What do I miss most about New York? My friends. When I got sober, it took me years to rebuild all the friendships I’d broken. Some remained as they were–in a state of disrepair–while others found themselves mended and transformed into something healthier, new. You leave your dead behind (you may even have to kill them yourself) in order to move on. I’m grateful for the women in my life because they challenge, support, and inspire me. They make me laugh that ugly laugh, the kind that finds you choked up in tears.
I regret that I haven’t met Alex sooner. While I was waving everyone away, muttering no new friends, my friend Grace rolled her eyes, ignored my nonsense, and set me up with Alex because I suspected she knew that we’d become fast friends.
I mean, Alex is the owner of a pink cat. That really should tell you everything.
Alex is one of the great ones. She’s smart, sharp, acerbic, and honest. There’s no hey, girl! (kiss kiss), followed by a turn of a head, a whisper of something unkind. Alex is real, plays it as it lays, and if I can find a way to smother her and her pink panther out west, know that I would do it.
On a professional note, Alex received her MBA in Spain, speaks flawless Spanish, and is the founder of a boutique communications agency in New York, focusing on jewelry and accessories designers. Her business philosophy is in-step with how she lives her private life: surround yourself with good people and help them make magic happen.
While I supposed to publish this next week, I couldn’t wait to share this with you. In this chat between two friends, Alex brings the truth and I’m here for all of it. –FS
We’ve talked about this often—our allergy to the traditional agency structure. And while it’s a fit for some, it sends people like us fleeing for cover. Can you tell us about how Le Brain came to be, how you’ve distinctly set it apart from the boutique agency pack, and what you envision as its future?
Alex Dickerson: I worked in an array of agencies of all sizes for almost 10 years and ultimately I realized I wanted to be master of my own destiny, choose my own clients, and create a portfolio of brands that inspired me and “made sense” as a group. I’d seen that agencies could be a place for mediocre people to hide, or ascend up the ranks without deserving it. I’d also seen that agency leaders could be money-hungry and willing take on anyone able to pay a bloated monthly retainer, despite the client not fitting with the employees’ skill sets. I was tired of watching the owners cash a fat check each month while I struggled with accounts that didn’t fit my profile (i.e. the utility bag brand that was sold at Office Depot, while I was the Luxury Jewelry director…say what?)
And so, Le Brain was born.
We are different because we are strategic, honest and thoughtful – I won’t take on a client that isn’t right because they have a big bank account. I mean, if we are talking 6-figures a month, maybe I’ll sing a sell-out tune, but I really try to only work with designers that do something that inspires me and my team, and at their heart, are decent people. We aren’t a place where I go out and pitch and promise the world to prospective clients and then dump it on an intern’s lap and say, “Deliver this with a full page in ELLE Fashion News next month, thanks, bye.” We are a place that challenges ideas (we aren’t “yes girls”) because if it doesn’t make sense, why are we doing it? Good work starts by knowing your market and managing expectations.
We really try to work as a team and each support our clients and projects with the unique skills that we all have. The future? Fewer clients, more money, more attention—thanks, Jerry McGuire. No seriously, I like what we are doing and how we continually evolve – we aren’t just a PR firm, and I hope as we grow that becomes less and less of a descriptor of our work. I want to help clients build their brands from the bottom up…product shots, lifestyle images, web development, collaborations, editorial, influencers, and financial success. I really enjoy being able to be a partner to our clients.
It amazes me how the lines between marketing disciplines have blurred in the past ten years. It used to be that you had siloed departments, budgets and roles, and every department worked (or seemingly so) independent of one another. However, with everyone being online that way of business changed overnight, flattened it. Turned the model inside out and punched it in the face a couple of times. Now, the most successful businesses work when disciplines collaborate since the consumer is in control. What’s it like juggling brand work, traditional PR and social?
AD: Welcome to the juggle, Axl Rose. What’s it like? Mind-blowingly frustrating and creative and stressful and fast-paced. A land filled with possibility and limitless options – which is awesome but really challenging when you’re trying to stay in front of the trends and advise clients on what’s best for them.
I love that all of these areas are fused because it means that we have the chance to create the collateral materials that we know will work, and then when we do get results we can post it to our own audience that we have built. It is powerful. At the same time, it is awful because now many brands expect all of those aspects to be housed under the general term of “PR” but they don’t acknowledge the different skill sets it requires and the need to compensate us for the enlarged scope of work we are doing. That, and the fact that a client attention span is so much shorter, and just when you’ve got one thing properly in place they want you to do a Periscope campaign, without having tested the first thing they thought about trying.
One of the things we often talk about, at length, is the shifting influencer climate (see how I made that professional?). I think we both agree that people who do good and honest work should be compensated appropriately. What challenges have you faced as someone who has to negotiate with influencers (or their agents), but at the same time has to appease clients?
AD: The influencer climate is a scene out of Mean Girls. My new catch phrase when I assess influencers with clients is: “Let’s just make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.” This whole market is very much a bubble – and I truly think/hope it is going to burst soon. Are there talented voices out there? ABSOLUTELY – there are fantastic digital influencers with original content, researched opinions and a genuine point of view. And there are a lot of women who are doing absolutely nothing and getting paid for it, and they’re are ruining it for the rest of us. People that have bought followers early, before people could catch on, and then somehow made a following out of it with some sweet photoshopping skillz. People who charge a fortune and somehow get big brands with thoughtless budgets to pay, but really have no credibility or taste.
Challenges I’ve faced in this arena – the biggest one is that this market really hasn’t been around long enough to truly measure the return. Yes we can talk about unique page views and engagement (these are both so vague and malleable) but what does that really mean? Does it matter that your picture of your hot dog legs at the beach got 15k likes and you tagged a bikini company in the photo? Did the bikini company really get anything out of that? Doubtful.
