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The Founder Effect

How does a brand transcend a founder while still keeping their value, perspective, and influence? This is a uniquely “second stage” dilemma. Whether you are talking about the next generation of a family business, a new company that emerges after a merger, or installing a new CEO, the question is essentially the same.

This is a bittersweet article for me to write. At the end of this month, Six-Point’s “founding father,” David Wicks, will be retiring.

We have been preparing for this moment for years, but it still somehow feels like walking off a precipice.

Since we began transition discussions, one of the main questions in my mind wasn’t “how will we replace David” (impossible!). Instead, it has been “how will we keep David’s influence intact?”

Before becoming Six-Point’s chief creative officer, David’s background was an art director and creative director. He has worked for large retail grocery store brands, technical manufacturing brands, as well as international consumer product brands like Guinness. He learned how to design “the hard way” — in the time before desktop publishing — painstakingly pasting-up layouts and hand-illustrating concepts to present to clients. The skill, patience, and creativity that went into his work over his career has made him into the multi-faceted, multi-talented creative thinker he is today.

Marsha Montori (who retired in 2019), David, and I started Six-Point back in 2007, and while Marsha strongly influenced the brand and its personality, David was the one who was most emphatic about what we would be… and what we wouldn’t.

  • We would be irreverent. If there is one thing that David can’t stand, it’s people who take themselves too seriously. For David, the work was important. We weren’t. Any time any of us started getting heated, or cocky, or focused on peripheral issues, David is there with a quiet but pointed remark to bring things back into perspective. 

  • We would be communicators, not artists.. A lot of creative folks think of themselves as artists. The beauty of the work is paramount. For David, all writing and design for an agency should be in service to the message and the strategy. Is this element moving us forward toward our goal? Or is it making things less clear? Or worse, is it doing nothing at all? “Because it looks cool” is never a justification at Six-Point. 

  • We would make the work interesting. Never tell David that a client is boring, or that a project isn’t meaningful. As far as he is concerned, we are the only ones who can make something boring or exciting. Our passion, our curiosity, our creativity…That is what makes great work.

For all enduring brands, there comes a time when a founder needs to step back.

It’s always a precarious time in a brand’s lifecycle. Founders are the creators of the vision and the culture of their company. The brand is often very much in their image. The question of how to keep the success of a brand intact without this driving, central force is one that makes transition fraught with both opportunity and danger.

Six-Point Creative is no different. We have had to be intentional to build these founding principles into the daily rhythm of life at the agency. We infuse them in our onboarding. We tell stories to reinforce them. They also affect our selection of employees, partners, and clients. When you are clear on your values and your promises, you have the opportunity to attract like-minded people and create a virtuous cycle.

Preparing for this transition has allowed us to practice what we preach. Our work is all about making brands less dependent on individuals, clearer, more consistent, and more scalable. We are with companies during once-in-a-lifetime transition points when they need to orchestrate the careful balance between honoring the value of “what got us here” and also step bravely out into unchartered territory without dependence on any single person to bring about the future vision.

And now we are at a transition point ourselves. As we move into a new year, I am confident that David will still be with us in everything we do, just as I am confident that we will take that foundation to new heights.

I think David would agree that Mott the Hoople said it best:

Rejoyce for the king ain’t lost his throne, oh no
He’s still here, you’re not alone.

How I Learned to Let Go of Our Brand to See What it Was Really Made of

Going through a rebrand (or any major change to your company’s branding or positioning) while readying your company to scale and grow is an emotional process, akin to sending a child off to college.

Shortly after a meeting with a potential Solve for Y client the other day, he called me with a concern that had been on his mind.

“You talked in our meeting about your experience with your own rebrand at Six-Point. You said that you trusted your team and were willing to accept whatever creative they gave you. I thought that was great, but I am not sure we are ready to do that. We’ve always had a collaborative approach to our brand.” It was such a thoughtful and honest comment, it caught me off-guard.

