Our Agency Year in Review
And how to not sink a 30-year company your first year on the job
First, a little backstory to this post…
In January 2019, I took over as co-president of Brains on Fire with my partner Brandy Amidon. We joined two existing (and amazing) partners, but also succeeded the long and historic tenure of Robbin Phillips. Robbin spent the last 20 years as president building BOF into its current form and gaining some well deserved notoriety along the way.
It was a big change.
We also have two growing offices: one in Los Angeles and one in Greenville, SC. I believe this unique geographical setup is one of our greatest strengths, but it also added to the complexity of our 2019 Year of Change (read as YEAAAR OOOOFF CHAANNNGGE).
Yes, bad news, you’ve stumbled upon a year-end / year-beginning reflections post. I’m about to hit you with some of the lessons I learned from the past year. The spoiler to this post is that we ended up having a really great year in many ways. We grew the company, invested in our people and reset and realigned conversations on what we do, how we do it and what our values are. I’m really proud of how a lot of the past year played out, but I also screwed up plenty.
If I’m being honest, writing these down is simply an exercise in catharsis after one of the longest and most extraordinary years of my life (with an exciting new one ahead). I do hope others might find some helpful nuggets in here.
I’ve broken my reflections into two sections. The first are my lessons for us as an agency. The second are personal lessons stepping into the role of co-president. Let’s jump in.
Agency Lesson #1: Change is Hard for Humans. Embracing it is the Difference
This is something we fundamentally know as an agency. One of our services is the difficult and often precarious job of rebranding. We find rebranding to be the hardest human thing we do, well beyond new branding and building community. That is because of change. Half, if not more, of our job during a rebrand is to walk the humans of the brand or organization through the journey of change. We work hard to design that change journey in a way that makes it slightly easier for humans to embrace, but what we’ve learned over the years is that everything about our humanness wants to resist change. Change is so scary. It brings uncertainty and it brings us out of our sense of safety. And fear is such an unfortunately powerful force. Especially if it’s in any way tied to one’s sense of identity.
But at the end of those rebrands we have found, without outliers, that the most successful rebrand projects happened when the humans involved really leaned into change. Even though it was scary, even though there was so much uncertainty at points, they bought in and jumped in to co-create the change. They believed and it led to success.
Because here’s the thing: in every single case of our rebrands, change was necessary. Stagnation is death. No one is reaching out to us to rebrand because they just want to “spice things up” a bit. They are reaching out because there is a problem.
Funny how you can know something so fundamentally true as an agency, but still struggle when internally applicable.
To be fair to ourselves, change never rolls in kindly. It whirls and weathers you in the moment, and requires a lot of difficult patience and willingness to sitting in the discomfort to see how things will shake out.
The lesson I took away for our agency this year is the same lesson we try and teach our clients; embrace change. Lean in and co-create it to a beautiful and shared outcome. It’s the difference between success and mediocrity. Was change absolutely necessary for us? Who knows. But it was upon us. We had two routes: embracing or resisting. When we embraced it as an agency, we created beautiful things together, and found new and exciting paths to success. When we resisted, whether because of fear or stubbornness or complacency, we were mediocre at best. People got left behind by those who chose to embrace, and when people are left behind, it takes a lot of time, effort and hard choices to get everyone caught up and moving collectively towards the future again. And that’s time spent looking backward instead of working forward.
For Brains on Fire, change will always be upon us. Always. We have chosen an industry that is ever-changing. And it’s easy to get left behind.
We are at our best when we lean into the change, embrace it and co-create a better future.
What’s the best way to collectively embrace change, you wonder? … well, that’s next.
Agency Lesson #2: Start with Defined Language and Shared Values
When it came time for the leadership transition, Brandy and I had developed a deep trust over the past few years, and we were also aligned in our vision for the future of Brains on Fire. From the beginning of our ownership journey, we didn’t want to dictate a process or plan that didn’t include our team. Brandy and I are obsessed with culture, and I’m a big believer in designing our own culture and change processes with as much intention and attention to detail as we would design a brand, a website or a community. Brandy and I were two of many and we needed “the many” for conversations about where we are and where we want to go…together. We told the team up front that we had two options:
1) We give everyone a fully-flushed plan for our future on January 1st, 2019…day one.
