Slingshot turns 20: Interview with Founder Owen Hannay
We've been celebrating our 20th anniversary for the past couple of months. Even though that milestone still puts us under the legal drinking age, we’ve managed to accomplish quite a lot in two decades. You could almost say we’re all grown up. Almost.
Slingshot’s founder and CEO, Owen Hannay, recently looked back on the past 20 years and took time to field some of our probing questions—with eye-opening results. He touched on everything from operating out of a spare room in his house, today’s dedicated team of 70 full-time employees in Dallas and Austin, buying the historic Awalt Building in Dallas' West End and why the Slingshot holiday party takes place in February.
Through sweeping industry changes, internal growth spurts, client wins and losses and all the other wild cards that accompany running a business, Slingshot has endured, keeping true to Owen's original intent: Doing great work that makes an impact.
Below are Owen's musings on the past 20 years, how Slingshot came to be what it is today and what the future holds.
Why did you want to start an advertising agency?
I didn’t! When I first left The Richards Group, I was doing marketing consulting writing marketing plans for people, and two things happened. One, I got frustrated with the outcome after I would write a marketing plan. I would sort of exit stage right, everyone would say, "Oh, that was great," and then four months later I would see the work that came out of it and I was like, "What happened? That doesn’t deliver on what we talked about." I didn't feel I was providing value to the people I was working for. About that time, I met Charles Zug, who was leaving Southwest Airlines to go to a dot.com called Travelweb that at the time was the first online database of hotels. It didn't have booking or anything else; it just had a list of amenities that you could search. So, he hired me to do a marketing plan. It was 1995, and Internet penetration was about 6 percent. I came back with the recommendation to advertise online, and they agreed. He asked me if I knew how to do it, and I said, "Absolutely!” And really the client knew I didn't know what I was doing, and I knew he didn't know what he was doing. We sorta figured it out together. It was during that time that we created the first HTML banner and several other things that had never been done before. After a few years of doing that, Dell found us, and GTE found us and became a huge client of ours. When I stepped out on my own, it wasn't my dream to start an agency, per se.
How did Slingshot get its name?
When I first started, I was working out of my spare bedroom, and I was working with very small clients. They were always concerned about their budget, so I used the David and Goliath story as an analogy for it being more important to know how to use the tools you've got than to be the biggest and the best. That came before Slingshot. Our URL was davidandgoliath.com forever.
How many people first worked at Slingshot?
None! Just me. Then I hired Penny Ash, and Emily Spangler came shortly thereafter. We started growing fairly quickly after that and went through three different offices in quick succession. Those were fun times.
Where was your first office located?
Our first official office was one we shared with Lisa Dee. She had a television commercial production company, and it was in the State-Thomas area in what's now a yoga studio, I think. We outgrew it pretty quickly and ended up moving over to Harry Hines to an office used by Jack Ruby in the ’50s, which was really interesting and kinda creepy. He ran a bookmaking operation out of it.
How has your background in architecture influenced your choice of offices?
Well, I don't think I would of have the guts to buy this building if I hadn't gone through the architecture program. As it turned out, it's been invaluable in terms of understanding space and how people use space and materials. We developed a simple philosophy that we've used in all our buildings, which is to strip it down to only what was original, and then when we put new materials in—we want it to look new. So, bamboo floors, glass, steel—those kinds of materials that play off the original old-growth wood and iron in this building. We did the same thing with the Landmark Center, which we sold in ’06, and in the other five building we have right now.
What are some of your favorite Slingshot milestones over the last 20 years?
Moving into this building was big step for us. The ability to go out and win business primarily based on our strategic capabilities was something we worked really hard at. At one time we had became a very digital shop, and we needed to pivot and improve our strategic prowess, which we did. It took awhile, but we really put a lot of emphasis on it and I think we get a lot of credit for being a smart, strategic partner for our clients. Every client win is a milestone, and every client loss is a milestone in some way.
What are some of your favorite memories of Slingshot culture?
Probably one of the most interesting things from a cultural standpoint is that we just hosted our Christmas party even though we’re sitting here in late February. This tardiness became a tradition a number of years ago, when we had a band scheduled to play at Gypsy Tea Room and it ended up snowing. The band couldn't get in, and the next time we could get both the band and the venue was the end of January, early February. So, we booked it. Everyone had such a great time because they weren't running from Christmas party to Christmas party—there was fundamentally nothing going on—that we just moved it, and now it’s that way every year. It's better for the employees, I think. Nobody wants to go to a Christmas party with the people you work with every day when you've got so much other stuff going on. But in the middle of February? Hey, why not?
How have you seen Slingshot change as a company?
Our employees have changed and our customers have changed. We reorganized about three years ago into a matrix organization where we have verticals around specific industries such as CPG, restaurant and retail, and horizontals around strategies and insights, digital presence and what we call message delivery. We allow people to play multiple roles, so you can be a strategist with an expertise in millennials, let's say, and be an account person on a specific piece of business, which really matches what our employees wanted—the ability to continue to learn on a high level. We find that people are just naturally interested in one aspect, whether it's planning or a specific demographic group, or digital TV or mobile or social, or one of the many touch points through which you can reach consumers today. And that's back to how the consumers have changed. The people we market to have changed significantly. Part of it is there is all this fragmentation of the media, and part of it is consumers are constantly surrounded by advertising. Getting them to pay attention to what you’re doing is as much the challenge as finding them. It used to be that it was about finding people, and reach, and frequency; but today it's finding them where they are paying attention. You can put work in front of them, but they may or may not be paying attention.
Why do some Slingshotters stay with the company so long?
We try to make Slingshot a fun place to work, and it's not just the beer carts and perks like that. We want to make what you actually do fun. We talk about making sure people enjoy what they’re doing. We try to create balance, but at the end of the day, our philosophy has always been that if everyone who works here can go home every single day feeling great about the work they did for their client, we're going to be fine. And we try to keep it as simple as that. We treat each other with respect, and we like to be respected by our clients as well. I think that creates a place people don't mind working for longer periods of time. The sabbatical helps, too. We give a one-month paid sabbatical every seven years you work here.
Why did you redesign your logo, business cards and email addresses for the 20th anniversary?
It just seemed like a landmark event. The fact that we’ve been around for 20 years hopefully gives both our employees and clients confidence that, geeze, maybe we'll be around for another 20 years. I think it's a nice way to make everyone excited about it.
What does the future hold for Slingshot?
We're going to continue to focus on doing great work for our clients, work that makes a difference in their businesses. The rest of it should take care of itself. We don't set growth objectives, never have, never will. We want to continue to be progressive in the way we go about our work. We want to be technology-centric in a lot of the things we do, but if it doesn't come out of the strategy for the client, then it's not the right thing to do.
What would your legacy, and that of Slingshot, be?
You know, it's just not something I think about at all. I don't need to be Ogilvy; that's not my objective. I didn't name this the Hannay Group for a reason. It's really not about me, as much as it is the team. I want the team to look back on their careers and feel like they didn't waste their time, that we pushed the ball forward and that we made an impact on our clients’ businesses. We also want to make an impact on our employees’ lives. We want this to be a great place to work and a place where you become more valuable to us and to potential employers because of your time here. We also want to give back to the community—part of that is The Slingshot Foundation and part of it is the pro bono work we do.
I would like for the legacy to be that we treated each other with respect, that it was a great place to work, that we didn't put people in ethically ambiguous situations and that everybody who worked here can look back on their career and feel like they were part of defining what advertising and marketing was going to be like for the next generation. That's the opportunity we have in front of us, and I think we've done a pretty good job so far.
Posted Fri, Feb 27, 2015 by Slingshot