August 9, 2018
Pithy Conversations with CEOs
Moira Vetter is CEO and Founder of Modo Modo Agency and author of "AdVenture, An Outsider's Inside View of Getting an Entrepreneur to Market."
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John: Hello, everyone. This is a new series that we're doing which is called Pithy Conversations with CEOs. Today we're very fortunate to have Moira Vetter of Modo Modo Agency, a long term client of the firm. Moira, welcome to the show.
Moira: Thank you so much.
Evelyn: So glad to have you today, Moira.
Moira: We're going to have fun.
Evelyn: We're not going to be mean to you. We're so happy you agreed to be our first CEO so it's a little test case.
Moira: That's okay. I'm a good guinea pig.
John: The point of these conversations is obviously to have people talk about their role as CEOs, their experiences, how they've learned to operate within their business because every CEO has a different strategy, different environment and different I guess ways-
John: It's always good to learn from each other so we're fortunate to get your expertise today.
Moira: Absolutely. I'm ready to spill the beans.
Evelyn: Moira, tell us a little bit about your background and how you actually even came to form Modo Modo.
Moira: Okay. I was a college dropout and came to Atlanta and worked retail and ended up being a temp and my second day of temping, I was placed at a high tech startup here in Atlanta. It really just started a huge trajectory for me in high growth, high growth entrepreneurship and, although I'm now in the marketing and advertising space, I've done a tremendous amount of work in marketing and advertising with technology companies. At the time, coming to Atlanta in the '90s when tech was exploding here, I was a very formative creature and really had a great opportunity to come up under some interesting leaders so I think some of the questions or the discussion points that we have today will be interesting because I was able to draw very different things from different kinds of CEOs.
Evelyn: Interesting. What was it about the tech company that actually engaged you?
Moira: It was very small. I will say that and, for me, again, I had just turned 19 and I started as a receptionist. I then became a customer service person supporting a tech product and then I wanted to try bookkeeping so I did finance for a year and then I said, "I want to try the sales and marketing thing." I did the sales and marketing thing and was able to work with an agency, which is what ultimately drew me in there. The thing that I liked about it was because it was so small, I was able to wear those hats and I was able to get very close to a very broad set of things that I think have been a good foundation as an entrepreneur because I didn't come into the world on some sort of post college path where they put me in my little box and I didn't have perspective around me. That first company, I was there three years and really wearing that many hats in that period of time with highly supportive people that trusted me has made a huge difference.
Evelyn: Amazing. How much longer after ... You were interacting with a marketing agency. When you left company, did you form Modo Modo then?
Moira: Oh no. No, no. I've had a few more rides on the agency train before I formed Modo Modo. Let's go through that. When I left there, I did a few marketing jobs, more of the corporate marketing kind of jobs and then I had an opportunity to join an agency. Evelyn, I believe you knew [Folio Z 00:03:58] at the time. I worked there for eight years and they were the technology marketing authority was the company's tagline so we worked on a tremendous amount of tech businesses, complex B2B. I was there for eight years and, again, I rose through account service but then was in operations and really a lot of direct leadership in the agency and scaling it. The company was bought and the company was shut down. I was given two weeks notice, having been there eight years and thought I would retire at this company and, by the way, still hadn't gotten my college degree so I was 31 and went, "Oh my gosh, this might matter to somebody if I'm trying to apply for a job as a vice president of something. I don't have a college degree. I hadn't really thought about that." I had been going to college at night but I hadn't completed the degree. At that point, I was both devastated that the company was gone and thinking I wouldn't be able to go work anywhere else anyway. I started a small marketing firm that I had for about three years, doing marketing to technology companies in the dot bomb. All the companies ...
Evelyn: That was fun.
Moira: ... I tried to serve went out of business or stopped doing marketing to stay in business. It was not a good time. I did that for about three years and I didn't really have a scale plan. I know that at some point we may talk about in the business and on the business but I was in the business for three years and there was no opportunity to get myself up and out of that. I went to work at a firm, Merge Agency, that was owned in part by North Highland Company. The week that I started at the company was when North Highland made the investment and they really intended this to be a creative firm that could scale alongside the consulting firm and they talked about it being a third stream of revenue. These are going to be opportunities and projects that together we can get that we could not get alone. That was a fascinating ride. I was there, I think, almost five years and it enabled me to work with enormous companies. It enabled me, I became president a year in of app merchandise so I ran the company and we scaled up to about 35 people. I was able to work directly with Kirk Hancock who was the CFO of $100 million company so in terms of both the clients that I had interaction with as well as just the management caliber of the people that were holding me accountable, it was really wonderful.
