Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. When Rob Simone—along with much of the professional working population—found himself in a bottomless boat in April of 2020, he and his agency partners created a new marketing brand out of the relationships they had formed.

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"We looked at what we had built with some of our people, we looked at some of the partnerships that existed with some of our clients, and we decided that we needed to see it through. We had a vision of what could work better, and that vision was much more of a boutique agency in terms of size and process," explains Simone in the latest episode of Marketing Smarts.

Since then, the company culture of Summer Friday has thrived, thanks in part to its focus on team sustainability and Simone's determination to remain small rather than enterprise. The agency takes on only projects (and employees) that closely fit its profile, and it keeps a close eye on any red flags.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.


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Full Transcript: Building Positive Company Culture While Intentionally Staying Small

Matt Snodgrass: Welcome to another episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. I am pleased to have with us today Rob Simone, president and co-founder of Summer Friday.

Rob, how are you?

Rob Simone: Hey, Matt. It's nice to be here. Thanks so much for having me on.

Matt: We're going to have a great conversation. I know we're going to have a great conversation because prior to going live we were just talking about podcasts we enjoy, and we both absolutely love Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I know this is going to be a good conversation because we're in sync that way.

Rob: It's an amazing podcast. I have endless more for you whenever you want. I'm sure you've already heard of them, though.

Matt: That's awesome. Hardcore History is honestly my favorite podcast of all time. But we're not here to talk about history. We're here to talk about marketing.

Rob: Recent history.

Matt: Very recent history, within the last 18 months.

Rob: That's right.

Matt: We have three questions that I like to ask all of our guests before we kick things off. The first one I'm going to throw at you is what are you reading right now?

Rob: I love that you start the show like this. I would say that it's reading and listening. I'm knee-deep in an unbelievable blog, which also has quite a bit of audio components. It's called Not Boring, it's by a blogger and venture capitalist named Packy McCormick.

He wrote an incredible piece called The Great Online Game over the Summer, which was really about how web 3.0 is changing the landscape for marketers, for creators, for technologists and venture capitalists. Since then, he's been adding a weekly episode. I have to say, anyone who is struggling to understand where the internet technology, content, and media is going, this is a great place to start.

Matt: The Not Boring blog?

Rob: That's the one.

Matt: Awesome. I need to check that out as well. Question two, what is your favorite drink for the Fall or Summer?

Rob: I think you can probably get away with bourbon and coffee pretty much all year long. I'll never forget, I listened to an episode of How I Built This with Guy Raz where he was interviewing the founder of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, and he was talking about all these difficult times, trials and tribulations, and then all of these amazing milestones and events that he had been through. He said, "How did you get through all of that? What did you do during all that time?" All he responded with was, "Wild Turkey." That was his essential recipe for all of the bad times and all of the good times.

Matt: I guess mixing it with coffee, which by the way, I've never even heard of bourbon and coffee as a thing before. I learn more about drinks on the show than I do marketing sometimes. I'd never heard of bourbon and coffee before. That's a thing?

Rob: I rarely mix them together. I wouldn't want you to think that I spend most of my time at the office drinking coffee with bourbon in it. But I will say in terms of the cocktail through the seasons that seems to work the best, I think a cold bourbon in the Summer works. I also think it works in the Winter, too, when you're trying to warm up.

Matt: I'm still sitting here thinking that I was in my mind thinking that you're mixing bourbon and coffee as your drink of choice every day.

Rob: That would be bad news, probably. I think that would be rough for my clients.

Matt: I still learn more about drinks on the show than I do marketing sometimes. All right, bourbon and coffee as two separate drinks. Final question, what's on your mind right now, what are you thinking about in terms of marketing as we're starting to get close to closing out 2021 and moving into 2022, what's keeping you up at night?

