Even if people are going to use your company as a stepping stone, build a place where people can spend their entire career if they choose. It took me way too long to learn that. Employee satisfaction didn’t get to where I’d like it to be until I made decisions that would provide a long term home for employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, but sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. However, some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Stoker.
Adam Stoker is CEO of Relic + EKR. He has been featured in the Utah Business and Utah Valley Business Magazines’ 40 under 40 issues. As an up-and-coming thought leader, Adam recently acquired EKR, a local agency in Provo, and his impact is just beginning.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Oklahoma. Four minutes later, my twin was born. During my childhood, my dad decided to go back and get his Ph.D. on his way to becoming a college professor. Because of that, I was forced to learn to make friends quickly. I also had to learn to be okay leaving them behind to move to a new place. I think that was made a little easier by having a built-in kid my age who always moved with me.
My parents did a great job raising us. I think one of the things that has benefited me most in my life is that my parents told me from a young age that if I wanted to buy things, I needed to get a job to pay for it. It took a long time for a college professor’s salary to make up for the expensive process of going to school for an extra five years while raising a family. However, the fact that we didn’t have a lot of money as a family helped me understand and learn the value of hard work and the payoff that can come along with it. I was able to work full-time and put myself through college.
Along the way, I played all kinds of sports. I went to a smaller version of the little league world series, placed in the state wrestling tournament, and have enjoyed being really bad at basketball and golf for the last 15 years.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life’s not fair.” It’s something my dad told me all through my childhood and it’s really helped me have perspective on the things that go wrong in life. Understanding that principle has really helped me judge life by my situations and accomplishments, rather than comparing it to others.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
This may be an unconventional answer, but the Tiger Woods biography by Jeff Benedict has taught me a lot about what it takes to be great at something. Tiger is arguably the greatest golfer to ever live, and his dad started him from the time he could stand up to play golf. Repetition and perseverance are critical to becoming successful. Most people give up during the hard part — the learning part — but when you put in the time, the payoff and fulfillment can be great.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
After excelling in BYU’s prestigious advertising program, I started my career at an advertising agency, quickly learning the ropes and working on large accounts including Ken Garff Automotive Group and Lagoon. I really tried to let my work speak for itself — first in the office and last to leave. I developed a real love for my work.
A year and a half into my career, I thought graduate school was the next step and I began applying, only to find a position in a small advertising agency based in St. George that would change my life forever.
I started at Sorenson Advertising, joining a team of four employees, and though I didn’t know it, I was shaping both mine and Relic’s future from the first day. I tried to change the culture of the organization and demonstrated how a small agency can be more successful than a large one. I personally brought in TDS, a Wisconsin-based telecom company that became Sorenson’s largest client.
Not too long after, I was looking for the next step in my career, thinking big as always. I partnered with close friends Jordan Barker, Colby Remund, and Nick Christensen to buy Sorenson Advertising. I became President/CEO, with Jordan as Chief Digital Officer and Colby as Chief Creative Officer. We rebranded the company to Relic, a representation of a time when advertising agencies were created for a specific purpose: to drive sales.
Since 2016, Relic has been taking steps to become a leading industry expert in tourism marketing. One example of this is the creation of the Destination Marketing Podcast, a highlight in my career. The podcast helps overworked and understaffed tourism marketers across the country prioritize activities proven to be most effective in marketing a destination and staying up-to-date on the latest technologies and trends in the industry. As of November 6, 2020, the podcast has over 27,000 listens with numbers on the rise.
Right before the pandemic, I also published my first book: “Touchpoints: A Destination Marketer’s Guide To Brand Evaluation And Enhancement” in March 2020 with plans to release additional marketing and sales-focused publications on the horizon.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the pandemic?
I love to see challenges as opportunities to thrive in situations that require change and adaptation.
After the pandemic struck, I immediately started creating podcast episodes and leading our company to create resources and products for our clientele that would help them through the devastation the tourism industry was experiencing. Resources included episodes on SBA loans, creative marketing tactics, and how to move marketing and tourism to a virtual experience in homes around the world.
Relic established pandemic-specific and then recovery campaigns for destinations in order to bring travel into the homes of visitors and minimize the negative impact on the company, its employees, and its clients. This led to destination-specific coloring packets, educational packets, and a campaign for Bryce Canyon Country called #HomemadeHoodoos.
