Let Ego Go: Be Honest, Transparent, and Try Not to Pretend

Ty Largo is Owner and Creative Director at Awe Collective, a full-service agency providing branding, advertising, public relations, digital strategy, content marketing, social media, video and photography services to diverse industries across the US.

Sometimes the agency does (awe) inspiring work. Currently, in the face of Covid-19, the whole agency has shifted to “show up for clients in a different way.” Ty has been on phone calls, comforting clients crying about having to cut shifts. He has written emotionally difficult letters communicating a client’s “hard messages” to their staff, vendors, and/or guests. He feels this kind of PR service is a privilege, an honor . . . and a burden. Even in these “weird and uncertain times,” the agency’s role is much the same as in better times . . . to provide guidance.

Ty recognizes that no agency can excel at “everything,” and wants every tool used for its clients to be “best in class.” He uses the analogy of a Swiss army knife: a tool made of many tools . . . none of which work particularly well for what it’s purported purpose. Ty believes it is a strength to know where parts of his agency work like a Swiss Army knife and to be willing to reach out to a partner agency whose tool is “best in class.” If the client wins, then so does Awe.

Ty explains further explains: The ideal situation for Awe is that they always have a good network of great partners to partner with in order to provide optimal client results. Awe can pass over clients to these same partner agencies when it is already working at capacity or when the client needs services Awe cannot provide.

What has Ty learned over the years? In the past, when he was more “ego-driven,” he would tell a prospective client that his agency could do everything, and then “white label” work contracted through other agencies. Today, he just tells clients what his agency can and cannot do, recommends when a partner is best added to the mix, or admits, kindly, “Hey, this is not a fit for us,” and then refers the client to another agency. He says it’s a relief “to be honest . . . transparent . . . not to try to pretend.”

Business owners often feel they should say “yes” to everything. Ty reminds us there are other options:  you can compromise and you can say no.

Ty went to college to study music, dropped out in his third year, and never returned. He hopscotched around industries and quit his job as creative director at a poorly-managed software firm on February 14, 2008 – the same day he bought his first house. 

Ty started freelance marketing consulting, growing his business client by client. (He had no training in marketing, and this was during the recession of 2008) He never planned to have a business. (He had no training in business and he thought he was going to be a nerdy band teacher.) In 2018, Awe Collective was named the #1 “Best Place to Work in Arizona” by the Phoenix Business Journal. Ty attributes that award, and his agency’s success, to his obsession with team wellness. “Are they happy? Do they feel like they’re in an environment where they’re being challenged and they have opportunity?”

Ty can be reached on his company website at: https://awecollective.com/

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Ty James Largo, Owner and Creative Director at Awe Collective, based in Tempe, Arizona. Welcome to the podcast.

TY: Hello. Hi, listeners. Thanks for having me.

ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Ty, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Awe Collective and what makes Awe Collective great?

TY: We are a full-service agency based in Tempe, Arizona, but our work spans across the country. When I say full service, everything from branding, marketing, advertising, public relations, digital – everything across the board.

Our clients are a diverse portfolio, which is great, especially in these very interesting, ever-changing times. Clients include everything from luxury, a Venetian resort and spa, to the California Democratic Party. So, we are definitely a very diverse and very interesting agency. We do a little bit of everything, which is great.

But I say it on our website: we are not a Swiss army knife, and I hate when people say that because a Swiss army knife is the worst thing on planet Earth. Could there ever have been a worse pair of scissors invented, or a nail file, or a knife? A Swiss army knife can do so many things, but it does it so poorly in every facet that it’s actually engineered to do.

But we are not a Swiss army knife. We are experts at everything. We are that full tray of tools that is expertly crafted to be its best max effort in every different medium where possible. That’s us. Awe Collective.

ROB: Fantastic. We are right in the thick of the coronavirus lockdown, so maybe doing a little bit more Democratic Party and a little bit less travel and spa right now? Or how are clients reacting? Are some doubling down and planning for the time of abundance after? How does that look?

