THE ENGINE IS RED

Chris Denny

Chris Denny is the founder of The Engine is Red.

With a background in both design and entrepreneurship, Chris Denny founded The Engine is Red in 2008. Chris leads the Engine team—developing inspired brand strategies, campaigns, and interactive experiences for national and regional clients. Chris and the Engine have been featured by a variety of media, including Entrepreneur, Inc 5000, AdAge, Adweek, USA Today, and CNN Money.

Show transcript

With a background in both design and entrepreneurship, Chris Denny founded The Engine is Red in 2008. Chris leads the engine team, developing inspired brand strategies, campaigns, and interactive experiences for national and regional clients. Chris and the Engine had been featured by a variety of media, including Entrepreneur, Inc. 5000, Ad Age, Adweek, USA Today, and CNN Money.

Paul Kortman: Fill in the missing details from that intro and tell us something about your personal life.

Chris Denny: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here and get to know you and share a little bit of our story. I’m just kind of a weirdo that fell in love with creative and can’t seem to shake it. I live here in northern California. While I spend a lot of time at the agency, I actually spent a lot of my time outside of work. I have two young kids and they’re kind of the highlight of my day. But I’m excited to be here.

Paul Kortman: What is your agency’s top line revenue?

Chris Denny: We’re a little bit different in that. I’m sure you’ll get to dive into that a little bit this week as we talk through some of it. But we only charge for creative services. So we don’t charge any media or production through the agency at all. All of our clients direct build. So our top line revenue is kind of mid-line of a lot of other agencies. And this year we’ll build just north of 2 million.

Paul Kortman: What’s the typical price to work with you (Median or Average)?

Chris Denny: It’s really pretty widely varied. We have no technical minimums. There are times when we have clients, either for a very short term engagement like a startup or a nonprofit, that are engaging us just in two or three day projects. That would really be on the smallest end and that’s probably south of $10000. We have other Fortune 100 companies that work with a dedicated team, essentially on a weekly basis. They’re building well into the six figures a year. Probably the high side of that would be in the $400,000 range. I would say that our median or most common is either project work in the $40,000 to $100,000 range or maybe some shorter term things, but it’s pretty widely varied.

Paul Kortman: Describe your staff/team, how many do you have? What are their specialties?

Chris Denny: So we have a little bit of a blended team. We have two main studios: one here in northern California where I’m based. We have a second studio in Minneapolis, and then beyond that we have full timers, permalancers, and contractors that are remote. So like in Berkeley, South Bay, San Francisco, as well as far away as Finland, the U.K., and Canada. We structure our teams based on craft. We have a really strong creative department of writers, storytellers, designers, art directors, then we have a really strong strategy that leads a lot of our client communications, project management strategy work, and then we have a significantly talented development team, so engineers & programmers on the software side, everything from front-end web development to iOS. I would say for a full time equivalent if you’re taking those permalancers and full timers in, we’re right around 18 right now. Although that does shift as projects come and go

Paul Kortman: How many of those 18 are not salaried employees but are contractors? How much of your labor costs are contractors?

Chris Denny: Of the daily 18, 6 are contractors. Some of those just have to do with international laws, where it’s hard to have a full time employee with the EU and things like that. Others have a small shop of their own and they love taking care of their own clients, so it’s kind of a mix. And then beyond that, we bring in specialists either based on a particular skill set or need, like illustration or a certain type of UI or UX or a certain technology stack, or just because our team is over capacity and we need an extra set of hands. So on any given day, we could have another six or eight additional freelancers or contractors above that core. And that wave kind of comes and goes based on what we’re working on or how much. And then from a labor cost question, all we are is our team. We’re pretty lean in terms of overhead. We don’t have huge studios here in northern California. We’re about 4000 square feet, about another thousand square feet in Minneapolis. So we don’t have a ton of overhead, so labor costs are for sure our largest investment. We fight to be really competitive with both our in-house talent as well as our partners, so we tend to invest pretty heavily there.

Paul Kortman: What’s the average salary of your employees?

