Who we are and what we do are the same thing.

I must first tell you, I don’t identify very well with being an agency-type. Don Draper & Roger Sterling gave the world a glimpse of how it, in many ways, has been. I’m thankful we’re moving on. We live in a time and space where a man or woman can do this, do it well, and do it with greater mindfulness.

This journal entry is my first of many and a glimpse into what it’s like to invent and then reinvent both yourself and your company. A stage for an ongoing examination and reexamination of what makes a life, personally and professionally. A space to not know, but to ask.

A trillion questions have carried me for the last ten years as a self-employed, first-time CEO of one of Boston’s most regarded mid-sized media agencies. Even if you’re not in my ever-changing marketing world, you may find yourself in a place where you’re asking lots of questions — as an entrepreneur, a creative, a family-member, or as a human. This is the best possible place to find yourself.

My Story

I had worked in large agency life for many years, behind the scenes placing advertising for some of the largest brands. Always a layer removed, I had often wondered why my team, the crew that actually bought the media, wasn’t pulled in to meet with the client. Account reps often kept us behind the curtain, churning out buys while mesmerizing clients with why they needed to spend X on Y. It wasn’t that these reps didn’t have any know-how. But more often they seemed driven by dollars, carrying a rudimentary understanding of the media landscape, just enough to move units. Some of it worked, most of it didn’t. The feeling of being removed from the real answers our clients were seeking grew and I felt I no longer wanted to play this way.

I began to question it all. How could we bring more ideas to the table and remove the sterile, spreadsheet-laden world of buying and selling ads? What did the brands really need? What is “media” anyway? I decided to find out for myself, quit my job, and hung my own shingle in 2008.

My first time on the front line, I was surprised. Poor media decisions were being made daily and marketers desperately needed a new take. I found I’d uncover opportunities that didn’t fall within the capabilities of a typical media agency. Clients were surprised to hear our recommendations — as if someone had been keeping them in the dark. They were more taken back when some of these ideas pushed the needles of their businesses back in the right direction. So began our little company called Norbella and our questioning of what it is we actually do in media.

We’ve since turned into Boston’s only real mid-sized media group (we are now 35+). While we’re having fun, working with smart clients, and maintaining long-term relationships, it was during this time the world decided to turn itself upside down. More has happened to rethink and remake media (and society) over the past 10 years than in the previous fifty. We’ve watched Facebook take over and Instagram go from zero to 300 million accounts. Snapchat, Spotify, Airbnb, Stripe, Kickstarter, Uber, Venmo, WhatsApp. The legalization of gay marriage, marijuana, and a black President. Driverless cars, Bitcoin, and now Alexa. The world, heavily questioning everything, continues to come up with new answers to old and outdated ideas and ways of doing things.

Closer to home, the winds of the internet and social media have reshaped what it is we do dramatically, almost daily over the past few years. Our industry, a little punch drunk on programmatic and relying a bit much on ad tech, found ourselves, and our clients’, in a dangerous, dizzying place.

It was about this time two personal events would further refine and inform my life. First was the tragic loss of a family friend: a young girl the same age as one of my daughters. Life moments, as dark as they can be, often gift us new graces. It wasn’t long after this happened, my husband and I decided to pause and take the family on a trip to Alaska. It was here I would let the silence and wide open spaces speak to me. You can read about our journey and its impact on me here. In short, I began asking hard questions about my personal life and by proxy, the life of Norbella. About my relationship to all this change in my outer and inner worlds I was feeling. The dust was being kicked up for me on all fronts. I resolved to return to Boston, not allowing the pace of change, the rush of media shifts, and the growth of our beautiful group to be overcome by a lack of awareness to what it is we originally set out to do. I resolved to reconnect with who we were and to who I was. We’d be our own calm in the sea of change. We’d prioritize reflection and finding answers for a very long time by committing to asking the hard questions.

My newest conviction is this: our personal and professional lives are not separate silos to work from. Our emotions, our thoughts, our impulses and desires, all happen within the reality of the same day and in the same spaces. Who we are and what we do need to come together to everyone’s benefit. Our collective consciousness is asking us how the ideas and behaviors we put forth around the conference table impact our friends and families around the dinner table. Our world is asking hard questions and reshaping ourselves, our businesses, and our world brick by brick.

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. “
— Oliver Goldsmith

It’s impossible for me to unsee this. The ripple has been an awakening to the next phase and the evolution of self and Norbella. Today I’m focused on two things — enlightenment in myself and my company. Someone joked the other day and dubbed me the Chief Philosophy Officer. I can absolutely live with that. As a company grows, its founder often needs to redefine its relationship to what has been created. Day-to-day, I now enjoy coaching and empowering our talented team and working closely with clients we believe in and get what we’re about. They’re self-aware and open-minded enough to want the help of a real partner, unafraid to explore real questions with us. Our work focuses on a few select industries we know so well. We’ll continue to align with the people, agencies, and tech that are best equipped to help us deliver. We’ll judge ourselves and ask to be judged by our ability to ask the difficult questions.

It’s been said that if you’re looking for answers, you’re already behind. You need better questions. In the coming months, we’ll be expanding our thinking on this, dedicating space to creating a dynamic culture of questions. Better questions have led me to the life I love. It’s birthed Norbella. It’s attracted the team I care deeply for. It gave us certain clients and let us drop those that did not fit. It’s allowed us to redefine ourselves while the world redefines itself.

Who we are and what we do are no longer exclusive to each other. How can you bring more of you to what you do? How can the right questions shape or reshape your path?

Steph Noris

Founder & CPO (Chief Philosophy Officer)