Episode 5 Transcript

Balancing Culture and Strategy in a Modern Agency

    Brent: Welcome to the Professional Services Pursuit, we are a podcast that features expert advice and insights on the professional services industry. I'm Brent Trimble, a team member here at Mavenlink and a co-host. And my guest today on the podcast is the chief operating officer and chief strategy officer at Gorilla Group, Adam Brown.

    Gorilla Group is an innovative commerce, digital experience agency that drives transformation on behalf of its clients. And Adam, it's great to have you on the show. In this episode, we want to explore a little bit about first of all, your role at Gorilla Group. Talk some about how you've been handling the growth you saw during COVID. And talk a little bit about staffing, resourcing, what's really a challenging talent market and something we're hearing from a lot of our customers and client base and so forth. But first of all, welcome and tell us a little bit about yourself and the Gorilla Group.

    Adam: Thanks, Brent. Well as you said, my role is dual at Gorilla Group. I focus on the day-to-day operations and how we execute as a business and how we deliver services for our clients. And then work with the executive teams to really understand and sort of hone in on future strategies for the company. Gorilla as an organization is really focused on helping clients enable commerce, so large B2B and B2C organizations. In order to do that, we provide services across consulting, data experience and technology. We operate in four different countries. We're relatively decentralized, so despite having office hubs, we feel like because of the specialized work that we do, it's important that we find talent independent of geographies. And that's how we've operated over the years. Another interesting point about Gorilla Group is we were acquired in 2018 by WPP and more specifically Wunderman Thompson. So we have the ability to operate under the Gorilla brand and really hone in on our commerce specialization, as well as going to market with Wunderman Thompson as their commerce arm.

    Brent: Thanks for the rundown, the explanation. And we'll dig into that a little bit because the audience for our podcast and certainly both our user group and folks on our periphery are part of what we think of as the professional services profession. Professional services can be defined as everything from a tax advisory firm to management consulting. And certainly the wide array of creative services firms, agencies like yourselves that are focused on everything from commerce and activation to client acquisition. But I just had a question for you, when you think about Gorilla and you think about where you reside first of all sort of the WPP matrix, which I'd love to dig into a little bit more. You and your colleagues, when we say something like professional services, is that something that resonates with you, or do you think of yourselves more as a bespoke category within overall consulting or certainly a standalone?

    Adam: No, it does resonate with us. I mean we often say that our people are our difference. So making sure that we have great people that are helping our clients. So professional services would definitely be aligned to what we do. With that, I think we bring a good amount of specialization because of the deep expertise that's required to deliver commerce and help these customers do so. But that resonates and that definitely is how we would look at ourselves.

    Brent: Yeah, a good distinction would be like in our array and the types of firms we align with and work with and collaborate with, there are firms that bias more on the product or the platform leading the value of the firm. Whether that's software or some type of mechanism. On the other side of the spectrum is certainly something like your firm where the people really are the product. Certainly people with expertise and platform, but the talent you bring to bear, the specialization, the expertise, is your differentiator.

    Adam: Yeah, absolutely. And we deliver products across different verticals, but it really is the people and their understanding of how to leverage those products and how to align them best to the specific clients and their business needs. That's really what the driver is.

    Brent: Talk to us a little bit about this concept of the holding company. WPP is well-known I'd say and certainly the complete array of the creative services market. Certainly management consultancies because they've been emerging as more and more of a competitor. But for those maybe that aren't as familiar, describe a little bit about the relationship of that three to four-tier kind of nesting doll approach with WPP as a holding company, down to your individual brand Gorilla. And then the layers and the types of opportunities that are within WPP like the network level Wunderman.

    Adam: Sure. I mean we see opportunities abound being part of the network. One of the reasons that we went through the process of acquisition was to have a scale that really would resonate with some of the types of work and clients that we were dealing with. So WPP and Wunderman Thompson certainly provide that. The other thing that we see as a benefit is just the broad range of services. Between us and the holding company, there's really nothing that we can’t provide to our clients. And to me and our team, that’s what was really important. We selfishly think that digital transformation is often driven by commerce or at least commerce is part of that conversation. You know, how do I ultimately drive a transaction online? With the conversation starting there, it often goes in many different paths. And the nice thing about being part of a larger organization is that there's no path that we can't consult and help a client with because of the way the agencies are structured and the skillsets they have, as well as just the geographic reach.