Over the course of the next few months, Relic created new products ranging from apps and PPE kits to content recovery guides and launch trigger reports that help destinations know when target markets are safe and ripe for marketing efforts as well as products that would improve and grow their destinations beyond the pandemic.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
When the pandemic hit, I remember sitting down in my living room at home, preparing to watch the Utah Jazz play the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game was abruptly canceled, followed by President Trump’s address announcing the suspension of travel from China to the U.S. I thought, “I could lose my business.” I decided right there that I could let the pandemic happen to me or I could attack it head-on. I held a mandatory meeting the next day and pulled the team together as we discussed our options. Everyone felt like we needed to be proactive and be a valuable resource to help not only our clients but also the industry through this time.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Amidst the trying year of 2020 with COVID-19, my company was able to successfully make it through economic struggle, especially in the tourism industry, without having to lay off any employees. Each employee and client is important to me and we knew we had to do everything we could to make sure we took care of everyone.
With these efforts, Relic came through 2020 with additional growth and profitability, succeeding and doing the unimaginable during COVID-19 to not only maintain a strong agency with employees and clients but also grow the agency past the expectations of the industry. To top it off, Relic is on track in 2020 to have it’s most profitable year ever, in spite of the pandemic and the tourism focus of the agency.
To finish the year strong, my business partners and I acquired EKR, a Provo-based agency on November 1, 2020, increasing the team from 21 to 55 employees. This also increases Relic + EKR’s service offerings, clientele, and more.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m really grateful to lots of people for helping me get where I am today. Two of them stand out as I think about it. First of all, my wife knows I have a tendency to come up with ideas that might sound a little crazy to some people. Even when I decided I wanted to go out and get a loan to buy this company from the previous owner, I think it had to have been hard for her to think that was a good idea to take on that liability. However, as always, she supported my decision to pursue my dream and I couldn’t have done that without her blessing and support.
I think the other person would be my first boss out of college. His name was Micah Johnston and he really pushed me. I think I had a tendency to take the easy path or give up on something quickly. He taught me that mediocrity was unacceptable. I don’t even know if he realizes the impact he had on me. If he had gone easy on me, I think I would have gotten in the habit of coasting, which doesn’t even feel like an option now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I think the moment when I knew we were on the right track was when I got an email from a destination in Tennessee saying: “Hey, I’ve been listening to your podcast about how to handle the pandemic, and I feel like we need you to help us through it.”
They became a client shortly thereafter and I’m really proud of our work for them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Even if people are going to use your company as a stepping stone, build a place where people can spend their entire career if they choose. It took me way too long to learn that. Employee satisfaction didn’t get to where I’d like it to be until I made decisions that would provide a long term home for employees.
- Everyone should take an accounting class in college. That was the hardest part for me to learn when I went from employee to business owner
- Take the internship. If I hadn’t taken an internship for 10 dollars per hour in 2010, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I sacrificed money in the short term for foundational education I still benefit from today.
- Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and give them the tools they need to succeed. Leadership isn’t micromanaging. It’s breaking down barriers for the people you’ve hired to do an important job.
- Reward loyalty. Every employee at some point will go through a difficult time while working for you. Support in the good times is easy. When a loyal employee is struggling, the relationship becomes even stronger if you handle it correctly.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I think for me it’s been important to focus on what I can control. It’s another thing my dad taught me. The only thing I can control in this volatile political climate is to vote. The only thing I can do with the pandemic is take the measures I can control, including following the health and safety regulations in place as best I can. Outside of that, it’s a bunch of people arguing about something I don’t have any control over. I’ll put that time and effort into my business and family instead.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Man, this is a hard question to answer. I feel like one of the most valuable things my parents gave me was the lesson that if I wanted something I had to go out and work for it. I would love to create a movement around encouraging and helping teenage kids to get jobs and learn how to work. I think that lesson for me as a teen has made me a better worker, father, husband, leader, and more. I’d like to help as many people as possible graduate high school with that same lesson learned.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
If I could have lunch with anyone, I think it would be Dave Thomas. He’s had a pretty incredible career. He was also the CEO and founder of ThomasArts, the first agency I worked at after graduating from college. I think his career matches a lot of my goals, and I’d love to pick his brain about how he did what he did and maybe even learn from some of his mistakes so I don’t make the same ones as we grow our business. I really admire him.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!