It also made me reflect on the emotional ask that Six-Point makes of its clients. It is not a small one.

Sending your brand through Solve for Y, (our brand development program for growth-oriented “second stage” entrepreneurs) is somewhat akin to sending your child off to college. You know that they will potentially be very different when they come back to you. New clothes. New friends. Lots of new experiences. And all you can do is hope that you laid the right foundation and values in them, and that the professors and staff will be responsible for your child and cultivate what is best in them. And, although I am a long way from sending my toddler to college, I can already anticipate the pain and tears that day will hold. After all, who else would love him and care for him the way we do?

I certainly felt that way when the partners of Six-Point decided to “eat our own cooking” and ask our internal team to rebrand our company to test and hone our Solve for Y program — without our help. We would be interviewed, make our strategy and vision clear, but we wouldn’t do the work. Our team would wait and see what came back to us.

Now, just to be clear, there was no way I was going to just “take whatever was given to us.” I have a toddler now, but Six-Point is my first born. I am fiercely protective of the company and our brand, and if I didn’t like what was presented, we would be going back to the drawing board — or, like any good entrepreneur, I was prepared to roll up my sleeves and do it myself. Because, as a business owner, I can do anything; that’s my job, right?

That said, doing it myself would have been a horrible mistake. I never would have envisioned a brand like the one our creative director and the rest of the team put forward for us. Their creative talent simply dwarfs my own. Their ability to step back from my vision and show me what it would look and feel like if it came to life and stepped off the pages of my strategic plan moved me to tears.

I would never have been so bold or ambitious. I would have cut short the thinking or exploration.

“That’s good enough” is a phrase I would have said in order to have something in my hands, instead of the rounds and rounds of brainstorming they did to come up with most elegant — and effective — possible solutions to our brand challenges.

Did I love it all? Well, mostly… but I had some tough questions. It turns out they could answer them all with strong rationale. They had dwelled in the details of the brand for much longer than I had. While I might not have solved the problem the same way, their solutions were valid, thoughtful, and … if I am honest with myself, they were better than my first thoughts.

I also had some insights. But instead of saying “why didn’t you think of this,” I tried to remain in a yes, and mindset. Yes, you could do that and we could also add this feature. Yes, that language is fresh and it could also be more relevant to our target audience this way. Instead of being a downer, I was part of the new creative energy that was taking hold of our brand, a co-creator with something valuable to add.

So, bringing me back to my conversation with a prospect and the metaphor I started with… 

  • You don’t need to be ready to accept what is given to you. I would never let my son be mistreated at college and just accept it. If he was miserable, I would go and rescue him. If his friends were asking him to act outside of the values I instilled in him, we would be having some long serious talks about why that is not acceptable. That said, be prepared to let your own brand, your own people, your own company surprise you. New experiences and new perspectives are part of growing up. They make us richer, more resilient, and allow us to grow and flourish in new and exciting ways.
  • And most of all, be a proud parent. Take all the credit. Your company and your brand reflects your DNA. It wouldn’t be what it is without its roots, its values. At the end of Solve for Y, that is what should come through more than anything else. Underneath the new clothes, the new hair style, the fancy new vocabulary, you should still be able to clearly recognize the eyes and the smile of the brand you created and nurtured.

Letting go is tough. It is. But the rewards are real.

Running and Leadership Lessons

Six-Point Creative CEO Meghan Lynch is still applying leadership lessons she learned when she ran her first ultramarathon, years after the race was run. Meghan applies what she learned to her brand strategy work today, helping companies scale, grow, and sharpen their focus.

The first time I ever climbed up Mount Tom, I almost threw up. Overweight and out of shape but determined not to give up, I was climbing up a trail that was short, but ridiculously steep. I was gasping for air, trying not to embarrass myself any further in front of the friends I was with.

This person, kneeling on the rocks, would someday run a 50-mile “ultramarathon”? Impossible. Until it wasn’t.

