Q&Agency: LEVEL Studios

Welcome to Q&Agency! Each week, I get to talk to agencies small and large and get to hear (in their words) what differentiates them and the experiences they create. To help bring some of that information to you, I'm showcasing an ongoing series of interviews with small to mid-size interactive and design agencies. If you'd like to see your agency or an agency you work with here, let me know!

On March 18th, I talked with Tom Adamski, President and CEO of LEVEL Studios. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about your agency?

Tom: LEVEL Studios was founded in 1995 in Santa Barbara. Today we’re headquartered in San Luis Obispo with offices in Los Angeles and San Jose. Across the three California studios we have about 200 people today. We’re focused exclusively on the digital space and we’re independently owned and operated. Like other digital agencies, strategy, creative design, technology, and the connection between those three areas is the key driver of our business. Today that means we’re working with marketing communications groups and we have a growing client segment in product development and design.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

Tom: We’re an independent digital agency that produces products, services, and experience for brands as a way for those brands to build community and meaningful relationships with their customer base. Our three west coast studios focus on user experience, digital media, and application development. We’re a relationship based organization based on long term, retention based strategies both for our clients and our staff. Our 3 largest clients have been with us on average ten years. Those lasting relationships produce better business results for our clients and for our agency.

Forrester: What differentiates you from your competitors?

Tom: There are two key things that differentiate us: our culture and our skill set. Culturally, every digital agency wants to be focused on creativity and have a culture of innovation. Unlike others, we’re focused on a culture of application. Creativity is certainly where we begin, but to that we apply a rigorous process of design. We use that design process to solve a problem. And that solution is applied to a market opportunity. We love unfettered creativity but that alone doesn’t drive business results. We run the business that way too. Generating margin is a method of sustainability and provides long term work for our employee base.

In terms of our skills, we’ve been deep in technology for all of our 15 years. Since our opening, we’ve had a hosting network and a digital content distribution platform. Many of our clients (and us) use SWITCH, our digital content delivery platform. We’re rooted in both application development and network development (like cloud computing). Instead o f just jumping on the bandwagon of technology because it is the new advertising medium, we’ve long been building and nurturing that capability. This is creating a catalytic business for us with 60% top line revenue growth last year. This has a lot to do with the history we’re bringing to today’s market conditions because this growth is coming from new and different types of technology projects. We’re doing more product design and development, developing custom applications on back-end infrastructure of businesses, creating cloud computing networks, and custom branded desktop applications that are distributed globally. These aren’t typical digital agency projects and maybe because of it the agency term because a misnomer for us. But we believe that if agencies aren’t competent in these skills today, they’re going to see business dry up.

Forrester: Why is your agency well suited to deliver a great customer experience for your clients (and their customers)?

Tom: Well I’ve already mentioned our application oriented approach. I think that rigorous design process beginning with creativity but focusing on solving a business problem and creating marketing opportunity for our clients is one big part of this.

The second is the interpersonal. Our clients typically have a problem to solve; one that they may understand but not in its entirety – that’s why they’re seeking assistance. We believe that the sensitivity of our approach is paramount to fostering long term relationships. Internally, we use the phrase “our methodology is proven but our behavior is adaptive.” This is particularly important today. The marketing landscape is changing, budgets are being cut, and we have to help our clients adapt to that. So we begin by figuring out where our clients are and then apply the areas of our methodology that are proven and we know are going to be successful for them. We strive to be an extension of our client’s team while elevating them with the strategies we know are successful. The key is knowing when to apply our methodology and doing it diplomatically to deliver business results.

Forrester: What’s it like to work at your agency?

Tom:Our business was born in a rural area with a small town sensibility in terms of the value of we place on relationships with people. We also try to maintain a small town sensibility in terms of work ethic. We maintain an incredible connection with the California educational system. We have a close relationship with Cal Poly and use a program of internships and teaching to foster relationships to benefit the university and our agency. It is often from there that we attract strong raw talent and we have been successful in building an ethos and culture around it and turning it into a brand. LEVEL is a series of behaviors as well as a brand that we foster across our studio locations. Working here is very personal, enjoyable, at times challenging and difficult. But the best thing I can do as a CEO is put the right kinds of challenges in front of our people and let them rise to the challenge. When I do that right, great things occur. Because we’re independent, we have another reason for having a healthy appreciation of our client relationships. We want to be good stewards with that money our clients pay us and so we stay focused on our own gross margin and net income as ways to foster sustainability for our business.