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If I knew then what I know now ... I wouldn't be where I am today

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

"If I knew then" is a weekly series of essays by small agency owners and operators about lessons they learned in starting up their shops.

We started this amazing adventure called Partners & Napier in 2004. We had big dreams to become a national agency with global reach, with Rochester, New York as our base.

Today, we're 160 strong and five of our clients are on the Fortune 500. We've just been ranked as North America's 15th most effective agency by Effie Worldwide.

It's been a long road to get here, yet I've appreciated nearly each and every step.

Back in 2011, to gain access to global resources and more client opportunities, we made the strategic decision to sell to Project Worldwide, an innovative, independent holding company seeking to link an assortment of like-minded agencies in service of creativity. Was it a tough decision? You bet. But it was the right decision.

My younger self probably would not have agreed to sell. I had a lot to prove as a young person in this business, especially as a woman. And I had a lot to learn.

I've learned it's OK to be vulnerable.

As a young entrepreneur, your energy is high, and you feel a bit invincible. For me, 3 to 4 years into the life of Partners & Napier, the hard stuff got harder. Scaling the company seemed insurmountable. So did keeping employees challenged and happy — and clients satisfied.

It's a lot to take on, but that's when it's OK to say "I don't know" and hire people who have a different approach and skill set. In the process, I also learned to stay humble — it's part of being an effective leader.

I've learned that sometimes doing what's right for the business isn't always popular.

Many of our people were unhappy when they learned we were selling to Project. They felt we'd lose our fierce independence. That we would become more corporate. Did it change us? Absolutely. But we haven't lost an ounce of our ferocity. And we gained the resources necessary to better scale our business and make our work hit harder. It turns out to be one of the reasons we're thriving today.

I learned early on to be a lifelong learner.

The world is changing way too fast to rest on any laurels. That's why I went back to school to get my Master's in my early 40s, and why I stay so involved with my alma maters — mentoring young people and, even better, learning from them.

I've learned to always be willing to give the gift of your time to people and organizations you care about.

Even when you don't know how the hell you will do it all. It comes back to you later in life in ways you cannot imagine.

I've learned the importance of celebrating our accomplishments more often, instead of fearing my luck would run out sooner or later.

Because filling your lungs with a deep breath of success can give you the strength you need to push through the inevitable tough stuff.

If I knew then all that I know now, I wouldn't be where I am today.

I'm highly competitive, and I was always determined to do things my way. In some ways that was good. But fortunately, I learned relatively early that no one is successful on their own. At the age of 44, and with the backing of 40 brave colleagues, we put it all on the line to realize our dream of our own agency. In the process, I realized building the best teams means being ego-less. Nimble. Flexible. And surrounding yourself with diverse, smart people.

We're where we are now because I knew enough then to trust myself, be all in, and get back up after the occasional stumble. But with the business morphing so fast, we have to keep moving. There's always more to do, and even better, more to learn.

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