2-6: "The Difference Seeker" - Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner.png

"The Difference Seeker"

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Dan Gardner is the co-founder of Code and Theory - a creatively-led company that creates products, content and campaigns across physical and digital worlds.

They have five offices across three continents and a statement on the website that says, “We are always looking for motivated, multi-talented, and organized people to join our diverse team.”

Dan has an open-heart, an open-mind and a conscience. He wants to make a difference, and wants to build a company that lets other people contribute.

This week’s theme on Fearless is Diversity.

And this week’s episode is called “The Difference Seeker”.


Three Takeaways

  • Balance risk-taking with remembering the consequences

  • Empathy towards others

  • Relish the journey


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-6: "The Difference Seeker" - Dan Gardner

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

This week’s episode is called “The Difference Seeker”.“

And that's not to say everybody should be the same. I actually think we look for people that are intentionally different, but I like to be around people that are different, because it challenges me.”


Creativity is at its heart about differences. 

Different ways to look at the world. Different ways to think about possibilities. Different ways to solve problems.

Some of this difference we can bring ourselves, the ability to think laterally is part of who we are as human beings.

But the power of creativity is fulfilled and unlocked only when we fully open ourselves up to the thinking, experiences and ideas of others. When we take away the brakes and boundaries that human beings all naturally develop over time.

When we are able and willing to do that, to submit to the potential of chaos and randomness that different kinds of people and thinking bring, then extraordinary outcomes start to be possible.

This at its heart is the power of Chaos Theory, which Sam Seaborn described this way in Season 4,  Episode 3 of The West Wing.

“Do you know anything about Chaos Theory.  It has to do with there being order and even great beauty in what looks like total chaos. And if we look closely enough at the randomness around us, patterns will start to emerge.”  


Here’s Dan Gardner.

You’ll find more about this weeks theme and the transcript for every episode at FCL.com.

If you’d like to know more about what we do go to TLC.com.

And thanks for listening.



Charles:

Dan, welcome to Fearless, thank you for being here.

Dan Gardner:

Thank you for having me.

Charles:

I have a couple of questions I'd like to start with, and let me start with this one; what's your first memory of something being creative in your life?

Dan Gardner:

It's a very difficult question, because I think creativity has always been part of my life from the moment I can really remember. So the way I look at it is two ways; one, it's in everything that I was breathing, the way I was reacting,  and creativity is one of that, and input, and one is an output. So from the earliest memory I remember taking an input of being curious about things around me, why does it look like this, why does it function like this, questioning everything. And then there is the output of I always had the pencil in my hand, and I always was creating a creative output, whether it be drawing something, painting something, or even verbally, the output of I grew up as a middle child with two brothers around me, and the articulation creativity around that to improve the circumstances around you has always been there.

So I've always saw a tying between sort of what's coming in, what's going out, how it can solve problems, how it can better things for me, or better things around me. And then as I got older, I started to actually realize this is creativity, and it's something that could be even more tangible, and have different types of impacts, whether it be through my early education, and go, "Oh, I can." I was never the best student,  so I had to be creative in the ways to get through school. And as I went through college, that sort of amplified and things I learned when I went to school and studied art, that taught, "Okay, creativity is even more powerful and starting a business and seeing the impact on that, not just the creative output of what we do as a business, but using creativity to run a business."

So it's really kind of been a thread-

Charles:

It's part of you.

Dan Gardner:

... that just seemed has always been natural, and something that have been coming in and coming out.

Charles:

Were you one of those kids who took things apart to figure out how they worked?

Dan Gardner:

I didn't necessarily did that. I was a kid that ... I was never as much physical in that way, but I was a kid that was annoyingly questioning everything, and curious about everything. So from that, it was more of like a visual perspective, more than like a physical, let me kind of unbox this and  take apart my Apple IIc and see what's inside it. I was curious about the screen and how things were happening on the screen, but it was never the inside, the machine as much. And also maybe years later when I realized engineering and math has that side of creativity too as well.

Charles:

Right, were you a risk taker as a kid?

Dan Gardner:

You know, it's weird, I think in my life everything becomes a dichotomy where I think I'm one thing and it's also the other things. I was always sort of labeled in one context the good kid, but in another context  I was always the one sort of pushing things, and sort of seeing how far I can push the limits while at least giving the illusion of being the good kid. So I was in some level for example a class clown, in that I knew how using the creativity to get through my day at school, I knew less about the sort of run into a wall class clown, but more of like the creative manipulation of it.

And I think in turn that made me risky, because I pushed the limits to where I thought was a suitable limit  where it wouldn't sort of get me that ... I wouldn't get kicked out of school, but I would definitely take it as far as you can, and I always felt comfortable to sort of not be restrained by the boundary around me. It was always sort of like how far I can push it without hurting myself, or putting something in danger.

Charles:

How did the good kid show up?

Dan Gardner:

How did ... Sorry?

Charles:

How did the good kid show up?

Dan Gardner:

The good kid showed up... I think because maybe there is ... It's a good question. I think I always had a natural empathy to care about the people in surroundings around me, so I think even through risk I would take, however that would manifest itself, would be curtailed by if it's going to impact someone other than me, I definitely would not go that far. Even if it went to a disappointment from like a parent perspective or expectations around me. If I knew it would have an impact on someone else, that's where I probably wouldn't. But if it was only myself, I can go, kind of do whatever I need to do.

