Unlocking the 3 Keys of a Values-Based Agency
Fran Biederman-Gross has grown her firm Advantages from a local printing business to a global end-to-end communications agency. As the CEO and founder an Inc. 500 company, she leads her clients on an invaluable journey of brand discovery that reveals their 3 keys: Purpose, Values, and Story. She joins the Smart Agency podcast to get really deep with understanding your purpose and communicating it in a way that gets your team and clients behind it.3 Golden Nuggets
- The quickest way to become profitable to attach it to your why. There is an overarching commonality in everything that you do. Understanding it and harnessing it for your business is where profitability becomes possible.
- Company core values don't exist. Values are very individual. They can be shared within an organization or community but not dictated. You want to align yourself with a team that shares your values and can contribute in a way that supports them.
- Knowing your why will win more agency business. As Simon Sinek puts it, "people don't buy what you do. They buy why. you do it." Don't take the easy way out. When you're identifying your why, go five levels deep and get to the real core of it.
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Jason: [00:00:00] Hey on this episode, I talk with an agency owner friend who talks about the real importance of having that North star, that why. And what are some of the things that you can do in order to figure your why out. Or make sure that your North star is the real deal. And then you have that complete clarity to make the right decisions that your team has the right decision.
So I hope you enjoy. Hey Fran, welcome to the show.
Fran: [00:00:32] Thank you Jason so much for having me today. What a fun time we're gonna have.
Jason: [00:00:36] So, uh, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Fran: [00:00:40] My name is Fran Biederman-Gross. And I am the CEO of an agency called Advantages. I'm a co-author of How to Lead a Values-Based Professional Services Firm, wife, mother, all those other titles that go in there.
But most proud of my professional work on the Three Keys and the agency that we have that in this demand generation bringing ROI to close the gap between marketing and sales.
Jason: [00:01:07] Awesome. Well, the mother is the hardest job. Uh, that's what I've learned. And, uh, the thankless job.
Fran: [00:01:17] You know, it gets better as they get older. I'm going to say not easier. Just better.
Jason: [00:01:21] Yeah. Well, I'm still waiting for the easy part.
Fran: [00:01:26] Yeah. I don't know when that comes.
Jason: [00:01:28] Exactly. So tell us, how did you get started in the agency life?
Fran: [00:01:32] Oh, in short, my late husband and I started a printing company pretty much out of college. It actually started as like a stationary business of taking overruns and pedaling, if you will, all over the streets of Manhattan and Queens, because there was a stationary corner virtually in every store, you know. There was a store on every couple of corners, if you will. And in the back, there was a printing company where you could order stuff that you need.
And then in the early nineties, I'm going to say that Staples opened up and really revolutionized how we bought things and then the internet exploded and how we bought things. So there wasn't really that need, but we really evolved into this incredible agency because I asked a lot of questions.
Like, why do you think you need that? Or why do you want that print quote? Or what are you going to do with that? So that whole curiosity of why really resonated, especially when I met Simon Sinek back in 2004 or five. And really, and pretty much as an innovator of taking the golden circle and bringing it to life. And that's how the agency, of course, I bought one and took that apart and created this really phenomenal Inc 500 agency in New York. That's very, purpose-driven.
Jason: [00:02:48] Let's talk about why did you buy an agency? You already had a business because you know, I'm always very curious on why people buy when it's pretty easy entry to get in. But I'm also on the flip side, like the agency that we're running now is like, that's all we do through growth is buy.
Fran: [00:03:04] So it's, you know, it's actually a really great question and I'm going to say that.
If you just isolate my life experience just as a matter of fact, not to get emotional in any way, but my late husband passed in 2001 and he was the debonair, very suave, very emotional, very friendly salesperson, and he would walk all the buildings. We went through 5,000 business cards, literally in every three months and he passed his card out and was so personable and was so memorable that we helped people all the time.
Not only in stationery and supplies and print, but we began to solve problems. And when he passed as you know, his voice still rings very clear in my head. You're such a waist behind a desk. I had to get out there and figure it out.
But what really resonated with me was the, problem-solving it wasn't what form do you need, or what brochure do you need or what trade show are you going to and how do I help you? But like, how do I really solve that problem? And what do people care about? And I needed, um, it was a very expensive education.
That's really why I bought the agency so I could actually dismantle it, which is what I did.
Jason: [00:04:18] Yeah, I see. So many times people will buy their first agency and then they just shred it apart. But it's just, it's a process like anything, and it's exciting to see and see where people have, uh, you know, taken it.
