Our Agency in Review 2022
Building a Great Place to Work (that does Great Work)
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.
Welcome to our yearly agency review where we take a look back at how our team of creatives 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.
This year marks the fourth full year that my partner Brandy Amidon and I have served as co-presidents of BOF. We do this annual review as a way to document our learnings, and we also know that others may find some useful takeaways from our reflections. That’s why we publish it openly, as an expression of living our values of transparency and accountability.
We also love to talk shop with others. So if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
I’m going to tackle this one a bit differently than I have in years past. This year I’m going to start with some data. FUN! DATA!
This year at Brains on Fire:
- We spent / invested more money than we ever have. This primarily comes in the form of people for an agency (we added a lot of new folks this year). This added a significant dollar amount to our bottom line. About a 15% increase from the year before. For a mid-size agency, that’s a lot.
- We raised our existing team’s salaries more than we ever have. We believe in paying our team above the fair and equitable measuring stick and we made big strides this year in pushing that ideal forward. Every person who had worked here for at least a year got an increase in their pay.
- We invested more hours than we ever have into personal and professional development. Both in our newly implemented 1:1 structure and our dept / team learning structure, we tallied over 2,500 hours in on-the-clock development as a team. That’s over half a million dollars invested in non-billable hours.
- We arguably (objectively?) did our best work ever this year. For us, that meant both the amount of output and the quality of the output to our standards. This year, we felt proud a lot.
- ANNNNNDDD we made (and shared) more money than we ever have. A 77% increase in profits from the year before. Eclipsing the goal that we set out at the end of 2021 — a goal that felt impossible at the time.
- Oh, and we were named as a Great Place to Work with 100% of the team saying that Brains was a great place to work (with some additional exciting news on this front dropping in January of this year).
To put a finer point on it, we invested more than we thought possible and we profited more than we thought was probable. And we did it all while becoming a better place to work that did better work than ever before.
^ I am immensely proud of that paragraph.
In years past, I’ve laid out a lot of our ups and downs to get to this point. How we rebuilt the culture, developed processes and standards, built the team, developed leaders, etc.
Well, at risk of sounding overly bombastic — this was, in many ways, our year of arrival.
Arrival to the belief that the experiment is possible.
At Brains, the experiment is a question we talk about often. A question on if we can create a great agency together — a great agency that’s filled with happy and healthy people.
We’ve been around for a while. We know many agencies. Some of us come from other agencies. We know how hard being a creative ‘service provider’ can be. Especially with high-growth, high-performing trajectories. There is lots of burnout. Lots of inequality. And lot’s of chipping away at culture and values to chase success.
We talk about a better way. We talk about being successful because of our values and not despite them. We talk about building something worth choosing, together. That’s our experiment. Building the best agency on the planet, filled with healthy and happy people.
But we do question if it’s possible. If it’s sustainable.
This year we proved to ourselves that those things were possible. That they were not just things we talked about — they were true things. We proved that the experiment could work. And we proved it many times over to ourselves. We arrived at possible.
Did we arrive at the end of the experiment? Did we solve it? No, of course not. And we never will. It will always be an evolving experiment. Something to strive for.
But we saw glimpses of it. We saw our collective ability to create, when all
things are considered, a pretty great place to work.
In my previous posts, I’ve covered at length how we think about growing leaders, adding talent, developing processes, etc.
All of that played a monumental role in our measurement of success this year, but one thing probably stands above the rest for me. Scaling standards of excellence.
A couple of years back I had an interaction with a client that has kept me up a night or two as I think about the growth trajectory of Brains. This client had worked with a competitor of ours, a well-known agency that we have admired as a peer. Folks with celebrated work in the industry and a disruptor in the space. But our client was not a fan of their past experience with them. In his generous praise of the way we go about our work he said, “[The other agency] has some talent, but it all depends on the team you get. If you get stuck with a B team the work is just fine. And the experience of getting to a final product with them isn’t awesome.”
Fair or not to this other agency, that stuck with me. And our leadership team talks about this idea a lot. How do we both define and scale excellence? How do those ‘B team’ words never have relevance to our work? Can you have a larger agency with consistent quality and experience that matches how we pitch ourselves on our website and in a new business call? Can we live up to our own expectations?
That’s a big part of the experiment for us. Here are some ways we worked on that this year:
Each member of our team has a person who is directly responsible for their personal and professional development at BOF. And we take it seriously. We set goals and ensure role alignment for each person. Leadership included. We hold each other accountable to what’s been laid out. Your 1:1 is your advocate. They care about you as a person, but they also care about your professional trajectory. And that means they are going to push you. These individual alignments ladder up to our goals as a company and to our highest ideals as an agency. And they set pathways for growth individually and collectively. When I step back, it’s beautiful. And simple. People caring about people. It’s not rocket science. It’s consistency and intention. And good faith on all sides.
