Season 1, Episode 4: Staying Flexible To Stay On Top
In this week’s episode of Outsmart, your hosts Nicole Allen and Rex Petrill sit down with the SVP of Operations at TEAM LEWIS, Hillary Werronen to talk people, process and tech when it comes to an employee-centered growth strategy.
In this episode we discuss:
- Future-proofing staffing models for competitive markets
- Leveraging organizational integration to increase retention
- The importance of flexibility when scoping a statement of work
Hillary: Right now, flexibility looks very different than has before. I think we’ve always been an agency that has allowed for flexibility in terms of the type of work that you do. But now we’re also looking at more flexibility in terms of geography or being in the office or not, and really understanding that employees are people, of course, but that everybody has different needs, and everyone has different sort of thresholds that they need to have met and being cognizant of those and meeting them wherever possible.
Rex: Welcome back to the Outsmart podcast with TEAM LEWIS. I’m your co-host Rex Petrill, joined by Nicole Allen. And this week we are thrilled to have Hillary Werronen joining us to discuss how companies can plan for growth in today’s climate, and that is through flexibility. We’re going to dig into people, process, technology with our own SVP of operations. So, Hillary, let’s start off with an elevator pitch. Who the heck are you?
Hillary: All right, well, first of all, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here. The podcast has been so informative and interesting so far, and I’m really honored to be able to be a small part of it here at the beginning days. So, you mentioned my name and my title. I am Hilary Werronen, and I’m the SVP of operations in the US for TEAM LEWIS. However, operations is not really my background by training or by trade. I’m a digital marketer at the core, so I’ve been working in agencies of different sizes from very small to global, such as TEAM LEWIS for about 15 years now. However, working in an industry where people are the service that you’re selling. I’ve really grown a huge passion for efficiency, and that’s really just to benefit the company. It also benefits the clients, and it also benefits the employees who want to be doing meaningful work at the end of the day. So basically, my job is to find those opportunities within our agency and to make them happen.
Nicole: You said such kind things about our podcast, Hillary. That was very nice of you and not at all planted.
Rex: We did not plan that.
Nicole: So, I’m going to kick us off just by commenting that we’ve really been focusing on more marketing campaigns and campaign activations and outsmarting with creativity, with research, with paid media. And we’re obviously outsmarting and what we’re delivering and how we’re delivering it. But what does that actually look like on the back end? How can we help plan for flexibility as an agency?
Hillary: I think right now the answer to that question is a little bit biased based on the world that we’re living in, which is sort of mid, hopefully towards the end, of a year’s long pandemic at this point. And that’s really forced our hand to focus a lot on recruiting, staffing retention. And so, in my mind, smart staffing is the number one thing that we can do to be flexible as a company. And I think many other agencies in our industry would probably agree with that. For us, we really look to hire and develop individuals who have more of a growth mindset. It’s not necessarily about the skills or the background that they have or the resume or what they look like on paper. It’s really more about people who can see problems from many different angles, because that’s where we’re finding our smartest, most interesting solutions to the challenges that we face, not only as an internal company, but also working for the clients we have as well. We want to be bringing new, and exciting, and creative ideas, and those come from looking at problems in a different way. So, for us staffing and finding the right people who approach things in that way has been the number one focus for us. I think scenario planning is particularly important. That’s probably the number two thing that we’ve focused on because it allows us to plan for flexing up and also flexing down depending on what’s happening month to month. And we’re really in a period right now where most companies don’t know what’s going to be happening around the corner. And so, if you plan for both of those scenarios, you’re going to have fewer ramifications depending on which one of those things happen. And my personal philosophy is, of course, to plan for growth and to lean towards growth, but I think you have to be smart and plan for both scenarios at the same time.
