George Swisher is a management consultant who focuses on the world of marketing and communications. He works closely with (huge) agencies and their holding companies – Havas and Omnicom, just to name a couple – to help them become the best and most successful versions of themselves. What he’s discovered, over the course of a long and distinguished career, is that a company’s success is contingent upon its investment in its employees. As one of those rare creatures comfortable with both the business and the creative sides of the marketing business, he has designed and developed what he refers to as “tools,” to help employers and employees alike. He says, “What I do is give them some technology that shows them how to run the business – kind of a North Star.” How did he get there? Read on!
I’m starting off with kind of a weird question. I noticed that your signature at the end of your email has a trademark symbol. Why is that?
Honestly, the first time that I did it, I just wanted to be funny. But then I was looking up some stuff because I had someone squatting on my actual URL, and I discovered that you can trademark yourself if you provide a professional service in your name. I do speaking, I do coaching, I do advising, so my name is a business. And as it turns out, I can trademark that.
Speaking of providing services in your name, let’s talk about what they are, and what they were born from.
Now I’m more of a free agent, so I wouldn’t say I do services in my name. I’ve gained enough experience in the agency world – working with brands and marketers and agencies – that I’ve taken what I’ve learned and am now using it for something other than running an agency. I’m advising investors, or I’m developing IP around making the employees at agencies better business people. When I ran businesses, my goal was to make my people smarter, which in turn made those companies more successful. That’s really all I’m doing now. I only consult with a few people, and I only consult on the use of this product I’ve developed, which is a business training technology specifically for agencies.
What is the term you use to describe yourself when people ask you what you do?
I try not to answer that question. Most of the time I say, “Mechanic,” or something like that. If it’s a serious conversation, and I’m with someone who understands what management consulting is, then I call myself a management consultant. I do what McKinsey or Bain does, but I focus on marketing and communications companies and their holding companies. So I work with Omnicon, Saatchi, Havas…those kinds of people. When someone’s not in the business, I just say that I do business strategies for agencies, and that makes things simpler. Actually what I say is, “I fix agencies,” and then someone who isn’t in that world gets it.
What you’re doing is kind of a specialized thing. How did you get your start?
I did not do any of the formal stuff. I didn’t work for a management consulting firm. I didn’t go to school for it. I just started out young. I wanted to get into marketing, so at 18, I pushed my way into working in a marketing position at a company. At that time, I was really good at understanding technology and marketing, and that’s when interactive was really blowing up. So I was able to talk to developers and translate what they were trying to say in order to say it to clients. Then I was able to talk to a client and find out what the client needed and translate that information back to the developers. As I was doing that, I was recruited by Boondoggle, which is now a Havas agency, and then I went on to another agency. I was good at selling – about a third of the company’s revenue was tied to me. So the owners said to me, “Before you take our business down, we’d like you to start your own business. We’re going to give you these accounts so that you don’t damage our business.” I took those accounts and started my own shop, and then I took that shop and built it up to around 500 people. Then I took a management buyout. From there, I started investing and advising, doing startups and turnarounds. I’ve always had a business mind – I can play both sides. I went from analyzing marketing for a company, to analyzing marketing and producing creative product, and then I started working on the management side. So I just kind of jumbled that all together when I started my own company. I had a lot of great mentors who were good business people. This is one of the few industries where all you need is a business card and a Rolodex, and you can start a company. You don’t need a tremendous amount of experience.
Do you mean in marketing or in the agency world?
