EP 47: Assessing Our Happiness as Agency Owners, with Becky Wang
On this episode of THRIVE—now sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly has a heart to heart with Becky Wang of Crossbeat, a content and innovation studio in New York City. They discuss how we define happiness and the metrics we use to assess it for ourselves as agency leaders. It’s time to get deep.
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EP 47: Assessing Our Happiness as Agency Owners
Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. This week we’re gonna get really deep really fast. We’re gonna talk about how we as agency owners assess our own happiness. It is a really interesting discussion. My guest and friend is Becky Wang, founder of Crossbeat in New York City. And as a side note, Becky is actually gonna be featured in the new book that I’m writing. So we’ll talk about that another time but Becky thank you so much for being on the show today.
Becky: Kelly, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you.
Kelly: So I think the easiest way to start this pretty broad conversation is through literal assessment especially because you’re a science and data nerd just like I am. So let’s kind of go with metrics first and talk about things like wanting more money year-over-year and number of employees and all of that kind of stuff.
Becky: Yeah, of course. I think whatever metrics you have for success, they’re tied to a goal. And it often starts with what was your goal of going into business for yourself, or the goal may have been I want to do more great work. And whatever that goal is can obviously change over time. So it is important to just be clear on why.
And some of those are to make more money than you’re making as a creative director or head of strategy or you felt like you weren’t raising the ranks fast enough, then money is absolutely a sort of external tangible metric to see how you’re doing. If it was, I want to work with more teams, it might be the number of projects or the diversity of projects instead of being on a single Verizon account or just large brand account. A lot of those external metrics too can be how many days of vacation did I get to take or how many employees I have.
I think we have metrics that are thrust upon us by external expectations or when we say to someone, oh I have an agency that has thirty-five employees, that’s meaningful to other people. I know for myself it was in the early days it was yeah we’ve only been around x number of weeks and we already have twelve employees. Like that was meaningful. It meant scale right away. Whereas now, I’m actually very proud of the fact that we keep pure people on staff, have a strong set of partners, but I have more blue chip or Fortune 500 companies to say that are my clients. It is different.
Kelly: Right, right. Yeah. And we’re talking about external, right? But then we also have to bring in the internal factors of how we assess our own happiness, but your contention from our previous conversations is that you really need to have both, and you need to acknowledge both. So why is that so important?
Becky: Yeah, what an awesome question.
Kelly: You came up with it.
Becky: I think as entrepreneurs and as agency owners, why did we choose it, whether it’s creative services or communication services, it says something about us, whether we go against the grain or we are leaders in our field or we’re incredibly independent. The reason I think internal factors matter, internal metrics is because if you don’t have them, sometimes it’s difficult to allow yourself to evolve and change.
So your internal metric may be, “Wow, the day went really quickly and I feel great at the end of the day. I just feel like I’ve worked really hard and I feel a sense of satisfaction.” Or even, “Today, I got to mentor someone and they saw the world, this person here she saw the world just a little bit differently.” I think those internal metrics are important because it allows you to get closer to the things you value but you can say this thing, this external thing making lots of money doesn’t yield the same.
If you just stick with the external metric by all mean, by all sort of logical reasons, you should still feel great. The more money you make but so many of us can reach that point and realize actually reaching ten million dollars is incredibly satisfying, reaching twenty million dollars was less satisfying because of… And I think it could be how much more time you had to spend or maybe you didn’t strand yourself with. The team that you wanted…
Kelly: More money, more problems.
Becky: Absolutely. So I think that is why I think it is important.
Kelly: Yeah. And when we last spoke, you brought up a great point that agency leaders need to really be asking themselves, do you want to be managing people or do you want to actually be doing the work? So what’s been your evolution in answering that on that particular question?
Becky: Yeah. For me in the early days, doing creative work that could be attributed to my name was much more important and what I realized was that, it was never attributed to me. Every time I ran a team there was always, there was a technical director or art director or UX strategist or designer who contributed to it. And what I realized was, I thought I was one thing, I thought I wanted to be an individual contributor and yet in the framework of leading teams, not even starting a business but leading teams first and then starting a business realizing that, actually no, I really enjoyed that process and I could never really attribute it to my name.
