A Five Year Journey Marked by Two Sticky Notes
By Mike Kuczkowski
The official birth of Orangefiery was 2014, which means we’ve now been in business for five years. Boy, that was quick. A lot has happened, both in business and in life. In thinking about the passage of time, I’ve been reflecting on two sticky notes in my office, each of which has particular significance.
The first is a piece of flip chart paper from 2014 that was the result of a one-man brainstorming session about the offerings I thought a firm I could create would provide: message workshop, campaign planning, content strategy, brand activation, among other things. There was no particular rhyme or reason to it. It’s a longish list of things I felt I could credibly deliver based on my experience and capabilities. Some were things I’d done before. Some were ideas I had for the future. It was an incomplete list but a good start. I shared it with a few advisors, fine-tuned it and filed it away. It was a kind of “Jerry Maguire” mission statement.
This list is how people tend to think about a business. A company is what it does. It’s all about the work.
At the same time, I felt there was a white space I wanted to leave open. My experience had taught me that communications has an important role to play in solving business problems and having a positive impact on our clients’ businesses. Pursuing that would require openness, flexibility and a willingness to experiment. By doing so, we let our clients shape our projects, which put new items on the list: advocacy landscapes in healthcare; core narratives for market development programs; helping pharmaceutical companies with Phase 3 trials prepare for commercialization; brand positioning and expression; video storytelling.
While today our firm has reached the stage where we do a set of things we have honed through repetition, we still venture out into uncharted territory with our clients. In fact, we have been far more “client driven” than I would have ever expected. This year, for example, we helped a business unit for a pharmaceutical company to develop a five year strategic plan — a full strategic plan, with 18 business leaders and a dozen other participants shaping the work.
These are not typical projects for a communications firm, and they happened because of the trust of our clients. Being client driven can be risky, but rewarding. It speaks to a real and meaningful relationship between us and our clients.
This leads me to my second note. This one is a small Post-it note from 2018 that lists five things: practice humility; don’t be idle; love everyone; call your mother; be a source of encouragement.
A funny thing happened when I jotted down this second list. This list, with the exception of calling my mom, is about the “how” of work. Talking about this list sparked a conversation about how we at Orangefiery go about doing the things that make us uniquely us. Last fall, one of our team members led an exercise that helped us go a bit deeper on this. The result was a document titled “Our Culture.”
We aspire to be different from other firms in our marketplace. What makes us different isn’t our list of offerings, it’s the way we approach the work and how we collaborate with each other and our clients. And as we grow, we have felt the need to make these things explicit.
That document starts: “Culture is the lifeblood of a firm. Especially for a small one like ours. We aspire to stand out based on the quality of our work, but we know people will also form impressions of us based on our behavior: how we treat our clients, how we treat each other, how we speak and how we carry ourselves.”
The list includes the “hard skills” (e.g., strong writing and presentation skills, a commitment to strong project management, an orientation towards research and insights) and “soft skills” (e.g., being purposeful, curious, accountable, collaborative) we look for in our team. It talks about how we work as a team. We require deep thinking at the start of and throughout a project. We are collaborative and motivated by team success. We are accountable. We are focused on people’s strengths. We foster a team culture and help people grow.
It talks about what it means to be client centric: having a strong client service mentality; giving clients the best answer we can, even if it’s not the one they want to hear; being accountable to clients and earning their trust through actions; and putting their success first. (One of my favorite lines is, “We’re smarter with our clients/we’re not smarter than our clients.”)
It ends with our values. We are fearlessly inquisitive. We are authentic. We care about the work. We help others be the hero.
We recently partnered with a client on a brand activation project. In the process, the client shared with us that someone had asked the communications team, “What’s the NEWCO way of doing things? What would we do or not do, based on this new brand?” We thought that was a really great question. Later, when our team was debriefing, I asked if that was a question we asked about our brand. They answered, “All the time,” by which they meant they were regularly stepping back and applying the Orangefiery way. I was surprised and really delighted by that answer. It showed that culture work was already paying off.
So, the journey of the past five years for Orangefiery has been marked by two lists. One long, one short. One useful for its time, focused on the “what” of our work and evolving. One that spurred a culture conversation we didn’t know we needed that shapes the “how” and helps us put definition around the hard-to-define issue of what makes us unique. Thank you to all the people — clients, team members, consultants, partners — who have made Orangefiery possible. It has truly been a remarkable journey. I hope the next five years will be as full of growth for our team and for everyone our work impacts.