So I think that's where the good kid played with the hey, I want to push this, but I don't want to hurt someone. Hurting myself was okay.

Charles:

That's an interesting balance to be battling with all the time, I would imagine.

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, it's something-

Charles:

Do you live with that today?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, definitely today, I mean especially in all areas. Definitely in my life, but certainly in business I think, especially as Code and Theory, the business has grown, you feel a heavy responsibility to decisions we make as myself and other managers in the business, so the impact of the livelihood that people depend on us on those decisions.

So there's the natural empathy to say, "Hey, we can't be irresponsible with the keys of managing this place, but also we're a creative company that believes in change, and we naturally within us and the culture and myself, we want to push things. So we still have to balance, are we taking it too  far that it's actually being irresponsible to the organization that we're running. And I think that still plays a part. In every interaction, it's always nice to kind of push the boundaries of where dialogue, or where whatever you're doing can happen.

Charles:

Yeah, it's the essence of managing a creative business, right? Which is this constant debate between as you said, I want to change this because I need to, and I've got to protect the thing that's here because a lot of people are now depending on it. What's your relationship with fear?

Dan Gardner:

I think I search for it, I like it, I like the feeling of it. I think whenever I get too comfortable and I'm not scared about an endeavor or a meeting or however that shows up, number one I get bored and I start mentally checking out, and number two I feel like it's not pushing to a place where something  new can happen. So I think fear is something in some way I look for. I like to be nervous, I like to be in a place of a little unknown. And if it's not, then it doesn't really drive me in any way.

Charles:

So is it a drug from that standpoint?

Dan Gardner:

I guess so. Funny enough, I've never taken drugs, so I actually can't compare it to the feeling of drugs or why people take drugs. This maybe goes to the good side of me versus the risk taker. I've never taken drugs, but maybe I look for those sort of endorphins or how people feel through that. And this other way that maybe it is a drug. I feel empowered to make change, and if you're not comfortable in sort of ... If you're too comfortable in situations, it's really hard to make change, there's nothing that drives you to make that change when you're too comfortable.

Charles:

What made you decide you wanted to start your own business, speaking of drugs?

Dan Gardner:

Yes, so if I'm going to be truly honest ... Well, let me back up a step. I worked at a very traditional ad agency before starting Code and Theory, Draft, it was pre-FC Beat. And it was one of my first bigger serious jobs out of school. And when I was in that environment in ... I'm sure Draft has changed a lot since when I started the company. So this is just about back then in my experience being young, I realized I have ideas, I think there's ways to do some things. This doesn't feel like this should be my life, being inside this organization. Like if this is what I just went through school, and now I'm ready to go into the workforce, and this is going to be my life. This just doesn't feel right for me.

And it was also we started in the early 2000s, it's a critical point for where digital was very immature and there was a lot of different ways it can go. And I had ideas that I felt were restricted within the organization. It could've been a little because it was immature in the agency. That agency at that time wasn't ready to do something. And mix of I was probably a little too junior for it to have the impact  of my ideas to happen.

And I think naively I thought, "You know what? I could be ... Why can't I start a company?" And this goes to sort of that risk and the pushing. And I actually had a job that was paying me more money than I've ever seen at the time coming out of school, to hey, I'm going to go have nothing again. But that's cool 'cause it's just me, I didn't have a family at the time, and I think that's really what drove it. I don't think there was a master vision to say, "Let me start a company, let's start adding more employees, and let's scale it, and create an office."

It was never that. It was just like, "This can't be my life, but I still enjoy what I'm doing, so maybe if I do it myself, I could enjoy it in a different way, and I can create an environment, and I don't have to look at the person next to me and go, what does that person do? Is that really value? And I'm here because I like doing what I'm doing, is that person here because they like what they're doing, or they're just here because they have a job?"

And it was thoughts that were going through my mind like that, that I think was the precipitous to sort of going, "I could do this."

Charles:

But do you think you would've started the company if you'd had a family?

Dan Gardner:

It's very hard to ... I don't know. I really don't know. I mean now it goes to the good person in me and say those early years, it wasn't rosy.

Charles:

Well, I mean you started in 2000, you said-

Dan Gardner:

2001. Yeah.

Charles:

So right as 9/11, and all of that.

Dan Gardner:

Early September of 2001, so it was literally I gave my two-weeks notice right before  9/11, so as I was working out my two-weeks notice, this happening, and it was like, "Wow, this is ... "

I mean, again, I was young, so I'm not sure I really even understood at that point the totality of what it means to be starting a business. So I don't know-

Charles:

It probably helped, right? [crosstalk] The naivety probably helped?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, without obviously abstracting out the family from it, that was incredible. I mean I didn't go to school for business, I didn't understand anything about business. I had ideas about creativity, but  it wasn't the business side of creativity yet that formulated over years of struggle in a good way, that actually gave a good grounding to as the company started to become a bit more successful or when it became a company. I always like wonder when did it officially become a company.

Yeah, I think those early years actually was a blessing in the skies that the ... at least from an economic standpoint, it wasn't the best time to start a company.

Charles:

But you had to get really focused, right?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah.

Charles:

I mean you were forced. I think I talked to Paul Venables about this, and he and I also went through transformative business growing moments in the aftermath of 9/11 and we both said, "There were actually things that came out of that, that were of enormous lasting value in fact, because we had to get really focused and really clear about what the value proposition was."