Let's talk about like, I love Simon Sinek. Like I haven't read any as books, but I love the Ted talk. I don't read any books. So.
Fran: [00:04:40] Hey, listen. As long as we're open and honest, I read my book probably more than any other book out there as I was writing it, but I'm not a big fan or a love of, you know, just reading.
I don't think I get so much still time either. So I'm right there with you. Ted talks are amazing.
Jason: [00:04:56] Yeah. I love them. So people always struggle with figuring out their why, and it sometimes takes them a very, very, very long time. And they always think like, well, let me like, just jot something on a piece of paper and that's my why. And I checked the box.
What was the process that you went through legal? I feel it's so important. You know, as I talked to thousands of agencies over the years, A lot of us were accidental kind of like you, right? Like you open up this printing shop, stationary shop, and then you start asking questions.
Right. And it was an expensive education for a lot of us, rather than coming from the agency world and knowing exactly what not to do from the big firms. Right. And going to go do it. And we never spend time figuring out that why or getting that clarity. Until five years later or sometimes, or how long did it take you to figure out that why?
Fran: [00:05:56] Well, I was in a unique situation. I was married to a very dynamic best friend who was very clear that he just loved when other people would get attention and they would stand out for all intents purposes, get noticed. Right. As our tagline still states to this day. And while that attention is really important, the question is how do you manage through the clutter of it?
But it was very clear to him and I, as we founded the company, you know, that's really what we love to do. When you really can connect with that, and I'm going to be honest with you, sitting down to do a wide diagnostic is a slog. That's the best four-letter word I can use to describe it. And until you surrender to it, you're just not going to do the deep work that it requires.
And what's amazing is when an entrepreneur does it and goes through that slog doesn't matter what business they own. It doesn't matter what industry it's in. There is an overarching thread and commonality between everything that they do. And this has really been my life's work because you know, the book is all about the three keys on how to unlock purpose and profit.
How do you get to profitability? Well, the quickest way is to do what you say we're going to do attach the dream. Cause that's where you know, all of your emotion and your drive really comes from, cause it's what excites you. So when you can articulate that really simple statement, that has a cause and an impact. And sometimes "so that" in the middle of it, it guides everything.
And it, look through the pandemic, it's made us almost infamous on mergers and acquisitions and how we can get people to come together. And how we can get people to pivot. And what's the next thing they should do. It's such an unlock, right?
So you have to discover it. You have to unlock it and then figure out a way to infuse it. Everything we do is always in those that three-step process discover, unlock, and fuse. But honestly, Jason, you gotta surrender to the slog.
Jason: [00:08:02] Yeah. When I start working with agencies, I tell them like, look, this could be a long process of figuring this out.
We'll keep doing other things, but it's very hard to figure out what's the next move when you don't have this. I was working, uh, I was telling you in the pre-show, started working this one agency that goes after nonprofits. And I was like, why do you do this? And they just kept repeating the typical BS that agencies... we want to make a major difference in the world.
And I was like, no, that's not it. That's not, it. It has to be that North star, which gives the ability to your team to get excited, to make a decision behind it. And then he was just mentioning, he was like, well, I would love in the next five years to help nonprofits raise a hundred million dollars.
I'm like, You're getting closer. It's measurable. People can get behind it. And then I was starting to tell them about ours. I was like, look, I just wanted to be like our whole why, our North star has to be a resource we wish we had when we were running the first agency. And then enabled our whole team to be like, what do we need to do?
They don't have to come to me as the toll booth and everything flowing through me, which is, this is just stressful shit.
Fran: [00:09:21] Here's a really good news. Jason, we have synthesized this so succinctly that you can pick up a copy of the book and read the appendix and it'll give you the whole outline and the theory and the things that you need to go through if you want to DIY it.
Or inside of pretty much, I'm going to say between six and eight hours, we get really clear. And you know, for us, when we, when we take on any client, we have to really identify these three keys that we talk about, right? Your purpose, your values, and your story. Now, a story there's a million books written and how everybody can tell a great story.
But the bottom line is it has to be memorable and you can't be the hero in it. Right? That's the big takeaway from story. And values to me, you start with that because you can actually separate the things that you value, that are wired to you as an individual. And that we can almost have another session on values, but when you just talk about purpose, like that's right, that the two, the fragment of the two sections of the equation of what this formula looks like, you're talking about the contribution and the impact.
And once we can identify what those two things are and not confuse them with the things that we, that we truly treasure and, and value, then you really get somewhere. And that will help any agency owner really get very clear on where the organization is going and how to rally the teams around them.
