Drawing from over two decades of experience, Christian Barnard oversees all aspects of agency operations at T3 as COO. He works across all T3 clients and offices, focused on scalable growth, innovation, and fostering a creative and diverse culture within the agency. In this episode, Christian talks about how he came to be COO at T3 and what the transition has been like for him, especially since it’s a woman-run agency. He shares his opinions on why culture is important in a family-owned company and how past experience and passion for building an organization can assist with building the best culture possible. He also discusses how T3 acquires their people, how they communicate and conduct their operations, and why the most important task is keeping everyone informed and engaged.
Christian oversees all aspects of agency operations at T3 drawing from twenty plus years of experience for some of the world’s leading design and technology consulting firms. He works across all T3 clients and offices focused on scalable growth, innovation and fostering a creative and diverse culture within the agency. During his career, Christian has managed the development of integrated digital experiences across mobile, social and commerce clients in retail, healthcare, financial services, and entertainment. Prior to T3, Christian was the group Vice President of Razorfish, leading the Austin office operations. He also led the Austin presence for SapientNitro. He built out the global delivery function for Frog Design and managed the UX Design Strategy and Content team at AT&T. He studied visual design in college and started his career as a typesetter and freelance designer in Chicago. He created his first digital experiences in the mid-1990s and worked on the original online edition of The Chicago Tribune. On the weekends, Christian has been known to burn some racing cars and sailing boats. That’s awesome. Christian, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Cameron. Thanks for having me.
That was great. Before we hopped on, you mentioned that you were based in Austin, what do you think you liked most about the Austin market not only for the tech sector but the business sector as a whole?
Austin is incredibly entrepreneurial. We have a lot of VCs in the community. Big investments from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are starting a large presence here, which is infusing the culture in the community with a lot of great creative technology and entrepreneurial vibes. That has made Austin a great place not only to live and to raise a family but also to build a great business, attract and retain talent.
It’s a great market. I love the city. There are lots of great friends there. Tell us a little bit about T3, its design technology or agency operations. Tell us what T3 does so we have an understanding.
Technically, what’s in our DNA is creating useful brands and we build the experiences that power those brands. What we mean by that is we believe that in this market, a lot of advertising agencies and marketing agencies help clients talk about work. We believe that our clients need to earn the right to talk about that work, which means they need to be useful. When we talk about that, usefulness has a few dimensions that we believe are important. Things like having brand-defining utilities or features, functions and applications that live up to the brand DNA. Those brands need to put into the world purposeful content. Not just content for content sake, but content that meets human needs and business needs. Those brands need to provide connected experiences that are holistic, connected and meaningful across touchpoints, whether that’s in prints or across social channels, applications, websites, etc. That’s what we do. What I like to say is we make things, market things and ultimately drive customer loyalty for our clients.
Who would your typical clients be?
Some of our clients include UPS, 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut. We work in a digital agency of record capacity for waste management.
Those are pretty big brands.
We work for some smaller brands as well. We started working on some media for Bumble which is a local Austin company. We also do some work for some smaller restaurant brands like Hopdoddy, Torchy’s Tacos and Hai Hospitality.
One of the podcasts that we did about halfway through was with the second in command of Bumble. I did a cool interview with them. We’re talking with her about their expansion into the India marketplace and also into the Bumble Friends app. I said that it will be bigger than the dating app. There’s such a huge issue with adults’ loneliness and connectivity now. That could be big. Talking about the connected experience, what does that mean?
That’s everything from the branding of those experiences. I’ve been working on this with clients for a long time. It’s easy for a brand to get messy in the marketplace. Everything from traditional brand police around the logo, use of typography, and voice and tone. Those are basic block and tackle consistency across all touchpoints. That should be relatively easy. The hard part is when a lot of times large client relations those channels are often managed by different parties and different groups. It means it’s easy to handle from a creative standpoint, it’s hard to operationalize that within a client because those owners are competing for budget in a lot of cases. We need to prove to them that the value of an integrated and consistent brand experience is more valuable to their customers than putting your brand out in the world that’s dilutive.
That brand experience should be creative. There’s a branding component and there’s also as you look across the customer journey from beginning to end across all touchpoints, there’s experiential consistency as well. If you want to drive awareness or even offer what Hallmark or any other client is trying to drive in the purchase path of that engagement. Once we hand people off into that commerce flow, that engagement needs to be seamless and that’s not content, but that’s feature richness, its engagement and making sure that those connection points are integrated. It feels like one company. It’s a manifestation of large organizations growing up through multiple acquisitions, multiple teams, creating digital products and putting them out in the world in an unintegrated fashion. Consumers are expecting those experiences to evolve and revolve around their needs not necessarily the needs of the organization. That’s where we come in to make those experiences more connected and meaningful.
