Ad Fed MN’s “Agency DNA” explores the evolution of Minnesota agencies, their biggest challenges in terms of talent and people, and what advice their leaders would offer to other agency owners who are dealing with tough issues like bad culture, poor fit, high turnover or low engagement. The following interview with Ad Fed’s Laura King features Chris Schermer sharing his views on what it takes to manage the values, people, culture and work at the growing B2B Agency.
I recently set out to understand the evolution of different agencies, their biggest challenges in terms of talent acquisition/retention, and what advice their leadership would offer to other agency owners who are dealing with tough issues like high turnover or low engagement.
After hearing many positive remarks from several clients, I scheduled a meeting with Chris Schermer, President of SCHERMER. I had never met Chris before and was excited to hear his story. He welcomed me in quite generously – and what was supposed to be a 30-minute interview turned into 90 minutes of sharing stories, laughing, and discussing our individual ideas about what it means to be an effective leader. Here are the highlights:
LK: For those who don’t know about your agency, tell us what SCHERMER is all about.
CS: SCHERMER is a B2B agency with the heart of our culture centered around serving, accountability, and sharing in each other’s successes. Our mission is more or less to “create brands that serve”, so that idea of serving each other, serving our clients, and helping them serve their customers, is paramount.
LK: How did you get to where you are today?
CS: My parents were both small business owners and I grew up in a town where everyone knew everyone. My parents had a huge impact on the way I treat others and my overall business principals. I didn’t see starting an agency (in 1997) as a huge risk because that was the world I grew up in – you start a business and serve others. It’s not risky, it’s what you do.
LK: What was the toughest time for the agency?
CS: We went from a pretty small agency of 10-15 people a couple years ago to more than 30 people today. When we grew, we made some bad hires along the way. And when I say bad hires, I don’t mean they were bad people, they were great – they just didn’t share the same values we did. Sure, some of them were the same, but it’s kind of like dating – on the surface things look great, but when you peel back the onion, you find out more about what drives them, and clarify even more what drives yourself. Some people aren’t right for us, and we’re not right for some people either, to be fair.
Our growth was really about going through an evolution – So, I had to really think about how my leadership team and I recruited and evaluated people. I found that there are two key questions that really expose a person’s values, so I always ask these in an interview process:
1) What do/did your parents do?
2) What did that teach you about work?
Then, I shut up and listen. There’s not a right answer to this question of course. But, seeing the way someone describes the value of work, what they learned from it, and how they draw from it is quite eye opening. I seek to understand people at their core. Then, I can make a true assessment of if their values, work ethic, and sense of service align with ours.
LK: So, do you have a list of your core values?
CS: No, I don’t want to impose these on people. But if you were to go up to any one of our employees and ask them what the agency stands for, you’re likely going to get a pretty unified answer: We use our talents together to serve our clients, help them serve their customers, and be accountable to one another.
LK: How do you empower your junior employees?
CS: We try to pair up them up with counterparts. Whether its junior and senior staff, designers with strategists, account executives with creatives – I’ve found that this allows others to expand their perspective and it also holds people accountable. If you know you’ll be paired with someone you normally don’t work with regularly, you might prepare for that meeting more so than you normally do. Or you might seek out others’ opinions in advance. I’ve also found that pairing people and/or creating cross-functional Counterparts allows us to solve or anticipate our client’s problems faster.
LK: There is so much turnover in the agency world. As a recruiter, I know that just about anyone is open to a conversation about a career enhancing opportunity. Does the thought of losing great talent keep you up at night?
CS: Sure it does, but you can’t let those things eat you up. There are many things beyond my control and I accept that. We do the best we can to publicly acknowledge the successes of our employees and celebrate them. We pay people well. Those are the things that I think allow people to come to work with a sense of satisfaction – knowing they are fairly compensated and recognized/appreciated for their work.
LK: What can agency leadership do to address high-turnover, low morale, or other personnel issues?
CS: I think you have to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. I did this in 2010 when a good friend of mine from another agency opened my eyes to the source of my agency’s inability to grow – I was trying to control the organization to success. Little things like critiquing others’ work, imposing my ideas on my employees, being the smartest guy in the room. I didn’t realize it, but it felt to some like it was my way or the highway. I wasn’t letting them realize their purpose, or make them feel they had a part in something. It’s a hard lesson to learn – But that “aha” moment is what has made me open up the business to others, and is the reason we’ve doubled staff and revenue since then.
I’m not perfect but I’ve found through trial and error that the more I give up, the more I get. I don’t tell people to do things (all the time) but rather empower them to make the best possible decisions. When people feel invested in decisions, they are more engaged and produce higher quality work. At the end of the day, I try to ask myself “was that fair” and if not, I will change it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura King loves digital marketing and is a relationship builder through and through, helping connect top local talent with the best companies in the Twin Cities. Laura works with both companies and agencies alike to recruit strong digital talent, earning the reputation as a trusted partner and advisor. She enjoys getting outside, anything fitness related, and spending time with her family.