I wrote an article about what I learned in the actual 50 mile event and how it applies to my work, but you don’t go from couch potato to running an ultramarathon without learning a few things along the way. I learned plenty about myself as a person, but I also still use that transformation as a touchstone professionally as well. Here are three nuggets I carry with me.

  • How you do it matters more than what you do. I never liked running. Until one day a hike turned into my first trail run. Instead of a suffer-fest on the road, I could bound down a hill like a child and get the lift of spirits that just comes with being in nature. I realized I didn’t hate running. I just hated road running. (I still do; it’s just not my thing.)

This is something I have applied to my professional mission as well. I know so many people who have been burned by marketing and branding agencies that now simply the word “rebrand” might as well come with a trigger warning. It made me determined to reclaim the value of branding by changing the delivery system. Could branding development be a fun experience instead of a frustrating one? Could we make clients feel part of our team instead of at odds with us? Our Solve for Y brand development program is built on the fundamental belief that yes, it is possible. Branding is not good or bad. There are just ways to make it feel better or worse for people engaged in it.

I think this applies to lots of things people will say that they “hate.” Sales. Negotiation. Networking. But what if you found a way to do these things in a way that aligns with your values and personal style? Would they really be so terrible? Or could you find some joy in them?

  • Others can see your potential more clearly than you can. I would have never dared to even attempt going the marathon distance if a friend and mentor didn’t invite me to a six-hour charity running event. “Just go as far as you can in that time. You never know!” During the last hour, when I realized I had passed the marathon point, I yelled to her triumphantly. She just grinned. She already knew.

I often get to reverse those roles when I work with our clients. I am the one saying, “Let’s just see where this takes us,” knowing that at the end of the discovery process, they will see potential in their own company and brand that they were once blind to. In fact, a big part of our Solve for Y program is centered on equipping our clients with creative ways to see new opportunity in their brands, to redefine failure, and to silence the “voice of unhelpful judgment” that keeps us from taking risks that can move us forward. We incorporate applied improv with a professional facilitator into our brand workshops as one way to help tap into this hidden potential.

The power of an outside perspective is also a reason why I am a big fan of peer learning. I have been and continue to be active in a number of CEO roundtables and formal and informal peer groups. And let me say, the outside perspective from people who really do “get” what you are struggling with is so valuable. If you are not a part of a peer group or have never experienced peer learning, find a group near you. (And feel free to reach out to me if you need ideas on where to start!)

  • Small changes will create bigger changes. I love Harvard Business School’s definition of entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. It clearly captures the trust that entrepreneurs must have in themselves and their company, as well as the huge risks they must take in order to make their vision a reality. And the higher the stakes gets, the scarier those trust leaps become. This is when focusing on small steps and wins becomes critical to getting you (and your team) to where you need to go.
Entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.

I see the effect of these ‘small steps’ with our clients. Once they have a phrase that peaks the interest of a prospective customer, they can’t ever go back to using the old language they used to love. Once they have creative that sets a new standard in quality and impact, everything else looks dingy and outdated. When they get overwhelmed with all of the changes they need to make, I will focus them on the next step, the next win. And this is because I know from experience that one will naturally lead to the next.

A client once compared our agency to a drug dealer, “Once I have had a taste, I’m not satisfied with the way things were!”

I don’t love the comparison, but I know what he meant. Endurance running became my drug, just as entrepreneurship is now. A little further. A little faster. To me, there is nothing better than the intrinsic reward of relentless forward progress.

Prevailing Through Improvisation and Collaboration

Prevailing Through Improvisation and Collaboration

One of the ways businesses can navigate change or overcome challenges in their market is exploring collaborations with like-minded brand partners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Six-Point Creative has challenged its own stance on collaborations with peers, and in some cases perceived competitors.

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” -Charles Darwin

I have always been a big believer in collaboration…in theory. After all, I started a marketing agency with two partners, right? But I was also the kid in school who hated group work. I would be the one doing all the work, not because the other kids couldn’t help, but because I was pretty sure that I could do it better on my own. I knew my own capabilities…I didn’t know theirs. Why take the risk?