Were you guys founded in Austin?
We were founded in Austin in 1989.
That was right when I was graduating college. You’re one of the biggest woman-owned ad agencies, is that correct?
We are. Gay Gaddis started the company in ‘89 and we’ve remained woman-owned and operated.
How do you and she get on the same page? You joined the company in 2017 and she’s been running the company for many years. How do you get into an organization when the founder is many years in and you’ve got to catch up to speed? How did you get in sync with her? Why do you think she wanted you to be in the COO role? Maybe walk us through a little bit of that?
It wasn’t easy. Part of the reason is T3’s historically been innovative in the application of capabilities. When T3 started, it did a lot of direct mail and print work. It has consistently been one step ahead of where the market is, working early days on the internet and working with Dell and on the original Dell.com. It became an early player in digital and has been transformational through its history. For me drafting on that transformation, at this point in time, I joined a few years ago. The company was ready to take the next step and to identify some new capabilities that would continue to differentiate T3 in the marketplace.
Once we started having conversations about what’s next with T3, that getting in sync that you asked about became much more natural and clear in the role that I could play joining as the Chief Operating Officer at a time when some other leadership changes were also taking place. Ben Gaddis, who’s the President of the company now also moved into that role in 2017 and we had some other leadership changes. What I’ve been doing since that is identifying and helping to build and operationalize capabilities that will continue the transformation and keeping us relevant and differentiated in the marketplace.
What do you think she saw in you to bring you in? I would imagine that they had quite a good solid senior team. Why would they pick someone from the outside to come in as a COO?
It’s the experience that I’ve had at larger agencies like SapientNitro and Frog, as well as having been a client and a buyer of these services. I look back at that time and although the pace of working internally isn’t exactly what I’m looking for personally. The ability to be empathetic when I meet with a client of what they’re going through and what they need to do to be successful within a large and complex organization. The combination of those experiences as well as culture fit. We’re small. We’re about 200 people. Culture is important, especially being family-owned companies. It’s familial and its culture. It’s a combination of past experience. I believe I have a good culture fit and a passion for building an organization are probably the three primary reasons.
What about the relationship between you and Gay? You’ve got the CEO and founding CEO who’s got to be quite entrepreneurial and now running a 200-person organization. You came in a few years ago as COO. What style differences were there? You’ve worked in bigger corporations and agencies. Were there any style differences that you had to get in sync with and how did you do that?
That part was somewhat seamless, maybe partly because Gay and I are the same Myers-Briggs. We had a similar communication style. It hasn’t been that big of a challenge.
Are there any management challenges you have to work through at all? Has it been easy?
The challenges have been in building out new capabilities. We have in the past years, built out a product design function in an organization. We also built out a loyalty practice and a CRM practice in the last years. In the first year, the other thing is we experienced about 25% to 28% growth on the revenue side. We found ourselves developing new capabilities, but also ingesting a lot of new work and therefore a lot of new talent as well from a recruiting standpoint in order to deliver on that work.
I’m curious about something you mentioned. You got your roots in the original print and direct mail days. It seems there’s a bit of a movement back to not sure about print but certainly back to the direct mail side. Are you seeing anything there?
We haven’t seen too much on a direct mail side. I look at social and the way that we’re able to target social in the marketplace. It’s taking the place of direct mail in a lot of ways.
You’re not doing any of that with any of your clients?
As an agency, the old marketing that we’ve been told by dentists that we have to go to a dentist twice a year. We’ve been told in the marketing world that we have to spend 8% of 10% of revenue on marketing. What percent do you guys spend on marketing advertising of T3?
We don’t spend a whole lot to be honest with you.
I’m okay if it’s low. I’ve yet to find an ad agency that spends over 2% it seems.
We’re definitely lower than that. We don’t spend a whole lot. A lot of our work comes inbound through a lot of our clients moving to other organizations and bringing us along. We have a great relationship with a few analysts like Forrester and Gartner that provide great referrals to us as inbound leads. We have some gated content that as people download, that provides an opportunity for us to follow up with them. We’ve been successful at speaking at conferences and hosting events that are typically industry related, specifically in the restaurant space as of late.
Is that a big market you are moving into or do you have some depth in that market already?