Rex: I’ve never really thought about it that way. About what you said earlier about we’re selling our people, and our people are really what brings clients together and the chemistry in the room and the know how comes with it. And I think the people that our focus that you mentioned on hiring and staffing accounts with people who are inclined to bring that passion, bring that drive to what they’re doing every day, and then teach them the necessary skills to exceed and grow. I think it’s such a kind of turning a business on its head and saying this is the people is really what makes it particularly for a marketing agency. I think that’s really interesting to think about that. And when you talk about flexibility, I think we have a lot of different facets of that. We’ve talked about it from just even in previous episodes about being flexible with budgets and CS gets reduced in size. And oh my gosh, what are we going to do? We got to turn this activation from an in person to a digital, and all of our clients are going through that. And yes, it’s pandemic driven, but it’s not always pandemic driven. Something changes in a moment in time or shoot your executive leaves. And he was the centerpiece of a new campaign that you’re going to run. So, thinking about from a strategic standpoint, when we’re talking about activation of the marketing side, let’s Zoom out and look at from a client and agency relationship standpoint. What do you think the future looks like in that flexible model?
Hillary: What we’re seeing now is that many clients that we work with, companies that we partner with, they are coming to us for different types of relationships. There’s a different working model that we’re starting from when we price out programs and scope programs and think about what our partnership is going to look like because they’re having their own hiring issues. So not only from the outset are we starting to work on programs where we’re actually becoming a part of their internal PR team or marketing team or an extension, but in many cases, they’ll come to us later and say we need to add in resources because we’ve had a couple of areas where we haven’t been able to get the head count that we need. And so, we’re filling in and just different types of roles and different responsibilities. And in many ways, it can strengthen the relationships and the partnership that we do have with those clients because the more knowledge sharing you have back and forth obviously lends to much smarter programs. There’s more visibility into what the company is doing as a whole and how things are going for more of a business level perspective, which is always great.
Nicole: From a client servicing perspective, kind of being on the other side of that coin. Hillary, I think we’ve seen a lot of benefits to being more ingrained in having that bigger picture view. Even if we are just working with a client on one line of service, being more ingrained in their business and we maybe were previously is really enabling us to, I think, up level the quality of the service and the strategy that we’re able to provide. So, Hillary, you’ve been talking about how given some of the great resignation that we’re in and some of the staffing challenges that our clients are seeing, it’s changing the nature of how our pricing models and our staffing models and we’re becoming more ingrained in their business. But of course, we see some of the same hiring challenges, or we’re facing many of the same hiring challenges today. So how can companies think about future proofing their staffing plans in these times of uncertainty?
Hillary: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think our team in particular has done a real bang-up job in bringing really smart people into the agency and the time that’s been as challenging as it is. But for us, the twin challenge is retention, and that’s something that we’ve been focusing on in every single area of the work that we do both internally and externally. And for me, I think there’s so much going on in folk’s personal lives that when they’re at work and when they’re in their professional lives, they want to feel a reward and they want to feel like it’s fulfilling the type of work that they’re doing. And so just making sure that at every step of the way we provide employees with opportunities to be able to grow and keep things fresh and keep things new and always have a different experience when they’re working is really important. And not only that growth, but again, the flexibility that goes with it too. And right now, flexibility looks very different than it has before. I think we’ve always been an agency that has allowed for flexibility in terms of the type of work that you do. We’ve had many folks that have maybe made a transition from one type of role to another, wanted to experience a different path for them, and have been able to make those transitions pretty seamlessly. But now we’re also looking at more flexibility in terms of geography or being in the office or not, and really understanding that employees are people, of course, but that everybody has different needs, and everyone has different sort of thresholds that they need to have met and being cognizant of those and meeting them wherever possible. So, for us, it’s always better to retain than it is to lose somebody who’s a fantastic asset and then have to try to find someone that can maybe fill their shoes at a later date.