Dan Gardner:

I totally agree. I mean again for me it was just I consider it almost like business school. Maybe that first half a decade. I mean we did cool stuff, we start to grow, but it was really all just business school. We didn't know what we were doing. It allowed a time of focus. There wasn't really any expectation, 'cause it was ... we were a small, small business. And yeah, I think the circumstances of even meeting people in other business perspectives as you do from a client business, it gave a lot of different learnings that I think we've been able to take along with our journey.

Charles:

So you got into business with how many other people?

Dan Gardner:

One other person.

Charles:

Did they bring business expertise or are they creative as well?

Dan Gardner:

It was same as me, longtime childhood friend, both no business,  no nothing, we were both at Draft, we were both left. We both thought, "Hey, let's do this." So we were at ... You know we brought some different skills to the table, but we were basically pretty equals at what we knew and what we didn't know.

But the one good thing for us is we knew we didn't know a lot. So I think that was our little secret advantage in the beginning of we knew that. We knew we had some ideas, but we knew we also didn't know what the hell we were doing, and we knew sometimes we were faking it before we made it.

Charles:

How did you start to acquire the practical business knowledge that you needed to actually put a business together?

Dan Gardner:

I think because it's been in some way a long journey, there were lots of slow moments along the way to make a small or big learnings in small ways. And I think it's just was the natural incremental learning that happens from you hire ... I'll give a story.

One of our first serious clients when we first started was really like, photographer here, this band here, anything we can get we'd pick up. We had this opportunity to work with Sony Music. It was like our first real corporate client.

And we go into the meeting, it goes well, afterwards there's a follow-up and goes, "Okay, we need your tax ID number." I mean this was really early, like literally in the first six to nine months. And we were like, "Yep, cool." And we walk out and we're like, "What's a tax ID number."

And then obviously it was time to get your first employee. Well, what do you need to do to get your first employee? And then obviously accounting starts building up and then there's a point as you start to scale, and you're like a dozen people or two dozen people, you're like, "What is this HR thing?"

Charles:

Health insurance.

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, yeah, this health insurance, oh people want, like 401(k) [crosstalk] Yeah. All these things that at some level in the early day if I'm going to be honest we were a bit more reactive to than proactive. Obviously there was a point where the company hit a certain threshold where I would say I've graduated from business school, where we learned a lot of these things we need to be proactive and that's going to help fuel what we're trying to do here.

But honestly it was so slow that it was ... And one important thing was although we were a creative company and creative people and we really started to do great work.

I mean I talk about the naïve and not caring about the business environment. It was really like we wanted to do cool work. That's why we got into this business because it was just about being smart in business, we probably wouldn't have been able to finance. I always think, "Why would anybody go into the agency stuff unless you really loved it." Because if you're really smart and really capable, just go into finance and make  a lot of money if that's what it is. So at the end of the day, it was all about the work. That's where all the focus was on the early days - like creative output.

But we happened to realize that being creative is more about ... And when you're running a business or starting a business, it isn't just the output, even if you are a creative business. You could turn that inside, and use creativity to actually make your business better.

And I think sometimes it was a massive disadvantage having no business knowledge. Like we just didn't know, do this and you'd get a letter from an employment officer saying, "All these people can't be freelancers if they're coming to your office at the same timeframe every day." Those aren't good things about not having any business background. But then there are the ... another side where because we were so naïve in certain ways, we just tackled the problem completely different. Because we just didn't know, and we didn't have the baggage and occasionally we'd hire someone new, and that was like let's suck in what was their experience at this agency, how did they do it at this company, and we would like suck it in. But also we were just making decisions because sometimes it would just feel common sense. Oh, we should do it this way.

And that actually turned out to be advantage way, because we did it a little different. So it was like the good bad of it all.

Charles:

Common sense I found takes a very long way, and it's also not very common, right?

Dan Gardner:

Yes.

Charles:

It's remarkably powerful actually. Just what would the obvious thing to do here? Why don't we do that? Okay, that's a good idea.

Dan Gardner:

Well, what's interesting about that is I think about common sense a lot. As we now we scale and I think about what is a creative business as it scales?

I often say we're in the business of scaling creativity, which is like an odd concept. Common sense as you scale any business, I think you start to lose, because as scale happens, you put more guidelines in. And the more guidelines you give to people, the less flexible they need to make a decision, which sometimes restricts common sense.

So sometimes I think about that often and it's like, "Wait, shouldn't we take a more common sense approach to this?" But the guideline almost prevents that. It's like why you never like school. It was all about putting boundaries around how you think, and how you approach, and how you get tested, and whatever you do within there. It's interest, because education, creativity ... Education is at odds of common sense. And scale and process is at odds sometimes with common sense, because it's meant to not make you make a decision.

Charles:

Yeah, that's well put. Did you establish values early on, I mean you talked about wanting to do great work, and clearly there was a value proposition, or there are values I should say built into that, but did you establish values in terms of how you wanted the company to show up and behave?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, I mean early on, we instinctively did it. Me and the business partner I started the company with, it was us. So when you have a small company, you're so intimate with every hire and almost every decision that you don't have to define it or even really think about it, because you're just doing it that way. You're involved in a lot of the actual tactical work. And you're basically doing everything, even when you're a dozen or two dozen people.

