347 | Creating a Growth Culture with Mike Popowski

Do you want to make the Inc5000 next year? If you do, you must have a growth culture. This is a culture that goes beyond just focus on performance to create real growth inside the company. Today’s guest is Mike Popowski who is the CEO for Dagger Agency. Dagger was the fastest growing agency in Atlanta in 2017 and made the Inc5000 list this year with a 3-year growth rate of 482%. Mike and I talk about how that was possible and what you need to have to create a growth culture.

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Creating a Growth Culture with Mike Popowski

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Target Audience: Mike, Entrepreneurial agency leader with deep digital and brand-building experience consulting F100 brands, Big Four banks, professional sports teams and leading non-profits. Has three-times led agency teams to exponential growth through a visioned, results-centered approach that creates value for brands.

Creating a Growth Culture: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Hi, this is Gene Hammett. I am the host of leaders in the trenches. One question I wanted to ask you today is what does it take to create a culture of growth? What does it take to engage the team to accept the goals of the company, to grow really fast? Well, I’ve been working with companies around this for last three or four years specifically and it is amazing to see how common that the approaches to growth are and some of the core fundamentals just don’t change. We’re going to talk about that today with a special guest. Mike Paproski. Mike is with dagger agency. Dagger is one of the leading agencies inside of Atlanta. I think the fastest growing last year. They made the inc 5,000 this year, so their growth is not only something that I could just talk about, we can actually demonstrate that with where they’ve been recognized and Mike shares a lot of insight around leadership and culture that are so important to this and when they got to about 20 employees, because I’m personal friends with Mike, I saw specific changes in the way the culture was reacting to that growth and it was all intentional.

Gene Hammett: It was all because of the things that they invested in, the way they treated people and the way they were wanting to grow and build that culture. Oh, dagger is a, an agency, but not just any agency that they work at the highest levels with the highest brands are working with fortune 1000. Uh, some other brands kind of sneak in there, but they’re working with some amazing clients. I won’t mention it, but if you want to go to dagger agency, you can go check out this long list of high profile clients that they have. And what they do for them is they create content that engages the audience to move forward. They are working with sometimes being an ob, but mostly B to c in a world where they’re creating content at a speed to meet consumer demand. That is impressive and that is because that is what’s necessary and they have to create a culture around that of growth.

Gene Hammett: So join me for this interview with Mike now. Before we get there, let me remind you if you are a longtime listener or if this is your first episode, I’ve got a special deal for you. I have been a published my book on audible last fall and they’ve made it available to me to give you a free 30 day trial. If you want to go ahead and sign up for that, all you have to do is go to audible trial.com, forward slash leaders in the trenches. Just make sure you spell it out right, and then that’ll get you a 30 day trial to use their software. You don’t have to buy my book. You can download any book you want, but if you do download my book, I would appreciate it. All right. Here’s the interview with Mike Popowski.

Gene Hammett: Hey Mike. Thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches.

Mike Popowski:       Thanks Gene. Great to be here. Good to see you again.

Gene Hammett: Well, this is a new thing for us. I’m going to look at the camera a little bit, but I’m mostly going to be looking at Mike because we rarely able to get in the same room and record, but it’s great to be here.

Mike Popowski:        I’m super excited about this. I’m glad we’re doing it.

Gene Hammett:       So I’ve already told the audience a little bit about you. I want to let you give a chance to tell us about who you are, who Dagger is and who do you serve.

Mike Popowski:      Sure. So quick background on me. My whole career marketing and advertising a first job out of college, AOL quickly shifted in the agency world. Spent about five years as employee number one. Um, two twin brothers that broke off from aol and started their own agency and a DC based agency. We’re doing a lot of membership acquisition, online, digital acquisition, marketing, um, and we grew really quickly, um, and ended up as an inc 5,000 company transition out of that, did some consulting for a RP. And then ended up through my work with Arp, learning about engage, which was an agency here in Atlanta.

Mike Popowski:      I’m sort of the, I’d say, the preeminent digital social agency in 2010, 2011. Sold to publicists, um, became moxie. I left there, went to New York, came back for this opportunity. So, um, that’s, that’s about, I’d say 17 years and about, uh, you know, 90 seconds. But um, but yeah, so I came in to dagger, um, April one, 2015. I was in a small group then the company was called sandbox, so we were about, when I joined it was technically the fourth person in the group but can took over the CEO role. Um, and since then it’s been, we’ve been on a bit on the move. It’s, we’re about 45, I think, four to 44 in a matter of about three years and three months. And so, um, yeah, that’s, that’s the quick on me on dagger. Um, and we’re, go ahead.