Chris Denny: I mean I want to be respectful of the team and where they’re at in their careers and not podcast W-2s out. But one of the really big values we have here as an agency is transparency, as well as alignment. So all of us earn exactly the same way. We don’t pay any commissions for certain departments like media or new business. We don’t pay hourly for some and exempt for others. Of the 12 of us, nine of us are exempt employees, and three are not exempt and eligible for hourly and overtime, but we tend to pay everybody similarly. So what I can share is that from a salary perspective we push to be competitive and that’s kind of tough as a small independent shop, particularly in the Bay Area, because we’re competing with a lot of non-revenue generating startups that are not tied to profitability, which is exciting. I think they’ve invested a lot in our community but it can make it tough to find talent. So we take a look at base salary as a big component of compensation. We also focus heavily on benefits. We really believe that to produce your best work inside the studio you have to be living a really full and healthy life outside the studio, and as a team, benefits play a big role in that . So we invest in health care, dental and vision, also wellbeing and health, life insurance, all those things. We also try to help young folks plan for their future. So we have a 401k and financial management program here at the studio, as well as starting to look out at 2018 we’ll be looking at student loan repayment benefits as well. And then on top of that, trying to keep the team completely unified and invested together, we actually have a 25% profit share as well, so 25% of all the profits of the agency are actually distributed to the full team.

Paul Kortman: So can you give us a range, like are we talking $40000, $75000?

Chris Denny: Yeah, all of those. Depending on where you’re at and depending on your location and the cost of living of your area as well. Your entry levels are in the $40000s. I would say that a lot of our staff is in the $60-70,000 range, and senior leadership can definitely break into the six figures.

Paul Kortman: What is your employee’s percent billable time?

Chris Denny: Yeah. So our model and workflow and the way that we engage with clients is a little bit different. We don’t do time sheets or hourly billing. We don’t do retainers and we don’t do scopes of work. So it’s a little bit different than a traditional agency. The core of the way that we charge, the way that we manage, and the way that we self-lead is based on assigning a small dedicated team to a project over weekly spans or sprints. So we build by the day and schedule by the week. So the smallest unit of engagement is a full day’s worth of effort over a week.

Paul Kortman: And then that’s multiplied by how many team members are involved?

Chris Denny: Yeah. So let’s say that we are working with you to explore some prototyping for a mobile application. We would say that’s that’s probably ideally a team of two days of a creative director, four days of a UI/UX designer, maybe we want to have a consulting iOS developer one day that week just to make sure that it’s all there. Maybe two days of a UX writer, and they based on their hourly rates, you would have a weekly fee for that team and then you can decide how many weeks it’ll take for the initial project.

Paul Kortman: How many clients does your agency have?

Chris Denny: We try to focus in a more dedicated fashion, so on any given day, we’re trying to work with the least number of clients as possible to give each one the most attention. But that said, that means that we’ll typically finish a project much faster than a traditional timeline, and then move on to the next client. So on any given day, the full engine staff is probably only serving about six or seven clients total across the agency, but we’ll probably serve just north of 40 throughout the year.

Paul Kortman: What verticals or industries are your clients in?

Chris Denny: It’s really varied. We tend to more align with clients in terms of culture, just as to what area they are at in their organization and what they value, as well as where they are in their life cycle. We tend to join clients either in a season of launch or a season of pivot, either watching a new channel or product or brand, either at program or product level or on a whole organization, or they’re in a place of significant change and evolution. Because we align there, we tend to dive into lots of different industries, so everything from a great cupcake brand to very technical bio life sciences and beyond. But we do have a couple of verticals that probably cluster a little bit more than is typical. We do a lot in energy and renewable energy. Also wine and beverage is a big passion for ours. Our studio is located here in Sonoma County, so obviously being in wine country is pretty inspiring. We also do a lot in financial services and consumer finance, and then bio-life sciences and healthcare is a big one for us. We do work with quite a few innovators there, as well as government and nonprofit work. But I’m already thinking of four or five clients that don’t fit in those.

Paul Kortman: So you know I do have to chuckle a little bit here, living in Sonoma Valley, living around vineyards and around wine people. It’s inspiring. Is that just shorthand for you drink wine at the office.

Chris Denny: Yeah, we do drink wine in the office quite a bit. And I find it very inspiring, this mix of agriculture and craft as well science makes some really good neighbors. It’s really inspiring.

Paul Kortman: What services do you offer for your clients?

Chris Denny: It depends on where you’re at, what you need, and where your goals are. But basically what we will be doing is giving you access to a really talented team on the creative side. So writing, design, art direction, UI/UX, as well as being able to dream in code. So everything from front-end PHP to pretty sophisticated ERP and database integration work, custom web applications and software all the way into mobile. And then you’ll be supported by our accounts and strategy teams to help you not just execute the work but identify where you should be focusing, how, and why.

