Date: July 25, 2009
About: B.J. Towe - Class of 1974
Self-employed see the Sweet Side in Partnering
Just before the July Fourth holiday, Cheryl Long received a request for a branding project proposal that encompassed many facets, including marketing research, design and public relations. She worked on the strategy as much as she could before leaving on vacation. As a brand development and creative director, Stephen Pyle added his input before leaving on vacation, and then over the weekend, three other people met to complete the project. The entire group reviewed the document once more before it was submitted.
"It was like a ballet," Long said.
It matched the vision of the six marketing, design and editorial professionals who earlier this year formed Plum LLC. By bringing together different skills and investing as equal partners into a company, the group is hoping to go after bigger projects and compete directly with larger firms.
"I think a big thing that all of us feel is that this group, with the variety of talent that we have and the variety of experience, we can pursue work collectively that we never would have even thought of pursuing," said Brian Shearer.
To make this concept work, the six members are driven by a core set of values that focus less on who is taking on more work and getting paid more, and more on the ideal of working as a team to do better work.
"To have targeted goals in six months - we have to have this kind of volume - that's a sales-driven organization that speaks like that," Pyle said, "and though certainly one of our core needs is revenue, it's not what's driving the origin of us and the creation of us and the growth of us."
The group first met in February and began talking about what could happen if they worked together, without the initial intention of forming a company.
The skills the members brought to the table seemed for the group to provide the main services a client would get from a full-service advertising agency, with Rebekah Brandmeyer as a marketing production professional; Shawn Drafahl as a design and art director; Long as a project manager, sales promotion specialist and researcher; Pyle as a brand development and creative director; Shearer as a design and art director; and BJ Towe as a project editor, author and copywriter. Collectively the group has about 150 years of experience and all have been working on their own for several years, except for Towe, who left Meredith Corp. earlier this year to restart her freelance company.
A personality test further showed that the members' different personality types and work styles would fit together well. They admit they have quickly become like a family. They play off one another's ideas, banter back and forth and have learned to be honest with each other at the expense of just being nice.
"Basically what really makes us efficient is that we really can communicate with each other well and get things done," Long said.
"And we have a lot of fun," added Towe.
After a long brainstorming session, they chose the name Plum for its dual meaning, with "plum" signifying fresh, cream-of-the-crop results and because it's an alternate spelling for "plumb," meaning straight, true and honest.
The company was created to serve as the general contractor through which the members will take on jobs. They put back 3 percent of their earnings - an industry standard, Towe said - into the company for marketing and other services, such as eventually hiring an administrator.
The six professionals also work with about two dozen "associates" or "vendors" that provide backup support and additional services such as Web site and social media strategies. They also would like to add a couple more people to the core team, especially someone with a public relations background.
But, Long said, "we'll probably be fairly slow at expanding because whoever it is needs to be part of the family."
Ripe for growth
The first thing the group did when it met was write a code of ethics, Towe said, which set the foundation for how they could make a partnership work.
The code of ethics was meant to rise above the "dog-eat-dog" world they had experienced through their own businesses and working in other agencies and corporations, Pyle said. "We didn't want to work that way," he said. "We wanted to work in a situation where we will be transparent. We will be trusting. We will be honest. We will have integrity at this table."
"I had people tell me that absolutely (a partnership) will not work," Towe said, "but because of our relationships that we have with each other and the degree of respect and our code of ethics saying how we will take information, give information, it is working."
Part of that foundation is choosing to take a "long view" approach to doing business, Towe said. The members discuss every project that comes across one of their desks and decided early on not to pursue work with a client they feel is unethical even if it offers a lot of money. They are seeking to build long-term relationships with clients through good work and adding extra proposals rather than seeking a retainer, like most advertising agencies.
Not all six private contractors will work on every project and not all will be paid equally. Rather, the skills needed for an assignment will dictate who is involved and gets paid for their work, with each budget including some money for group strategizing.
For each project, the team generates a creative brief that lays out the details of what's expected and creates a budget, so the members know up front what to expect to be paid. A team leader is assigned to each job and has the final say in how it is presented to the client.
"We're not without our processes by any means," Brandmeyer said. "We're just not rigid to them."
Outside weekly Monday meetings, the group keeps in touch through a virtual office program called Basecamp, through which documents and discussions are organized by project.
Plum started actively pursuing work in early summer. It hasn't completed a project yet, but the team members are confident that their partnership is working based on the proposals and few assignments it has tackled.
When it comes to divvying up the work, "we go back to our ethics that remind us that we are a family of people that want to make sure that everyone at the table not just survives but thrives," Pyle said.
One of the biggest advantages of this model is scalability, Pyle said. Though most advertising agencies have to have all of the skills in house despite varying levels of work, this model allows whoever needs to be on the project to get paid for his or her specific work.
Towe added that the arrangement allows each person to focus on the skills each does best, while "broadening the capabilities that any one of us can offer" a client.
Plus, the group is there to offer a critique of one another's work and new ideas. And if one person is too busy to handle a project or needs to go on vacation, another member can jump in or the group can hire an associate to help out.
After 20 years of running his own business, Pyle said, "I will note that I recognize my limitations as a one-person shop wearing lots of hats. ... I also recognize as I've gotten close to retirement age, 65, do I have anything marketable to sell to someone or is it just the end of my services being provided? And in this case, Plum offers me more of an asset."
The biggest challenge the group faces, Brandmeyer said, is if all its proposals out there turn into work, it will need to ramp up quickly.
The other challenge: "To stay loyal to the formulas and the plan," Pyle said. "Because it's human nature to let other things get in the way of typical business motivations."