I *had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Gabor the entrepreneurial spirit behind female owned and operated, Clever Creative. Driven by curiosity and a desire to make work that supports brands, their big vision and bold ideas, she oversees the new business strategy as well as the direction and growth of her team, capitalizing on her knowledge of what industry experts and audiences are drawn to. *
A graduate of the University of Southern California, Shannon honed her passion for both sides of the creative coin by majoring in Fine Arts and minoring in Communications. With over two decades of experience building brands, Shannon got her start working in entertainment promotions for Burger King and 7-Eleven before joining Mattel on global packaging design and worldwide licensing, living abroad in Hong Kong for a year. Advocating for the human connection in branding, Shannon has taken Clever from backyard office to an award-winning and full-service branding agency that’s proudly supporting iconic brands like Warner Bros., Tastemade, Starbucks and Netflix by finding new and exciting ways to champion unexpected results that delight. Shannon is the human connector at Clever and the reason why brands keep coming back for more. With over two decades of experience in building global packaging programs at Mattel, developing new product lines for Target, and developing creative and compelling franchise partnership promotions for Warner Bros. and Netflix, she more than understands what compels a brand to hire an agency and what an agency needs to do to make that brand a success.
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?
Throughout my career, I have been discovering how to connect the dots between creativity and business. As a Fine Art major / Communications minor at USC, I recognized the push and pull of my left and right brain. While developing myself as a creative for the first ten years of my career: agency side and brand side; it was during my 5-year mark at Mattel post a 6-month assignment in their Hong Kong offices that I needed more. It simply was not enough to ‘just be’ creative as I found myself drawn to the conference rooms where strategic marketing and sales conversations were taking place.
It was then, 2005, that I realized I needed to move on, leave stability, and a paycheck for the unknown. Clever Creative was born. Building my own agency and pulling up new chairs to the table, defining a set of values and a mission that meant something deeper, employing young, diverse talents and hiring the person not the resume. Becoming an entrepreneur, fulfilled many roles for me and continues to as I grow and develop inside my own company.
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?
Adding an extra ‘0’ by accident to a scope of work project budget in our second year Clever. It was a serendipitous moment as it reminded me that I am more valuable than I assign myself to be when estimating budgets and creative worth. So be sure that you really set intentional value on the service you provide.
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?
Sue Davis, my first woman boss. She showed me through her actions and by example of what confidence and strength looks like in a traditionally male dominated industry. I remember her strength in meetings, so I misunderstood it for being aggressive, but I always saw it for her believing in what she was saying, owning every word, and at the same time making sure she had the best interest of not just her staff but her inner self. she ran a streamlined, operationally effective and financially sound creative studio.
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?
The vision for Clever was to simplify the way that brands and agencies work together. As I had been on both the agency side and on the brand side in house as a creative, over the years I saw a lot of complexity in the process that took away the momentum from the creative journey. Change orders and budget restrictions forcing the creative team and I to pursue amazing ideas; layers between the client and the creative team resulting at times in incorrect feedback or a bottle stop for us to get direct access to the client to clarify. It was a telephone game and caused a lot of extra time that quite honestly, I saw could be avoided and simplified. I realized that if I could build a strategic minded creative agency that was small, agile and industry experienced, we could serve the client and their brands in a way that was high-touch, tailored and high value.
We landed on our vision “To create meaningful connections between real humans and honest brands” and our mission, “We are creative mavericks who champion unexpected results that delight.”
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?
I define leadership as the ability to authentically and generously guide others and the vision of a company without losing yourself and your humanness in the process. Leadership must be met with what I call ‘human metrics’, ways to know how you show up in work and business that are true to your own personal values and moral compass. In turbulent times like today, this is more important than ever. At the same time I must be clear with my team that it is in everyone’s interest if I continue to evaluate the financial health, client opportunities and internal operational functions of the agency in order to keep us strong to weather this pandemic.
In mid-March, after making difficult decisions which included staff layoffs and furloughs, forgoing my own salary and working with my Director of Operations to cut our operating costs by 35% in less than 2 weeks at Clever, I knew I needed to get my team’s heart, heads and creativity back in flow. We sadly were reduced from 12 clients to 4 and I knew that I needed to have the remaining team working while I searched for new clients and projects. I embraced a post-it that I scribbled on a Monday that read “Don’t let this crisis go to waste’. I quickly realized after week one of COVD19 that there was no playbook for me to follow and use, I had to harness my entrepreneurial abilities to go right into innovation and out of denial and hopelessness.
As the leader, I had to find a new way to engage and inspire my team who were navigating their own emotions and finding their own balance working from home. I sought out our Q1 pipeline and wrote the name of clients or brands that reached out to Clever but either passed or went silent. I decided to reach out to them with The Clever Solve–a one-time, no-strings, 40-hour strategic and creative brand thinking opportunity. The Clever Solve was a win-win born out of these unprecedented times–inspiring my team with consistent, challenging new projects, and supporting fellow struggling business owners and brands.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Here is what I know. Entrepreneurs and business owners are cut by their failures, and near failures. We all have failed and wanted to give up, every entrepreneur has this moment, but it is the fire in our guts that keeps us going. There are too many people who rely on me to stop pushing forward even when I have little in the tank or the rock rolling back on the hills picks up speed. Reflecting back on the hard times in our businesses allows us to frame that we got through ‘XYZ’ and oftentimes we don’t even remember, which reminds me that it always feels harder in the moment and that nothing hard lasts forever. My drive is sustained by my commitment to my staff, my own growth and the support that I bring to my family.
