25 Tips for 25 Years

Good people to think with
Published 2021

On May 1st, 2021, McMillan, the company I founded, turned 25 years young. It’s been a wild ride, mostly energizing, sometimes distressing, but never boring.

How does one mark a milestone in a time of COVID-19? Not like our 20th when clients flew in from the US and Europe for one helluva party https://bit.ly/2PuaPyg

As I pondered how to mark the occasion, I thought maybe, just maybe, I’ve learned a thing or two along my journey that might be worth sharing.

Tip 1: Do it for love. This seems so obvious yet seemed also like the natural place to start this conversation. You simply have to love what you do. And when you love what you do, your clients feel it and grow confident in your ability to deliver. I love solving interesting puzzles. I love story telling. I love that clients are willing to pay us to do what we love to do.

Tip 2: Do it for money. Speaking of getting paid, loving what you do doesn’t mean doing it for free. When you’re particularly good at something others want, you can charge for it. In marketing parlance, we call it a brand premium and earning that premium leads to all sorts of positive impacts: It allows you to put some coin aside for a rainy day, hire great talent and create a strong team that produces inspired work that—you guessed it—further enhances your brand premium.

Tip 3: Work with clients that want to change the world. Our job is to infect clients with our enthusiasm. But we also want to seek out clients that infect us with their enthusiasm, clients that see their products or services as something that will bring good to the world and inspire us to help them get there.

Tip 4: You’re only human. Embrace it. So here’s a story. It’s the fall of 2007 and I’m heading for a complete meltdown. Our Vancouver office had been limping along for five years. We’d fix one thing only to have something else throw us off course. When we finally decided to close the office, I THOUGHT I could manage the fallout—but depression and some rather dark thoughts overwhelmed me. None of this was new. I had struggled for years, becoming expert at hiding what was going on inside—but this was a new low. I was immensely grateful for the support of the McM team as I spent the better part of the next four months in care. Among the many things I learned was how tightly my sense of self-worth was tied to the fortunes of this entity called “McMillan.” While it was incredibly difficult to admit how effed up I was, it also proved to be a turning point as I learned new ways to be authentic with others and cope with adversity in healthier ways. And that has helped me create stronger bonds with my colleagues.

Tip 5: Enjoy the ride. That last tip was a bit heavy so here's a more optimistic counter-point: one of the guiding principles we came up with years ago was simply to "enjoy the ride." I love the sentiment because it reminds me that is isn't the actual events of our lives that matter as much as the attitude with which we approach those events. I'm having fun. How about you?

Tip 6: While others play classical, choose to play jazz. When I was a teen, I played classical flute. Obsessively. Three to four hours on weekdays. More on weekends. Almost took it up as a profession. But when I decided to postpone university for a year and bum around Europe, flute packed in my backpack, I realized that I had been sticking to sheet music for years. Now I needed to play by ear, improvising as I went, going in crazy musical directions. It was liberating. I think the same applies to any creative endeavor. The very best work we have produced at McMillan has come when we’ve riffed off each other’s ideas, going off on tangents that have led us to explore intriguing new possibilities. I still love classical. But when it comes to the creative process, I play jazz.

Tip 7: Prioritize gooder over bigger. A few years into this McMillan adventure, I was making plans to expand the agency. A colleague asked why I wanted to do that. It was a great question. To answer it, I had to step back and ask myself, “What does success look like?” If the work is good and the quality of work-life is good and the client relationships are authentic and strong, then maybe THAT is the reward. BTW, my colleague was a Buddhist. They always seem to ask the best questions.

Tip 8: Stop trying to fix things you’re bad at. Skills development is critical to professional growth, but don’t make a goal of being good at everything. Sometimes it’s better to focus on what we are good at and let others complement our deficits. I remember hanging out with Nick Law, former agency creative who is now VP, Marcom Integration at Apple. He observed that writers and designers tend to fit into one of two categories: the storytelling mind and the systems mind. Both types are valuable, but if I ask a writer who is systems oriented to spin a good yarn, all I will get is a stressed-out writer. I’m in the storyteller category and to be honest, the idea of manipulating even a simple Excel spreadsheet stresses me out entirely. Now, I could struggle to learn Excel, or I can surround myself with amazing systems minds. I think you know the preferred option.

Tip 9: Make it your mission to support the personal brand of your client. Branding is about reputation. Our job is not just to elevate the reputation of the brands we work with but also the reputation of the marketing executives who work with us. They have hard jobs, having to fight for resources that might otherwise go to engineering or sales. That’s why we make a point of figuring out how we can support our clients’ reputation within their own company and within their industry.

Tip 10: Encourage a healthy sense of urgency. Some years ago, the Chief Creative Officer of the well-known, global agency BBDO revealed his secret to encouraging great creative: Give your team less time. While his edict didn’t always make him the most popular CCO, the agency’s new business win rate skyrocketed, and his creative team ultimately came to admire him. I remembered that insight and we apply it to every project, making sure we have enough time to do it right but not enough time to sit on our asses and second guess what in pressure-filled moments our instincts know to be true.

Tip 11: Give your superpower away to a good cause. While every charity can benefit from a cash donation, consider supporting a cause you believe in with something that you do supremely well. In our case, our superpower is branding. We have worked with many charities, donating thousands of hours of our time to lift up their brands while lifting the spirits of our team in the process. How can you put a price on that?

Tip 12: Save for a rainy day. No business just glides smoothly along without bumps in the road. A new Chief Marketing Officer may bring in hers or his favorite agency and you find yourself kicked to the curb. Or a client may unexpectantly postpone or cancel projects. You can’t control everything, but you can prepare for it. Rule of thumb: Have enough cash in reserve to give your business 3 months to spot a downward trend and 3 months to address it. We didn’t follow this rule of thumb once and it just about scuppered the ship. Lesson learned.

Tip 13: Don’t make mistakes in how you address mistakes. When something goes awry, most organizations instinctively conduct a post-mortem and cook up new procedures to ensure it never happens again. A word of caution. Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease. I’ll give you an example. A writer sends a mistake-riddled draft off to the client. Client gets cranky. Agency decides to fix it by ensuring Quality Assurance (QA) sees all copy from all staff before anything goes to client. Getting copy to client now takes twice as long because QA is overwhelmed. QA demands more staff to address the increased volume. Writers get lazy because QA will catch the typos, right? The client can’t understand why it’s taking so long. I could tell you the fix for this one, but it is much more amusing to leave you hanging.

Tip 14: For thorny HR issues, please seek professional help. I’m always surprised when people suggest that a fiery email will resolve some interpersonal issue that is already charged with emotion. Don’t send it. Send an email instead to a facilitator who doesn’t work for you and doesn’t give a crap about who’s right and who’s wrong. Get curious about how the other individual receives information and get curious about how you see things. When I’ve taken this approach, things NEVER work out as I had imagined. Thank God for that.

Tip 15: Make every client interaction the best part of their day. There is nothing quite so gratifying as wrapping up a successful strategy or creative presentation with the client remarking “This meeting made my day.” That’s what we aim for every time. We ask ourselves whether the ideas we are presenting will surprise and delight our client. Then we ask ourselves if the way we’re presenting those ideas will surprise and delight. When the answers are yes and yes… that doesn’t just make the clients’ day, it makes ours.

Tip 16: Start each day with the Serenity Prayer. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Well, that pretty much sums things up.

Tip 17: It’s not just the “creative” that needs to be creative. Within an agency, there is often this line between “the creatives” and everybody in strategy, digital development, client services, HR and admin. What a useless distinction. Any organization of any kind does better when creative problem-solving is applied in every business discipline. As we have adapted to a more flexible model for doing what we do, we have developed and are constantly refining creative pricing and process models that cut costs and accelerate project timelines. It’s survival of the “creative-est”. Give it a try.

Tip 18: Bring in experts where you don’t know squat. When you truly know yourself, you know when and how you can really provide value to your client and where you should partner up. Small- and mid-sized services companies start to struggle when they try to expand beyond their area of expertise. In my experience, strategic partnerships with complementary organizations is a better path to great and profitable work. It’s all about focus.

Tip 19: Hire old people. We hear a lot about hiring a diverse workforce, but the conversation tends to center on gender and race. In my experience, there’s another dimension to diversity and that is age. We have had huge success in putting younger talent with just a few years of experience into the same room as individuals with decades of experience. And I’m not just saying that because I’m approaching 60. Okay, maybe I am.

Tip 20: Sweat every detail. Congratulations. You’ve just won a new client. Expectations are high. The bucket of goodwill is overflowing. Sweating the details—making sure you are as intensely focused on spelling color without the “u” for your U.S. clients—is as critical to keeping that bucket full as is the big idea. So, pay attention!

Tip 21: Listen. You might hear something. For years now, we have promoted a listening culture. It’s a nebulous-sounding concept and not only because there is no end-state. There’s no diploma to hang on the wall that says: “I’m a certified listener.” Yet it is the practice of listening in and of itself that yields the rewards of greater awareness, new knowledge and better understanding.

Tip 22: Don’t assume everyone starts their work week on Sunday morning. Like many entrepreneurs, I have trouble drawing a line between work and play. Even when I’m not “in the office”, my mind plays with ideas related to the business. And I often find myself up at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday getting ahead of the week and yes, sending messages to my colleagues. WTF? How I work is my business, but it is critical to communicate to them that this is my deal not theirs. Replies can come promptly Monday morning ;-)

Tip 23: Get into politics. This one is delicate but vital. I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand the political dynamics within your client’s organization and to adjust your approach accordingly. In many organizations, there is a tension between marketing and sales. In these circumstances, it is our job to help our CMO bridge that gap. When it makes sense, we’ll suggest bringing the sales executives into the strategic and creative process and empower them to influence the creative we produce. And we’ll work hard to shift them from being detractors to advocates. In some cases, the CEO may need to be brought in early for buy-in. To creative types, politics may seem unconnected to the work itself but I have learned that this kind of “business diplomacy” can be the key to earning the goodwill that gives us permission to create even better work.

Tip 24: Don’t let a global pandemic stifle your global ambitions. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how most of us live and work. It has impacted McMillan’s business significantly as we have moved to an entirely virtual model. It has also proven that keeping an open mind to new opportunities and new ways of working can fuel continuing success. Indeed, in the past 12 months we have undertaken three complete rebrands for U.S.-based clients we have never actually met in person. Necessity truly can be the mother of invention.

Tip 25: Produce inspired work. McMillan is a creative agency working primarily for businesses selling to other business. We flex strategic and creative muscles to visualize and communicate who our clients are, what they stand for and what they offer. At the end of the day, we strive to produce work that is both useful and, yes, beautiful. I have always been drawn to the works and ideas of William Morris, a textile designer, poet, novelist, social activist and a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 1800s. “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” he said. This notion of utility and beauty, not living in separate spheres but coming together to create something that has purpose and brings joy has guided my own sense of “the work”. I hope it inspires you to consider this possibility as well in your business and your personal endeavors.

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