We all want success, whether in our careers, with our families, or in our weird hobbies (shout out to the soap carvers of the world). Of course, everyone’s definition of success is slightly different. For traditionalists, it’s being the biggest, the richest, the most praised. But those are somewhat facile metrics. A more nuanced and thoughtful definition entails doing something you love, doing it well, and being humble enough to acknowledge those who helped you along the way. That’s certainly the definition that fits Firewood Marketing. Started as a one-person operation in a tiny office tucked behind a Glen Ellen wine-tasting room, Firewood is now an international agency with seven offices in four countries. It recently hired its 300th employee. That sounds a lot like traditional success (and perhaps it is), but the real accomplishment has been proving that a thriving business can be built on principle.
“We started with the belief that good people could be good business,” says Juan Zambrano. I’m sitting with him and Lanya Zambrano, Firewood’s co-founders, in a conference room in downtown San Francisco, trying to suss out what’s behind the propulsive growth of their agency. “We worked with people we wanted to work with—clients and colleagues alike—people who shared our values. And those people have become ambassadors, bringing in more challenging, exciting work and more good people to take it on.”
That ambassadorship is clear to see if you poke around at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The web of connections between employees runs deep, with 48% of Firewood’s new hires coming from internal referrals.
That’s how Group Creative Director Al Nicolini found his way to Firewood. He’d previously worked with multiple Firewoodians. When asked what he believes is behind Firewood’s growth, Al answers in his typical prosaic style: “There’s no secret. Surround yourself with adults, pay them well, do good work, and build your business on relationships. We build new work on top of the old—the same way we create new partnerships based on past partnerships. Treat people right and deliver on promises. That’s it.”
Of course, none of this was a sure thing. Lanya wasn’t thinking about growth back in 2010 when she opened the agency. “Juan and I ran the numbers and basically, to stay solvent, I needed to bill $5,000 a month and that seemed like a target I could hit while testing our hypothesis.”
The core idea was simple to articulate: Build an agency predicated on treating clients and employees right. It’s a bit harder in practice. Lean too far one way and you’re demanding too much of employees; lean too far in the other direction and your clients will feel like you’re not giving it your all. Firewood calls this the “51/49 rule”—if you get out of balance, you find your business in trouble.
Staying within that thin sliver of attentiveness isn’t easy. The key is to approach both clients and employees with a win-win mind-set, to think of work not as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but as a space where partners seek the same goal. “To do that, you have to build up trust, commit to collaboration, and act with transparency,” says Lanya. “And, when you make that happen, it doesn’t just help the relationship, it helps the output—the work itself is better. When there’s trust on both sides, you’re willing to take more risks.”
There’s a flip side to this, which is knowing when to partner and when to walk away. When I ask Jessica Neville, VP of strategy and creative and one of Firewood’s longest-tenured employees, about building partnerships with clients she says, “I’ve worked at places where the emphasis was on growth for growth’s sake. That’s never been the case here. Here the question is, How can our partnership with a client work for both of us, so that we can build a long-term relationship? We’ve pitched business that could have been interesting or lucrative, but Juan and Lanya felt that maintaining an equitable relationship would have been too hard, that the work might prove tricky for the folks on the front line, and we’ve walked away from those opportunities. Often reluctantly, but always confidently. That willingness to say no has allowed us to sustain our growth. We don’t overextend and don’t make promises we can’t keep.”
Of course, growth—especially the kind of rapid growth Firewood has experienced—isn’t as simple as knowing when to say no. Too much “no” gets you exactly nowhere. Sustainable growth requires saying yes to clients, coworkers, and vendors alike. It requires creating a can-do culture that gets the work done with minimal fuss and maximum commitment. Part of that is creating a culture where people want to work.
For Erica Carmel, SVP of strategy and the agency’s 25th hire, that’s always been the case. “In my interview, Juan promised me three things: interesting work, a reasonable work-life balance, and no politics. That was true when I joined in 2015 and it’s still true today.”
Building a “no politics” workspace is a tall order. And while hiring humble people who have each other’s backs is a critical component, it’s also important to recognize that everyone has a vision for their career. If the company can align its needs with its employees’ dreams, everyone can benefit. As senior talent manager, tending career trajectories is basically Meghan Patrick-Crane’s job description. What’s more, it’s how she created her own role. Hired to manage resource allocations for the creative teams, after two years, Meghan wanted to take her career in a different direction. She pitched the idea of a new role to Lanya and now it’s her job to shepherd her teammates’ careers and build processes for career growth—from onboarding to training to setting goals and milestones.
“We’re trying to create an employee experience that’s about more than doing what you’re hired to do,” Meghan says. “We’re creating a culture of learning, growth, and aspiration that supports employees and expands what Firewood can offer.” When asked for an example (aside from her own) she pointed me in the direction of Kat Kirkman, a receptionist in the San Francisco office. While taking a class on social media marketing at UC Berkeley Extension, Kat sat in on some Firewood social media meetings, started helping on projects, and then was assigned to the team. “People have been super supportive, from senior management down to my teammates,” says Kat. “Everyone wants everyone else to succeed.”
Recognizing and nurturing talent helps keep people at the company, and Firewood has a turnover rate nearly 20 percentage points lower than the industry average. Much of that feeling of inclusivity and belonging comes not from management recognizing hidden talent, but rather from teammates and peers creating a space where they help each other prosper. For Kamron Hack, Firewood’s director of people and culture, helping people help each other is one of her goals. But, she sheepishly admits, that aspect of her job is often easier than she expected it to be. “When you’re growing at this rate, a lot of people are new. So onboarding is critical. It’s so important to help people find their footing and feel like they can do their jobs with confidence. And the people here are so welcoming and so willing to go out of their way for each other. There’s a communal willingness to help. Honestly, we hire good people—not just people who are good at their jobs, but good humble people.”
Which brings us back to Juan and Lanya. “From the beginning,” Juan says, “we looked for a baseline of humility when hiring new people. As we grew, we recognized something magical was happening and maintaining that feeling has become our first priority. So, basically, we put up the guardrails and then Lanya and I have tried to get out of the way.”
At this point there’s a quiet knock on the conference room door, the universal Firewood signal to wrap up your business so that your teammates can come in and do theirs.
Lanya asks, “Are we good?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, if you need anything, anything at all, ping Juan.”
Juan frowns and interjects, “Don’t ping me. Ping her.”
“No,” Lanya says, “Ping him. Ping him. Because he’ll just ping me. Juan always says ‘how did I become the default?’”
“Because you’re more creative,” he says.
“I’m not more creative. You’re the better writer,” she says.
Laughing, Juan turns to me and says, “Please tell me you got that on tape.”
And so, having no idea who I’m supposed to ping, but fully aware that both of them would gladly help if I asked, we wrap up the interview and I head back to my desk and do what Firewoodians do best—get to work.