Can you give us a snapshot of who you are and what you do?
Priest: I’m Priest Willis Sr., I have to say that I have a boy that’s 23 that if you search Priest Willis you´ll probably find him before me, which is embarrassing because I’m an internet marketer. So I´m Priest Willis Sr., I am the senior global partnerships and affiliate manager at Lenovo. I’ve been there now for about five years and I kind of manage all things partnership. We have a very large intricate affiliate business, we work with several thousand affiliates and I just manage that whole ecosystem.
Can you give us a little bit of your story on how you landed where you did, what’s your background?
Priest: Good question! Early on, back in ‘96, I started to learn how to work on computers. My dad, him and I went out to a Fairgrounds, we bought a computer and literally him and I were learning together on how to put them together. We spent hours behind it; learning about the hard drives, at that time you kind of soldered motherboards. We kind of worked on that a little bit and over time I really enjoyed it. So I started a small business on putting computers together and selling them. Then eventually I got into drop shipping and drop shipping computers all across and started doing business with the city of Minneapolis and all kind of stuff, but it got to be a real drain. At some point you get returns and people complain about systems, whether it´s because of their own surfing habits, they get viruses. I wanted to do something that was less involved, at least from a customer-facing perspective. Along the way I was getting involved in affiliate marketing, I developed my own website; I would put banners up with a friend. Him and I started a form and so I became an affiliate and I started to let the computer building side of the business go by the side and focus purely on being an affiliate, kind of making side money with Amazon. At that time Amazon was one of the biggest and only affiliates that I was aware of in terms of having blinky banners up on my website, which was how it looked like at the time. And it slowly evolved into being an affiliate manager. Again, I was an affiliate and then moved over to the affiliate management side and helped other people become affiliates for other large companies like BuySeasons, which at one point during the Halloween season they were bigger than Amazon, they would sell more customs, party items than Amazon. So I was doing that for over a decade, and then Lenovo reached out and said: “look, we want to scale this global affiliate thing, would you come down and do it globally?” And I had never done global affiliate marketing prior to that. So, I thought that was the new next challenge for me, so I´ve been there ever since.
Can you give us a snapshot of what your job looks like on a daily basis?
Priest: It is big and you do need team members, so we have local people in the various regions. We´re in about 30 different countries and you hear the word “strategy” and people are like “yeah, strategy, whatever!” But I am literarily in a strategic role. I no longer do day-to-day – I still talk with affiliates, work with affiliates when I go to events and speak at events, they still connect with me to be a part of the program, but day-to-day I am not working with affiliates directly. Typically we have affiliate managers or at least web managers in the different locations, and those are the people that I’m talking to daily about the strategies. Where do we want to go, big picture wise, with Lenovo in this partnerships program.]? So every year I’m always creating this strategy deck if you will. We, of course, have numbers that we look at what we did last year, then we have forecasted numbers, and then there´s incremental growth that we have to build. I’m always focused on, “what do we do with the incremental growth?” “Where are the opportunities with that?” That is a daily job and no day looks the same, every time there’s always something different and in between, there’s maybe a fire or two, but that’s my focus, is always trying to drive the business bigger and bigger while the people in the geos are doing more blocking and tackling day-to-day.
What are the biggest challenges you face frequently within your position and how do you overcome them?
Priest: My particular position is all about the success and failure of the program. Affiliate marketing at some point, it plateaus on what affiliate marketing can be. A lot of people when you think of it, they think of coupons, they think of content guys, and then, for the most part, that’s it. My job is always having to add layers to this business and it has to always be growing. You create this business but you always have to add pieces and components to it and optimize it. My job is figuring out how to do that. How do you grow this business that historically, affiliate marketing is kind of, in some respect known as a set and forget partnerships if you will (the banners on the websites and then you just sort of walk away with a largely passive income)? How do I grow business like that? How do I maintain partnerships in terms of finding new ones and scaling from there? That’s always a constant focus of mine, I don’t know if there is necessarily a problem area for me. I think every day we’re faced with something new or a new challenge, whether it’ll be attribution or something along those lines, but it’s kind of all part of the business if you will. I don’t really see them as obstacles or big issues as much as “this is just par for the course.”
How have you adjusted to people working for you?
Priest: It seems like ever since, I mean, I was young and at Chuck E Cheese and I was 15, and I felt like I was having people that worked with me so all through my career at some level, I’ve always either worked closely with somebody, had a team under me, people worked with me. At this stage, I’m 44, and it just seems natural, just to have people work for me and collaborate with people. What I found is, if you treat people with respect and you have a sense of loyalty to them as much as you can within business, they’ll give it back to you, and you treat people human if you will, then that will be reciprocated. I enjoy working with the team that I have in place and us collaborating together, and I kind of pride myself on being able to say that there are some things that I just don’t know, but I have a team of people that I can look at and lean on, and in some cases some of them are a little bit younger, they have different experiences that you can glean from. I think if you leave yourself as a leader vulnerable to that, versus thinking you should know everything, I think you could be relatively successful and I’ve had some pretty good success with the team at Lenovo and even before that.
What would you say is the worst piece of advice you hear for digital marketing or affiliate marketing that you would like to debunk?
