Brains, Agency in Review 2023
Ben Hart is the co-president of Brains on Fire, a creative agency and B Corporation that helps community-driven brands launch, grow and meaningfully impact the human experience.
Welcome to our yearly agency review where we take a look back at how our team navigated the world of agency life and creative work together. It’s our chance to reflect on the ways we’ve tried, failed, or succeeded at living up to our highest ideals and values.
We do this annual review as a way to document and share our learnings. We’ve made the decision to publish these openly as a tangible expression of living our values of transparency and accountability.
Truthfully, we find that the building of this thing called Brains on Fire is as interesting, creative, and challenging as doing the work that we do. Because of that, we love to talk shop with others in this space. If you have any questions or comments, we want to hear from you. You can chat with me here: email@example.com.
Alright, let’s look at 2023.
If you haven’t read these before, at Brains on Fire we frame up what we are trying to build together as a grand experiment. That experiment is simple on paper: Can we build one of the best agencies on the planet — full of happy and healthy people?
Of course what is simple on paper is complex in practice. And what we are learning is that scale has an exponential effect on that complexity. Human scale = human complexity.
What I love about our team is that we are bold enough to believe we have the talent, the drive, and the opportunity to figure out the first part of that equation. Although Brains has been around a long time, we are entering just our 6th full year in this current chapter of leadership. In this latest chapter, we have outperformed our perception and size as an agency and delivered truly incredible results so many times now that we are starting to believe that we can be the world-class agency we want to be.
It’s truly the second part of the equation — ensuring everyone is ‘happy and healthy’ — that amplifies the complexity of building this agency together. This pursuit doesn’t just add a few variables; it pours gas on the complexity, pushing us to redefine what the very definition of success looks like in the agency world.
Humans are not a monolith. What drives you is not what drives me. Where you find purpose may not be where I find purpose. How you create may look radically very different from how I create. How you cope with stress, how you learn, how you navigate change, how you recharge your batteries, how you view success, etc. etc.
This is where our experiment finds its greatest challenges — how do we reach ‘happy and healthy’ for all of us? Is that even possible in a fast-paced, high-pressure, service-based industry like ours? These are the questions we wrestled with last year.
What we’ve learned over and over is that by simply asking the questions we tend to be miles ahead of the rest of the industry — and many other workplaces. While there’s power in the asking, there’s still human error in the answering. Answers don’t come overnight, and when they do come, they don’t always nail it… and they aren’t always pain free. There were many times in 2023 when we lived out the absolute best of our values, and there were times when we dramatically failed.
Perhaps what we’ve learned most is that the scale of time and a distanced perspective — choosing the widest lens — gives us a better and more true sense for our progress as leaders and as a company.
In many ways, we’ve learned that we’ll never ‘solve’ this experiment. But by continuing to ask the hard questions and striving for answers, we’re steering our agency towards a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling work environment. A place that’s full of opportunity, impact, creativity, and community.
And goddamn, that’s not a bad way to spend your days.
Being known for our work as much as for our culture.
Our leadership team started 2023 with a simple challenge — become as known for our work as we are known for our culture.
2022 was a great year for us. We were a 100% Great Place to Work. We were named an Ad Agency top 10 small agency to work for. We made and shared more money than we ever had and we grew more than we ever had.
We felt a great sense of achievement and loved that we were becoming known for our culture, but we wanted to do a better job at telling the story of how that unique culture fosters incredibly joyful, thoughtful, change-driving, and award winning creative work.
We wanted conversations about our culture to always be in the same breath as “Did you see the work they did?” Or better yet, “Their work fundamentally changed our business.”
We talk a lot at Brains about being the anti-agency agency and in many ways, we think the agency model is broken. Incentives are often misaligned. Traditional processes, or ways of working with clients, are outdated. And a lot of the time, this game is full of so much bullshit. The bullshit is exhausting. We honestly hate it.
We no longer just believe there is a better way. We’ve proven it, we’ve modeled it, and we want to keep chasing it across the board.
Through the latter part of 2022 and much of this year we’ve somewhat tirelessly reevaluated and challenged our notions of what makes a good agency, what quality work really means, and the processes (and magic) required to create it with consistency and scale.
For us, it’s been articulated down to one word — impact. We constantly question, “How is our work making a real difference for our partners?” That sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s surprising how rare this seems to be a driving force for many, especially larger, agencies we encounter. The old model seems mostly unconcerned with the impact of the work towards the client’s goals — as long as that work is buzzy and gets noticed within the industry. Our industry is very very self-congratulatory and somewhat insular.
Look, we’re as guilty of self-congratulation as anyone, and we certainly still have to play the game often enough, but we are hoping to shift the focus from within to emphasize real, measurable impact in all we do.
