Episode 69 – How a Marketing Agency Won the War on Talent-Member case with Mike Sullivan

As professional services firms scale, the culture erodes. Bureaucracy creeps in and employees shift from serving the client to serving the boss which stalls scaling. On this episode, we discuss scaling culture with Mike Sullivan, CEO of Loomis. 

TRANSCRIPT

Greg Alexander [00:00:15] Welcome to the Boutique with Collective 54, a podcast for founders and leaders. A boutique professional services firms for those that aren’t familiar with us, Collective 54 is the first mastermind community to help you grow, scale and exit your firm bigger and faster. My name is Greg Alexander. I’m the founder, and I’ll be your host today. And on this episode, we’re going to talk about culture and we’re going to do so with our friend and member, Mike Sullivan. Mike, it’s good to see you. And would you please properly introduce yourself to the audience? 

Mike Sullivan [00:00:48] Yeah. Hey, Greg, good to see you too. So I’m Mike Sullivan, president and CEO of the Loomis Agency here in Dallas, Texas, and I’ve occupied this seat for 20 years, if you can believe it. Wow. 

Greg Alexander [00:01:01] And what is the Loomis agency do? 

Mike Sullivan [00:01:03] Well, we call ourselves a challenger brand advertising agency. And what that means specifically is that we specialize in the unique needs of challenger brands. And Challenger brands are defined as really classically any brand that isn’t number one in its market, but it goes well beyond that, too. And we can have a discussion around that if you like, but that’s that’s what we do. 

Greg Alexander [00:01:27] Great. So you’ve been around 20 years, which is fantastic, and that’s proof that whatever you’re doing is working. What role has culture played for you over the years in growing and scaling and sustaining your for your firm’s performance? 

Mike Sullivan [00:01:42] Yeah. So the firm has actually been around thirty five years. So my partner Paul Lewis, I joined him in the year 2000. I came in as president and culture was something that I think Paul, you know what he thought about culture and he thought about yogurt. You know, I mean, nobody was talking about culture. You know, nobody was talking about the the team member experience, if you will. And that’s no slight on Paul. I mean, nobody was really in the 90s. It just wasn’t the topic du jour, but it is now, obviously. And so when I came in, you know, the agency was in a very different place was much smaller. There was no intentionality behind hiring and bringing the right folks in. It was just, can you do this job? Good, go do it kind of thing with no guidance beyond that. And I began to slowly shape and shift that based on my own guiding principle for the agency, which was simple. I just wanted to create the kind of employment environment where people look forward to going to work on Monday morning, you know, Sunday night blues and so. So that’s kind of where it started, but it’s obviously become far more than that. I mean today, where I think was seven time best places to work. Morning News Dallas Business Journal. I think culture is a real differentiator for our agency, and we can talk about that. But there’s your short answer. 

Greg Alexander [00:03:11] Congratulations, you know, and the the agency world, unfortunately, I would say over the years has earned a reputation for not having great cultures. It can be a little transactional and lots of burnout. But clearly, if you’re winning these types of awards, that’s not the case with you. And maybe that’s why you guys are standing out the way that you are. When I think about culture, I think about everything you just said for sure, and it’s mission critical. But I’m always putting it in the context of how does how does it help me scale my firm? And one of the ways that it does is that when you get to a certain side size the founders, the partners can’t be everywhere at all times and there has to be this thing called this is the way we do it around here. And I know that sounds crazy, but you know, things get done a certain way without, you know, bureaucracy like procedures and policies. It just this is the way we do things. Has that happened at your firm? 

Mike Sullivan [00:04:05] It absolutely has happened. And Greg, it starts with identifying the kind of team members you want to have inside your organization, really, if you back it all the way back up to, you know, sort of vision, values, mission, that sort of thing. And then you go and you find people who fit that and you don’t get it right right off the start and you may you may get one that works well and maybe one that doesn’t, but you tune that over time. And because culture is, yeah, it’s all the things that we say in and write down and talk about. This is what we stand for, but it’s really even more than that. It’s it’s all the unwritten, unspoken unsaid things. And so that that creates that replication that I think you’re speaking it. So good things get replicated in the culture. Bad things get replicated in a culture. So the intentionality around that is really important. So when you’re applying that to the hiring environment, it’s really important to get that right. And I keep coming back to hiring because I just think it obviously it all starts with the people, you know, creating the culture and sustaining it, rebuilding it. It’s a living thing. It’s not static. 

