Lessons Learned from 22 Years of DH

It all started with a bar napkin.

tyler tullis
Michelle Hege

Jun 4, 2019

enter alternative text hre

LAST month, GREATER SPOKANE INCORPORATED invited me to tell the DH story at its “Wine at Barrister” event. I’ve told DH’s founding story many times, but this was the first time I’d told it in front of an audience. It made me reflect on the early days of the agency, how we’ve changed and evolved and lessons I’ve learned along the way. I thought I’d share a few highlights here.

Our founders, Jim and Cher Desautel, saw an opportunity in the Spokane market. They sketched out a vision for a high-performing agency on a bar napkin at the Trapper Creek Bar at Elkins (a favorite place for many a Spokanite). Jim wanted to create what he called, “a team of zealots.” He had a vision of a group of committed strategists who would help companies and organizations to grow, to overcome challenges and to seize opportunities. He envisioned a team of people who were “all in” and would go the extra mile for clients. He envisioned a team who could tackle big issues and “do the hard things.” I was lucky enough to be his first hire. Two of my business partners, Sara and Andrei, were employees #2 and #3. Our partner Christine joined us (after first being a client) almost 10 years ago. Our shared values run deep and it’s been an amazing journey, one I’m grateful for daily.

Over the last 20+ years we’ve changed a lot. Today we’re a team of 29 strategists and creatives designing campaigns, programs and branding initiatives for clients across the northwest and the west coast. While we’re doing work beyond the borders of that original bar napkin, we’ve also stayed true to many of the values that Jim and Cher had in mind from the very beginning.

Put people first.

Jim used to say, “Work is important, but life is more important.” This idea drove our culture from the very beginning. We always have believed that people’s lives, their families and their health comes first. If people feel supported, they bring their best to work. And it is this type of environment where exceptional collaboration and results are possible. We’ve been through some challenging times. We’ve certainly made some mistakes. But this value of putting people first and creating a true “village” at work where we care about one another has always been our true north.

Take a risk.

It would be great to have all the data you need for every decision. It would be nice to have long range visibility into what’s coming down the pike. And, in business, it never happens. There have been many moments in our history when we had to make a leap of faith. From making an investment hire to adding a new service offering or investing in new technology or new space, there have been moments where we’ve needed to take on financial (and emotional!) risk. That’s part of being a business owner, but it’s never easy.

Growth is good. And hard.

In the last 6 years we’ve grown a lot. Our creative services team grew from one creative to 8. We built a media buying department. We expanded our account team and our operations team. We changed and evolved at a pretty quick pace. And we felt it. We outgrew processes and our team no longer fit around our conference room table. We needed new systems and tools and communication vehicles. On top of that, we were really, really busy. We realized we had to slow down to speed up. It was time to change. In another leap of faith, we closed the agency down for almost two weeks last year and put everyone through a training based on agile principles, built specifically for self-empowered agency teams. It has changed how we work – we have daily stand up meetings, a roadmapping methodology for collaborative project planning, a retrospective structure for constant improvement and a day structure for maximizing flow. It’s been pretty amazing as well as being challenging at times. Change is like that.

As I reflect on where we’ve been, I am in awe of our team. They are the most committed, compassionate, smart and fun people. They move mountains. They accomplish the impossible. They solve complex problems. And, even when the work is hard, they do it with kindness. They go the extra mile for our clients and for each other.

When I think back to that bar napkin, I know we’ve fulfilled Jim’s vision. And we’ve gone beyond it…..today we’re fueled by a team-built mission statement of “empowering people, causes and organizations to make a difference.” And I believe we are doing that every day.

Twenty-two years into this journey, I wouldn’t pick any other path.

Todd Mielke talking with Michelle Hege.
Send this to a friend