There is no single blueprint for entrepreneurship. Be wary of those who present a single solution to a problem. So much of this was learned for us by our own experiences, and realizing that everyone’s entrepreneurial paths are different. No two outcomes are ever the same — so you have to listen to people’s experiences and find the causal relationships within them that can help you in your experience.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Gorode and Katie Witkin.
Adam is Co-Founder and CEO of AGW. Gorode co-leads AGW Group’s creative vision and growth, working with iconic brands that include Condé Nast, HBO, Red Bull, Armani Exchange, Mother New York, and ’47 among others. Under Gorode’s leadership, AGW has gained notoriety for their unique ability to engineer brands’ participation in elusive cultural circles earning the company over 13 awards in its lifetime, including a Webby and a Clio for its work with HBO, and a Mashable Mashie for its work with Target. Prior to founding AGW, Gorode worked with agencies and Fortune 500 companies to craft digital strategies that helped his clients adapt to the emergence of multichannel networks and shifting consumer behaviors. Gorode’s career started at Syracuse University, where he studied music business and moonlighted as a concert promoter booking Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and several dozen acts to campus. Gorode recognized early on that social media and mobile technology would upend industries and expanded his focus beyond music to create a company equipped to take advantage of the new landscape, in pursuit of fostering richer exchanges between culture creators and brands.
Katie Witkin is Co-Founder and COO of AGW. Since co-founding AGW Group at age 25 in 2013, Witkin has co-led the award-winning marketing and integrated communications agency that has worked with with iconic brands including Condé Nast, HBO, Red Bull, Armani Exchange, Mother New York, and ’47 among others. Witkin is one of the driving forces behind the agency’s success, innovative strategies, and impressive client roster. Under Witkin’s leadership, AGW has won a slate of awards including a Platinum MarCom Award for the agency’s work for environmental incubator Lonely Whale, a Webby and Clio for HBO projects, as well as numerous Hermes Creative Awards for work with Women & Allies, Vinyl Me, Please, and ’47. Prior to co-founding AGW, Witkin began her career at Sony as a Sony College Marketing Representative and later took on social media leadership roles at music digital marketing agency, Sneak Attack Media, and music subscription service, eMusic.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career trajectory has been a constant state of evolution. I’ve always been interested in what’s next, so even when I was growing up I liked exploring new tools and seeking out new industries. My specific interest in the digital advertising and marketing spaces started with the introduction of Facebook while I was at Syracuse. As a member of the concert board, I started promoting concerts through it before the idea of Facebook marketing even really came about. As it turned out, the first time I used it for promotion (within the first two weeks of Facebook’s launch), it was a huge success — so much so that the cops were called to the event because there were so many people there. That’s when I knew that there was something in Facebook as a tool, and I had to understand how it worked. From there, I went on to figure out how these digital spaces were built, learning the programming language, and really gaining all of the skillsets I needed to take advantage of the creative environment — which is something that we’ve carried over to the way AGW operates today.
After several early jobs I went fully into a digital freelance business, and this is where I met Katie. She brought me in to work with the brand that she was at and together we worked on a handful of projects before deciding to start AGW on our own. I always knew I would start my own business, and my freelance work got to the point where I was taking on more than I could handle alone. Teaming up with Katie was a no brainer after that. We really complement each other well; we’re able to riff, but ultimately we have the same worldview.
A bit conversely to Adam, I had a more traditional trajectory, even though I experienced entrepreneurial spurts from time to time. I worked both at an agency and in-house doing social media, and often felt like I was being boxed in by the structures and budgets that were in place at these more traditional companies. I had the idea to create native experiences for social channels at the same time that Facebook was developing, but unfortunately the executives with which I was working didn’t understand this. In turn, I channeled my creativity through other avenues, including a music blog which I ran for almost five years.
These other ventures made me realize that my ideas were something that I could and should do full-time on my own. Adam and I connected over a shared love of strategy and innovation. When we developed the idea for AGW, in complete honesty I had my hesitations and was even interviewing for other jobs. But he really took my blinders off and challenged me to think differently about turning your hobbies and passions into a full-time venture.
Can you share your story of grit and success? What hard times did you face when you first started your journey?
In the early stages of my career, one of the hardest things that I faced was not being allowed in “the room.” As a 23-year-old woman at the time, it wasn’t always the easiest to get my voice heard.
Once we started AGW, my biggest challenge was evolving from the task-oriented mindset that had taken me so far in my previous roles to thinking much bigger picture. I learned that all of the non-tangible ideas and projects that you can’t write on a checklist are equally important when starting a business, and I had to move beyond that. I also had to learn to face (and overcome) my own social anxieties. Now being in “the room” pushed me out my comfort zone — and I had to find ways to learn to be more comfortable with public speaking.
