Case Study: How a World-Class Agency Transformed for the Better During COVID
Bukwild is a 25-person design and technology studio based in Sacramento.
Since its inception in 2001, some of the best-known brands in the U.S. have turned to Bukwild for help—Amazon and Pandora, DoorDash and CLIF Bar, California Olive Ranch and Coachella.
But with the killer portfolio and millions in revenue came major growing pains.
COO Donald Fierros recalled the challenges with business strategy and keeping everyone on the same page in 2018:
“As a company, we were trying to be everything to everyone. We had a lot of communication issues as well. People holding different definitions of things in their heads.”
Bukwild was taking on too many types of clients and projects that they didn’t have a process for. Chaotic projects ramped up the stress level.
Founder and CEO Ryan Vanni remembered the reactive decision-making:
“The way the organization was running at the time was choose a direction and make decisions willy nilly.”
Meanwhile, big changes were afoot:
- New Leadership Structure. Ryan had promoted somebody to President, a new position within the company.
- Critical Pivots. The leadership team had decided to change the studio’s brand positioning and service offering.
- No Outside Perspective. Ryan and his mentor ended their long-standing consulting agreement.
Bukwild had been proudly independent, yet Ryan recognized the risk in having no accountability:
“There’s pride in the independence. But it’s easy to be too independent. It’s easy to believe it’s all good until it’s not all good.”
The studio was consistently putting out world-class work. But how were they tracking with Bukwild’s brand purpose, “creating healthy business with healthy human beings”? Ryan and Bukwild’s other leaders wanted to scale in a sustainable way, but they didn’t have a well-defined growth model:
“We had a leadership team, but no framework in which to manage and measure the growth or success of the company, we would have a vision, but not like broken down into very specific rocks [objectives].”
One day in early 2019, another Sacramento agency owner, Meghan Phillips, made a passing remark to Ryan about a consulting firm in South Carolina.
Blumer & Associates had helped to turn around Honey, Megan’s food and wine marketing agency. Author Adam Davidson was so inspired by the story that he wrote a few chapters about it in The Passion Economy.
Megan wasn’t making a referral, per se, but Ryan’s ears still perked up. He was already on the hunt, and hiring outside of California was a plus for him. He wanted to buck the trend:
“All my competitors looked for consultants in San Francisco.”
At the same time, he felt some apprehension about Blumer & Associates.
Were they already working with other agencies of the same size? Did they know the industry? Did they really need to hire more CPAs?
Bukwild already had a CPA, and they had paid for classes, courses, and various consultants, many of whom Jason and Julie had known for years.
Ryan decided to meet with Jason Blumer and Julie Shipp anyway. He fully expected stereotypical CPAs who dabble in the realm of spreadsheets, metrics, and KPIs.
Instead, what he and Bukwild’s other senior leaders encountered was multifaceted consultants who had all the accounting clout but who emphasized the human side of business. Numbers alone can’t fix most people and leadership problems.
What ultimately won Ryan over was one of Jason Blumer’s videos:
“I remember distinctly watching a video that Jason had recorded about the need for restraint. As a creative person who’s not like an engineer, I can just float to the moon. Without instruments of restraint in place, things can run ragged.”
Ryan knew the studio needed growth consulting and discipline. Blumer & Associates had the right mix. He committed to a significant investment with two parts:
- Accounting and growth consulting with monthly meetings to go over financial metrics and benchmarks
- Growth coaching tied to Blumer’s Prototype Components Model for Growth (PCMG)
Jason and Julie kicked off the engagement with Blumer’s proprietary Agency Assessment and Insights Document.
Deep analysis of the studio’s financials, operations, and team dynamics confirmed known challenges and provided a detailed picture of contributing factors:
- Small, integrated teams caused obvious production bottlenecks.
- Various departments, or disciplines, within the studio—e.g., strategy, branding, interactive—would be swamped at different times.
- A lingering idealism about how the work should happen had made the leaders slow to adapt and reluctant to improve efficiency.
- For the last four years, sales and revenue had been growing.
- That top line growth hadn’t produced higher profits. The bottom line was almost flat.
- Skinny profits put pressure on cash flow. The urgent need to sell, in turn, led to too many concessions with clients, including reduced rates.
- Certain leadership styles and other entrenched habits were hurting the studio’s movement and growth.
With fresh insights in hand, Bukwild’s executives flew to Atlanta to, in Ryan’s words, “get indoctrinated” in the language and concepts of Prototype Components Model for Growth (PCMG), Blumer’s growth consulting model for service organizations. According to Ryan, that leadership retreat marked a turning point for Bukwild:
“That was a really key milestone, getting everything established. The leadership team all using the same language. Like what’s a ‘grenade project’ and what’s not. We had established the foundation.”