As we scaled and got to understand business more, we realized that when people hire other people, they may not naturally have the same instinctual way to hire and make business decisions from within the business that actually defining values are actually important. That said, we also struggle with where we've done exercises defining values and try to make it very formal. It's very hard to dictate it through words. And I've noticed that a lot of people's values when they put it down on paper start to look all the same, and then it becomes meaningless. So when I think of values, to me is really, the end goal of that, is culture. Like how do you define a culture and what is important.

And I think over time and over the years, we've done everything from define them, to sort of break them down, to redefine them, to simplify them, but really it's about how we make our decisions to create a culture where people can thrive at the output and being challenged and challenge other people and challenge our clients and create great work in a way that really creates an environment that people want to be at. That's it. So we've broken it down really back into that instead of like, hey, we are all passionate people and we ... it's like, is there a creative agency that doesn't have passionate people? I don't know if there is.

Charles:

[crosstalk] for this world.

Dan Gardner:

Yeah. I'd almost be curious about that interview if someone says we don't have passion in our creative  company.

Charles:

Right. So we're all about forensic analysis.

Dan Gardner:

Exactly.

Charles:

So given that your focus on the appreciation that we have to build a culture that unlocks these people, what have you learned that is fundamental to doing that? What has to be in place?

Dan Gardner:

What has to be in place? That's a good question. It's a pendulum in our company of, we think about process and systems and culture value words and all these things and we start to layer them on, layer them on, you hire more people, you hire different levels within a hierarchical structure, you add to that, you add to that. And then you realize so much is in place that actually you have to tear it down and move the pendulum back to an anarchy situation where it almost doesn't exist. And then at a point, you're like this whole thing is crumbling, this can't be. So I'm not sure if I could really specifically define what  needs to be in place.

The only thing that I've realized through the trials and tribulation of scaling and growing the company is, the people around you are so important. And I don't mean just important that they're capable people, but like people you want to be around. And maybe that ties to when I was back at a former agency where I'm like, I don't want to be around these people. If you don't want to be around the people that are making key decisions, let alone just the tactical  skills and values and are they good manager and all these other things. You have to want to engage with them because you're spending a lot of time with them. And then ideally when they're hiring people that are reporting to them, they're making similar decisions that they want because then you naturally communicate.

And that's not to say everybody should be the same. I actually think we look for people that are intentionally different, but I like to be around people that are different, because it challenges me. And I think that to me, if I was to boil it down to one thing that is really important, I want to be around people I want to be. I want to work with people that inspire me in a way and drive me, make me a better person. And usually, you don't find that people you don't want to be around. I'm not saying hang out on the weekends, but be around at least at the very least, and maybe goes to weekends, but at the very least within the day you spend most of your time in.

Charles:

So how do you hire for that? How do you hire for people that are different than you are, that bring those kinds of characteristics?

Dan Gardner:

It's hard, and I think to the dichotomy of everything, that's a risk taking thing. I think there's a lot obviously when you meet someone and you interview someone, you get a lot from that, not through the tactical questions, but the soft questions. I think this is a very hard thing when you run a service business, but you really at best want to look for the right person, not fill the role. That's something that we try very hard to do. That's very hard when you have specific roles that need to be filled out.

But certainly as you get higher up from a management perspective and you have more interaction and different types of ways, certainly we find sometimes we meet people and we're like, we don't have a role for them, but this person is so right for us. We just feel it in many different ... they're all the things that we assess and we want to work with them. And then typically those people have massive improvement of our business. And we don't sell like cogs, when there's no product, there's no ...  we are who our people are. And as a growing business and a creative company, especially a digital first creative company, we are always evolving. So we look to where we can hire people that will evolve us so that you have to find those opportunities to abstract out the role from the person. And I think we try hard to do that.

Charles:

So I'm fascinated by that because Amazon announced a couple of months ago that they are hiring, maybe they got the idea from you, but they're hiring in the same way. That they’re hiring for attributes as opposed to fill FTEs or job descriptions  or whatever. So against that, which I think is an extraordinary evolution and I think necessary, against that, do you have an org chart?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, we have an org chart that shows hierarchy within the organization. Yes we do. Earlier on, I wanted to not have titles at all and I thought, this goes to the anarchist way, can we manage it? Titles felt like was restrictive and it put people in boxes and people are typically not one type of person, even though they may have a passion or skill-set for one thing, they certainly can think more than that one thing, but that just didn't work. I lost that battle years ago. And I think org charts are the same thing. I don't believe in just designed by committee for example, and I think org charts at least give a clarification of how decisions need to be made. And especially as it goes down it gets more junior and bringing ... there's a comfort at least initially until they understand that at least in our company they can have a voice that is very important more than the org chart title or whatever it is.

But it still needs ... That's one of those in the pendulum swinging, we haven't been able to completely break that down and maybe there's a way to do it, but I haven't. In our light experimentation through the years, it just hasn't worked. People still need some sort of structure in place.

Charles:

Why do you think people need titles?

Dan Gardner:

I think  some of it is bad reasons. Like it empowers them to have authority or power, which I think is a bad reason. You should be able to have that through your natural inclination to have a vision and have that vision be intent, be correct.

Charles:

Influence.

Dan Gardner:

Exactly. But some people need it for that, and some people are introverts and need it because it gives them that extrovert way even if they have that right intent and that ability. In one, that influence it just gives them that confidence in different way. I think unfortunately in a client service model, externally people like to feel important, again. A lot of this is the bad stuff is around like power stuff and they like to see who they're mapped to and it just makes people comfortable in how they talk. There are some good important stuff is, it helps define some skill-sets stuff. Maybe not the hierarchy part of it, but it's like, okay, here's the specialty.

