Host Bryan Pearce, Director of Strategic Business Planning at Gray, Gray & Gray, interviews Jen Harrington, Founder and President of HATCH The Agency. HATCH is a branding agency that works with a broad range of clients to creatively define their brand and successfully bring it to life in the market, often when they are at an important inflection point in their business, such as an acquisition, new leadership, expansion into a new market, or a change in the competitive landscape. Jen's clients stay with HATCH because they know that aligning their brand with their business strategy will accelerate growth. During this interview, Jen highlights some of her strategic business planning methods that have allowed her to successfully position HATCH in a competitive and growing industry.
Bryan Pearce 0:12
Hello and welcome to Strategic Thinking, a new podcast series produced by Gray, Gray & Gray featuring CEOs, founders and other senior business leaders discussing what's happening in their industry, and how they are strategically guiding their companies for growth. I am Bryan Pearce, Director of Strategic Business Planning for Gray, Gray & Gray and your host for the series. I'm excited to share with you these conversations with innovative business leaders in New England and beyond and I'm confident that our listeners will gain many insights that they will find valuable for more rapidly growing their businesses, regardless of their industry. My guest today is Jen Harrington, President of HATCH The Agency, which she founded in 2009. HATCH is a branding agency that makes creativity an accessible tool for brands through our project based model, our talent platform, and their subscription service. HATCH works with a broad range of clients to creatively define their brand, and successfully bring it to life in the market, often when they are at an important inflection point in their business, such as an acquisition, new leadership, expansion into a new market, or a change in the competitive landscape. Jen's clients stay with HATCH because they know that aligning their brand with their business strategy will accelerate growth. Jen is a graduate of Boston University and is very involved in a number of organizations that support the arts and creative community in Greater Boston. She is currently the Vice Chair of the Foundation Board at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Jen, thanks for joining me today and I'm excited to hear about the strategic thinking you continue to bring to HATCH and to your clients. Perhaps a great way to start is just to ask what was the unmet need that you saw when you formed HATCH The Agency and tell us a little bit more about HATCH?
Jen Harrington 2:02
Sure. First of all, I would like to say thank you very much for having me. It's really exciting to be able to participate in this and talk a little bit about us and a little bit about what we've seen in the marketplace. I started HATCH in 2009, really with a strong belief that the sort of traditional agency models that a lot of organizations were founded on just kind of weren't working anymore. My background is all agency. I did have a very brief stint at an art gallery. But other than that, I have stayed mostly on the agency side and I had had a lot of experience working with both large and small clients through a more traditional model. And the experience was great. I loved where I worked, I loved what I did. But there were some places and some challenges for clients in working with more traditional agency models. The leading challenge was that the way that most agencies sell their services is through these very large sort of agency of record or retainer based arrangements. And for a lot of clients for a host of different reasons, that's a really difficult model to subscribe to. And when I started HATCH in 2009, I really thought that was a problem. And the other challenge, or I really saw it as an opportunity, was that there was a huge influx of very, very senior talent out of traditional agencies and into sort of the freelance or independent market. So all of a sudden, there was this sort of great opportunity, from my perspective that you had clients who wanted to buy creativity in different ways and wanted to access it in different ways and the marketplace was filled with talent that was looking to sell itself in different ways. So I founded HATCH to be sort of an arbiter between those two, and took a little bit of a risk at the beginning. But it turned out, okay, in the end, I guess. When we talk about making creativity accessible, the model that we have at HATCH, and the range of services that we have, are really meant to allow clients from all different sorts of walks of life, different sizes, with different types of projects, to access exactly what they need, and exactly the way they need it.
Bryan Pearce 4:25
So we'll talk a little bit more about that. But I think many successful businesses like yours, Jen, really have been formed at the intersection of significant changes in the marketplace. In your case, client needs and the needs of the talent that you were looking for, and well done for identifying that and putting together a great business that meets in the middle. And you've acquired a very impressive client list at HATCH as a result of the model and I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how you position HATCH in an industry that does have a lot of very big well known players and certainly that are serving large multinational clients, but yet you seem to find that that model is changing a little bit as well.
Jen Harrington 5:14
Yeah, I mean, it's been such an interesting time. I find myself a little bit of a student of the industry in a lot of ways and the network of agency professionals, at least in the greater Boston area is really great. So you can really share thoughts and ideas about what's happening. I think there are a few factors weighing in for clients and how they go about partnering with agencies. There will always be large brands that need really large agency and agency of record relationships. I think HATCH and a lot of our peers are actually in a slightly different industry. We don't really compete with those large agencies. We really compete with a myriad of independent small and midsize agencies, locally and nationally. Those agencies tend to be very, very specialized. And there's a lot of confusion, I think, even in the marketplace among CMOS, and our clients about where to even start or where to go, if you want to find agency talent that's not trapped in a holding company, or a big corporation. So from my perspective, a lot of those competitors, in an old model would, in fact, be seen as competitors. But today, they actually are partners. And that is really, really core to everything that we do. And I say that because a lot of our clients, and you're right, we have been very fortunate with some very, very big brands and big clients. They're looking to build an agency roster. So they're not looking for one agency, they're looking for a myriad of resources, who have different expertise and experience that they can curate, or bring together in a cross agency team that can work well together. So I think part of what has led to our success has been that we're good at what we do. But part of what has been very helpful with our long term relationships with clients is that we're really good and really passionate about partnering with our peers who are also working with those clients. So I think that that's been a big shift. And I think a number, at least of the people that that we're working with on a client basis, really, they're asking different questions about those relationships. I think it used to be a lot about capacity and scale. And I think now, the questions are much more about how nimble can you be, how flexible can you be? And how well do you work independently, and with other agencies? So that's the shift.