Gene Hammett: No, go ahead.

Mike Popowski:      We are a, we’re a content agency. Content means so many different things to so many different people. Um, the way we talk about it, it’s really what I say is the touch point between brand and consumer and that’s changing very, very quickly. You know, the 10 years ago, marketing was, it was simpler times, right? You had your TV, commercial, a print ad, and you know, maybe your, your website now because it’s a consumer driven world, a brands need to be always, always on almost publishing content at the speed of, at the speed of the demand by which consumers are demanding it. And it’s insatiable. Um, so I look at us really moving to this, this place into, in modern mediums, you know, everything from the instagram stories, right? A lot of our consumer brands are playing with those two podcast, right? And that’s within that content realm.

Mike Popowski:      Um, so that’s really where we’re focused. We’ve been really fortunate to you asked who we serve. Um, we’ve been fortunate to serve some 500 brands, f 100 world worldclass nonprofits and some really fun brands as well. So, um, recently became American Cancer Society, American Cancer Society’s Social Media Agency of record. Uh, we, our sweetwater brewing local brewery here in Atlanta, they’re social media agency of record as well. Uh, we do a lot of work with AFLAC. We do a lot of work with NCR interface, which is a global carpet manufacturing company. Um, Ihg is another client of ours, so some well known brands and we’ve been really fortunate and I’d say the last three and a half years to, um, to be working with them and to be growing. It’s fun and challenging time. Yeah.

Gene Hammett: So that’s a pretty good idea of why I had mike on the show. We go way back more than two and a half years. We’ve been sitting down chatting about the business and really just watching you grow as a leader, watching the company grow, watching the impact that you’re making in the market. And that’s the reason I’m gonna invite you to be on leaders in the trenches and talk about this.

Mike Popowski:      Awesome.

Gene Hammett: So here’s my first question. Like one of the things that you’re most proud of is your growth and you’re a hard driving growth. You’re about the numbers, but you’re also about people. So what are the key factors to consistent growth at dagger?

Mike Popowski:      It’s funny that you say where we’re at this really interesting inflection point in the company where growth has been the number one goal and culture, um, around that as well. Um, the way I talk about growth, especially in our business, it’s threefold. I talked to our team on the why we grow, right? Um, first off just it, our business, there are invariably going to be reasons out of our control that we lose business, right? So, as you know, we’re a service based business. Our chief clients are typically Cmos, right? Um, budgets may be allocated, new cmos may come in. Um, so if we, it sounds very ricky bobby, but if we’re not growing where we’re dying, you know what I mean? So if we’re, if we are flat, right, and we’re not, if we don’t take a growth approach, I look at at some point for reasons out of our control, the, the shoe will drop.

Mike Popowski:      And so there’s just, there’s a business preservation attitude about growth and survival, right? I think too is I look at you know, I played team sports growing up, but I think our business, there’s very similar analogies in that you can feel viscerally inside an agency when you’re winning or when you’re losing. Right? And I’ve been on both sides of that coin and so I think there’s, we’re solving much different problems when we are growing. They’re fun problems to solve and um, and there’s a winning sort of vibe within the culture when you’re losing it’s, you know, and your friends are getting laid off and things like that, which I’ve seen in other agencies. Um, it, uh, it’s a different, it’s a different kind of thing. Um, so that’s kind of the why. That’s part of the why for us, the driver, you know, what’s led to it.

Mike Popowski:      I mean the most in most simplest terms, new business, right? Um, we’ve, um, we’ve just been very consistent about leaning into. I’m leaning into growth, right? And having that be paramount and that’d be the north star. Um, you know, I think, I think where we become hyper aggressive with growth is that I’m in the agency world, um, to do the work that you land, you need to have people, right? And so we, I think we’ve really tightened the mechanism by which we bring in new business, hire, assimilate, serve that client, and then are able to continue the growth without growth just to break you don’t have mean. So I think we’ve been able to operationalize and there’s different ways about that. Um, did I answer your question?

Mike Popowski:      Well, I want to ask you specifically around people, how do you engage people to grow because these are, these are not just your goals, the people inside it very important to you because we’ve talked about this many times. How do you engage them to take on that growth mindset that you have?