Rob: I think it's been on my mind for quite some time. It's the idea of cultural and financial sustainability. I think of it in context to the service industry, which obviously marketing and other professional services fall within. There are so many traditional traps that those businesses fall into, or cycles that they fall into, of scaling and downsizing and rightsizing, hiring and laying off, and all of those things that have been so toxic for so long. Yet so many companies have such a hard time finding a way out of those cycles.

Sustainability with our team, with the people I work with who aren't even a part of Summer Friday but relationships that I have, how to build those long-term relationships over time, but also for those relationships to have a financial purpose because we're here trying to grow and provide for our families. It's that sustainability. Having gone through several different companies and startups and mergers, and all of these things, it's always on my mind.

Matt: I want to talk about how cultural and the financial intersect, because I know that's key for you. Before we get into that, I'd like to have our audience learn a little bit more about Summer Friday, how you guys came about, and the circumstances that led you to where you were in making this switch, which was almost at the snap of the fingers. Give us a little bit of a backstory on how you got to where you are.

Rob: I found myself with many others going through an abrupt and cataclysmic change in the midst of COVID-19 and quarantine, and all of the volatility that we were experiencing in the world. I had created a company with partners back in 2006, and I had grown it. Around 2015, we had merged it with a larger agency and had a plan for growing that collective midsize independent agency together across three cities.

It was challenging. It's very difficult to get teams in different cities who come from different places to work towards one purpose. We were doing our best to really grow it. We had built some incredible client relationships, had hired some amazing people, and were very passionate about making that a long-term successful entity. But when the economy got really scary in March and April, and when things started to change, the owners of that agency who we much older than the supporting leadership team, decided to shutter the agency in April 2020 quite abruptly and effectively retire.

As a result of that, we had a choice to make very quickly. We looked at what we had built with some of our people, we looked at some of the partnerships that existed with some of our clients, and we decided that we needed to see it through. We had a vision of what could work better, and that vision was much more of a boutique agency in terms of size and in terms of process.

So, we literally created an agency in 48 hours, April 14, 2020, to make sure that the people that we cared very much about, some of which were pregnant, people who had bought houses, people who had moved, all of these things were in flux, that they had some sort of a plan and a future that they could process all of this through. But then also clients that we were in the midst of delivering assignments for who were midflight, who were depending on us, and who we had promised we would do things for had some semblance of a plan to move forward as well.

What we found very quickly was that instead of it being a conversation around can we do this, should we do this, how will we do this, people just kept coming forward and saying, "This makes sense. We have your back." Very important really special clients to us said, "This is great. We're sorry that happened, but now we're going to make this work because we care that much about this partnership."

After that became the sentiment, this had a lot of purpose, and Summer Friday very quickly became a thing that had to happen versus might or could happen. Everything that went with that, along with setting up the logistics of a company, getting benefits and all of the ground floor stuff available for the 15 people that we started the company with, figuring out how to be a virtual-first agency at a moment's notice, legal, contracts, all of those things all came together pretty well, pretty seamlessly.

I think the one thing we didn't expect which followed thereafter was that we went on a new business tear very quickly, adding about two clients a month for the following year. That was the unexpected thing, to take this really difficult, complicated thing that was happening to the world, and we're talking COVID, we're talking politically, we're talking all of the stuff that was going on during 2020, and to think that in that environment business development would be a more understandable, more impactful process than it had been pre-COVID-19 was very unexpected. We were then tasked with figuring out how to stay true to what we were building and scale properly.

Matt: You said initially that you wanted to see it through. I'm curious, at that time, were you thinking solely about employees, were you thinking about outstanding contracts and partners that you had, or just everything? Is this is a continuation of the previous agency, or do you feel like this is a whole new entity?

Rob: It's a whole new entity. But people say a lot of stuff. You hire people at companies, you paint a vision, you sometimes even make promises, and then things happen, and a lot of companies treat people as if they're disposable at times.

