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UB Insider #42: Becoming the Boss: Relic Advertising and the Power of Employee-led Leadership

About this episode:

Last September, Adam Stoker and three partners bought out Sorenson Advertising, moved the company from St. George to Orem, rebranded it to Relic Advertising, expanded their service offerings, and unrolled a kind of employee-led leadership. In this episode of UB Insider, Stoker talks about why they made those changes, the lessons learned from the whirlwind, and what others in his position should know before they make the leap. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.

Transcript:

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, Online Editor at Utah Business magazine. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be your own boss or be the one running the show at your office, know that somebody did it.

A group of employees at Sorenson Advertising bought out the company and are taking it in a new direction. Here to talk about it is Adam Stoker, who was one of the employees to buy out the company. He is now President and CEO of the company, which has been rebranded to Relic. Welcome.

Adam Stoker: Thank you. Good to be here.

Lisa Christensen: So last September you and three partners was it?

Adam Stoker: Yes, it was.

Lisa Christensen: You bought out your advertising agency. Tell me about that.

Adam Stoker: A little crazy, yeah. I had been at the agency for six years, and the Creative Director, Colby Raymond, who ended up being my business partner in the business as well had been there about five and a half years. So we’d worked together on it a long time. We had talked about either purchasing the business or starting our own for a long time, and it finally came to fruition after a lot of work and changes. And we were finally able to do it. So it’s pretty exciting.

Lisa Christensen: What were some of the factors that led to it growing to fruition?

Adam Stoker: Yeah. So we were based in St. George, Utah for several years. And then in 2014, the previous owner and I decided that it was going to be really hard to continue on the growth projection that we had if we weren’t able to get higher quality advertising specific talent to St. George. And so we decided to instead open up a Northern Utah office, allowing us to have better access to the colleges and universities in Utah because there’s a lot of fresh talent. It’s pretty easy to get them to come to Orem or Provo to work as opposed to uprooting their families and going all the way to St. George.

So we had two offices and opening up that office led to kind of spreading the previous owner fairly thin. And he had put down some real roots in St. George and it got to the point where something kind of had to be done. That’s when Colby and I approached him about purchasing the business.

Lisa Christensen: One of the things that came up in the news about the buyout was this idea of employee-led leadership. What does that mean and how does that differ from the traditional leadership model? Why did you decide to go with it for Relic?

Adam Stoker: Yeah, you know one of the things that allows us, I believe, as owners to be a little more tuned into the needs of our employees is that we were employees of the same company prior to moving into ownership. So we understand the challenges that employees at our company have.

We understand what the growth projection looks like for an employee to go from entry-level employee to leadership because we’ve both experienced it and watched it happen. And so what we did is, you know, Colby and I were obviously employees before and we’re owners in the company, but we’ve also appointed a couple of employees that have been there for a long time and made a great contribution to be kind of our core leadership team.

And so it’s not just owners making decisions for the company, but we actually are in some of our major strategy meetings we’re incorporating this employee leadership that we’ve talked about and really that’s kind of made all the difference for us in our decision making so far.

Lisa Christensen: Well when you look at that model and then you look to the growth that you’re hoping to get with this location and with your projections, what is the plan to maintain that employee-led leadership as you grow big enough that you won’t have the same close-knit office that you have now?

Adam Stoker: I think the biggest thing for us is we’ve started even now, we’ve grown to 20 employees which for a lot of businesses in Utah isn’t that much. But when I started at Sorenson Advertising there was three of us. So we’ve grown quite a bit.

We’ve started creating committees. We have a process committee that really has oversight over the processes in our agency. And we don’t supersede what they suggest should happen. They present to us what they want to do and so far we haven’t turned anything down. We also have an innovation committee that is charged to kind of keep track of budding technology that would we relevant to our industry. They’ve explored a little bit in virtual reality and things like that that allow them to keep us on the forefront of technology.

So I believe that as we continue to grow, we’re going to have to assign and appoint more committees that are employee-led that we can basically just approve what they do and have them help us continue to grow the company.

Lisa Christensen: So where did this idea of employee committees come from and how did you initially implement that?

Adam Stoker: Well it really just kind of stemmed from, I don’t want to call it frustrations, but maybe some of the challenges that we experienced as we were growing before under the previous leadership because there was somewhat of a disconnect between what the employees saw as the priorities and the necessities for the business and where the business actually went. So we wanted to make sure that we didn’t allow that to happen again and didn’t just change ownership and then have the employees feel the same level of involvement.

We wanted to listen to our employees. And that’s not to say we weren’t listened to before, because that’s not what I’m implying. But we wanted to make sure that… We have brilliant employees, brilliant people that work with us. And we’ve had some of the best ideas for our campaigns or some of the company direction decisions that we’ve made, come from some entry-level employees for example. And we don’t want to eliminate that. We want to make sure that we’re able to foster that growth and allow for everyone to have input while at the same time people understanding that in the end, the final decision will come from the owners in situations where we have opposing views.

