What advice would you give to Andrew 10 years ago, just as he was starting Water & Wall?
Enjoy the ride. In the early days, we were focused on so many things at once (client service, new business, marketing the agency, building our brand, etc.) that we didn’t take enough time to appreciate what we were building. It was always “go, go, go” and in hindsight I wish we slowed down to celebrate our wins and enjoy the moment. I sort of cringe at saying “the journey is the destination” because then I’d sound like a motivational poster, but that more or less captures it. Live in the moment and have fun.
What have you learned about people (i.e., the clients, your colleagues, etc.)?
No one expects perfection, so stop trying. Early on I used to make myself sick trying to micro-manage everything because I thought our clients and people would leave if we weren’t perfect. I was terrified to make mistakes and in hindsight that led me to taking fewer risks. Guess what? No one’s perfect and people are super understanding. In fact, assuming the wins outnumber the losses, trying new things and being fearless as best you can at times can be infectious. I’m constantly amazed how supportive our clients are.
Apart from the pandemic, which might seem obvious, what was the greatest business challenge you faced in the last decade?
How to scale without losing our souls. Growth is good and we always had ambitions to be more than just a small consultancy, but the agency world is littered with shops who forgot what made them great all in the name of growth. Growth is good, but not if your morals and empathy got tossed off a bridge along the way. Our reputation means a lot to us and I like to think we did a good job of staying true to ourselves and not looking for cheat codes along the way. Growth for the sake of growth is a recipe for disaster.
The agency world can be pretty competitive, but you’ve never had an “Us vs. Them” mentality that some business leaders adopt. Why is that?
That’s just not my personality. I’ve heard horror stories about bosses slamming their hands on the desk and throwing things in the office, which would be funny if it also weren’t so cringey. Fortunately, that old-school image of a CEO is going out the window, and it couldn’t happen soon enough. Another reason, and I’ve always felt this, is there’s more new business out there than there are agencies to service them. So rather than pretend we can gobble up every single brand out there – or die trying – why not recognize there’s some pretty cool shops out there who are also doing creative things. Most agency owners are fantastic people and it’s been fun getting to know them and sharing ideas and hearing their perspective. That learning has always been important to me, and we routinely receive and send referrals out to our competitors. If we can’t work with a prospect, I’d rather hook them up with another agency who can help them. Jason Lahita at StreetCred, Chris Sullivan at MacMillan Communications, Greg Hassel at The Bliss Group and David Imre at imre all come to mind. Plus, others I’ve admired from afar: Prosek Partners, Praytell and Gregory FCA. I have a lot of respect for our peers.
Every time people call us by the wrong name. We picked Water & Wall because of the cross-streets in downtown NYC. We wanted a name that evoked Wall Street and finance, and for the most part people immediately get it, but every so often someone will completely butcher the name and it always makes us laugh. The most common is Walter & Wall. People assume those were the last names of our founders. If they say it on a 1-1 chat, I politely correct them and it’s all good, but many times someone’s introduced me on a large video or conference call and it’s not the right moment to say, “well, actually, it’s…” so I just roll with it. Then they take it a step further and call me Walter because they think it’s my first name, and I try my best to not burst out laughing.
What do you look back fondly at, Walter?
It’s been cool getting to work with so many different people, some of whom have since gone on to other companies, and watching their lives and careers grow. I’ve always kept in touch with a lot of my colleagues from earlier in my career, but those folks were more or less the same age and going through the same life stages as I was. Being an agency owner gives me a different vantage point, and it’s really rewarding to stay in touch with some of our earlier employees and see what they’re up to. Watching them start families, pursue different careers, move cities and overall just grow as people and find success and happiness has been one of the coolest things to me. Liz Shaw, Casey Sheets, Mark LaVoie, Lisa Boyce, Gina Simonis…. I could go on and on.
Most ridiculous financial expense?
I’ve never told this story, so here goes. We pitched a prospect once and flew a bunch of us out for the presentation. It went well – or so it seemed – and they invited us out for drinks afterward at a country club. A bunch of the firm’s people tagged along and we had a great night, capped off with the CEO saying how excited he was about our ideas and that they would “be in touch.” On our way out, one of the club’s staff ran over to say that no one had paid the bill. Seeing as how it was the prospect’s private members club and we had flown to see them, I assumed that they would’ve handled the bill, you know, since we were the guests. No, we paid, but I figured, “it’s all good. They’ll be a great client and this is a drop in the bucket for a multi-year relationship. Gotta spend money to make money.”
We literally never heard from them again.
Most fun or memorable client experience (e.g., the entire relationship or just a moment in a greenroom at Bloomberg)?
We had the privilege of being the lead PR agency for State Street’s Fearless Girl campaign, which is something we’ll never forget. Believe it or not, but the media response initially was muted. No one quite knew what to do with this new statue and diversity discussions in 2017 weren’t as robust as they are now, but Fearless Girl eventually gained momentum and the ensuing global media coverage soon surpassed every expectation. Being downtown at 5:30 a.m. on the morning she was unveiled and watching that campaign gain steam is something I’ll never forget, and I’m honored that Water & Wall played a small role in that.
Did anything you predict about your experience running an agency come true?
Yeah: it’s been a blast and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What are you most excited about over the next 10 years?
Watching the team continue to grow into their roles and seeing where they take us. I love every aspect of running an agency but my favorite part, hands down, is hiring people I enjoy being around and watching what they can do. I was fortunate to work for an agency early in my career – TowersGroup – that threw me into the deep end and trusted me. I was going on media tours and meeting with clients and prospects within my first few months and that definitely fast-tracked my career (and also made me more valuable to the business). It kills me when agencies stifle their young talent just because they’re junior and lack some arbitrary number of years’ experience. The day-to-day stuff can be hard, but the high-level strategy of building a strong, respected, fun business is surprisingly easy: hire good people, train them right, give them a safe environment to express themselves and feel supported… and then get the hell out of the way.