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Ali Mahaffy: “What you choose to focus on gets bigger.”

What you choose to focus on gets bigger. So focus on the good. Always focusing on what is wrong is draining. Conversely, focusing on what’s going right is energizing. It’s not that you ignore problems. It’s that you don’t let them rule your energy. We have been fortunate to have life coaches at Signal Theory, […]

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What you choose to focus on gets bigger. So focus on the good. Always focusing on what is wrong is draining. Conversely, focusing on what’s going right is energizing. It’s not that you ignore problems. It’s that you don’t let them rule your energy. We have been fortunate to have life coaches at Signal Theory, including Jay Pryor and Jenne Fromm. Jenne has helped us create an environment of positivity. My goal is to be eternally optimistic, but at the same time, be realistic.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Mahaffy, Co-CEO, Signal Theory, a brand development, marketing and design firm. I learned about how this advertising exec leads with a positive outlook as a daily intention and how constant visioning leads to motivated mentees, a connected workplace and a human-centered business.

In her company anniversary portrait, Ali is pictured with a glass half full, quickly signaling she’s an optimist at heart. It’s not an accident that a staple of Signal Theory’s culture is to have a healthy dose of optimism. After recently experiencing her sabbatical (newly instituted under her leadership), she challenged herself by having to see a new way of achieving by … letting go. Contrary to her nature of go, go, go. That doesn’t mean let up on setting goals and articulating a vision. In fact, she learned it’s about being present, in the moment, savoring every bit. That’s how you get to the next best step for yourself, she says.

For background, let’s start with the company’s namesake for how it’s possible to challenge what has been successful to be even more successful. Core to Ali’s story is how she and Co-CEO John January led the disruption of a nearly 50-year-old company to help it grow and thrive. They purposefully took a well-established company, Sullivan Higdon & Sink, and brought about a name change rooted in a strategic process committed to bringing different to its clients.

What’s the meaning behind their name change? In nature, the peacock displays its impressively sized plumage to attract and court a mate. The gazelle pronks to show the cheetah it has too much energy to be chased. Ali spoke to me about how she, John and their team are using signaling theory in business. And how she as a leader intentionally signals those around her to challenge and rechallenge their current views (on any topic) to get better and better. All while being concerned about the person at the center of everything.

To grow the company, Ali and John set out to narrow the firm’s focus, sending a signal to CMOs that Signal Theory touts a unique food marketing perspective because it maintains clients across the food value chain — from the farm to processing to the grocery store, restaurant and family table. Closely connected to the firm’s food specialty, Signal Theory services several global animal health and wellness clients.

This perspective allows the firm to advise its clients through a very distinct lens.

“With clients on the front lines who have been hit hard by the cattle industry crisis, we’re seeing the stress it has put on producers, the meat shortage issues in grocery stores, the impact on food service offerings and down the line to how consumers are responding,” Ali says. She also notes how the firm’s thought leaders are staying on top of how COVID-19 affects health and safety on the farm. “We are also showing CMOs that we too are entrepreneurial and are adjusting and growing as they are.”

Those who get mentored by Ali know that she’s a believer. A believer in them and their potential. Sometimes it’s about what she sees for them in their next career step or how they’re setting a vision and sharing it with their counterparts. Her mentees say: “She’ll make a small suggestion. Nudge us to think about what’s next. And that is how she encourages us to make a bigger impact.”

Ali’s client-side experience gives her a great perspective on the pressures and challenges our clients face and how the firm should be positioned to help. Ali plays a key role in forging our unique professional and personal client relationships. She ensures that the firm has the resources it needs to be a lean, mean and highly effective machine.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think my driving force comes from a competitive upbringing. As the second youngest of a blended family of nine kids, I was always set on proving that I could do whatever anyone else could and asking what gender had to do with anything. From a very young age, I was taught by (all four of) my parents that I could do anything. To dream big, and then go do the work. I want to make sure that everyone at Signal Theory, man or woman, has amazing opportunities — and knows that doing the work can bring great rewards.

I fell in love with advertising the moment I stepped into my first elements of advertising class. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I started my career at an agency with three part-time jobs. One in sales promotion from 8 a.m. to noon. One in media from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and then one in marketing research from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. From the beginning, I had a broad sense of how an agency worked and I was excited about every piece of it. Ultimately, the agency/client relationships piece of it was where I was finding the most success and reward, and this is where I focused my career.

When I set my sights on becoming a leader, I didn’t want the position so I would be the first woman in the CEO role. I just wanted to help lead and with that I have learned that being Co-CEO comes with tons of responsibilities. Still, because I am a woman, it comes with unspoken responsibilities, which include the pressure I put on myself to be an example to other women. I often ask those I work with to think about the vision they have for what they are in charge of. I truly believe that if we challenge ourselves to think about what’s next for those leaders coming up in the firm, that’s how we’ll leave a legacy.

