As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Stanten.
Andrew Stanten founded Altitude Marketing in 2004 and serves as the B2B agency’s President. Prior to launching Altitude, he spent 15 years bringing successful marketing, public relations and leading-edge business development strategies to life for organizations big and small, international and local, including Lehigh University and internationally known brands such as Organic Gardening, Bicycling and Backpacker magazines. Andrew earned his MBA from Lehigh University and bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My entrepreneurial spirit was hatched in Boston when I was a young delivery boy for the Boston Globe. When the Blizzard of ’78 hit in full force, I wanted to go sledding with the rest of the neighborhood kids. But I knew my customers were counting on me to deliver the news because the power was out for a few days. I knew if I could just get those darn papers to everyone on time, the tips would be great the following week.
This taught me the importance of always focusing on your customer — not what you want to do or what’s even best for you.
Following college, I worked for a global publisher and then a leading academic institution. In both those experiences, I worked with literally a dozen different agencies. I repeatedly was underwhelmed or frustrated. I knew there had to be a better way — one that was strategic, integrated, results-focused and ego-free. It was then I knew if I stuck to my vision and gut, I could do a lot better.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We were profitable six months after launching Altitude in 2004 — mainly because I was drawing a “salary” that was literally 1/5th of what I was earning when I left my previous employer. But the P&L had us in the black!
We were so hungry for business back then that we’d take on any account. We engaged with a local restaurant that quickly went into arrears with payments. The owner offered to pay us in gift certificates. I thought that was so cool — until about my 15 “free” lunch there and when my wife reminded me that we can’t pay the mortgage or tax bill with restaurant gift cards.
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?
Three people come immediately to mind.
First, is my co-founder. While we decided to move in a different direction about six years ago. Altitude would not be where we are today without him in the early days.
Second is my former boss’ boss. She taught me the importance of being transparent with the financials with everyone on the team. To this day, for anyone that wants to listen, I provide monthly and quarterly financial updates. I never sugarcoat the financial reality because I believe if everyone in the organization knows how we are doing, good or bad, it is much easier to have everyone moving in the same direction.
Finally, and most importantly, my wife. When I told her I wanted to leave my cushy university job to start an agency she told me I was nuts and said, “I’ll give you two years and enough rope to hang or swing. And when you swing, I get my two years.” We shook hands. It was the best deal I ever made. She launched her own freelance career two years later and hasn’t looked back.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I used to think that vision, mission, values — all that stuff — was nonsense printed on a poster in a conference room somewhere for people to ignore. Then I realized the importance of culture in an organization.
I always wanted to create a company that if I didn’t own it, I would still want to come to work every day. My dream was a different breed of agency that provides state-of-the-art, technology-enabled marketing services to global companies. More importantly, I knew success required far more than what I could do alone. The key to success wasn’t me — it was surrounding myself with really smart, creative people, getting them to buy into the vision and getting out of their way.
The vision has always been to attract, train and retain the best and the brightest: Marketing professionals who are imaginative, hungry and eager to learn, who “bleed Altitude Blue” and who achieve satisfaction, joy and meaning in helping our clients and Altitude succeed.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This year, 2020, has had more unknowns than the previous 16 years combined, except maybe the year I decided to leave a comfortable job and start Altitude. Recently, a friend asked how things were going and was surprised at my very positive response. He asked to what I attributed the success.
The Altitude Marketing team subtly and strategically reinvented itself without wavering from our agency’s core values or mission. Through new product offerings, new processes designed to streamline and deliver even better results, and a mantra of practicing what we preach on ourselves first — our own marketing before we roll it to clients — we are able to better read the shifting sands and rise above the blows that have whacked at the knees of a lot of businesses over the past seven months.
Success has come not from ignoring the unknown — but from embracing it. We used it as an opportunity to re-examine what we do, how we do it, roles, responsibilities, gaps in delivery, untapped skill sets and the clamoring of the market for new, better, more transparent solutions.
It takes a small army to develop, execute and hone a digitally centric, integrated marketing strategy. And that means everyone on the team needs to be on board. Or leave. That was my very simply message to the team back in March when things started to hit the fan.
And while COVID gave us more than 19 reasons to be pessimistic, from a communication and corporate culture standpoint, we remained optimistic. We focused on and discussed our strengths and the opportunities being presented to us. We confronted our weaknesses, defined the opportunities we could tackle if we eradicated them, and moved rapidly to improve them. We nudged people to expand their skill sets and ways of doing things. And we tied these efforts back to the facts in an authentic way: How we are doing and how our clients are doing thanks to our help.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There was a very gray day back in 2005 — maybe 14 months into it — where I realized I could be making a LOT more money, work far fewer hours and have far fewer headaches if I took down my shingle and went to work for someone else. And then I reminded myself I didn’t commit to some get-rich-quick scheme. I was carving out my career, controlling my own destiny and hopefully creating a bit of a legacy.
