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Our Agency in Review 2020

Our loneliest and most intimate year

Benjamin Hart is 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.

Dear reader, you have stumbled upon our yearly agency compendium. A small moment to look back at how our quirky collection of creatives navigated being an agency and doing creative work together in the world. A reflection on how we were able to spark more creativity, find new processes, focus more on contributing to the human experience, and maintain being a profitable business.

It’s our yearly reckoning for how we tried, failed, or succeeded at living our most idealistic values.

I also add a personal ingredient of leadership to the recipe. It will have a lens for how I personally navigated the task of leadership with my co-president, Brandy Amidon and our partners.

It’s inherently an internal exercise for ourselves, but we’ve been told that others have found some useful and applicable sentiments in these, so we publish it openly and air our dirty laundry (read as 2020 sweatpants) to the masses. A gesture of transparency and openness that is yet one more small effort at living our values. We hope you find something here of use. Some encouragement maybe, or simply some validation in a shared experience.

If you have any questions or comments we always love to talk shop; benjamin@brainsonfire.com

Let’s start with the obvious… this is a hell of a timeline to be living on planet earth. I’m going to try my best to avoid the obvious tropes of a 2020 lookback. I will attempt to not use a “this is fine” meme. I’m not going to use the words “dumpster fire.”However, if you are reading this 100 years into the future, please know this last year sucked. Really bad.

That reality will obviously set the backdrop for this reflection, and color much of the situational details, but it will not be its full sum. The lessons gleaned are surely different than I would have bet on last January, but they are still full of use and possibility for our post-COVID future. And at the risk of being an insufferable glass-half-fuller, I would argue they are deeper and more profound lessons than we could have ever learned without this awful year.

Despite the year of suck, hope abounds.

Getting Lucky & Scrappy

In truth, 2020 was a great financial year for us. We grew our bottom line, took care of our people, and were still able to hit the financial goals we set at the beginning of the year, including all profit-sharing and bonus goals.

Given the circumstances of this year, many would call that a miracle. But the reality is somewhere in between being scrappy and getting lucky.

When March hit and stay at-home orders were issued, we went into full scrappy mode. With the high degree of uncertainty hanging over everything, we didn’t want to make assumptions that the same opportunities would be available to us three months later — or even one month later. We pushed ourselves and took on a very heavy workload. For about three to four months, we pushed really hard, with a strong, collective commitment to push without sacrificing the quality of our work.

We also got super scrappy with what we did for our clients. We weren’t the only ones spinning and trying to orient ourselves to this new shutdown world. Our team identified quick areas of need for our clients, areas we felt we could deliver high impact on a short timeframe and then we pitched those ideas. When we got the green light, we spun up new systems and processes quickly, sometimes within days.

Our social teams flooded social channels with additional customer service help for many of our social contracts, offering a high level of human touch and interaction to an audience of people who were panicking, scared and isolated. Our mantra was to solve problems for folks, but to above all else, be human… and simply care. And that approach mattered to people. Beyond contributing an abundance of problem-solving humanity, we were also able to turn our learnings and processes into new, high-humanity customer service strategies and programs that our clients have continued to carry on with their internal teams.

We spun up new campaigns and community programs that were just right for this time in history. Many that built lasting brand affinity for our clients long after they ended. We looked at ways to bring our experiential work online. And yes, we even designed some zoom backgrounds.

The team really shined. They worked so hard and innovated on impossibly short periods of time, all while collectively and personally dealing with the world crumbling around them. I’ve never been more proud of how we showed up for our clients and showed up for each other. We truly lived our highest stated purpose this year and we contributed to the human experience in meaningful ways… even when the human experience was in crisis.

But we also got lucky. We have worked hard to strategically diversify the types of clients we serve. To set ourselves up for an inevitable industry wide downturn (in say tourism or healthcare, etc.), but no amount of foresight could have set us up for a global pandemic. When it hit, we were simply lucky with the diversification of the clients we had. We were servicing clients in education, baby essentials, mental health, children’s at home entertainment, and a slew of other direct to consumer companies and organizations that seemed tailor built to do well during a pandemic.

And we all stayed healthy.

We got lucky. And it would be foolish and arrogant to think otherwise.

But beyond the mix of scrappy luck, there are two clear takeaways for me in how we pulled off a good year:

First, we couldn’t have done it without our clearly-defined values and rules. The last two years we collectively did a ton of work to clearly define our values and rules for working together. Those gave us constant guides to check our very real-time decision making against.

Values like, ‘We do together’ and ‘ We take care of each other’ and ‘We lead with empathy’ took on new and deeper meanings and accountability.

Rules like, ‘Stay Flexible. Embrace Process’ and “Deescalate. Don’t Escalate” were invaluable language tools for the intensity of the time.

Brandy and my commitment to make leadership decisions based on a hierarchy of Our People first, Our Clients second, and Money third was invariably tested. The ruse of its simplicity stripped bare, revealing a much more complex formula. But one that we leaned on daily to guide us in our quest to be leaders worth a damn.

Second, we were 100% transparent 100% of the time. Our financial books are totally open for the team and everyone is up to speed with our new business goals and financial objectives. That was the ONLY way we could have asked the team to push as hard as we did. There were no back room conversations going on. We reviewed the situation together and collectively asked, “Do we want to push hard now and mitigate risk? Or hope for the best?” We were asking a lot, but it was always with all the cards laid out on the table.

We were bought in. Both to the values that would guide us and also to the full realities and details of the business decisions that we had before us. Those two things made all the difference.

Remote Work

By now, we’ve all read a million remote work articles born from 2020, but it’s hard to do a lookback and ignore it completely.

We were already well set up for remote work. Pre-COVID we already embraced remote Tuesdays and Thursdays for our folks — and we already have several full-time remote team members. Because of this, the transition to a fully remote workforce was fairly painless for us.

