You must be resilient. All businesses encounter ups and downs. Effective leaders possess the ability to remain optimistic even in the most challenging times. While adjustments may need to be made when obstacles arise, those at the helm must be willing to forge ahead even when things look bleak, and they must be able to inspire their team to follow suit. I have endured times when we had to take out a line of credit just to pay the team’s salaries, but we did not let that break us. Instead, we worked smarter, harder, and more creatively to push past the difficult periods and come out stronger than before.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Gretsch.
As CEO and managing partner of MSS Media, Inc., an award-winning women-owned boutique marketing agency, Barbara has learned a lot about leading and inspiring her team, developing a thriving business, and big picture thinking. She loves the dynamic nature of her role and rising to meet each challenge she encounters. Her passion, tenacity, grit, and ability to comprehend business adversity on a deep level have given Barbara the strength to persevere — to stay the course, year after year, as new and extreme challenges to success continue to arise for small businesses. Barbara is proud to lead a company that has met every obstacle they’ve encountered with determination, a positive attitude, and a growth mindset.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up, I was surrounded by successful men. Although intelligent and educated, the women in my family were never part of that dinner time “business” conversation, and that mirrored what I saw in the world at large. Rather than accept those limitations, I’ve striven for success of my own. I’ve always embraced the challenge of what it means to be a woman and to be a woman in business in a man’s world.
As an adult, my lifelong fascination with the science of human behavior and social life led me to study sociology at DePaul University. After graduation, I made what felt like a natural transition to the salon and spa industry. In this environment, I was able to use my creativity daily while also getting to know all types of people, from all walks of life. Every new client was a fresh opportunity to learn.
After 10 years in that field, however, I grew antsy and began looking for my next challenge. As luck would have it, my neighbor’s good friend was just starting a media company. I was intrigued and decided to take the leap into a new endeavor. As the firm grew, taking on a leadership role seemed the perfect opportunity to excel, while remaining mindful that I don’t need to embody traditionally masculine characteristics to succeed.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I started out with MSS Media, Inc. by joining forces with the founder who had a vision for an “outdoor advertising company”, specifically growing a nationwide advertising network across college campuses. As time went on, the writing on the wall became clear — we could no longer be “just” a traditional media company. Rather we needed to become an integrated media company, incorporating digital advertising into our traditional advertising model. That realization led directly to the company we have become today, and I have since grown MSS Media, Inc. into a full-service media agency servicing all sectors of industry with holistic and results-driven marketing solutions.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I found the first stages of my journey into leadership to be incredibly difficult. I lost my cool many times, yelling at staff unnecessarily and shutting down under stress I wasn’t yet equipped to handle. That ability wasn’t innate. It was something I acquired with practice over time as I made mistakes, learned from them, and gradually developed the capability to handle stress effectively and guide my team with skill.
When I reached the realization that MSS Media, Inc. would need to adjust our focus to remain competitive, it was a scary time. Knowing that we needed to successfully innovate or go extinct, and being unsure if we would succeed, made for some difficult days. Small successes along the way helped get me through, but more importantly, the small failures we encountered along the way taught me much and helped me grow as a business owner.
While each minor achievement fueled my fire, I believe the drive to continue through hard times comes from within. It just isn’t in me to give up while I can see any path forward that has the potential to lead to victory.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Through hard work, determination, and a willingness to learn from both my successes and failures, I’ve kept MSS Media, Inc. in business for over 15 years no matter the challenges we’ve encountered. I’m proud to lead an experienced team of talented professionals known for creating winning brand strategies and building award-worthy campaigns that drive user engagement. Throughout the years we’ve served over a thousand satisfied clients, optimized thousands of campaigns, and been named one of the best places to work by PR Weekly.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Sincerity is what sets MSS Media, Inc. apart. Not only do we have a sincere desire to deliver meaningful results for our clients, we are committed to honesty and integrity no matter what we encounter in the course of our work. We start each project by developing a deep understanding of our clients’ goals, do whatever it takes to provide the desired outcomes, and track our progress using metrics that really matter. To that end, we educate our clients regarding what they should look for in a successful campaign (especially when it comes to new media), tirelessly analyze and optimize each marketing effort, and are forthright when we face bumps in the road or make mistakes along the way.
The fruit of our business practices is evident by the fact that although we are a small business, we have enduring partnerships with some of the most prestigious schools in the country. Our clients know that they can count on us to show up, be accountable, and give our all, whatever the tasks and challenges may be.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I was first starting out with MSS Media, Inc., we were attending an industry trade show and had signed up to exhibit. We flew in and, as it was a small regional conference, we took our time the day of the exhibit, assuming that we had plenty of time to set up, meet, greet, and mingle. Boy were we wrong! We strolled in an hour and a half after the show started, and half an hour later, the show was over. What a wasted trip! Never again would I travel for work without being fully prepared, from having a detailed itinerary to putting in place a Plan B for every conceivable contingency. A painful but very valuable lesson!
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When I was in my late twenties, I was living with my brother in San Francisco and working in the salon industry. I’d realized that the path I was on was not for me and planned to pursue an entry level job at Williams Sonoma corporate. However, my brother felt that I was too advanced in my career to take that step backwards, even though there was great potential in the long run. I allowed him to dissuade me, but I often wonder where I would have ended up had I gone the route I’d planned. Still, it was just a few years later that I segued into corporate life with MSS Media, Inc. Overall I view the experience as a worthwhile lesson in the importance of trusting myself and not being swayed by others’ doubts. And that wisdom has certainly served me well in my current role.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe emotional intelligence is one of the most important character traits that has helped me succeed in leadership. My ability to be perceptive and understanding of the industry environment and my clients’ needs has led to many fruitful business opportunities. For example, early recognition of the inexorable shift towards a more virtual world enabled me to grow a once traditional outdoor advertising company into a firm that now serves the full range of our clients’ digital and creative marketing needs.
