In your career you will have the opportunity to work with a broad range of clients. Some will help you make a lot of money. Some will help you make a little money. Some will help you grow old friendships. Some will help you make new friendships. Some will be strictly business. And some will be a party. Some will enable you to do great work. Some will help you make a difference. Some will build your confidence. Some will test your limits. Some will cost you money. Some you will love. And some, you will wish you never met. But if you pay attention, they will all help you grow smarter, stronger and more capable. So on the toughest days with the toughest clients, and the best days with the best clients, don’t forget to learn.
This week marks the beginning of the 22nd year of my advertising career. Over the past 22 years I have worked for an agency owned by private equity, an agency owned by a public holding company, and an agency that was privately held. I have learned a lot along the way. In 2016 I launched my own ad agency called The Weaponry. And I’m trying to apply all I have learned to make this bird fly.
Private Equity Goals
When I worked for the advertising agency owned by private equity, its main focus was growing to sell. A funny thing happens when you want to grow to sell your company. Especially when your investment clock is ticking, and you want to sell within the next 24 months or less.
You become hyper-focussed on revenue growth. When you obsess over revenue growth, you want to add business as quickly as you can. The quality of the work, the fit, the preparedness or the organization to take on the new work, and both the quality and the timeliness of the work flies out the window. Because short-term growth makes you do funny things.
Public Company Goals
Eventually that agency was bought by a large publicly held company. And the focus of the business changed. The new organization wasn’t obsessed with revenue growth. They were focused on margin growth. They wanted to make sure that we were making healthy profits on everything we did. They were constantly looking for ways to increase that margin.
The agency cut or discarded clients that didn’t offer the margin needed to sustain the infrastructure of a large, publicly held agency. As a result, they made decisions that were based on the target margin number of the day (that’s english for du jour). We walked away from clients who were facing some short-term challenges. We discarded several clients that had great long-term potential. Because the company was focused on meeting margins for the next quarter.
Family Business Goals
I recently worked with a company that had a very different way to think about their business growth. The organization was owned by a successful and impressive family. The key shareholders are not outside investors. They are family members. As a result, the most important measurement they focus on is generational growth. They ask deeper, more important questions, like ‘How can we grow a healthy organization that can sustain generations of positive growth?’ And ‘Who let the dogs out?’
They certainly want good revenue. They also want a good margin. But they play the long game in every decision they make. As a result, they don’t grow faster than they can maintain a high quality of delivery. They don’t cut clients because they don’t live up to today’s margin standards. They are flexible and understanding of their clients’ challenges. That builds trust and loyalty. And long-term relationships. All of this has helped build both revenue and margin. And a long runway for growth for years to come.
Revenue and margin are important to a business. But we should never forget that they are results of how we run our organizations, and the hundreds of decisions we make along the way. When you think about your business in terms of generational growth, you will make better decisions for the long haul. You will build relationships that get you through hard times. And you will build something that lasts long after you are gone.
My daughter Ava is a good student. She just finished 6th grade and her report cards always look like they have my initials all over them. She is a self-starter and a self-finisher. Which means that while I would like to be more involved with her academics, she usually doesn’t need my help.
Her final science project of the year finally gave me a chance to get involved. The assignment was to build a Rube Goldberg Machine that incorporated at least four simple machines (#physicstalk).
For those of you who aren’t down with RGM, a Rube Goldberg Machine is a machine, device or thingy that uses a chain reaction to perform a very simple task in a very complicated way. I love this kind of project. It combines science, creativity and whimsy (Did I mention that in college I majored in whimsy?)
The Big Question
The project was a mixture of problem solving fun and you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me frustration. But helping Ava with her RGM set off a series of linked thoughts in my head. My Father Brain nudged my Business-Owner Brain which produced the question:
Are organizations unintentionally creating Rube Goldberg Machines to do what should be done easily?
It shouldn’t be that hard.
Most organizations develop processes and procedures, whether officially or by default, that are way too complicated. What should take a one person a few minutes to complete turns into a complicated chain of events, with too many sign-offs, too many check-ins, too much standing in line, too much discussing and not enough doing.
Check yourself before your wreck yourself.
Chances are that you have an RGM in your organization. But instead of being whimsical and entertaining, it wastes time, adds costs and has a negative impact on customer service.
If you notice an overly complicated process within your organization, or in your interactions with your partners, vendors or clients, let them know. Businesses need this kind of feedback. Because it is really easy to make an easy task difficult.
Taking a fresh look.