Paul Kortman: So can they be exclusive of each other?

Chris Denny: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re really transparent and intimate with how we collaborate with our clients, so there are definitely times where a client is saying, stay inside these guardrails, here’s the the parameters of the project, and we really only serve them there. There are other times like collaborating in an app that we for sure do. So we will work with some clients where they have an internal development and engineering team that’s actually doing a lot of the builds of a larger technical project, but they’re using our team for the user experience, so design and prototyping on the front-end is us, and we’re collaborating with them, and we’re even sometimes embedded sitting side-by-side day-to-day working on that. So there’s definitely places where clients will leverage our content and design teams but not use our interactive development team, either because of the scope of the project or because they have that talent in-house.

Paul Kortman: Which of those services are does your agency specialize in?

Chris Denny: I would say that there’s two. One, I think that we really enjoy and fight really hard to help brands really break through and tell their story, to get past the nearsighted and creative really engaging strategic and emotional story, they’re at a campaign or a branch level, and really help that come to life to something that is evocative and memorable and effective. And then secondly, our team loves a deep technical challenge, so dreaming and creating things in code that really move the needle is exciting, and especially if it kind of engages the faulty and ties everything together. But those are the two areas that I would say that we’re probably the strongest.

Paul Kortman: How do you find good clients?

Chris Denny: We’re really lucky. Because we don’t work with a huge number of clients and we focus on staying as a tight team, we’re somewhat particular about who we work with and that’s helped. So we have some of the world’s best clients, I think, and they tend to talk to their friends a lot. So the vast majority of our clients come from word-of-mouth and referrals. We also have really high client retention. A lot of the collaborators we’re working with have been with us for years. But we also get to do things like this and meet people like you and share our story. But as of now it’s really been relationship and work-driven.

Paul Kortman: Describe your agency’s ideal client.

Chris Denny: Our ideal client is a team who is amazingly dedicated to what they do. They are pushing the boundaries and rethinking how they serve their customers and clients. And our ideal of ideal client is someone who is starting to break into some some significant success in there, almost in spite of their brand, their story, and their communication. And then we can partner with them and mutually respect and bring their expertise into the creative process and take them from this emerging place into a spot of market leadership by really helping them overhaul how they view the world, how they talk to their potential clients, how they position and establish themselves. So bringing in people who are far smarter than us into a creative process and really taking it to the next level.

Paul Kortman: Describe your agency’s worst client.

Chris Denny: For us, the way that we’re built and our culture, there are certain types of CMOs that really we’re just not a fit for. If you’re a brand or a marketer that has a very specific vision in mind of what you’re hoping to have created, but you just don’t have the bandwidth or the skill-set in-house to get that done, and you’re really hoping to just commission the execution of an existing vision or idea, we’re probably not a good fit. I think that we’ll ask too many questions and probably push too many things. But that type of telepathic customized commissioned illustration, our team is just not very good at.

Paul Kortman: What’s the worst part of your job? Why?

Chris Denny: I would say that the worst part of my job is that I sometimes struggle with time management and can say yes to too many things, and while I’m working on that, sometimes that means that I’m the one standing in the way of a creative team really nailing their goals, because they’re waiting on me for a specific document or strategy or my counters holding them back. So on the days as an agency leader when I can identify that I personally am a challenge for my team to overcome really sucks at a guttural level, so I’m constantly working on that. But holding my team up and standing in the way is definitely the worst part of my job.

Paul Kortman: How do you find good staff?

Chris Denny: One, at least in today’s economy, it’s hard to find good people because there’s just so much opportunity in the workforce. And I’m excited for that. As a creative, we’ve built our agency at the pinnacle of the downturn. I’m excited to see creatives have some new job opportunities, but it does make it a little bit tougher to find available teams. But for us I think it comes down to just three different areas. One, we trust our team. I think that, particularly for experienced creatives, being in an agency environment where they’re questioned or micromanaged or disempowered can be devastating to your creative path. So we only hire talented and trustworthy people, and then we treat them with that respect and let them design their own path and lead their own way and ask the big questions and kind of be there. Secondly, we try to take care of them in terms of their life, from time-off to finances to benefits. While we’re probably not the highest paying agency, we definitely support the full lives of our clients. It’s pretty rare for the studio to the full past 6:00 p.m., because we think they need to get home and get rest, and because we don’t do billable hours, we’re not fighting for you to squeeze out another half hour. We’re fighting for you to produce your best and strongest day. And then lastly, we just try to take really good care of our staff, from professional development to listening to them and helping them problem solve. Where we’re headed has a lot to do with where they’re headed.