I’m sure for some kids in my group that was totally fine, but if I got paired with another high achieving control freak, watch out… the battle of wills would begin, and I would usually be in tears by the end of the assignment.

But the last several years of my life have been learning to let go. To allow other people to “yes and” my vision for my company, to collaborate with me on strategy for a client, to use their strengths to balance my weaknesses.

Up until now, though, most of Six-Point’s collaboration has been internal or with trusted vendors. Yes, it was a respectful collaboration, but I was still the leader of the “group work.”

Worst case, I could pick up my poster board and glue sticks and walk home.

Lately, though, I have been kicking off truly exciting collaborations with other experts who also serve “second stage” businesses in different ways… Ruth Lund, a thinker about organizational culture whose scientific approach perfectly complements our approach to branding. Kirsten Modestow, an incredibly bright design thinker who takes my lofty theories and brings them to the minutiae of hyper consistent brand design. AJ VanWallendael and Tamala McBath, with whom I had the honor of presenting on a panel about the overlap of access to capital, talent optimization, and branding. And the list goes on…

And the best part? These are all the high achieving control freaks, but there is no battle of wills. Instead, we are drawing energy from each other in a stressful time. We are building on each other’s ideas, seeing connections and opportunity, and building out new content and programs that are far more rich than either of us could produce alone.

I would definitely encourage you to be thinking about this as a unique time when collaboration is not only more possible, it is an opportunity to prevail in an extremely challenging situation. Do you have “competitors” who are really just competing with you in name only? Or someone who offers a complementary product or service that would allow you to bring exponential value to your customers? Now is the time to go for it.

So this week I just nodded and smiled when my son confidently spouted out random addition equations. “1+1=11!” I know his preschool teacher might see it differently, but from my experience, he is absolutely correct.

Know Your Power: Reflection and Action Against Racial Injustice

Know Your Power: Reflection and Action Against Racial Injustice

How do your company’s brand values and taking action against racial injustice intersect? Following the death of George Floyd, Six-Point Creative CEO Meghan Lynch reflected on each of Six-Point’s brand values, and how they intersect with the need for racial justice. By taking this approach, the company was able to determine authentic actions it can take to influence positive change.

After the brutal death of George Floyd, I fell silent.

Even as business leaders and brands came forward, I still felt like I wasn’t ready to speak out.

I was ready to state unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. My biggest concern was how to move from total inaction and silence on this issue to add our voice and deeds in a way that was meaningful and sustainable.

In a recent article, Ijeoma Oluo, speaker and author of the book So You Want to Talk About Race, put it this way: “Be wary of anything that allows you to do something that isn’t actually felt by people of color,” Oluo said. “I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does this actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.”

It is incumbent on all of us to unite against racism and social injustice, and to make meaningful personal and systemic change. I am still wrestling with how to do something that is truly felt, but I am relying on our Six-Point values to guide this message as a starting point, and will be relying on them to guide where we go from here.

  • Value #1: Be passionately curious. I am a firm believer that an open mind, thoughtful questions, and deep listening can open you to radical change. If we can be curious about one another, curious about our own motivations and biases, and curious about what solutions might look like, we have what we need to change.

Six-Point will reimburse team members for reading materials and other media they purchase to educate themselves about racism and social justice. 

  • Value #2: Say what you are thinking, with kindness. We need to speak up. Silence is violence, and it is also privilege.

Six-Point will be participating in antiracism training, and open up space for a respectful dialogue at the company about racism.

  • Value #3: Smarter. Faster. Better. We cannot go backwards, or continue to make the mistakes of the past. Listening to Black voices will only help us better understand a way forward.

Six-Point is committed to sharing and amplifying the voices and content of Black strategists, creatives, artists, and marketing professionals, and we are committed to actively seeking to diversify our vendors, collaborators, and internal team, and to compensate them fairly for their work.