Greg Alexander [00:05:11] Yeah, you’re right. It does come back to the people. And you do your best in the interview process to select the right people based on a set of values. But it is an imprecise science and sometimes you’re going to get those things wrong and the culture has to accept or reject people as they come into the organization. So it stays consistent. And you know, you have a strong culture when that’s happening. You know, you mentioned the word vision, which is a favorite word of mine, and that is, you know, you’re creating a vision of the future, the aspirations of the firm. Sometimes I think our members, which are partners and founders of boutique firms, you might even call them challengers Mike in your world. Sometimes they failed to connect the vision with an individual. So if I’m an employee, how do I contribute personally towards the accomplishment of the vision? And when I do so, you know what’s in it for me? Yeah, sometimes that’s missing from these vision statements. What are your thoughts on that? 

Mike Sullivan [00:06:09] No, I agree completely. You know, team members need to, and that’s why this just such a big, big part of what we do. Walking in the door, we’ve got this little actually purpose. But you know, I talk about this in terms of, oh, it’s got our vision, our values, our mission, all that stuff. You know, we like to say we are, let’s see, using creativity and service of capitalism. And so what is it that our folks are doing on a daily basis to help advance the. And help create the business impact that we’re trying to create for our clients and getting them connected to that? Talking about this, getting me excited about this, like we’ve got a series of workshops, challenger workshops that we do in the agency. We get people enrolled in it. They need to understand that, you know, our agencies positioning is connected to our vision and that is helping challengers win. You know, I don’t think the don’t outspend the competition. I’ll think, you know, kind of thing. But but yeah, people on the team need to understand it, which I think is, you know, the first objective making sure that everybody has a shared understanding of what the vision is and then understand how they can contribute to it. You know, at the end of the day, in a good high-performing culture, people feel like they belong and b, they have a purpose and they’re connected to. And sometimes I think we think in terms of purpose, like it’s a bit grandiose purpose. No, my purpose in this organization is to help do these things so that we can accomplish this on behalf of our client. Yeah. 

Greg Alexander [00:07:45] You know, utopia, which are perfection, which none of us obtain, but this is what we’re shooting for, is this concept of a self-governing culture, a self-governing team. And what that means is that the culture is reinforced through behaviors that get rewarded, behaviors that get punished. But it’s not this kind of top-down, you know, dictator driven, founder driven way. It’s almost bottoms up where people are policing themselves, so to speak, which makes the job of the founder or the partner so much easier. Has your firm reached that level or have you gotten close to that? And what are your maybe general thoughts on this concept of a self-governing culture? 

Mike Sullivan [00:08:29] OK. So, yeah, absolutely self-governing. I have a little trouble with because I think it’s a rule, because maybe it implies to me a little bit of tuning out for leadership, which can never happen. Leaderships really got to be tapped into and connected to the culture. Leaders are so important for setting the tone and the pace and culture. Again, it’s what said, what’s done? If am I being congruent with the things that I say, believe me or are watching that? But yes, definitely. Once your culture becomes, I think, good and stable and sound and consistency across time is important and you invite the right people in to help you continue to perpetuate that. Yeah, it becomes self-sustaining in that respect. Absolutely. And it’s amazing. You know, when you even the healthiest cultures, we’ve got 65 people. I think when you just get one higher rung, you know, it’s it’s amazing the disturbance that that causes, you know? And again, it becomes and I like to say, look, if it’s not a fit, you’re going to glow in the dark, you know, and you do. And so it becomes a self-selecting culture in that respect, too. 

Greg Alexander [00:09:39] I love that if it’s not a fad, it’s going to glow in the dark. It’s a really great way of saying that, for sure. And you’re right. I mean, one or two people out of 65 can make a difference, surprisingly, but it does, because it’s just a ripple effect. This is really something another type of gun culture I find intriguing, particularly for boutique firms firms like yours is. Sometimes it tends to be a dominant department or dominant function, like in my Old Firm, the rainmakers they they kind of ruled the place and everybody else took took the lead from them and that. It was the right thing for us, it’s not the right thing for everybody, but it was the right thing for us. Is there a function in your firm that is kind of the lead horse, so to speak, and sets the tone? Or is it more kind of, you know, democratic? 