Paul Kortman: How do you staff a project?

Chris Denny: We work in smaller dedicated teams. So instead of having one bench across the whole agency and rearranging that every time, we have small clusters of designers, writers, creative director, account manager, and they’re working together side-by-side, day-by-day, and as a whole team they’ll go from one project to the next. That allows them to learn each other’s flows, to kind of customize their own creative process and communication. So as a new project comes in, we’ll take a look at which teams are available, and we’ll either try to decide that based on location or on specific experience, which staff is the best for them, and we’ll offer that to the client, but then we’ll also offer them whoever is available to start this. Because we don’t work on very many things simultaneously, sometimes scheduling becomes a question.

Paul Kortman: Do you offer continued training to your staff? What does that look like?

Chris Denny: So we encourage training and professional development on a variety of things. We give education and inspiration budgets on a quarterly basis. We also have do continuing education reimbursement for individual classes, like a general assembly, although it’s a two to four year institution, and then we’re also looking for ways to do research and development internally, to give a team member maybe a week off of client work to invest in personal projects or to go further. And then we also do a lot of coaching internally on topics like leadership and communication on intent. And then we encourage our teams to cross train in different departments. If you’re a writer, spend some time working on strategy. If you’re a designer, spend some time doing front-end development. Even if that’s just from a place of empathy and compassion it’s good to kind of be multi-disciplinary.

Paul Kortman: What do you do when a team member/staff fails at a project or their job?

Chris Denny: All of us fail. I mean all of us will. If we’re not, then we’re playing it too safe. If we’re constantly striving and pushing, failure will become a regular part of our job. The first thing that we do is we take care of them. We let them know that failure is OK here. It’s expected and it’s a part of who we are. It’s not about preventing failure. It’s about getting good at it and being wise at how we fail. The first thing that we do is try to understand why. Why was there a breakdown or failure to meet expectations? And we look in a couple of key areas: One, did they really fully understand what was being asked of them? Were we clear in setting the standard or guiding or framing the question well. I would say in our world, 8 times out of 10, that’s where the breakdown was. They weren’t set up for success based on what was being expected of them, either at a client level or a staffing level or a project level. And then secondarily, we look to see did they have what it takes to execute this well? Do they have enough time or enough resources or do they have the right software and budget to get it done? And if not, why not? Why was that misaligned? So I would say that the vast majority of failures fall in those two buckets. But in the sense that they did fully understand the goals and where they were headed and they were fully equipped to do it well, we have to take a deeper look to see why. Why did that still fail? Was there something going on outside of work? Was there a personal or kind of professional challenge there? So I would say that the majority of the time that all of us break down, and I have to admit that I’m in this bucket. I’m often having to stand in front of my team and let them know how I let them down. But it’s more often than not something we can fix, that we can learn from and we can grow, and in those instances we ask them to teach the rest of us what they learned. You’re always going to learn by mistakes and failures. It can either be your own or you can learn from the people around you. So if we’re all sharing our failures, we’re all getting better as a team. But over the long term if it really becomes a failure within a job role or an instance becomes a pattern or a pattern becomes a problem, we’ll sit down and take a look. If it’s somebody who’s a really good cultural fit for our team, odds are we probably just have them in the wrong role, that their particular strengths aren’t aligning to what their job duty is asking for. So can we cross train or find a new home for them? Or maybe we’re just not a good fit for them as an agency. Because we do take such a completely different approach to the way that we work with each other and our clients, we have had experiences, if you come from a large traditional agency, that you’re just a fish out of water here and not enjoy it. So those things do happen and we just try to be compassionate and candid and help them find a new opportunity.

Paul Kortman: How do you actually provide success to your clients?