As we grew, my commitment grew. What motivates me today is I feel responsible for, and take great pride in knowing, that I am doing everything I can to help support more than 25 families. That is a powerful feeling and a great motivator. Even though most people have direct deposit, every month (pre-COVID and hopefully again soon) I greet each team member with a warm handshake, sincere thanks for something specific and then hand over the paycheck stub.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When your too busy putting out fires, it’s hard to put together the fire prevention plan. During challenging times, it is absolutely critical for leaders to focus on the big picture, be open-minded, be open to change, be as transparent as possible about what’s going on, be crystal clear on expectations, and give assurances that despite a world of unknowns there is a plan and contingencies are being thought through.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It’s critical to remain authentic and cautiously optimistic. That’s the perfect blend. It’s optimism with a challenging yet believable and realizable path or vision to get there.
When a leader is authentic and cautiously optimistic, that optimism is contiguous. When team members are optimistic, they are confident. When they are confident, they do their best work. When they do their best work, clients thrive. When clients thrive, we can continue to stare down the unknown and embrace it as a motivating force for positive improvement.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In an authentic, transparent way — and as soon as possible. The two worst thing you can do are not control the message because you either were too slow to communicate or don’t communicate at all and then try to sugarcoat bad news. Something bad happened. That’s part of the equation you can’t control. People want to know how it’s going to impact them, and you need to be clear and transparent.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s easy to just focus on today during unpredictable times — how will we get through this week, this month, this quarter. But as a leader of a company it is literally your job to think big picture. And while the 5-year plan may look dramatically different than the reality in 4.5 years from now thanks to the unknown, you at least have a roadmap, a vision, a sense of where you want to be. Otherwise there is no way you will ever arrive there.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Over communicate with your team. In good times and bad, if we all know where things stand, we are much more likely to all row in the same direction.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Under communicate. Lack of communication is a huge impediment for everyone to be focused in the same direction. Some leaders see it as a sign of weakness to let team members know the agency has hit a tough financial patch or have changing expectations. Honest, frequent communication goes so far in helping motivate team members to stay focused and do their best.
- Think too short term. Staying open-minded to change is important, but pivoting every month is a recipe for chaos among the team, confusing prospects and alienating customers alike.
- Lack of empathy. One of our top clients served an industry hit particularly hard by COVID. They asked if they could pause its engagement with us because there was no sense marketing the company’s solution during the pandemic when so many in its space were out of jobs. We could have stuck the cancellation clause of our agreement in their face and said tough. But we didn’t. We empathized, and they in turn were able to provide relief to their customers. Not enough businesses think this way.
Our team members lives were also disrupted when COVID hit because schools closed, day cares were shuttered and supply chains were massively disrupted. Showing empathy towards each individuals’ situation and providing the flexibility needed to get through this was essential for our success.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
While there is a lot that is out of your control during the pandemic, there is a lot you can control. The most critical thing under your control is how you treat your customers. The best way to generate new business is to delight clients. When you do that, three things happen:
1. They stick around
2. They refer you to others
3. You gain success stories to share.
Some business models, like the insurance industry, make no sense to me. It’s just a sales game. They expect 25 percent of their book of business just be dissatisfied and rotate off every year. It’s a given and they don’t try too hard after the sale so to grow, but they need to make up that 25 percent and add on top of that. If you focus on exceeding customer expectations, revenue and profits will follow.
Financial stability also comes from having a diversified customer base. I have always had an operating philosophy that no single client should ever make up more than 10 percent of our business. This diversification provides a tremendous degree of stability in the event one, two or three of our top clients have to pull back because they are facing challenging times.
There was a period of a few weeks early in the pandemic when business seemed to stop, as everyone was in a bit of shock trying to figure out not just what to do, but what the hell happened. This was the perfect time to take a deep look at ourselves — our vision, mission, values, structure, key accountabilities and product offerings — and focus on improving processes, realigning team members’ key accountabilities and opening innovative new revenue streams.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Throughout the years, Altitude Marketing had ups and downs — but mostly ups. And there have been 5 constant mantras I have espoused:
1. Embrace change. I’m a big believer that if we are doing what we did six months ago six months from now, we’ll be out of business in another six months. So, Altitude Marketing is constantly evolving what we do and how we do it.
2. Check your ego at the door. We are in a highly creative space loaded with many opinions. I consistently impress upon my teammates and our clients that it ultimately doesn’t matter what YOU think or want, but it’s what your prospects think and want — and what is going to convert a target prospect into a paying client.
3. Culture matters. I strive to create a work environment and company culture that if I didn’t own the company, I would want to come to work here every day. This drives so much of what we do — including our recent $1+ million investment renovating an old hardware store on Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, into our headquarters.
4. Nurture the next generation. We have an amazing concentration of great colleges and universities in the region. Right now, 5 of our 23 employees started as interns. We have dozens of former interns out there doing amazing things at companies like LinkedIn, Survey Monkey and Dunkin.
5. Be authentic. While many agency leaders hide their numbers, I openly share the monthly, quarterly and YTD P&L and provide updates on the balance sheet and exactly how many months of expenses we have in the bank for that proverbial “rainy day.” It gives everyone in the organization a common language, a shared frame of reference and a true sense of comfort knowing where things stand.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Remember when you play the game of life, play it for all its worth — it’s a full contact sport, no doubt about it. But it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether you can look your kid in the eye after each day and feel good about what you did and how you treated people.