How We’re Reimagining Agency Culture and Client Partnerships to Find the Sweet Spot
By Rob Simone, Partner & President at Summer Friday
In April 2020, the agency to which my partners and I had committed our careers and reputations suddenly shuttered. On a normal Tuesday afternoon (or as normal as any day could be in the early weeks of the pandemic), countless employees across three cities learned via email that the agency would be closing, effective immediately. That was that.
With no options on the table for us to stop the process, we realized that we simply weren’t finished. We looked at the promises that we had made, the teams that we employed, and the clients with whom we had partnered. And we simply could not abandon that cause.
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Summer Friday was born out of necessity. The necessity to put food on the table, of course. But also the necessity to provide a path for those who found themselves abruptly lost in space. And the necessity of providing fulfillment and consistency for clients who were mid-flight on campaigns.
After standing up a boutique agency in 48 hours, it dawned on us that we had a tremendous opportunity. We were being afforded the rare chance to disrupt the many legacy conventions and toxic cultural elements that have existed within agencies for decades — conventions that we had experienced directly, often not realizing how truly impactful and detrimental they were.
It’s important to note that the confidence to blaze this challenging trail came from the energy exhibited by our original team as well as our foundational clients. A Fortune 100 client promised at the very onset of our journey that they “had our back” because they valued our partnership so greatly. It was an injection of momentum. That reassurance shifted our entire paradigm from building something that was necessary, to creating something that was magical.
We did our best to bottle that energy, then apply it to every one of our operational and cultural efforts. That means we have built-in litmus tests that guide our decision-making process. For instance, when posed with the opportunity to participate in a pitch, we look at the brief and determine whether or not we feel Summer Friday is the ideal fit for the assignment. Anything less is a non-starter. Is it perfect? No. Is it pretentious? No —not if you’re focused on building partnerships for the long haul.
Honesty and excellence are at the core of enduring relationships. Companies simply cannot continue to chase revenue, shapeshifting their capabilities and experience in order to meet growth goals. It has never worked — and it’s the main reason average agency client tenure has been on a cataclysmic decline since the mid-1980s and is currently hovering around 2.5 years. This is especially true when many large agencies expect to lose money the first year of servicing an account, then somehow magically recoup it in the following years. Nobody likes to be on that treadmill.
As the leaders of a young boutique, my partners and I are not looking for a perfection. We are looking to build a more inclusive, refreshing, and sustainable work environment. It’s not recruitment fluff. On the contrary: It’s as good for our employees as it is for the profitability of the company.
It certainly helps that we aren’t beholden to any exterior financial body in the form of a holding entity, investors, or the public. And we have no plans to be. Our desire is to maintain boutique status, building sustainability and well-being for our talent, whom we consider to be a tangible asset — not a balance sheet liability.
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This is key difference in a world where brilliant marketers are taught that they absolutely need to play corporate chess in order to move up in the world. In other words, you arrive at your dream job, only to realize that it’s actually purgatory. My partners and I refuse to accept that notion, both from ethical and strategic perspectives. When an American corporation has a bad quarter, do they put their machinery out to the curb? No, they lay off people — people they have spent significant capital and resources to attract, retain, and develop.
In past agency positions, high-level financial data and performance were elusive or, at best, guarded. When we considered how we would share information with our team, we simply opted to communicate with transparency and pull people into the equation of the company’s success. It seems fundamental, but it’s incredibly rare in the agency world. Why? Probably because of fear. Fear that employees will know too much and that they may even use that information to their advantage.
That’s why, at Summer Friday, we emphasize fearlessness on every level. We hire talent and because we view them as long-term assets, we look for certain entrepreneurial character traits in the candidates we interview. We promote ownership of decisions and culture on all levels, and we believe that tying the team into the fabric of the company creates a passion that is infectious. And this passion passes directly to the output that our client partners realize.
Our approach may seem utopian, even naïve. But it’s less so when you consider just how deliberate we are about staying within our sweet spot and mission. Look around at the ravenous appetite for growth and prosperity embedded into the process of building a company in America. There are countless founders, each building grand enterprises with an abundance of investment capital in each and every direction.
We get it. We understand the allure. It’s not wrong; it’s just not what we’re building. And ultimately, it’s a code that neither we nor our people wish to crack.
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