    Brent: So in that vein, if you had to quantify a breakdown, what percentage of your time related maybe to engagements would be Gorilla focus, meaning your individual brand? And then maybe more Wunderman-focused or even WPP focused. Do you think about it in that way? Maybe there's a specific client that's strategic, you're servicing completely from the Gorilla brand. And then a portion of time there might be clients that use your service as well as others within the network.

    Adam: Yeah, it's a healthy mix. It's important for us to maintain that healthy mix of clients that would be direct Gorilla clients if you will, as well as those where we're working with other agencies and part of a larger, more encompassing engagement. So our teams are really focused on being able to operate in both fashions. I couldn't give you a direct split, but I would say, if I'm guessing off the top of my head, it's probably 60 or 70% direct versus 30 or 40% in network and that's really by design. Obviously we're lucky enough to have been doing this for a long time and have the credibility that clients do come to us directly. And we then use that to leverage and provide expertise with the network to clients that may have not known about commerce capabilities before. So it's a healthy mix and we make sure that we continue to keep that balance and also maintain the flexibility to operate as Gorilla or to operate as Wunderman Thompson, or WPP as a whole.

    Brent: The fact that you're positioned around commerce obviously drove exponential growth for you in the new reality which is COVID and then post COVID, right? Because so many industries, if they were dipping their toe into e-commerce or the word digital-enabled commerce in the beginning, they sort of went all in. So that I'm sure drove plenty of growth for you. With growth comes expertise and talent and you noted sharing practice capabilities across a network, but let's talk a little bit about talent. What are some emerging trends you're seeing as we get into this plateau where we're still a little bit in the COVID evolution or weigh it as recast business? But you got to feel like we’re kind of coming out of it and then will be settling into this landscape of whatever this post-pandemic looks like. So from a talent perspective, let's talk a little bit about the benefits of attraction and acquisition. What are some of the things you saw coming out and now really helping you transform your talent practice?

    Adam: Like most businesses when COVID first hit, there was a lot of volatility both on the client side, as well as with the business itself. You know, when there are those sorts of unknowns and uncertainties and that causes businesses to pause, it causes others to accelerate. We used to say that we would lose deals because companies would do nothing in terms of their digital transformation. And this really put their foot on the gas in terms of making sure that that was a priority. So that was significant for us as a business. This idea that we can't wait, we can't make excuses, we can't worry about some of the minutiae that organizations will get caught up in prior to COVID. From a people standpoint, it created a whole host of new challenges.

    At one point I looked back at the business late last year and just the sheer number of people that we had hired that had never been to an office, had never even met a coworker in person. And that’s challenging when you're trying to maintain a culture that you've worked so hard to establish and trying to adjust what that's going to look like in the future. So that's been something that we've worked really hard on is just making sure that even in a remote environment that we can maintain our culture. In a lot of ways that means that we have to empower our people to drive that culture in new and different ways. But that's been a significant focus for us and a big shift that COVID and the working environment have created for us.

    Brent: When we talk about the benefits that have arisen around talent and I've certainly always thought of agencies as primarily talent first shops, kind of the purest manifestation of a fee to service type work. What we've heard is that the fact that you've been able to look a bit beyond the borders of maybe the large city hubs, you know, Chicago, New York, San Fran, LA. And that there's been the opportunity to bring on folks who maybe you wouldn't have considered in the past or conversely might not have considered you. But now have the opportunity to either in a hybrid consulting fashion or contingent work fashion or even an FTE you're able to bring on. Have you found that to be the case, like the world is sort of flattened in terms of talent and from a positive perspective, you've been able to kind of open the horizons a bit?