Bryan Pearce 8:04
Yeah, I think that's great, Jen. I love the agency roster model that you're referring to and I could see that applying in a number of businesses where collaboration becomes much more relevant than the old model of pure competition. And I think, also, as you mentioned in our call, as we were talking about this before, the whole area of playing well with others. People appreciate it when their vendors and their service providers do collaborate and work well with others, and they get the best that the whole team has to bring, even though it may come from diverse sources of that. So I think that's really a great model. A lot of that, I guess, is based on being able to access the relevant, great talent that you need for a particular project. And you've done a good job of really tapping into this whole on demand workforce or gig economy trend. And maybe you can talk a little bit more detail about that, and how you see that evolving, both in the future, domestically, and what's the talent pool look like globally?
Jen Harrington 9:13
Yeah, I mean, it's kind of interesting. It's core to our business model. And one thing that's a little unusual for an agency our size is that we actually have somebody whose job is talent, who helps us to build this independent platform. She actually has a very storied career nationally in some big agencies, and she helps us with that and curate talent from pretty much across the country. I would say we don't do as much internationally but one of the things that has really changed and again, for some people, I think it's been really difficult, but for us it's a huge opportunity is that a lot of the talent that's now out on the independent market is very, very seasoned. So they're very, very experienced, which in a more traditional agency model may make them very expensive, or they age out which I don't agree with, but I know there's a lot of conversation in my industry. And when they go out into a freelancer independent model, you're bringing to clients the caliber of thinking that they may not have been able to get access to otherwise. So we take the curation of talent, the vetting of talent, and then building really, really strong relationships with our talent platform very, very seriously. And we do some things that I think put us in really good standing with our freelance partners. We really think of them as part of our team. We tend to work with them multiple times. The scale of the partnership, and the relationship is usually sizable, so it's attractive to them. We're not doing these onesy twosie projects with very, very senior partners. We pay very quickly. We know that our freelance friends, they don't want to wait 90 days to get paid, or whatever, we have actually a whole separate payment model for our freelance partners. And one of the things that I've been looking into lately is ways to offer our freelance partners, other benefits that are usually available only through corporations or through agencies, because that independent talent doesn't have access to the same types of things that they might have if they were inside an agency. So I think building those relationships, and being really serious and intentional about it, is critical to our success. But it's also critical to our partner's success. And that is something that we, as I said, we take really, really seriously. We cultivate. We've been cultivating for a long time.
Bryan Pearce 11:54
That's great. I think the technology must play a really important part in that too because it sounds like you're accessing talent from across the country. So obviously, collaboration tools, technologically advanced communications really helps. But also, as you mentioned, things like payment, where you've got online apps that really enable your freelance community to record their time and be paid promptly as a result. So talk a little bit about how technology has helped you with the business model, if you could.
Jen Harrington 12:31
Yeah, I mean, maybe one caveat is we actually don't work on an hourly basis. And that's another thing that I sort of pushed back pretty hard, because we actually bill more on a value based model. And then when we scope relationships with our partners, those are also project based, and we build the scopes together with them. So it's not really based on time, it's more based on - can you do a project at scope in a certain time period with a certain process and a certain deliverable? And we've gotten very, very good at that. It also reduces the liability on a client's end to think that you're just going to start billing overages by the hour. We don't do that. We scope and if something is going out of scope, we'll flag it. In terms of technology, I think there's tons of technology, and we use multiple different platforms for project management, for collaborating externally with our clients. I would say that the work that we do tends to be people having to work and think together. That's what usually creates the biggest creative ideas. So any platforms or any ways that we can get people live together, talking and collaborating is definitely a priority. I think, pre COVID, we have great, we have awesome space, over on the South End and it has a lot of open collaborative space. And our independent partners actually would go very low tech, and choose to come and to be in our space and collaborate and really sort of pin things up on the wall in a very old fashioned way. We've had to work around that a little bit with some of the technologies that are available now through Zoom and Mural and other things that would allow us to do some of that real time collaboration. But I would say that the technology leans more on our ability to be able to be together and think together.
Bryan Pearce 14:35
Excellent. Excellent. So I want to take our conversation now more towards the subject of brand, that a lot of our audience, our CEOs and founders like you that are thinking about how do we continue to build and solidify and enhance our brand in the marketplace. I wonder what advice you might have for CEOs that are thinking about that in their own company.
