What I learned in 2015 – Mark Williams of Mortar

By Egotist / /

December marks my first six months as the majority owner of Mortar. So this question has a special poignancy this year.

You see I bought out my creative partner in the summer. The transfer of his ownership stake was much more than symbolic: it gave me the chance to fully shape the agency I have spent 12 years helping build.

Six months in, here are just three of the things the world has taught me as the new CEO of one of the few remaining independents on the West Coast.

1. An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all (Oscar Wilde). And the very best time to consider the merits of a crazy move is after a good nap and over a steaming cup of coffee. That’s also a good time to consider changes in staffing, how to negotiate a tricky project, break bad news, celebrate good news, and the sundry other bits and pieces of managing a shop like Mortar. Trust me, you don’t need to have spent 30 years in any business to agree that any major decision looks different in the light of a fresh morning. This single dose of wisdom has saved me from myself countless times this year.

2. Being Open is tough. It’s all the rage in the Valley, so it should be no surprise to read of a newfound passion for open management methods in a San Francisco blog. Spoiler alert: giving clients access to a Google Doc does not make you “Open.” Neither does saying you are open and then doing all you can to ignore client input—while pretending otherwise.

Encouraging a creative agency to conduct itself openly is relatively new and fairly untested. During our first agency summit, the Mortar management team swore allegiance to a shared belief in the importance of honesty and unfettered collaboration when attempting to exploit a big idea. Although we are not alone in insisting a brief should be condensed to one powerful and simple big idea, we did blaze a trail for those who believe that the right clients can contribute meaningfully to creative development. Great ideas can grow out of a rapid-fire sequence of sharing between agency and client. Failing fast can in fact lead to good and fast.

However, failing in any light sucks. And failing fast can suck even more. I imagine it sucks in tech. I know it sucks hard in creative work. So why do it? Failing fast helps maintain momentum and keeps frantic clients bought into the process. The key to success is gleefully positioning each fail as a necessary developmental step that is all the better because it is happening early in the process and in the open. Oh, BTW, clients love it. The more we failed this year, the more business we wrote with those same clients. Go figure.

3. The people you do it with matter. A ton. New ownership gave us the power to pivot. But my teammates made it possible. From reinvigorated creative leadership to innovations in operations, brainstorming, strategy, and business development, almost every part of the agency changed this year. It started with a fairly simple revision: adjusted seating arrangements. Like many shops– creative, strategy and account sat separately—only mingling in conference rooms and after work in the bar. Mixing up the floor plan sent a strong message of intent: and had the happy consequence of encouraging dialogue and empathy. Revised seating was followed by a new approach to recruiting. And with new people came fresh ways to make more room for client input (2015 saw us experiment with our own form of Creative Roulette). Turns out that you do reap what you sow. And clear commitment to collaboration proved to be very attractive to that small, sub-set of talented agency staff who have followed the light away from the Big Reveal and countless 3ams chasing guesses up trees at the whim of ego-driven CDs who should have more sense.

There. Those three things spoke volumes to me this year. There are a lot more. But I’ll leave it to 2016 to help me sort my list for next year.


Mark Williams is Mortar’s Managing Partner

  1. Steve January 8, 2016

    Mark is one of the good ones! Excited for Mortar.