Plundering Human Souls. Reflections on Changing the Agency Model

Plundering Human Souls. Reflections on Changing the Agency Model

In my last blog, I talked about how a trip to the conscious community Serenbe had us watching the movie Beyond Zero about a carpet manufacturing company, run by the late Ray Anderson, that did something quite amazing. He completely revolutionized the way he made carpets in a way that went far beyond creating a “more sustainable” company. 

I was inspired by the movie, and I was inspired by the urban planning of Serenbe, envisioned and brought to life by Steve Nygren, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Both Anderson and Nygren innovated. Both decided that what was available to address existing problems wasn’t good enough, and something new needed to be brought into existence. They did it. 

This is deeply inspiring to me. 

After watching the movie at Serenbe, we were asked the question, “What does your company plunder from the earth?” and my answer was, “Not much. But we do plunder human souls.” 

Let me explain. 

My company, Speed & Function, treats our workers well and I’m proud of that. But agency life is a hard life. In the industry, it’s known as a NOCO, or a Naturally Occurring Chaotic Organization - a term coined by Agency Agile. And chaotic we are.  

It is indeed the very nature of the work — we juggle multiple projects, high pressure accounts, big budgets with demanding clients, and ever-evolving technology. Plus the relationships with our clients, at least in the past, were largely transactional, meaning it was about what you did and less about who you were. 

Over my 16+ years running this company, I’ve watched more than a few people I consider friends burn out and leave, even though they loved the work and loved the people. Agency work is war, and war is for the young. 

For years, I felt helpless with what I saw. I felt trapped by the economics, by the culture, by the very nature of the industry. Yet a few years ago, I began to realize there were places I could change how we did business, and so we became what’s called a Deliberately Developmental Organization

This means we’ve implemented a far more conscious model with our clients. We retooled how we structure all of our working relationships, leading to deeper connections as well as more honest and vulnerable feedback loops internally and eternally. This has led to better outcomes and far more rewarding business connections, to me meeting people like Whole Foods Market (and now Love.Life) John Mackey. When it comes to this, I can say we have at least begun to genuinely innovate inside of the hired agency model.  

When it comes to our workers, however, we haven’t figured out how to stop creating a strong burn with my employees. Agency life and a life of balance and even ease seem to be mutually exclusive, like asleep or awake or sober or drunk. 

But Ray Anderson and Steve Nygren taught me that my own goal of changing agency life might not be as foolhardy, or impossible, as I sometimes fear. 

Perhaps with enough creativity, vision, and support, I might find a way to stop plundering human souls and instead create a business model that is as good and sustainable to my workers as Serenbe is to its residents and its land. 

Either way, kudos to those men for doing something new and for inspiring me to do the same.