This system led to many growth moments for our folks and our company — things like new mastery of skills, deep dives into topics like ADA compliance or AI applications for our work, clearer job titles and growth trajectories, and a ton more. All coming from individuals.
Department Learning & Sharing
Above the 1:1 structure we have small team structures. As is typical, our teams are departmental — Design, Social, Strategy, Projects, Leadership. Those teams meet weekly to share, learn, tackle hot topics, and more. Each team has quarterly / yearly goals that they develop as a group. Those goals can be process-oriented, task-driven, learning-focused. It’s up to the team. The teams then share back the goals with the whole company for accountability. And learnings and processes are also shared back regularly and systematically implemented when needed.
The sharing back and systematizing are the important parts here. The teams aren’t operating in silos. They are getting inspired, learning, and then bringing it back to the whole to make our work better. We saw countless examples of that this last year.
The Magic Shop
One of our values at Brains is simply, ‘We Believe in Magic’. This is our value that acknowledges and pays homage to those deeply mysterious and deeply human parts of our work. The inexplicable flows of social movements and human connections that can be found in and through creative work. We believe in magic. And we are committed to pushing our work to the boundaries of the known and into the spaces that feel uncomfortable and squishy and transcendent.
The Magic Shop is a part of our weekly team meeting time to carve out space to dialogue, share, learn, dream, laugh — all the good stuff. A time to believe in magic together. We spend one meeting a month going over updates. What’s going on with each client, what’s in the new business hopper, any new programs or policies, etc. The other three weeks are dedicated to magic-making. Personally, if I look back at this last year, some of my fondest memories as a team are during our Magic Shops.
These things individually are not groundbreaking. It’s together that I think we saw their impact. They are structures that allow us to practically play out the stuff that is most important to us as leaders and as a team.
Creating a Great Place to Work
I’m going to keep this one short. We’ve done a lot of policy and culture work over the last four years to bring us closer and closer to creating a place worth choosing every day. This year we implemented better parental leave, implemented 30-day sabbaticals for anyone who’s worked for us for seven years or more, took more holidays, shut down the offices at the end of the year, implemented more transparent growth and salary opportunities, built on our B-Corp scores, and more. We are firm believers that a culture is and should be constantly evolving and looking to better itself. When new people come, we are a new company. Our culture is not a Kool-Aid to be drunk. Again, not a destination to arrive at. It’s additive in nature, it’s amorphous.
Yes, all that contributed to us continuing to be a Great Place to Work. But I think the biggest thing is one of the simplest things. I tell every new person that starts with us that as soon as they feel powerless to change something here, they should leave. Because we are no longer the company that deserves their time.
We’ve all worked at places that felt like that. Powerless to change. It’s awful. Truly awful. My philosophy is simple. Everyone should be empowered to create change. To better us. To make the place more worth choosing. In a community, that change takes dialogue of course. It has to work for the whole and for what our vision is. But, I really believe it’s that simple. Start with a leadership posture of empowerment for change, and then build the mechanisms (1:1s, Teams, Magic Shops) to foster, facilitate, and enact that change. Boil it all down and that’s what I think is at the center of creating and sustaining a great place to work.
It’s Hard. And That’s Ok.
This year’s story is maybe a little too nice. As with all good stories, we need some drama, some conflict. So I will end with some personal thoughts on leading. This was probably my most fulfilling and validating year as a leader — but it was also maybe my hardest year as a leader.
Some stuff got a lot easier. Some stuff got a lot harder. With human scale comes complexity. And so much messiness. At times, ‘the problems’ can feel relentless. And it takes a lot of focus and energy to maintain perspective.
I certainly didn’t nail everything. Far from it. I spread myself too thin at times. I struggled having my brain bounce from thing to thing to thing. Time management was a challenge. Feelings of guilt would crop up if I wasn’t working constantly.
Four years of building is hard. We also work with many startups, oftentimes as business partners and not just agency partners, which stacks building companies on building companies. And we launched two new sister agencies this year (Dunshire and Mass Culture).
I felt it.
And at times the team did too. There was still something in the air this last year in the entire world of work. We all still don’t know what normal should look like after the last few years. We’re still figuring it out. And that leads to some weeks just feeling — off. It leads to having big wins and things to celebrate — and not feeling those accomplishments properly. There was plenty of funk.
But it was ok. It is ok.
Because building great things is hard.
And building great things WITH great people is a really wonderful way to spend your days (it can be both personally and professionally fulfilling).
Those two things can be true together.
And it’s ok to say that.