Like you said, it's really important to do that.
Jason: [00:10:52] So for the people listening that don't really have their North star, maybe they have a North star, but it's really it's like the East star. They're not there. Right? Where can they start? Like, what are some of the steps?
You know, the actively people listening, they'd be like, all right, let me get the sheet of paper. What do we need to do?
Fran: [00:11:09] So the first thing is you need, you need your mindset. There's one famous exercise that I'm really infamous for is, you know, on a sheet of paper, write 1 through 28, and just tell me what motivates you to get out of bed every day? And just keep going down.
And for some, it's funny, why 28? Because that's the page that we designed that had enough space between the lines, it was just an arbitrary number. The point is, is to get to the place where it's actually hard because people.
You know, we'll start with the easy things or like, Oh, I got a bed 'cause my alarm clock rang or I have to go to work today. And I have to brush my teeth and I get out, I get out of bed because, you know, I want to make the world a better place for my kids. And then you start getting to the hard stuff and the stuff that you don't, they can't really articulate.
And there's a good reason for it. Right? So this is science. This is biology. You know, your brain has a has a section. That doesn't have the ability to speak and you have to actually force the feeling to articulate the feelings, right? Like as, as agency owners, as marketers and branders, our job is to articulate how other people feel, if we're purpose-based anyway.
So if you think about it, we have to do it for ourselves. So the way that I want to make people feel, how can I articulate that? Even though I don't have the words. So that's one of the reasons why it's such a slog.
Now, being an outsider. Right. I've done thousands of these. And it's really easy for me to see viscerally, emotionally, where somebody's going, what's hard, help them through this slog to kind of like, I wouldn't say babysitter handhold, but just make it easier. Because you know what happens. Right?
We get stuck on something. We struggle. We procrastinate. And like, yeah, we'll pick that up later. Yep. It's going to take a long time. So I'll give myself permission to do that. But if you really want to get a headstart, you will sit down. And you will work through the hard stuff and you will really well slog through it and you will get to a place that it's in the ballpark.
Might be not wordsmith might need, you know, you would get the essence and the essence is really all you need. Cause that will manifest differently depending on what you're doing. The essence never changes.
Jason: [00:13:22] So after you write down these 28 line items and really like, really spend some time on it. And I love that you have, you know, go past the easy part because people are like, cause I want to make a difference. Like, yeah yeah. Well, and then tell me more about that. Right. It's kind of like the Larry King, like tell me more, tell me more, tell me more and then tell me that again.
And then you really kind of drill down into it. What's the next thing that the listeners need to do?
Fran: [00:13:48] So it's the same thing, but instead of telling me more, it's just why. You got to go five deep probably. Right? Because one, two is probably surface. You know, if you're really self-aware, you're gonna, you're gonna nail it and you're going to get clear or you can answer in less than five.
But the fuzzier you are, the more it takes and there's no right or wrong. There's no judgment on how many times I have to ask you that question. It's just about getting you to think and ponder to tap into the emotion of what feels right.
And then what I like to say is we have to pressure test it. Okay, great. So there's just, again, a series of other questions that I would think about, but what you're looking for is the secret sauce of looking through the patterns of your life, on anything that comes to mind. There's no right or wrong. So it's like, if I ask you to do this right now, like Jason, if I said to you, I'm going to ask you, tell me three different points in your life grade school, high school, college, you know, the most memorable event.
You could tell me something different today and something different in a week from now. And it wouldn't matter because I'm looking for the pattern. Trying to understand why, what were you doing? Were you so excited about something you accomplished? Somebody else, you know, you attributed somebody else to accomplish it?
We're just looking to identify those patterns. And once we can really articulate those patterns, we can decipher. And that's a very important word, right? Is it the way you do it? Or what you believe in. So deciphering that, and that's where a lot of people get really super fuzzy going through core values.
Like I was, I hate the word "core values". I believe that values are individual to a person or shared to a team organization or a community. So help me understand how I contribute and align to the organizational values as opposed to, what I call pin the tail on the visceral verb, right? How are you feeling today?
Because if I had a really crappy day or somebody, something really traumatically impacted me the way I go into that exercise with my team would suck and would totally influence it. And this is why people, you know, redo their values every few years. And this is why they put them on walls to remind them, but they don't live them because they don't...
Jason: [00:16:01] Yeah. I hate the exercise that people do around core values, because it is like total BS, like, you know, as we're recording this, you know, over the weekend, Tony Hsieh from Zappos passed away, which is horrible. But he was a big believer in really living the values. And I had a number of different people from Zappos on, and we talked about how those values actually go throughout the whole company.