Though I could attribute it to Crossbeat and say yeah Crossbeat made this, but that I really love the sort of partnership feel to it. And so, of course it was never going to be just individual contribution. That’s not true for everyone. A lot of people can be individual contributors and be the best creative director or best technical, creative technologist and not have to be the one that was leading it.
What I discovered in the process was I was putting these teams together, it was actually more interesting for me to run the business. Because I think when you run a business, you start to think about things, as- well does this really work? And what I mean by work, is, did it make more money but did it work as a thing that inspired conversation or something that inspired beauty.
And more importantly, I realized that I actually liked working with the same people or I like the fact that I could see how different people added to the team could change the outcome. And I think it is about running a business. And running a business, it is about optimizing. It’s about saying, “Okay, there’s a market, I sell to those people. I market to those people. I serve those people but I also have to take care of my employees and make sure they stay, and understand the true cost and value of their labor.” And that’s very different than coming up with awesome tag lines, right?
Becky: And I think you really have to like that process. And the moment I realized that my business could actually impact the community was when I was sold on it, when I was like yeah, I have this merry band of misfits and we can like do things together and we can donate a portion of our profits to a charity or- That piece is what I think I most enjoy.
Kelly: Right. So there was a social good or some kind of give back initiative, a CSR initiative associated with the business that helps you to define success and therefore happiness?
Becky: Yeah. For sure. And also just taking care of people, not just clients.
Kelly: Yeah I felt the same way in my agency. I felt like my… I’ve said this before, my employees were my kids. I don’t have children but I felt very responsible for them. They were paying mortgages and having babies and there was something that from the egoistic side, I was like wow I’m able to help them to fulfill their own personal goals and dreams but I definitely felt a sense of happiness that I was, just able to impact their lives in that way.
So yeah it’s just a great discussion about what happiness means to each of us, and I think we all have very different definitions. So let’s talk about the role that purpose plays in happiness and what is your thought on that.
Becky: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that, well, there have been so many scientific studies that say a sense of purpose and autonomy and independence are the critical factors of I think true happiness. For me, purpose can function on multiple levels. I realized one day, actually not so long ago, that I was fulfilling my larger purpose, even if on a smaller scale I sometimes felt like, “Oh I’m spending too much time doing accounting,” or things like that.
And I think the intersection of all of those small and big circles of purpose and when I talk about those bigger and smaller intersections of purpose that help me sort of assess how I- it helped me understand the things that I can do to maintain happiness. So to answer the question more directly, I think that when you feel- so I think purpose is sort of that, in many of our brand architectures, our brand purpose sets below vision and mission.
And the purpose is that thing that we do every day and it doesn’t have a metric per se involved the way like maybe a mission would and it’s about a future vision of the world the way vision might be. And what I really like about that if we’re going to assign those roles to those words, a lot of people say no, a purpose is more like a vision, or so just if we agree on that’s the idea of what purpose is. What I like about it is that it’s an everyday thing.
I’ve recently become obsessed with this idea of like you know I have so many people especially brilliant strategists younger than me coming through either working on projects or interested in working on projects that Crossbeat is leading, every single one of them has sort of the same sort of affliction I did and still struggle with, which is we want to be thinking deep grand thoughts all the time that change the world.
We write them in ways that people are like, “Oh my god, mind blown!” right? And we want to be that all the time, because that’s what we’re good at, and we think that that’s our purpose. And I always have to tell these young bucks, that actually the time scale’s much smaller, that when they feel like they’re like not getting it or that striving to like encapsulate and capturing the moment. You actually need to move everything down to the time scale of in the moment.
The beautiful thing about these strategies that we write is that it feels like this moment where everything gets pulled into focus, and we’re like, “Oh that’s the thing.” But if you can’t operationalize it or make it a thing that you do every day or put in on time scale or in a way that people can have success with whatever that grand vision is every day then it’s forever in the future and you’re gonna start looking at it like, “I’m never going to achieve it, so then why bother.” So to me the way you structure your purpose statement is really important and the time scale is can I achieve portions of it every day.
Kelly: It’s a practice like anything else.
Becky: Yeah. Exactly. And so if our purpose is to be happy and help other people yeah I can do that every day. If our purpose is to communicate whatever for the benefit, communicate a brand story to help that company make more money but to also resonate in customers lives. That’s wonderful. Are you doing that every day, in some way? Are you doing it for friends, your family etcetera? And I think when we can go to bed at night and say like yeah I did my thing today. That’s I think what makes us happy.