Overall, I think the data is a wash on whether our productivity and creativity increased or decreased. It’s impossible to apples to apples the pre- and post-COVID eras of our work. We aren’t just working from home now. We’re working from home AND homeschooling our kids. We’re working from home AND emotionally dealing with a global pandemic. Too many variables are now in play to determine what “works better.”

Personally, I miss people. My creativity is usually fueled by some spark of human interaction beyond a screen. But that’s not true for everyone on our team. I think the obvious takes on remote work seem to revolve around the fairly obtuse realization that, “Wow! Some people DO like working from home.” Overall I think our pre-COVID mix of time in and out of office, a hybrid solution, is probably a healthy balance for our productivity, creativity, and emotional health.

But we did learn a few new things.

First, fully remote work comes with an exponential increase in meetings. Getting everyone on the same page takes a full slot on the calendar now, even a small brainstorming checkin. And that’s death. No one likes more meetings. If you are reading this and you like more meetings, you are a straight up freak. A masochist. And I’m sorry I have to be the one breaking that to you, but it’s true. We all found ourselves working crazy hours to try and get the actual work done (the work that we were having all the meetings about). I’m still not sure we’ve cracked this nut. It still feels unbalanced, but we’re definitely better than when we first started. We had to double down on our no-meeting days. And after some time getting our feet under us, we started setting better boundaries with each other and our clients. In a lot of cases, we would tag in and out. We had each other’s backs. If someone was behind, we let them skip and took good notes to fill them in later. I think this may still be one of the greatest challenges of fully remote work; making sure the knowledge gaps are filled while keeping meetings from becoming overbearing. We have all the tools. We use Slack and Asana and Mural and Hangouts, etc. but we still find this problem to be… a problem.

Second, we have always worked hard to operate as one unified team despite our multiple offices. We are firm believers that cross-collaborative and cross-pollinated teams are incredibly important to the health of our culture and the quality and depth of our work. Pre-COVID, we were proud of our success eliminating team disparity between the offices. Remote work took us to the next level. We now operate, without the smallest amount of hyperbole, as one team. It’s beautiful. But there will certainly be the risk of reversion when this time comes to an end. The takeaway for us is that we will have to be super intentional about gaining back the good things, those small face-to-face moments and chats, and not letting those build back the small and often imperceptible walls of tribal division that happen simply by occupying the same space. Are both goods possible? I think only if we’re intentional about it as we move back into a hybrid solution.

Pride & Purpose

You know what’s really hard to do in the face of an existential crisis? … make branding and marketing matter. At all. That was the not-so-well-kept secret of 2020. Maybe none of this matters? I think everyone wrestled with that. Whatever profession. In the face of our loved ones getting sick or dying, nothing else matters. Nothing. As a whole, our team never went full nihilist, but at times, we all dabbled. And that was why the type of work we were doing mattered last year more than all others. Was what we were doing contributing in meaningful ways to the human experience? Were we adding to peoples lives? Or were we just peddling crap? Because if we were peddling crap in 2020, then I’m out.

At Brains we talk a lot about building a place that’s worth choosing to go to work at every day.

At the end of the day work is… work. It takes us away from our families and loved ones and puts stress in our lives. It’s a necessity. And when we try and say it’s something more, we aren’t being completely honest with ourselves. BUT if we are honest with that reality, and then we say, “Well if I have to work, I want to do it with good people who also want to put good and creative things into the world” then that’s not such a bad way to spend so much time.

I have never been more proud of the work that we did than in the year 2020. And never more convinced that we are creating a place worth choosing.

This year we showed up for people and communities in incredibly tangible ways. For our client Hello Bello we created Camp Hello Bello where parents from the community created content for the community that suddenly found themselves stuck at home. We had parents baking, singing, crafting and doing storytime all for each other’s kids. And with every piece of content we would venmo the creator within a day. Putting much needed money into parents pockets as quickly as possible. For our client tonies we helped families connect with separated loved ones through the power of story. Little ones falling asleep to stories from their grandparents they could no longer visit. We helped communities of education and communities of health and communities of mental wellness. We helped people launch good things into the world and we contributed to people’s lives in ways that mattered to them. Not to us. To them.

And that gave us pride. And that gave us some purpose in our work. And that purpose gave us some calm while wrestling with the bigger questions of 2020. A year that put the finest point on the question, “What really matters?”.

The Loneliest and Most Intimate Year

The thing I have reflected on most about 2020 is how lonely, and yet beautifully intimate it has been. When this is all done I will not miss the loneliness, but I will miss the intimacy tremendously.

The isolation caused by being physically apart from others is very, very real. The human toll on not just our team, but on society as a whole, is high. Many of us ended this year with some measure of sadness and isolation. We were all flat out exhausted. Burnt out. That is the hard truth of 2020.

But there is another truth. The truth that we have never had a more intimate year with each other or with our clients. We have had a year of being in each other’s bedrooms and living rooms. A year of little hands and faces popping into view on screens. A year of spouses sitting next to us during meetings. A year of shirtless boyfriends working out in the background. A year of being in the kitchen with each other while we fix lunch. A year of seeing each other at our most unpolished, vulnerable and real states. This year we’ve cried with each other and we’ve cried with clients, but we’ve also laughed, celebrated, and shared some incredibly human moments together. The pretense of being “professionals” was unceremoniously ripped away and we were left with a beautiful thing; our very messy but very shared humanity. And we all just had to be ok with that reality. Man, what a thing. I will miss it when it’s gone.

So here is to a brighter, less lonely, but equally intimate 2021.

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Benjamin Hart

Benjamin Hart

Co-President & Creative Lead of Brains on Fire. Co-Author of ‘The World Needs More Purple People’.

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