We purposely moved into the restaurant space. We went from 2 to 19 restaurant clients. They’re not all currently active, but we’ve found that there’s a bit of a confluence of things happening in the restaurant space. One, there are a lot of SaaS-based software providers that are providing online ordering loyalty, CRM and things like that in that space right now. Customer expectations are high set based on other digital experiences in retail environments. Customers are coming to those restaurant brands expecting a level of personalization service that maybe they hadn’t expected in the past. We’ve been lucky to form a pretty strong point of view about how to meet customer demands in that market. Those three things we’ve purposefully double down on and talk about in the marketplace. It’s generated a lot of demand for our services in the past. That’s two and a half to three years.
One of my favorite restaurants is Dreamland Bar-B-Que. They’re based in that area of Austin and down in Salt Lake and another one in the Austin marketplace. It’s a good barbecue down there. I’m curious who’s going to get into running the restaurants without having actual physical locations. We’ll move away from the physical location based restaurants to just running commissaries and having people order their food. Maybe they run 1 or 2 locations, but instead of having twenty, they run all their foods in some big warehouse somewhere.
We definitely see the trend. We talked to a concept that is providing ghost kitchens and white label kitchens that can change their menu based on seasonality, geography and unencumbered by big capital expenditure. They can change the menu on the fly based on what people are ordering and buying. They can be dynamic in what they’re providing from a delivery standpoint.
It’s going to be interesting. Many restaurants make all their money off the beverage side. They’re selling alcohol or selling soft drinks. It’s going to be interesting to see how they make the shift. They’re selling their food at a slight discount. They can’t make their margin on that too.
Like a lot of things, digital has disrupted and transformed a lot of experiences. I would foresee a time when the actual experience of going into a restaurant and having bespoke and unique experiences becomes a differentiator and one that restaurants invest in and is profitable. We’ll see some of those experiences coming back.
More with the entertainment side of it than just going for a meal. I was at a great restaurant in London, England. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was incredible. I kept taking photos every time I turned around at the space. You’re in a competitive market. Apple and Google are in that market. I would imagine that the war on talent especially on the technology side, but also on the marketing design side is probably pretty strong. How do you go out to market against them and recruiting in the Austin marketplace?
That’s always been tough and it will always be. We start with great benefits. We’ve got a great benefits program and a lot of healthy good paid times off that we offer as a competitive differentiator. We focus on the work and talking about the work that candidates would be able to do at T3 as well as how the work gets done. What I mean by that is a whole lot about autonomy. We are a gritty, scrappy and flat organization. We bring people in at any level. The expectation is that they’re going to be able to do what they want to do. That’s the people that we hire and usually in a creative environment that is attractive for candidates.
We talked about the work a lot and the work that people will be able to do and how they’re able to do it on their own terms. We did away with the time reporting, which for agencies is a big deal. When we first started talking about this, the initial reaction and my own reaction was like, “There’s no way that we can get rid of timecards because that’s the currency by which you manage the agency.” We worked through that. We got some help from some guy named Blair Enns who wrote a book called Pricing Creativity, which is great. I highly recommend it and Blair as a consultant. What that’s enabled us to do is we looked at the number of hours that the agency spends tracking, entering and managing time. It’s about 20% of our time as an agency is spent tracking time that nobody wants value for. We took that 20% and we gave it back to the agency so that we can focus on doing great work, and/or focusing on them on their own work-life balance, which so far has had positive effects.
I love it when we start getting rid of the old legacy systems from the ‘70s and ‘80s and start saying, “This doesn’t make sense anymore.” It’s not necessarily trying to optimize or automate those systems, but that’s where a lot of people make mistakes. We’ve always been doing time tracking. We need to automate that. You said, “Why don’t we throw that out if we don’t need it at all?” That’s way better to stop doing something than to automate or outsource something.
We spent so much time trying to make it better and realizing that we’re measuring the wrong things. We’re measuring hours as input throughout the entire agency. We were focused on the wrong thing. What we want to focus on is creating value for our clients. We want to measure the outcomes and outputs of that value, not the actual inputs, meaning the hours. It has also changed the way that we price things. If you take hours out of the equation, then in talking to a new client for a new piece of work, we’re not talking about how long and how many hours it’s going to take. We talk about the value that we’re going to deliver in outcomes and like any other agency, we do bottom-up estimates to ensure that we understand the level of effort deliver that value. We’re not pricing based on hours because it’s a false constraint. It also ties your effort to your price. As a creative agency, if you tie the price to the effort, you’re always going to erode margins. Whether it means you go overtime or you negotiate your price down from a low starting point.