The example I can give you is that every CEO stands up at a town hall and says, "What's our most important resource? Our people." Then what's the first thing that happens when times get tough? They lay off their people. They don't throw computers out, they don't get rid of company cars, they get rid of people. It makes no sense because, from a cost accounting standpoint, we have spent all of this time looking at people as a liability, as an expense, not as an investment.

When all of a sudden this thing happened to me at the previous agency, which was then of course happening to everyone beneath me and around me as well, was I going to look at them and say, "Every man for himself, every woman for herself, let's all go figure it out." I had built a team and I had gotten people to trust me. I needed to figure out if I could pay true on that promise and do it better this time.

Then for clients, if you think about it, you stand up in a room and you pitch a client and tell them all the reasons why we're a great partner, we see it through, we do this and we do that, and then to start an assignment and mid-assignment say, "Sorry. Figure it out." There's a limit to what would be possible for us to do in an environment where the agency that was servicing their contract was shutting down, but what I needed to do for the clients that I wanted to join us at Summer Friday, and even for the ones I knew may never join us, was to try to leave them in a good position. There were clients where we continued work for free to get them settled, or at least sorted to the point at which they could find a new partner to fulfill that contract. I think that was really important.

Matt: Did you find this was more difficult than starting things up 14 or 15 years ago? Did you find it easier because you already knew these folks and had been in the trenches? How did you tackle this?

Rob: For whatever reason, I think we all found it to be quite a bit easier. I think the easiness came from the fact that you would normally be afraid to do this under different circumstances. For me and for my partners and for our team to say, "We're leaving this agency and starting something new," we all have families, that would be a very scary thing to do. But when the decision is already made for you, and then you have to go out and build it, necessity is the mother of invention.

We had nothing to lose in that sense, because the alternative was to go in the corner and sulk, I guess. As a result, we started to have fun. Part of that was not our own doing. We were very lucky, we were very fortunate. To have Fortune 100 clients look at you and say, "We've got your back," that's not something we expected. We got a lot of tailwinds in those early days that gave us purpose and gave us energy to really get moving.

Then to have employees who had just learned that their position was over to call you up and say, "Oh my god, what are we going to do?" and to say, "We have a plan. Hang on. This is what we're going to do," and to have them say, "Okay. We're on it. We're going to do this," it's very motivating.

It became less work, and it became more purpose, and that changed the entire equation. Then some of the things we thought would be very difficult weren't, like the virtual and not being in the same room with the team. I think everyone was really happy to have this positive thing in an environment that was so complicated and scary most of the time. Once the pressure was taken off of being able to get that foundational revenue secured, having a few clients, once that pressure was taken off and we were kind of stabilizing and making plans for growth, it became really fun really fast.

Matt: You're talking about the last 18 months. Companies go for years to get to that stabilization standpoint. You guys are talking about doing this in a year and a half. I love that.

I'm trying to put myself in your folks' shoes when this happened and everyone realized this job is shuttered, and everyone probably feels like they're drowning, and you're saying, "We have this lifeline and we're going to throw it to you, we just have to weave it." So, you're weaving this lifeline as people are floundering and you're asking people to hang on.

On one hand, that has to be amazing because they're feeling there's something out there. On the other hand, there has to be a level of uncertainty to that, too, because people aren't sure what this is going to be, how sustainable it's going to be, or what it's going to look like. I have to imagine there was some trepidation up front for folks to come on board.

Rob: No doubt. Again, I'm not going to take credit for this, because the environment helped as well. Finding a job in April 2020 was not a thing to do. I think people were really happy to have a promising opportunity. I think the other thing is we really had to stop for a minute and say, "This is going to be crazy, but it's going to be okay." For myself and my other three partners, we had to stop and say, "We're all capable and willing right now to do this for free so that we can get people to sign on and feel okay and commit to this so that we can put the right foundation in place." Certain promises and guarantees had to be made as well.