Dan Gardner:

The negative side is that it could restrict them  and as you scale and people get siloed into boxes, it creates that silo. But it does help get an understanding when you have an organization that's larger and everybody just doesn't know who everybody is and what their strength is. It helps speed up that process and I think people like the feeling that they're progressing in their career, I think that's a rewarding. And I don't necessarily think bad thing. It's a rewarding thing to say, “Hi, I'm improving. I'm improving myself and improving my impact.” And I think it's  a critical thing to at some level give some reward into the progression of one's career.

Charles:

How big is the company now? How many people?

Dan Gardner:

We're about 400 people.

Charles:

How many offices?

Dan Gardner:

Five offices.

Charles:

So how do you keep all of that connected? How do you maintain the quality and the consistency and the rigor around the level of creative thinking that you want to bring to the table and clearly do bring to the table?

Dan Gardner:

We try. I've realized that a creative business that's scaling with multiple offices, consistency and scale. If you can get those things right, you have a successful creative company.

Charles:

And that's incredibly hard to do.

Dan Gardner:

Unbelievably hard. I'd like to think that everything's perfectly consistent across every single area of the company, but clearly or obviously that's probably not the case. So it's not easy. I think at least speaking from a different office perspective, one thing we learned  pretty earlier on is you want to drive consistency and especially from a value proposition to say this is what Code and Theory offers and this is our unique perspective. But you don't want it to be to a point where it's restrictive to the culture of where the office location is. That plays a very valuable piece to its contribution to not only its area that it's servicing, but also back into the company. That's part of the reason we like having multiple offices. It gives it a different perspective. So I think we recognize that.

I think  the other thing we do, which kind of ties to that is, in general not just from offices but even managers, not everybody is the same. You can't expect everybody to be exactly the same.

Charles:

And don't want them to be.

Dan Gardner:

Definitely don't want them to be. [crosstalk] The consistency would be a super negative and that's not the type of consistency we want. We still want original thoughts coming from other places and we put heavy emphasis even on our creative people to be managers  of the business because that's how we are. When we started the business, we were creative people that respected business, which is a huge lift or expectation on people, especially in the creative world.

I have a lot of friends with companies and they have different structures where it's like, “No, don't put the creative people with the business people. They're different. We don't do that." We're like, “No, it's one and the same.” But doing that, we have to recognize strengths and weaknesses. Some people are a little more detailed oriented. Some people like to communicate this way and  I think just knowing that people are going to be different you have to approach them, whether it be what kind of dialogue you have to solve problems, how you communicate that. It's not stuck. If you treat it like stuck and you think you're going to drive consistency because you're going to put a million processes in place and treat everybody the same and everything's going to be exactly equal in every interaction, I don't see how, at least for us, I don't see how that could work.

Again, maybe there's a business that that works really well for, I can't  see. It hasn't happened when we've tried to do that at Code and Theory. It's been better when we're just like, let's treat offices differently, their cultures are different, their leaders are different, the people in the office is different. Let's recognize that within the the offices that have reached more scale with is lots of different ... Let's also do the same, let's recognize that some people grow and prosper but they aren't a manager. They're not good at directing people, but they are so valuable and they are great at their craft and let's recognize that and find a path for them. Not just expect them to ... If you don't go to the management side of things, then you have no growth opportunities here. Finding different ways to reward and extract and really get the value from people to make our company as best as it could be.

Charles:

It's a really fascinating challenge I think running a credit business, isn’t it? Because, for all the reasons you've described how marginalization is death but lack of guardrails is death. And so you have to find the place in between those two. How do you  make sure that the guardrail ... So you have multiple offices that are allowed to be different, which I totally agree with. It was how we built the Whitehouse and you allow the local culture to inform it, you allow local people to inform it, but they also have to be part of, in our case, the Whitehouse. In your case Code and Theory, how do you make sure that Code and Theory is embedded in each of those different entities?

Dan Gardner:

I think there are some baseline expectations that I think even with the ability to be flexible, there's  some baseline things we expect across offices, managers depending on different skill-sets. It's a challenge. I don't have an easy answer and I'm struggling to answer that specifically because if I'm going to be honest, it's a challenge. We try to do company meetings and have as much verbal communication, we try different ways to share work that's happening or new thoughts that are happening in a way that other people  can value. We try desperately hard to think about even though we have individual offices that have responsibilities to manage their day to day in the offices, we also intentionally try to find ways where we can cross resource teams across different offices or different types of team.

I found that the best way to get people aligned in that vision is have them ... It comes down to the work. All of this at the end of the day is like, are we delivering good work and with resourcing, we try to make it so we can have teams that can collaborate across offices. And sometimes people resist because it's a little more difficult to have that phone call or time difference or not be face to face and obviously we try to do exchange programs where people fly and live in different cities for a period of time. We try to do all those things, but at the end of the day if we can find opportunities within the work to make people work together or have people enjoy to work together, I think  that has the best result out of any back office HR initiative that we also do, but usually not as effective.