    Adam: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we've always tried to operate with the mentality that we go where the talent is because what we do is highly specialized. Even though we have hubs and offices and our main hub is in Chicago, we've tried to find expertise anywhere that it lives. So COVID in a lot of ways did flatten that, it gave us the ability to look broader. It also changed the dynamic with clients. Clients have an expectation that people are onsite and consulting in that manner and eliminating that need, at least in a short period of time, also allows us to broaden the folks that we hire. You know, travel obviously is not a thing that we have to consider at the moment. Now we look at how we balance that into the future and how we make sure that folks that are remote permanently can still engage when we go back to office and vice versa.

    Brent: You know, Mark Reed, obviously CEO of WPP and sought after quite a bit for his take on the business, as things are evolving, cascading and snowballing both in the heat of the pandemic and now as we plateau. He talked about some interesting things around the notion of getting the work done and client expectations. And he had a great distilled piece in Fast Company that I think was a great read, even for folks who might not have been in the agency business. But he said in terms of new business, working around how to pitch over Zoom, which must be bonkers, right? I mean think about the romance of the pitch and theater of the room and leading a client through a journey and a story having to do that with everyone's faces in these rigid pixel windows. But he said five or six years ago, WPP or any of the offices, he'd fly 20 or 30 people to a pitch and go into a well-orchestrated room. Now doing it remotely, not perfect. And of course, there'd be some returning to physical meetings. I think I certainly crave that, I don't know about you. But the notion that innovative work can be done remotely has been sort of transformative to the business. So think through I guess maybe the last 18 months and you don't have to get into really detailed client data, but think of a pitch or a big piece of business that you won and how your team adapted and evolved to do that remotely. I'd love to hear about that.

    Adam: Yeah. I mean, it's been really interesting because to your point, pitching remotely is very different from pitching in person. I mean, working remotely is very different from working with a client and building those relationships in person as well. So the teams have had to really do a thoughtful job of changing the way that they approach the business from that initial pitch to the execution of the work. It's caused us to evolve how we approach those conversations, how we collaborate through our tools and just sort of look at those engagements as a whole. One of the things that I think a lot of us feel from COVID is just the formality of conversations. A pitch is structured when it's in person, there is that aspect of it, but it is not as formal as a Zoom call. Even simple meetings now are much more formal than they were historically. So getting used to that and being able to read through the formality and get around the formality that's really been critical. And establishing new relationships and fostering the relationships that we had prior to things getting shut down. So that's been the big dynamic is just getting through the formality and allowing the teams to do their thing and shine despite the barrier of being remote.

    COVID allowed me to be in my first six-hour Zoom call! We've had those types of presentations, which in person are not that bad. But when you're all sitting, trying to be engaged on a video call can be a bit of a challenge. It's always interesting too as a company that implements technology, how much technology gets in the way when you're trying to do these things. So that always creates a few laughs as everyone's trying to get online and share materials, et cetera. I think like everyone we've had to adjust to this and there've been plenty of interesting moments. But the nice thing about this that I've seen is that everyone fully gets it and understands it. They're all dealing with it. If we're doing a presentation and there are kids screaming in the background, it's probably not the only kid screaming in the background.

    So I think having that visibility on both sides, the client as well as partner, has allowed us to kind of lean into that. The fact that we're all sort of dealing with this and making the best of it. And I think with that, there's been a really good level of understanding between the sides. I mean you're on a pitch, you see in someone's home and I think that has some kind of specialness to it. And despite it being challenging, I think it also creates some interesting moments and some good moments for us to connect with the folks that we are working with.

    Brent: Speaking about the work, from your vantage point and it's certainly anecdotal, but you know, quality of innovation level of work, do you feel like you get to it quicker remote? Do you just make the best of it, you’re adapting? Was there better or more organic innovation when folks could come together in person? What do you look forward to most about coming out of this in some level of normalcy and what do you, I guess, hope to retain?