Chris Denny: I don’t think this too much of a hassle. It’s probably my favorite part of my job. I think it comes down to how you start with a client. As you’re setting out, really asking the bigger and the bolder questions and taking the time not just to understand the parameters of a specific project, but understand where that project fits within their organizational goals or business model, if you really understand how a client works and what they’re facing and where they’re going, you can dream and think a lot bigger. Thinking of a digital project we worked on last year, where at the surface the goal was really kind of marketing focused. How do we build a front-end web development experience that will support our sales teams and customer acquisition? So it was really a brand storytelling product promotion and conversion project. But in diving in and understanding where they worked, we found that one of their biggest struggles is, as they scale, customer service is hitting bandwidth limits and it’s having an impact on cost and effectiveness. So we were able to rethink the way that they do customer support digitally, in terms of FAQ, self-service of guidance, walkthroughs, as well as chat and queuing. So we were actually able to increase their customer service output while decreasing their impact on staffing and cost. And while that wasn’t necessarily part of the project, but because we’ve built a relationship not just with the marketing team but with the full leadership team at the organization, and we really understood how they define success and where they’re headed, we can think in our craft, but a little bit bigger than our project and really deliver on that.

Paul Kortman: What makes The Engine is Red different from your competitors?

Chris Denny: I would say that the biggest thing that makes us different is how we collaborate with our clients. We feel that the best work comes from a place of trust and true collaboration, and we found that a lot of traditional agency practices really go against that. So we focus on a collaboration that is transparent and inclusive. So we’ve torn down a lot of things that used to be there. We’re not an agency that’s going to go from a brief and then disappear for two or three weeks and then come back with the big Don Draper pitch that probably doesn’t actually meet project goals and didn’t consider a lot of other things. We’re more like an agency that’s working side-by-side, showing work while it’s still early and vulnerable and sitting at the same side of the table as our clients and really pushing that forward. We also really focus on a collaboration that is as lean and intuitive as possible. So we don’t have overly restrictive scopes of work, where you sit down with a brand or a marketer and try to guess exactly how many pages of websites going to be six months before you start building it and then fight over paperwork. I have to admit that I’m in a place in my career where I don’t really want to argue with an adult about what counts as a round of revisions ever again. We just did away with that. We’re all here to solve the same problem. We’re all here to get it done side-by-side. So how do we strip away retainers and timesheets and scopes of work and back-and-forth and bad Gantt charts and false status reports and just make a process that’s still accountable and predictable and scheduled, but it’s really lean and doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort playing volleyball with work or arguing over contracts. And then lastly, I’ve just never been in a great creative process where we didn’t learn something new or get a new requirement or something changed. In the old world, in order for an agency to maintain their profitability, they have to really resist those outside variables and changes. New ideas are dangerous because they blow up the project, or what we used to call scope creep. Scope creep usually is good ideas that you just didn’t think of when you wrote the scope. So we wanted to say, how is there a way for us to let that learning and that flexibility be a part of the creative process, something that we embrace and problem solve together, as opposed to something that we’re always fighting over.

Paul Kortman: Why should I use The Engine is Red over a smaller agency?

Chris Denny: I think it depends on what you’re looking for. So if your goals and where you’re headed are that focused, then I think a small team can be really great. But we find that a lot of our clients’ goals are a little bit broader, they’re focusing on growth, expansion, revenue, scalability. And I think having access to a more multi-disciplinary team where you can have one partner who’s taking the time to deeply understand who you are and support across brand campaign, sales support and outreach as well as digital, it can be a more effective and often more efficient experience.

Paul Kortman: Why should I use The Engine is Red versus a bigger agency like Ogilvy?

Chris Denny: I love our brother and I think that Ogilvy is a great shop and there’s actually a lot of great shops out there. But I think it depends who you are and what you’ve got you. For some organizations having that name and having that kind of sex appeal is really important. And there’s a lot of shops doing really great work out there. But I think if you were to go with us over one of those iconic names, it’s probably because you’re looking for something different. Either from a work perspective you’re looking for something bolder and new, or from a collaboration perspective, you’re just really sick of working against your agency. You’re sick of opaque billing practices and getting pitched one team and staffed another. You’re getting sick of know death by a thousand cuts of bleeding change orders and being told that your timelines don’t make sense. And I think if you’re fed up with the traditional agency model, even if you love the team you’re working with, we’re probably a really good set nice.

Paul Kortman: Do you offer a service, price or package that no one else is offering?