I think luckily this is not the first time I or my partners had started a company, so we had been through the gauntlet and done it wrong lots of times, made a lot of mistakes. Then we started to stop and say if we have a little bit of a cushion, if I can spend a little bit of time not worrying about paying the rent, to think about how this is an opportunity, not a burden, what would we do?

That was the spark that allowed us to create something that we honestly feel is super magical. This culture that we've created is a gift that I take very little credit for, because it's just unbelievable to see how it has unfolded, it generated from such a bad place to become something that was so beautiful. I give my team a tremendous amount of credit for that.

Matt: It's the ultimate turnaround story, the ultimate underdog story, that all of this was created from such an awful and terrible experience into something great. One of the things I noticed Summer Friday focuses on, as you've mentioned, is its employees. Also, as you mentioned, every company says that, every company says, "Our employees are our most valuable asset." How are you guys tackling that and going about that in a way that's different?

Rob: I don't think the world has cracked the code for how to do this. We don't look at it as rocket science. We just simply think about culture above all. That's just the premise by which we approach it.

The theory is that we have to very intentionally know how big we want to get as a company. The fact that we don't want to be a large agency is really important. In fact, we want to be quite small indefinitely. We look at ourselves as a boutique, we think about our size not passing more than 50 people, at least for the near term.

The reason we think that's important is because I just am a believer that once you get north of that number culture becomes a much more difficult animal to manage. There's a lot of reasons why. It's not necessarily the case. There are great company cultures at thousand-person companies, no doubt. For us, for me as a leader, this was something that I always wanted to agree upon with my partners, and I think we're of the same mindset. You think about that from a revenue standpoint and from an employee count standpoint.

Also, that you have to almost put your people, your talent, your team in the zone of being part team and part family. When you focus on their sustainability first, so financial wellness, engagement, education, their attachment to the company, their ownership of it, work-life balance, fun, all of those things, when you do that first, you create a more passionate place. At least this is the theory, and this is what I see is happening right now. As a result of that, your clients get better work. They get better work, they get better partnership, and they're your clients for a longer period of time.

We saw a version of this 16 years ago when Michael Cruz, one of my partners, and myself started a small video content agency. We were so focused on the service and the partnership that we realized our clients worked with us for a really long time. E-Trade is our client 16 years later through three different companies because of that partnership.

Now the theory is just that when you put your people first, your clients get better work and you have less turnover, and it's a better place to work. In the end, that passion and that cultural chemistry really comes through from that first meeting that you have with that prospect or that client and it stays all the way through.

Matt: Do you have any employees that are pushing back and saying, "We have a lot of potential here. There's a lot of opportunity for us to grow. If we grow, we all do better, we make more money, we become more successful," do you have employees pushing back from that angle?

Rob: None. I think the reason why is that most of the people who work here have worked at those other places. Again, I'm not here to say that those other places are toxic. I'm just here to say what we think is right for us.

We're not attractive to every employee either. We interview very specifically and we look at talent very specifically for what we think is a cultural fit for Summer Friday and for our clients. We know that certain people are looking to be a part of something more enterprise, they're looking to have ranks to move up in quite indefinitely, they're looking for things that only exist at companies of that size. This won't be right for them, and that's okay. We don't put our nose up at that. We really believe in being what we are and being really genuine about that.

I think our people like this from the first day that I interview some of them and talk to them about it, because they've been at places where they've had a hard time figuring out how to crack the code, and they've been around the organizations where it lacks that connectivity and that purpose. These companies are hiring consultants to come in to try to figure out how to create purpose-driven strategies within their organizations because they feel like things have become so siloed.

I'm not here to say that if I was running a 20,000-person global company that I could crack the code for that, which is exactly why I'm here running Summer Friday. I think the people that end up being our talent for long periods of time gravitate towards that. They're entrepreneurial in nature and they're looking for a place to really have ownership and to wear different hats. Not different hats in the sense where we make everyone work all the jobs all the time like a startup does. Just that people can cross boundaries and they can learn things outside of their swim lane because maybe that's the thing they wanted to learn in the first place.

