Caitlin Robertson of Reach Agency: “Why you need to create a culture that is open to feedback”

Create a culture that is open to feedback (and if you find yourself on a team without constant feedback, ask for it!). There is nothing worse than floating through your job and not getting any feedback from your boss. Early on in my career, I would agonize over whether or not I was doing a […]

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Create a culture that is open to feedback (and if you find yourself on a team without constant feedback, ask for it!). There is nothing worse than floating through your job and not getting any feedback from your boss. Early on in my career, I would agonize over whether or not I was doing a “good job.” I’d over-analyze everything my boss said to figure out where I stood. No exclamation point in his email reply? I’m gonna get fired. It wasn’t until I received career coaching in my late twenties that I started to realize I had the power to not only ask for feedback, but that I could personally impact the culture around me by giving praise and sharing opportunities for improvement (where appropriate).

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caitlin Robertson, VP of Client Services for Reach Agency.

Her experience in experiential, social media, digital and influencer marketing has generated award-winning campaigns on behalf of her clients. Caitlin has a proven ability to drive profitable growth, while delivering best-in-class creative offerings and cultivating lasting relationships.

Prior to joining Reach, Caitlin held leadership positions at Fullscreen, McBeard, HelloSociety, and Jakks Pacific. She graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications. She lives in Los Angeles with her two (almost three!) children and husband. And even when not in quarantine, you can find her baking.

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

I got exactly one job offer when I graduated from college during the 2008 recession. And to tell you the truth, it turns out I only needed one. My first-ever gig as a Marketing Coordinator at JAKKS Pacific, a publicly-traded toy company, is one that I wouldn’t change for the world. It helped me discover a passion for understanding people and what motivates them. I spent my early career learning from the best marketers in the industry. My office was piled high with Cabbage Patch Kids, WWE wrestling figures, Disney’s Frozen dolls and dresses and more. And between the annual Toy Fairs and sales calls, I started to see the same universal truths about marketing emerge regardless of product, season or audience target. People want to feel a connection to the brands that they buy, and in order for that to happen, brands need to think beyond themselves (“I want to sell you this!”) and consider what will get an emotional response from their community. I learned that the hows and whys of marketing translate directly into advertising, and that’s how I ended up in the agency business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your role working with Reach Agency?

Navigating the coronavirus as a creative agency has been unexpected and challenging, but also an opportunity to look at how we can be even more intentional about supporting collaboration and innovation. Our work at Reach Agency is founded on being able to come together to share new ideas, pivot, adjust, challenge and build off one another’s ideas to push for the best possible creative. We’re really good at doing that in person, so to be honest, the idea of moving to a virtual work environment almost overnight was daunting at first.

Fortunately, I had worked for a number of years at a remote-first agency which gave me an internal roadmap to quickly apply the tools and systems we needed to adapt. We made it a point to prioritize regular check-ins to “be” with each other, and focus on building a new type of community over trying to be ultra efficient by maximizing every moment. We’ve also focused on carving out moments to say “thanks” to our colleagues as a way of appreciating one another in a very difficult time. It’s been important to remember that everyone is experiencing coronavirus differently based on the day (or hour!), and that’s underscored Reach’s commitment to our people-first mentality.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my college years, I worked in the Customer Service department at a flagship department store in Downtown Seattle. It was a big job for me and I wanted to impress everyone I came into contact with. One of the services we offered was to cash checks for card holders (sort of like using the Customer Service desk as an ATM), but with a cap of a few hundred dollars max. One afternoon, an older gentleman approached the desk with a check written out to a very large sum. Per my training, I asked to see his ID (to confirm the name on the check was, indeed, the man in front of me). He looked at my quizzically, looked down at the check, and said “Why don’t you look at the name on the check?” In my enthusiastic commitment to the training I had received, I said, “Sir, I need to see your ID.” This went on a few more times until (thankfully) my manager, peeking his head around the corner, quickly came to my aid: “Oh, hello sir — I’ll handle this for you right away.”

Well…I had asked one of the founding family members (and current executive) of this well-established, high-end retail chain for his ID — not just once, but multiple times! Although I’m sure he appreciated my desire to follow the rule of law within his stores, I learned a very important lesson that day: Don’t step foot onto the floor of a new job until you have researched every executive currently serving the company and can recognize them by face and name. This practice of diving into the history of a company and its leadership before I start a new position has served me well. It’s helped me turn many opportunistic hallway moments into genuine conversations with C-suite executives I normally would have walked right on by. Do your research! It’ll help you get ahead.