TY: Candidly, in my past 6 days, I’ve been getting on the phone with clients that just need someone to virtually hug them as they cry about having to do tough layoffs, having to cut shifts, having to deal with the actual true person-to-person tough calls that have to be made – I think that’s our privilege and our honor and our burden, too, as a PR agency.

We don’t always get to promote great stuff. Sometimes we have to do real tough messaging and level up for our clients. That’s been the past 5-6 days, where I’ve had to write really strongly, emotionally generous, hard messages for clients to their staff or to their vendors or to their guests. So, it’s not a great time.

But per this podcast and per the arc of everything that you’ve done work on, we typically get to say really great stuff all the time. We get to have fun and promote really cool things and all the stuff. But in this case right now, I’m switching gears and my whole agency is switching gears to be able to show up for clients in a different way, where they need help delivering very tough messages. Yeah, it’s a weird time.

ROB: For sure. But what a privilege to be called upon in this time, what a privilege to be needed to help people get outside the things that they don’t quite know how to say, but they know they need to say, they know they have to communicate. I like what you said about the Swiss army knife. You’ve even probably seen the 1,000 tool Swiss army knife that they were briefly selling and had become a little bit of an internet meme. But it’s not that useful. It’s a tool in origin, I think, more of bare utility and survival and not one of thriving.

As you think of being the best of each tool that you provide, how do you think about keeping excellence in each area while also – you’re not probably a couple thousand person company with whole pods of teams on each specialty. So how do you keep that excellence on each tool?

TY: Great question. When I do talks, when I do public speaking, I’m pretty real. I try as much as possible to not do pitching and spin. I think one of my strongest top tier superpowers is knowing what I suck at. I think that’s part of – if we’re using the Swiss army knife analogy, you can’t be great at everything. No one can be. No agency out there can do all of the things on planet Earth.

So, you have to have a real chat internally and reflect on, “Hey, are we the Swiss army knife on this part? Are we that crappy pair of scissors that’s in the Swiss army knife in this area?” And if so, let it go. Or pull in a partner to fill that gap. Pull in a partner agency that it’s like, these guys are amazing, we love them. We can provide strategy and leadership from a client perspective; however, we just don’t have the capabilities that this other agency has to that degree.

It’s more about letting ego go, I think, and being, in the best way, self-deprecating to be able to be high performance. You can still perform and show up for a client without having to try to do it all. There’s power in saying “Hey, I suck at this; however, my friend over here at XYZ agency is rad, and we can give him good direction on it, we can keep it aligned to our strategy overall, but let’s partner with this person.”

It’s not a moment of failure. I think a lot of agencies feel like they have to always be the best at everything. It’s a moment of power, where you acknowledge power elsewhere and you acknowledge the fact that your superpowers are very different and very diverse. Pulling in a partner is not a threat to the work that you’re doing with a client. It’s a moment of strength, I think.

ROB: I think it depends on what your goal is. The hard part and the ego part is to try and be the solution for everything, but that’s not what your clients are asking for. If it’s possible, what they’d love for you to do is to help them find a solution for any problem. That’s a trust building exercise, when they come to you with a new problem and they say, “What about this? Could you help me?” You say, “Oh, I know this person over here, I know this partner” – because they don’t. If they knew the partner, they wouldn’t be asking you.

TY: Right. In general, clients are calling us because they need guidance, period. It’s not effective or healthy as an agency, or for the client, to mislead them on capabilities that you know you don’t have expertise in or a specialty focus in. They’re calling us because they want guidance. If you have a trusted partner that can do that for them, great. Do it. That’s our purpose.

Even in these times right now, too – again, not to make it a dramatic response, but more than ever, businesses are needing guidance and expertise. They’re like, “What do I do?”

So yeah, I think part of our model is to always have a good set of great partners that we can either partner with on clients or do a pass through where it’s like, “We have a conflict of interest; however, we love this other agency, this other marketing provider that we love to death. We wish we could work with you right now, but we can’t” – for whatever reason, whether it’s a conflict or we’re just at max capacity.