Rex: I feel like we’ve had challenges just like any company in the last months and years in that front, but I think I’ve experienced our improvements and I think we’ve had successful clients do the same thing is really bringing together multiple departments into those conversations. And it’s not just an HR problem, it’s not just an operations problem. Everybody needs to be very on top of what’s happening with their teams and how people are feeling and how their work is progressing, and having those regular check ins and just making sure that everybody is headed in the right direction, in the direction that they want to go in and communicating across offices and departments and just making sure that we’re all on the same page so that if a concern is raised, it’s not something like, oh yeah, we’ll get to that in our next check in next week. It’s like we’re having daily conversations on these things. And I think those in some ways forced stand ups makes people think about these things and makes people address problems as they happen. So, you’re not scrambling and saying like, well, crap, how do we retain this person when they’ve already in an offer stage with somebody else?
Nicole: The theme that I’m hearing really is integration, which we have talked about at length as we talk about outsmarting. A lot of that has to do with integrated campaigns and surround sound and all of the fun buzz terms that we don’t need to get into. But I’m hearing Hillary and Rex, you guys talk about the importance of internally making sure that all of our different departments are communicating and are integrated and are really trying to pick apart and understand each other’s problems because many times the solution for hiring, maybe outside of your talent or HR Department, the solution might be in your account teams and how your teams are structured or in your flexibility and staffing models. So, I think that that integration theme is really key to how companies can remain flexible and outsmart in that way.
Hillary: Another thing that I think has been really beneficial over the past year is embracing technology in some different ways as well. We’ve looked to upgrade our tech stack basically to make our remote work a little bit more seamless. And that’s also, I think, gone a long way in terms of, again, making people feel a little bit more fulfilled, because if you identify different areas of the tech stack where somebody is perhaps spending a lot of time doing admin or repetitive or copy paste or any of those things that take up time and just don’t spark joy, I guess, for you, and you can remove those and be able to make things more efficient. From that perspective, I think that’s been really helpful as well and something that will certainly continue to do.
Nicole: Hillary, any types of tools in particular that you want to highlight?
Hillary: Yeah. I think surprisingly, you’ll hear me say that our time tracking tool has been very useful for us because time tracking is typically the bane of existence for some people. It is administrative to a certain extent.
Rex: Some people on this podcast.
Hillary: It’s been very insightful for us. It really has, because when we’re talking about making decisions as a company, there is qualitative information that we have from having those one-on-one conversations and that communication that Rex was talking about earlier. But there is also a really valuable role that quantitative data can play for us because we can drill down into our programs, we can drill down into individuals, and we can see how people are spending their time if they’re spending their time in the right ways. And by no means is it Big Brother. In fact, it’s quite the opposite that when we identify that there are individuals that are spending too much time, more often than not, we try to work with them to focus their time more on what’s going to be productive and beneficial. And they’re not just spending hours upon hours sitting in front of their computers and we can look at the programs that they’re on and make sure that the diversity is there, that they’re doing different things, learning different areas of service that we can provide. So, I think that tool has been really beneficial for us, and it’s also helped us to measure the outputs of some of the different initiatives that we’ve had, such as more flexibility and having summer Fridays and giving people additional family time to take care of their loved ones. And we can see kind of how that’s having an effect on the work that we do. And I think it’s all had a positive effect, but it’s good to have a little bit of that proof point.
Rex: It’s really helpful from an account team perspective, too, because we can look and compare what are we supposed to be delivering to the client and what are we actually spending our time on? And anecdotally that we can have ideas about what we do xyz reporting or this manual task doesn’t take that long and then you add it up and you’re like, oh my gosh, we may need another tool, or we may need another approach or have a conversation to be like, is this as valuable as this is the amount of time that we’re spending on a task? Hey client, hey partner, is this where you want us to be focusing their time? And more often than not, everybody comes to realization they’re like, oh gosh, no, actually we should be spending more of our time on strategic tasks and tasks that are actually going to move the needle for the business rather than more repetitive or reducing cadence of things or whatever it is or getting a tool. Like I said, so it is not Big Brotherish. It’s actually super helpful for us in the decision-making process. And like you noted, Hillary to if it’s used in the right way, which we all aim to do, is to really help someone in their individual career and grow and grow their skill set and grow their, like you said, diversity of their experience within their client bases and within Lewis. So, I would fully agree that that’s a pretty necessary tool in our toolkit.
