On January 8-9, 2015 I had the pleasure of attending Owner Summit in Austin, Texas. Owner Summit is a two-day event delivered by Bureau of Digital, an organization created by Greg Hoy and Greg Storey of Happy Cog and partner Carl Smith. Happy Cog is an industry-leading digital agency that also produces the longtime industry-benchmark web site A List Apart (as well as the publication series A Book Apart). With that impressive pedigree, Bureau of Digital runs a series of “camps,” “summits,” and workshops for digital project managers, operations managers, creative directors, and — rather uniquely — the agency owner.
I jumped at the chance to attend, and I’m glad I did. In the 15 years Elexicon has been in business, I’ve never had this kind of opportunity to meet and share experiences with my peers. I have to admit, the idea of comparing notes with other owners was as intimidating as it was intriguing, but once I immersed myself with the group I felt right at home. When over a hundred passionate digital agency owners take time out of their busy and hectic schedules and get together to exchange stories, develop relationships, break bread and share ideas, lots of good things happen. Richard Banville of Fresh Tilled Soil shared his findings from research on (literally) how the very best agencies become the best. Tracey Halvorson of FastSpot gave a talk on client relationships. Karen Lyons of ClockWork presented on work/life balance and how for owners it’s not so much a balance as a blend — “it’s all life!” The inimitable Mike Monteiro gave us heartfelt advice on how NOT to screw up design presentations; and Bryan Zmijewski of ZURB, creators of the Foundation responsive framework talked about the opportunities and pitfalls of developing a “side” project or product.
What I learned
Agency ownership is an art. This was my biggest takeaway, the realization that the most successful interactive agency owners manage their business like one big digital project. They bring their same idealism for strategy and planning, ideation, people-centered design, sensible technology roadmaps, clear communication and project management to the art of running an enterprise.
Different paths, similar passion. Each owner at the summit “got here” differently. Andi Graham of Big Sea delivered a great talk on her “accidental agency,” while other visionaries had seemingly drawn up the blueprints for their agency in grade school. (Me? I fall somewhere in-between … Elexicon story fell into the right place/right time category.) Even though we all traveled different roads to get here, it seems we’re all now on a similar path and share a common passion.
This is a sincere and generous group that I hope to join up with again at a future summit. Insights and ideas flowed freely among the group, with the full intention of helping make each other and their businesses better. The focus was on strengthening the value of digital consultancy services — everything from strategy and design to development to marketing — to the benefit of not only these agencies and their teams but also to clients and their customers.
What I learned about Elexicon
We’re the same… I didn’t walk away from Summit with a new plan to turn Elexicon 180° upside down and try all the new ideas I learned from the industry’s leading agencies. That’s not why I attended, so thank goodness! On the contrary, the Summit validated many of our existing practices and processes while simply adding some helpful new perspectives. It was nice to see and share that we’re doing a lot of things right and that “it ain’t broke.” Many highly successful agencies of all shapes and sizes, literally from across the globe were represented, and Elexicon fit right in.
…But not totally the same. Elexicon is in its 15th year and this accomplishment really stood out in my conversations with other owners, where I received many congratulations on our longevity. Over those years I think we’ve created our own unique way of doing things in some facets of the agency business, that have led us to be very fortunate in the areas of client relationships and team culture. I returned to Grand Rapids feeling like I’d learned a lot but that perhaps a few of the newer agencies and younger owners I talked to at the summit may have learned a bit from me, too.
We’re onto something. While I first attended Owner Summit in 2015, I first heard of Bureau of Digital’s Owner Camps and Owner Summits about a year earlier. During that year of waiting for the next Summit to happen so I could attend, I drew inspiration from the “camp/summit” concept and started an “Agency Camp” within Elexicon during the summer of 2014. With an entire treasure trove of new ideas and insights from Owner Summit, we’re doing Agency Camp 2015 this summer.
The concept of Agency Camp is, in a nutshell, getting together as a team every so often in the morning and talk about how to make ourselves and our agency better. This will be a topic of a near-future blog post of its own, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’ll just close with a word of thanks to the Bureau of Digital crew for the Owner Summit opportunity and the way it inspired our Agency Camp, and I look forward to attending again!