Mike Popowski:      Yeah, I mean, I think it, it’s part of our culture. It’s part of, um, it’s imbued into a lot of conversations, particularly at the leadership level, right? I mean we’ve got a dashboard of numbers and we’re really understanding where the growth is coming from. Um, oftentimes from really a growth standpoint, we look at our clients as a portfolio where are the opportunities to grow? And so, so much of our job is we’re creative problem solvers. And so I heard a phenomenal analogy recently where we want to be the wheel of fortune. A contestant that serve solves the puzzle very early when there’s only a few numbers reveal a few letters revealed, right? In other words, once the client has put all the numbers out there, they’ve solved their own problems. So it’s really getting in the end, we’ve got a business leadership team, um, that’s really focused on once we’re working with a client on a project basis, is really understanding in depth their business so that we can provide value, right?

Mike Popowski:      Um, I think what’s, I think in our business, what’s different to is what you just heard me say, business leadership team agencies often call their account teams, account services, right? And so just, just the language there, right? Serving versus leading I think has led to just a growth mindset. And those guys, the business leadership team are the interface between us, you know, agency and client. So they’re driving a lot of that growth are driving a lot of the solutions into the organization and able to drive that organic growth. So, um, so that’s. Yeah, so that’s.

Gene Hammett: Well, I want to ask you, uh, specifically you’ve talked about being really proud of one specific aspect of the business and the growth culture and that’s your retention rate. You are able to retain top talent amongst all of the opportunities out in the marketplace. People maybe going out and doing their own thing. Why is that so important to retain that top talent and how are you doing that?

Mike Popowski:      Yeah, I mean, so taking a step back, and I think every business knows this instinctively, but I think we live it as is, uh, especially our business, right? We don’t have a product that we’re selling the agency businesses is a summation or are our value as a summation of our people and our processes. So people are the most important ingredient. Um, you know, I’m a big believer in the Branson philosophy of if you have a happy team, you ultimately have happy clients. Um, there is also a massive, there’s massive implications to turning over an employee, right? So, um, I was just at a culture summit out in San Francisco and I think the, one of the speakers said it was, it’s the equivalent of the cost of that employee to, you know, deal with the ramifications of exiting and employee, you know, and then having a, a new employee to pick up the institutional knowledge.

Mike Popowski:      Um, so, um, so for us, I’ll tell you the number and then I’ll tell you the how we in the last two years, we’ve had one person just literally two weeks ago exit, um, that has chose to leave the company. So very positive implications for us. The how is I think, I think where people first, I mean I look at the leadership team and yes we are growth oriented, but I’ve talked about is building the plane as we fly it, flying the planes, the growth. But the way we talk in leadership meetings is that we are building this place as a m and I tell the team this, that it’s almost servant leadership, right? That we’re building the company to be a place for some of our talent to do some of the best work, so the work of their lives, um, and to be a place where not only it’s diverse, but there is inclusion and everybody feels like they’ve got a voice.

Mike Popowski:      Um, and, and constantly being very transparent about the future being brighter than today. And that’s something that I’m always communicating. I mean, it did a town hall on Wednesday where I mentioned this inflection point at the beginning and I think a lot of our growth has led to, you know, you grow fast. There’s, there’s, you start to gauge a little bit of misalignment. For us, it’s um, it’s really getting tight on our, on our mission, our vision, our values and our behaviors so that we can be more tightly aligned going forward. And all of that is inculcated into how we work. so I went off on a, I don’t know, to answer your question.

Gene Hammett: You absolutely answered the question. And the fun thing about this, and I’m going to go back to the audience here. It really is a lot of the things that I’ve been talking a lot about in my little short videos, but also the research and the things I’m writing about. You’re talking about putting employees first, right, but you’re still customer centric.

Mike Popowski:      Yeah.

Gene Hammett: You are creating a place of growth, not just because of the company’s growing, but the place for the people to do their best work. Those are the opportunities. Wants to leave that you recently moved to an incredible office that we’re sitting in right now and that is people love to come to like. It’s probably better than home for some people.