The agency world. And it’s a world where you have students who come out of school who have no business acumen. Then you have these associations that are supposed to make people smarter, but all they do is give people stuff about how to do better advertising. They just want to teach people how to be better at the trade. I’ve always loved the business side of it, so I’ve spent a lot of time applying basic business practices to all the agencies. More importantly, I believe in helping an entire team become smarter, in running a democracy rather than a monarchy. As I got older I started to learn how to be an actual leader, and I would take anyone from an intern to a managing director and teach them the same stuff. I would say, “Here are the basics of how our business runs. Here’s the economic engine of it. Here’s how we’re going to grow our business. Here’s how we’re going to service our clients,” etc., etc. I wired the business stuff into the creative stuff, and when I look back at it, I see that that’s what made those companies successful. Everybody understood what everybody else did. Now what I’ve done is take those things that were working really well and turned them into tools that companies can use to help their people become smarter on the business side. If I can help their people become smarter, it will improve their business.
When you say “tools,” do you mean apps?
Yes. Apps, spreadsheets – a mixture of stuff that helps people understand how to make what they do have real impact. For the last six months, my focus has been on taking all of this learning and all of these people I have as a network and all of this information I have and putting it into something that’s very humanized and very simple for someone to understand. That means that someone can look at it and say, “Okay, if I do this, that impacts my job this way, and it impacts the company this way.” I make it so that these tools educate in a very simple, natural way, so that it’s not cumbersome, and it doesn’t mean that somebody has to work extra hours. Everybody in the creative business works their ass off, so they don’t want to do extra stuff. I show the owners that what will really help their business is focusing their employees on the things that I’m suggesting instead of focusing them on the busywork they normally have to do. While we were piloting these programs, we learned some great key growth things. The first is that you have people participating in the business itself. The second is that you can see very hard metrics in growth in revenue, growth in profitability, and growth in pipeline. This kind of information turned people into ninjas. They figured out how to get stuff done and how to promote the company and how to save money. Understanding profitability and what drives the business become something for everybody at the company, not just the executive team.
How did the creatives respond to this?
When we started, we were working with everybody else, so the creatives wanted to be a part of it. They felt left out. So it was easy to get everybody to sit in on one team. More importantly, creative people are realizing it’s not only about the work. The reality is that the more you understand how the business works, and the more you understand your role in that business, the more you can contribute and be a part of it. You can talk to an executive that’s way up on the totem pole because you get it and get what the goals of the company are. Creatives are realizing that there’s a risk of having somebody come in who does know that stuff, so knowing it themselves became a key driver for them. Things are really competitive right now. There are a lot of really smart, creative people, and information has become readily available. And because of that it’s not enough to know how to make something that’s really, really good from a creative standpoint – you have to know something else.
What three things have you learned from working with agencies that are lessons that can be applied to life in general?
- No one is loyal. Creative people are driven by their emotions. Marketing people are typically optimistic. They believe that everyone wants to be their friend. The reality is that clients are not loyal. Executives are not loyal. Talent and staff are not loyal. People are selfish, and they are driven off emotion. It doesn’t mean that you have to be selfish, it doesn’t mean that you have to be guarded. It’s just a question of aligning your expectations. Going into a client meeting thinking they’re going to love your work is crazy. Why set yourself up for failure? Manage your expectations, because ultimately, you have no control over what’s going to happen.
- Expect the worst to happen. We want to love what we make, because it’s the only way we can pour our emotion in and create good things. If I look at the advice that I got when I was running companies, and the advice that I have given other leaders, it’s that you need to be prepared to go into a meeting and have a client hate what you’re going to show them. You need to come to terms with that ahead of time. Show up for your day and know that ten things are going to change. Something is going to fall through the cracks. A client is going to fire you. Someone is going to quit. Something is going to happen. I think we want to maintain this dream of what it’s like to work in a creative business, but it’s not a dream. Expecting the worst makes the rest of the day so much easier. If you lose a client, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just not.
- Experiment. Nothing is foolproof. Everything can break. People limit themselves so much because they’re so afraid to fail. Try stuff. You can do things in a calculated way, but you still need to experiment. I think that’s what it’s all about, and if you don’t do it, then you’re missing out. You have a gut reaction for a reason. Trust your gut, experiment, and if it feels right, go with it. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Someone’s going to say no? Someone’s not going to like it? Big deal. Be a mad scientist.