What do you think makes your company unique? Can you share a story?

Reach Agency is the result of what happens when you combine an innovative, digital-first team with a deep commitment to client service. In my experience, consumer behavior is constantly evolving. It’s not enough to just come up with a clever pitch in response to your client’s latest brief. As an agency partner, I believe we need to be ahead of what’s driving the consumer to purchase a product, watch a video or engage with their favorite brand. Reach Agency takes this to heart and it’s a big part of why I’ve enjoyed working with the team here.

My favorite recent example is our “Will It Clog?” campaign with Liquid-Plumr, which recently won a Reggie award. When Reach first kicked off the campaign in 2018, the brand was experiencing years of sales and share decline. Their business was a bit clogged (pun intended!) and traditional marketing wasn’t making an impact. Liquid-Plumr needed to stand out, and the best way to do that was by trying something totally new. Our team tapped popular YouTube creators VAT19 to produce amazing challenge videos, which built awareness and credibility through a cohesive campaign with multiple touch points, all powered by influencer content. We used search data to understand the most common types of clogs and to identify key search periods when consumers experience the stress of clogged sinks. VAT19 had a ton of fun with it, pitting Liquid-Plumr up against extreme clogs like 15 pounds of butter, 200,000 gummy bears and more. As a result of this campaign, Liquid-Plumr experienced a 9% boost in sales performance and achieved a 54% view-through-rate on YouTube, breaking past performance. Liquid-Plumr is now the fastest growing brand in Clorox’s cleaning division.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The work we’re doing at Reach has me excited about the future of influencer marketing. Time and time again, creator content has been shown to perform because of the trust established between influencers and their audience. That trust dynamic is more important now than ever before as we move to the “new normal” and brands work to figure out their messaging strategy. We’ve loved seeing the innovation creators are bringing to brand storytelling during this season. I think it helps people to see that they’re not alone with whatever they’re working on, enjoying or even struggling with. Helping brands communicate with their consumers through influencers really puts humanity back into everything we do.

What advice would you give to other female thought-leaders or experts to help their team to thrive?

Become a model of resilience to your team. As a leader, your direct reports will look to you for clues on how they should react to the latest changes hitting the business. A positive (yet realistic) attitude in the face of unexpected news or seasons of ambiguity goes a long way in keeping people motivated and engaged — and in keeping you energized for the long-run. Being a leader is about playing the long-game and recognizing that change brings opportunity. I’ve worked at large public companies, I’ve been one of fifteen employees at a start-up, and I’ve been part of a team that was acquired three times. Change can be challenging, but it can also fast-track you to huge personal career growth if you’re willing to see it from a different angle. And that career growth for you means new open doors for your team: when you teach them to navigate difficult situations by meeting setbacks with solutions, you’re equipping them to thrive.

What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs or executives about the best way to manage their business, no matter what the size?

Results matter. You can be a vulnerable, empathy-driven, and inspirational leader (and you should be!), but without results to back up your approach, you’ll quickly be overshadowed by the next hungry leader in line behind you. As an executive, you need to both inspire people to follow you and deliver wins for the company.

My advice? Shift your mindset as a leader to understand how you can mobilize your team’s time and effort to impact your company’s bottom line — whatever that means to your boss. It’s not enough just to do the work; you also need to learn the rules of success at your company so that you can exceed expectations. Once you’ve done that, look for organizational clues to figure out how you can best spotlight what you’ve accomplished so that the value you bring to the company is clear.

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 about that?

I’m forever thankful to a boss and mentor of mine who led by example in showing what it means to be a vulnerable leader. We worked together in a start-up environment (aka: a ton of fun and a lot of chaos), and later the company was acquired by a massive corporation. Through it all, there were many moments of ambiguity and change, and even more “Learning Moments” that ended up shaping how I led my team of 30+ employees a few years later.

I remember one specific time where I had to call him late after work one night to fess up to a big mistake our team had made on behalf of the client. You know that type of call — the pit of dread in your stomach because you don’t know how your boss will react. I’ll never forget his response: he listened without interrupting, talked through the possible consequences this would have on our scope, and then moved to problem solving. Later, when I had calmed down, we had a discussion about what I could have done differently. But that night, in the middle of my worst nightmare, his actions said, “I’ve got your back, you’re not alone, and this is solvable.” His transparency and trust spoke volumes to me. I knew that he was investing in me for the long run, and it made me want to work harder for him and for the company.