I’m so fortunate to have the Co-CEO that I do. John January is just as much of an equal rights supporter as I am, so to be able to ensure that women are given the same opportunities or treated with equality is not something I have to fight for internally. It’s something that we both have at the top of our lists. I count my blessings here.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

There is so much disruption in marketing right now, and with the current health concerns, it has again multiplied exponentially. At Signal Theory, we are seeing success in disrupting different parts of our business — from our strategic process to how we view the consumer to using behavioral and social science to incorporating new channel planning and implementation.

We have also disrupted our process and approach. We are competing for business in ways we were not able to before and we too are adjusting and growing from those signals. On top of all of that, we are disrupting our relationships with our employees.

Our goal is for Signal Theory to attract and retain amazingly talented people. We must do great work, and we must treat people exceptionally well. The disruption with people management is likely the most impact a company can make. If we can retain our talent by creating an environment they love, we help them achieve their goals and then we have a better chance of delivering great work for our clients. It’s a win-win.

Even while working from home, we are maintaining the culture we worked so hard to build. And, we’re learning even more about how change affects human behavior. As we continue to grow and pitch new business, we are speaking with brands that are looking at themselves differently and how they must adapt their message — or even practices. We have a brand new office space waiting for us when we return. While it is designed to maximize all of our new processes and we’re excited to get back, we aren’t going to rush until our staff feels safe and comfortable.

Understanding the importance of having a bold vision, what works and why something doesn’t is very important to me and how I lead. And when I talk about vision with those I mentor, it’s not about a big unwieldy vision, it’s more about how you can inspire others to learn, to be curious, to test and fail, to keep trying and learn through trial and ideas that are unexpected and meaningful.

Signal Theory’s sabbatical benefit is a bold and outside-the-box program I have been talking about implementing for about 10 years. When Jim Vranicar, our COO, figured out how the program would work for all Signal Theory team members, I couldn’t wait to embark on my adventure. I’ve worked almost every day since I was a 21-year-old college graduate, so there was so much I wanted to do. Oddly, I wanted to see what it was like to run errands during the weekday. I wanted to sit at the pool; I wanted to golf (I’m not sure why); I wanted to really BE with my kids; I wanted to take the time to get our son ready to leave for school and be there, REALLY BE THERE, at drop-off. So I did what all organized people do, I made a list. And then I started checking things off.

One day I realized that to really be present, I just needed to be. I woke up and was there for the day. Whatever happened that day, I was ready. I let go of the list and was present. It was unlike any vacation I had taken in the past. But it won’t be the last time I go into a break with this mentality. It was truly freeing. Who knew that letting go would enable me to grow both personally and professionally? It is hard to give up what one thinks is valuable. But when you do, you are able to see more clearly.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity and so thankful for our management group who really let me take this time and let go. When I returned from my time away, I spoke to my team about my time away, the importance of “letting go” and REALLY BEING THERE to grow and lead. It’s important to me that my team can see this opportunity for themselves and I am excited to learn from their own adventures.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

About 10 years ago, the previous leadership of Signal Theory brought in a life coach for the next level of leadership. It was through coaching conversations that led me down a different, more productive path. I put more faith in myself and I confronted fears head-on. I became more aware of obstacles (some of which I created) and I did the work to overcome some fear and frustrations from the past.

I always knew what kind of leader I wanted to be, and during this time, I learned I could do it. From there, I knew it would take discipline and hard work to maintain the focus. But it also takes a great team.

It’s also very important to me that I am always available for my team.

I am incredibly lucky to have a team of people around me that I do. We are hardworking, we challenge each other and we care about each other. So it’s not one mentor in particular, but more a team of support that has really helped get me and keep me where I am today. Without this group and a co-CEO like John January, I would not have the opportunities that I do now. Finding a great group of people to surround myself with has been instrumental in my growth and fulfillment.

Can you share 4 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

What you choose to focus on gets bigger. So focus on the good. Always focusing on what is wrong is draining. Conversely, focusing on what’s going right is energizing. It’s not that you ignore problems. It’s that you don’t let them rule your energy. We have been fortunate to have life coaches at Signal Theory, including Jay Pryor and Jenne Fromm. Jenne has helped us create an environment of positivity. My goal is to be eternally optimistic, but at the same time, be realistic.

What is your legacy? What will people say about you when you’ve wrapped up your career?

When I began my sabbatical, my list included important life cycle events such as spending the day with my daughter for her birthday and sending my son off to college. It also included going to Target at 11 a.m. on a weekday. While these are important events in my life and those I care about, being present has helped me be a better leader and better female who leads. Women often put themselves last and I feel that seeing firsthand the importance of being present at that moment helped me really focus on me as an individual, and myself as a leader and one part of Signal Theory. When I have wrapped up my career and people speak of legacy, I hope they touch upon me as “me” — a person, a leader, a friend, wife, mother, etc., and I guess that while shaking things up, I always saw an opportunity and way to be kind.

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right. Again, thinking positively can help create more opportunity. And, it’s a lot more fun to go through life with a positive outlook.

