Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations: let go of the idea that there will be no tough days — things break, and we pride ourselves from not shying away from what will really get to the bottom of fixing them.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin Moffett and Joel Daly.
Colin Moffett and Joel Daly met at Mindshare Interactive, one of the old guard of digital agencies, in 2005.
They made the move to one of the world’s most prestigious agencies in 2008, building a large team and servicing top clients. Despite this success, Colin and Joel often talked about what life would be like if they could produce the same (if not better) work of a big agency without all the red tape. In 2015, they decided it was time: Colin and Joel made the leap to start Artemis Ward.
Colin is a highly experienced strategist and former Georgetown professor. He believes smart and agile agencies are needed more than ever to help brands and organizations navigate a complex world.
Joel is insight-driven, loves design and UX, and is the host of CreativeMornings/DC.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
COLIN: It was completely by accident. Actually, frustration. I came out of college in the late 90s and was underwhelmed by how well people were adapting to what was clearly a digital-first future. So after working to try to change organizations from the inside, I realized doing it on our own would be more fruitful, so I went down that road and never looked back.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
COLIN: The hard time was getting the journey started. Leaving comfortable big agency jobs for the great unknown is nerve-wracking. Especially when you are mid-career and have a family and a mortgage and no room for error. We planned everything to a T to be “jump-ready” and then waited for a sign that never came. So we just had to jump.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
JOEL: We had no room for error we just willed everything to work out. Crashing and burning wasn’t an option so we just kept moving forward. We’re always focused on the road ahead. We knew our philosophy was team first and wanted to hire folks that were good people doing good work. As we grew, the responsibility grew. We had a lot of great examples of what not to do.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
COLIN: We went into this pretty battle tested with years of being the in client-services industry and working at both big and small agencies so in many ways we knew what to expect. We have also always surrounded ourselves with really smart people that more than make up for any weaknesses we have as founders. We’ve been team-focused and not founder-focused from go and really our plan for resilience has always been more about being smart and trying to avoid getting yourself in tough situations. They happen for sure, but we try to minimize the drama.
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?
JOEL: We had really already seen it all when we started our own firm. When we finally built up the nerve to jump we did it in the spring and were lucky enough to land a bunch of projects and we were off to the races. What we didn’t realize is that most of those projects would wind down in mid-summer, just as people started to disappear. Coming from a big agency, we just didn’t think much about the calendar and flow of business. A smaller firm is much more affected by the business development cycle until it builds up that long term momentum.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
JOEL: The biggest differentiator with us is that we combine a penchant for rolling up our sleeves and diving into deep strategy work. We start by asking questions — and most importantly, the right questions. We like figuring out really complex business problems with an uncompromising focus on beautiful solutions.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
COLIN: The big thing in our world is to embrace the uncertainty. We’re going through an enormous shift in how we spread news and information and how we engage with audiences in that environment. Throw in a global pandemic, social justice awakening and a bit of political uncertainty. Good marketers see the path through the chaos. Something we obsess over is how to get through to the other side in a way that allows everyone to thrive.
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?
COLIN: One motto we’ve lived by for a long time is to do good work and be cool to people. Early on it felt like we were just lucky to land work but we quickly realized it wasn’t luck, it was all the hard work and relationships we had built up over close to 15 years of doing good work and being cool to people. I taught grad school for many years and often on the first day of class I would tell the students to look to their left and look to their right. The person next to them could be a client one day, a boss, a business partner or someone who helps you land a job. Be cool to them.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
JOEL: We’ve always been intent on making a difference. We actively seek out work that makes a fundamental impact in the world and we also work to give back to the communities we work in. A great example of this is our campaign with National Geographic called Chasing Genius. We have long-standing partnerships with two community based organizations in DC called DC Scores and Critical Exposure, where we work as an extension of their team to try and bring meaningful impact to their work and help them fulfill their mission.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
COLIN: We had a lot of great examples of what not to do. It’s important to realize what is an unsolicited opinion versus what is research and insight gathering that is helpful. We also spent so much time trying by doing and touched lots of hot stoves before we embarked on starting Artemis Ward. Because of all these things, we didn’t really listen to anyone — we’d rather tell you five tips we’ve pulled together from our team on sustained success:
- Listen with empathy: asking questions and listening to the answers is at the core of what we do every day.
- Show up: operate with a strong sense of commitment + engagement. In a more literal sense, meetings just go better if you’re prepared.
- Good work leads to good work: our best business development strategy is to continue to produce excellent examples of what we can do.
- Be good to yourself: we work in an incredibly intense industry that doesn’t let up. Focus on what keeps you going and take time for yourself when you need to.
- Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations: let go of the idea that there will be no tough days — things break, and we pride ourselves from not shying away from what will really get to the bottom of fixing them.
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. 🙂
JOEL: We’ve touched on this a couple times already but we’re big fans of listening at Artemis Ward. Listening is not only critical for empathy, it’s critical for understanding. We’ve experienced a massive democratization of news and information and the onus is now on each of us to listen to a breadth of opinions, ask tough questions and rally around the truth. We are all too quick to make knee-jerk assumptions about our world when history has taught us true progress and innovation comes when we embrace the fact that we don’t have all the answers. I should mention that since 2013 we have led and hosted the creative community and event series CreativeMornings/DC where we aspire to gather and celebrate the unique creative voices of the DC creative community, so that’s the movement we’ve already started.