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Tracy Call of Media Bridge Advertising: “If you want to create a fantastic work culture you need to lead with heart”

“Lead with Heart” would be my entrepreneurial movement. I’m not the first one to say it, but I’d love to be the one to make it go viral. We need to throw away outdated ideas about leadership, and we need to start caring more. Vulnerability is strength.

I think the old-guard, hierarchical style of leadership is dead. I saw amazing results once I gave myself permission to be vulnerable and break down the traditional walls leaders are supposed to put up between themselves and their employees. Managers and executives need to do a lot more of this.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Call, founder and CEO of Media Bridge Advertising, located in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood.

After years on the “sell” side of media, Tracy switched to the “buy” side and hung out her own shingle in 2010. Her mission: Give companies more bang for their media buck while building a culture to attract and keep top talent. Since its founding, Media Bridge has earned multiple spots on the Inc. 500/5000 and Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s “Fast 50” lists, and has been named a “Best Place to Work” by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal. A graduate of Iowa State University and a former rugby player and bobsledder, Tracy is a Business Journal “Women in Business” award-winner and Stevie® “Women in Business” award-winner and has long been recognized for her professional achievements, leadership and contributions to the broader Twin Cities community.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While I was with a previous employer that sold airtime to local businesses, one day I was told to raise the rates we charged a particular client by $5. There was absolutely no good reason to do this and to make matters worse, it was the perfect client. I knew them well. They’d been with us for years. They never canceled. They always paid on time and in cash. And I was supposed to deliver the news.

I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I didn’t sit down and write a “manifesto,” but I did have a Jerry Maguire moment. I had already seen a gradual shift in our culture — away from serving the client and more toward “hitting numbers” — and this was the last straw. I marched into my manager’s office and quit. Yes, over just $5. I later started Media Bridge Advertising and vowed to never, ever treat a loyal client like that. That experience is one of the reasons that “Do the Right Thing” is one of our four core values.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A couple of years ago, I was asked to be on a panel of ad agency people in Minneapolis to answer questions from a host and an audience. When someone asked the panel, “How long do you expect to keep employees at your agencies?” I was absolutely shocked at the answers that came back. “Not long.” “A year or two.” “Maybe two or three years.”

When it was my turn, I struggled to contain myself. I wanted to scream, “What’s wrong with you people?!” In fact, maybe I did; I don’t remember. But I do know that I talked about how I want lifers at Media Bridge. When I hire someone, I want them to be on my team forever, and I can’t understand how anyone could feel any other way. I mean, why on Earth would you hire someone and only expect them to stay for a year or two? I want to hire awesome people into an awesome culture and keep developing them. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Especially in advertising, where turnover can be high, there’s a heightened fear of investing in people’s skills only to see them walk out the door. But there’s also a saying that the only thing worse than training someone and then having them leave is not training them at all. I’m in that camp. If you don’t invest in people and try to keep them on your team, then you fall into a turnover feedback loop that doesn’t benefit anybody. (More on that later … )

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Is this a trick question? : ) I’m always working on a lot of exciting projects. I don’t know how to pick just one. We just solidified an exciting partnership with the non-profit Switch 4 Good where we will help promote the message that what we eat can change the world. We’ve just launched our first educational division: Media Bridge Academy, which will train people on how to do their own digital and social marketing. And I’m writing a book on culture and leadership that has a highly provocative title, but I can’t tell you what it is yet. How’s that for a tease?

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think this goes back to what I was saying about the turnover feedback loop. I see it in advertising, but it’s a problem in every industry: We’re in a vicious cycle. There’s a perception that employees, especially Millennials and Gen Z, “aren’t loyal” and “like to bounce around.” In reaction to that perception, companies don’t invest enough in developing their employees. They don’t create a culture that gives people a sense of purpose. And so they don’t incentivize people to stay. In reaction to that, employees experience a lot of average-to-shitty corporate cultures. So guess what? They leave, and the cycle continues. We need to break this pattern.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Based on my experience, it will negatively affect all three. We’ve all worked in “sweatshop”-type cultures. Managers think they can get spikes in productivity and profitability by driving people into the ground, and they often do. They hit their quarterly numbers, but at what long-term cost? As an entrepreneur, there’s no potentially bigger drag on your productivity than unhappy employees. Some of my best hires are extremely talented people who had grown unhappy working in cold, toxic cultures. They came to Media Bridge, and it’s like someone pulled up the shades and let the sunlight in. Now they’re thriving, and they never want to go back.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1. Trust and empower your people. A year and a half ago, I did what I call the “Entrepreneur’s Stress Test.” I completely empowered my team, basically shut down my technology and took off with my family for a month. I’ve had articles published on this experience, because it did wonders for me, my team and our clients. Entrepreneurs have a tough time letting go, but let me tell you: There’s nothing better than seeing your team take the reins and kick butt without you.

2. Give your employees some real skin in the game. I see my business as a team sport, where everybody knows their role and everybody contributes to our collective success. When someone at one of my leadership groups talked about how he started a profit-sharing plan at his company, I immediately jumped on the idea. Looking back, I would have started it even sooner, because it contributes to the feeling at Media Bridge that we all do better when we all do better.

