BL&T No. 112: First SoDA Global Member Meeting Takeaways

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"In the end, there should be nothing shocking about human existence, because, in the end, whatever has occurred is simply human."

From “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” by Peter Guralnick [Book]

Learned & Thought

It was nice to wake up in my own bed this morning after an action-packed trip to Greece. I'm grateful to have sidestepped jetlag and to come back energized to get back in the swing of things and close the year on a high. It's interesting — I think the time away from the day-to-day has left me feeling more connected to it, both in my personal and work life.

The trip to Greece was one I'll never forget. Although I was there for the Society of Digital Agencies Annual Global Member Meeting (SoDA GMM), it was fun to have Dana with me. Dana and I started the trip with time on Naxos Island before the conference began in Athens. Once it started, I attended day sessions while Dana explored the city. When we met in the evening for dinner and drinks, it was like being on a trip with 100-some like-minded friends.

Boat trip to Aegina Island with SoDA attendees after GMM came to an end.

SoDA Executive Director Tom Beck started the conference with a short talk on what it meant to gather in Athens. He reflected on the history that surrounded us as we sat together in Zappeion Hall, a building next to the National Gardens in the heart of Athens. Much of what we know of politics, arts, science, theater, and philosophy began in Greece during the Classical Age. Having the opportunity to connect with this group of agency leaders for a few days would be special anywhere, but doing it in Greece added another dimension of inspiration.

I was happy to get out and explore more of Athens after the conference. It is hard to describe the feeling of experiencing sites like the Acropolis, home of structures still standing after 2,500 years, despite periods of flux and destruction, seeing ancient music halls where concerts were held, or walking by the ancient agora where Socrates once roamed. When we were in Naxos, we heard stories of Ancient Greeks transporting 50-ton statues by water with goat-skin balloons.

Images from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Left: Herodes Atticus theatre. Right: Parthenon

These stories were humbling. They made me think about time, what changes, what stays the same, and the impact we can have on the future. How humans in 500 BC enjoyed many of the same pastimes and how their lives shaped our lives today.

I left Greece with a sense of wonder and spirit to continue experimenting, learning, and growing, inspired by the folks I spent time with and the city surrounding our connections. While many conversations and experiences last week will impact me in ways I'll never know, there are some key takeaways I was eager to spend more time exploring while they were fresh on my mind.

Here's a short list:

1) Finding life/life harmony, not life/work balance.

Early last year, I started writing a post about the challenges with the notion of "life/work balance" but never prioritized finishing it. At the time, I had been chatting with a few team members who were struggling to find this "balance" and used the draft to explore my ideas.

For most of us, work is an essential part of life; however, life/work balance pits one against the other, suggesting there's an issue if they are ever out of balance. I believe that work and life are intertwined and can fuel each other. How we integrate work into our lives ebbs and flows and we all find our rhythm at different life stages.

At GMM, I was excited to hear Hannah Kreiswirth (Partner/COO at AREA 17) give a talk on what she calls "life/life harmony." Hannah shares a similar perspective as me on work/life balance but took it somewhere I hadn't yet considered.

Hannah framed work/life balance through the relationship between an employee and employer. The phrase in and of itself puts the two at odds as if any sort of synergy will require negotiation. A life/life harmony approach sets employers and employees on the same side of the table. As agency leaders, this new paradigm inspires us to think about how we can create an environment where employees feel connected to and fulfilled through their work.

I'm excited to explore what life/life harmony might mean at Barrel and how to lead through this lens. We're learning something new every day as a remote company and "making work work," as Hannah puts it, is a top priority.

2) Memories as milestones in our experiences.

An idea that stuck with me throughout the conference came from a presentation by Rosie and Faris Yakob, Co-Founders of GENIUS/STEALS.

"We don't choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences... we see the future as expected memories."

In context, Rosie and Faris spoke about how agencies often say they create "experiences," but what do they mean? Rosie and Faris encouraged us to think more deeply about the brand and customer "experience." Where are people looking to spend vs. save time? How can we deliver on these expectations and turn experiences into positive memories?

While this concept hit home in the context of clients, I started thinking about what it means within our team and our lives. To quote Rosie and Faris, we are experiencing life every day. Everything we do is an experience, whether conscious or not.

As managers, co-workers, colleagues, significant others, siblings, and friends, we have an opportunity to turn the experiences of those we care about into memories. At an agency, this might look like sending a treat to the team after a big win. It might even mean creating space to feel low after a setback.

In either case, these memories can act as milestones as we look back on our experiences thus far, pinning our emotions to moments in time vs. blurring everything together.

3) Revisiting Win Without Pitching's three option proposals.

In early 2020, we hired Blair Enns to do a workshop on his Win Without Pitching (WWP) framework. Neither of us thought this would be his last in-person session for quite a while! We've experimented with it quite a bit since, but we no longer embrace it to a tee.

During a breakout session last week on pricing, a few agencies shared how successful WWP had been for them. Most notably, the decision to present three options for every proposal. The idea is that the client will most often opt for a larger scope than what they originally budgeted (typically the middle one), having multiple options to compare.

One of the agencies shared this framework for creating options:

  • Option 1: What the client asked for
  • Option 2: What the client asked for plus what they forgot to consider
  • Option 3: Option 2 with add-ons

At the height of WWP adoption, I remember struggling to come up with three unique options for certain proposals. I like the simplicity of this approach and am interested in finding an opportunity to give it a try.

4) Dance like everyone's watching.