Mike Popowski:      I think in some case, but I think. I think you bring up an instrument. Yeah, point growth does naturally provide opportunities for organizational growth. Instinct inherently provides individual growth opportunities. I think that’s what at the end of the day, if you’re in a job and you’re not learning and growing and seeing a path for yourself, you’re going to get bored here and I want to leave and I think growth allows that. I think that’s the biggest thing that growth allows and we’ve had, I’d say out of our 44 employees with plus a contractor basis of contractor base with a few more. I’ve had five different people actually changed departments, so I’ve got, we’ve got a project manager who’s now I’m in art school. I’m going to come back because as a creative we’ve got pms, we’ve gone over to him, I’m with promotions, we’ve had another pm go to be one of our lead strategist. So I think growth has allowed people to find what they’re aligned, their strengths more.

Gene Hammett: Yeah. You can’t do that when it’s a stagnant.

Mike Popowski:      No, you can’t, right. Exactly. Is that if you’re, you know, if you’re adding one client a year or so. So I think it can be chaotic and I think that’s the fun of it. But at the same time, if, when, when, when the net net is growth, it is allowing for those type of individual growth as well.

Gene Hammett: When, when you think about your leadership that it’s activating this kind of growth. Um, and, and this might be a little bit of a surprise question here for you, so I apologize. I’m like, it causes doubt in yourself.

Mike Popowski:      Sure.

Gene Hammett: Can you talk a little bit about some of the doubt that you’ve had to struggle with and how you overcame it?

Mike Popowski:      Yeah, I just think when you, I think the best way I can articulate it as, and it’s funny you’re catching me on this, this really interesting inflection point because I almost feel like my, I don’t know if it’s doubt as much as who I am needs to evolve as the company evolves, right? In other words, to be a startup CEO where we’re worried about like cash flow and positioning and making sure that, you know, that I’m involved with a client work. If I were to do that today, we would be more unsuccessful. Um, so, you know, I talked about that inflection point of like we sort of zipped out of being a startup and at some point where I guess we were a small agency, we’re on the precipice of being a midsize agency. So my role has naturally had to evolve as well, and I, and I telegraph that to the team, as I said in a town on Wednesday where I said, look, we were, this focus were really going to hone in our culture, our values, our codifications of who we want to be.

Mike Popowski:      We’re not just growing for the sake of growth anymore. We’re not building the plane as we fly it. We’re actually going to crystallize the destination that we want this to go and that’s going to be routed by, you know, all of those things. Um, yeah, there’s doubt, there’s fears along the way,

Gene Hammett: you know, that’s natural, right?

Mike Popowski:      Yeah, I do, I do. Um, yeah, I, uh, I just, I want to be honest with like what, let’s see when there’s doubt. I mean, you know, there’s, there’s speaking engagements, there’s pitches, there’s all these things that, you know, you have to psych yourself up for. I thrive in the comfortable, uncomfortable moments. I feel like when I’m uncomfortable, that’s a moment of growth. That’s a learning. So, so I engaged there.

Gene Hammett: Um, that’s chapter seven of my book, has it, the trap of success.

Gene Hammett: Well, let me ask you this because I want to make sure we start landing this plane. Um, you know, you’re fast growth requires you to evolve. You just said this. So you have had to stop doing some of the things that made you successful a year ago that won’t carry you into the that eight figure ram of an agency. So what, what comes to mind when I say, what’d you have to stop doing?

Mike Popowski:      Well, it’s funny. And then I, we have a group of advisors, one of them I love this quote to it’s only do, and I say this to my leadership team, probably every leadership meeting only do only the things that only you can do. Um, and it’s a nice compass to go throughout your day to say, okay it ensures that we’re elevating and empowering other people.

Mike Popowski:      Right? So going back to the first two year, um, example that I gave, if I’m look there, I have somebody who’s over our finance people in operations. If I’m over indexing on cash flow, that’s something that I’ve got three other people who can, who can focus on, right? Um, there are a few faces of the organization, there are few people who can know the organization well enough to, to help craft the culture or perhaps architect. Um, I’m a, a pitch or a, a, a marketing idea for one of our clients. So I try to pick those spots. Um, those have evolved. I think the big things I’ve got, the biggest thing I’ve gotten away from is, is being day to day with, with our clients. I just can’t, we, and I am intentional to try to find the spots where I can and where I can add value, but it’s more empowering my team to do that. And we’ve got a, we’ve got a phenomenal team of seasoned vets who can do those things better than I can do. Right? So

Gene Hammett: I know that because I’ve worked with some of these guys here at dagger and they’re just incredible at not only being able to serve the clients but get results too. So you’re doing something right with this culture. I want to wrap this up with my practical and actionable. I always have something where we talk about this and I don’t know if you have a habit or a routine that ensures that you have a growth culture, but, uh, again, what would that be if someone were sitting down with a Coffee Cup of coffee tomorrow, what could they be doing? Thinking about a question to ensure that they have a growth culture?