Chris Denny: I would say probably not. Great design is great design. I would say that it’s how we offer it that might be different. So not only don’t we have any retainers or anything like that, we actually don’t obligate any of our clients to work with us. So we’ll have to create a roadmap for a project for a year or for three years and we’ll help guide you through what that would be, but we only want you here if you want to be here, so we have no contracts. We have nice terms and agreements that our lawyers make us do for payment terms and intellectual property. But there’s no paperwork commitment from our clients . Use us because you want to use us, and be here because together we can create something great. Don’t come up with $50000 worth of work for us to do this month just because you signed a year-long retainer.

Paul Kortman: And the Elevator pitch, you have 30 seconds, you’ve identified me as an ideal client, now convince me… and go.

Chris Denny: I would say that if you’re an ideal kind of ours, I think at this point you’ve got to know what we’re capable of and where our talent lies and we’re the team and the transparency and the leadership to create really awesome things together.

Paul Kortman: What do you personally do for fun?

Chris Denny: So my background actually is as a creative, I came up as a designer. They don’t really let me do that anymore because they’re all far better at it than I am, but as an agency lead I spend a lot of my time working in leadership and strategy and growth. I still kind of crave that creative output. So a lot of things that I do for fun center around that. So lately for the last few years, my passion has been food and learning different culinary techniques and cultures and I get to travel quite a bit for that. And then the other half of the fun is, my wife and I have two awesome kids and we get to go on these amazing adventures together and have a lot of fun. We take our kids traveling a lot and spend most of our summers in a different city and learning a different culture. So I spent a lot of time with my family and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

Paul Kortman: What does your staff or agency do for fun?

Chris Denny: We’re all pretty different. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it’s fun to be here. We have some folks who just passionately love music and they’re spending their nights and weekends in underground shows. We also have some really avid cyclists here, who are hardcore mountain bikers, and being here in California that tends to be great. Our lead account director loves art and loves to sail. So she’s out in the bay on the weekends or at a gallery opening. Our Minneapolis team loves to travel and to go to his cabin and all these different things. So everybody has their own thing that they really love to do. And it’s exciting to see them kind of let their freak flag fly and find their own weird thing to dive into.

Paul Kortman: Do you guys ever do group fun things?

Chris Denny: Yeah, we definitely do. I think that really caring for and knowing the people that you work with, both on your project team as well as on the client side is really key. Just yesterday we had a huge Friendsgiving here in the studio and everybody kind of cooked for each other and break bread and laugh and tell funny family stories of awful cranberry sauces. But we do lots of other things throughout the year. Sometimes it’s really casual and just a team celebrating a project launch with a happy hour going out. Since we do have so many remote folks we tend to, at least once or twice a year, all fly to the same city and hang out. We’ve done everything from ice fishing to laser tag to chartering a boat through the bay here. I think that having that time to get to know each other, also to get to know the people around you, your significant other, your friends, your family, is a big part of that trust that breeds the candor of great work.

Paul Kortman: How does your agency incorporate fun into client relationships?

Chris Denny: The nice thing is, because we don’t have to constantly fight over paperwork, we get to know them on a much deeper level. There’s definitely the fun of hanging out after a trade show or having drinks after a kickoff. And those are great too, I don’t want to minimize that. I love to get to know our clients. But I would say where we really deepen that relationship and a casual relationship becomes a good friendship is when something goes wrong. With a lot of our marketers, we’re a small piece of the world they’re living in, and if something happens like turnover or they lose their boss or all of a sudden there’s a brand new deadline that they don’t know how to handle, when we can be side-by-side with them and figuring that out and not one more thing for them to fight with, not only does it get done, but you kind of build a deeper relationship. It’s common for us to send a bottle of whiskey to a colleague on the client side when they’re having a bad day or help them celebrate a personal win or something that’s going on in their life, just because we’re really building a deeper friendship there.

Paul Kortman: Tell us a story about the most fun you’ve had working for a client or doing your job?

Chris Denny: I’ll start with the client side. So one of our clients is in the energy space and they build utility scale solar projects, and they are phenomenal at what they do. But these projects are huge, we’re talking like a million solar panels in a single site. And our lead there had this suspicion that if we work together, we could find some better ways to manage the project management in the field. But instead of talking about us, we just kind of deployed out into a desert in southern Utah. My head of technology, my lead creative director and I, and we just embedded with their team in this insanely remote Utah town outside Zion and just spend a few days learning how to install solar and getting to know the guys and going out for drinks and getting to meet them. But all of that work didn’t come in a white board or a strategy. We were just kind of boots on the ground, in the middle of a desert, trying to figure out how solar gets built and installed and how we could redefine how they work. Just getting to know, not the marketing folks and not senior leadership, but Michael and the frontline teams who were doing that day-in and day-out was just really fun. We had to wear a hard hat, safety vest the whole day.