James Kane, CEO/Founder of Two Bulls gave an energetic talk about his experience selling his agency, ultimately to DEPT.

To the fellow agency founders and leaders in the room, James shared the advice "dance like everyone's watching," in other words, "run your business like you're going to sell, even if you're not."

This brought me back to the advice my Dad gave me years ago when I was performing almost weekly, "always perform like you're in an arena."

James's talk was a pleasant reminder to never get comfortable. When things are going well, find ways to optimize and make them better. When things are going poorly, find ways to get back on track. Whatever you do, always give it your best shot. I'm always amazed by how this simple shift in mindset can make all of the difference.

5) Identifying where to be efficient.

On Wednesday, we heard from Roberto Gonzalez, Co-Founder of Aerolab. He talked about how creating space for innovation and side projects has propelled their business in ways they never expected. At the end of his talk, he offered simple advice: try something new in every project.

On Thursday, we heard from Blair Enns. He shared The Innoficiency Principle, which states that "innovation and efficiency are mutually opposable goals. In any reasonably functioning organization, one cannot be increased without decreasing the other." Blair went on to talk about an agency's natural tendency to "tilt toward efficiency" as they grow. (More on this topic in Blair's post here).

Credit: Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching

On Wednesday, I was thinking about how we could be better at creating space to experiment and play, and how this could tie back into what we sell and how we deliver value for clients. Not necessarily a new topic of discussion among leadership and one we've explored in various ways over the years.

On Thursday, I was thinking about how and where "innovation" fits as we refine utilization and tighten up project finances.

Blair's talk took me back to a post I wrote in July 2021 called Creativity & Efficiency. I write "Building efficiency creates more space to be creative. By reducing repetitive work, we gain time to focus on thinking big."

I agree with Blair that true innovation is messy and can be wasteful, the opposite of efficiency. However, I wonder if efficiency in certain aspects of the business can create more room to be innovative. Either way, I don't like being on either side of the spectrum; the question is how far we want to be from the center in either direction.

6) The downside of ownership.

Jack Skeels, CEO of AgencyAgile, led an engaging breakout session about what it means to be a learning organization. We covered a lot of ground, but the first theme that stood out to me was this:

"When one person gets to own X, others get to disown."

As someone who believes that clear responsibility and ownership within a team drive results, this stopped me in my tracks, mostly because I didn't disagree.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it doesn't need to be so cut and dry. There are areas in our work where defining ownership can work in our favor. For instance, having an account manager lead client communication can help eliminate gaps and confusion.

In other areas, so-called ownership can work against us. If we treat what we do as an assembly line, shipping a strategist's idea to a designer, then off to a developer, the result will not be a culmination of everyone working through their ideas; it will be a poor version of the first idea.

There's a lot more I could explore on this topic. For now, I'll keep it top of mind in day-to-day experiences.

7) All hands on deck as a learning organization.

Jack talked about the power of getting all hands on deck in the same breakout session. A couple of ideas that resonated were:

Scorecards: Integrating a scorecard for project debriefs. People go around the room sharing their scores. Start the discussion by addressing the outliers. The idea here is to ritualize honoring each other's perspective. Although we recently restructured our project debriefs, I'm curious how a scorecard could enhance the discussion, takeaways, and future changes.

Monthly hours: Jack shared how important it is to get hours inputs from the people doing the work. We currently get estimates from the team for new work, while they track all current work weekly. Jack offered a new idea for the latter: the team submits hours monthly.

The thinking is that time tracking is rarely real-time or accurate, even if it feels that way. If a team member estimated 5 hours and took 10 hours to get it done, they're likely to fudge their numbers.

In a monthly tracking scenario, team members' time inputs may also be inaccurate but how they relate to each project is likely to be what impacts them vs. optimizing for specific tasks. In the end, more intense or difficult projects might have higher hours, but this will be a signal to leadership to discuss ways of working or scope with the client and team.

I don't see us moving away from weekly time tracking this year, but I found these to be interesting insights for any future shifts.

8) When to invest in an in-house recruiter.

In a breakout session with Tomislav Car, CEO at Productive, he offered a helpful tip on how to think about hiring someone to lead talent acquisition.

It goes like this:

  • Take the projected growth rate of the agency to figure out how many people you'll need to support that future state.
  • From there, factor in average turnover.
  • This will tell you how many people you'll likely need to hire in the next year.
  • From there, you can back into a ballpark number of interviews to find quality candidates.

This will tell help to determine what the workload for a potential recruiter hire might look like and how much you can budget for the role.

How and if to backfill our past Talent Acquisition Manager's role has been a discussion over the past few months. Tom's insight was a helpful tool for thinking this through with more structure.

9) Designing for differences.

Phillip Tiongson, Founder/CEO of Potion, gave an inspiring talk about how designing for user differences can improve products for everyone.

He shared a story about the airforce in the 1940s. They were seeing record aircraft crashes and later discovered it was due to the design of the seats. They tried to improve the sizing by creating an average from pilots of all shapes and sizes, but the new seat fit no one. In the end, they designed an adjustable seat that worked for everyone, later inspiring the seats we know today in our cars.

Phillip went on to talk about how this mindset has been impactful in his work, specifically when designing physical experiences. Accessibility is a priority in our work at Barrel; however, Phillip's talk made me think more broadly about what it means to account for user differences.

In his words: "no one really thinks about accessibility until you can't access something."

From this perspective, I wonder where we might have blindspots, getting stuck checking off accessibility compliance list items rather than thinking about how we can serve different types of users in unique ways.

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details