Matt: A lot of places talk about being very intentional in their hires, and a lot of us nod and say that makes sense. But I think what you've encapsulated there really is where the rubber meets the road. You know what you're specifically looking for, and you also have a good sense of who you're not looking for and who this organization and job might not be for. I like that you guys have a very clear vision on what that is.

Rob: I'm not going to lie. Geography helps as well. Being virtual as a result of COVID and not having to worry about where people are when you look at their work and you look at their character is a huge burden that's been lifted off of us that existed years ago. The idea that people have to be in New York, or Chicago, or Atlanta, or any of these places where you might have an office presence or a client presence, that is no longer a requirement. That has opened us up to unbelievable people and talent and perspectives that pass directly through to the ideas and the concepts that we create for our clients.

We have a creative director who is in Edinburgh, Scotland. We have people who during quarantine decided to move back to a place to be closer to their parents, or their brother, or some other family member because it felt right for them then. They came to us almost afraid to say, "If I move, is this going to be okay?" We were like go, do it, that's great. There are no rules for that right now, so let's take advantage of that and let's encourage it, and let's offer that freedom to let people be productive where and how they want to be right now.

Matt: It's not only your people and your employees that you're looking for a cultural fit, but you really take time to vet the assignments and the clients that you take. Right?

Rob: Absolutely. It's a huge disservice to work on an assignment because the revenue is desirable when you're not a perfect fit. If you are focused on long-term relationships, you just can't do it. I know some of that sounds like what I have to say, but I think we've proven through the assignments that we've taken on and the ones that we've declined that it's not about us feeling like we're too good or us feeling like we don't like this or we're not interested in that, it's really about chemistry. Whether it be chemistry with what a client team wants from their partnership or the capabilities that are required and the expertise that we've developed over time.

We're not chasing RFPs that aren't a perfect fit. And we say that to every RFP that we do participate in, "We are here because we feel like this makes perfect sense for Summer Friday and for the people that we're going to put on your assignment." You can only do that when you're very deliberate about how big you want to be. We don't have a new business team that is external from our core leadership and our broader team that has a revenue quota that they have to make in order for them to keep their jobs or make their commissions, or please investors or anything like that.

When we know what range we want to be in terms of revenue and employee count, and we're sitting in that range, it then becomes possible for us to say, "This is really interesting, but we're not sure that the client is really ready for us," or that they've figured out how to hire a creative content agency because they're still struggling with research, or targeting, or something else, or their expectations for what they need in terms of service and level of service aren't really in line with their budget. We're not going to say, "Sorry, get lost," but we're going to say, "This is what we would need to do this," and let them go if that's something they want to do.

The other thing is that there's always going to be relationships where there are red flags in the early stages. I would imagine that clients feel the same way about their agencies. When we see the red flags and we feel like we can't get a resolution, we just feel like there's such a drain on morale to be working with someone who doesn't love working with you, for whatever the reason might be. Whether or not we're doing a good job, sometimes they're just not in love with their vendor relationships and they don't look at it as a partnership, and for us that's just a red flag.

Matt: Rob, thank you so much for being here today. What a great conversation. Where can folks find out about what you guys are doing at Summer Friday?

Rob: You can always see us at HeySummerFriday.com, but we're pretty active on social as well. I would love for you to check out what we're doing on Instagram, Twitter, and other channels. You can see the ethos and the real cultural sensibilities that come out through that work.

Thanks so much for having me on, Matt.

Matt: Rob Simone, president and co-founder of Summer Friday.

Folks, I have one favor to ask before we end today's podcast. If you found something valuable in today's episode, do me a favor, share it with a friend. Send a text message, send an email, tell them about the Marketing Smarts Podcast. We love podcasts around here and we're always looking for new ones, so help your friends out and help them find a new podcast. You'll look like a hero for giving them some new content to listen to.

Thanks, everybody. We'll see you at the next episode.

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