Mike Sullivan [00:10:28] You know, that’s a great question, Greg. I believe in our firm that we’re pretty even with respect, that there’s that very often in the ad agency world, you’ll find a shop that is, it will say it’s a creative driven agency is of the creative sort of rule the roost. Exactly. Many agencies that have that kind of reputation or as an account driven, you know, and it’s just, you know, the account people are running the show sales driven organizations. That, too, is a culture that that is the culture. I don’t believe that we’re oriented in any one particular fashion, but that’s always something to check in on. And you know, you don’t want to overweight one group at the expense of another because again, that creates disharmony. You know, if you’re not optimized a lot of times and I think this is really true for founders, you know, my background, for example, is the health service and strategy. And so early in my career and early when I started doing this, I really did. You know, I was a little heavier on that side of things and maybe appreciating more what the account team was delivering and how hard their job was? Well, I had to even let that out my own approach. I had to check in and go, Wait a minute. My media group, my creative group, you know, the folks work in production. All of this thing makes the band work. It’s not, you know, any one component of it. 

Greg Alexander [00:11:52] So my own journey is something similar. You know, I was I was in the Rainmaker Group and I hired in my image and the Rainmaker Group became the dominant group. And I ran into a scalability problem because most of my team at that point didn’t truly understand what was required to scale. And what I mean by that is we would just go out and sell work, and we wouldn’t think about how we were going to deliver that work and the impact that had on profitability. And it wasn’t until those people got promoted to the partnership tier and they were equity owners, and they understood how things flowed through a piano. Did they change their opinion on things? Oh, I don’t want to sign that piece of work because that actually is going to cause us harm. But that type of client and that piece of work makes a lot more sense to us. So maybe, maybe, maybe sometimes that’s just a function of maturity and where a firm is in their developmental cycle. 

Mike Sullivan [00:12:46] I think so, Greg. And within the leadership, I was very much like that new business guy. It’s like, gosh, you know, I mean, just go up, get new business. It’ll, you know, revenue takes care of everything it sets. It can cause a lot of challenges. And and thankfully, my executive creative director Tina Tackett, who’s been with us for she started the same day I did 20 years ago. She’s has tamed me appropriately. You know, and I have a complete and I think the kind of respect for the process, as it were that younger Mike Sullivan just never would have comprehended. It took a while, but I definitely got. Yeah. 

Greg Alexander [00:13:26] So your firm is winning awards for a great place to work. You know, you have cultural artifacts like your book you just showed me, which is great. I would suggest to the audience that you have an advanced perspective on culture, which is probably the reason why you’re having so much success. How do you this would be my last question. There’s only so many hours in the day and you’re running a substantial firm. You probably have a to do list the size of Texas, and you could just only get to so many things. So so where does culture fall from a priority perspective and and how do you allocate time towards it? 

Mike Sullivan [00:14:06] You know, Greg, honestly, for me, it’s number one. I mean it all, it really is number one. In fact, here’s the other book you know Boise the underdog how challenge your brands create distinction by thinking culture first. I’m always thinking about this stuff, you know, because I believe that if you get culture right, it does allow you to scale. For instance, you know, we our average tenure among our employees is almost three times the industry average. As a result, our average client tenure is three times the industry average that creates instability, stability, it a smoothness in the organization that you don’t always find in the agency world. And I think there is just so many cascading advantages that spill from. And it’s like I said, it’s the number one thing that I think I think about. 

Greg Alexander [00:14:57] Yeah, that’s a bold statement. I know you got a lot to think about the number one thing that’s really strong. So give us the name of that book again. And if people want to read more about this, how do they find it? 

Mike Sullivan [00:15:06] Yeah, it’s the voice of the voice of the underdog. How challenger brands create distinction by thinking culture first, 

Greg Alexander [00:15:13] and they can first 

Mike Sullivan [00:15:14] box Donovan and Michael Tuggle. Yes, on Amazon, you know, like good stuff. Yeah, so awesome. Yeah, yeah, OK. 

Greg Alexander [00:15:21] And if members want to find you personally and reach out to your read about you, where can they do that? 

Mike Sullivan [00:15:28] So they can certainly shoot me an email at [email protected] That is our URL. Theloomisagency.com. And yeah, I’d love to talk to folks about this. This is one like I said, it’s my favorite topic from a business standpoint. 

Greg Alexander [00:15:45] So, all right. Well, listen, you’re a great member. We’re lucky to have you. Thank you very much for being here today. I really appreciate it. 

Mike Sullivan [00:15:51] Thanks so much for having me on. I appreciate it. Okay. 
Greg Alexander [00:15:55] And for those that want to learn more about this subject and others, you can pick up our book called The Boutique How to Start, Scale and Sell a professional services firm, which I’m proud to say, just hit bestseller status on Amazon and our little niche so you can find it there. And then if you want to meet other great people like Mike, consider joining our mastermind community, which is Collective54.com OK, thanks everybody. Thanks again, Mike. Appreciate it.