Adaptability has been another key characteristic that enabled me to create a thriving business. Regardless of the circumstances, I’m able to pivot as necessary, pick myself up when I fail, learn from my mistakes, and come back to the table new and improved. For instance, we did encounter some challenges when making the leap into more of a full-service agency. When we stumbled, I realized that such a large shift in direction truly takes an army. I needed to pause and get my team on board and excited to embrace the necessary changes. That adaptation in my strategy allowed everyone to see the transition as a betterment to the company and the professional development of all involved.
Finally, I simply do not give up. Because I see all wins and losses as opportunities to improve my leadership abilities and to grow as a business, I don’t throw in the towel when the going gets tough and I never rest on my laurels. The way MSS Media, Inc. has responded to the abrupt changes in the business climate due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent illustration of this. As our increasingly digital world abruptly accelerated towards a predominantly virtual reality, we stepped up the quantity and quality of our SEO content, undertook full-funnel automated email marketing campaigns, increased our social media presence, and layered in digital media tactics where appropriate so that we could reach our clients where they are. We also expanded our capabilities and offerings in a way that enables our clients to fully leverage digital transformation for their own benefit.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I highly recommend that anyone in a position of business leadership learn to take regular breaks, leave work at work, and have a safe space where work stress is a no-go zone.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think making assumptions is one of the most common mistakes people make when starting a business. CEOs and founders tend to believe that their business offerings speak for themselves — an “if you build it, they will come” mindset, if you will. Rather, those in leadership need to realize that their company is almost certainly not the only one who can meet their client’s needs. Likely what they’re offering appears to be a dime a dozen. To succeed, business owners will need to continually demonstrate their true value in a way that genuinely differentiates themselves from the competition.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The difficulties of hiring the right people for the job (and conversely the difficulties of firing those who aren’t the right fit for the company) is one of the most underestimated challenges business leaders often experience. It can be difficult to judge from a resume and interview alone whether a potential employee possesses not only the training and experience to do the required tasks skillfully and efficiently but also whether or not they will fit well into your organization. If there are difficulties once an employee has completed orientation and settled into their role, it can be awkward to let them go if things aren’t working out and disruptive to spend the time and energy to find and train another promising candidate.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. You must be brave. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. You must be willing to try things that are not guaranteed to succeed, to step out on a ledge, to take risks. If you want to get ahead, you can’t follow the crowd. You will inevitably fail in some way, at some point, but you must be willing to accept defeat and learn from it to rise above mediocrity. You also need to be prepared for the fact that not everyone will want to do business with you, or even like you, for that matter. Try to understand why and then let it go and move on. As a woman in leadership, I would add that you must always be prepared to be judged, rightly or wrongly, and you must never allow the fear of judgment to deter you from your goals.
2. You must be driven to achieve. Running a successful company is incredibly hard work. To prosper, you must be willing to give it everything you’ve got, bring all your skills and resources to the table (and acquire more when necessary), and complete the tasks you undertake, no matter how difficult. Achieving great things requires big dreams, expertise, and tenacity. It also demands that your drive to succeed in business exceeds your personal sensitivity. People you encounter may misunderstand you, insult you, or try to derail you. When this happens, you need to let it roll off your back and continue on your chosen path or you will never reach your destination.
3. Planning and preparation are key to success. Yes, hard work is vital to excel in business leadership. However, you also need meaningful long-term goals. Creating objectives for yourself and your business allows you to focus your efforts in a constructive way. Not only will developing long-term goals help you work efficiently and effectively, they will also motivate you to stay the course when the going gets really tough. At MSS Media, Inc., we utilize systematic processes and procedures to outline our key objectives as a company each year. We also complete quarterly performance reviews to ensure that we are all on track and maintain a clear and unified vision of our goals.
4. You must be resilient. All businesses encounter ups and downs. Effective leaders possess the ability to remain optimistic even in the most challenging times. While adjustments may need to be made when obstacles arise, those at the helm must be willing to forge ahead even when things look bleak, and they must be able to inspire their team to follow suit. I have endured times when we had to take out a line of credit just to pay the team’s salaries, but we did not let that break us. Instead, we worked smarter, harder, and more creatively to push past the difficult periods and come out stronger than before.
5. Strive for excellence, not perfection. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that success is a journey, not a destination. This speaks to the mindset that leaders need to have in order to do their best for their business, their employees, and themselves. A focus on perfection can stop progress in its tracks or keep you going down a path that’s leading nowhere. Instead, look for improvement and progress. Seek out new ways to meet your goals and again, don’t be afraid of failure. One way this is reflected at MSS Media, Inc. is with something we call the Postmortem. Of course, we strive for excellence in everything we do, but we also understand that we will not always win or achieve the exact results we desire. For us, the Postmortem process is a time to reflect on the results of each endeavor and figure out how to surpass ourselves the next time around.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start a movement to utilize AI technology to flag and immediately delete fake news and false narratives that position themselves as truths. The amount of disinformation currently being shared throughout our nation is causing ever increasing hate, anger, and distrust among Americans and is creating irrevocable damage for modern society.
How can our readers further follow you online?
They can sign up to follow the MSS Media, Inc. news feed at https://www.mssmedia.com/ or follow @MSSmedia on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!