What do Owner Camp owners actually own?

Recently I got into a playful, good-natured exchange on Twitter with my friends and colleagues Steve Bissonnette and Warren Wilansky of Plank about the name of the confab they co-run with the Bureau of Digital, Owner Camp.

Billed as a retreat for creative studio owners, it got me thinking about the nature of ownership, and the cultural meaning of the word “owner.”

Apologies to Warren for being irksome, but let me expand on where I was trying to go there.

To own a company is different from owning property.

A company is a legal construct, an intangible arrangement. What ‘company ownership’ strictly means is that you may have founded or invested in the company, are listed in the official company registration and tax documents, and are entitled to a share of the profits. Depending on your company structure, you may also be personally liable for its losses and debts.

In public companies, ownership is more diffuse, defined by who has the most shares, and the appointment of management and compensation becomes more complex, but that’s basically it. (Correct me if I’m wrong on the fundamentals.)

In the context of a creative studio, Warren and any listed partners can be said to “own” Plank, the legal entity, because he founded it and/or others were granted shares.

But can agency owners really own the things that make the agency work? And is ‘ownership’ really the best word to use here in the first place?

What isn’t owned

Most creative studios, until they get to be WPP-global-ad-agency huge, likely don’t own the buildings they’re in; they lease their spaces.

The computers and other hardware they use are probably also leased, so as to enable the company to both refresh their equipment at regular intervals, and avoid asset depreciation.

They definitely don’t own the software they use; they purchase software licenses which are good until the next major revision, at which point they need to purchase upgrades; or they subscribe to something like Adobe CC that turns off their software if they stop paying. Read your EULA!

The office furniture may also be leased (so-called “contract” furniture), again, to enable flexibility and to avoid asset depreciation.

They certainly don’t own their clients — that’s a relationship that always needs to be nurtured and renewed.

Since it’s 2016, one would hope that owners don’t think that they own their employees. Which brings me to…

The Owners, and the Owned

In 2014, Frank Rich interviewed comedian Chris Rock on a wide-ranging set of topics, and this exchange stood out to me:

FR: Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, just came out as gay.
CR: Which I think is actually bigger than the football player. Because the average person in that locker room is in his 20s. And it’s just not a big deal to be around a gay guy — if you’re in your 20s. Whereas Tim Cook is around these corporate guys. That is the epitome of a boys’ club. That is sexist, ­racist — the least inclusive group of people you’re ever going to find. Men who have no problem being called owners. Who actually wants to be called an owner, even if you owned a football team? Just the title owner is just so nasty and disgusting.
FR: It does have a kind of antebellum ring.
CR: So Tim Cook came out to those guys. He’s in that club. My God.

Now I must say, out of both fairness and admiration, that the folks that run Owner Camp are totally cool, progressive people; legends in the industry, and they have, as far as I’ve heard, very happy and empowered employees. They might even be said to be exceptions in the agency business, which I’ll get to later on.

I seriously, unironically, do not at all mean to imply they are some band of Southern Plantation Colonels.*

But to me, and many others, the word owner carries a lot of problematic baggage involving class and race.

The word “Owner,” Race, and Class

As Chris Rock touched upon in the interview: If you’re black or of another colonized-brown-minority background, “owner” isn’t necessarily a positive association, because you, your ancestors or even your entire country were once the things being “owned.”

In the present day, it’s been pointed out by many, many people that tech has a diversity problem. An agency owner, even in the modern, hip-n-groovy sense, probably is a white, straight male, who probably/possibly benefitted from a lot of invisible-to-them privileges — opportunities, good schools, safe neighborhoods, stable family, maybe some middle-class wealth, lack of a (lasting) criminal record, free time after school, a personal computer, and networks and connections; things that weren’t and still aren’t available to a broad section of minorities and lower-income people.

It can lead to bubbles; a bias towards whiteness in hiring, in turn, a largely mono-racial makeup of management and ownership. It’s evident: I’ve been to many digital conferences over the last couple of years, and visible minorities were rare, both onstage and in the crowd.¹

In a class context, owner brings up associations, less of the corner-store mom-and-pop businessperson, more the 19th-century editorial-cartoon of the top-hatted, cigar-chomping industrialist of the ‘dark satanic mills,’ grinding down his workers, and who sends the Pinkertons to crack their skulls if they dare ask for 23.5 instead of 24 hours a day.‡

Greg Storey excepted, there’s not a lot of literal cigar-chomping that I’ve seen in digital. There’s definitely no goon squads or top hats; and good agencies aren’t coal mines. Thankfully!

There is, however, a myth of entrepreneurship that accompanies founding a company — the heroic effort to hew one’s own log-cabin startup garage in the woods, from raw trees and roof thatch, Thoreau-style.†

Entrepreneur in French simply means person who handles things in-between — in short, a middleman. And there’s nothing wrong with middlemen! Agency work is, after all, about bundling and packaging talent, and many great businesses were built out of middleman operations.

I say it because it’s important to remember that no-one can really do it all, nor build a successful business all by themselves. Owners do a lot of work — stressful, huge, important work — but they depend on partners and employees to actually turn out finished projects.

In the Web world, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We owe much to those who contributed to open-source projects, built frameworks, themes, modules, paved the way to good techniques and who share their best practices. Their labour is taken for granted, but we should account for it.

And there’s the largely invisible and under-compensated emotional labour of customer support; projects don’t disappear just because they’re off the highly-paid engineers’ Kanban board; someone much lower-paid has to deal with end-users’ frustration and pain.

Lastly on this point: Everyone has an important role; one only has to look at an understaffed team to see how vital even one person’s contribution is. The Romantic / Randian ideas of the lone, tortured genius or self-styled Visionary Leader™ belong in the dustbin.

The legacy of poor stewardship

Where the companies that participate in Owner Camp are likely the very best in the industry — exceptions to the rule — mediocre or badly-run agencies drain any idea of nobility from the concept of ‘ownership.’

Digital-work employees, particularly juniors, minorities and women, are routinely underpaid, under-represented, and overworked.

Employees are routinely manipulated emotionally. There may be the pretense that the agency is a big family, using personal feelings and guilt to get people to put in extra hours; or that free snacks, beer and foosball tables are a trade-off for a living wage; or the wartime metaphor is hauled out, that everyone’s-in-this-together and we all have to sacrifice to capture the next hill — yet somehow, certain people are still better-paid and have more job security.

In dysfunctional agencies, a distinct class structure emerges that encourages scope creep, silos, burnout. Recriminations fall more upon labour than management or sales; there’s exile for challenging the status quo. It’s not healthy or sustainable, but as long as the Bad Agency keeps selling based on sizzle, they’ll have no reason to change how they operate.

These realities are why there has always been a need to formally balance the sometimes-common, often-opposing interests of ownership, management and labour. It’s why labour laws exist, and why unions are (or were) formed.

Management is often caught in the middle. They’re technically also labour, but they are encouraged to think of themselves as ‘owners;’ the carrot of actual ownership, via partnership or stock grants, is dangled to ensure their interests align with the owners’, and not the workers’.

An aside: Why not Worker Camp?

So understanding that context, when I first heard the name “Owner Camp,” it made me think, even if briefly, of the worst excesses of the agency world; of owners as exploiters, of owners colluding against workers.

Surely if there’s an Owner Camp, I thought, there must be a Worker Camp, where employees of digital agencies get together… They’d openly discuss what they’re being paid, and if it’s fair; if they’re doing too much overtime, or if they’re getting adequate training and other career-development help.

Are they being groomed to become managers? Do they have a definite career path? How about vacation, PDOs and benefits? Maternity leave? Parental leave?