    Adam: What I look forward to most is eliminating some of that formality that I had mentioned. So the need to schedule a call versus just picking up the phone. Whether it's driven by the effects of COVID or not. I think that there is this sense when someone looks at a calendar and it's full of meetings, that everyone's incredibly busy and aren't available for those in office conversations or those personal conversations. So I look forward to moving away from that. I do think on the client side and with the work, it hasn't been that significant of an impact. You know, the teams run through the process they have structure, they operate in a way that I think is really good for the client and helps get the client to a decision. I think what we miss as a business are those informal conversations that really help us get things done faster. Now it's a process to get folks together. So that's what I look forward to eliminating. What I look forward to maintaining is being able to operate these teams that are completely distributed. We were doing that before but I think that this accelerated that even further. So the teams have gotten better with using the technology, with leveraging the tools that they have. Being able to pull in different ideas and different skill sets that they may not have before. Because it was easier to ask the person next to them versus the person in another country, for example. So I think maintaining that will be something that we definitely look forward to.

    Brent: I want to pick up on that a little bit around the notion of technology and this relationship we've all been forced into. Certainly you think of the pandemic and you think of the world kind of spinning on its axis. 20 years ago, we couldn't even have come close to this level of connectivity, right? I mean high-speed latency, buffering packets, certainly telecommunications, everything. The infrastructure there was able to sort of stand up under the strain. But give me an example of a piece of technology aside from of course Zoom and WebEx and teams for the Microsoft folks and so forth, that you have found to be kind of unheralded, but indispensable during the time that maybe you wouldn't have utilized before. I'll give you an example. I found some of the web-based browser-based tools around just simple flow-charting and diagramming. And trying to replicate a little bit of that “Hey, let's just pull into the whiteboard room here real fast and sketch something out,” to be really useful and they always were before. You could sit down and do a process diagram and so forth, but just having one of those open and doing some rapid sketching has been sort of something that I've adopted. Anything comes to mind around that for you and your team at Gorilla?

    Adam: Yeah we've definitely tried out a bunch of new technologies in terms of being able to facilitate those collaborative moments virtually. So to your point, being able to do virtual whiteboarding, being able to do live demos, click-throughs, annotations and things like that. And tools like InVision for example, have been really beneficial for the teams. You know, simple things like Slack, fully utilizing Slack with our clients to its potential, I think allowed us to take some of those informal conversations into the online realm. So that's all been really helpful. I think for us, a lot of it was really about tools that would allow that real-time collaboration as much as possible and allow clients to feel like they were part of the process so that it's not happening to them. The beauty of being in person is that you're doing these things together. And when you're not in person there can easily be a sense that these things are happening to you. We're creating something, we're presenting it to you versus working on it with you. So a lot of the tools like InVision and others are really designed to allow us to collaborate and make it something that we're doing together.

    Brent: Yeah, that's good insight. As it pertains to talent, we hear from a lot of our colleagues and our partners and clients like yourselves and certainly the press has just been inundated with stories of the notion of the great resignation. And folks really recalibrating their relationship with work, their firm, their career, home and work-life kind of intertwining. I always think of the agency business as traditionally a long hour kind of thing and very cyclical. And probably at the end of the day, not for everybody, but for a great group of folks who find tremendous fulfillment in that adrenaline-fueled sort of strategy through the execution process. What are you guys finding at Gorilla in terms of your participation in that phenomenon? Is turnover more or less about the same as it was? Have you found some spikes? Has it leveled off, are people content in the work and find that knocking out a commute really helps on the home and balance and collaboration front? What do you guys find in terms of the great resignation?

    Adam: It seemed to hit us a little bit later than others that I know and various industries. I have good friends that work in other industries and they were talking about this months before we really felt it or started to hear about it, so we had a little bit of a delayed effect to that. I think what's most interesting about it is turnover hasn't been any significantly higher or lower than historically, but the type of turnover has. We saw more turnover in short-tenured employees than we ever have. So folks that again, joined remotely could never get ingrained in the culture, which is important to keeping people sticky. That's been something we've been combating, we've also seen turnover to your point for folks who are just rethinking their careers or the balance or whatever the thing may be. So folks leaving to do really interesting new things that are in no way shape or form related to what we do. And in those scenarios, it's great for them that they have the ability to go and do that and sort of hit the reset button.