As someone who’s always been a self-starter and worked on my own in a freelance capacity, the hard times for me revolved around needing to be more patient and understanding of the different limitations that we all have. I would find myself asking, “Why doesn’t everybody see it the way I see it?,” and become frustrated, but I grew to learn that there’s value in the differences, and that the opportunity for different perspectives comes from our ability to work and grow within who we are — no matter the stage.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were difficult?
In more traditional structures, a misstep is a failure, but I believe that personal failures aren’t a real thing. If you work within a growth mindset, every “failure” is actually a chance to grow, improve, and better yourself. At the end of the day, true failure really wasn’t an option, and we had to remember to push past those feelings for the good of the company.
In line with that, my drive really came from understanding the greater goals of the company, and realizing that I have to put myself in scary or uncomfortable situations for that greater goal. So even if there was a bad day or a bad week, it was always about contextualizing that within the bigger picture.
So how did grit lead to your eventual success?
Again, it was always this concept that you gotta do what you gotta do for the good of the company, and in turn accepting and reflecting on any missteps to continue on with the bigger picture in mind.
How are things going for you today?
Right now, AGW is in a place where we’ve expanded our service offerings, which is really exciting. At the heart of our success is the idea of scoping out what sectors and spaces we need to be in, what skill sets we need to develop, and how our business models need to change. The industry is changing a lot right now with the direct-to-consumer boom, so that’s why we’re creating a lot more integration across our teams and developing additional services to stay ahead of the curve.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? And what lesson you learned from that?
Always double check the mute button on a conference call… let’s leave it at that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Give an example/anecdote if possible.
For us, building AGW was really about creating that free, forward-thinking environment that we never found in our previous roles. AGW strictly negates any limitations put in place by other agencies or within the industry. We shirk the idea that age has to be an inhibitor and invite everyone on our team — from entry-level to senior staff — to contribute during strategy brainstorms. We also drive the idea that there’s no “one way” of doing something. One of our core questions is, “Am I doing this because it’s the way it’s been done, or is there a better way of doing it?,” and this reflects how we approach all of our processes across departments.
One of our biggest successes to date has been the work we did for Red Bull when they were launching Red Bull Arts. Art PR is a notoriously exclusive and elusive circle — and we were very clearly told the barriers of what we couldn’t do. We didn’t listen and took a side-door approach, completely inserting ourselves into this art world that we hadn’t ever been a part of before. It all comes back to this idea of shirking limitations and make things happen that aren’t “supposed” to happen traditionally.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Exercise and sleep are critical. You have to take care of your brain and your body. At the end of the day it all comes down to that.
Boundaries are important when it comes to burnout. Not boundaries in terms of work/life balance necessarily, but making sure that you allow for the rituals, routines, or whatever you need to do in order to remain healthy and present at work. It’s about developing that self-awareness to know when you’re about to burn out, and taking a step back in those moments.
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?
One of my early mentors, who I still keep contact with today, is Jon Cohen of The Fader and Cornerstone. I was his executive assistant in my first job. While executive assisting wasn’t my strong suit, he’s remained an incredible resource and voice for me throughout my career, and for that I am thankful.
My dad has been a huge mentor for me throughout my life. He’s a true self starter and incredibly resourceful, and had to work his way through life by developing key skills/relationships along the way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- There is no single blueprint for entrepreneurship. Be wary of those who present a single solution to a problem. So much of this was learned for us by our own experiences, and realizing that everyone’s entrepreneurial paths are different. No two outcomes are ever the same — so you have to listen to people’s experiences and find the causal relationships within them that can help you in your experience.
- Managing is incredibly difficult. All of the challenges that one associates with starting a business aren’t necessarily an issue if you’re good at what you do, but it’s the interpersonal relationships and managing people that doesn’t come naturally. It’s a skill that has to be developed over time.
- Invest in a professional coach immediately, or at least have that be part of your long-term goal. Professional coaching has been an integral step to evolving our leadership skills and developing for the sake of the larger team and company.
- In that same vein, ask all of your friends and peers early on in your journey to tell you everything that’s wrong with you. It might sound harsh, but those will be your pitfalls, and it’s essential to identify them as early as possible to get ahead of them and begin your professional development early.
- You need to be prepared to fail, understand what failure looks like, and make sure that you can stomach it. It will get to the point where you have to look past your “failures” entirely, and always focus on the bigger picture.
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. 🙂
Democratize education. This is fundamental to improving the state of our industries and the country as a whole.
Thank you for all of these great insights!