As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Gavin Smith, Founder & CEO of NRG Experiential Marketing in Los Angeles, where brands use experiences to create connections with consumers. Since 2003, NRG has worked with some of the world’s best known brands including Apple, Nike, Red Bull, The North Face, Timberland, and 2K to create programs and activations to bring these brands to life. NRG has been named one of the Top100 agencies in the country by Event Marketer Magazine and has been the recipient of two Ex-Awards.
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?
I moved from Scotland to the United States in the late 90s. I would like to tell you the move was motivated by great career ambitions, but in truth, I wanted to ski. So, I headed to Vail. While living in Vail, I picked up work helping to produce the Jeep King of the Mountain ski race series. It was my first introduction to event production, and I was hooked.
Given that I had a master’s degree in marketing, the event organizers quickly realized I had more talents to offer than simply hanging banners. I started to help with every facet of the event planning and that is how I learned the ropes of events. This experience led me to work in event marketing, which has evolved over the years into experiential marketing, where brands use experiences to create connections with consumers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Well, if you can call not having liability insurance in place funny? Then, that would be it! Most of my mistakes were caused by naiveite. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you have to learn along the way. There is an adage that a good mechanic doesn’t necessarily make a good repair shop manager. When I started my agency, I had to learn many new skills, which are required to run a business. That skillset was different from what it took to produce great events. My biggest takeaway is that you will make mistakes, but learn from them, and then put the processes and procedures in place to safeguard against them in the future.
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?
Again, this is hard to pinpoint as there are so many people who have been helpful along the way. You lean on different people for different things. I have been fortunate so many wonderful clients have placed their trust in me and NRG Experiential.
One example is Katie Ramage, former Director of Sports Marketing for The North Face. As a skier, I was a huge fan of The North Face and when we had the chance to ideate on some concepts, it was an honor. Katie and her team flew to LA from San Francisco to meet with us in our office. To be honest, I was a little confused if the meeting was a pitch meeting, so I humbly asked, “Are we getting the chance to work with you on this project?” She responded, “Well, we don’t exactly make a habit of just flying around to looking at agencies we don’t want to work with.” It set the tone for what was a fabulous working partnership.
Steve Mayer, formally an Executive Producer with IMG and now the Chief Content Officer at the NHL, has always been consistent support and mentor. He and I worked together on numerous televised events such as “Battle of the Grid Iron Stars” and “The World’s Strongest Man”. His creativity, enthusiasm and drive to add production value to every show was infectious. His approach made us all better at our jobs.
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 am not sure I had a clear vision to start, but I did have a purpose. I felt many people I had worked for were assholes quite frankly. I believed I could run a business differently where clients and employees were all treated well. My mantra was if employees took care of the company, the company would take care of them. This has continually evolved, and we have worked to create a kind and caring culture. We really give a shit. When it comes to being right or kind, we choose kind.
We are also seeking to work with brands interested in making a positive impact on their communities. 2K Foundations is a wonderful example of this focus. We are grateful to work with 2K on the execution of many programs, which aim to enrich low-income areas and underrepresented groups through improved venues for play and learning.
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?
Times are uncertain — period. In many ways, change is the only constant and turbulence is inevitable. This is true in business and life. In today’s fast-paced world, the volatility is all the more palpable, which makes it important to be prepared to navigate the ups and downs.
Good communication is paramount. I believe in transparent and sincere communication, especially when the messaging feels difficult. You need to make sure everyone in your business or partnership is clear on the direction and goals. That way everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction. When things seem overwhelming break goals down into smaller attainable tasks so you can celebrate many small wins along the way. This helps to manage morale and motivation as well. At the end of the day, it is all about the journey. At NRG, we strive to make the journey enjoyable no matter the weather.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not sure I have ever considered giving up. Knowledge and experience have shown me that even in the most dismal hour, I was able to survive. The financial crisis in 2008/2009 brought some tough times for me with the loss of a lot of business. We had to scale back the business overhead, lay off staff and really dig deep. It was as close to fatal as you could get but we made it through. Looking back, it re-affirmed that being nimble and agile was the best way I could run my business. It forced us to reexamine everything including structure, staffing, overhead, processes and financing. It wasn’t easy, but as a friend once told me, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Having clear goals has helped me to continue forward. I also value adaptability because sometimes you need to pivot or change your goals, but that is ok because you are still in the pursuit of a greater vision. When that happens, be sure to articulate changes to your team so they can feel secure with the new plan as well.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Let people know there is a way. Show them the path to achieving your goals. Make sure your goals are achievable milestones and help them connect the steps. Also, never underestimate the importance of your team’s individual experiences. Take the time to know your team and listen to their concerns. Let them know you genuinely care. Many times, people just want to be heard and understand their personal experience is important. Everyone has their challenges. Supporting each other makes the team stronger.
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?
Let your team see that there are attainable goals to be achieved. Help them see the peace and focus that can be achieved through focusing on the many small steps that can be accomplished. Don’t let anxiety paralyze progress. Keep moving.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Execute difficult communications with compassion but be direct and transparent. There is no sense in sugar-coating things. Get the important details and facts out in the open and then guide the conversation toward the next steps to alleviate the issues.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A natural part of event production is preparing contingency plans. You have to keep your plans adaptable to change. I like to say you can’t have a Plan B without a Plan A.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Over the lifetime of a business, there will always be turbulent times. Knowing that “this too shall pass” helps to keep a focus on the future, however difficult it might be at the time. Having a business plan that has some flexibility and allows for adjustment along the way will help to take some of the fear and anxiety out of decision-making in turbulent times — because you have already planned for it! Stay the course and forgive the mistakes you make along the way. There is a quote from the Bourne Ultimatum (2007) that Noah Vosen says, “You know as well as I do decisions made in real-time are never perfect.” It is so true. Lastly, turbulence doesn’t have to be feared, it can be a refreshing force for change and creation. Be on the lookout for opportunities brought on by change and be open to them.
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?
I would say don’t panic and don’t overreact. When you do, it can be so much harder to recover afterward. Revisit your goals and remind yourself of what you are trying to achieve. Anything less than fatal, you can deal with! Being in business is a journey, and it’s definitely more of a marathon than a sprint. If you ask any marathon runner, the full 26.2 miles is seldom pleasurable.
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?
Even the most skilled business owner will require a decent amount of luck. That said, you must stay on top of your financial health. This can be achieved by always running your operations as lean as possible. Mitigate any losses you might incur. Be sure to establish financial partners you can trust. Have a clear understanding of your breakeven point and cash flow. Make sure you are keeping your business alive so you can seize opportunity when it presents itself.
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.
1.) Communicate. Remind everyone in your company they all matter and you are all pulling toward a common goal.
2.) Protect what you build. Be sure your financial plan and core team remain intact. Do what is required to stay afloat even if it comes to tough decisions or sacrifices.
3.) Have the right financial partners (banks). They provide the financial oxygen you need to survive and will enable you to focus on your product and service development.
4.) Calmly lead by example. Be brave and demonstrate discipline toward your goals.
5.) Be open to new opportunities and stay connected. Don’t let the down times isolate you from your connections.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many quotes that the team hears me repeat often. One that I come back to often is, “Don’t let others dictate whether or not you are successful.” This applies to situations both big and small. Don’t give up. Find a way. Get it done. I like this sentiment because it explains my other life lesson quote, “Success only comes before work in the dictionary.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
NRG Experiential is a marketing agency based in Los Angeles with clients nationwide. Follow our work on our website madewithnrg.com or reach out directly by email at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.