Continuing the theme of this month’s issue, Agency 100, Marc Iskowitz spoke to Renee Wills, client lead and co-founder for A100 member Brick City Greenhouse, about her experience starting agencies inside and outside of holding companies, and what her network-to-indie career path says about the state of the agency world.

Iskowitz: Brick City pops up a lot in conversations about up-and-coming agencies. In fact, as Larry Dobrow wrote in his story lede for the July issue, CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth Sharon Callahan, unprompted, said that she’s been impressed with BCG. It must be nice to hear your name mentioned by such prominent people. 

Wills: It’s very flattering and very rewarding.

Iskowitz: You were an agency executive in the ICC Lowe network at an agency called ICC Lowe Trio. In case people may not recall, ICC was a third health network within IPG, along with FCB Health and McCann Health. And it was then that you and I first crossed paths, in about 2013 or so when I interviewed you for the July issue of that year, so we’ve come full-circle here. And then in 2015, IPG of course consolidated the ICC Lowe health brands including Trio and Pace, but they’re still ongoing entities.

You had a nice long run at Trio, having served as president/GM for nearly six years, from 2010 to 2016 or so. Tell us about the experience of getting appointed GM of that network-owned agency at that time. What was the healthcare agency world like for you at that time?

Wills: Well, I came out of Cline, Davis and Mann at the time, and [former CEO of ICC Lowe] Steve Viviano had this promise of “Come be a manager at ICC Lowe Trio,” and it was something that I couldn’t resist, the promise of having my own little shop but within the protection and with all the support of a larger agency. And so, it was an opportunity to come into a shop that actually did both medical education and promotion. And we were about the size, actually, that Brick City Greenhouse was last year, when I first started. And we more than doubled over the course of my tenure there. 

But it was a really great experience to sink my teeth in and get an understanding of how things work. It wasn’t just about running an account and trying to keep a client happy, it was really thinking about an agency as a whole. I think it was a lovely precursor for Brick City Greenhouse, thinking about what makes employees tick. Actually, one of the more interesting questions in the world is, Are your clients or your employees more important? You know, these kind of more philosophical things. 

It was a fabulous experience. I loved it, thrived in it, worked with some great people, and it really gave me exposure to what the world of IPG was at the time, [specifically] the senior management and an understanding of how a network works. It was great exposure. I really have nothing but good things to say about my experience there.

Iskowitz: Great, so you had come from the Omnicom network and you went to another network-owned shop. You were there for about six years, then we fast-forward to April 2016 and you join with Fred Kinch and his agency—at that time known as Kinch—which started in September 2015. You joined Fred, who is a veteran of the Omnicom network, as well, as co-founder and managing partner of this agency. You and Fred had worked together on Lab 9, I believe, right?

Wills: Correct. So Lab 9 was really an opportunity to be an entrepreneur, also within the organization, because this was a start-up within CDM, and I ran about half of the accounts while I was there. Fred and I worked really closely together, he was the creative director. Ashley Schofield, our other [BCG] partner and creative director, was also a CDM [alum] but she was down at CDM Princeton. 

So, I worked closely with Fred and I knew of Ash and of her work and had some exposure to her there. But Lab 9 was a really neat experience. I always think about your career as building your portfolio of experiences, so [working there] was the nice, natural progression that gave me the knowledge that I needed to go to ICC Trio at the time. But Fred and I had an amazing experience there and I always kind of said to myself, “What if? What if we came back together? Maybe we’ll work together.” I never really envisioned at the time, when that thought passed through my head that, “Oh my gosh, we’ll open up our own agency together.”

But when Fred approached me, at first I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of jumping off the cliff,” because I’d spent my whole career within the “big agency” world and knew how that ran and was pretty comfortable there. But on the other hand, the promise of what we could do and take the learnings and things that we had found out over time, the things that we liked and the things that we didn’t like, and really create something new. That was just too tantalizing to resist.       

Iskowitz: Right, so you had this experience of starting agencies within network holding companies, and now you were being offered had the chance to start something separate. That had to be a little bit scary. 

Wills: It was a little bit scary but actually what was kind of nice is… the stars aligned and [FCB Health president and CEO] Dana Maiman at the time was looking to consolidate. If you think about this whole world of consolidation and reorganization, nothing ever stays the same. She was thinking that she didn’t really need Trio to be a promotional shop and, also, the main ICC Lowe shop, so she wanted to make some changes. So that would perhaps mean that I didn’t have any place to go, was the same time that I decided to take off and fly with Fred and Ash. So, it was perfect. 

Iskowitz: Good timing.

Wills: It was excellent timing.

Iskowitz: So then the three of you started your own shop and eventually it became known as Brick City Greenhouse. Where did the name come from? 

Wills: So, we started with this idea—it was brainstorming. It started with Greenhouse. We liked this idea of Greenhouse—of course, I like gardening and all that kind of stuff—but it was the growth of ideas and a place to nurture things. And “nurturing” is an important word for us, because that’s the kind of the culture [we wanted to create.] We have an “always be kind” kind of culture. And so, nurturing and the fostering of ideas and growing them in an environment that’s really healthy was really where Greenhouse came from. 

But if you try to trademark “Greenhouse,” you really can’t because it’s not unique enough. So we knew we needed to modify it and at the time, we were setting up an office in Newark, and another name for Newark is Brick City. And we loved the idea of being associated with a community that was kind of an unexpected one, that was a vibrant, up-and-coming, more creative kind of community. A place where—I don’t know if you know this, but we give 5% of our net profits to charity, it’s kind of one of the things that drives us, and we direct some of that to Newark. But this idea of Brick City Greenhouse, it’s sort of a fanciful thing. You called us BCG, but a lot of our clients call us Brick City, and I have to say I like that, it’s kind of fun.

Iskowitz: It does have a nice ring. A lesson in branding! It has to have meaning, but it also has to roll off the tongue.

Wills: Well, there’s a lot of names on that list that we went through before we landed on that one. 

Iskowitz: Right. So, there’s a pattern in your career of network-owned followed by small and indie, and we’ll come back to that theme in a moment. First, let’s talk about the decision to start talking about BCG. The thing about your agency is that you really aren’t that new; you were founded in 2015, but the first few years of your existence, you didn’t say a whole lot about yourselves. You didn’t interact with us, per se, with MM&M. Why did you choose to end the silence this year? Talk us through that decision. 

Wills: Well, we sort of wanted to be under the radar , we wanted to build our business, we wanted to fail fast, make some mistakes, see how it went. And we deliberately decided this was the year to come out and be public. Of course, it comes out of us really kind of getting into a groove, and really building up momentum. We had a great year last year. So we thought, “OK, let’s do it,” and we have a story to tell. And we were getting a little feedback from different places. There was a little buzz about us that had started, and we were like “OK, so let’s start feeding the buzz, let’s come out and tell folks who we are.” 

Iskowitz: And part of that story is your unique model. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Wills: Our model is one, if you look at the core, is that we have to do the same thing for ourselves as we do for our clients. So, we have our own positioning statement. Brick City Greenhouse is all about bringing out the best in brands and in the people that serve them. So our model, as we think about things, is thinking about how we deliver upon that. And some of it has to do with removing the barriers that get in the way, like some of the more transactional things that we see, that we don’t like as much within the agency world. 

And some of them include, how do we really bring out the best? Some of it is removing barriers. Some of it is, how do you grow in that Greenhouse kind of way? How do you fertilize the best? And so, there’s a few things about our model. We talked earlier about the fact that we don’t have the regular billable hour. The billable hour model is kind of a limiting thing, and there’s a nice cascade of things that come from that [model]. 

We also have a remote-working arrangement, but those are features. When I really ladder it all up, it’s about bringing out the best in our brand and in our people. It’s about attracting talent, and attracting great talent, and one of the things that we keep hearing is “trust.” Our employees feel trusted and empowered, and that’s kind of an interesting area. 

Another thing that’s really interesting and I think that keeps coming up is this idea of work-life balance. Except that, work-life balance implies that there’s a work “you” and a personal “you”. And work is not your life, but I think that at Brick City Greenhouse, maybe we’ve cracked it a little bit, where we think that we found a way to really be able to live the full “you” in a seamless, fluid way, because you’re available for work but you’re also available for your personal life. 

And one of the things is that, if you have an 8 a.m. client call—by the way, agencies don’t love being in the office by 8 a.m., it’s just so early for people—but if you have to do it from your house, it’s no big deal. There’s not a stress. Or, if there’s something that someone’s working on and they need me to review it, I don’t need to be in the office. I’m home, I can review it on my own time. If you like to work at 6 a.m., work at 6 a.m., go ahead, but don’t expect other people to do so. So it’s an interesting model in that it allows for people to work the way they want to work and be the person they want to be.

Iskowitz: So, those are the benefits. Are there limits to that style of working?

Wills: So… I haven’t found them yet, but there are certain implications. It means you have to hire the right kind of people. We tend to hire very senior, very seasoned people. We call them “A-level talent,” but they’re really fantastic, great people. Our model is contingent upon us hiring the right people, because we give them complete trust. 

Iskowitz: Right; given that kind of flexibility, you have to hire the right people.

Wills: And our model is also contingent upon us really getting the work right from the start. If you think about it—you’ve asked me more generally about the remote model, but…if you go down the remote model as a sequence of events, it allows so many different things. 

Iskowitz: I know you brought along some employee testimonials. Why don’t you read some?

Wills: I would love to, because I think it’s so interesting. So one of our employees, our editorial lead, Brandon Kopceuch, said (and I love this): “I actually get to see my family now. Instead of just breakfast, bedtime and the weekends, I’ve got my life back.” And then he goes on to say, “There’s no commute, so I have more time doing actual work that matters, and working late isn’t an issue because you’re home and you’re comfortable.” It’s really nice to hear it in his words versus mine. 

And from Amy Wuestefeld, our project director: “The world is my office. I can literally work from the car or the parking lot or from an appointment. I’m actually more inclined to get ahead of certain projects of my own after hours. Just because I happen to be in the groove at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday doesn’t mean that I expect everyone else to be.” It’s nice to hear these themes echoed among some of the other folks. 

Work-life balance is hard to achieve, but Holli Molzon, who is a copy supervisor, said, “Ultimately, there’s no need to balance between work and life. The agency model allows you to just simply live your life. It’s seamlessly woven together without feeling like you’re always on.” I thought that was really cool. And then from Lauren Thompson, who is our project lead (and said she got a little teary when she wrote this), “Before BCG, I was only getting to see my kids during the panic rush for all to leave home in the morning and then briefly, if at all, in the evenings. Now, even when things are busy, I can simply get a download of my kids’ day at school. I can throw the uniform in the wash and even move it to the dryer.

“These are such small things, but not things you can do from your office. It’s the culmination of all these little connections and responsibilities as a parent. That when you’re unable to fit them in your work day—because you’re held hostage in an office, leading to horrendous guilt that you’re falling short for your family…” I think we can all relate to that! “For the last year, I have been intertwined in both work and my family, and because the guilt is alleviated, the resentment of work is alleviated. That’s what’s created an actual balance.” I thought that was kind of cool.

Iskowitz: As a dad and husband, I can certainly relate to that. I work from home one day a week and it definitely has its advantages.

Wills: It’s life’s little moments!

Iskowitz: Right. And some people might prefer a 9-to-5 arrangement, or one where they can leave their work life at work and have their home life at home, but this sounds like it’s more in step with lifestyles today; many people feel like they shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. 

Wills: And if you think of what that really means for our clients, it means we can attract the most amazing talent. That’s the number one thing that we can do for our clients, it’s having great people doing the work. And an advertising agency is only about its people, so we can attract and retain, importantly, great talent.

Iskowitz: And you don’t have any overhead? Or have low overhead?

Wills: Well, that’s also a benefit to our clients, which is also a benefit for our employees, but for our clients that low overhead means that we can afford to have a higher ratio of senior-level talent in our organization. So I think our clients would probably rather that we put their money toward talent versus our office.

Iskowitz: And in theory the more senior talent you have, the less redos and the less layers of review to go through, so projects can get done more quickly.

Wills: You got it. What I like to say about getting rid of the billable-hour model is that it puts the incentives in the right place. So, if you had an hourly model, you might have more incentives to put more process in place, and have more people work on the job, and things like that. Our incentive is to just have the right amount of process, to have the right amount of checks and balances and to put senior-level people on a project, or on a business, or on a strategic challenge or a creative challenge so that it will hit a home run right from the start. And that leads to really happy clients. And honestly, as an agency, that means that we’re more profitable, so everybody wins.

Iskowitz:  Would you say that your sweet spot is still the small-to-mid-size pharma company and smaller brands among large pharma?

Wills: That’s probably true. Anybody or any brand that’s not really served by the big agency model is kind of where our sweet spot is. And the reason they’re not being served is because maybe they’re not getting access to A-level talent; they probably don’t have the budgets to get that. So we can bring—and that’s one of the things that my awesome partners, Ash and Fred, we came together and we all agreed on. We wanted to roll up our sleeves and get back into the business, not of managing an agency but of working with clients. 

When we say “senior-level talent,” what’s really, really clear—and sometimes people think, “Oh, that’s the partners,” and that’s not the way that we look at it at all. It’s the people we hire. Yes, Ash and Fred and I are involved in so many different things, but we hire great people who are able to do great things on their own. So we love coming to work everyday. 

Iskowitz: The agency runs without you, Fred and Ash.

Wills: Correct, and that’s really important. That’s important, the scaling, but also this wouldn’t be a good place to work if our employees felt they had to run everything by us.

Iskowitz: Right, although that could be the way some other places do work, but it’s key to your model. I want to go backwards a bit, if that’s okay. And, as I mentioned, there’s a little bit of a pattern in your CV now: network-owned followed by small and indie. The way Brick City operates and the way it rolled out, how much of that would you say was a conscious response to your previous, big agency experience?

Wills: I think everything in life is kind of leading one foot in front of the other and you learn from the good and the bad. So, absolutely, I think that what we were trying to be was [maximizing] all the good and trying to minimize the bad. There’s people and companies that inherently have good things and bad things, so we had a broad perspective of the agency landscape. And we know what we like and we know what we don’t like as much, and we’re really trying to be the best that we can be, and that [makes it] exciting to get up everyday. 

We don’t have the pressures of a publicly traded company. We pride ourselves on being as transparent as we can possibly be, we don’t have to play in the grey area. We can say no to a new business opportunity if it doesn’t feel right. We can do what’s right, and that’s something that we always try to do. We always do the right thing, and that also is a benefit we bring to our clients. If we’re going to bring on an outside partner, we tell our clients who the partner is. If something’s not in our wheelhouse, we’ll let our clients know. And importantly, if we come up with this project that we think can make us a lot of money, but isn’t going to benefit our client’s business, we’re not going to put it forward. What we’re trying to do is do the right thing and we think the money will follow. 

Iskowitz: Sure. I’m just thinking there’s a whole host of agencies that have arisen that seem to be positioned as alternatives to the larger agency model—I’m thinking [BCG], CrowdPharm, Create NYC, Strikeforce—that utilize this virtual model. I think they have positioned themselves as such. It seems to be gaining momentum. Looking back now, having the benefit of hindsight, did big work for you? 

Wills: Oh yeah, I think I am who I am today because of it, so there is a place for big. There’s places for all of these opportunities, there’s a large world of opportunity. And yes, we compete with each other, but clients need options. It seemed like for a little while, there was “consolidation, consolidation, consolidation,” and talking to Procurement folks, they want something fresh. There’s a real need for fresh choices, and so there’s a lid for every pot. I totally believe in that.

Iskowitz: Would you say that we’re getting toward the point where the downsides of working with network-owned shops exceed the benefits? 

Wills: I’m not down on big agencies. I think there’s a perfect place for them and there are certain clients for them. But for me, I’m happy where I am, and I love what we’re doing right now. I think that it benefits a lot of clients. But there’s still a place for the large agencies in this world. I’m not going to say that I’m anti-big.

Iskowitz: Having the luxury of hindsight, you’re able to put things into perspective, and everything has its place. Talk about the end of your time with ICC. How did that shake out in terms of the decision at the time to fold ICC into FCB?

Wills: There were three IPG players, McCann and IPG and FCB, and in the world of consolidation—and of course I wasn’t privy to those decisions—IPG decided to fold ICC into FCB, and Dana Maiman was doing an amazing job of growth and that continues today. So we got folded, so then it became just McCann and FCB as the two IPG [networks]. And so I went to work for Dana as the head of Trio, and I enjoyed doing that for a year and got to see a lot of what she was doing there and she was building an impressive organization. 

Iskowitz: It’s interesting that both you and Steve Viviano left network-owned agencies and wound up at indie shops—Steve being at QBFox Healthcomm. What does it say that both of you have decamped for and remain in the indie camp?

Wills: I think it’s because we love agencies, we have a lot to give. We have these great ideas and want our own places where we can bring those ideas to fruition. And it’s the next stage in our evolution, of our personal growth. We have some good years left in us, we really love what we do, and it’s fun to see what we can do. And we’ll have to see where that takes us. Of course, I shouldn’t be speaking for Steve, by the way.

Iskowitz: We’ll check in with him, don’t worry.

Leonardo Lopez Carreno contributed to this report.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to this episode of the podcast, which aired July 17, 2019, click here.