What else do you think you’re killing? What else do you think you’re stopping at the same time? Is there anything your guys are iterating inside of the business that you used to do, which doesn’t make sense anymore?
As if that one wasn’t big enough. That’s the big one that we’re focused on for the time. Part of our culture is to continuously innovate. That’s not just for our clients and the way that they engage with their customers but also how we operate within our own agency. That’s a big one. I’m sure as we look at planning for years to come, we’ll identify some other constraints that we might be able to blow up to be a better agency.
Tell me about the different meeting rhythms you have gotten. You’re running a pretty large size company. I’m curious as to how you run the different styles of meetings that you have and how you can orbit the giant hairball as well. How do you avoid getting corporate or bureaucratic?
That’s one thing that we’ve focused a lot of time on. We’ve got some standing meetings and rituals that are valuable and important. We’ve got a weekly all agency stand-up. Every morning at 9:15, Ben Gaddis, our president will walk through what’s happening this week and what happened last week for fifteen minutes. It’s all agency people in multiple locations and we use Google Hangouts and it’s all on video. It’s not a huge time commitment. It doesn’t take a lot of prep but it keeps everyone informed and engaged about what’s important but also what’s happening. It’s a simple tactic that is good for overall engagement and morale.
The other couple of stand-in meetings that we had was an account growth meeting. What I’ve seen in other agencies is that it’s easy to become complacent. Every week we have an account growth meeting where we bring in the account leads but we also bring in people that aren’t working on that account. It’s a brainstorm. We get together and we talk about what else can we be doing for that client. If it’s a social media client, which is good to talk about what can we do from product design or development standpoint, strategy or innovation.
That keeps things fresh and we rotate. We have one account per week and we cycle through them in that regard. On the flip side, we’ve got an account health every week as well. The account growth is focusing on what can be and the account health is focusing on the current health of the team, the client relationship, the fiscal health of the account. That one is a little bit closer in. Those are the three. We try to keep it light on the standing meetings because we need to create time and space for people to do the work and not be caught up in meetings all day. Those are three that stand out on top of mind now. We also have an executive leadership team meeting where we meet quarterly and talk about where things are headed, strategy and where we should be going as well.
Tell me about the employees. Years ago, probably even back when Gay started the agency, it used to be that you hired a lot of junior-ish people to bring them into the marketing advertising world. People that were maybe right out of their business degree. They weren’t necessarily MBA. They were out of an undergraduate degree. Maybe they had some design ideas, they were creatives or customer service, but you were bringing in those early post graduating university people. They had to dash it out, pay their dues, grow with the organization and be successful. Now, because of how much more specialized marketing has become, has that changed?
It has changed a bit. We’ve got a great intern program. We had twenty interns and we ended up hiring a lot of those interns. It’s a healthy program. It’s robust. It’s where we find some of the greatest young talents through that program. Since we specialized in areas around product design, loyalty and CRM as an agency as well as a restaurant, we’ve hired leads to run those practice areas. They typically have more experience than someone out of college but we definitely keep it a pretty good balance of junior and senior.
How do you structure your intern program? Is it a four-month summer program or is it longer than that?
It is a summer program. Our people in the culture team led by two apprentices had a fantastic job of structuring that program. They feel like a class and community. They learn about the agency and they work on things, which is great. They also work on an intern project as a team. The last intern class worked on the future of retail and they presented it to the leadership team at the end of the summer. It is traditional in the fact that it’s a summer program. It’s not traditional in the sense that we typically extend a lot of those interns beyond the summer and/or hire several of them after their internship.
Are you a fully office-based team or do you have any remote employees at all?
We are headquartered in Austin and the majority of our people are here. We’ve got an office in Atlanta, which is growing quite a bit. We hired our head of product design in Atlanta and she is building out that group there. We also have some local clients in Atlanta, which makes it nice to have people close. We’ve got a small contingent in New York and San Francisco. On top of that, we do have a few remote people. You mentioned the war for talent and in some cases, we don’t care where people are located as long as they’re able to collaborate remotely and the tools allow for that seamlessly.
What tools are you using to allow your teams to collaborate and work remotely or even work in the office?
We use all Google Docs, Slides, Hangouts and Slack for communication and email. Those are the ones that people are using most frequently. People in our team implemented a platform called Lattice which is also a nice goal setting and goal management tool. It’s not old school like with greetings and things like that. It allows us to collaborate and talk about what people are doing and to recognize people for great work as it happens as opposed to once a year review cycles and things like that.