  • Value #4: Use what you have to help others. We have a vast network of business owners and business resources, and we also have financial resources.

Six-Point is committed to networking with Black business owners and freely sharing connections, resources, and expertise. The company has also made a financial contribution to Black Visions Collective, an organization committed to systemic change that will allow ALL Black lives not only to matter, but to thrive.

  • Value #5: Assume goodwill. We know that people are coming to terms with the reality of racism in our country at different paces and in different ways.

The Six-Point team welcomes dialogue and feedback. We know we will always fall short in our attempts to speak up and create meaningful change, but we will continue the work regardless.

As brands and business leaders of companies of all sizes grapple with what they can and should do in the face of complex, systemic issues, I would like to remind you as well that the work we do every day is complex and systemic.

Leadership of small business in inherently complex, difficult, and messy.

You work against and within complex government and legal structures. You do thankless work every day. You try your hardest, and you get criticized. You fail and fail again. You listen. You learn. You get better, and then you realize you still have further to go.

So let’s do what we do best, and get to work.

The Strength of Women-Led Business

In a leadership landscape still dominated by men, women-owned businesses and their CEOs commonly exhibit leadership lessons all companies can learn from. Joining the Women President’s Organization put this into full perspective for Six-Point Creative CEO Meghan Lynch.

“I’m not really a ‘women’s group’ type of person.” I remember saying that distinctly to Cathy Crosky, the regional chapter chair of the Women President’s Organization. Almost all of the CEOs I knew were men, and it felt like networking with the guys was the way I was going to get ahead. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Luckily, Cathy, like most business women I now know, was relentless, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I went to one meeting to show her that I wouldn’t fit in. I listened as everyone introduced themselves and talked about their businesses, and I was immediately humbled. The individual drive for success coupled with a true care for the others in the group, and an openness to learn from one another.

This was not a networking group. This was a growth group. And I had to eat my words.

More than five years later, the women in that room (and more who have joined our ranks in the meantime) are my board of directors, my mentors, and my true friends. We are very different personalities, and quite diverse in backgrounds, but there is something core to us that keeps us together. And as I have gotten exposed to the national network of WPO, I have found those same qualities repeated in every member I meet.

If you are a woman running a successful business, these things are most likely true about you:

  • Women business owners are more empathic to employees. When an employee has a personal issue that shows up at work, or has a behavior issue, or a performance issue, we are likely to give second and third chances, provide coaching and support, and take their “full lives” into account. Some people would say that we also let problem employees linger too long, and that is certainly true (I speak from my own experience), but we have also created some incredible opportunities for stories of turnaround and personal growth with our teams, which is incredibly rewarding.
  • Women business owners get shit done. We are used to juggling many roles and tasks, and carrying the weight of many people on our shoulders, and we don’t just survive those situations, we thrive in them. We are often the primary caretakers of someone else in addition to ourselves, whether it is children or parents, and function well as the practical “CEO” of those relationships as well. We make quick, gut-driven decisions, and carry a huge amount of information about others in our heads. If you have a question, just ask us. We have an answer.
  • Women business owners are resilient. I have never met a woman who runs a business and has not worked hard for what she has. Whether she started her company, inherited it, or purchased it, she has faced serious challenges and set backs, and has risen to those challenges. She has faced discrimination and harassment, and pushed her way through it. On the flip side, I have met some guys who seem to succeed despite themselves…who were given everything they have, who don’t work hard, who blow stuff up and never pick up the pieces. The thing about never being held accountable? You don’t learn; you don’t improve. The good thing about resilience? You are constantly improving. Successful, long-time women business owners are seriously great at their jobs.

I know, I know. It is really uncomfortable to generalize. And I know many thoughtful, intelligent, humble men who run businesses that are thriving, who are kind to their employees, and who are extremely resilient.

I know that I owe my success to a core group of women who have modeled how I can embrace my strengths and my weaknesses as part of my entrepreneurial journey. So, thank you. Let’s celebrate each other!