Lisa Christensen: Right. But this sounds like it’s a means of strengthening that employee-led leadership model by having really close communication between administration, employees and also in the source of ideas.

Adam Stoker: Most definitely. And there’s, just like any other business owners, I mean we’ve only been business owners for six months now. So we definitely fall short here and there. But we really try to put in a structure where the employees feel heard. In fact, we just released a survey to all of our employees and are reviewing the responses right now. We’re going to do that periodically, probably twice a year to make sure that we’re constantly understanding what the frustrations and needs of our employees are so that we can action on those and make changes.

Lisa Christensen: Do you think at some point it will make sense to go to a more traditional leadership model? Or are you hoping that this is the way that the administration stays?

Adam Stoker: That’s a good question. I think for the foreseeable future, as it works we’re definitely going to want to continue operating this way. If we see it starts to cause conflict or that maybe politics, which so far we haven’t had to deal with, but if it gets to that point there will be an overhaul because we don’t want to jeopardize our culture. But so far so good, you know what I mean?

Lisa Christensen: That’s good. Along with the change in ownership you guys also rebranded the company, moved offices, expanded the company’s service offerings, a whole bunch of things coming at once. How did you juggle it all?

Adam Stoker: Well, in some cases I didn’t. It has been the craziest six months or so of my life. For one thing, I have great partners. We’ve really been able to divvy up the responsibilities of all that we’ve done between rebranding, moving offices, adding service offerings. I’ll kind of go through each one and tell you how we were able to approach that.

But as far as our rebrand goes, we worked as a team and included everyone in the agency on the naming of, the new name of the business. And the reason that we decided to rename the business is because it was Sorenson Advertising, and the previous owner’s name was Eric Sorenson. So to continue on as Sorenson Advertising really didn’t make a lot of sense if he wasn’t going to be involved. And so we really brainstormed on what did we want to be as a company, and let the name flow from there.

And as we were going through our sessions we talked about how important it is for us to make sure that we’re judged not on what we call vanity metrics: likes, clicks, impressions, views. But the real way we should be judged is did our client make money? And in a lot of cases, instead of that metric, an ad agency will want to prove its value by but look how many clicks, impressions and visits to your website that I got.

We feel like that when ad agencies were created, the whole point of our existence was to help companies sell more product. And so we feel like we’re somewhat of a relic in that we focus only on sales for our client when we judge our success. You’ll see when you go to our website that when we show our work, we show the results and then we show our work. Because if the results aren’t there, it’s irrelevant.

And so when we went through that process, that’s how we came up with the name Relic. We realized we don’t feel like we’re like other ad agencies in a lot of cases. We do feel like we’re a throwback. Even though we’ve got young talent, I’m 33 years old, and I’m the second oldest person at our company. We really feel like we’re a throwback to when ad agencies were created, so that’s why we feel like we’re a relic. So that was the rebranding side of things.

And then in adding new service offerings, I haven’t really talked about our other partner who wasn’t an employee before. His name is Jordan Barker. He has one of the most diverse backgrounds in digital marketing that I’ve seen so far. Jordan and I are friends from high school. We actually ended up serving an LDS mission together in Brazil for two years, and then worked together at a really small digital marketing agency in 2008. We’ve always had this dream of creating an ad agency that combines digital marketing and traditional advertising really well.

Usually an agency will be good at one and the other is a side offering or vice versa. So Jordan built out the digital marketing platform for several companies including Alliance Health. He worked at Alliance Health and built their digital marketing programs and then Pluralsight after that, and was able to deal with the types of budgets that a lot of our clients who are more on the small business side of things don’t get the opportunity to deal with.

So what he did was take some of these enterprise level service offerings that he had dealt with before and scale them down for our small business clients to utilize. So we were able to take some stuff like content syndication, marketing automation, website testing and optimization and add those to our existing client base. It’s been, that took a lot of work going out to each one of our clients. We have clients in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Oregon, all over the country – and then here in Utah obviously. So it was quite the round robin. I think there was one month where we only spent ten or eleven nights in our bed the entire month. It was in hotels outside of that.

But going out and talking about the new service offerings, because a change in ownership is always scary to a client. They wonder what the direction is going to be like, so we wanted to make sure that we showed that this change in ownership was going to be a step forward and not a step back. So it was very important that we got out to all of our clients and showed that not only are we improving our current service offerings with them, but we’re adding these new ones. We had about a 90% adoption rate with all of our clients for the new service offerings that we have, which has been really great. Jordan has led the charge on the new service offerings.

On the rebrand, Colby really ran with the visual aspect of our rebrand. And then on the moving the office, the accounting side, which by the way has just been crazy. I thought I understood the basic principles of accounting, I most definitely did not. So that has been a crash course for me over the last six months in that, and then also leading the charge on moving our office and kind of the logistics of everything. So that’s how we split up the responsibilities, and thank goodness I’ve got great partners that are willing to invest the time and really have a commitment to the business or it would have been really, really hard.

Lisa Christensen: Well you mentioned some of the challenges of talking to clients and convincing them that this was a step forward and not a step back. What have been some of the biggest challenges of rebranding? That’s always a risk for any company, getting rid of one name that’s familiar and introducing another.

Adam Stoker: Yeah. Well one of the biggest challenges is that this is our first run at it, right? So I think from a confidence standpoint, luckily I had a great relationship with our clients and I was the main point of contact for a lot of our clients. And so they had confidence in me but they had never seen me run a business. So I know there was some apprehension there.

Probably our biggest concern with rebranding was we have had pretty solid presence in the tourism industry in Utah. We’ve been involved in the marketing for seven counties in Utah. We also handled Tuacahn Amphitheatre in St. George. We’ve worked with the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City in the past. We’ve built a pretty solid brand as Sorenson Advertising in tourism. But we have plans to go much further than just Utah. In fact, next week we’re going to be at the Montana Tourism Conference and sponsoring that and really trying to expand our knowledge of tourism into other states.

So the biggest concern was are we abandoning our brand equity by rebranding to Relic? And in the end what we decided is with the growth plans that we have, it’s either do it now or we’ll never be able to do it. Because as our brand grows, especially if it’s regional as opposed to in-state in the tourism specifically, it would have been a lot harder to do that. So we decided if we’re ever going to do it, it’s now, otherwise we’re going to be married to the name forever. Which, great name. I think it helped us grow and everything, but it did need to change. Especially if the identity that was Sorenson Advertising no longer had a Sorenson in it.

Lisa Christensen: So are you still split between those two offices? Or have you consolidated to one office?

Adam Stoker: Yeah, as soon as we purchased the business we shut down the St. George office. The main reason for that was just consolidating our costs. With adding the new service offerings and hiring new employees to manage those service offerings, we needed to make sure that we were being as efficient as possible. And so we cut the St. George office. However, we still have great clients in St. George that we go down and meet with constantly. St. George is a very, very important market to our success, it just doesn’t make sense to have a full-time office there.

Lisa Christensen: What are some of the ways you have… We haven’t really touched on moving an office. What are some of the ways that you have had to overcome moving a location or otherwise having that presence with your local clients?

Adam Stoker: Well the great thing about what we do is we are an ongoing business service that doesn’t require clients to come into our office all the time. In fact, our account executives go out and meet with our clients in person. So we handle Bryce Canyon tourism, we handle Tuacahn in St. George like I mentioned. Uintah Country, which is Vernal tourism. Cedar City tourism. We work a little bit with St. George tourism and Capitol Reef and Moab.

So our local clients aren’t necessarily here, so our account executives go out to visit them. However we do handle the Utah Valley Parade of Homes and we were in the office suite next door to them. That was so convenient for both them and us and really helped us build a great relationship with them. And so that was hard. It was really hard to leave them. They would stock up on soda and several of our employees would go grab a soda here and there from them. So it was a really close-knit relationship with them. We’re still very close, however we’re not in the same building anymore. That was probably the hardest part from a client standpoint of moving offices.

Lisa Christensen: Do you have any advice for someone else who finds themselves in the same kind of improbable situation that you were in to buy out a company or to strike out on their own?

Adam Stoker: Yeah, I would say a couple of things. The first thing I would say is to make sure that you have the right partners. Because if you’re like me, I couldn’t have done it on my own. And so, if you don’t have people that you can trust and people that you feel like have the same work ethic as you, and honestly people that you can trust with your life, I wouldn’t go into business with somebody, especially after my experience. Just because without my partners I couldn’t have done it.

The other thing I would suggest to someone is that you know what you know within the sphere that you work in. So I was an account executive, so I worked with our client relationships and I worked with onboarding new clients. I thought that I understood a lot of the other stuff like HR. And I would advise anyone that’s going to purchase a business, especially an existing business: take a course on HR, take a course on accounting. Because you think you know, but I promise you don’t. So there’s aspects to running a business that I think a lot of employees may be a little bit ignorant about. And I say ignorant in that I was ignorant about it. I had no idea all that it takes to run a business. And I gained more appreciation for the previous ownership as well. So I would say find out what you don’t know, and especially HR and accounting because they get overlooked.

Lisa Christensen: Ok. Well thank you so much and good luck with the future and with the steep learning curve that you guys are navigating.

Adam Stoker: Thank you. And we appreciate our relationship with Utah Business and hope to continue.

Lisa Christensen: Absolutely. Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher and you can follow us on social media at @utahbusiness. You can also drop us a line at news@www.utahbusiness.com. Thanks for listening.