When it comes to dealing with the agencies…man that one is tough. I get it, they serve a purpose. But it feels like there’s a monopoly system happening and a few big players just acquire all this “talent” without really vetting them, and suddenly the price tags skyrocket with nothing really behind it. Then the smaller brands are screwed and are forced to compete in the same space as a brand that has a huge budget and is willing to shell out $10k for an Instagram post for a crappy handbag. It can feel insurmountable to the emerging designer.
Am I bitter I didn’t start a blog years ago and now make a fortune off of talking about the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale? You bet I am.
Talk to me about getting your MBA in Spain. Have you ever thought about picking up and leaving the U.S.?
AD: Every. Single. Day. Living in Barcelona and studying there were the happiest years of my life. What a unique opportunity to step out of the traditional adult track to interact with a group of super smart individuals from all over the world. The MBA really taught me to think on my feet and also to have confidence that if I don’t know something I can either fake it, ask the right questions or just learn how to do it. I was definitely the Elle Woods acceptance, btw. Me, fashion PR girl, sitting front row in Corporate Finance.
I would love to live abroad again. The culture and mindset are so different in other locations – they don’t give you a gold star for unnecessarily logging insane hours and working over the weekend. They don’t give you a trophy just for showing up. I find that their system is built more on merit and they reward those that get it done, that work smart (not just hard) and perform.
Have you endured any challenges running a company and building a business specific to being a woman?
AD: I find that people don’t take women as seriously as they take men. Men don’t take women as seriously, women don’t take women as seriously. I went in to talk to a financial planner about the future of the business and he couldn’t have been more condescending. He lead with a smirk, saying, “So you know what a P&L is?” I almost threw my folder full of excel sheets showing my sensitivity analysis in his face. I politely informed him that just because I work in fashion and get my period that I shockingly could do math. Then I left. I’m sure he probably turned around to his colleague and said, “That raging b*tch clearly has PMS.” The moral of the story, as a woman you have to navigate around people’s misconceptions of what you know and what you can endure – you have to play their game and your own, and that is tough.
Ellen Chisa wrote a terrific piece about what she learned in her first year at HBS. One of the leadership lessons challenges you to understand your worst self. I imagine that this is appropriate for all leaders, even more so for entrepreneurs since new ventures can be so all encompassing. When it comes to being a leader, what is your worst self and when does it come out? And what do you do to combat it?
AD: My worst self is a defensive, stubborn, nagger that is focused on pleasing everyone to get over crushing self-doubt. Wow, I suck. This worst self comes out when I know what I have said or done is right but someone disagrees with me – if a client comes back and criticizes a campaign we did or isn’t satisfied with what I think is a fantastic result. To combat it, I try to address it head on and say “listen, I realize that I am having a big reaction to this and I might nag/be stubborn/be defensive about it, but that is because…” In my experience if you tell people what you feel, in no uncertain terms, they will be more willing to level with you. My team appreciates it when I stop myself in a tirade and say, “Yes, I’m nagging you and it is because I am nervous about something.” It is ok to be human – people can forget that in the work place.
What has surprised you most about launching Le Brain? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?
AD: The thing I expected the least is that I still feel like I’m working for someone else – I often take my freedom for granted and find myself limited. Felicia, you recommended a wonderful book that helps me get unblocked in those particularly dark times – The Crossroads of Should and Must. When I sat down and really thought about it, I came to conclusion that it is very possible that I am already doing my “must” but I have built up a bunch of internal mental barriers that somehow make it feel like my “should.” Sorry for those that haven’t read the book as this probably sounds like garbage – do yourself a favor and go out and read it.
Who has inspired you along the way and why?
AD: I am very lucky to have an amazing group of friends that are all kicking ass and taking names, and these people inspire me daily. From designers to bloggers to buyers to writers to entrepreneurs, women with limitless energy and smarts surround me. When I’m feeling down or less-than I can talk to one of them and draw some power from one of their successes and feel that I’m back on track. Natalie, Grace, Karen, Jen, Tara, Felicia, you guys are at the top of my speed dial list.
My very first mentor in fashion was a man named Adrian, who has sadly since passed away. He taught me that you should always try to love what you’re doing, no matter what, and to find a way to be irreplaceable wherever you are. He was the first one that really showed me how to fake it ‘til I made it and he brought such glamour and passion to everything he touched. It didn’t matter that I was an intern and he was a VP, he treated me with respect and really took time to teach me. I’ll never forget him.
What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own company (agency or otherwise)?
AD: My three pieces of advice or observations from having my own company are:
• Fake it ‘til you make it – whatever you say with confidence instantly becomes fact
• Don’t be afraid to say no to projects and to turn business down – don’t sell out, ever – it WILL come back to bite you
• Don’t be shocked when you find out that you’re the last one to get paid…your employees and clients secretly own you, haha
What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day? I was going to say Oscar, your pink cat, but I’ll let you take this one. ☺
AD: I couldn’t get through the day without:
• Talking to friends and laughing about the absurdity of what crosses our desks – sarcasm is key to diffuse some of the stress.
• My perfect pink kitten…seriously, he’s a blue Abyssinian and such a distinguished gentleman with delicate pink ears and a pink belly. I come home and instantly forget about what was bothering me when he snuggles up. Crazy cat lady? Maybe.
• Reading short digests of news and gossip because in my business we trade in knowing just a shred of information. Nothing like an US Weekly email headline to get me through an awkward conversation with an editor or client – hey, did you hear that Bethenny has a new boyfriend? What’s that all about! AND SCENE.
All images courtesy of Alex Dickerson + Home Polish.