When I started the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I reveled in the opportunity to make our processes simple. I also have a long-term vision of the business that should help us avoid unnecessary complexities. But we are not perfect. We will also require regular evaluations and feedback from our team, partners and clients to make sure we are not complicating what should not be complicated.
Rube Goldberg Machines offer good opportunities to teach children about physics. They offer great entertainment. In fact, I would subscribe to The Rube Goldberg Machine channel if such a thing existed. But within organizations, let’s not overcomplicate. Let’s always look for ways to de-complicate our processes and procedures to make sure we are not wasting time or money.
In case you were wondering…
*I envisioned Ava creating a small contraption on a table in our basement. But that’s not Ava’s style. She created a large machine in our driveway, despite the fact that she would have to set it all up and take it all down every day until she completed the project. She finally completed a successful run at 8pm on my birthday. Which meant that my birthday was spent doing a lot more tweaking of components than celebrating me. But that’s what parents do.
Most businesses have way too many meetings. They last too long. They have too many participants. And they are held in conference rooms with chairs that are too comfortable. Too often our days are defined by these meetings, rather than by the stretches of non-meetingness when the real work gets done.
If you want to solve this problem in your organization, watch more NASCAR. Scratch that. Find yourself a NASCAR Pit Crew Meeting Mentor. In a NASCAR race, the goal is to get to the finish line before anyone else. The more time a driver spends driving the car as fast as he or she can, the better. Calling the driver to a meeting during a race sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what happens.
In every NASCAR race, the driver will pull into the pits, and a company meeting breaks out. Attendees typically include the driver, the Gas Man (#snickering), The Jack Man, A couple of Tire Jockeys, and maybe someone to extend some fresh beef jerky to the driver. If you watch a full race you’ll pick up on a few key meeting tips that you can put to work in your place of business.
5 Meeting Tips You Can Learn From A NASCAR Pit Crew.
- Go into each meeting with a clear, concise agenda. If you don’t have a clear agenda, clear the meeting off your schedule.
- Only invite critical team members. Which means Barney from accounting will be invited to as many meetings this year as he was invited to parties in college.
- Meet as quickly as possible and get out. Time your meetings with a stopwatch, not an hourglass.
- Meet as infrequently as possible. The more time you spend working alone the better. Just like that business trip when you forgot your deodorant.
- The longest team meetings should be in the winner’s circle. And everyone should be wearing confetti and a fizzy beverage.
Meetings are occasionally necessary. When they are, think like a pit crew. Plan the meeting ahead of time. Know how many people need to jump over the wall, and how many tires they should bring. Always make the meetings short and sweet. It’s the best way to ensure you and your team will accomplish more of your long-term goals.
In 2015 I decided to launch a new advertising agency. I already had a vivid image of the agency in my head. So I began mapping, sketching and listing every detail of the company. I considered the business from every angle. I even created a Life Stage chart of the yet unborn business. It was like What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Except I was expecting a bouncing baby business.
The Elevator Pitch
However, there was one detail that start-ups typically obsess over that I skipped entirely: the Elevator Pitch. It is supposed to be the centerpiece of a startup’s marketing efforts. If you’ve never heard of an elevator pitch, the idea is that you have to summarize the essence of who you are, and what you do, in a short statement that you could deliver to a captive hostage on a brief elevator ride. Apparently, lots of entrepreneurs stalk high-powered executives on elevators, thinking it would be a great strategy for winning their affection.
I’m not buying it.
I hate the whole concept of the elevator pitch. I think it is the most overrated, over-discussed element of salesmanship. And entrepreneurship. And elevatorship.
Sure, it is important to be able to succinctly talk about your business. Your Great Aunt Petunia doesn’t have enough time left on Earth to waste it on your full story. But I have never bought anything or hired anyone because of a brief discussion I had on an elevator, escalator or Wonk-avator.
In fact, I have been in business for two years. And not once have I found myself in an elevator with someone who told me I had 10 floors of verticality to perform the sales pitch of a lifetime.
Instead of scripting and performing an elevator monologue to an audience that never shows up, which feels a little like writing an acceptance speech for an award you didn’t win, I take the opposite approach.
The Quiet Game
I play the quiet game. You know, it’s that game where you see how long you can go without talking. I was terrible at the Quiet Game as a child. Scratch that. I was the Cleveland Browns of The Quiet Game. But today, as an entrepreneur, I am quite good at it. When I meet a marketer, I don’t whip out a polished sales pitch and throw it at her. Instead, I listen.