The truth is, business is full of difficult moments. If you’ve ever had to lay someone off, give bad news to a client, or lost a big deal, you’ve experienced it. Don’t skip past these moments. If you don’t have the perfect answer to a difficult question, say so. Vulnerability is such a trendy topic in leadership right now, and it can sometimes backfire — people use it as an excuse to be flippant, see it as a weakness, or use it to manipulate others. True vulnerability as a leader can build a human connection and foundation of trust, which is crucial in leading an energized and effective team.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am a huge fan of the mission of Two Wings, a non-profit based in Los Angeles that works with survivors of sex trafficking to pursue their dream vocation through mentoring, life skills and career training workshops. A few years ago I agreed to lead a Resume and Cover Letter workshop with a group of women. As I was driving across town in rush hour traffic, I was panicking: I felt completely unprepared and unequipped to relate to this group of women, much less teach about resumes. But it was too late to cancel, so I walked into the classroom and introduced myself with the first thing that came to mind…a story about a game I played with my son over the weekend. Within 5 minutes, the group was swapping stories of having toddlers at home, from just wanting a full nights’ sleep to our kids’ random obsession with dinosaurs. I learned a really valuable lesson, which was that the first step to helping others is to actually stop thinking about yourself and simply be with, and listening to, the stories of others.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. As a leader, it’s crucially important to understand what motivates your direct reports, your superiors, and any other stakeholder you engage with on a regular basis. One of my first bosses was a tough, no-nonsense guy. It took months to figure out how to impress him, but once I realized that he was being held to very specific sales goals for our department I started sending a weekly recap of sales wins that he could share up the chain. It made his life easier and gave me the confidence to connect with him on topics I knew he cared about.
  2. Don’t sleep on the power of empathy. Empathy is seen by many as a weakness, and to be honest, I feel sorry for people who see it that way. In my experience, being an empathetic leader has a direct correlation to the bottom line because it keeps your people engaged, motivated and loyal.
  3. Create a culture that is open to feedback (and if you find yourself on a team without constant feedback, ask for it!). There is nothing worse than floating through your job and not getting any feedback from your boss. Early on in my career, I would agonize over whether or not I was doing a “good job.” I’d over-analyze everything my boss said to figure out where I stood. No exclamation point in his email reply? I’m gonna get fired. It wasn’t until I received career coaching in my late twenties that I started to realize I had the power to not only ask for feedback, but that I could personally impact the culture around me by giving praise and sharing opportunities for improvement (where appropriate).
  4. Find personal female heroes in business and leadership. Learn everything you can about their journey…read their books, listen to their podcasts, follow them on social media. But whatever you do, don’t become a copy of them. To be effective, your leadership style has to be custom to you, not a shadow of someone else’s.
  5. Make it fun. In advertising and influencer marketing, if you’re not entertained by or learning from the final product, there’s a problem. We’re creating content that’s meant to engage consumers; make them laugh, cry or think. Pay attention if you’re so bored by the content you and your team are making that you don’t even want to watch it… and make adjustments as a leader to bring fun back into the process.

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. 🙂

Saying thank you. It’s so, so, so simple and yet so impactful. If you’ve ever been thanked for something, big or small, you know the feeling of goodwill and generosity it inspires. I am a huge believer in the power of written “Thank You” notes, and I take great joy in picking out old school note cards to send to friends and colleagues to let them know they are appreciated.

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

“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.” — Henry Cloud

I am a huge fan of Dr. Henry Cloud, and his book Boundaries for Leaders was hugely illuminating to me as a first-time supervisor. When I became a first-time manager, I remember hoping, wishing and praying that my direct reports would “figure out” where they needed to improve without me having to address it directly. Spoiler alert: They don’t. By allowing people to get away with bad behavior or less-than-stellar work, you’re telling everyone else that they can do the same. Great leaders deal with the good and the bad — that’s the job.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Melinda Gates. She’s obviously incredibly generous but she also takes the time to be with the people she is helping to truly understand the complex factors that impact their situation. She doesn’t mince words and she’s not afraid of criticism.

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