MBB’s 35th Anniversary

I’ve been staring at this post for a few days now, not really sure how to capture all my feelings toward the agency turning 35.

Happy. Thankful. Excited. Sure. All of those emotions, and more.
Mistakes. Lost opportunities. Failures. Yep – fair share of that, too.

I realize it sounds cliché, but when I look back at the 12 years I’ve been here, it’s the people I think of most: those we brought in, those who’ve moved on, and those who are still here today.

I also think about the stream of talented people who passed through Muller under John and Kathy – and the words many of them shared with me when we lost John far too early. To be honest, some of the words weren’t always kind. John was known to be tough to work with but to a person they say, “I learned more at Muller than at any other place”. There was always respect for his talent.

When we bought the shop from John and Kathy, we were young and dumb. I look back at myself and wonder what in hell that 35-year-old-kid was thinking.

I can’t imagine what John must have been thinking. I mean, John was cool. Like Steve McQueen cool. He was a good-looking guy. Athletic. Competitive. He actually raced vintage Porsches. As a creative leader, he was a visual giant – and coupled with his personality, it made his persona larger than life.

That was not me – and, it would not describe the rest of the new generation of the agency. Don’t get me wrong. We were smart people – good at our jobs with enough personality to get us into the room. But make no mistake, I was no Steve McQueen. Think Alex P. Keaton, instead.

Turns out that wasn’t all bad. John’s parting words were “make the strategy and the media as strong as the creative, and you’ll be fine.” Easier said than done, but he was right. To borrow an overused phrase, we “leaned into” the nerdy side – media, PR, digital and analytics. We hired strategic thinkers and added new services – all while maintaining John’s creative legacy. Ultimately, we grew the business.

Jan Parkinson – a veteran Hallmark client and a dear friend of John’s – summed us up this way: “You’re a creative shop that just got smarter.”

That, I think, was our first pivot in getting to where we are today – evolving a design-focused shop into a full-service agency.

Our second important pivot was developing an understanding of specialization. For too many reasons to go into here, the role of the generalist agency has contracted considerably in the business world. We chose to recognize this early and created a healthcare-specific division called hippo. In the future, I suspect we’ll continue to investigate other vertical offerings that can appeal to specific categories. Some industry insiders see this specialization as a concession. On the contrary, I see it as progress. After all, specialization is happening all around us. Check out the size of any university’s liberal arts program if you don’t believe me. Why should agencies be any different?

The parallel I draw in specialization is similar to what George Will suggested in his baseball book, Men at Work. Will outlines how baseball has lost dynastic teams and players: “Wee Willie Keeler could ‘hit em where they ain’t’, to the tune of .424 in 1897 season, mostly because the fielders weren’t where they should have been. They didn’t know any better.”

Today, analytics gives pitchers and defenses a granular understanding of how to approach each hitter. Hell, each pitch. The result is the extinction of the .400 hitter. Interestingly, the average batting average has remained remarkably stable over the entire history of the game. It always hovers around .255. The reduction of standard deviation is a hallmark of systems getting better, not worse.

See? Told you I wasn’t cool.

My point is to a large degree, the agency world is facing the same thing. We all look alike. That isn’t regression. It’s evidence we’re all getting better at delivering results. What we’ve lost (marketing departments and agencies alike) is how we deliver impact. We collectively manage to outcomes at the expense of our purpose.

Recently, we held our annual Senior Management retreat. The team agreed upon a single rallying point for next year. For 2018, we’re pushing ourselves to be a more purpose-driven organization. We aren’t concerning ourselves with growing our book of business – we’re just working on getting better. Strategically. Creatively. And, just as importantly, in how we service our clients. I’m truly excited about this renewed, introspective approach.

So, what’s the key to longevity in this business? A willingness to change. We didn’t do a 180, but we did evolve. In fact, we’re still evolving. Analytics and data are the hottest currency in our industry, and we’re investing heavily to stay competitive on that front.

We can’t predict the next wave, but we’ll be open to it. We’ll always work to maintain our creative reputation. It’s important. No matter how the industry evolves, we’ll always be storytellers. We’ll always need the best people – and we’ll strive to create an environment in which they want to work. What we hand off to the next generation of MBBers must be stronger than what we received. That’s the braided cord that connects generations. It’s a responsibility we take seriously.

As for my part, I’ll continue to work on being cooler. Any advice you have would be appreciated. I’ve started a spreadsheet to capture the ideas. I’ll keep it simple – just add your thought, then project a score across two simple axes. I will plot the results, and we can begin the analysis on just how cool I can become by the end of the year.


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