We think the whole industry is changing. Anecdotally, this year has been telling: we’ve punched above our weight, winning a lot of work against much bigger agencies by emphasizing impact. We also lost a few times, and when we did lose, it was to smaller shops. Clients are hungry for impact. They want partners, not service providers. They want a model of mutual or shared success. They still want the award winning creative work, but they want it tied to the bigger picture. And they want you to see, and give a damn, about the bigger picture.
With that in mind, I’m going to view this year through the lens of impact. Impact and partnership. How did we practice this new model of agency?
I’ll start with some obvious things to those of us in the industry — this was a challenging, if not outright shitty economic year — for both agencies and most industries. The economy swung hard from the COVID boom. Consumer sentiment and cash tightened, VC money dried up, and many brands that had shifted their models, growth, and projections based on COVID realties were presented with a new reality that was challenging for some and devastating for others. Many of us — our clients, agency friends, and tech friends — experienced layoffs. We had clients with the banks that failed this year. We had clients have to go through debt restructuring. We had multiple clients struggle to pay their bills this year.
As with any year, not all of our clients, and probably not all agencies were hurting, but this year was tougher on that front than any we have experienced in a very long time.
What that meant for us was that this model of impact and partnership was more relevant than ever. This shift in focus for us was timely.
We also learned that momentum is so important when you are building something. Momentum covers up so many sins. And when the whole economic world feels like it’s stagnant, things can feel… sticky. Burnout is more prevalent on both agency and client side. People start grasping for answers and solutions. Things like winning creative awards seem trivial in the face of survival and livelihoods. All of this has contributed to why I am more proud of our work this year than any previous year.
A key ingredient of our ‘impact’ success was the launch of our sister agency, Mass Culture, in January of 2023. Having a brand-first, shared-values, performance and media buying agency to work alongside our strategic and creative work has shown incredible results in our first full year together.
Here are a few things we are proud of this year that we think highlight our focus towards impact:
- We helped one of our non-profit partners reach 100% growth during their prime fundraising campaign for a third consecutive year.
- We helped a 100 year old, family-owned legacy company begin a transition to the younger generation by reimagining their brand, company culture and company values.
- We helped one of our partners make the jump from primarily direct to consumer to an omni-channel retail marketing approach, launching their first national broad awareness campaign. With Brains on creative and Mass Culture leading all media spend, we doubled the YoY revenue to $150m while reducing cost of acquisition by ⅓.
- We acted as interim CMO to steady the ship for one of our largest partners as they managed a company restructure that led to a full debt restructuring to the global VC landscape.
- We helped multiple companies grow by 100% YoY — in this consumer economy, overseeing much of the marketing and advertising and media for those partners.
- We helped give birth to three bouncing baby brands this year. We helped set them free into the world and start to see early returns on their brand promises.
- We helped clients manage the hard stuff this year too. We’re talking product recalls, debt restructuring, and layoffs. We helped reset values to meet the new realities, and reset business models to meet those same realities. We worked with partners in good-faith on cash flow issues and we participated in hiring processes and large-scale business decisions as everyone navigated this wonky year.
We did all of this while doing creative work that we felt was world-class and award-worthy. And we did it the Brains way: driven by curiosity and a genuine dedication to impact lives in a meaningful way. We helped people tell their stories and achieve their dreams. We helped give back to the veteran community, and we helped self-described nerds find more community. We helped cut the screen time epidemic for kids, and we helped bring more joy into the marketplace.
In many ways, the goal we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year was achieved.
We are proud of that.
Things We’re Thinking About
Here are some other things that were on our mind in 2023 as we move into 2024.
Areas of impact. As we look to double down on being an impact agency, we are challenging ourselves on what a modern agency must be competent in to be a true partner and deliver impact to where business and the marketplace is heading. We’ve identified three areas of impact that we will grow into as an agency. How to scale each of these well is the challenge ahead of us, but we are off to a great start.
- Culture and Business modeling
We call this upstream work, but are finding it more important to modern brands and the changing marketplace. How you work, and what you stand for is becoming as important as the product output.
- Branding, Rebranding, and Go-to-market
Distilling Brand is probably what we love doing the most. Any success we’ve had boils down to Brand. It’s the heart of what we do. This work is always deeply human, and needs a healthy dose of curiosity, strategy, storytelling and magic.
- Campaigns, Marketing, and Growth
Managing growth can be difficult, but incredibly rewarding. This work takes equal parts strategy, executional excellence, and big-swing creative. Impact here happens when everything is working like an orchestra.
Our values. In a sticky year, values become even more important. We view values as shared beliefs that guide our actions. Simple things we all agree to, as part of this community, and commit to holding each other accountable to top to bottom. The last time we set our values was five years ago when we made the leadership transition. In many ways, that set of values were course corrections from the previous years. With our growth and evolution, it was time for an update. We spent a few months at the end of 2023 resetting our values first and then setting collective goals next for 2024. The order of that was important. Here’s how we did it.