Are there any marketing specific tools that you’re using like Basecamp or anything on the front management side?
How about your team? Who reports to you?
We have a team of portfolio leads. We’ve structured what I call delivery organization, which is our producers, program managers and product managers sit in a client engagement organization. We’ve divided up our client work into four portfolios and those portfolios have portfolio leads. We look to them to run those portfolios almost like mini CEOs or GM of those portfolios. They’re clusters of accounts that aren’t necessarily industry vertical-aligned. It’s similar work. There is some subject matter expertise in language and sharing of resources amongst those accounts and portfolio leads and run those businesses. We’ve got account people and client agent people that work for them. Those portfolio leads report to me. Unlike some other COO roles, I also have several of the disciplines leads reporting to me like the Head of Product Design, Head of Connections, which is our social media capability, our Chief Intelligence Officer and Head of Operations are all directly reporting to me.
One of the different things about the COO role is that in every company, it’s completely different. It is the counterbalance between the areas the CEO is strong and passionate about, usually reporting to the CEO and all the other areas tend to report into the COO. Thinking about your team. Is there anything that you are focusing on in terms of growing their capabilities at all?
I probably spent 1/2 or 1/3 of my time on that. Part of it is ensuring that people have the tools and the space that they need to own their domain. Whether it’s a portfolio lead owning their portfolio, having the tools and the ability to manage those businesses or the tools and capabilities. The empowerment to build a practice like product design and doing that with an agency can be complex, especially a new capability like that. Inserting that into a 30-year-old agency is not as easy as hiring someone and building a team. I spent a lot of time forming those capabilities and defining them. It’s defining the needs of people that we need to hire and/or grow, educate, train up internally and change management that’s required around that in order to facilitate that and make it a healthy process so those capabilities can grow.
How about for yourself?
I have too many areas to work on, especially blind spots, communications and patience. I’m blessed and cursed of being able to see a solution quickly. Blessed because it comes quickly and cursed because I’m not always great at communicating why we’re headed towards that solution. It’s definitely something that I continuously need to work on and that I’m aware of.
That’s the key. When we’re green, we’re growing and when we’re ripe, we’re rotting. That was Ray Kroc, from McDonald’s that used to say that. If we were to think back and you were to go back to your 22-year-old self, you’re finishing college, you’re getting ready to start off in your career and you were able to lean back and give Christian some advice. What advice would you give yourself that you wish you’d known back then but you now know to be true?
That things are never as simple as they seem. The counter to that is if I look back at my 22-year-old self, I believe that I could do anything and I still believe that. That is a cultural tenet that we try to ensure that everyone embraces. There are no challenges too big to solve for. My 22-year-old self would be blind to the complexities of making organization run and all of the different perspectives. An organization has emotions, believe it or not. You need to be aware and cognizant of those emotions to ensure that the happiness and the emotive qualities of the organization are cared for. For me, at least, that has come with many stepping in it and causing a lot of emotional turmoil. If you were to ask up here, I probably still do it and it’s something that I need to work on. I certainly wasn’t aware that was existing when I was 22-years-old.
That’s a great insight. I don’t know if I’ve even heard anyone even express it that way that organizations have emotions. They are a motive pulse. I’ve talked about killing the energy in an organization, but not that they have emotions and thinking of it that way. It’s interesting. Christian, thank you so much for sharing with us. Christian Barnard, the COO of T3. I appreciate your time.
Thanks, Cameron. I’ll talk to you soon.
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About Christian Barnard
Christian oversees all aspects of agency operations at T3, drawing from 20+ years of experience from some of the world’s leading design and technology consulting firms. He works across all T3 clients and offices, focused on scalable growth, innovation, and fostering a creative and diverse culture within the agency.
During his career, Christian has managed the development of integrated digital experiences across mobile, social, and commerce for clients in retail, healthcare, financial services, and entertainment. Prior to T3, Christian was Group Vice President at Razorfish, leading the Austin office operations. He also lead Austin presence for SapientNitro, built out the global delivery function for Frog design, and managed the UX design, strategy, and content team at AT&T.
He studied visual design in college and started his career as a typesetter and freelance designer in Chicago. He created his first digital experiences in the mid-90s and worked on the original online edition of the Chicago Tribune. On weekends, Christian has been known to burn some time racing cars and sailing boats.