Paul Kortman: And did you actually install panels or were you doing the supervisor job?

Chris Denny: We were more kind of observing. They didn’t let us touch too much, but it was really fun to be there side by side.

Paul Kortman: What are your goals for your agency? 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?

Chris Denny: Our goals of our agency, we’re an independent shop, so we’re completely self-funded. We have no investors and no holding company. So we get to look at our growth more in terms of the type and quality of work we’re doing, and the profitability and metrics of our team, making sure that we’re financially stable. We don’t have a specific revenue number on a quarterly or annual basis that we have to promise and deliver on. So the goals of my agency of where we’re headed is, over the last year, we’ve been able to produce some really groundbreaking work with some really amazing clients and I think our goal is to reach out and introduce ourselves to some new collaborators and really focus on growing. Not for the sake of money, but I think that this team has the potential to do some really groundbreaking industry-leading work and I’m committed to giving them opportunities to do that. So I think that that path is new and exciting with larger collaborators to bring in.

Paul Kortman: Has your agency been growing over the last 2-3 years?

Chris Denny: It’s been a crazy ride. We actually just joined the Inc. 5000 this year. Growth has been strong and while an individual number or metric really isn’t what drives us, as you do take care of good clients and produce things, those numbers do come. We’ve had double digit growth every year since we were founded. And I anticipate that that will continue, although it’s percentage growth always gets tougher as your larger. It’s easy to double a very small team.

Paul Kortman: What about the last 6 months?

Chris Denny: Isn’t that an ever changing thing in the agency world? Typically our growth has been slow and steady. That hasn’t been the case the last six months. The last six months we’ve seen a significant increase, so we’re definitely reaching new heights, particularly as we round off Q4. Iit will be interesting to see if that happens to be seasonal, or if we’re on a long term growth trend but it’s definitely been significant over the last six months

Paul Kortman: What does your new client pipeline look like? And I’m guessing that you actually generally have a waiting list.

Chris Denny: Yeah that is true. We recognize that timeliness is a big part of our clients’ goals, so we hope to not have clients waiting in the queue too long, but it’s not uncommon for us to have to wait a few weeks before we get started. Luckily we finish work much faster than the traditional agency model, so even if you have to wait a few weeks to get started, you’re still wrapping up much sooner than typical. But the pipeline looks great. I would say that we’re probably looking at some of the most fun and challenging projects in our agency’s history in the next three to six months.

Paul Kortman: So you do have work scheduled out for three to six months ahead?

Chris Denny: We’re pretty much booked through January, although we do have some availability, so there’s some potential clients we’re talking to that have some end-of-year deadlines, so we’ll jump in and get that done. And then, RFP season just wrapped up, so we’re already getting a good glance at what 2018 looks like. But we’re not exclusively picked out. We definitely have some long term projects that are scheduled well into 2018. So hopefully there’s still room for us to take on some great new clients, but we also have a really nice pipeline.

Paul Kortman: How long does it take for a potential client to become a client?

Chris Denny: It totally depends on the client and their culture and where they are. We tend to work with entrepreneurs a lot and work directly with senior leadership. They tend to make decisions very quickly. And we’ll do some consulting and maybe some collaborative workshop sessions where all the teams are getting together, and we can go from shaking hands to starting work in as little as a week or two. On the other hand we work with a lot of Fortune 100 companies who have procurement processes that take time to go through the agency search process and then meet with product teams and leadership and all of that stuff. So we’re really kind of chilling that. We recognize that every company has its own process and we’re pretty fluid with that. So sometimes it’s relatively quick and short. Other times it definitely takes a little bit longer.

Paul Kortman: Tell us some shame, or gossip in your local market.

Chris Denny: I’m probably going to disappoint you on this one. So we live here in Sonoma County and our studio is in a city called Santa Rosa. Four weeks ago, we had the largest and most devastating fire in state history. Sixty-eight hundred people lost their homes. It’s been devastating. It’s just been insane. I’m so proud of how our creative community has come together, literally three days after the fire, all my major competitors were sitting side-by-side around a table, talking about how we can help our community, how we can help make sure every agency keeps its doors open and our staff taken care of. So while typically I have lots of gossip to talk about, either from turnover or shady clients and things like that, I’m just so proud of how the creative community stepped up here to serve our community that I just can’t really go there.

