“Fire in the Belly”: Keeping Your Team’s Passion for Advertising Alive

Throughout this series, we’ve explored the ways in which the movement from in-housing to outsourced media execution partnerships has enabled independent media agencies to develop their teams, access technology, and maintain a healthy level of profitable growth. As we’ll see in this installment, what makes all of that possible is a shared sense of passion and purpose, through which the employees of both the agency and the outsourcing partner can focus on what brought them into this industry to begin with.

When people hear the name of Sam Burn’s Birmingham, Alabama-based agency, Cayenne Creative, they’re always curious about how that name was chosen. Often, he says, people make the assumption that the name reflects the heat of the cayenne pepper, figuring that the agency is claiming to provide its clients with “hot ideas.” While Cayenne believes their ideas are hot, Burn says, that’s not the root of the agency’s name. Instead, he explains, “what it really stemmed from was this foundational passion we have for doing what we do, which we refer to as ‘fire in the belly.’ It’s about a passion to do great work. And a big part of doing great work is doing work that you love.”

For most people who get into advertising and marketing, says William Lapointe, CEO of Pathlabs, a media execution partner, the driving force, the “great work” they love, is getting to “spend more time with the clients, to help them build their business, to work on strategies—not to traffic ads, not to try and tie a bunch of disparate technologies together.” Most marketers, he says, “become marketers to be marketers.” There’s only “so much innovation you can do,” he adds, “when you’re heads down trying to get a connector tool to work.”

But someone has to traffic those ads, someone has to manage the technologies, and someone has to get that connector tool to work. For agency heads like Burn and Marc Stryker, vice president of Channel Marketing at Salt Lake City-based Penna Powers, that someone is Pathlabs.

Sharing the Passion

“I can focus on media strategy,” Stryker says. “We can build out the bones of a campaign, figure out who the target audiences are and how to reach them—and then we can work with Pathlabs to find the right tools for that—and they can execute. I don’t have a team just getting in the weeds of execution and losing sight of what we’re trying to do.”

That’s true for David Heimlich, a partner in the Los Angeles-based The Blossom Project, as well. “I’m a strategist,” he says. “I’m an account person, a CEO, a CMO. I can do all that. But I don’t do programmatic buying. I don’t do search and social buying. So when we were trying to figure out how to implement certain channels, Pathlabs was an absolute natural fit for us.”

The key to “outsourcing” these services to Pathlabs, Burn cautions, is understanding that his agency (as well as Stryker’s and Heimlich’s) is not “offloading work we don’t want to do to somebody else that also doesn’t want to do it. Instead, we’re focusing on what we do best, where we have the strongest passions, and then, with Pathlabs, we have a partner who has people who are also focusing on the things they’re most passionate about. They match our fire in the belly with their own fire in the belly.”

It's this level of collaborative, creative problem solving that Jordan Person, managing partner at New York City-based Town Hall, believes “both advertisers and clients are looking for. Rather than a prescribed solution that may have worked for the past three clients, people are looking for bespoke solutions. This partnership helps equip us to do that, and everything connects with that.” Through Town Hall’s arrangement with Pathlabs, Person notes, Town Hall’s team has “clarity. They can better connect their role to the client’s business success.” By not getting “caught up in the day-to-day workflow, with blinders on that don’t let you see what’s in front of you, we can get back to the idea of making sure that everything is in line, from strategy to ideation to execution.”

Breathing Easier

This ability to focus, adds Brent Barbee, CEO of Atlanta-based Conquer, “helps our team breathe a little easier” and thereby helps the agency avoid burnout, sidestepping “the diminishing return that comes when we’re piling on too much.”

Avoiding burnout, of course, is key to retention, as well as to avoiding the recent trend, as Pathlabs Chief Service Officer Cortland Fondon notes, of “quiet quitting,” through which employees pull back from effective work because they’re “doing things they’re not passionate about and don’t feel they’re able to grow.”

And the ability of an agency to allow its employees to nurture the “fire in their bellies,” notes Burn, is also a critical element in recruitment. “As we have grown,” he says, “we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can, as leaders of this company, to attract people who have that passion, and then fuel that passion by trying to concentrate their time, effort, and energy on the things they love most.”

As an example, Burn points to Hope Vergara, who joined Cayenne two years ago as integrated media director. “If we had bogged her down in all the things that are required to put a media plan together,” he explains, “she would have done it, because she’s a trooper, she’s a team player, but inevitably that fire in her belly would have been diminished.” Instead, given Cayenne’s relationship with Pathlabs and Vergara’s role at the center of that, “we were able to focus her on the things she loves most” and, as a result, “she has elevated our media performance tremendously.”

Cayenne’s experience with Vergara underscores what Fondon believes agencies need to do at all times. Take a measure, he says “of what your team looks like today. What are their strengths? What do they want to be doing? What do you need them to be doing? And then work out a workflow that will work to the strength you have on your bench today and continue to cultivate the things that they love today—and keep them around long term.”

In the next, and final installment of this series, we’ll take a close look at workflow and how the type of outsourcing partnership we’ve explored in the past five installments comes together to marshal the best team and technology resources, fostering growth and profitability, and maintaining that “fire in the belly” for all players. 

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