    I think for us, one of the challenges that we see commonly across the staff and I think I faced it as well, is the ability to separate work from life and to be able to make that transition. So it seems really easy to tell people that, we've always tried to maintain a good work-life balance as part of our culture. But how do you enforce that? I can't turn off someone's email at six o'clock. So just making sure that people understand that we expect them to shut down, to transition off of work, to not check emails and respond at certain times and to know that that's okay. We expect them to take time off and maintain that balance. That's been something that we've had to emphasize more and more because of the reasons that you described. We have a lot of great people that want to do amazing work for our clients and I appreciate that more than I can say. But getting those people to shut down has been a challenge and something that we're continually working on.

    Brent: Yeah, pull back on the reins a little bit and just this intertwining and fusion. I spent several years in management consulting and lots of global travel. And even that break and the airplane doors shutting and grabbing a little bit of a nap was just kind of that break in the day. And now with this fusion of Zoom and screens and certainly for myself with a birthday looming, my first eyeglass prescription, which might be related to the impending birthday, or might be related to too much screen time. As a firm in the creative services, advertising, digital consulting transformation kind of agencies where we were seeing even pre-COVID, some really interesting cooperative groups, gatherings, hubs, pools of folks who were credentialed. Great specialists in a specific type of craft, but wanted to be staffed on six to nine months projects, maybe some shorter duration certainly with creative teams, helping with pitches and so forth. Do you find your use of freelancers about the same, has it increased with COVID? Where do you see that in terms of your overall talent complexion?

    Adam: To your earlier point about airplanes, I never thought I'd miss getting on airplanes, but I did. It did allow that shut down to sort of be forced and that focus to be forced. Even going back to your earlier point about pitches, there's some beauty if you will, to being a hundred percent focused on a pitch and traveling to it and presenting and doing those sorts of things. So that's definitely missed and I never would have expected it to be missed. But yeah, in terms of how we use freelancers versus how we did prior, I think one of the benefits that we communicate to our teams is just the broad range of clients that we get to interact with. I mean we solve business problems across many different industries and many different clients. And I think one of the things that are kind of unique and also unifying about commerce. The problems are all somewhat similar, but the execution is vastly different depending on the companies and their requirements, et cetera.

    So we've tried to make sure that we have scalability through contractors, not dependency. So making sure that our teams have the ability to work on clients and have the ability to transition off and work on new clients. And give other folks an opportunity to step up and fill those roles, or fill them with contractors in the short term, those types of things. So we've tried to maintain that balance as best as possible. And really the contractor market as a whole is one that's changed dramatically over the past 16 months as well. It’s highly competitive compared to what you used to see competing not only against other firms that are looking for subcontractors but full-time hires you know, those types of things. So it definitely has shifted how we look at scalability as an organization and how we look at scalability from a hiring perspective, a partnership perspective and a contract perspective.

    Brent: It's kind of tactical, but I wanted to talk about it in the context of your role because you have an operations role with Gorilla right? The notion of managing contractors in that compliance fashion and navigating the variability of employment law certainly across the US and then of course, I know you guys do a lot of work in EMEA and so forth. Is that something that you deputize the talent acquisition team to manage? Or is it a mix of management and technology that helps you with that? This is in the US of course, 10.99 in duration and then different states having that. But that overall notion of are we compliant with our contingent workforce? We've heard that come up more and more and of course, with increased usage of the contingent workforce comes an increased volume and need for compliance. How are you guys tackling that at Gorilla?

    Adam: Yeah, compliance is always something that's top of mind for us being part of a larger, publicly-traded entity. It's something that we have to work through constantly. For us in terms of using contractors, one of the ways that we've approached it and tried to eliminate those types of challenges is by really focusing on having partnerships with these organizations. So not necessarily going out and trying to find an individual to contract with and more so looking at partner companies that can help scale teams. And in some ways kind of putting that problem on them to deal with the local logistics.

    Brent: No absolutely, that's a great strategy. There have been some interesting technologies, like you said some interesting hubs that have arisen that handle that. I think they kind of couch that as a service, both we'll help you find and vet and credentialize freelancers, but we'll also handle compliance and that's a great boon. But I've heard some varying degrees of that being sometimes an operational strain, or a strain on the talent of staying in compliance, frankly. But as we wind down here, I'm curious about your role because it's really interesting. You're working on strategy with specific clients, you're also helping to drive operations within your firm that probably has a strategic bend to it. I mean there's nothing more strategic really than keeping a hand on the rudder to make sure operationally things are sound and you're anticipating talent needs and so forth. But talk a little about that juxtaposition and what you find interesting about that?

