On 9/11, Chris and I were in a hotel room in Scotland. She was on the phone with our accountant in Chicago about the upcoming deal with the Whitehouse. Suddenly, he told her to turn on CNN. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
As soon as the picture resolved I knew it was terrorism. A clear blue sky. The tallest building within several thousand miles. And growing up in London in the Seventies where bombs were part of our daily life. I knew it was possible. It took four days to get back to the States. We were the first plane allowed in to US airspace from Europe. We landed to applause and sobbing. And a new way of life.
We focused on two things. Providing stability to our staff. And getting the Whitehouse deal finalized. We felt everyone needed to have hope in the future. We did too. And if travel was going to get harder, a company that was truly integrated across multiple offices and countries would have an even bigger advantage.
We signed the Agreements at our home in Chicago on October 1, 2001. Immediately we changed the name of the company in the L.A. and Chicago offices and waited for the phones to ring.
We soon came to realize that no one knows your story like you do. And if you don’t make it your business to explain it to your customers, your customers won’t make it their business to figure it out. We hadn’t and they didn’t. So we started going to door to door. It’s still the best way.
The next priority was adding a New York office. From Chicago and L.A. we’d learned the need to convince each local community you were serious about being there. You could bring fresh thinking and innovation, but only after you convinced people locally you were in it for the duration.
We hired Roe Bressan, who personified the post production industry in New York and set about translating our culture. Sometimes that meant adapting our way of thinking to her experience. Sometimes that meant challenging her view of the industry with ours. We tried hard to be principled and respectful. Roe was up for the challenge and we grew together.
The dot com bust gave us access to built-out office space. By early April 2002 we had four offices. We came to learn that we now had to think in a whole new way.
Linking offices into a real network is about so many things. Philosophy, technology, methodology to name but a few. And a lot of getting on planes to break down local barriers. Humans are parochial by nature. We can’t help it. So if you want to make a company virtual, you have to commit to that outcome relentlessly. It takes a long time for those roots to take hold. But once they do, they feed themselves.
Managing the company became three-dimensional chess. Every possibility had a cascading effect. In all we were merging six different professional cultures and seventy different personalities. We tried to be transparent and consistent. We knew that if the vision became reality, everyone would benefit.
Rick moved to LA and immediately represented proof of concept for US clients, and we heavily promoted the fluidity of our model. We absorbed travel costs in order to demonstrate the unique way we worked - there’s no benefit to having an advantage if your customers never experience it - and we started to develop technology to provide practical, real-time support of our philosophical approach.
At one point, after about six months, I was inundated by complaints from the managers of each of the offices about how much more demanding their clients were than anyone else’s. Actions speak louder than words. I asked each of them to job swap for two weeks. They came back with empathy and understanding. And supported each other to the hilt.
That became true of employees in every office at every level. Whenever we could remotely justify the expense we paid for people to travel to other offices. This created two things. Practical experience of different situations, which sped their professional (and sometimes personal) development. And incredible fabric throughout the company. Fabric was important to us, as was the growth of individuals. Building a company capable of creating long-term value for yourself means making yourself increasingly less important, not more.
We were transparent about the fact that there were different salary ranges for each city. That a producer in LA made more than a producer in London. You can’t run a business subsidizing local economics. We offered the chance to move through the company to everyone except receptionists. And when the receptionists got promoted, we offered it to them too.
We learned a lot about the difference between business in the US and business in the UK. Differences that I thought I already translated as an Englishman living in America. I didn’t. One of Rick’s favorite sayings was, “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” You have to manage that way as well. Your past doesn’t count. It’s how your staff sees you now that matters.
It took two years for the company to establish a rhythm. There’s a reason 80% of mergers fail. It’s unbelievably personal. And along the way you have to give up part of who you were in order to become what you want to be.
By the end of 2003, we had begun to reap the benefits of being talent rich and geographically agnostic. We were doing better and better work and a lot of it. The company had grown to over a hundred people, most of whom had worked in multiple offices, and the next generation of talent was beginning to come through.
Everywhere we looked we were becoming the company we had envisioned nine years earlier.
Our dreams were coming true.
And that would change everything.