I want to hear what potential clients talk about. I want to hear what challenges they are facing. I want to know where their pain points are. I want to identify their greatest unmet needs. I continue to grow and transform The Weaponry in response to the unmet needs of our clients. Because we are focused on solving client problems, we grow in the direction that our clients’ needs dictate.
If you want to collect more great clients and grow your business, don’t practice your elevator pitch. Practice listening. Play detective. Or doctor. Listen for the discomfort, the bottlenecks, and the solution-less problems your clients and potential clients are facing. Discover their unmet needs. And you’ll have found your next opportunity.
*If you found anything of value in this post, please consider subscribing to this blog. You’ll receive two fresh-baked posts via email each week. Oh, and you may also dig this post I wrote about My Vanilla Ice Philosophy. Vanilla Ice himself liked it. And Tweeted it. And hung it above his bed (ok, that very last part might not be true).
The best part of business is the people. I didn’t know that when I started my career. But over the past two decades I have discovered that businesses aren’t just powerful economic engines. They are the primary source of social interactions among adults. The workplace is dramatically undervalued as a matchmaker of friends, mentors, collaborators and life partners. In fact, I met my wife, Dawn, at work.
On Mother’s Day I got a shocking text from my close friend, Jennifer Hanley, whom I first met when she became a client of mine in 2008. She had bad news. My friend and former client, Steven Schreibman, had passed away the day before. This was totally unexpected. He recently began experiencing severe headaches. Then, on May 7th, he suffered a fall that resulted in a brain injury. He never regained consciousness.
I am truly blessed to have known Steven. But we would have never met had it not been for business. Steven was a fancy pants marketing lead at Nationwide Insurance. I was the creative lead at one of Nationwide’s advertising agencies. And we became fast friends.
Steven’s reputation preceded him. My coworkers would come back from meetings with Nationwide telling stories of this wild, rogue client. I couldn’t wait to meet this mythical marketing creature.
He didn’t disappoint. In fact, Steven Schreibman was such a fantastic character, that even though I am only halfway through my advertising career expectancy, I am declaring that I will never encounter another client or coworker that is more spectacularly unique than Steven.
Today I am reflecting on Steven’s impact on my life. My last 10 years have been much more flavorful thanks to Steven. Here are four of the many things I will never forget about him.
The Steven Schreibman Top 4 List.
1. His Laugh
I love to laugh. But Steven’s laugh made me look like the farmer in American Gothic. His laugh felt like the essence of life itself. His laugh was big and loud, like an alarm. And it never contained an ounce of restraint. Nor did it adhere to any social norms. I would have loved to have gone to church or synagogue or a library with Steven just to see if he could actually put a lid on his impulse to laugh without a hint of inhibition at the hilarity of the world. We should all live and laugh like that.
2. He cared.
Steven engaged with people as if he were a talk show host. Which is probably the job he should have had. In fact, I hope he gets that gig in Heaven. Because me and St. Peter would watch the Steven Schreibman Show every night.
Steven always showed a genuine interest in my life. He was full of questions and remembered everything I ever told him. When we first began working together, my family was small and growing. I have three blonde haired, blue-eyed kids named Ava, Johann and Magnus. Steven would always ask me, ‘How is your little Aryan race coming along?’ I laugh out loud when I think about how completely inappropriate he was, even as he demonstrated how much he cared about me and my family.
3. He Was Eternally Optimistic
Steven was a great client to present creative ideas to, because he recognized the potential in every idea. This is an extremely rare and valuable skill. Everything was Fabulous and Brilliant and Amazing. He loved pushing each idea to see how far it could go. He loved making things bigger, wilder and more attention-getting. He loved making ideas more memorable, and less like everything else. He could have taught a class on getting the most value out of a creative idea. He also could have been the class clown in that very same course.
4. He Was Entertaining
Steven was outlandish, and over-the-top, all of the time. His personality was completely incongruent with that of a large, conservative insurance company. But Steven reveled in being the pot stirrer. He understood his role as the person who could balance out a conservative corporate culture with his total irreverence for all things conservative.
The Master of Shock Value
We should all have a friend who is as endlessly entertaining as Steven was. He was so funny, and so outlandishly unpredictable, that you just wanted to be around him to see and hear what he would do next. There were no ordinary conversations with Steven. I think it would have been a violation of his personal brand to give you a straight answer. Every conversation with Steven was like a box of Cracker Jacks. And I looked forward to the joke, the surprise, or the shocking commentary that was tucked into every exchange.