Just to add, I think time has always been the ultimate currency, but it’s really become that in the pandemic as well. And yeah, having that data and that ability to say, okay, how can we make more realistic working hours happen for individuals? How can we provide opportunities for growth? And then also being able to go to the clients and saying reporting or whatever it is, is actually taking this amount of time, which is costing you this amount of money, and really being able to put a number on what the cost of that time has been absolutely critical, I think, on both sides, and definitely have seen clients really appreciate that level of visibility and understanding into what they’re actually paying for and what they’re getting on the other end?
Nicole: Yeah, it’s all about value.
Rex: Speaking of value, Hilary would love your perspective on the types of conversations that we’ve had with our current clients or prospective clients just around how engagements are shifting, how pricing models are shifting, how our relationships of work are shifting.
Hillary: Yeah, that’s a good question as well, because we chatted a little bit earlier about how our relationships are changing, and our partnerships are changing in many ways. We’re becoming an extension of a team when there’s headcount missing on the client side. And that’s a really hard conversation to have because the cost per se of a program doesn’t necessarily equal apples to apples. What the cost of the head count at that company would be. And so, our job is to make sure that any program that we have does provide that value that’s above and beyond what they would get by having just one individual additional piece of headcount. And we do that because we have so many different services and a variety and many different types of creativity and minds that can come to that. I think we’d love to see as much flexibility as possible in terms of pricing models, and we’re always happy to create one that is bespoke to the type of relationship that we have. Worst case scenario for us is having a retainer that is strict and rigid and is down to the number of press releases or number of pieces of creative that we’re developing over a certain amount of time because it doesn’t give us the ability to flex and do what’s smartest for those companies. And there might be a tactic that’s not working, and we’ll need to bring in different resources to be able to make something a little bit smarter happen for them. And so, I think being able to reflect that as much as possible in pricing and scoping models is really important. And for us, it’s interesting to work with companies of different sizes because smaller companies start up stage might have more flexibility in terms of how they can use their budgets, whereas larger companies aren’t able to move as quickly, or they may have some internal silos in place where they can’t be as flexible with the budget that they have or owned by different individuals. And so, for us as an agency, again, we want to make sure that pricing is as beneficial for clients as possible so that they look good to their bosses and that their companies thrive and meet the goals that they’ve set forth for themselves and also set forth for us.
Nicole: I think that level of flexibility also adds to there has to be trust on both sides and a lot of transparent conversations, which I think in the last two years we’ve definitely seen an increase in both of those things, and that just adds to the relationship
Hillary: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think trust is really important. And we’ve been talking a little bit about some pricing scenarios and how things scale up and scale down. And it’s a little bit strange sometimes I think for a client to talk to us, and we’re trying to explain why maybe a straight percentage media spend management fee doesn’t work, because we want to make sure that they’re not disincentivized from putting additional budget into the program because it’s going to, quote, unquote, cost more for us. And so, we work to create management fee models that is going to remove those barriers so that they have more flexibility to put budget into the programs that are working most. And they’re not going to be limited by the way that we’re structured or by the way that our pricing is structured. That would be, again, worst case scenario.
Rex: And like shifting tactics, shifting channels like you mentioned between maybe like we talked about earlier, the nature of an event changes from in person to virtual and all of a sudden, you’ve got all the signage that you’re maybe going to create around the booth is not as necessary. But hey, we’ve scoped that out. How can we pivot those resourcing and those allocations to adjust to the realities of the times?
Rex: So hopefully, everyone found that just as informative as we do. We love conversations with Hillary because we know it’s going to make us smarter, and our accounts function even better. We’re going to do the best and brightest on our team. So, Hilary, thank you so much for joining Nicole and myself today. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Hillary: Thank you. This was fun. It’s interesting to again, look at things from a different perspective. That’s the name of the game. It gives us all new ideas and new approaches and these conversations are super interesting to me. So, thanks for having me.
Nicole: And if anyone heard a dog in the background, that was Bruno Rex dog and we may feature him on an upcoming episode, so stay tuned.