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Our Agency in Review 2021

Growth & the Faces of the New Not-So-Normal

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, welcome to our yearly agency review. Our moment of reflection; a look back at how our collection of creatives navigated being an agency and doing creative work together in the world.

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

2021 was my — and my partner Brandy Amidon’s — third full year as agency co-presidents. We set out a goal to do this every year. It’s inherently an internal exercise designed to document our learnings, but we’ve heard that others find some useful and applicable sentiments in these annual reflections, so we publish it openly as a gesture of transparency, vulnerability and 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

The Growth Year

If Brandy and I were forced to assign broad summations to our first three years as co-presidents, it would probably go something like this:

Year one was about untangling and redefining our values and rules as a community. It included a lot of listening, over-inclusion, and building trust.

Year two (start of the pandemic) was an immediate test of those refreshed values and rules. It was a real-time proving ground for the work we had done the previous year. It was really hard, but also really helpful in sifting and refining what actually worked or what was just bluster.

Year three, this past year, was clearly defined by growth, and all that word encompasses.

This last year was exciting. Our business was healthy and growing. Our culture felt healthy; growing and evolving for the better. The whole team bought into where we wanted to go as a company. The mindset shift across the board was so fun to be a part of.

We had built the trust and the culture to start having different conversations as a team. Conversations about growth and efficiencies and scalability. Conversations about our collective futures… and ‘the possible’.

With those conversations came a new focus on ‘the how’. How do we keep growing? How do we scale? How do we teach? How do we coach?

We came to some important realizations this year. First, in order for us to maintain and further our company growth, we would have to have a major emphasis on personal and professional growth for each of our people. Second, the state of the world and the changing state of the ‘workplace’ after two years of pandemic demanded the exact same thing. Taking care and growing our people was the only way forward.

It was an incredibly exciting year, but what has felt most exciting is that it feels like just the start of something big. Something special. And the whole team could feel it. And believed it.

But none of that would have happened without those first two years of foundation building and trust earning that brought us to this point.

The Pendulum Swings

I think a lot about the balance and counterbalances of a healthy team culture. A good team culture is not a final destination. We will never “arrive.” Creating a healthy team culture is a constant pursuit that will change course, flow in new ways, and evolve as often as human culture does the same — which is, of course, all the time.

Our first two years of leadership were punctuated by a lot of inclusion. We were very cognizant that our team not only needed exposure to many different parts of the business to learn and grow in new ways not available to them before, but also they needed to see with their own eyes how we were making positive changes. They needed to experience it. Feel it. Not just hear it.

What that meant was a lot of people on projects. A lot of people attending our internal new business meetings. A lot of people included in decision-making and co-creation. A lot of people included in everything.

That approach was so needed those first two years. And the team growth and learning was substantial. But it also had an interesting side effect.

At Brains on Fire we work very hard to have a healthy work-life balance. We preach it, we expect it, and we put processes in place to protect it. We are in one of the toughest industries to live out that value, and so we work so hard to make sure it’s actually a fundamental truth for our agency. But what we started to find with our posture of over inclusion was that it had a fairly adverse impact on this work-life value.

Too many people had too many things for our brains to handle it all well. We still did fairly good with the other parts of the work-life value, but mentally and emotionally it always felt like we had a million things going on. And for our brains, we kind of did.

And so we started to swing our pendulum back a bit towards less over-inclusion. Still healthy inclusion and co-creation, but the work we did over the first two years had built the trust we needed to swing the pendulum back towards trusting each other enough to not have to see or experience ALL the things. It was just too much. Having a right-sized amount for our brains to handle is good. And needed for great work to happen.

And so the pursuit continues. We’ll see where the pendulum swings next.

Growing Leaders

The realization that growing our people was paramount to our next chapter of company growth came with another realization — we also need to grow our leaders.

Brandy and I are still young leaders. Admitting that is healthy. It is also ok and healthy to admit that the rest of our leadership team are also young leaders.

Despite being young leaders, it’s also healthy to admit that leadership is much like our culture — a constant pursuit. We’ll never arrive at some place with all the answers, skills, and tools needed to be a “complete” leader — but we should always be moving forward towards that goal.