Not the pandemic per say, but our collective response. One week we’re shuttered, the next, we’re masked. Each problem we solved will demand a new way to solve in the coming months, weeks, and days to follow. We’re in iteration mode for the long haul–staffing, process, work setups, clients, and projects.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Staying focused on the financial side of your business and ensuring that the stability of your operation is in a solid state while taking the time to be sure your team is both mentally and creatively healthy. When your operation is smaller than it was before, and you are working tirelessly to keep it stable, every person must rise and have the rigor to contribute on a new level. At the same time, we are all overextended and I recognize that. Utilization, commitment and motivating the team to rise higher and go further is critical in turbulent times, as it is clear that an owner cannot do it alone. We have all made a commitment to each other as employers to employees — -and a leader in these challenging times must stay clear on the balance of what your people need while not forgetting what the company needs from your people to keep us all stable. I believe that communication is key and as a leader, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need from your team in order to weather the times in this unexpected moment — -a leader can’t keep the boat afloat without their team on deck navigating the swells in unison.
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?
I am a work in progress in this arena, as these are uncharted territories. I focus on ensuring that I take the time to do 1:1 meetings to see how each of them are doing. Not focused only on work and productivity but also mental health and wellness.
Leadership in this moment in time can continue to show up human. Being able to read your teams faces on every virtual call, tap into what you know may be an overwhelming schedule and reach out with a conversation to see how and what you may be able to do to support them daily. I also believe that there is a mutual level of respect that a team during these very unprecedented times should tap into. That includes thinking about the other responsibilities each member of your team may have in terms of caregiving in addition to their work responsibilities.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With candor, human tone and for me either in person (virtually) or on a phone call. I feel that confident people who are willing to get uncomfortable but who know the value of human communication, know that an email is not the solution. Those who are not confident, in my o
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I believe that companies and brands today, should be using this time to reevaluate their own strength, impact and their ways of communicating to both their internal audience and external audience.
Building trust and ensuring that you have an ear to the ground to really see in real time what your people will need coming out of the storm will be majorly critical.
And sometimes we all just have to recognize and except to sit in the space we are in and not try to predict anything out of our control. Control what you can and the variables that you are familiar with, push forth with as much innovation that you can and do a gut check and recognize that you were in this not alone and that you’re doing the very best you can.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Survival of the quickest has been my phrase and principle. As the CEO of a small seven-person company, it was my responsibility to gain a new acumen to protect what I built, and to protect as many people I could within my organization. There was no room for emotional decisions, had to accept that not only was change unavoidable but mandatory if the agency had a chance of survival.
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?
- Waiting to see what will happen and keeping their heads in the sand.
- Not taking a crisis serious enough from day one.
- Continuing to do business as usual serving their company and audiences with the same level of offering rather than innovating and seeking out ways to pivot.
- Unaware of their financial runway in order to continue running a business without the risk of financing the business with loans or additional types of debt.
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?
Do a brand wellness check up on your own brand. Take the time with your team to evaluate your product, how you position in the market and also how you’re engaging with your community. There are always ways to improve how we behave within our own brand, but often times we have competing priorities. This crisis is giving us many different gifts some of the uncomfortable and unexpected kind, but there are many gifts in this moment take advantage of them.
Make a plan and position yourself stronger for the future. Your future self and the future of your brand will look back with a enormous appreciation.
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.
- Understand the effect and impact on their business
- Connect 1:1 with active clients to gauge the effect on your business
- Evaluate agency operations to cut costs with a plan
- During the first 3 to 5 weeks of this incredibly difficult, an uphill moment of my business as an owner, I knew quickly that I needed to identify one to two people on my staff that I knew I could bring under the fold to support me in making clear, informed and quick decisions to protect the health of the business for the future.
- I leaned on the minds of those who I needed first, finance and operations. we created actionable moments and meetings and milestones in the first 15 days of the pandemic. I am proud that I was able to remove my people pillar as a leader, which was very difficult, but necessary. I knew has a business an owner operator enterprise that I needed to harness the strength of my other pillar, discipline and truth. The truth was this was not going to get better. The discipline meant I was going to have to work harder and work differently.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nothing bad ever last forever.
At this moment in time this happens to be my favorite grounding quote. It’s not one that typically rose to the top if you were to ask me this question a year ago, but in this moment in time it is a simple, yet so extremely powerful set of words. I keep it posted on my office wall at home and I keep it posted to my peloton bike. It has so many applications of truth in one’s life right now and it’s keeping my head in the game.
How can our readers further follow your work?
@clevercreative on Instagram
@shannongabor on Instagram