Small Agency Conference and Awards

If I knew then what I know now... I'd step up my golf game

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In this occasional series, Ad Age asked small agency chiefs what they would do differently if starting their shops today.

New York Times reporter Emily Steele went to a Pilates class with a source to convince her to trust her so Emily could tell her story about Bill O'Reilly's unwelcome sexual advances. The resulting article led Emily and her team to break open the story on O'Reilly's many sexual harassment cases. This led to them winning a Pulitzer Prize and adding significant firepower to the #MeToo movement.

Tina VonderHaar, CEO of St. Louis based Brighton Agency
Tina VonderHaar, CEO of St. Louis based Brighton Agency Credit: Brighton Agency

What this story demonstrates more than anything else, is the value and importance of cultivating authentic relationships with the people we work with outside the of the workplace. If I knew how important this was when I first started in advertising, I'd have worked on my golf game as much as my strategy game.

But over time I've come to understand that as the CEO of my agency, relationships are my primary job. Everything I've learned in running an agency, from recruiting talent, to growing talent to building business, comes from developing a relationship. I firmly believe that the best work we do gets done outside of the office. That's the time we get to know one another – clients and employees – when we have fun. Discover shared interests. And build trust.

The most important skill of any agency employee is understanding how to break the barrier between work and fun. You can have great ideas, be able to build insights from data, and lead a team. But if you don't understand how to socialize and authentically connect with others beyond social networks, you will not be as successful as you could.

Here's what having a drink or playing golf or getting your nails done with a client or co-worker can build:

Better work

When we spend time with our clients and are able to build a relationship based on mutual interests and shared values, getting the hard work done comes easier. A client will trust your instinct and your ideas. You can co-create together and produce solutions that are more likely to be approved, be produced and have market impact.

More work

When you have a relationship built on partnership, your client comes to you to help them solve problems. This leads to more work and deeper engagements. Oh, and let's not forget that a happy client is always the best referral for new business. Likewise, a happy employee is going to be your best recruiter.

More fun

We make a point of having many opportunities to have fun at work and then to take it outside of the office. We build a mini-golf course every year for the Master's and have a tournament. We go visit a winery as a team. It's more than team building. Its about connecting with one another in an environment where we can relax and have conversations beyond the many screens that get in our way.

While we don't have the three-martini-lunch these days to build bonds, there's lots of other ways to break the work barrier just by learning your client's or co-worker's interests.

Tina VonderHaar is CEO at The Brighton Agency

Want to hear more advice about how your small agency can not just survive but thrive? Be sure to sign up for our Small Agency Conference July 17 and 18 in Marina del Rey, California. Tickets and information are available here.

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