And the healthiest thing to admit: we needed some external help on this front.

This year we began a process of leadership coaching with our friends at Refound. Having a third party was beyond helpful. 10 out of 10 recommend.

I won’t spend a ton of time here, but these are a few key takeaways from the process:

  • The process was incredibly helpful in examining and identifying the pendulum swing needs for our culture. We were doing a lot of things that were great for our first two years but unsustainable over the long-term with a larger, growing company. We saw that we needed to add more hierarchy and structure when before that would have likely been perceived as a negative cultural move.
  • A major emphasis of the process is on right-sized accountability and understanding that personal and professional growth are intertwined. We are creating a culture that fosters those things for each person in a sustainable way.
  • That led to us implementing a new and more sustainable 1:1 structure for each person on the team. Each person has one human who is responsible for their personal and professional development, with accountability structures set up for each person and leader. Also, our leaders have a sustainable amount of folks they are responsible for. Those 1:1s are built to be full of curiosity, exploration, and co-creation for each other’s futures. It’s early days for the new structure, but it’s already beautiful.
  • Along with the 1:1s, we also set up communal learning for our different teams (accounts, strategy, design, social, etc.). We’ve realized that 1:1’s are important to growth, but equally as important are communal learning opportunities. These group settings allow us to critique and challenge each other, skill share, and collectively start to provide language and process around our definition of what excellence means and looks like.

We are in the early days of these new structures, so I’ll have more to say on them in the future, but our posture to start has been one of grace. We made a full team acknowledgement that the first few months will be uncomfortable, that we’re all learning new skills, and we’ll need to constantly work to share back learnings and failings — and grow together.

Add Great People

Growth and scale comes with the inevitable need to add humans to your existing group of humans. That can be scary with a young team culture heading in the right direction. Disrupting our culture or our team’s individual growth for the cost of scale is something we have always been wary of.

So we took adding the right people to our team incredibly seriously.

This is in no way a revolutionary statement, but it just proved so true for us this last year — taking the time to invest in the right folks from both a skills standpoint and an additive cultural impact standpoint has enormous benefits to both your business objectives and your cultural objectives.

We have found that our new folks have added dimension and learning to our culture in ways that are profound and sometimes unexpected. We are inextricably better with them on board, and it has given us the confidence we needed to scale without losing the spirit and soul of what we believe makes Brains on Fire a place worth working at.

Big Work

This last year we did much of our biggest work yet. And arguably our best work.

All the cultural pursuits mentioned in the above sections are nice. It all sounds nice and feels nice. But at the end of the day if it’s not making an impact on our work or on the clients that we serve, then it’s just… nice stuff. That’s the reality of being an agency, at the end of the day we are judged and given more work through the quality of work.

Well the cultural pursuits worked. This last year it undoubtedly made our work better and our work bigger.

One of my constant adages to the team is this: We are successful because of our values and not despite them.

This continues to prove itself. When we live our values, our work is always on an arc of improvement… no matter the scale.

The New Not-So-Normal

I would be remiss to end this annual reflection without talking about the “new normal.”

And here is what I have to say — none of this shit is normal.

Nothing feels normal and nothing feels stable still. That’s the reality you know if you work with other humans in any capacity.

Sure, we’ve settled in a bit and learned some new coping skills. Maybe some things are returning to something that feels like normal, but two years of feeling the ground move underneath us has taken a toll… even on the “normal.”

I look around at my team and see an incredible resilience … and an incredible exhaustion. But we see it everywhere. Not only in-house, but also with clients and friends.

These are the faces of the new not-so-normal. Resilient and tired.

I think maybe I’m just tired of folks in the business world trying to arrive at some kind of new normal.

We. Just. Don’t. Know.

And I think that’s ok. We just have to ride the tiger. The more we keep trying to tell our teams and ourselves that we are in the new normal the more unsettling it is when the ground moves again.

Take care of each other. Communicate the present. Position as best we can for the future. And grow. That’s what we’re going to try and do.

Another thing I tell my team often is that acknowledging a really difficult and hard present and being very optimistic and excited about the future are not mutually exclusive postures. Both can coexist.

These are the faces of the new not-so-normal. Resilient, tired, and incredibly optimistic.

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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’.