Jason and Julie then facilitated a full-day retreat for the entire team, and in the second half of 2019, they began equipping everyone with shared language, tools for understanding and managing growth, and rules for helping the leaders bring health and consistency.
Jason and Julie began coaching the executives on their journey towards implementation of PCMG, and by early 2020, Bukwild had a framework to measure and manage quantitative metrics. They had a way to know if decisions were good.
That framework proved indispensable for Ryan when COVID hit in March 2020:
“Had we not set ground rules for how to operate going into a year where fear and anxiety were at a 10, it would’ve been absolute chaos. Rules helped us navigate cleanly.”
During the pandemic, Blumer kept Bukwild’s leaders focused on learning tools, implementing rules, and making decisions based on principles.
Was the discipline easy? No. Ryan was honest about his resistance to the regular cadence of coaching:
“We had quarterly coaching in the first quarter [of 2020], and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t talk about growth right now. I don’t have the patience for this. I can’t think too far ahead right now.’ Then, we get on our session with them, and it reminded me of going to church when I was a kid. I didn’t want to go to church. Then, you go to church, and you always feel better afterwards.”
With all the uncertainty and upheaval in 2020 and 2021, prescriptive advice would have been really nice. Ryan might have enjoyed the occasional easy answer. Yet, he couldn’t help but appreciate their level of discipline. They kept encouraging Bukwild’s leaders to lean into PCMG and faithfully put each module to work for Bukwild:
“Every business owner, every human, wants the silver bullet. Six minute abs and whatever else. Working with Blumer is not that. They’re not going to tell you answers. They’re going to point you inward. They want to make sure that when you do grow it, the business is actually in a healthy place.”
As the months passed, the discipline on both sides paid off.
Bukwild has transformed into a different studio.
For starters, all the leaders and people on the team use the same language. Shared language has helped Bukwild avoid major breakdowns in communication and the turmoil that comes from not being on the same page.
With so much on the line during COVID, the executives often used one of Julie’s favorite lines: “Do you want what this means?” They had learned to slow down and analyze the implications. Higher stakes mean greater risks, and greater risks deserve deeper analysis.
Another phrase that really resonated with everyone was “grenade project,” which Donald described:
“A grenade project is something that the team’s not expecting. They don’t really know how to do it. There’s no process or anything for it. The sales team or whoever just kind of lobs it in and then somebody’s got to catch it, right? We’ve reduced, greatly reduced the amount of grenades.”
With Blumer’s help, Bukwild implemented the EOS Traction framework and now fills out a scorecard during weekly leadership meetings.
They chose overtime as the qualitative metric for the “health maintenance” of the company. Donald wants to keep chaotic projects to a minimum and burnout at bay. An upward trend in the number of people working overtime signals that the studio may be taking on too much work:
“Our purpose as a company is for healthy business and healthy human beings. No human being who’s facing burnout is going to say that they’re healthy or is going to be healthy.”
This commitment to sustainable growth now informs every part of the company:
- Specialization. Gone are the days when anyone could be a client. Bukwild now focuses exclusively on partnerships with innovative DTC brands.
- Process. They now have specific processes for every kind of project and deliverable—ones that are just rigid enough.
- Tools. The leaders now understand both the human side of business and how to move revenue through the business. They’re good at both.
- Leadership. Leadership was once sporadic and reactive. Now, it’s consistent and intentional.
- Growth. The growth model now in place ensures that leaders mind all the areas and territories, not just gross revenue.
And where is Bukwild now with PCMG? Donald explained the new tool he’s implementing with Blumer to eliminate friction in operations:
“We’ve been working on this thing they [Blumer] do called capacity bridge management, which is essentially balance resources with incoming sales. As you’re facing growth, one of the bigger issues is, ‘How do I make sure that we’ve got everything in place to open up the faucet of new business? Can our current resources handle it? At what point do we level up? When new business goes down, what do we do then?’ It’s been very helpful going through the coaching with them. These are the tools that we’re able to employ now.”
He wholeheartedly recommends Blumer & Associates to other agencies:
“I would, of course, recommend them to pretty much anybody. I would share examples of the shared language and tools that we use to understand both the human side of the business and how to move revenue through the business. They’re good at both sides.”
Ryan described the timing of the partnership with Blumer as “providential.” He appreciated how Jason and Julie kept him anchored and gave him frameworks for managing his emotions and making decisions based on data, not fear. He admires them both as professionals and as people:
“They’re good people. Julie is fantastic at being a boss, like a disciplinarian. And Jason is very intuitive, insightful. He’s got enough years behind him that he has the expertise and wisdom.”
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