The Future Starts Here: 5 Lessons from an Independent CEO

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder 

Last week, I gave the keynote at the Indie Summit in London, an annual conference for owners, CEOs and senior directors from independent marketing and communications agencies worldwide. Of course London is always great — and I might have snuck away from the conference to visit the extraordinary “The Future Starts Here” exhibition at the V&A Museum—but mostly I was honored to be surrounded by so many like-minded leaders. Everywhere I went, I met people who don’t just believe in the agility, flexibility and POWER of independence — they lead from that commitment every day, just like we do.

Whether they’re indies themselves or not, many in our industry have been thinking a lot about independence lately. Just this week, PRWeek wrote about the recent swirl of change at WPP — just one more holding company facing an uncertain future. For me, these stories are hard to hear. I tip my hat to big companies like WPP: I admire their longevity and respect their legacy. But they’re big ships, slow to turn, and these days, client partner brands crave agile service and bold advice.

That’s where independents like WE can really shine. We’re nimble, able to navigate changing times more flexibly than big holding companies can. Because we aren’t beholden to shareholders expecting quarterly updates, we are free to make bets that take time to pay off, including investing in our own people and taking care to work with clients we believe in, and for whom we can do our best work. Since we started our agency, independence has given us the space we need to behave with greater integrity, authenticity and honesty, even when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard.

Fundamentally, we don’t get bogged down. We can stay laser-focused on what matters most — WHY we do what we do. To us, the thing that truly matters, our heart and soul, is our Bold Purpose.


The Red Thread of Purpose

As I told the audience at last week’s Indie Summit, purpose is my North Star — in the best of times, and in the worst of times. Purpose isn’t trendy; it’s helped me build an agency that has stayed independent, and has continued to work with some of the greatest, most innovative brands of our time.

And purpose has taught me many important lessons, five of which I shared last week — and which I will share with you today.


Lesson One: Celebrate Disruption

Years ago, when I was seven months pregnant, our house burned down just days before Christmas. We lost our things, our place, our balance. It was devastating — a moment of true personal disruption.

A few days later a friend gave me a piece of art with a quote from the samurai poet Mizuta Masahide: “Since my house burned down, I now own a better view of the rising moon.” I was stunned. I had been so wrapped up in my grief over what we’d lost — our belongings, our sense of balance — that I hadn’t considered what the fire had given me: a chance for a new perspective.

Ever since then, I’ve applied this lesson over and over again, both in life and in business. I’ve stayed open to disruption. For example, almost three years ago, my partner Pam Edstrom and I made the choice to take our names off the door and rebrand the agency from Waggener Edstrom to WE. We did it to better reflect what WE is — and it’s never been just the two of us. It was always all of us, together.


Lesson Two: Put People First

Being independent can mean choosing the thing that feels right over the thing that will impact the bottom line. For me, that has always meant keeping our people at the center of our decision making.

For instance, about 10 years into building our agency, we experienced a year with 65% growth. We were thrilled, of course, and the natural inclination was to ride that trajectory as long as we could. But every day, when I came to the office, I looked around and saw our people. To be sure, they were hardworking, amazing, talented — and they were also exhausted.

An agency is only as strong as its people, and I want my people to feel valued and rewarded — AND to have a life outside of work. So, we made a tough choice. We chose to slow down. In the short term, we gave everyone a week off; in the long term, we focused on stabilizing our growth to make it sustainable. We can’t just say we care about people, we have to take ACTIONS that prove it. When you put people first, success will follow


Lesson Three: Build the Epic, Not the Episode

Early on in an independent agency’s life, every campaign can feel like the pivot point, the make-or-break moment. It can be hard not to put every resource and scrap of energy into that next one big thing. But I’ve found that when you play the long game, you’re more likely to win in the end.

In fact, I think our willingness to play the long game is why we have client partners who have worked with us for almost as long as we’ve been in business. We meet their needs today, we build what they’ll need tomorrow, and we stand alongside them as they look into the future.


Lesson Four: Find Stability in Motion

In hard times, it’s tough not to let fear and uncertainty paralyze you. Yet these are the times when movement is most critical.

Recently, WE did a global study called Brands in Motion that asked what motivates today’s consumers and their choices. We found that in turbulent times, consumers crave stability — and to consumers, stability often means purpose. Half of our respondents in the U.S. say they expect brands to take a stand and share their point of view on important issues — especially on the issues that directly affect their consumer base.

I could name a lot of companies that have done a great job of building a purpose-driven business: Starbucks, Patagonia, Unilever and more. For all of us, purpose propels us forward. Even as the world zigs and zags, we can stand firm — because we know what we stand for.


Lesson Five: Co-Create

As independents, we know how to go it alone. But there have been times when we don’t have what the client needs. That’s why I believe that to push our agency into the future we must embrace collaboration, even co-creation.

Of course, we’ve worked hard to build out our client capabilities and services to span the entire modern media ecosystem, but we cannot and will never be in every business. We know what we do well, and we know where we want to have the very best partners who can complement what we do and help our clients generate great outcomes.

That’s why last year we chose to invest in PLUS, a network of partners that gives us breadth and depth of services for clients that we simply cannot offer by ourselves. Yes, we share the success. And yes, sometimes we “give up” money to them, just as they sometimes “give up” money to us. But it’s a win-win situation — co-creation is what clients need today.

We’re fiercely independent, but we’re never alone. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.


So: What’s YOUR Purpose?

“To build a legacy and make a difference.” “To help people be better at what they do.” “To improve the lives of the people I love.” “To help the most powerful companies in the world make a positive impact on the planet.” “To transform the ordinary.” “To be brave.” “To make the world a little bit better.”

Those are just a few of the dozens of inspiring answers I got when I asked the audience at the Indie Summit what purpose drove them. Listening to a room full of independent communicators and marketers discuss their true norths was like looking into the future. The people in that room were the people who will drive the industry, set the conversation, and — yes — make the world a little bit better. How will you join them?


Read more posts from WE Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin here.

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