- We had a multi-disciplinary, multi-tenured, small group do a listening tour and evaluate our current values with a list of ways to simplify, clarify, and evolve them.
- Towards the end of the year we conducted a team wide survey on the ways we lived out our values, the ways we fell short, and what each team member felt was important moving forward. Interestingly, our values where we shined the most were also the ones we fell short on the most. Remember when I mentioned people are not monoliths? Each value is open to the unique interpretation of the reviewer. Just enough transparency for one person is way too much for another. Culture is living and breathing in that way.
- Leadership took the recommendations and the survey results and wrestled them to four key values with three key ‘behaviors’ for each of the values. We worked hard to make the four key values simple, sticky, easy to remember, and easy to use.
- Leadership collectively revealed the values to the whole team along with topline goals for 2024.
- Each team then went away and came back with three Q1 goals to support the topline goals.
- Each individual employee is now setting personal Q1 goals that ladder up to our organizational ones.
- And we’ll have team-wide accountability tools (the values and their associated behaviors) to keep us on track and honest for those goals.
Burnout. After 2023, this is on everyone’s mind, across many industries. Paper after paper and study after study are trying to figure out what is going on with burnout in the workforce. The combination of COVID, remote work, and global economic stagnation are tough ingredients to mitigate burnout in any industry, let alone service industries already oriented towards burnout potential. We honestly don’t have answers here, just things we want to try.
- Values and goals are the first step. We think a shared sense of purpose and meaning goes a long way here. As well as momentum. Values, goals, and moving out of a stagnant feeling year are steps in the right direction.
- Momentum. This is often counterintuitive to burnout, but when you are growing, learning and winning, work is just better. It just is. It starts to scratch that purpose itch a bit more and it starts to feel less like work. We want to be the best agency on the planet, and we plan on making some momentum that way after this sticky year.
- We’re working on getting smarter with resourcing and with meetings. Being in a people business is half art and half science. We are trying to nail the science part by getting smarter with how we resource our partners and projects and how we structure meetings. Which leads us to…
- No-meeting Fridays. Hybrid meeting culture is a large cause of burnout across all industries. We’ve explored all sorts of things, from four day work weeks to embedded teams. To start, we’re going to implement no meeting Fridays to carve out dedicated flow time for our teams. But we know this will have to be paired with in person time to keep community culture on par with heads down work culture.
- More fun. We are unapologetic believers that creative work should be fun. We trade our brain stuff for dollars. That’s wild. And that’s awesome! We are looking for ways to build more creative ritual, more spark and more fun into our workflow. Connection and community are antidotes to burnout — plus, the work always is better when we do it that way.
Cool Shit. That’s our technical term for… doing more cool shit. We think a lot about what we can do for our clients that’s interesting and weird and cool. And we think about what can do for ourselves. Life is too short to not play a bit. And experiment a bit. Even in the business world. The AI revolution is here. Our team is here for it, and learning as much as our brains will give space for. The tools now available to us are truly things of science fiction. We think about that a lot. And we think about launching brands a lot. In the coming years I wouldn’t be surprised to see some fully Brains-owned brands out in the world. Cuz that would be cool.
I’ll end this review with a personal note. I love this job. I always have. I love building things and creating with people I enjoy. I’m an unbearable and eternal optimist (something I have learned to curb when necessary as a leader, but it is who I am). I’m very comfortable viewing success through the scale of time. I like betting on this group of people and this way of working to lead towards things like money and growth and awards and acknowledgement and all the words we like to assign to success.
But this year was complex. With scale, the problems get bigger and more frequent. That seems to be the nature of leading an agency of this size — the nature of doing anything worth doing in the world. In many ways, complexity is the price of growth. The price of ambition — even if that ambition is rooted in a common good.
New horizons come with the unknown. And the unknown comes with moments of doubt. That is to be human. To pretend otherwise is the wrong form of arrogance.
Many times I looked around this year and wondered, “Am I doing this right?” And I know I’m not alone in asking that question.
Earlier this year I watched the movie, Asteroid City. In an ending scene, one of the main characters is performing in a play. Mid-scene he stops the play and asks the director, “Am I doing this right? I still don’t understand the play”. To which the director responds, “It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”
This year has taught me that the search for meaning… or happiness… or fulfillment in work is also something that should be viewed through the long scale of time. It’s not always clear. Often we ask ourselves, “Am I doing this right?”. Sometimes, I’m not sure I even understand the play.
This year I’ve gotten into the practice of telling myself to “just keep telling the story”. That’s what I’m confident in. That’s what I believe in. I believe in the story we are telling at Brains.
And most days that’s enough for me.