Sam Meers on good experience

Growing a business 465 percent in three years doesn’t simply happen. But Sam Meers did just that for his advertising agency from 2008–2011, and he can’t quite explain how.

“We know we’re doing something different and interesting that’s attracting budgets in the recession,” says Meers, founder and president of Meers Advertising Inc. “But we haven’t been able to put our finger on what it is.”

In fact, that very resistance to define a precise strategy could be what “it” is. Meers founded the agency in 1993 and spent the next decade building business. But in 2008, growth halted when the economy nosedived. That year, Meers faced three options: close, sell or reinvent. “That’s hard, but it’s also easy,” Meers says. “It gave me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy. Constraint fosters creativity. The tighter a box we have for strategy, the more creative we are.”

Meers relaunched his company as a digital agency. The reinvention led to a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, for which Meers patented a text-quote service that allows users to receive instant health insurance quotes on their cell phones. That success led to other clients, and suddenly, Meers Advertising was ballooning just as scores of companies and entire industries were crippled by the recession.

Meers says innovation wasn’t the main purpose of the agency’s reinvention. Yet, the reinvention itself was innovative within the industry. The definition of the new ad agency in today’s digital age is still fluid, and Meers Advertising defines its role on the fly. The key is simply to be open to and pursue change.

Meers has been reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, and he quotes a passage from an Apple investor: “‘Lasting companies know how to reinvent themselves.’ In 2008, we didn’t know how, but we knew we had to. Our intention is to continue to reinvent.”

As nebulous as pursuing change sounds, the growth has been somewhat strategic. Meers’ hiring has been perhaps the most deliberate part of the process. Last year, Sheree Johnson came on as the director of business intelligence, a position many agencies don’t even have. Most recently, David Thornhill joined Meers Advertising as creative director. “I’ve got this amazing team of thoroughbreds that just loves to run,” Meers says.

The depth of talent and experience at Meers allows the team to take some risks while they explore the possibilities of innovation. “Fully embracing change means you’re willing to visit your opportunities in a different lens,” Meers says. “We’re not afraid to pilot something to see if it works or fails. We’re really good at taking opportunities and running with them.”

In that same vein, Meers references another quote, one that was framed in the office of a former manager: “‘Good judgment comes from experience. Good experience comes from poor judgment.’ Let your people make mistakes. Let them screw up big.”

But don’t sacrifice quality for creativity. Without profit, creativity and innovation can’t exist. “You have to run your business so you have room for innovation and room to make mistakes,” he says.