How do they deal with problematic bosses, clients, and co-workers? What’s great about their workplace that needs to be shared? Do they get the emotional and mental health support they need? What’s it like for minorities? Do they need to learn strategies for negotiating job offers, contracts, raises?

Some of this is covered in conferences like Dare, or is dealt with on a personal level via career counsellors, self-help and therapy, or anonymous venting on blogs and Twitter. (Worst case: via medical intervention). But rarely do workers get together to discuss this; not en masse, and not in public.

But I digress.

Which brings me back to my original question…

In a digital agency, what is it that owners actually own?

To reiterate:

  • They are entitled to a share of the profits. And yes, they do a lot of big important work — don’t get me wrong.
  • They may or may not own the building, the computers, the software, the typefaces, or the furniture.
  • They don’t own their clients.
  • They don’t own the people, but can be said to have negotiated a contract to purchase, package and resell their time and/or labour.
  • They don’t own their employees’ intelligence, creativity, problem-solving skills, people skills, or past work experience.
  • They usually don’t own the end work product, as its rights transfer to the client upon payment.
  • They might own some internally-created tools, processes and techniques; but can those be said to be owned? If they’re not patented, can be easily replicated elsewhere or are simply variations on common practices, it’s arguably not even a thing you can own.
  • Lastly, as a thought experiment: If all the employees quit tomorrow, what does the owner have left?

Leaders, not Owners

What Owner Camp is really about, as I understand it, is how to be a better leader; how to solve certain sets of common problems, share what’s been learned, and discover how to improve oneself and one’s organization.

The challenges that owner/leaders face are not the same as those of managers or workers, and of course it makes sense to have a special conference to address them. I don’t dispute that for one second.

But given the fraught cultural and social history of the term ‘owner,’ its built-in divisions between ownership and being-owned, and the question of whether there are any real assets to be owned at all, maybe a more descriptive and inclusive name — if not as catchy — would be Agency Leader Camp.

The stuff you can fit in your backpack

The essence of an agency, all else stripped away, is its brand, as experienced by its clients. Good reputations stem from good work, which in turn is rooted in an adherence to core principles and values.

These values inform how agencies approach clients, how they solve problems, what projects they take on and which ones they reject. They manifest in how workers are treated and how conflicts are resolved. It affects the very structure of the organization itself.

Values and principles aren’t a massive carved stone monolith or a thick Employee Rule Book; these are things you can fit in your backpack and carry with you wherever you go.

Leaders embrace and embody those values in their decision-making, their inititatives, and how they foster their work relationships. And leadership is as much about the how of making decisions, the values expressed as work-principles and methodology, as the power of ‘getting to decide.’

Ownership in this servant-leader context is paradoxically, more about what you give away than what you accumulate. It’s about “owning” the responsibility; a debt to the future.

Think of it as planting apple trees along your journey, knowing you might never live to see them grow and bear fruit, or meet the people that will bake pies from them. It’s about clearing paths and building infrastructure, setting examples, pace and tone; and importantly, knowing how to say yes to the right things, and no to the wrong things.

Values and principles, woven into the DNA of a good agency, foster an environment where leaders emerge naturally, there’s constant improvement, and senior staff are trained themselves to be mentors and guides.

When done mindfully, with intention and thought, it shows in the work; it reflects on the brand; and the organization develops, promotes and retains higher-quality talent.

That’s something everyone would be proud to own.

*Although the reference to ‘shooting elephants dead,’ even if metaphorical, has the whiff of the British Raj about it…

¹ Notable exception: Washington DC, with events like The Women In Tech Summit and others.

† Where, as Maciej Ceglowski noted in one of his very funny talks at XOXO: Thoreau’s mother and sister came by to bring him donuts and do his laundry; the unsung work of supporting the ‘noble visionary.’ His advice: It’s ok to eat the donuts.

Or if you prefer a contemporary example, there’s Nathan Thurm, the classic 60 Minutes corporate villain as played by SNL’s Martin Short.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated A.J. Kandy’s story.