    Adam: I once had someone tell me that there's a difference between sales and delivery. It was a nice reminder and I sort of straddle both of those, understanding what we can sell and how we deliver it. Which I think from my perspective is a good thing. I think for us and for me personally, doing great work is how we create more opportunities with clients and in the market. So we've always, as an organization, try to keep people as close to the clients and as close to the work as possible because that's where we see the change coming. And that's really what I've tried to maintain in my role. So yes, I'm looking at how we deliver as a whole and how we operate as a whole. And also trying to keep a pulse on what clients are asking for and how they're approaching digital or commerce or transformation in real-time. Because that's another thing that's been impacted by COVID is just buying behaviors. With the uncertainty of the customer's business comes the uncertainty of budgets and buying in smaller increments and buying in different ways. And they're sort of the large-scale multi-year transformations that are few and far between that no one has time for anymore. So that's been a big thing is just staying close enough to the clients to understand how their strategies then dovetail into our own. Also, the offerings that we need to provide and then ultimately how we deliver on those.

    Brent: That's interesting that someone points out there is a difference between sales and delivery and I've heard it positioned as romance and reality. But in your case, you're kind of tied to both, you've got a foot in both worlds. So there's not this notion of dropping off the ticket at the door and then walking away and letting delivery handle that. So it's similar to, I guess, an e-commerce or buying process. There's a sort of enticement and demand all the way through the purchase and then the unboxing experience. Then customer service has to come in and make sure that they underpin the product in it and it fulfills that client’s expectations, so kind of similar in that regard.

    This has been really great and I think we've been able to touch on a lot of topics. One is really dimensionalizing I think a really unique type of agency in a very vast array of types of what we call either creative or marketing services shops. You've touched on a little bit of the notion of how you fit within a broader holding company. Talent topics, both acquisition retention, thus the strength of culture and how that's helped you. The ability to harness technology to foster new ways of doing work. And then of course we all anticipate and I think crave to a degree going back and doing at least some hybrid in person. But anything you wanted to leave a leader in a dynamic organization where talent and deploying the right talent at the right time, certainly at the right price as well, to ensure profitability for the firm? Any kind of enduring lessons or things that have been illuminated to you in the past 18 months that maybe you hadn't thought about as much previously, but have been brought into real stark relief in this time as a leader.

    Adam: For me, I think as a leader, one of the things that sort of come to light is just the fact that we're all figuring this out together. And having that level of transparency has been a bit unique. As a leader or even as a partner to our clients, we're often expected to have all the answers. And I think we've found some comfort in saying we don't have the answer and everyone sort of understands that. But with it, there's a willingness to solve the problem together and that's been I think a bit of a breath of fresh air is this idea that we don't always have to have the answers. And saying we don't, but being committed to finding them and collaborating on them has been significant for us, for our teams and our clients. So that's probably the biggest takeaway for me. You sort of just operate in an industry where you're supposed to have all the answers and then you realize that there are many that you don't and that nobody does. And just being able to have that transparent conversation with your clients or with your staff around that level of honesty and that level of transparency has been really great for us.

    Brent: It's sort of just being a bit vulnerable and demonstrating that there's no infallibility here and you're just trying to navigate some uncharted waters and I'm sure appreciated by your team and the work probably really sings as a result. So that's a great thing to leave us with. And thanks again, I think this has been a great conversation, lots of different topics. This could be something that we build on, maybe some of these themes and potentially have you back on the Professional Services Pursuit. I think this will be an episode that people really resonate with.

    So with that, if anyone listening has follow-up questions for Adam or myself, any topics that you want to go a little deeper on or ask a question, certainly reach out to us. We'd love to hear from you. You can send us an email at podcastatmavenlink.com and one of us will be happy to get back to you. But Adam, thanks again for a great conversation and we look forward to connecting and good luck in Q4 as we hurdle toward the finish line.

    Adam: Thank you.