My First Impression
I first met Steven on a Nationwide commercial shoot, on a 100 degree day in North Carolina. His face was lathered in sunscreen that was barely rubbed in. Which meant that he looked ridiculous. And he loved it. He kept asking if there was something on his face, and he acted oblivious to the white creamy mess he wore like Halloween makeup, just to get a reaction.
The Shirt Incident
One of my favorite Steven memories was from his birthday in 2009. We had a meeting together, and I wore a wild paisley shirt. When the SS waltzed into the meeting he was wearing the exact same shirt! When he spotted me wearing his birthday shirt, his jaw dropped, and he exclaimed, ‘Oh. My. Gawd! We HAVE to sit next to each other!!!!’ So we did. The rest of the meeting felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. It was all just too ridiculous to take anything seriously. As I think about Steven now, I immediate go back to that meeting. We looked like twin clowns. And we loved every minute of it.
Steven was the most engaged reader of this blog. Literally. The insights page on The Perfect Agency Project show that he has provided the most comments on this blog, by far. In fact, Steven has 33% more comments than the next most prolific commenter. This blog will miss him.
I love characters. And Steven was one of the greatest characters I’ve ever known. My conversations with Steven were more provocative and entertaining than the Howard Stern show. Always hilarious. Always inappropriate. And never a bit predictable.
Steven was indeed larger than life. And to those of us whose lives he touched, he is larger than death. Nothing can undo the impact you’ve had on all of us Steven. We will miss you greatly. I can’t wait to hear your laugh again on the other side.
*If you know a friend or family member of Steven’s, please consider sharing this post with them.
I’m heading to the office today. I was there yesterday. And I’ll be there tomorrow too. While this might not seem significant to you, it is to me. This marks the first time since I partied like Prince that I have gone to an office between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
Before I launched my own business I worked at an adverting agency that shut down during this span. Before that, I saved my vacation days to enjoy the entire holiday week off. Before that was 1999, the last year I was in the office. Back then I was worried about the havoc Y2K was going to wreak on my Blockbuster account.
I couldn’t be happier about going to work today. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family and spending time with Dawn (my wife partner) and 3 children. But I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, because I thought it would be the best way to ensure stability for my family. Today, The Weaponry is extremely busy. And I have things to take care of.
This week I have three precious days to focus on The Weaponry’s past, present and future.
We are busy tying a giant red bow on 2017. It looks like we will double our revenue from 2016. But we have financial matters to complete before we arrive at the final numbers. This week we have invoices to send and expenses to expense. We are also investing more in infrastructure before the close of the year. On our shopping list:
- Large TV/monitor for our conference room
- 6 high stools for our recently ordered 48-inch x 96-inch high-top conference room table (it is red!)
- Giant signs for 2 walls.
- A refrigerator
- A new printer/copier/fax machine/ smoke signal sender/ Carrier Pigeon launcher
- Surf Board coffee table (you can read about it by clicking here)
We are very fortunate to have a lot of work going through the agency right now. In fact, we will have four client presentations in the first week of 2018. Here’s a glimpse of what we are working on:
- A major website redesign that will launch in early February
- Several ads for various print campaigns
- Ads for a Facebook paid media campaign
- 2 completely new brand logos
- A new brand name for a client (following a series of major acquisitions)
- A brand repositioning project
- A fun t-shirt design for a client that we just sent to the screen printer
- A choreographed new business dance routine spectacular that we will perform in every new business meeting in 2018 (If you want to see it just invite us to come talk)
While our clients are enjoying a well deserved break, we are stealing some time to finish painting our office. Yesterday we finished painting another individual office. We finished painting our hallway, and started on our conference room. Today we plan to finish the conference room and then hang up the rollers and brushes until we expand into more space.
We are busy preparing for 2018. This is an extremely exciting time for us. Starting on January 1st, The Weaponry will be providing health and dental insurance to full-time employees. I am extremely proud of this milestone and will share more about finding insurance in a future post. We are also considering adding a couple of new people to our team. We are exploring office options for our employees who live outside Milwaukee (specifically in Columbus and Atlanta). I feel very fortunate to have to deal with such issues.
I sincerely appreciate you following this journey by reading The Perfect Agency Project. The readership of this blog doubled from 2015 to 2016. And it doubled again in 2017 thanks to readers like you. To make sure you never miss an update please subscribe to receive each post via email. I’ll even spring for the postage.