And it all is like you were saying, it's you mentioned the key word believe. Right. And I think even Simon Sinek talks about it in his Ted talk is like, people don't follow you because it's you. They follow you because of what you believe in or something. I might've butchered it or something.
Fran: [00:16:45] I'll give you the quote, cause I say it a lot. "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." So when there is an emotional connection Between people, there's a commonality, chances are and something they align that they believe in, even if they can't articulate it. Right. You feel it, you feel it with your best customers, you feel it with your best clients, you feel it with your best employees, you feel it. Right?
It's this unspoken feeling again, going back to the biology of it. We can articulate it. The famous the Groundhog Day. What gives you the most energy? That's definitely a tip and trick to, to pressure test. Like, did I get it right? And I want people to be complete when they build a why statement, you know, you talked earlier about your own. Right?
Creating a place I wish I had for myself and that's mission-driven. But what's the impact on the other side? Right? So that these agency owners can have the life that you had or could have the life they want.
Jason: [00:17:45] Yeah. And so, yeah, we always talk about like, so they have the freedom to pick and choose and do the things that they love.
Fran: [00:17:50] Exactly. So that's a complete statement. See, I knew you had it. I just didn't get it earlier, but I, you know, when you remain focused, you know, the clarity that brings. Every program you do every, whatever it is podcast episode, everything is anchored to will this serve that or not? And that's when you have a permanent North star.
And when you get clear on that really early on. The exponential hockey stick growth, you can get to profitability really clearly.
Jason: [00:18:18] And so after now do the 28 things we asked the why, right? Like we have real core values, which I believe they're just your core values because you surround people that believe in those not that are your identical twins. So then what's next after that?
Fran: [00:18:33] So, I mean, there, you have it right now. How are you going to tell that to other people? So breaking it down a little bit on the three keys, purpose inside purpose is your why. This is exactly Simon's point. Everybody has one. You only have one. I don't care how many businesses you have.
I could debate that with anyone and show you the common thread. And you also have your vision. So you were very mission and vision-based inside that permanent North star.
Jason: [00:18:59] Describe the difference between vision and mission. I think that's important.
Fran: [00:19:03] So a lot of people get this really confused. Right? So tell me the dream that you have and tell me what you're going to commit to doing or dedicating yourself to doing every single day to achieve it.
So it's easy to look at a nonprofit that says I want to eliminate hunger, right? That's the vision, that's the dream. And what is this nonprofit going to do to actually contribute to that? You know, move the needle effort. Are they going to open a soup kitchen? Are they going to raise money to feed starving children?
There's all of these different missions that strive for that bigger vision. And by the way, we might have one organization dedicated to that vision and we might have different divisions that activate it in different ways. So common vision, differentiated mission. Right.
Someone's physically feeding children. Someone's physically taking care of vaccination. Someone's, you know, there's water, right. You can get so, so detail-oriented on what that vision could be.
That's another reason why people partner together, right? We both want, we have common vision, but we go about it differently.
And then you go into the vision into the values. So like you said, right, everybody has our own individual values and this is really why I try so hard not to use the word core. Yes, they are core to each of us as an individual. But when you look at an organization, we have to share them.
We might go about them differently. We might believe there are different aspects to them, but again, we'll go back to essence. The essence is the same. So when you can discover what these values are as an organization, you can really unlock them. We've built a really great framework, which is also easily identifiable in the book. Right?
Very simple path. They can't be aspirational. They have to be actionable. And you will use them as a decision-making filter for everything you do. And when you can empower your team and align them on what I call the underpinning of your brand foundation, which are these three keys, which is the verbal side of your brand. You will empower your entire team to mobilize further, faster with greater efficiency, hence the result of profitability.
So the way that you do that is the third key is through story, again. You know, starting with the emotional, why is this important? Like I've rewritten the way that a case study should be rewritten. Why, how, what -very simple Simon Sinek golden circle rule. Start with why this is important because nobody cares.
What's the opportunity, or I wouldn't say the problem, but what's the risk? What's in it for me? How can I identify to the problem that you were having and what was the result? Right. Because we all want the results. Nobody really cares about how we did this. Oh, we built this website and did it with... no one cares about that.
We just want the result of whatever it was that achieved this common opportunity or problem?
Jason: [00:22:04] My really good buddy. Ian Garlic, AKA Sasquatch, he calls me his little friend and I'm 6'3". He's bigger than me, but, uh, he calls them case stories and I hated case studies. But you know, how he taught me over the years is like you were talking about, is start with the results.
