December 14, 2018

2018: The Pivot Year

By David Saxe

An agency reinvented, a year of massive evolution—captured in a post short enough that you’ll read it. Here goes. A year and a half ago, Thomas, Jose and I cracked our chests open, got brutally honest about our personal dreams for ELL and our own work lives. ELL had grown to about 17 people at the time, we were getting insecure as hell and estimated that we were a couple of years away from a plateau (which, inevitably, is followed by a decline). We had slid too deep into maintenance mode, and for a creative agency, that’s an awful place to be.

We came out of the fog with some vision, and some of that vision needed the vision of people that weren’t even a part of our team yet to fill in the gaps. We decided to aim high. To reinvent. To identify and address gaps and deficiencies. To pursue growth while remaining deeply rooted in our founding principles.

For nearly a decade, our decisions have been guided by two things: doing the best creative in the Houston market and being a blast to work with. We felt confident in the concepts we developed, stories we told and projects we executed. We had built a team of incredible talent, and I’ll put my partners up against anyone…Houston, NYC, Chicago…I don’t care. We had developed a fun environment and our clients genuinely loved working with us, but we hadn’t invested in three key areas that we recognized were holding us back: marketing strategy, project management and scalable processes.

  1. Marketing strategy: I have to confess. When people called themselves “marketing strategists”, my cynical side used to scoff. It felt like one of those titles anyone could adopt. Like “Social Media Expert” or “Digital Ninja”. I was an idiot. The disservice we were doing to our clients was leaving a massive gap between our creative solutions and their actual business problems. How do these campaigns fit within the larger business objectives? Pricing models? Geography? Distribution models? Real marketing strategists love to play in this space, and we found the best to lead us and our clients. We can’t create beautiful web experiences, films or animations and walk away anymore. We have to (1) justify that they’re going to solve a business problem in the first place and (2) ensure that it actually does.So, we’re as committed to being a creative agency as we’ve ever been. But we can’t be a complete creative agency without brilliant and experienced internal marketing leadership.
  2. Project management: Some agencies start here. They build out a restaurant of waiters and waitresses before they even remember that they need a chef. We ran so far away from this model that we had begun to do our clients a disservice as we grew. Being a blast to work with can’t just be about fun meetings and shoot days—it has to mean that our clients have a confident sense of “they’ve got this.” We didn’t have it. A healthy working relationship between account services and creatives is difficult. Any seasoned agency person will tell you that. Having a strong relationship between these two teams equips us to serve our clients with extravagant, over the top service. We built out a full account services team that simply didn’t exist one year ago today. You’ll meet Celena, Sandra, Mary and Zainab—they’ve made us exponentially better.
  3. Scalable processes: I used to say things all the time like “people are more important than processes.” I even wrote a blog about it. I still believe that on the surface, but the reason I always said it was because I hated processes. My mind doesn’t work that way. I don’t like following them and I don’t like creating them. But that’s a weakness that was a slowly growing brick wall standing between us and growth. Lack of process leads to mistakes/bad QA, things feeling like they’re busier than they really are and unreasonable dependency on individuals that need to be able to disconnect every once in a while. We brought in two new directors that audited us, told us what to do, and we let them do pretty much all of it. We’re positioned for growth next year in a way we’ve never been before.

Not everyone likes change. As partners, we’re people pleasers to the core (well two of us are…I’ll let you guess the two). So, developing a plan and executing on the plan required commitment and willingness to lead with strategically positioned blinders. We knew where we needed to go, and we couldn’t expect that to be obvious to everyone. Taking the team, many of whom have been with us for 7+ years, through complete restructuring was jarring, and at times, discouraging to those of us longing for the “good ol’ days”. The reality is that stagnant organizations die. We knew that. It was a year for doing. For action and uncomfortable change.

One of our directors is into mud runs. Ya know, where you basically add pain and dirt to an already difficult race? 2018 was a mud run for ELL. As the year comes to a close and the changes begin to stabilize, it feels like a hot shower after you just ran your best time ever. We’re revamped, refreshed and are a dramatically stronger agency. Now we’re going to unplug like normal people the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Then we’ll come back and put all of this to the test.

Happy Holidays.