Mike Popowski:      Um, I think there’s a couple ways I can answer it. I think growth is propelled by some actions, um, but I think if you really want to develop a growth culture kind of where we’re going and if that is part of who you are, right? As a culture. Um, it’s funny, I’ve been reading a lot about just different cultures and it’s a value of Amazon is to give, make sure that the customer gets the most amount of value. So if you go into an Amazon Office for the, from the beginning of time, they use their executives use doors, right? As desks as a signal that they’re not spending a lot of money on their offices, those dollars pass through, um, you know, you go into the office of square where they design is paramount and everything is highly designed for, for us, if growth is part of the culture that needs to be baked into our values, our behaviors and how we talk about that.

Mike Popowski:      So I think, I think the action of that could be, and we haven’t, you know, we’re, we’re working on really codifying it, inculcating it. So I think this’ll be a good thing for us to come back on and like six to a six to 12 months. I’m like, what does that actually look like? But it could be a simple thing. It could be we finish all of our meetings at dagger by does this contribute to the growth of the organization and how right or um, you know, what are we doing, um, as a next step that will ultimately grow our relationship with this client. You know what I mean? So, so, so in inculcating in different touch points, in the actual ways of working, um, those, um, those growth tenants I think is the way to, to create the culture and I think we’ve done a good job of, at a leadership level because, you know, when we meet, there’s a lot of rigor in terms of how we’re talking about growth, how

Mike Popowski:      are strategizing and it kind of frames a lot of our meetings. Um, but I think in order for me to do that organization wide, I think imbuing it into our values is, is the way that that’s gonna happen.

Gene Hammett: So I want to summarize that because I think it was really smart and you wrapped around with all the context, but if you were going to sit down and do something new inside your culture to reinforce growth is after every meeting asked that question, how does this reinforce our growth or does it, that is pretty, pretty smart. So my thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches and if our audience when get in touch with you, how would they do that?

Mike Popowski:      So talent, we post jobs on Linkedin at DaggerAgency.Agency follow us at Dagger Agency on Instagram. Our creative team is very creative and they put out a lot of good fun stuff.

Mike Popowski:      I’m on Linkedin. If you want to reach out to me directly, I’m Mike Popowski and then brands, if you’re liking what we’re talking about, feel free to reach out there as well. So thank you.

Gene Hammett: I’m going to wrap this up with just a little bit. I love talking with people like Mike. Mike, we’d go way back as friends and it’s great to see you evolve. Great. To see the impact that you’re making inside this world and, and to see how important it is for you to focus on the people and the investments we’re making to reinforce that. I know they see it, I see it, I’m sure the world sees it and that’s one reason why I put you on the show here. To be able to talk about that here at leaders in the trenches. So thanks for being here and…

Mike Popowski:      thanks for being so much. I enjoyed it.

Gene Hammett: Thanks for being such a great leader.

Mike Popowski:      Thanks Gene. Appreciate it.

Gene Hammett: All right. Fantastic time there with Mike. I’m back in my own office here where I really enjoy you bringing you these interviews and really helping you understand the core elements of growth and in those foundational elements that can help you grow as a leader, help your culture be more intentional to fast growth, so if you’re enjoying these, make sure you reach out to us just any social channel you want to. We’re there. We’re been putting a lot more effort into taking snippets out of this, so if you see anything out there in facebook, instagram, twitter, linkedin, anything that you see, make sure you like it and if you feel encouraged enough, share it with someone that you feel like would really appreciate it. I really love what I’m doing. I love creating this content for you, but I’d love for you to support me and the growth of that to reach more people. It doesn’t cost you any money, so even if it’s a sponsored ad, make sure you go ahead and click that.

Gene Hammett:  All right, that’s my piece today. As always, lead with courage and I’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Elevating and Empowering people
  • Create a Culture of Growth
  • Different Culture
  • Core Elements of Growth
  • Foundational elements that can help you grow as a leader
  • Growth within the Business



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