value above and beyond what could come from an integrated platform. In some ways, I think having tighter focus is beneficial; the broader you go, the more engineers you have.
MP: Do you see the product as more of a branding tool or lead-generation tool? Or both?
MC: I’ve been in digital marketing a long time. It’s really hard to separate those two. I know you can buy impressions and you can buy leads. We are not a lead-gen service, just to be really clear. We are not a place you come to and say, ‘I want to buy 10 leads.’ We’re a place you go to connect with the individual consumers you need to be able to transact your business. Do we drive leads? Of course. I think more of our focus is making sure we can identify, find and connect you with those people that make a difference to your business.
JF: Michael, you bring a different perspective and background and discipline to our industry, which is wonderful. You’re taking the reins of a very entrepreneurial company, and part of the challenge is to turn that around so there’s stability and quality. How does Adwerx give agents a competitive edge right now when it’s needed more than ever?
MC: The immediacy, the effectiveness of the products we’re able to put in the hands of not just sophisticated buyers, but those folks who have day jobs that figuring out digital media. Literally, with just a few clicks of a button, it’s so easy to get a listing out to your sphere. Our ability to help those transactions move at a faster clip, the ability to help the revenue keep flowing for agents and for brokerages with a level of predictability, is a need we can help fill. I think for those brokerages to be able to have those tools that are brand compliant, that are easy to use, that are effective, that they can make available to their agents, can certainly help with retention and can help grow their business.
For more information, visit Adwerx.com.