Insights — Gratitude in the Journey

Gratitude in the Journey

Thought leadership / August 17, 2021
Jason Simon
Jason Simon
Sometimes our greatest learnings aren't found in our successes or even apparent in the moments we experience them. It's a life lesson that comes with age, wisdom, kindness, heartache, humility, success, and failure.
One of my proudest professional moments — delivering a keynote at the 2013 AMA Symposium and receiving the Higher Ed Marketer of the Year award — was only precipitated by what some viewed as an immense logo failure. I titled that talk, “When Things Fall Apart,” inspired by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s book of the same name that has meant so much to me. 
“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything.”
Pema Chödrön
Sharing that experience, speaking at AMA, and making connections throughout the industry has led me to this moment and the chance to lead SimpsonScarborough — an agency I could not be prouder of amongst people that do amazing work. But the journey to get to this point hasn't always been easy — just 16 months ago we weren't even certain we'd make it.
Like others, we had started 2020 on a high, projecting and planning for unprecedented growth. Our team had expanded to nearly 50 people and we were poised to make a greater impact across the higher education industry we cared so much about. Most importantly, as we grew, we got closer. The opportunities to work across divisions weren’t just collaborative—they made all of us better, smarter. We had acquired a digital firm a year earlier and recognized that we could further help clients in demonstrating direct impact by managing paid media and launched those offerings earnestly in March. 
But just weeks later during our all-agency zoom call in mid-April, everything had changed.  So many things were beyond our control. New business had ground to a halt. We had 36 active projects with no idea how many might be canceled. No one had a clue when new work would pick back up as budgets were frozen indefinitely. I watched the thumbnails of all the faces of our team filled with concern and fear. I saw our founder, Elizabeth Johnson, as she tried to sit as far away from her laptop as possible so no one would see her crying. She had spent the last 15 years building a company so beloved by so many and now the pandemic threatened its very existence. Everyone knew she was crying, by the way.

Before that call, Elizabeth and I had decided on a couple of key measures we'd take to navigate this crisis:

  1. We would be brutally transparent with our team, even if it wasn’t good news— especially if it wasn’t good news. No surprises.
  2. We would double down on our commitment to give back to our higher ed marketing communications professionals— be it our National Student Studies, industry webinars, 1:1 meetings, whatever we could do. Few industries faced the complexity that higher education had to navigate on the fly. We had to be in the trenches with them.
At the end of that zoom call, I tried to find something uplifting to say to end on a high note. So, I offered words I’ve said to every team I've ever led: 
“Do great work. Everything else will take care of itself." Though, if I'm being honest, I wasn't sure that'd be enough.
Looking back now, it’s hard not to have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this journey. While I didn't know it at the time, doing great work and believing that everything else would take care of itself didn't just prove to be true — it continues to shape our company today and our vision of who we want to become. From the client projects we take to our new hiring practices, it's even helped to shape new service offerings and better connected real-time media & digital analytics to our research insights. It's allowed our brand work to be more centered in people and authentically represent their experiences rather than look to institutional voices. It's given us the opportunity to go deeper with our clients, to forge partnerships with other agencies, and pull a community together more tightly. All while becoming a more diverse, thoughtful, and conscientious agency.
And now? We're busier than we’ve ever been. We can’t hire fast enough and will blow past 50 employees this month. We’re not just hiring more roles, we’re hiring new roles — different positions than we've ever had before at our agency because we've evolved. Just like we've evolved to become a fully remote company, permanently. Our team is now spread across the entire country — DC, Ohio, California, New York, South Carolina, Illinois, Texas, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana — the list goes on. 
The work we're doing is more strategic, dynamic, and collaborative. People across the agency have been promoted, stepping into new leadership roles, and delivering meaningful results for our clients. Like helping to launch a $6 billion campaign this fall. Or helping one school achieve a nearly 70% YoY increase in enrollment. And we've continued advocating for the critical role that marketing communications play in achieving institutional success.
Screenshot of a twitter thread (hyperlinked)A tweet from Kristi Eaves-McLennan last fall that, unbeknownst to her, meant so much to our team & agency. 
The world has changed, permanently. And we take seriously our role in empowering the leaders of higher ed institutions with the data & insights they need to navigate it successfully. That's why we're completely rethinking how we publish the Higher Ed CMO Study —  the largest longitudinal study of higher education marketers in the industry that provides critical industry benchmarking data on budgeting, staffing, and priorities. We'll preview some findings later this fall but stay tuned early next year as we launch an interactive web experience that will empower CMOs and higher ed marcomm leaders to get the data they need, how they need it, whenever they need it.
It's also why we just launched a new research study: State of Higher Education Website & Marketing Technology in partnership with Pantheon and Siteimprove, that will complement our CMO study and provide a comprehensive deep dive into higher ed website & martech strategies, initiatives, and priorities. 
Which leads me to today — I'm here, grateful for the journey that brought us to this point. Optimistic and hopeful for the future, while deeply aware of my privilege and good fortune to have made it through. Though, not any more prescient of what’s ahead. Once again, the words of Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart” ring true:
“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything.”

Jason is CEO & Partner at SimpsonScarborough. Before coming to SimpsonScarborough in 2014, Jason led the marketing communications teams for the University of California System and North Carolina State University. In 2013, he was named Higher Education Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association. Known for being our chief Peloton evangelist, he and his wife, Meredith, live in Oakland CA with their daughter, Amelia. Learn more about Jason here.

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