“Look closely at which projects have a genuine impact and you will be shown what you are meant to do. Obviously I was not meant to be in the magazine business, and that’s stunningly clear with hindsight, but ask my 20-year-ago self about management consulting and I’d have probably thought you insane. That future was 100% invisible to me at the time.”
Let’s jump into the interview below.
Thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with Filecamp’s blog readers today about your agency. Let’s kick the interview off by talking about the importance of building a winning culture within an agency. It's quite clear that culture is a priority for your business. Your positive spirit really shows through on your website. Could you give us an idea of how you've gone about building your own company culture?
Our culture is intentional and has been cultivated over many years, but it also functions, in our case, with an overlay of self-consciousness. Part of our work is helping organizations clarify and codify their organizational cultures, so you would expect that we have this down cold for ourselves! But it’s not that simple.
The cultural guideposts we’ve developed for ourselves—our core values: honesty, learning, & rigor—emerged out of an internal development process that began about 10 years ago and was catalyzed originally by an outside consultant. I think this outside guidance is important. Even if we do this kind of work professionally with great skill and effectiveness for others, it does not automatically follow that we are fully capable of doing it for ourselves! We do a passable job I think, and we do make a point of taking our own advice when we see we have recommended something to a client that we have not fully done ourselves! At the end of the day though, organizational culture is something you have to keep working on. It’s not something you finish, but something that has to be constantly attended to.
Since your company is half brand development service, I'd like to ask about how you’ve approached the branding of your own agency?
Related to the answer above, branding companies in general are not very good at branding themselves. Our brand is the result of a series of accidents and short term decisions that once made are easier to refine than redo entirely.
To come clean, the company started 20 years ago as an arts and culture magazine called The Exhibitionist. Going from that place to a brand strategy and management consulting firm is a longer story than you should let me tell here, but the point is that as a business you don’t always know what your true talent is when you start out. The key question is not “what do we think we are good at?” but rather much more importantly, “What are the results?”
Look closely at which projects have a genuine impact and you will be shown what you are meant to do. Obviously I was not meant to be in the magazine business, and that’s stunningly clear with hindsight, but ask my 20-year-ago self about management consulting and I’d have probably thought you insane. That future was 100% invisible to me at the time.
You highlight three core values as an agency: honesty, learning and rigor. Could you share with us how these principles developed? Was there something within your process of growth or operations that inspired these ideals? How have you used them to connect with clients and grow your business?
This is the foundation of our company culture, as I mentioned, and our core values guide decisions large and small, including the kind of relationships we cultivate with our clients. They also help us when selecting among prospective employees.
When we help other organizations clarify their own core values we do this through an intensive interdisciplinary set of sessions and it’s not the same kind of slow organic process we went through ourselves. Again, this is the clarity and efficiency an outside consultant can bring to a difficult problem. Having done this many times we can help the client avoid the many pitfalls of sorting out something as important as core values. This does not mean we can easily do it for ourselves!
In terms of marketing, do you have any tips for representing your image throughout your marketing choices? For example, let's say one of our readers is running an agency for developing websites, and they've decided their image is going to be centered around practical ideals, like, the professional guys who 'mean business'. What are some ways they can make that message clear within their marketing strategy?
Marketing is really about understanding the customer. Branding is about clarity. So if I can pick up the last part of your question, I would say clarity is achieved through simplicity. If the message you are trying to communicate is complicated in any way, you can assume it is also not clear.
That said, simplicity in and of itself is of no value, simplicity must operate in service of and in direct connection to what the customer values, so if no one cares about ‘the professional guys who mean business’ then it’s not going to work.
The key questions don’t change: Who is the customer? What do they value? How are we as a business optimized to deliver that value in a way that’s clearly differentiated from our competitors?
While branding is one half of your business, management consulting is the other. Which one, if any, came first? If one did, in fact, come later, how did you decide to include it? Were there any big roadblocks on the path to integrating the two services within your company? If, however, they both started at the same time, did you face any obstacles while developing each side simultaneously?
Branding came first, and from branding arose the issue of brands that were not backed up by operational practice. In order to solve this problem we evolved tools that became more and more robust until one day we realized we were doing management consulting in addition to branding. It all happened organically as we were pulled into situations where the visual brand was not nearly enough to achieve the desired results.
Do you have any advice for agencies out there who are thinking about including more services as they scale?
We use a partner strategy to augment our services, recognizing that you are never going to be the best in the world at everything. Do what you are truly great at and bring in partners who are truly great at what they do for the other aspects of the work.
I regard doing everything for your client—because you can and while knowing you are not very good at what you are being asked to do—as a kind of professional malpractice.
As for the half of your business focusing on management consulting, How do you approach working with dysfunctional companies or companies with deeply ingrained bad habits?
All companies are dysfunctional at some level. Bad habits are inevitable and they abound. The biggest theme in the work we do as management consultants is moving organizations toward intentionality. What is the business strategy? How does the brand support the business strategy? How well is the organization optimized operationally and behaviorally to deliver against the business strategy and brand strategy? Our work is most often one of clarifying all of the pieces and putting them in motion.
We’ve touched on partnerships above, but let’s dive a bit deeper into that topic now. Your partners do things like visual branding, public relations, copywriting, etc. How and when do you know to bring a partner onboard? How do your clients fit into this decision making process?
Our partners are assets for our clients. 20 years of experience has afforded us the opportunity to work with many partners. We bring those that have proven themselves to be very good at what they do into projects according to the particulars of each project. We cannot pretend that we are the best at all these types of services, so we are transparent about the partners we bring in. We also have multiple partners in most categories of service so the selection of a partner is often done in consultation with the client.
How do you manage the relationships with partners, while still managing your own team?
This is case-by-case and dependent on the client’s situation and preferences. Sometimes we manage the flow of information and effectively subcontract the partner, other times we work side-by-side as part of a multi-disciplinary team with our partners and the client. We are interested in the results and the structure is subservient to that.
What are some important considerations that agencies need to be aware of before reaching out and starting new collaborations or partnerships?
I can’t imagine doing our work without partners. There are complexities in working this way of course, and I think the biggest issue goes back to your first question: what is the culture of the partner firms you are working with? If they are out of sync with our culture this puts a great deal of strain on the process. If the cultural match is strong and the talent and skills are there then every partner is an asset that we can bring seamlessly to the table on behalf of our clients.
There is no shortcut to working through the building of a culturally aligned phalanx of partner businesses. I think it’s worth the effort.
When you were first starting out, which marketing strategies did you use? And furthermore, which one started showing results first?
Content marketing was a great boon to the business starting in 2011. It’s the only marketing strategy we’ve consistently employed.
Fast forward to today. What current marketing strategies do you use to keep you thriving?
The cobbler’s children have no shoes!
Finally, I'd like to look to the future a little bit. What's your advice for staying ahead in the industry? How can the growing agencies of our readers ensure that they stay on top, now and continuously?
Read books, not articles on the internet, real books.
All we really know about the future is that what we are thinking now is probably wrong. Trying to see the future is not entirely a fool’s errand, but as business it may be more important to cultivate agility.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with Filecamp’s blog readers today. We truly appreciate your insights about how you approach helping your agency’s clients brand and grow their organizations. I know the readers of our blog will have taken a lot away from this interview. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Tronvig you can follow them on Twitter or head over to their website here.
MENTIONED IN THIS POST: @TronvigGroup
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