What, Me Worry?

School’s unofficial motto.

I thought we’d build more schools than this. My advertising agency, aptly called School, has a mission to fund projects for impoverished kids across the world and has partnered with Pencils of Promise to build schools in Guatemala, Laos and Ghana.

When we started the agency a little over two years ago, we set out to build 50 schools before we celebrated our tenth anniversary. So far, we’ve built two schools and I’m worried.

I’m worried because I perhaps misguidedly equate our dearth of school-building output with our dearth of belief in a purpose-based model for an ad agency.

After all, the industry in which I find myself has no shortage of meaninglessness. There’s a lot of baggage to discard in order to convince people that a business that is perceived as base and manipulative could actually be true to a purpose beyond getting us to buy more shit.

School is meant to be an agency that changes this perception, and along with our compatriots at shops like Purpose, Matter, Common and others, we see a future where our work on behalf of our clients would be judged as much by its positive impact for our world as it is by the positive impact on the bottom line (agency and client equally).

This future is much closer than most people in our industry thinks.

When School first launched within the Project:WorldWide network, I was asked to speak at the Forbes CMO Conference where I told the audience that “purpose is the new digital.” It has the same transformative powers on business and culture. For us at School, having a clear and concise purpose has helped attract top-notch young talent, giving them an incentive to do great work over the promise of bonuses or award show submissions. Our purpose has provided the agency with a unique point-of-view and reason-to-believe, a distinction that is pivotal in an industry that is marked by me-too capabilities and interchangeable churn in talent and clients.

But has our purpose given us more business? I’m worried that it hasn’t. And if we don’t get the business, how the fuck are we going to build another 48 schools?

The first school we built with Pencils of Promise

Admittedly, I worry a lot. And often, the worry is wholly unjustifiable. School works with some very incredible brands. And more importantly, we work with people at these brands that have “fire in their eyes.” That’s a phrase delivered to me by IDEO’s Paul Bennett, who graciously gave me some time for advice as I was just starting out with the concept of School.

I am often struck by how many times I am reminded of this phrase as I work with our clients. There really are people out there who get it, who understand how brands must now act in our world. To be among these people everyday — and the teams of talent who work at School — is exquisitely inspiring.

We also have clients who come to us only for the work. They don’t come to us for a purpose. They want creativity to solve their business problems, not solve humanity’s. So we go into pitches touting ideas not ideology.

In these scenarios, does having a purpose help us win the business? In all honesty, no. Purpose may inform our ideas, but it won’t guarantee success against other agencies. Relying on purpose to win a pitch is like relying on a very sharp knife in a very large gunfight.

Paul also suggested that I approach running the agency transparently. In other words, or as I understand it, the agency model should be more collaborative, uninhibited and honest. Above all, honest.

(Allow this tangent for context: I was introduced to Paul by John Winsor, CEO of Victors & Spoils, who is no stranger to being brutally honest about the advertising industry and the disingenuousness that permeates it.)

I have not followed Paul’s advice about transparency as much I should. Although I publish articles and post often, hoping that my professional opinions align with School’s ethos and industry positioning, I have not been transparent about myself vis a vis the agency.

I have not admitted that this has been an incredibly taxing journey. I have yet to feel this kind of pressure in my professional career. I am very often full of doubt. I am very often on a full plane. I have been drinking more and sleeping less. I’m not sure if I am leading the right way; I’m not even sure if I am a leader yet. My de facto method is to lead by example, to work harder than anyone else at the agency, to be the first one in and the last one out. Has this workstyle helped motivate those around me? I don’t know the answer to this question, and this vexes me because I feel like working harder than others may not be benefitting me at all.

On average, I don’t see my family at least two days out of every week. For a little more than two years, I have neglected people that bring me joy when I’m near them. I am rarely present with my family, preferring to dwell on a creative idea or financial report in my head rather than the fun and connection opportunities in front of me. I’ve fired friends and I’ve been betrayed by one.

When I think of how much effort it will take to build 48 more schools, I get scared and want to run away. But I won’t.

The reason I won’t is that this endeavor lets me fall asleep with gratitude in my heart and ideas in my head. That’s a great way to end the day, and I’m fortunate to get it.

I also won’t run away because we’re ahead of our time. Vision takes patience. I won’t run away because I believe in the people that have joined us at School and that belief means everything.

But what about “the work?” Are we living up to our own standards or has the creative suffered because of the fear, the uncertainty, the birth-pangs of the past two years? Again, if honesty makes us better, then we have not been as good as we can be.

Certainly, I’m immeasurably proud of the work we have done in this past year alone. We’ve produced some really good stuff. Truly good. A few times brilliant.

I am accustomed to being asked for more, and I am weary of asking more of the School team. But I must. As much as I can’t run away from the mission before us, this team can’t run away from the imperative to constantly do better.

Some of the great people with whom I have the privilege to work and create.

I can only empathize with my fellow School mates. I know that it hasn’t been easy for them either. Which is why I am full of hope and optimism and vim and vigor. I know that the sacrifices they have made this year can only point us all into the reason why we made them in the first place: to build more schools.

So maybe I’m not worried after all. Maybe we’re exactly in the place we want to be. That I’m exactly in the place I want to be. It’s hard to accept but it’s easy to intuit. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop worrying so much this year.

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