Charles:

So to your point, remote working, whether you're working remotely through different offices or even just remotely outside of office, do you have people who work outside of the physical structure of Code and Theory?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah. Actually, our Atlanta office is a subsidiary called Media Current, and they are Drupal experts, the one leading Drupal companies  and actually their whole model is engineers that are distributed across the country. So although Atlanta is their home base, we have a process where we can engage with engineers in Nebraska or Florida. And through unbelievable communication, we're able to really pull it together and Paul and Dave who run Media Current do an unbelievable job, able to do that. Even with the New York, we start to experiment that more. We find the engineering side of things, it's far more easier to do that. I think when you do that, you still need to find elements of culture to bring people together so it feels like a community. And again, Media Current does this really well where it feels like a community no matter how distributed they are, it's really unbelievable.

On the creative side, it's really challenging. We have it, because there's certain talent that has worked. It's typically come from people that has worked within the walls and for whatever life reason beyond Code and Theory, they feel like they need to move and they're just so unbelievable that we want to be accommodating. But that said, we're also thinking about how we evolve our HR policies, modernizing around a work from home, flexible PTO and all these different things that I think will only push us harder to figure out how we can do that because I think the expectation from work life balance, whether you want to live in Arkansas and work for Code and Theory even though we don't have an Arkansas office or whether you just want to work within the walls, but there's times where you just can't be within the walls. We need to get better at doing that. And we're working really hard internally to think about ways we can do that and be more [crosstalk].

Charles:

I think company that crack that code. Sorry. Pardon the pun. They’ve got to be successful. I think it's fundamental to the way the workforce is changing over the next two, five, 10 years.

Dan Gardner:

I totally agree. At least, well, I say this, but maybe not. I think there is an element of face to face that is still going to be very important, but I think to say all of it needs to be face to face in the same conference room in the same building I think is a bit antiquated.

Charles:

Do you think technology can continue to help that? I agree with you, there's nothing like sitting here across the table. When I record podcast remotely, it has a different experience. But you also see the improvement in technology and the ability to actually start to create a sense that you're in the same space. Do you think that plays a role going forward?

Dan Gardner:

I think it has to. Look, if we were just on rotary phones trying to do work together with no visual stimuli, especially when a lot of our output is visual - I think definitely it would be a challenge. So we see that it's already helped us clearly, and it seems like the last couple of years it's ... although it hasn't radically changed, were still just doing video calls and maybe we were able to do some screen shares. We've been doing that for years, but it's definitely been getting easier to do that, which makes you do it more. I think the

... idea should be, and I think it's moving in this direction is to simulate what it's like. If you could get to that intimacy ...

Charles:

Like holographically, almost.

Dan Gardner:

Yeah. The more you can get there, and the more you make it easy ... so if it's like just walking into a conference room, at least virtually, I'm hitting a button and it's just happening, anything at our disposal, because it's not quite there yet, but it's getting closer, I think it ... that could obviously play a role. Because if it feels like it could be in ... it's all about intimacy I think ... the physical space. If you get to that intimacy, I think you've cracked the code, as you said,  no pun intended, to being successful, on being able to be more flexible, and have more remote. And I mean if you really crack the remote, your talent pool is just unbelievable.

Charles:

Incredible.

Dan Gardner:

It's just ... a lot of our offices are restricted by the market of what they bear, and how we get the best of the best there. But imagine we can go anywhere? That would be ... who wouldn't want that?

Charles:

Well, no. I think it's such a valid point because the value of a brand like yours is that you can get clients from anywhere, right? But in fact, the talent part of it becomes ... is difficult because ... for all the reasons we've just talked about. And I think that if we can unlock the "how do we actually access and provide really extraordinary experiences for people who don't want to come in, or can't come in day in, day out" we can crack the talent part of the equation. Then the brand value that you're building is exponentially more valuable.

Dan Gardner:

Exactly. I think the late ... the added layer of complexity is also because clients ...  the client service model is changing where their expectation is actually to be in our physical space more, us be in their physical space more. But now you have to even marry that. It's like, "Okay. Well great, we found this opportunity. How are we going to communicate in a much more effective way with this person in Arkansas?" I don't know why I keep saying Arkansas, but it keeps popping in my head.

But now the client wants to be part of the process, and be in it, and is this their expectation that someone's in Arkansas, even though they're coming to our nice office in New York?

Charles:

Yep.

Dan Gardner:

It just ... it makes it that much more challenging.

Charles:

You talked earlier about how some companies separate the "creatives" from the "business people", and you talked about the fact that you don't do that. To what extent do you see everybody as creative? Are you a company that has that perspective? Do you think there are still differences in terms of how people's roles define where they ... the value they provide, or the role they play?

Dan Gardner:

We've always liked to say that everybody's creative.  We have the joke "except for accounting".

Charles:

Which is like "please God don't be creative"?

Dan Gardner:

Exactly. It's actually when we talk about defining culture, you know [inaudible] ... it's always something we send from the beginning. It's like, "Everybody's creative." "Let's not be that agency where here's the creative department," and, "Sorry, you're not the creative, so you ... sorry, you can't have a creative idea." That just sounds absurd when you talk about ...

Back to common sense: That just doesn't sound like common sense to me. Everybody is creative.  Maybe people know how to unlock it a little more, but everybody may have an idea that pops in their head that can contribute in a creative way to solving a problem, whatever that problem is.

