I had the pleasure to interview Scott Allison. Scott is global chairman and CEO of one of the fastest-growing global communications firms in the industry. Known for its unique culture, Scott founded Allison+Partners with a vision to build a positive and entrepreneurial environment where talented people at all levels could do great work and thrive. Scott oversees the firm’s Global Board, while continuing to provide communications counsel to many high-profile executives and clients. He is an expert in issues management and crisis communications; presentation and media training; and is regularly called upon to speak about issues facing the public relations industry. Prior to founding Allison+Partners, Scott was the West Coast president of Connors Communications and a senior vice president and partner at The Gable Group. He is a member of the Arthur W. Page Society and serves on the advisory board for ISOThrive, The Fraternity and the Church of the Resurrection. He is a recipient of the Monty Award given to San Diego State University alumni and was a finalist for both the EY Entrepreneur of The Year® and the American Business Award’s Communications Executive of the Year. A patron of San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, Scott provided a founding gift to the Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations and funds a scholarship that supports internship opportunities for students.
Thank you so much for joining us Scott! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like most teenagers, I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to pursue when I was in high school. So, I read Richard Bolles’ “What Color is Your Parachute,” a well-known book that helps people decide about their careers. I took his survey, and it said I should go into PR. I was really interested in journalism and politics, though. When I headed to San Diego State University, I majored in journalism with an emphasis in PR to get a taste for both fields.
Exploring the real world in college through several internships opened my eyes. First, being in politics was an extremely difficult and low paying job — less than 1% actually made a good living at the time. Secondly, PR was the perfect combination of everything I liked — writing, working with people and raising awareness for important issues, so I decided to move more in the PR direction.
After a brief stint with a political consulting firm after college, I landed a job at a mid-sized public relations firm. It was thrilling to work in such a fast-paced environment that changed day by day, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a wide variety of clients from different industries. I knew I had found a career that was perfect for me, and I started my climb at other agencies.
Then I realized I wanted to start something of my own. Something better than larger, traditional agencies — an agency where talented people could do great work and thrive, free from politics and bureaucracy. I met my business partner Andy Hardie-Brown for drinks, and we sketched out our vision on a napkin. The rest is history.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When we first started Allison+Partners, we weren’t accustomed to working as such a small startup. We came from larger agency environments, and starting from the ground up with only 12 people was a shock to our systems. While starting our own agency felt exhilarating and empowering, it also felt like a step down from our previous positions, which took us by surprise. We were used to extended resources, which are non-existent when you first start a company on your own.
Cash flow was by far our greatest challenge. We were massively underfunded to start a business, with only $300,000 at the start. We needed double that to cover initial expenses. Then 9/11 hit, and the challenge became even more prevalent as the U.S. economy suffered amidst the tragedy.
The search for cash consumed our days. We’d run to the front desk every day to see what checks came. We scrambled to get clients to pay bills and had to tap into our personal savings to make ends meet. Andy and I went an entire year without a paycheck so we could pay our employees and bills.
Having to hustle every day to survive taught us how to be scrappy and resourceful, a mindset that still exists at the agency today. It also taught us the importance of building a strong financial foundation. Cash is king no matter what business you are in.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Having business partners that I could count on was, and still is, critical to our agency’s success. Not only did our co-founders have deep experience in PR, but everyone’s skills complemented each other. Andy was good at identifying talent and operations, while I was good at selling our capabilities and building the client side of the business. Scott Pansky had a knack for bringing in new business, and Jonathan Heit thrived at leading and growing our accounts. We also all shared an intense threshold for the pain and hunger to outlast the recession. The first 18 months of business were brutal, but we were all willing to make sacrifices to succeed.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- “Enough money” is never actually enough. When we started the agency, it was my first job as a CEO. All the training for that role was on-the-job training. There are certainly financial challenges, and you never have enough cash when you get started. Everything seems to cost more than you think, particularly when you operate in expensive cities like London, San Francisco and New York. I specifically remember nine months into starting our business we had $4,000 in our checking account with $40,000 of payroll due the next week. The weight of that pressure was overwhelming. We had to make personal investments to make ends meet, which paid off in the long run. But I wish I had a better understanding of the financial pressures and needs from the onset.
- People are your greatest asset. They are on the front line, serving your clients, growing your business and generating value for your shareholders. This is especially true in our line of work, as clients invest in our people’s thinking and service versus buying a widget.When I started as CEO, I wish I understoodthe challenges around keeping them happy more deeply. People can be incredibly demanding, and very few appreciate the hardships and challenges involved in building a business. At the beginning, I invested my life savings into the company and, if it failed, I would have lost everything I had. We even paid some employees more than ourselves to reinforce their value. They may not have fully understood that. However, this is critical to motivate your people to do the best work possible, which is the ultimate key to achieving success.