Kelly: And I also think that it’s bigger than what we do for a living. It’s bigger than our livelihood. It has to be because when people die they don’t talk about hey so and so worked for thirty years at this company. They don’t even mention what they did for a living. They mention their family, their friends, what they did in their community, volunteer efforts. They talk about who they were.
And so I tend to think of purpose a little bit differently maybe not differently. I just think of it as bigger and almost potentially pulled apart from the work that we do or our careers. I think our careers can be part of that for sure. They can be a portion of it. They can be a part of the puzzle that all fits together with purpose, but I look at purpose as if I’m not being driven every single day, like you just said, toward this thing that makes me happy on a really deep soul level like what am I doing. So it makes me question a lot.
Becky: I really love that and I think that that’s when, this is a strategist in me speaking. So when you talk about what’s that thing that I’m achieving every day and to what end, I think vision becomes really important. Can you and then- some of these metrics come in, which is, I have a state in mind for the things outside of me that I want to achieve, and what are the ways that I can do with all of me? So how do you treat your interpersonal relationships or like how do you take care of your mind, body and spirit?
Like there’s, I mean, what I’m saying is I hundred percent agree with you, and as agency owners, I think we often think, “Oh it’s all in the context of work, and it’s all in context of the business. But I think when we think about it in the way you’re describing, those employees you have could decide that in their purpose they need to leave, but that doesn’t, if you don’t say goodbye or allow them to fulfill their purpose and understand that their purpose for now is taking them away from you, if you’re able to meet it with I think this is like open sense, they could come back. That’s actually one thing I learned in Droga5. People would always come back to Droga and I’d be like that’s so fascinating, like how is that he was able to achieve that and I think part of it is because his purpose was deeper than make Droga5 the biggest agency in the world. I think he really wanted to work and nurture creative talent.
Kelly: So as we start to wrap up a little bit, I’m actually wondering about the thing on my mind is, does geography play any part in happiness or assessing our own happiness. I mean you and I are both New Yorkers. I wonder would this be a little bit of a different conversation if you were living in San Diego or Denver or just somewhere other than New York.
Becky: Yeah I mean I think it depends, obviously it depends on every individual, what the answer to that is. I think for me personally if I lived on the west coast, I wouldn’t probably, it would imply that I had different priorities for myself but that’s not true of everybody who lives on the west coast. So I should be super clear like some place and in that place. I mean I love the hustle and bustle of New York. There is this forever stream of cultural and intellectual activities, really oceans of experiences to plug into. I really like that. I get burned out on it sometimes and think I really need a place upstate.
Kelly: Come on over.
Becky: Yeah, right. So yeah and I think that we in New York bounce off each other on what success looks like, to bring it back to what our original circle, our original conversation. And what I found having now been here more than ten years is there’s a sub-community of successful entrepreneurs where they have forgone the cost of infrastructure, of supporting many, many employees because they recognize that people that they really want to work with don’t operate on paycheck system anymore. They work on an entrepreneurial system and want to have the flexibility to go in and out.
Kelly: Maybe that is part of happiness also. Just in terms of creating a different livelihood, a different approach to how you bring in money. You need to bring in money to live, we all do right? But yeah I think that they’re just creative, more creative solutions. I was watching MasterChef Junior the other night and the little boy said I either want to open up a restaurant or I want to be a food blogger and go around the world and be a food blogger.
And I thought to myself this eight-year-old kid, that’s amazing. In his mind he doesn’t have to be a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter, all those traditional path or the things that we thought of when we were young. Now this eight year old kid says happiness to me would be going around the world, tasting food, talking to people, writing about it and sharing it with others. And like I don’t know, it just hit me in a way that it’s just interesting how we have such creative solutions to how we live and how we really live our purpose.
Becky: Yeah absolutely, and what I love about the way you said that too was it was something he did, not a label. You know what I mean? He wasn’t a chef guy. He was like I want to do this thing. And there are many shapes for it. Exactly. So I’m totally agreeing with that, using the language of like what’s the shape or what’s the thing that makes the shape.
Kelly: Yeah, well Becky, I’m so grateful for our conversation today. I think this will really resonate with a lot of people who are maybe starting to question these things in their own lives as agency owners. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
Becky: Thank you. Always a pleasure. Hope to see you soon.