At Signal Theory, we focus on building brands. We look at consumer behaviors to guide our clients’ businesses. Many years ago, we made the decision to focus on entities and businesses geared toward food and animals. While these two sectors seem niche, they are quite vast. From individual campaigns to FoodThink, our longitudinal-behavioral study on food, to creating campaigns to giving our employees the ability to create and use new technologies, we are able to create new opportunities for ourselves personally, our clients and our company.

The shift to focus the agency was full of risk, but we knew the rewards would be there. We kept a positive mindset. We thought we could, and we were right. We will continue to shift within this niche as there are many brands in all shapes and sizes we want to meet and work with. To some, we are the big fish in the pond, and to others, Signal Theory and our approach is new. It’s a very exciting time.

I am responsible for my own success. My mom taught me early on that the harder you work, the luckier you get. She did not talk about having to work harder as a woman, she just did it. She didn’t dwell on the inequities, she just blazed past them. Because of this, I grew up focused on the goals, not the obstacles. I am proud of myself, my family, and of course, my tribe at Signal Theory.

I started my career at SIgnal Theory as an Account Supervisor on a financial piece of business that the firm had just won. Once that business was solid, I asked for more responsibility. I started pitching new business, and as we brought on new clients, I was involved in those pieces of business. And I asked for more. I started building a team of incredible people, and gave them more and more responsibility and autonomy. Their growth allowed me to grow. And I asked for more. Knowing that I was building a team and growing that group allowed me to take on more. Trusting my team members to learn and solve and build strong relationships and take on big issues and responsibilities is good for everyone involved. The more trust we all have in each other leads to incredible growth, and really, just an overall better place to be.

How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re currently taking a look at everything we offer our clients and employees. There are strains on our business to be as efficient as possible, but also to provide our clients and employees with reasons to remain loyal to Signal Theory. Dissecting our business service by service and evaluating those services based on what our clients need today and tomorrow is where we are focused currently. Similarly, evaluating our benefits and how we show up for work will be equally important as we move forward.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

One of my favorite podcasts is This American Life. The podcast focuses on so many different topics, and for me, broadens my perspective on the world, solving problems, where there might be opportunities and life in general. The podcast is focused on everyday life, under a microscope. It encourages curiosity and learning about new things, and then it’s up to the listener to apply those learnings to other parts of life.

Similar to how we approach strategy at Signal Theory, the podcast encourages listeners to explore further for deeper understanding of their own lives.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Like others during this pandemic time, I’ve been observing new daily and weekly activities and wondering if some of them might (and should) become new habits. During this time of separation, I’ve made more time to be present and to connect with family and friends. I’ve FaceTimed and called more, now that I’m checking in on people and their health. I think others are as well. I’d like that learning from my sabbatical to become more of a habit.

So perhaps, making more time to connect with people will be something that is just as important as other daily tasks. I think there are so many of us who place a lot of importance on putting in a full day’s work, accomplishing all we can at work and with co-workers and clients, and perhaps this will also encourage us to continue to make more time for our loved ones.

I, along with our leadership team, have been amazed and very impressed with the organic ways our staff has adapted to working from home. I saw my team schedule virtual show-and-tells, birthday celebration happy hours, a virtual poker league, a Netflix watch party, etc., all in the first three weeks of the stay-at-home orders. If we hadn’t worked to build such a strong culture or if our employees didn’t like their jobs or each other, you wouldn’t see these organic shows of positive, creative ways to stay connected to each other during the health crisis of our collective lifetimes. It’s given both John and I food for thought on ways we want to continue to shake things up as we grow Signal Theory.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was working on the client-side at H&R Block in Kansas City, I was set to record tax tips with company founder Henry Bloch himself. This was early in my career, and I was a bit nervous. I was at the recording studio and received a voicemail from Henry, letting me know that he would be about three minutes late.

This made a lasting impact on me. Henry Bloch did not need to let me know he was going to be late, especially three minutes. I was a young marketing manager, he was a business icon. What this demonstrated to me was that he respected everyone — no matter the experience, the position, the title. It was so impressive and made such an impression on me. One I’ll never forget.

If we can, as leaders, continue to make sure every person in our organization and those around us feel seen and valued, what a great world we can continue to create.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Ali is vice president of AMIN Worldwide (Advertising & Marketing Independent Network), an alliance of 50-plus fiercely independent marketing agencies around the globe and will be taking on the role of president in summer 2021.

She’s an active member of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and participates on a CEO forum, where agency leaders from around the country share ideas and experiences to help one another.

Alimahaffy on twitter, and LinkedIn Ali Mahaffy.

https://www.linkedin.com/company/signal-theory-inc/
https://www.facebook.com/SignalTheory/

instagram.com/signaltheory

To learn more about Signal Theory:

www.signaltheory.com

Signal Theory serves brands such as SONIC America’s Drive-in, Cargill Protein, Merck Animal Health, John Deere and AMC Dine-In, and authors FoodThink, a multi-year longitudinal study that quantifies Americans’ habits and opinions about what they choose to eat and why.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you!

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