- CEO’s aren’t allowed to have bad days. When asked what it’s like being a CEO, I like to quote Tom Cruise from the movie Jerry Maguire: “It’s an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about.” Everyone else comes first. When things get tough, we aren’t allowed to show our fear or melt down. It’s exhausting, but you have to be your company’s biggest cheerleader and not let the pressures of running a business get the best of your emotions, especially in front of your employees. It’s a cliché, but it really is lonely at the top. And the earlier you accept that, the more successful you’ll be.
- Having thick skin is the only option. No matter how hard you try, how well you treat your people or how hard you work, there are going to be people who doubt and criticize you. I remember getting caught up on Glassdoor meticulously reading our reviews and analyzing our ratings. While we didn’t get a lot of it, I used to take negative reviews so personally. Eventually, I realized that to be successful you need to choose your battles, let go of negativity and just continue strive to be the best leader you can be without letting every single opinion affect you. The most important thing is to stick to your core values and have enough self-awareness to recognize the areas you can improve upon.
- Be ready for the unexpected. I thought starting my business was hard enough, but expanding across the country and then overseas exposed me to things I had to understand and respond to quickly. For example, we learned the health-care plan we offered in California was insufficient in New York and had to work quickly to find a better solution. When we opened our doors in London, we learned 401(k) programs in the UK are called “pension schemes,” come with an entirely different set of processes and procedures, and we had to work with outside consultants to address and resolve the issue.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Work-life balance is important. Before I became a CEO, I never really understood that. I commuted two hours a day, came home to two children and then continued working because I loved what I was doing. No one is ever going to care about your business as much as you do. However, you can’t do this at the expense of yourself. If you’re burnt out, you can’t operate with a clear head or come to work every day with the passion and enthusiasm needed to inspire others to contribute to success. Taking care of yourself can take many forms — keeping up with personal passions, spending quality with loved ones or giving back to your community can all recharge your batteries when they are depleted. It also sets the tone for your employees who, especially in today’s world, place work-life balance at the top of their lists when selecting a place to work.
It’s also critical to make time for yourself physically. Exercise is one of the best ways to unwind and reset. I enjoy swimming and running as the sun is coming up to clear my head and refocus on my priorities for the day. I’ve also learned the importance of sleep. Getting the hours you need is imperative to being productive. While staying up late to meet deadlines or connect with colleagues in different time zones is unavoidable at times, it’s important to get as much sleep as possible when you can.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m extremely grateful for my business partner Andy Hardie-Brown. We are not only business partners, but close friends, which has helped us immensely over the last 18 years. The whole concept for our agency started with Andy and I commiserating over drinks after the dotcom bubble burst in July 2001. The more we drank, the larger the ideas became. And Andy captured our lightly lucid thoughts on a cocktail napkin. While the notes weren’t necessarily coherent or legible, our intent was clear. Together, we’d build an amazing agency that achieved for clients what other agencies could not. Our core premise was to create a place with a positive and highly entrepreneurial culture where talented people could do great work and thrive, free of office politics.
Andy kept that napkin, framed it and gave it to me for my 40th birthday. It sits on my desk today and serves as a reminder of our roots, which keeps us grounded, grateful and elicits the same hunger we started with to make sure we are always striving to be the best we can be.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, our goal has always been the same: to create the world’s best marketing communications agency. We’re never going to surpass the largest PR agencies in terms of size, but we can certainly match them on the quality of our work and the caliber of brands that we represent. I think we’re already beating them when it comes to having a great workplace culture, which is why we earn the title of “best place to work” across all three regions we operate in year after year. I’m so proud we now have colleagues in EMEA and Asia-Pacific and that the culture we originally built has transcended geographical borders.
Personally, my goal is to keep raising my game by continuing to learn new things. Currently, I’m working on expanding our media training and presentation training and studying several public speaking books for the best approaches. I always try to apply what I learn to my business, but also seek out things that help me grow as a person as well.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I had a very good friend who passed away from cancer. Before he passed, he shared his perspective that there really is no “legacy.” All you can hope for is that you did the best you could. I carry his sentiment with me every day and remain focused on building a really strong company that treats people right and drives results for our clients. I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, creating more than 450 good jobs in three regions of the world at a place that is consistently recognized for its work and culture. If I died today and that’s what was left, I’d be a happy man.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
We advise many companies on issues tied to CEO/brand activism and social purpose and, especially in today’s climate, I believe business leaders can and should use their influence to create real change. Currently, I can’t think of any issue that is more important to do than voting. Everyone deserves the right to vote, but that still isn’t the case in some areas of the world. I am continuously impressed by the Time to Vote initiative organized by Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co., which enlists CEOs to inspire and empower a culture of voting by ensuring their employees have a work schedule that allows them to vote. I’m proud that our agency participates in this, offering our employees paid time off to vote. Everyone deserves to be heard, and it’s important their votes are counted without the stress of taking time off of work.
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