Now getting to Modo Modo, having done that and been on that ride and then helping two other people grow their firms, one for eight years, one for five, I just really needed to do it for myself. I came up in a family business. My dad owned a pharmacy and my mother was the manager of the pharmacy so I know what it feels like for it to be yours ...
Evelyn: Be the owner.
Moira: ... put the key in the door and have that sense of pride. I was pushing 40 so that was coming at me. I got to do this now. We started Modo and we started it with a very specific perspective. The reason that my passion for what our business became, I had kind of found myself, and a lot of CEOs that I talk to ... Not CEOs, presidents of other people's companies, I will say, find themselves in this rub where their own passions or strategies are not what the company is pursuing. In the previous agency, we were supposed to be digital. It was a digital core, digital was everything so the religion was digital. Everything we were supposed to talk about was that. Modo is really media agnostic. Marketing and brand are these enormous ideas, right? They have to be supported with strategy and fact and your own ability to execute and basically aligning people so that they can be in agreement and deliver on that brand to people. That might not mean that you need something digital. Of course everybody needs digital things these days and that is often the delivery method of so much it but if ...
Evelyn: There's so much more tied to it.
Moira: There's so much more and I just could not go into every conversation. I couldn't get up every day and say ...
Evelyn: Straight digital.
Moira: ... "How do I talk about this digital thing when I'm so excited about ... "
Evelyn: That's so interesting because a consulting company, you would think that since they are a consulting company that talking strategy would actually be part of what they wanted you to do.
Moira: It was, however, at the time ... I'm less familiar with North Highland now and they really diversified but they really got their start as an IT consulting company so they were heavily in e-commerce departments. They were with technology people.
Evelyn: Very back end technology.
Moira: Yes, CTO relationships. I understand why for them having ...
Evelyn: That made sense.
Moira: ... a creative digital arm made sense.
John: When you started Modo Modo, what made you think that was going to have a different result than the first agency that you started?
Moira: Before I started the company ... Our founding day was, I just had to fill this in on some paperwork recently. I think it's October 4th of 2007. On my birthday that year I went to the mountains and I wrote a business plan and I really wrote a complete business plan and I wrote a complete business plan intending to scale. I took copy of "The E-Myth Revisited" with me and I really thought about how do you create an idea. What are the systems you need around the idea? What are the people you need to support the systems? I've taken a little longer than I would like to to get that whole thing firing but I began with that in mind.
I think that it made all the difference because we had hit $1 million in our first year. Again, now we've grown a little less rapidly than I would like but the last two years have been pretty significant. We're an Inc 5,000 company and we're going to find out in a few weeks if we're an Inc 5,000 company again. Growth now is truly enabled by the early planning that we put in and the differences, though, is I have ... Again, looking at my 50th birthday. I'm a big one about milestones. You got to get certain things done.
Moira: Right and so for 40, it was I want my own thing and I want to be able to love the thing that I'm talking about and help people and truly be passionate about it so that we could be authentic but additionally, I think I still enjoyed doing the craft as much as growing the agency and now pushing 50, I want to grow the agency. I want to grow the people that are passionate about the things that I was passionate about 10 years ago. It really requires you to sometimes take yourself out of doing things that you love to ensure that the other people that need to be able to do those things can do them.
Evelyn: Can get to that point.
John: Tell me a little bit about the company culture at Modo Modo. What's it like to work there?
Moira: We're crazy. Very crazy. We talk about ourselves as very high performance. We're sort of like a high performing team. We have a lot of past collegiate athletes that work at the company and some that are still in tennis now, some that still swim now that were collegiate swimmers, ice skaters. We have one of our guys, and everybody's sick of me talking about it, but he caught a touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl years ago.
Moira: I think that people that have that performance mindset, which is it's never good enough, it's never good enough. We've got to do this better. We have to do it more efficiently. We have to raise the ball. We have to change the relationship with them to enhance it because familiarity breeds contempt and crappy creative. I think that that's really important to us and I feel that in a busy high pressure environment like advertising and marketing are, you have high pressure and then you have to let off. We are ridiculously politically incorrect. Humor, F bombs. It's very ... We have to carefully say, "Okay, we've got a client coming in." We don't have dogs in the office.
Evelyn: Pull it together.
Moira: We're not Google. We're not going to give everybody a full buffet or whatever but the things that matter to people, we have different employees in different stages of their lives. The ones that are mothers with young children, we make sure that they are able to do what they need to do to take care of those young children. The ones that are younger guys, there are whole different things that they're interested in like I don't want to pay for this healthcare. I don't use it. I don't go to the doctor. Okay. How do we ... It's all the little things that, again, I talked about being in a family business. We really take a familial approach to everybody. We are a big family and ...
Moira: Yes, very much about everybody's humanity. One of our employees right now is having an issue with her dog and the dog got sick yesterday. Go deal with the dog. In terms of, though ... This is important because I was really struggling with the millennial thing along with everyone else on Earth for several years and now they've gotten older. They've gotten kicked in the teeth some. Some of them have moved around and really found what they like so it's different. It's not just air quotes millennials. They are different than they were but one of the things that I do find that younger people want often is harmony, peace and harmony. I want everybody to be nice to each other. I want every idea to be considered and one of the things that we've had to work on with our younger people is understanding that in our business, in a creative business, friction is necessary and actually leads to ...
Evelyn: The best work.
Moira: ... better creative. Yes. Our goal is not harmony. None of it's personal but it may get ugly and it may get tense. You might be in a meeting that's extremely tense and that's okay. Especially if we get past all that crap and something amazing comes out on the other side of it but great creative does not come from everybody sitting around and patting people on the back for ...
Evelyn: Wow, we're doing so good. Oh yes, I love your idea.
Moira: It's so great. The first idea you had.
Moira: It's not reasonable to think that would happen and so we've had to have a lot of conversations with the younger people. It's funny. We seem to have two kinds of people. We have crazy, gregarious, outgoing, loud people who can just move on in two seconds from anything and then we have some extremely quiet, extremely nice, extremely intelligent people and it's those people that we've had to nurture along to say, "I want you to develop more range in your voice. I need to know if you're mad by your tone. If there's an issue going on, I need you to be able to modulate and our clients need that. We, from an internal standpoint, need that."
Culturally, we do all this volunteer work. We do all this great stuff but I think what's most important is how we are teaching this kind of ... I don't know, something about that performance culture and the idea that you can both be in a tense environment but that does not mean it is a bad environment.
Evelyn: Right. Okay, but that whole cultural net, let's call it that, has that come from your office alone?
Moira: Oh no, no, no.
Evelyn: How have you actually made sure that that's there?
Moira: Yes. Let's start with the management team because I talked about really focusing now on the managers that are growing the company. We've got eight managers and they've all been at the company more than seven years. They've been hearing it. They know it and so one of the things that's important about those managers is we have our values. We have staff meetings where we talk about what those mean and what demonstrating that stuff looks like and how to cope and all of that but really making sure that our managers call people on the stuff. Those are the things we want you to do more of and those are the things we want you to do less of. It is really ... I've noticed it more but sometimes you have to tell people you know you have not only permission to do this but I'm expecting you to do this. Expect me to do this less because I expect you to do this more.
Moira: It could be dumb things like why do you guys leave your dishes in the sink and you don't load the dishwasher, right? Stuff like that. Does it take the CEO to do it and then after it's the CEO, it's the office manager or can anyone that's on the management team say, "Get in the kitchen and get the sink-
Evelyn: Load the dishwasher.
Moira: Right, right. I do think there's kind of this progression, particularly people who haven't been managers before, of understanding where their boundaries are. They all have been told take this and run with it. For god's sakes, you've been here seven years, we trust you. We picked you for a reason. You have the complete support of us to do what you need to do, to grow the people and to maintain the culture. Again, I said already we're politically incorrect and we're goofy and we do have a lot of humor but one of the things that we've had to guard against is snarkiness because gossip and snarkiness ... Snark is the truth disguised as humor and we really do not want that. There have been a lot of things where a backhanded compliment, we're not going to do that.
Moira: It's going to snowball.
Evelyn: Have you had challenges though, even with your managers, in getting them comfortable with the communication level that is necessary to give feedback like that and make sure that the culture is there?
Evelyn: How have you addressed that?
Moira: My management style has been to ... It's a progression of things. I'm going to model it and you're going to attend with me so you see me do it. Then you are going to do it and I will attend so I'm there to back you up if it doesn't go well or there's some issue and then the next time you'll do it yourself. We've had a couple of those recently. We had to resign a client and that has been something that was always reserved for me because that's above my pay grade and so we had to have a client resigned recently and I said, "I'm not doing it." There was this moment of shock that ... Not because I didn't think they needed to go but I'm not doing it so you now have to do that. Of course, you want to throw up. It's tough but they had the conversation and it was fine and it was better and it needed to happen and we gave them referrals to other people and we'll all be whole but now that manager has the experience of having done it. Until you have done it ... We've had different things like that and everybody's a little bit on different paths. People are learning to be more productive in doing performance reviews. We've had someone recently that had to let someone go and, again, that was something in the past that was typically for me.
Evelyn: Reserved for you.
Moira: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I did attend that one but I said next to nothing and it worked out really well. It was done well and then we had a conversation afterward about what went well about that, what didn't. Isn't it hard? I feel like ...
Evelyn: That's how anyone's tool kit gets built. You actually have to experience it yourself.
Moira: You do.
Evelyn: It's always scary no matter what you're doing the first time but-
Moira: We're big on context. I don't think ... Yes, we do throw people in the frying pan but I think if you're throwing them in the frying pan and give them some context for this is going to hurt. It will hurt for this long. You will be fine after the fact. I think we try to do that with all of the staff. We had a staff meeting the other day and we talked a lot about this performance culture. We are growing rapidly. We are not going to pull back. We are going to push forward and as we do, we're going to start changing a lot of things and change is not bad and change will be constant but we want you to have some context for why some of the things that may start changing around you will change and why that is.
We did a staff meeting. Instead of the rah, rah, we're great. Isn't the work great? Welcome so-and-so, happy birthday. We do those staff meetings but this one was very much about where we have to go and making sure that everybody had some context for why when we do something with choosing different sets of clients, we do that or why we might bring someone in that is more senior to people because we may bring some outside people. We have been a grow from within so everybody's got to get okay with that and all sorts of things, totally changing what we're doing, deciding to stay in our office footprint and wedging a lot more people in. I don't know if you know anything about that but I just looked at my potential lease prospects in that building and I said, "We are staying where we are."
Evelyn: Bring those carols in.
Moira: That's right.
John: We're stacked on top of each other.
Evelyn: Yes, we are.
Moira: Yes, yes.
Evelyn: We have to move because ...
Moira: It's not going to work.
Evelyn: No, not long term. Talk about your plan, then. You're changing what your role is and what do you see your role as you approach 50 or your next key milestone of growth?
Moira: I really feel like my role ... It is to coach and mentor this management team that's going to scale this agency and potentially I might be a founder of an ancillary agency, group, consultancy, whatever. As we have grown, there are things that relate to what we do that could be sidelined businesses. It could be that I take on one of those little projects to see if we could get something going but, again, not to do it myself but to, again, sponsor another management team to do that.
We will grow to $10 million in revenue and 100 employees by 2023. This is the plan. We are at 26 right now. It's a very aggressive plan but we fully intend to do it. In order to grow at that pace, I have to ... Everyone has to radically change how they are looking at their job. Every day they need to be training the person that's coming up behind them to replace them as opposed to just getting a little bit more competent at this thing that I do. There is a huge perspective shift that we've had on that scale. It's not how you do that. It's how we documented and trained that. The place that I will stay more ... It's not in the business. It is on the business.
We have a relationship this year with [Gartner 00:23:36] and Gartner bought CEB insights a few years ago. They did the challenger marketing book and so there's this interesting coming together of Gartner in the marketing community and it's mainly around marketing technology and more tech stack kind of things but they have a lot of digital agencies that plan there. We have been working over the last six months, too, of refining who's who in the different spaces in the agency world and what we do to position ourselves, again, in a way at we want to be, in a unique way but not also feeling the pressure to do the shiny object. We've never wanted to do shiny objects and some of those objects have become essential, right? We do them in the way that they are essential but we do not do them because they're shiny. We've found it really interesting in working with Gartner to kind of uncover the things that we've always been doing but may be called something different now. There's a lot of that, right?
Moira: We're like, "Oh, that's exactly ... " We've been doing that for 10 years. They just call it this now.
Evelyn: Okay, so they reframe and it sounds like it's completely innovative and ...
Moira: Yes and also a big part of that, too, is I'm a person that's very comfortable saying we absolutely can do that or we absolutely can't. I'm comfortable with a small amount of information and making a good gut decision. I have other people on my management team that want a lot more information, that want a lot more time, that want a lot more opinions and it's been fascinating to watch them hear Gartner say there is no silvery bullet, you know what I mean? Gartner basically had said, "You make it up however you want and you go do it and it'll be fine." It'll fall into one of these. It's been interesting for them to hear that perspective from some respected people ...
Evelyn: Someone else.
Moira: ... who really ...
Evelyn: Yes, exactly.
Moira: ... know what's going on.
Evelyn: Interesting. Are you using your management team as a sounding board? Are you using your management team as decision makers? Who's ultimately making the decisions?