Because I've always viewed business, the internal side of things, not like the sexy output, "we're the creative company", but the internal side, the way to be successful, especially in a world where disruption happens everywhere and things have to change. You have to be creative. So I hope that whether someone's client facing, internal, back office HR, wherever it is that we are looking to be creative and solve problems in new ways.

That doesn't mean reinvent everything, but that's take approach that asks the question: Is this the best way? Is it the best way? I don't know. But people should be empowered, and they shouldn't think “I'm not,” "Oh, because I'm not HR recruiter, or Coordinator you can't be creative." That just sounds absurd to me.

Charles:

Well and I think it's an expectation that talent has these days, right? I came up with this saying a couple years ago, which is that creative people want to make one thing more than anything else. They want to make a difference. And I think they're drawn to companies  where they feel like, "No matter what role I play, I have a voice. I can contribute." And I think that, to me, is table stakes these days for creative businesses.

And I'm always interested when I hear leaders of companies talking about "the creatives" and the "non-creatives". I'd start to worry about how fast the clock is running on that business.

Dan Gardner:

Right, yeah. That actually sends me shivers.

Charles:

Yeah, it ... yes.

Dan Gardner:

I cringe thinking about it, to be honest.

Charles:

I feel bad for them, actually. This is not sustainable.

Dan Gardner:

Both for the creative person and the non creative person. It's like both. It's like ... yeah, it just doesn't make sense.

Charles:

No, it doesn't make sense anymore.  We live clearly in a very, very fast moving society. You are involved in a ... in part of the world that is very much at the cutting edge of that. In fact, in as many cases as you are accelerating the speed of the ... which culture and society is moving, just by the nature of the work you do and the people you do it with.

I know that speed is an important part of how you guys work. Talk to me a little bit about how you have injected speed as a fundamental, driving component of how the company works.

Dan Gardner:

I think it starts at the roots of  when we started. We're starting a digital, creative agency. Naturally your advantage when you're small is, "We're going to be faster than everybody," you know? It's like ...

Charles:

Or you better be, right?

Dan Gardner:

Yeah, exactly. And I think as we grew, and we started slowing down because sometimes you naturally slow down when you add layers in, it's always felt like a cancer to us of like, "Whoa, we can't do that faster? Why not? We used to be able to do it faster." And it seems like a bad excuse, "Well we're bigger now, so we can't do it faster," because more people need to be involved. That just, again, doesn't sound right. The common sense of it is like, "So take less people off. It'd be faster," you know?

Charles:

Yeah.

Dan Gardner:

Find a way to do that. I think we're in the business where just such high expectations on the output. And clearly speed is important, and obviously there's new methods, and expectations have changed how you bring speed. Because sometimes our stuff is really, really large. These aren't like throwaway micro sites, like we were doing in like 2003. They're really large technology ...

Charles:

They're enterprise level, right?

Dan Gardner:

... technology and creative ... yeah, enterprise platforms have huge impact that ... some things you can't rush because it actually needs ... but the industry has I think evolved to understanding how to release things into the market that allow you to have speed, even at enterprise levels, where it's like ... the word MVP, that's not most valuable player anymore. People understand that doesn't mean you're getting a subpar product into the market. That just means this is ready for the market, and we're going to build off of it, and let's not wait for everything. And that allows speed, and it actually cuts down on types of decision making that may have created paralysis ten, fifteen years ago.

I think luckily the market's maturing to allow for these big scale type of assignments to still have speed, because speed is always going to be critical. If you do some ... these are big investments for companies. If you do it slow, who knows? Consumers and expectations change so much that you got to get things out, and get things going, and I think to the point of creative people want to drive value.

I think if ... creative people in places that can't move fast lose their inspiration. They want to have impact that is out there, so it's critical even for retention of talent to say people want to have impact, people want to have things in the market, people want to feel like they do something, and then it's actually acted upon, and things can happen from it.

Charles:

And part of this, I'm sure, is training your clients in ... from that standpoint, right?  I think I read somewhere that "get shit done" is a big part of your mantra, and helping clients to understand why progress, just getting stuff to your point out there is important.

Dan Gardner:

Exactly. I think the sophistication ... we still butt up against on sophisticated clients. That still happens, but I think in the last couple years, especially, that's been evolving, and the sophistication, I've noticed has gotten a lot better. We always want to knock the clients, and  that old saying like, "Our business would be great without the clients," but the clients are actually getting better, and they're getting smarter, and they're getting more experience. Because it's digital, only so many people have so much of experience because it's new.

But people actually are starting to have legitimate experience in positions from a client side. This is actually making us spend less time on education, more side just doing things, which I think is liberating because we can get the ideas faster, versus maybe five, ten years ago, we had to educate ... there was a ... before you even got going, there was an education process and you'd run hiccups around decision making, and it would be a huge barrier to progress that would just stifle everything, and then everybody would lose focus, and who knows where the project would go.

Charles:

One of the things that's obviously an impediment to speed is the fact that in a company like yours, you're integrating multiple disciplines. How do you balance those two?

Dan Gardner:

Again, it's another thing that at scale, creates challenges with that. I think when you're smaller, again because you all just naturally know each other and work well together, and chemistry is the easiest thing that removes those boundaries around silos, around different types of discipline. As you scale, you lose just the natural day to day chemistry. You try to keep certain teams intact.

