Apr 02, 2019

Reflecting on 30 years: A conversation with Geile and Leon

Mike Haueisen #Geil30n, Communications Agency, Education, G/L Approach, G/L Culture, General
Mike Haueisen

As a copywriter who’s still in the early stages of his career, my eyes are always looking forward to where I’m headed, what I need to learn, and how the industry will change in the coming years. Of course, I can’t predict the future, but what I can do is try to see things through the eyes of those who have been there, done that. And how convenient – I happen to work with two of them! As Dave Geile and Tim Leon take their business into its 30th year, I felt there couldn’t be a better time to seek out some words of wisdom from them. Unsurprisingly, the insight they shared felt too good not to share with the rest of the world. No matter what your background or profession, I hope you’ll find as much value in our conversation as I did.

Without further ado, I share my conversation with Dave Geile and Tim Leon as they reflect on thirty years in this crazy business.

“What do you believe are the biggest reasons that G/L has been around for three decades?”

Dave
“The culture. Not only here in the office, but how we present ourselves to new business. We aren’t sales-y or pushy, and I think that always plays well. In every meeting we have, whether or not we get the business, we always leave with a good relationship. We trust our employees and our clients trust us – as long as things are getting done, and getting done well, trust will always drive things forward.”

Tim
“I think it’s been our ability to evolve. This industry and business overall has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, and we’ve been able to keep up with it and make the right changes to our service offerings, softwares, skills, and whatnot. I agree with what Dave said – we really trust our employees, and we trust them to help us stay ahead of the game. That’s had an immeasurable impact.”

Dave
“Also, I think often times others focus too much on winning awards. We like to focus on solving the problem at hand for our client, whatever that may be. If our solution happens to win an award, that’s great, and we’ve got plenty of them, but what’s more important to us is the work and the results. We produce fun, good stuff, but more importantly, it’s stuff that works.”

What changes through the years do you believe have had the biggest impact on your success? Are there any specific moments that stand out?

Tim
“I’d say when we evolved from an integrated marketing communications firm to more of a brand-driven strategic marketing firm. When we developed Distilled Thinking in 2003, I think that was a big moment for us. It was a long process, but when we finished we felt like we really had something unique and, most importantly, valuable to offer our clients. The second thing for me was including public relations in our offerings – it really rounded us out, and I felt the same way years ago about our digital services as we developed those capabilities and ramped up our expertise in that field.”

Dave
“That’s what I was going to say… I’m answering first next question.”

If you could give some advice to yourselves 30 years ago, what would you say?

Dave
“Believe in yourself. Damn the torpedoes! When we started this agency, it was three weeks after my wife told me our second child was on the way, so I thought: ‘this is either going to be the greatest thing ever or the worst decision of my life.’ But we had the confidence that we can do it, and if you care about what you do and the people you work with, things are going to work out. And here we are 30 years later. So, just believe in yourself.”

Tim
“Stay relevant. You can’t become complacent. I truly believe that what we do today is better and different than what we did three years ago, and what we do in three years will have to be better and different than what we do today. It’s always been that way and always will be. Stay relevant and be prepared to adapt.”

How does your philosophy towards marketing today compare to your philosophy 30 years ago?

Tim
“There used to be a quote on my door from David Ogilvy that said: ‘It’s not creative if it doesn’t sell.’ And I don’t think that’s changed. It can be creative as hell but it has to be strategic and it has to move the needle. In fact that’s even more true today with how metrics-driven marketing has become. Our clients are getting measured on performance, and it’s our job to help them there. Tactics have changed, but the philosophy never has.”

Dave
“I’d echo that. Our job is to build your brand and make you money. That’s always been the goal.”

As advertising has changed through the years, what are the essential truths of the industry that never have?

Tim
“Well, there’s the same thought that it needs to sell. But to go further I’d say relationships matter. The relationships that we have with our vendors, our employees, former employees, clients, whoever – they all have an impact. Don’t discount the value of a great relationship. Through the years there have been so many opportunities that came about from being referred by someone who liked us or who worked for us. It’s had a real business impact to work hard at maintaining good relationships with everyone that we’ve been involved with. I’d also say it’s always been important to hire good people and let them do what they do well. Inspiring a positive work environment means trusting your employees and giving them the chance to make things their own.

Dave
“Yeah, you know that’s – “

Tim
“ – Oh! And watch your cash flow. This industry is and always will be streaky. Be diligent so you’re prepared to weather the ups and downs.”

Dave
“… what he said. I’m going first again next question.”

What are some of the most prominent lessons you’ve learned about business overall?

Dave
“Be a partner to your clients. They will always appreciate it. I know agencies who will nickel and dime clients at every turn, even putting you on the clock for a quick phone call. That’s not how you build good partnerships or relationships. Great partnerships are defined by working through the tough times – having the tough conversations and trusting each other to truly want what’s best for the other. Business is about relationships, and that’s why we’re always transparent and upfront, so that we can establish that trust.”

Tim
“I should’ve saved the cash flow answer for this one.”

What does “Make It Mean Something” mean to you?

Dave
“Find the good in things. Not everything is always as it seems, but there’s always good in there, and that’s the story worth telling.”

Tim
“For me it just means serving clients, brands and people with everything we do. It’s how we conduct our lives here. We work with people who want to positively impact the world around them.”

How do your goals today compare to your goals thirty years ago?

Tim
“Well at the start it was just making it. (laughs) Survival. Wondering how am I going to put food on the table this week… Now what’s changed for us is thinking about what our legacy is going to be. You don’t think about that when you start, but now that you’ve proven to yourself that you’ve got a successful business model, you think about what that legacy is going to be. How it’s going to live on.

Dave
“Yeah exactly. How do you set it up to go on. I think if the place can’t go on without Tim and I here, then we’ve done something wrong. You look at agencies whose founders have long gone but their legacies are as alive as ever. That’s what you think about now. That’s what we want to leave here. A place that you everyone else can take and continue to build.”

What has been the most rewarding part of the last 30 years?

Dave
“I think for me it’s watching people grow. I think about employees who started with that spark but didn’t quite have it all fleshed out, there was a nugget of brilliance at a time, and now years later you see them and they are just unbelievably talented all the time. Over 30 years I’ve seen lots of employees go from fresh out of school to creative directors and marketing executives and whatnot, and it’s just been so fun to see them grow.”

Tim
“For me it’s just that the place has always remained a part of our lives. It’s gratifying to build a business and a culture and it has such a big impact on your personal life too, and the thing is through it all… we’re still partners. Other than my wife, I’ve spent more time with Dave than anybody else! A business partnership is like a marriage, and this marriage works, and that’s a really amazing thing to have.”