2) We gather insight. We define language. We align in values. We share, talk and trust. Then we make a plan together.
We collectively chose 2. That process took six months.
We started with a listening tour with our team using various conversation starters on fear, dreams and hopes. Listening first. Sharing our thoughts second.
From there, we moved into defining language. Humans simply can’t change without language to contextualize that change. We need to clearly understand what’s being asked of us. Change is doomed when it gets lost in a cloud of ambiguity. We did a lot of work on building language to contextualize the changes we were asking ourselves.
After that, we worked on redefining our shared values and our rules for working together. The values and rules were born from our conversations and our shared experiences, and built using newly-defined language. We debated and wrestled with the values and rules. We combined and cut, ultimately arriving at them together.
The values and rules led to redefining our processes and how we communicate externally. All of this led to doing better work. And more importantly, enjoying and being more fulfilled in our work. But the process was not the easy route. It was hard. It took time, and it is hard for everyone to be patient during a time of change.
Now our future plan feels very real, transparent and open to everyone here. We shared a fully fleshed out presentation with the team at the midyear point. It included who we are, what we sell and why we exist. We focused on culture, values, rules and a 3-year, detailed goals list.
Overall, we are essentially doing the same things that Brains on Fire has been doing for the past 30+ years, solving big creative challenges and opportunities for our clients. We help good people tell their stories better. We try to spark change and inspire communities to action. We do it all through a fairly unique and quirky human-focused lens and insightful approach. We try to do those things in a way that contributes to people’s lives in meaningful ways, connecting them to others through shared passions. But again, change was upon us. We needed to reset some things and align on others. We took the time to work out the language, values and rules that felt most comfortable and accurate for the next chapter in the long story of Brains on Fire.
Agency Lesson #3: Communicate Your Decision Making Hierarchy
As we were beginning the process above, Brandy and I also immediately set and communicated our hierarchy for decision making.
The hierarchy was:
- Our People
- Our Clients
Simple as that.
If a client is bad for our people they aren’t the right fit.
If it comes down to sacrificing a little money for the success of our clients, we figure out how to overdeliver.
And so on.
This was a simple, powerful way to set the tone for how we will make decisions as a company. It was a way to start building trust from day one. More importantly, it gave the team a mechanism for accountability with leadership as we moved through the first year. If Brandy and I made a decision that felt outside that hierarchy, the team let us know. Then we worked to adjust.
It also gave Brandy and I a guide for hard decisions. It wasn’t always cut and dry, but it helped tremendously for many tough calls we had to make.
Agency Lesson #4: Trust is Built through the Work
Soon after the transition, we launched a very large brand that our team had touched pretty much everything on — from naming to identity to packaging to web to the campaign launch. Besides the brand and launch performing extremely well in the real world, it was the first time the team felt really in the trenches together since the leadership transition. The energy, flow, support and sense of team was palpable and infectious. We all had each other’s backs, and we were all committed to excellence at the same level.
That’s what we learned all year. We can talk until our faces are blue, but the real, deep trust is built through hard, gritty, intense, fulfilling work. It’s earned when times are tough and we have to actually live out our language, rules and values. It’s the moments when we get the opportunity to show that we actually care for each other…and don’t fall short. When we make it through, we take the time to celebrate those moments when the team is all really playing, creatively excelling and buying into a shared approach to success simply because they care enough to do so. That’s the good stuff.
Personal Lesson #1: Listen. Listen. Listen.
I consider myself a pretty great talker. This has afforded me some success in this business.
I’m also a big believer in the power of listening, but having the patience for it, especially when things are busy, is not one of my strengths.
If this year has taught me anything, it’s to triple down on listening. It requires taking the time, presenting the right body language and making sure the listener knows they were heard and understood. These simple acts go a long way, and are always worth the time when building a culture worth being a part of.
But maybe the biggest thing I learned this year is not not assume one group needs more listening over another, regardless of whether those folks have been with the company for 30 years or six months, they all seem to need the same amount of time to be heard. It was a clear reminder that we are all human. We all have hopes, dreams and fears. Things like age or experience don’t change that. It may change the things being heard, but the time needed to be heard is equal.