Do you want to know how one person did X, Y, and Z? Yes. And, really go into it and tell a story around it about around, like you were saying, you know, the emotions. Cause that's why people really buy or engage with you is to fix something that they feel or to get something that makes them feel good or something.
Fran: [00:22:41] Achievement is very fulfilling. And when someone can call me and say, wow, I had the same problem that this guy did on your, in the cases of, you know, that I see, or I heard about this, or someone told me about that. It's like a double brand validation because they're coming to me to solve that same problem. And they understand that we understand how to solve it.
I mean, that's the work of a case study, case story. And I love that word. We also call them, you know, like story sharing, story, doing story, being so almost to take case stories to a 2.0. How does the brand play out the story that they tell, right? How does their culture, how are they being, how are they doing?
What are they doing in the world? And what are the story that they're telling? So it's, um, it keeps going and going and giving and giving if you will.
Jason: [00:23:35] Yeah. Well, Fran, this has been awesome. Is there anything I did not ask you that you think would benefit the audience?
Fran: [00:23:40] I would just look at the pandemic as a really interesting opportunity.
As I sat down, like most of everyone else in the shock and awe of what the world was starting to experience thinking like this wasn't real. And then it was, and then for some businesses, it was much more impacting than others, but it's like follow the money and follow the opportunity.
We talk about results-driven and performance-driven, but the money is now from the government side is really going to be repairing these small businesses.
So how can you activate, you know, a grant in the marketing space, in the branding space to upgrade your team's skills so that you can actively participate? And we've really stumbled and proven a number of times now in the last few months, how well that's working. And for the smaller companies and I mean $25 million and under, a quarter-million dollars of budget and under, there is local and state grants that we have triangularly figured out how to actually help you. So as an agency, you can unconventionally figure out other programs where you can add other lines of business that you can expand on your own. Like we have.
Jason: [00:24:52] Yeah. I love being resourceful. You know, I always, when people come to me, they're like, I've tried everything.
I'm like really tried everything? Tell them to start listing. And then I tell them, make a list. And it was like two things I'm like really? That's it? And then they start laughing. I'm like, got to keep going, man. There's a solution out there. Somehow.
Fran: [00:25:13] There always is. It's like Jason, if I had more time to just, you know, go down my own list, I would, I'm sure I could learn a few things myself, because I don't know. I guess resiliency, I've been through a lot in my own life and we've come up from the ashes a number of times before 2008 to 2010, there was a whole revolution in what's needed. And 9/11, you know, took out a fair amount of manufacturing and businesses that we were very involved in.
And we've been there, done that. So this time the belief and the historical understanding, knowing that there is opportunity out there. I just had to find it.
Jason: [00:25:51] Oh yeah. Yeah. I always tell everybody I'm like, this is the perfect time to really kind of grow. Like I know everybody freaked out in March 2020. And then I think like a month later, then it was just like, you know, everything just kind of just kept skyrocketing in agency space. You know, because everybody started realizing how important agencies are to them and how digital and online and all of that. And there's, there's always opportunities.
So, and, uh, when I look back at, you know, when we started in '99 or 2001, or like you said, '08 and even, you know, I guarantee you're looking back in five years from now at this point, right now. It's a golden opportunity, even though there's lots of people hurting right now, you know, medically and that kind of stuff, but economically there's huge opportunity.
So hopefully all of you figure out your why, your value, you guys tell the right story and you guys can get there. What's the title of the book and where can people go buy it?
So the title of the book is how to lead a values-based professional services firm. The three keys to unlock, purpose and profit.
Fran: [00:27:02] They can go to 3KeysBook.com and explore a download the intro, et cetera. See some videos why we wrote the book. You can also find it on Amazon and pretty much every other book reseller. And I would say, check it out.
Jason: [00:27:02]Awesome. Great. Well, everybody go do that. And if you guys enjoy this episode and you guys want to be surrounded with amazing agency owners that share the same values that you do share, probably the same why about growing their agency and scaling agency.
I want you guys to go to DigitalAgencyElite.com. This is our exclusive mastermind for experienced agency owners, where we're sharing what's currently working, we're the support group, we're are the ones that you can share the wins and we'd actually get it right?
Like if you fired that awful client, you can't really tell your spouse - they'll be like, okay, good. But everyone else can celebrate with you and just have a lot of fun with it. Go to DigitalAgencyElite.com. And until next time have a Swenk day .