Jen Harrington 14:57
You know, it's been an interesting time. I don't know if there was some pent up demand inside a lot of companies in 2020. But, I think there's been a huge resurgence of interest in brand and rebranding in the last six months, which is interesting. A lot of my agency peers, we've sort of been talking about that and why that might be. A lot of times when clients come to us, as you said in the introduction, they're sort of going through some strategic inflection point, whatever that may be. And it leads them to the question of saying, what is the role that the brand can play in helping to accelerate, amplify, grow, whatever their goals are, for their business. And I think my number one, most important piece of advice for a CEO would be, that's the most important question, right? How does the brand help the business? I think, looking at brand in the absence of that can take you down some roads that are probably not as effective and can be very costly. The second thing that I find a lot, and this has come up a number of times in the last six or eight months is sort of this concept of rebrand, and I mean, it's an old concept, and we've helped organizations rebrand for many years, but the concept of rebrand and how much do you take of the equity you've built over time versus how do you pivot and address the fact that the market or the opportunity has changed? And I think that's another strategic branding question that CEOs really need to think about, before they embark on any kind of other branding exercise, per se.
Bryan Pearce 16:49
You hear a lot about the importance of purpose coming into the brand. And really, you know, employees want to work for a company where their purpose is clear. Customers, in many cases want to deal with a company where they feel alignment to their purpose. How do you see that playing in?
Jen Harrington 17:06
I think it's critical. I mean, I don't remember a time where the marketplace across lots of different stakeholder groups were asking very serious and important questions about the role that a company or brand is playing as a corporate citizen in the community around key issues. And we've certainly seen that in the last year. And I think what we've definitely seen over the last 10 years is that the brands that invest in being good corporate citizens, and having a sense of purpose, do better than those who do not focus on that.
Bryan Pearce 17:45
So there's really good evidence to prove that it is valuable to think about those things. And not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because of the business case.
Jen Harrington 17:56
Yeah, I think there's some great examples of some fabulous brands who've really built their entire business model around purpose. Warby Parker would definitely be one. Bombas, I think we talked about, that's one of my favorites. They've done an incredible job, those are more like retail brands. But even in our own backyard, I think Blue Cross, they're a client of ours, I think they've done a great job, trying to align their brand with a sense of purpose and mission around the things that they believe in. And there are other organizations that are more service oriented, who have really, I think stepped in again, over the course of the last year, but prior as well, to show up in the places where they have a strong belief that they need to be to support the community and do good work beyond the products and services that they sell.
Bryan Pearce 18:54
Yeah, that's great. And there has to be substance behind it, right? You can't just say something in your brand messaging, if you don't back it up with the actions of being a good corporate citizen.
Jen Harrington 19:04
I think consumers, they're very intelligent. They know, when you're just saying something, and it looks like you're just showing up for a little bit of the halo effect of showing up and when you actually show up with mission and values and sort of a purpose and intent that is driven to demonstrate commitment, but also accountability. And anything less than that I think any brand would be fooling themselves, that they were going to embark on something without that full fledged commitment.
Bryan Pearce 19:47
No, I totally agree. And I think that leads us into, this whole discussion on social media, which has obviously become a huge factor and brand messaging and so on over the last decade or so, and probably would love to get your views on the future of social and, how do you see that growing in importance, if you do, and also how do you make sure that what's out on social, is tying back into this important brand and purpose that we were just talking about?
Jen Harrington 20:18
Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting question. And it's definitely an interesting question at this moment in time. I think we've gone so far with social and using that platform as a meaningful way to engage directly with individuals. We've seen the positives of that, in many places, and I think we've also seen that that can be a very powerful tool that can be used for a lot of not so great purposes and reasons. So I think, what I see with our clients, and the brands that we work on, is a lot of questions around how to use social to engage in a meaningful way, to be transparent about what it is that is happening inside their organization, to be responsive, one way or the other when they get feedback or input from consumers. And, I think one of the things that has really come to the fore in a wonderful way, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this continues to evolve, is to decide how to use social to show up around certain issues, not just when they're happening, but on an ongoing basis. We've had a lot of conversations even internally, June, it's Pride Month, we love to support efforts around LGBTQ rights, but we need to be able to show up and have those conversations in our own social channels, not just during June, but throughout the course of the year. And I think it's that kind of authenticity and having a consistent voice over time that is going to be really important in social, certainly as it relates to demonstrating commitment and action over time. As opposed to just showing up on the day something's happening.
Bryan Pearce 22:16
Yeah, very important point. And do you see that then kind of being built in almost to the annual schedule of communications, and that kind of thing to make sure that it doesn't become just a one and done kind of comment?
Jen Harrington 22:31
Yeah. One of the new job positions that most of our clients are desperately hiring for, is someone to head content. And so social media people have been in place for a long time. I think there's a heightened awareness of how important having a strategic approach to content, thought leadership, and commentary - how important that is, and how that needs to be managed, to your point, and planned in a very proactive way, as opposed to just being responsive. So I do think that those types of positions are really focused on planning.
Bryan Pearce 23:15
Excellent. Well, listen, Jen, thank you very much for sharing these insights. I really appreciate your time today. Thank you to our listeners. I hope the strategic thinking that we have shared today will help you as you continue to build your brand and grow your businesses and please do join us for all of our upcoming strategic thinking podcasts. So Jen, thanks again.