I think that’s an important thing for agencies in general, to get over yourself and just really, truly have a good network of people that you respect that you can refer work to or partner with on. It makes you that much stronger. It doesn’t make you weaker. It makes you stronger.

ROB: It’s all in a good toolkit. I think there’s an interesting question, and I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer to it: how do you think about when to white label, when to present the solution as part of your overall solution as an agency, versus when to partner where the partnership is more visible, and when to wholesale refer and not take any part of the business, but just pass it along? How do you think about that decision – if you have any sort of rubric for it?

TY: I used to do the very ego-driven, “We can do it all,” and if I private label a select part of the service, I’ll do it. I think these days, though, I’m very transparent. I’m very like, okay, cool, we’ll do our consultation on the sales call, and if I really, truly feel like this is not something that we 100% can do, or if we have to partner or if we have to refer, I just tell them.

And I have to tell everyone in this audience here, there’s such relief in that, not trying to pretend. Again, I don’t want to be the Swiss army knife moment ever, and as much as we have a wide-ranging capability suite for sure, there’s so much power and relief in being able to be transparent and honest right from the get-go. Before we even send a contract or a proposal or whatever. Just being able to say, “This is a project that needs a very specific toolset, and although we can do that work internally, my recommendation is we pull in a partner.”

Or “Hey, this is not a fit for us.” We always say that with kindness. We’re really big on chemistry with our clients. We’re very fortunate in the way that we can pick and choose who we do and do not want to work with, and if there’s not a chemistry, if there’s not a cultural connection, we still love on those potential clients. We’ll be upfront and say, “This is not a fit for the kind of work that we do. However, we’re very grateful for the opportunity to chat with you. We are inspired by where you’re going with the brand. However, we’d love for you to talk with XYZ partner.” We’ve done that a million times.

I think that’s a big thing. You feel the need as a business owner to say yes to everything, but you can compromise, and you can say no. And there’s power in saying it upfront versus going through the motions of a whole parade of fake, weird flirting when you’re not interested, when you’re having the worst date of your life. [laughs] It’s a terrible date but you’re still flirting; however, you know this person is not the one. There’s power in real talk. There’s power in being able to say, “No, it’s not a vibe. Not a fit. I’m out.”

ROB: For sure. Not that it’s quite this extreme, but if you go to a really nice hotel and you go to the concierge, they do absolutely nothing, but they have a huge degree of trust because they can tell you anything with a high degree of authority.

If we rewind a little bit, Ty, tell me about the origin story of Awe Collective. How did it come into being? What made you start this thing?

TY: Oh, interesting. I wish I could tell you some very charismatic leadership message about the origin story of my company, but I can’t. I went to school for music. I took a break from college 3 years in, and I’m still on that break 20 years later. [laughs] So I don’t have a degree in anything, period. I’ve never studied marketing or PR or branding or anything in that sense.

I kind of hopscotched from industry to industry. I’ve done everything from public education to IT to marketing to fill-in-the-blank moment. My last job that I had was I was a creative director for a software firm based in Arlington. It was not a great situation. I had really bad bosses and leaders, period. So, I decided to quit my job. This was 2008.

I quit my job on Valentine’s Day in 2008 – also the same date that I bought my first house. Great timing. [laughs] Believe me when I say I did not have a plan to have a great business. But yeah, I made a leap of faith and I made it at a wrong time to dive into a deep end of a pool that I didn’t know was so deep.

I started doing freelance consulting for marketing, client after client. It made sense at some point to call it something different than just having clients cut checks to me directly. I never had a plan to have a business, ever. If you had asked me as a kid, “Would you ever think you would own a business?”, I’d be like, “No, I want to be a band teacher. That’s my purpose in life, to be a nerdy band teacher.” But fate has a different plan for everybody than what we think we’re supposed to be.

Flash forward to now, I started off not planning to own a business and now I own a business, and I’m very proud of it. My company has been named the #1 Best Place to Work in Arizona – not just in my industry, but period, across the board. I didn’t plan to own a business, but I’m pretty good at it.

It’s because I love on my team so much, honestly. Even as we’re going through these crazy times and I don’t get to see them every day – that’s probably the hardest part of my job right now. I don’t get to see my family every day. I love on them so much. I’m obsessed about their happiness. I think when you do that, you don’t have to worry about the performance. You don’t have to worry about how good the work is going to be.

The only thing I think as a leader you have to worry about and obsess about – and I’ll say it again, obsess about – is how happy your team is. You should be waking up at night in fear of like, “Is everyone happy?” That’s where the focus should be.

Again, I’m not a trained business owner; I did not plan to do this or to work in marketing. I’m not qualified, technically, to work in marketing. But I love my team so much, and I’m so grateful that they are on this journey with me.

It seems very basic to me, but I think it’s so revolutionary to some people, and maybe perhaps to the listeners here too – you will thrive if you just take care of your team. You will thrive, period. There’s not a big pitch behind it. Just obsess about the happiness of your team, and the work will be good. I promise, the clients will be happy. The clients will be plentiful. The clients will continue to grow, and you’ll get more clients, all the things, whatever.

That’s the endgame, for sure, but if you really focus on loving on your team and making that your prime priority, especially in this time right now – I didn’t go to school for business, whatever, but I just know what has worked for us, and I’ll just tell you, that’s what the focus should be.

ROB: Beyond the instinctual, are there any habits or rhythms or routines in the business that you have, whether it’s daily/weekly/monthly, that help you reinforce love to your team? I know that sounds a little bit mechanistic, but for folks who it doesn’t come naturally for, that may be helpful to them, or even helpful in showing love to people who may have different ways of feeling love. How do you think about rhythm and routine?

TY: Great question. We have our weekly team meetings, and we do it over lunch. Not catered in because that’s still in our office space and it feels very technical and it feels very clinical.

We have a gross, awesome, amazing, wonderful local dive bar that is approximately 1.5 minutes away from our office. We’ll go there and sit on the patio and just be exposed to fresh air. It’s a limited venue, so either you get chicken tenders or you get a burger – and this is funny because we have James Beard caliber clients that we could go to if we wanted to, but this is not about that moment. It’s about how we can really, truly feed ourselves in a very comfortable context.

So we go there, and there’s a level of love in that situation where we get to have work talk, talk through the clients, whatever, walk through the next week that’s coming up, forecast it, go through the forensics of the last couple weeks. It’s a weird, twisty dynamic, and I think that’s part of our routine. We want to mix it up as much as possible, because the stresses at work are challenging. Why not just sit at a gross dive bar where every table that you sit at is sticky? [laughs] Just mix it up.

And the staff knows fully that we are ready, able, and capable of doing a very bougie team meeting, but there’s something about the self-deprecation, collectively, of chilling at a gross dive bar, like, “Hey, get over yourself. Let’s chill and let’s have an 11:00 vodka drink and chicken tenders and just be friends because we love each other.” This is a space where we can be at ease. It’s not at a conference table. It’s not in a boardroom. We do that weekly.

ROB: There’s definitely something intangible about breaking bread together, about getting outside of the confines and the familiarity of the office, for sure. That’s all really good stuff.

What are some things that you’ve learned from building Awe Collective that you might do differently? Maybe some lessons learned if you were starting over, and things maybe you’re already doing different going forward now?

TY: Good question. If I could go back and do it again. Actually, I’ll be honest – I don’t know that I have any regrets. But I have advice. I think my path is very different than most business owners, period, let alone agency owners. I have no regrets because of the fact that all I did was always, endlessly obsess about my team’s wellness. Are they happy? Do they feel like they’re in an environment where they’re being challenged and they have opportunity?

The way I describe my company is this is not the place that you retire at. This is the place where you learn how to be a badass. I say that because I don’t have high turnover; I have an incredible list of alumni who I’ve been very privileged to work with and to raise. That is my ultimate honor and purpose, to raise badasses.

So, I don’t have regrets in any way, shape, or form. I have pride in the sense that all I’ve ever done is obsess about the wellness and development of my team. As they move on, my alumni are not like a marketing specialist at XYZ Agency. Cody on my alumni list is a director at a global PR firm based in LA now. Another former alumni is a director internally at a global grocery chain.

I think as a business owner, the tendency is to obsess about sales and very clinical things. That’s responsible to do. Yes, do that stuff, or bring somebody on your team that does that for you. But – I sound like a broken record, but if I had to look back and think about it, I would have regretted not loving on my team. But thankfully I don’t have those regrets because that’s always been my obsession.

It’s been the critical key to my success, making sure that my team is growing, thriving. In their time with me, how much can I make sure that they make the most out of this for themselves? Everything else will just fall into place. Client success will fall into place. Agency success will fall into place. If you just focus on your talent, your team, who can say that’s the wrong thing to do?

It seems basic to me, but I think a lot of agency owners don’t understand that. That should be your obsession. Obsess about every single person. If you have waking nightmares at night – which sometimes I do – it should be about that, not about “Is XYZ client happy?” or “Is XYZ client going to renew?” or whatever. Your eyes are not on the prize where they need to be. It has to be on the people that you should be loving.

ROB: That’s great. I hear a tremendous amount of positivity, a tremendous amount of even appreciation for the people that you have worked with. It’s probably less scary – I think people worry when they go to work for a closely held business that their boss is going to be crazy and controlling. And I think a lot of people are, out of fear. I don’t hear a lot of fear coming through. Certainly, fear of not treating people well, but not fear of the outworking of treating people well.

TY: Part of having the privilege of being able to work with talented people is to know that they’re not going to be with you forever, so just – I think that’s part of the pressure to just absolutely endlessly love on somebody. You know they’re going to be gone.

Cody, who is one of my stars, forever amazing alumni, I’ve always known that he’s going to move on – not away from us, but move on to something different. He needs more challenges. As a boss and as an employer and as a leader, you have to lean into that. You can’t be sad about that stuff. You have to be very excited.

I do feel like it is a family, and obviously my kids are not going to live at home for the rest of their lives. I’ll be so happy when they go to their next steps. That’s what it feels like to me. Again, it’s an honor and a privilege, and a little bit of sadness, to see their next steps and to be a part of raising them where they are ready to go and be a badass somewhere else, and not take that as a loss, but take that as a win.

I get to look at Cody and be so proud. Not to get too emotional but be so proud. It’s cool. It’s a cool thing.

ROB: Fantastic. When people want to find you and Awe Collective, where should they go to find you?

TY: I would say hit us up on our website, www.awecollective.com. Obviously on social too, as well. I feel like we’ve been very dark on social the past couple weeks, for obvious reasons, because we’re dealing with this whole situation on behalf of our clients. We’re there to support them. So, if our social channels seem a little quiet, that’s why.

But yeah, hit us up on the website. You can see a little bit more about our wide and weird breadth of the work that we do. There’s a lot of our DNA in there, too, a lot of our voice. It’s not just a big portfolio site. It’s more like “Here’s who we are; here’s who we’re not.” So, you can really, truly see the DNA of our company. We try our best to express that on our website. It’s not a pitch. It’s not a flashy, razzle-dazzle website. It’s just like “Here’s who we are.”

It almost acts as a filter, if anything, for clients. If they want a very traditional path for marketing in general, you as a viewer on the website know that’s not us. I think our website does a really good job of telling our story, and again, who we are and who we are not.

ROB: Perfect. Ty James Largo of Awe Collective, thank you for joining the podcast and sharing with us today.

TY: Thank you so much for having me and thank you to the audience for listening. This has been really fun, and hopefully informative for the audience here. I’m happy to do any follow-ups if needed. Go team.

ROB: Perfect. We can all stay positive. Thank you, Ty.

TY: Thanks.

ROB:  Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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