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Ervin & Smith: Solving C-Suite Problems with Marketing

Mar 21, 2024 01:56PM ● By Chris Wolfgang
b2b feature Ervin & Smith b2b april may 2024

From [L to R] Ashley Bails, Leanne Prewitt, Brittany Wozny, Katie Herzog.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

"We are aiming to decidedly not be what is ‘a full-service agency,’” said Leanne Prewitt, CEO and president of Omaha marketing agency Ervin & Smith. “Typically, someone comes to a full-service agency and says, ‘We need ‘blank.’ We need a website. We need a recruitment campaign.’ There might be a seed of truth in the fact that yes, you need a new website. That’s not why you’re here. The position of your company might not be clear. You might not have the full team aligned on what it is that you do. Your company culture might be poorly defined, or it might not align with how it’s defined.”

To solve business problems effectively with marketing, Ervin & Smith’s new partners —Prewitt, Brittany Wozny, Katie Herzog, and Ashley Bails—are positioning the agency to provide a more consultative service. “We have to understand the actual vision of where the C-suite is trying to go from a business perspective,” Prewitt said. “Working directly with them and the problems that keep them up at night. That means that we need senior level folks who understand complex business problems.”

It’s a shift in Ervin & Smith’s business model that’s been gradually taking place since 2021, when founder Doug Smith approached the quartet to take over executive leadership. On December 31, 2023, Smith officially turned over ownership of the agency.

“He will continue to be an advisor to our business as we go forward. We’re able to still tap him for questions, like, ‘Have you seen this before?’” Prewitt explained. “He’s been slowly stepping out of the ongoing client work and moving into this advisory role for several years now.”

Prewitt recalled “that magic week in August” in 2021 when she, Wozny, Herzog, and Bails began brainstorming what Ervin & Smith could look like—a new operational direction that kept knowledge and expertise around.

“I was on maternity leave,” Prewitt shared, “and Smith said he wanted to come over. I thought it was to see the baby. We had been trying to schedule time for it. And I got a text: ‘Can I stop by?’ And I was just like, ‘Oh yeah; today would be great.’ So we were sitting outside, and he was holding my 7-week-old baby. And he just kind of said all in one sentence that the leadership had resigned and would I want to be the next president?”

Prewitt added that she could never have envisioned turning down the offer, but she also knew that meant her life would be very different. “I’d never run a company before. I was a good creative director, and I had some ideas about how a company should be run, but…you know, I spent that evening talking with my husband and Googling what a president does.”

Her partners laughed with her about this, and for several minutes reminisced together about that “good, solid, very weird week” of meetings over Prewitt’s dining room table with her newborn baby.

“Which I think is fitting,” said Bails, Ervin & Smith’s CMO. “Because between us we have 10 kids under the age of 13.”

“I don’t think there was much that we needed to discover about each other at that point,” said Bails, the agency’s CMO. She, Prewitt, and Herzog had all worked together closely at Ervin & Smith for several years. “I think more of the concern was making sure that folks had a sense of stability and understanding of the direction of the company. Making sure that people knew no one was going to be left behind as a result of a big leadership shift and what we knew was going to be a big directional shift for the company.”

It’s a directional shift made possible, in part, due to the broader scope of expertise in the executive team. Often, principals in marketing agencies have skill sets that are quite overlapped. “They’re typically all from the same vertical,” Prewitt explained, “so their expertise overlaps quite a bit. Ours is like a really nice Venn diagram with some solid overlapping in the middle. Each one of us has a lot of deep specialty in our individual vertical.”

“What’s really interesting is that we’re truly able to be a company led by functional experts,” Herzog said. “Among the four of us, our expertise all falls in one of the four quadrants that’s critical to running an effective agency. You need to have solid creative, which is Leanne’s background. Solid strategy, which is my background. You have to have really polished execution that aligns with both of those things, which is where Ashley comes in. And then Brittany and her significant expertise in financial management.”

Prewitt knew she didn’t want the role that the previous president had filled. “We have different backgrounds, different specialties, different managing philosophies,” she said. As she redefined the president’s role, the four women determined how to split responsibilities in a way that made sense for the agency’s new goals.

“We wanted to be really intentional,” Herzog said, “and not just do what had always been done. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to rethink how to move forward. We’ve been working together for 10 years. Which rules can you break and which ones don’t work anymore?”

After about a year of one-on-one conversations with every person in the agency, an anonymous survey, and team Q-and-As to make sure that they knew all the concerns within the staff, the new executive team rolled out their vision at the end of 2022. For the next three years, the goal is for Ervin & Smith to stay under 30 employees.

“In order to have this senior-level consultative work that we’re talking about, we need people to stay and have longevity and trust each other and learn and make our processes flow efficiently,” Prewitt said. “There are some agencies that win awards and are known far and wide for the most amazing, incredible work—and I’m a creative, I absolutely respect that—but often, that comes at the expense of a work culture that works for people.

“It’s a lot of pressure, and it can be very toxic. You run through people quickly and bring in new freelance teams constantly because you burned out the last one. That’s not worth it. We want to create great work, but we want to feel good about how we did it. We didn’t yell at each other during the process, we didn’t grind through people, we didn’t give unthoughtful feedback so someone had to redo work three times. These are all things that we’ve seen in other agencies.”

Of course, every change in direction, no matter how carefully considered, will meet obstacles.

“We entered into this space with the previous leadership’s vision of getting bigger and hiring more people,” Wozny said, gesturing at the agency’s airy, light-filled second-floor offices in Aksarben Village. “Now that we’re being intentionally small and consultative, we don’t need this much space. So that’s something that we’ve been having to figure out. How do we use this space? How do we make sure that it still has a great vibe, even though it’s not completely full?”

They’ve considered a few options, but the visibility of the current space is a large plus. “We’re marketers,” Prewitt said with a laugh. “We know the value of visibility. And we know what it’s done for our profile, both as an agency and as an employer. So on one hand, it’s oversized for what we need, but there are so many pros with it. So how can we make it feel right for us in the moment?”

It’s just one example of how Prewitt, Wozny, Herzog, and Bails all have a deep appreciation for what other executives deal with.

“We’re running a business, too,” Prewitt said. “The ownership transfer was a change, but it was almost like a springboard. The deeper we get into running our business with efficiency, the greater understanding we have for what other executives are up against. Being able to connect those two things together has been very fruitful.”

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This article originally appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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