Paul Kortman: So, on that fire, did I hear you right, that almost 7000 people lost their home?

Chris Denny: Yeah. It’s the most devastating fire in California history outside the 1906 earthquake.

Paul Kortman: And it’s only been a couple of weeks?

Chris Denny: We’re on week four.

Paul Kortman: And where do the 7000 people go?

Chris Denny: The sheer scale of this is insane. We were in a chronic housing shortage prior to the fire, and we essentially lost 5% of all residential buildings. There are huge swaths of our town, both commercial and residential that are just gone. But luckily, 95% of our city is thriving and well, and our communities come together. So I know families that are going to be roommates for a few years, that are sharing their houses. Because we are in wine country, we do have a good tourism market. We’re about 400,000 people as a Metro. We do have a little bit of a higher vacation rental and hotel. And luckily the tourism community is opening their doors to a lot of people. There’s a lot of innovative ideas from temporary housing. FEMA’s been phenomenal. Our building and commercial communities have been great. So everybody’s figuring out day by day. But it’s a lot of innovative and compassionate ways of people helping each other out.

Paul Kortman: What are the biggest challenges to working with your agency?

Chris Denny: Because we are so transparent in the way that we work, you’re really paying us for our time over the deliverables. So if you happen to be an organization that can make quick decisions, everybody’s pretty involved in things, you can save a lot of costs and move really quickly. On the other hand, if your internal processes are just kind of insane, and it can take weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks to get something approved and tons of back-and-forth, we can get pretty expensive there, because we’ll charge you for our time. I would say that most of our clients fall somewhere in the middle. It’s usually not a challenge at all, but there’s been some corporate cultures, particularly if there’s maybe internal strife and issues where people are not coming to consensus amongst each other but are fighting over revisions, that we can become an expensive partner

Paul Kortman: What are the biggest professional mistakes you have personally made?

Chris Denny: I would say that as the agency’s grown, my job and my roles had to change every six months or so. In the beginning when we were just two people, I was the only writer, the only designer, the only account manager, and as it grows in scale, you bring a team in, you have to shift. Over the last three or four years, my roles have really been focused on leadership, and if I look back over those early years of leading such a large team, I made them a lot of mistakes in terms of setting expectations or communicating and taking care of our teams and protecting them from burnout and things like that. I’m kind of stoked and humbled by making progress there and learning. I look back to the early days of leading the team and wish I would have done things a lot better.

Paul Kortman: What are the biggest mistakes your agency has been involved in?

Chris Denny: I would say that the mistakes we’ve made over the years is swinging outside of our weight classes. A big piece of who we are is pushing our clients to try new things and emerging technologies. But there have been times where we’ve probably gone too far outside our strengths, where we go to tackle a project where there were challenges on the other side where we really didn’t know. I would say that looking back, like retail environments design and architecture, we attempted a project there which was beyond our capabilities. We ended up having to bring in help and pay for that. Obviously we took care of the client in the end. But I think that we’ll constantly struggle with how do we keep pushing ourselves farther but maybe not going too far and working outside of our strengths.

Paul Kortman: What service do clients buy from you that doesn’t help their bottom line?

Chris Denny: I would say that occasionally over the years, we’ve built some really good relationships with entrepreneurs who sometimes partner with us to create things that are really just designed for delight. Either experiences or creative that are there to bring humor to their team. But it’s not necessarily directly related to their business model. It’s a little bit of a pet or a side project that’s really intended to be weird and fun. And those actually have been a lot of fun and I think that I trust the entrepreneurs budgeting that well across where they’re choosing to invest and it’s not as if it’s coming out of a CMOS budget. But sometimes the work we do is creative for creative’s sake, just to delight the client and to do be their with them.

Nice. Well thanks for being with. Thanks for being here with us this week Chris. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know you to learn more about the engine as read. And where can people learn more about you and maybe about the fire and how they can help the community but also to be in touch with your agency. Yes

You can reach The Engine is Red at theengineisred.com/

You can follow them on social media @theengineisred.

The Engine is Red has launched a wine company to let people support their community by purchasing local wines. You can go to https://sonomarising.org/. All the profits go directly to charity and supporting the recovery effort in the North Bay.

If you like this episode you might also like: