20 Years of Saxum

If I had let fear creep in, I would have never done it.

In a singular moment in time, I made a choice and Saxum was born. I had dreamt about taking that step my entire life. Not necessarily starting Saxum, but creating a business and professional career where my vision and values drove how I spent my time and dictated the kind of work that I, and others, would do. I am fortunate in that I figured out my purpose and later wrote it down – to put a dent in the universe that endures and can be built upon by others, through my stacked actions, that reflect God’s love and omniscient presence. This is all I ever wanted to do so I started working on it.

And I’m doing it.

Before that moment on July 29, 2003, Saxum was nothing. Then, immediately, it was something. Initially, that something was me. A one-man band of creativity, ambition, focus, curiosity, strategy and drive. It was the perfect time in my life to start a company. I was 25 and had nothing to lose. The city I lived in was growing. The pressures of adulthood had not yet crept into my world. I was all gas, no brakes.

Enough about me as I recognized very quickly that if this new company had any chance of surviving, it would take much more than my limited abilities. As I reflect on twenty years owning an integrated marketing communication agency that continues to grow and evolve in interesting new ways, two key truths stand out:

  1. No clients = no Saxum. The only checks that show up at Saxum are from clients. If clients don’t perceive value, they don’t send checks and they fire you. The only way to last twenty years is for clients to believe that they are receiving value. It isn’t always perfect or pretty as the market evolves and work delivery changes, but it isn’t complicated either. We exist to serve clients. I am so grateful to the many clients who have trusted Saxum to help them solve their problem(s) over the years. We’ve partnered to create a message or image for organizations and companies from nothing, differentiated and elevated client products and services, driven new demand by our actions, created public policy change, de-escalated sensitive and scary situations, and blown people away with our ideas in action. We’ve tried to live out bold values – being brave, original, lively and driven. We’ve collectively found great joy and satisfaction beyond any check coming in the mail. Many of our clients have become some of our dearest friends. For anyone who has hired Saxum to help your organization over the past twenty years, thank you for your trust in our team!
  2. No team = no Saxum. When I started Saxum, I was a glorified freelancer. Then I hired my first teammate, Sara Walker (still a Saxumite…19 years and counting), and I had a team, albeit a small one. One by one, we’ve found people who are as different as they are bright and driven and shared with them an opportunity to do meaningful work. We’ve employed over 250 people in twenty years and that isn’t counting interns who number at least 250. I like to think that we’ve made an impact on over 500 people, many of whom Saxum was their first job! It isn’t always perfect or pretty to grow up in an agency where the speed is fast and expectations are high. As the founder, I’ve never forgotten that the value creation comes from the team who are made up of individual people. Even better, we continue to maintain contact and positive relationships with ~95 percent of our former colleagues which is hard to do. Many of them have gone on to have incredible careers. For anyone who has worked at Saxum and contributed to our success, thank you!

Why does Saxum work?

Hiring a PR or marketing firm like Saxum does not guarantee results for clients no matter how much we wish it would. Results come from partnership. When a client leader can communicate “this is what we are trying to do and this is why it matters and here is how you can help me,” Saxum is set up for success and can then do what we do best. The characteristics of these clients are they are grounded in humility and open to receiving counsel from the Saxum team and in turn are trusting that the advice given is directionally correct to meet their goals. Pretty simple.

There is no singular “right way” to get results in our world. It takes iteration and collaboration. These clients have core values they can articulate and practice, their leadership teams are “in” for the journey and everyone is willing to listen. They treat their partners with respect and when mistakes are made, they firmly, but graciously, share the corrective information because they know the team wants to do a great job. When this happens, outstanding results almost always follow. It’s amazing how these clients – the ones with great leaders who know who they are and where they are going – are the ones who Saxum has helped the most. When Saxum has failed, almost to a client, the reason can be traced back to poor leadership, poor vision and values, poor strategy and dysfunctional, non-trusting relationships. And to be clear, those same lessons apply to Saxum’s failures. When we have come up short for clients it is almost always because of our poor leadership and leveraging the wrong team against the wrong goals. We are a work in progress.

There is an antidote to ensure results are more likely to happen than not and it starts with trust and feedback. Trust means that the client and the Saxum team have mutual respect and trust on day one of an engagement. Feedback means that things won’t go perfect for either side and grace and patience is required to get it right. I’m surprised how often conflict arises because feedback was withheld or feedback was ignored or resented, both on the part of the team at Saxum and the client. Feedback is a gift and it takes 1000 small conversations to really get it right.

I’m optimistic about the future and Saxum’s role in it. I’m hopeful that the amazing changes in society require companies to hire agencies like Saxum to help broader stakeholders understand what’s happening. I’m grateful for confident, trusting leaders who provide feedback and challenge the status quo. I’m confident that Saxum is a positive, uniting force for good in the world. Not perfect, but striving to improve every day.

Yesterday, in honor of 20 years of Saxum, I did my favorite hike in Colorado. The trail is straight up. When here, I time it because I’m competitive with myself. It usually takes me about thirty minutes. Before I start I have to remind myself “why” I’m doing the hike. It is most assuredly not enjoyable because my chest starts heaving about five minutes in and my legs start hurting at ten minutes and then I slow down to what seems like a crawl the last ten minutes. I never stop. At the top, there is great joy from the feeling of accomplishment and a payoff of seeing the valley, a live illustration of God’s beautiful creation. I’m reminded of the reward available to all who choose to do something hard. I give thanks for my body’s ability to complete the trek. I smile at those coming up and down the trail, knowing each of them is suffering in their own way to get to the top. Then I go back down the mountain and get ready to do it again tomorrow. The 20 year journey of Saxum is not too different.

About the author

Renzi Stone is the Owner and Executive Chairman of Saxum, a digital agency obsessed for good. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for insights into digital innovation, change management, and leadership.