But we think a lot around organization changes to help facilitate that. I'll give you a good example that is very relevant, and it's something we've ... recently did. UX, obviously for a company like us, is critical. And there was a time, even when we started, I don't even think we understood what the word "UX" meant, if I'm going to be honest. We were sort of doing it. We understand it, and we're like, "Oh, we're doing this," and actually we're experts at it. At one point we ... we still think we are experts.

And recently we realized it's weird that we have a UX group. It's funny because some agencies don't have even UX, but a company like ours, there's an expectation you have a UX group, you have certain types of UX designers. But we realized it's actually become a barrier because by putting in a group, you're limiting the idea that UX is only responsible from within this one group.

The quick analogy is when I hear some ... a company has "the innovation group", it's like, "Shouldn't everybody be innovative? That's weird." And we realize UX actually has matured to a point where UX really, if you're going to boil it down, you are advocating for the user. And everybody ... all tend to close around the ... our organization need to advocate for the user, and UX needs to be something that is infiltrated, everything from strategy, to more the UI part, or aesthetic part of the design, to even within engineering, to everything else from data science, things we do. So we've literally blew apart and reordered the company to make sure that the different tentacles of where UX gets specialized can find homes in ways that can influence in different ways.

So that's a good examples where structurally we saw this silo was actually having a negative impact on different areas of the business, and really the client output again, where we said, "Why don't we just blow this whole thing up? It feels weird that we specialize in UX and we don't have a UX department," but it seems to make sense. And since we've done that, it's been remarkable on the impact, so that's one example. But there's always little, tactical problems that form a day to day, you just always have to be on top of where we have process that's creating that structural boundary that prevents some weird politics by silos happening.

Charles:

How do you lead?

Dan Gardner:

How do I lead? The dichotomy again is I am very opinionated at times, but I also ... not prescriptive. So we have ... back to the culture, that I think I have to assume comes from some of my leadership style, is it's a lot of constructive disagreements and not antagonistic in he negative, kind of aggressive form of ...  be antagonistic, but sort of like "let's push ideas forward in different ways", so I think my style is more to challenge, and I lead through challenging to get people to come to the best decision based on looking at all viewpoints.

So oftentimes there's a lot of devil's advocate being played, and I think that's my style. I think running the company of our size now, I always say I'm accountable for everything, and responsible for nothing. Because technically there's not one specific thing that I'm responsible for, but it's like if anything goes wrong, I'm accountable for that, so it's sort of that balancing act of making sure and pushing people to ... all over the place, making sure or facilitating.

I always like to think, "I work for the people that work for me." It's that, "They don't work for me. I work for them. How do I make them better," because then they're going to make the company better. And hopefully they are working for the people that are working for them, to make them better, and works down the chain.

So I think that's ...  how you lead is such a broad question that I'm sure intentionally you did to see how I answer it, but I guess that's how I answered it.

Charles:

And what are you afraid of?

Dan Gardner:

What am I afraid of? Well back to the point that I thrive off fear, I'm afraid of a lot of things in my life. I'm afraid of making sure I'm raising my children properly, and decisions I make around that. I'm afraid of day to day business  decisions, small and big, to whether it's the right decision for the business. I'm afraid of ... when working with specific clients that are trusting us with a lot, jobs are on the line on both sides, that we are making the best decisions for them.

I am afraid often at a high level when running a service company, a creative service company, are we giving value? Are we giving the right value? I'm always afraid, and I'm always concerned, are we delivering the right ...  hopefully more than commensurate value to people that are trusting us. And I'm afraid as a ... in an industry that is changing, that is ... change is usually good for us, "Are we changing fast enough? Are we pushing things forward far enough? Are we evolving? Are we making the right investments?" Basically I'm afraid of everything. Everything in my life, I'm afraid of, so everything.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three takeaways that I've heard, that I think contribute to your success, so let me throw these at you. One is: It strikes me that you're guided I think, still by the devil on both shoulders that you described earlier on, this notion of "I want to push the boundary. I don't want to hurt anybody in that process". And it feels to me like those are in fact personal values that guide you, I suspect in every moment.

Second is: I think there is a real sense of generosity, and humanity, empathy towards the  journey that other people are on, and making sure that this is working for them, whether they are clients, or employees, or partners. And I think that that makes you considerate, and I think open-minded.

And the third thing that strikes me, that ... actually there's two more. The third thing is that: You seem to relish the journey, itself, of what's next. And I'm not sure I can predict it, but let's just go and see what comes out of that. I think it's how you started the business and how you've evolved it consistently.

And I think related to that is that you're conscious of making sure that the thing you're doing is having an impact, both personally and I think as a company, and that everything is geared towards "are we maximizing our ability to make a difference". Do those resonate?

Dan Gardner:

They sound very good, so if ... I hope they resonate, but I don't know. You've articulated quite so ... it's so quitely nice that I'm not sure what to add to that. But yeah, I could definitely say at least from a journey perspective, let me touch on that. Because the other parts are compliments that make me feel a little uncomfortable, as you say.

I definitely relish in the journey. I think that that's what we're here for, the journey, you know? Yeah, I look back and things are rewarding in my past, but it's like we're living in the present, and the journey, and where things can go.

From a future perspective, I definitely don't know where the future could go. I always think the only constant I know, it will be different than today. So as long as I embrace, and understand that change is necessity, and will happen, I have ... it gives me the inner confidence to make  decisions around that.

Charles:

Well I wish you well in wherever the journey takes you. Thank you for being here today.

Dan Gardner:

Thank you for having me.