Priest: That’s kind of a good question! We’ll take it a little bit more niche than digital marketing, but I will look at affiliate marketing. I think the worst piece of advice that I hear is something that I alluded to earlier, was that affiliate marketing is solely about banners on a website and people clicking on the banners and then that’s it, that’s the relationship. That’s the narrative that I’m changing in this role, in just what I want to do in general in the industry, is open this up more broadly for people to see that affiliate marketing is more than just banners and a guy in his basement or gal in their basement, just putting stuff up on their website and seeing if it works. There’s real B2B partnerships that we’re establishing and working with other people. I mean, people truly can use affiliate marketing as their beach-front within their business; so you can do search engine marketing, SEO or search engine, organic search engine, or any kind of different digital marketing tactic you can think of, email marketing, all of that can fold under the guise of performance marketing or affiliate marketing. So I think the biggest misnomer is that affiliate marketing and some of this other demand gen channels just have one pure focus and that’s it, so people kind of throw the baby away with the bathwater. I think they need the broader perspective a little bit and see that some of these tactics offer a lot more layers for their business.
What are some tips you can share with us for having a successful product or a successful affiliate campaign online? What are the top things you need in order to succeed?
Priest: The product is tricky, I mean I heard that what’s that spray Alex, WD-40? I heard what WD-40, the reason why they call it that is because there were 40 different iterations of it before they finally figured out which one they wanted to go with. Product wise it’s always kind of hard to tell people which is the right one, all I can really tell you, whether you’re developing products, websites, systems, whatever it may be, is to continue testing until you find out which is the right one. This could be said for your digital marketing tactics too right, just test. If something isn’t working out, it doesn’t necessarily mean you quit, you just slightly adjust whatever it is you’re doing and try something new or different. I know that for me, I’ve worked on the product side of business along the way, we talked about drop shipping and building computers. There’s always going to be pivots and I think people shouldn’t be afraid to pivot or shouldn’t be afraid to quit one thing and move to something else. I even wrote an article recently about being a quitter, you know I think being a quitter gets a bad rap, I think there’s something to being said to quitting what isn’t working and trying something new, and again, it doesn’t mean completely throwing away your product or your website or whatever it is, but it just means don’t be so sold out on your widget, whatever it may be, that you don’t open your thoughts up to trying something new or different.
Can you think of a time in your career or even recently when you realized something wasn’t working and you had to pivot?
Priest: Just being here at Lenovo for the past five years; I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and when I moved from there at 38 or 39 that was a complete pivot because I had to upload my family. I have 4 kids, a wife and a dog and we had to upload everyone and move them out to Lenovo and do this new thing that was global. It was scary because, I really, again as I mentioned, I didn’t do anything globally before that, a lot of it was new experiences but I knew I had to remove myself, or at least change the trajectory of my career by moving out of the North American business and try to start getting my hands into the global sector. Because I knew it would open up new avenues, new insights for me and that’s exactly what it did. Moving to Raleigh, North Carolina was a huge pivot for me and it was scary as hell but it worked out for the better.
I think that gives everyone a little bit more courage because you had a whole family, a dog, and that’s a lot of stuff that could potentially hold you back from those life decisions, but you took the leap of faith and it all worked out, that’s very encouraging!
And along the way there’s always decisions that I’m making in business or turning down other opportunities, whether you have people that while being at Lenovo, they’re interested in you being a part of their team and you have to weigh your options and say “no, you know what, I don’t want to do another pivot, move to LA, at least in this period in my life.” We are always making decisions and obviously, everybody is trying to make the right decision. But people have to, and I’m speaking to myself in this regard, too, we have to stop underestimating the internal gut feeling that we have about things and sometimes it doesn’t feel right, or there is less money, or you just have to look at things a lot closer, sometimes we’re to close up on the painting and you have to step back a little bit and appreciate it for what it is.
Who are some entrepreneurs or people in the industry who you follow or inspire you?
Priest: This is going to sound really horrible, but I don’t have people necessarily in the industry that inspire me. The people that inspire me are kind of outside the industry. I’ve always been inspired by Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, my dad, my mom’s dad, so my grandfather. Those are kind of people that push my drive. I go to conferences and I glean from the knowledge of people and I appreciate the value that they bring, but there is never really anyone that I look at and I say “wow, that is the guy that at point B I want to be.” Really, I try to go outside of business, Alex, I kind of look at other things to inspire me, and drive, and motivate me. There’s really nobody in business per se that does that for me, it’s kind of people that I look at outside and sometimes older figures that we’re familiar with, Mahatma Gandhi and people like that, that kind of inspire me.
I think that’s wise for anyone in any industry doing anything serious for your work. If you want to stand out and if you want to be uniquely you in whatever job you’re pursuing. I think if you’re looking at all the industry leaders and what you’re already doing all day every day, then you’re just going to be like a carbon copy of them, but if you’re drawing inspiration, like you’re saying from people of the past or people who are directly related to you or just people in other industries who have done things way different than you, those inspire you to grow into your unique self, in your industry and in exactly what you do.
That’s a great point because that’s exactly the way I see it. If you kind of want to be original and have an original voice. I realize once GaryVee hit the scene, everybody went up and tried to do conferences and they were cussing and doing all this stuff and it was like yeah, it doesn’t feel natural. I want people to have their own vibes so that’s a really good point, even, again, outside of work. I work for a Chinese company, Lenovo is a Chinese company, but I don’t go off and get computer books and read those. I read a book by Henry Kissinger called “On China,” which dealt a lot with the cultures and different stuff, so again I really approach business a little different, I don’t really drown myself in business books and self-help books. I really try to; I’m still doing more of a soul journey about myself and then apply that to business in some respects.
Where can people stay up to date with you and connect with you online?
Priest: You know, I have a site, priestwillis.com. On there you can see some of my writings or hear interviews or whatever it may be. If they want to stay connected with me or interested in the affiliate program or something along those lines, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org, is my email address and then Twitter – Twitter is the best spot to hit me up @priestwillis.
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