3. Spend time developing your core values, then live them. So many businesses create a generic set of core values (“Integrity,” “Passion,” “Trust”) and then stick them on a poster in the office and forget about them. We’ve put a ton of effort into creating ours, and we’re always tweaking them. The reason: We live our core values. We celebrate each other for demonstrating them. We hire and fire employees and clients based on them. They’re everything. (For the record, ours are Do the Right Thing; No Excuses, Just Results; Lead with Heart; and Raise the Bar.)

4. Create a culture of accountability. Another game-changer for us has been adopting the Entrepreneurial Operating System. Our entire company follows the EOS tenets, and it has created a culture of accountability that keeps us thinking of new ideas, solving problems, never pointing fingers and always moving forward.

5. Lead with heart. I have to pull out this core value in particular, because it has meant so much for me personally. I think the old-guard, hierarchical style of leadership is dead. I saw amazing results once I gave myself permission to be vulnerable and break down the traditional walls leaders are supposed to put up between themselves and their employees. Managers and executives need to do a lot more of this.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

That’s a big question, but I see it as making a series of binary choices. We need to choose quality over quantity. We need to choose long-term results over short-term gains. We need to choose caring over commoditization. Gary Vaynerchuk said that the best marketing strategy is to care. I couldn’t agree more. It’s the best marketing strategy, and it’s also the best strategy for changing cultures.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Again, I have to go back to “lead with heart.” That’s really my style. I don’t care if people think I over-share, get too vulnerable or don’t put up enough walls. I’m a competitive athlete. I have high expectations for myself and others. I want us all to win. But to get there, I’m not going to yell at you and shame you. I’m going to support you and build you up. And I’m going to do the same for myself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I can think of a dozen off the top of my head, but I’m going to go with Kris Lindahl (founder of Kris Lindahl Real Estate, based in the Twin Cities). From the moment I met Kris, I knew that we had to work together and that we’d accomplish great things. But I wasn’t drawn to him only because he was driven and passionate and wanted to build something big. I could also tell that he was a kind person and a great leader. A real turning point was when he gave me the book “Lead with Heart” by Tom Gartland. For years, I felt like a square peg in a round hole because I didn’t agree with the leadership advice I kept hearing: “keep your employees at a distance,” “don’t get too close to anybody,” “you’re their boss, not their friend.” Kris and that book allowed me to trust my gut and say, “Forget that. We’re ARE family. I don’t want to be on a pedestal. We’re all human!” It changed my life and my business.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of Media Bridge’s partners is an organization called “Make Kindness Contagious,” and that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with my success. Media Bridge just sponsored a family for Best Christmas Ever. We not only bought and wrapped dozens of gifts for the family; we told our clients to donate to the cause instead of sending us piles of sugary treats. The support was overwhelming. We ended up raising over $20,000 for a family dealing with a baby facing serious and expensive medical issues — the most that organization has ever raised for an individual family. When we delivered the gifts and the check, everyone was in tears. That’s just the most recent example. Another client of ours is Secondhand Hounds, the largest animal rescue in the Midwest. For a couple of years now, I’ve paid for my employees to fly down to Mexico and bring back rescue animals to go to Secondhand Hounds. We’ve saved over a dozen animal lives through that effort, and we’ve supported SHH in countless other ways as well. I could talk about these efforts forever. They’re a huge contributor to our culture.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

You can’t go wrong with Yoda, so I’ll go with, “Do or do not. There is no try.” I’ve always been a doer. It was my attitude as a rugby player and Bobsledder for Team USA, and it’s been my consistent philosophy as a business owner. Talk without action drives me crazy. At some point, you’ve got to get on the field, get in the game and go to work. I’ve heard far too many business owners talk about great ideas and nod their heads, but then never implement anything. When I’m in, I’m all in. I’ll do things my own way. I’ll tweak things if I need to. But I’ve always trusted my instincts. When you’re not afraid of failure, it’s amazing how often you succeed.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

First, I’d like to keep supporting the movements that our clients have already started. “Make Kindness Contagious” is about inspiring kids to be kind, because studies show that you need to teach kindness early to get it to “take” later in life. Secondhand Hounds is about saving as many lives as possible through animal rescue, because animals save human lives as well. Kris Lindahl has a movement called #BeGenerous that’s about promoting generosity as a lifestyle. And Switch 4 Good is educating our communities to create a healthier, kinder and more sustainable future for us all, by ditching dairy.

In my perfect world, each of our core values would be its own movement.

“No Excuses, Just Results” would be about actions, not words. Doing, not just trying. In everything you care about, what are you going to actually do about it today? Our Call to Action podcast is all about this.

“Lead with Heart” would be my entrepreneurial movement. I’m not the first one to say it, but I’d love to be the one to make it go viral. We need to throw away outdated ideas about leadership, and we need to start caring more. Vulnerability is strength.

“Raise the Bar” would be my movement to get people to expect more and do more in every part of their lives. I think we all suffer from low expectations in ourselves and others.

And “Do the Right Thing” pretty much covers it all. It sounds simple, but how often do people take a step back and think, “If I do this, am I doing the right thing? Is this helping other people? Is this making the world a better place?” We focus too much on doing the convenient thing, the self-interested thing. How about the right thing?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!



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