Personal Lesson #2: Learn to Live with Letting People Down
This has been the hardest lesson for me. With this job comes simply too many things. I literally can’t do them all. It’s a constant juggling act.
By nature, I’m a people pleaser and an achiever. With too many things, I always feel like I’m letting someone down. Be it my colleagues, a client, my family or even myself, someone is always getting just a little less than I feel they should be getting. It’s hard to live with that feeling every day and not let it eat at you a bit or feel like you’re falling short.
Throughout the year, I got better at the stereotypical things like delegating and time management, but my biggest jump was communicating. Real-time over-communication through the juggling helped everyone manage expectations better. It also helped me feel a little better about not getting all the things done or giving everyone the time and attention they deserved. But mostly, I just needed to learn to let go of the feeling that I was falling short and be ok with getting done what I could.
Personal Lesson #3: Find the Middle of the Pendulum
I find there is a delicate balance when it comes to being an effective leader. Between being a good listener and setting vision and direction. Between feeling the responsibility for the wellbeing of our humans and not letting my mind run through the next 30 things we need to do to get everything done. Having the patience to sit in the middle of those things and recognizing the right timing for each is important.
It’s easy to let the pendulum swing, to feel the panic of an impending deadline one day and the high of new business signing the next. Steadiness and confidence are so important, as is not projecting the pendulum swing onto the group. At any given time, I can now be equally concerned about their stress or money or life challenges or workloads. I believe strongly in not passing through anxiety to the team. Leadership has the ability to affect the tone of the whole office.
Finding the middle of the pendulum is key.
Personal Lesson #4: Mistakes are Fine. It’s What’s Next that Matters Most.
I remember a few months after the transition, we gave a presentation as a team. Following the presentation I felt some funk from the group. After some hard conversations, I learned that the women in the group felt that I had talked over them and done some good ole fashioned mansplaining during the presentation.
And they were right. Absolutely right. I had done the mansplaining.
I was devastated that I had so ignorantly bumbled into the male presidential trope that I hate, but I was glad the women on the team trusted me enough to ding me for it.
I was lucky enough to have another chance at a more equitable presentation shortly after my misstep, but it was clear I had to get that one right to keep any trust that I had built over the previous months.
Overall, I’m not really built for regrets. I like to consider myself an idealistic realist. I generally think things will turn out ok with some hard work and vision. I’m arrogant enough to think we can usually fix what needs fixing. I don’t love looking back and I’m anxious to move forward.
But when it comes to culture, owning your mistakes and course correcting are the only ways to build and maintain real trust. Repeating and repeating erodes trust…in a hurry.
That has been my lesson this year. Mistakes and missteps are fine. They will happen. It’s what you do next that makes you a leader worth following.
Personal Lesson #5: Work is Just Work
Work is just work. This is my most important lesson from 2019 and one that I’m constantly trying to relearn everyday. My brain has this very annoying habit of over inflating how important this job is in the context of the rest of my life.
A new title of “co-president”, added responsibility, and big brand launches didn’t help much.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of the work we did this year. Incredibly proud. We launched big and exciting things into the world that mattered to real people and actually impacted the human experience in meaningful ways. That’s an awesome get to say about my job.
But here is the reality, I missed too much this year. I missed countless moments with the little faces who simply know me by, ‘Papa’. I missed countless moments with the person who has chosen and committed to spend her life with me.
I missed those moments even when I was with them. Because my idiot brain was somewhere doing work.
This year I’ve tried more, and probably failed more than ever to remind myself that when you strip it all away, it’s just noise. It’s not real and true substance.
It’s. Just. Work.
We do work so we can do life. Life is the substance.
My kids could care less what it is I do for work. My wife, god bless her, would love me if I sold ladies shoes (trust me here, I know this for a fact).
This year, 2020, is the year that I keep reminding myself, “It’s what you do next that makes you a man worthy of being a father. Worthy of someone choosing to spend their days with you. Work can wait. After all, it’s just work.”