Moira: It's half and half right now. We had the management team ... We've been talking about the plan for growth and the recalibrating of the offerings and we have five areas that we manage. There's pipeline. There's practice, which is that defining all the disciplines. There's business which is meat and potatoes, day in, day out, making sure that everybody shows up and the work happens. There is the money and then there's enterprise, which is the scale plan. In those five areas for the last year, we've been reporting in the five areas. We've been putting the initiatives in those areas. Knowing what the goals were, knowing all the things that we've been tweaking in terms of target client and size and all of that, we had the managers do their own plans for their areas.
When we got all their plans in and they came in very differently ... We didn't want to do it cookie cutter. We wanted to see what they would do and so they all had very different approaches and they provided the information and then I looked at all the different things they recommended and I looked at our five areas and determined which of these are doable and, of them, are the most important to make the big impact. We've run it through the filter and so now we have created a job that we're all managing against. If they were smaller things, between now and your end, you have to get these five smaller things accomplished versus if it's a big one to bite off. Get these two things done by end of year and we've moved our management meetings from monthly to every two weeks. We're talking constantly every day. There's a lot of little subsets of meetings but we're serious about it.
Evelyn: Your strategy, though, did you hire an external person or group to help you work out your growth strategy?
Evelyn: Totally home grown.
Moira: I mentioned "E-Myth Revisited" before and I went and saw Michael Gerber in California and I was going to use Michael Gerber. He has a sort of consulting arrangement that he was doing with companies and I tried that for a few months and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't do it in his framework and I felt that there were so many pieces of the puzzle that we had already assembled, I didn't want to blow it up, right? It was close but the exercise of going out there to California and being at a retreat in some gorgeous place for three days ...The big thing that did it was I drew out a trajectory of our current growth rate and I said, "Okay, I'm 40 now and ... " Whatever, I was 47 so 47, here's 50, here's 55, here's whatever and then I took another line. I said, "Okay, my kids are seven. Here's they're 10, they're 14, they're 18," and then I said, "Okay. At the growth rate, where's the revenue?" That's not going to happen because I can't retire or I can't retire soon enough to spend time with them while they're still young if we're going at this trajectory so something has to change.
Moira: That was a motivator. I have a life plan that I did out to age 100. I'm weird. I do a yearly plan that breaks into quarters and areas that says These are my personal fitness goals for the year. These are my family goals for the year. These are my household goals for the year. These are my business goals for the year.
Evelyn: That's awesome. That's awesome, Moira.
Moira: Yes. Write it down. It starts to happen.
Evelyn: Yes. You just have to focus on it.
John: Do you have any advice or pithy advice?
Moira: Pithy. That's right.
John: Pithy, pithy.
John: I knew I was going to do it. I knew I was going to do it.
John: Pithy advice ...
Moira: Pithy advice.
John: ... for new CEOs.
Moira: I think there's been a lot of writing recently about the whole imposter syndrome that people feel like how did I get to be in these shoes and what makes me qualified to do these things? Just get over that. You know what I mean? The other thing is it is not a ... You're not trying to be everybody's friend. You really aren't. You absolutely need to manage your relationships and never burn a bridge. I have been in Atlanta for 30 years. I have had people that I have fired that have ... I have had clients I've fired that came back to me in other companies. I have had employees that I fired that became clients down the ... There's a way you need to do everything but as a CEO in particular, you need to stay focused on the vision and you need to understand that you're going to have to make hard decisions so if you're a new CEO, I think that's one of the hardest things is all of the hard conversations you have to have and they have to be you.
Evelyn: Good advice.
John: Yes, this has been great. I've learned a lot.
Moira: That's kind of negative, though. Let me have a ...
John: Do a positive one.
Moira: Come on, let's go on a positive note. Pithy upbeat thing. When you have created your own company, absolutely anything is possible, right? You truly can create ... It's the whole American dream thing. I talk about it all the time. Anything you can imagine, you can make possible. You cannot do that when you are working for someone else. In many cases, as you're coming up in your career, you never have the kind of canvas that you have when you have a company and that is a privilege. It is an opportunity. It is the point, right? It is the point for me. You have to remember after you've had some of those hard conversations or I think I personally have gotten about four hours sleep a night for the last three weeks running. In those moments, you have to remember this is because we have so much potential and so much opportunity and it is so much better than the alternative.
John: Love it, yes.
Evelyn: How do we get in touch with you, Moira?
Moira: You can find us at ModoModoAgency.com. That's MODOMODO Agency dot com. I'm on Twitter at Moira Vetter and I think that's it.
Evelyn: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Moira: Thank you for having me.
John: Thank you.
Evelyn: It's been a great chat. We'll see you all next time on In Process.
Speaker 1: This has been In Process, Conversations about Business in the 21st century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. Interested in being a guest on our show? Email our show producers at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Trusted Counsel, please visit Trusted-Counsel.com.