Stick to the Basics: A Metrics-Light Spin on ‘Creative First’

by Chris Mele, Stink Studios

Stink will always be a creatively driven organization. When we’re at our best, our work is about eliciting an emotional response.

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But as we’ve grown in the breadth of in-house expertise and the scale of work visibility and impact, we’ve had to weave in a thin, foundational network of rudimentary financial KPI measurement and understanding throughout our teams, both across our disciplines, and up and down them.

In recent years, through the merits of their talent and work ethic, our team has delivered “holy shit” level work consistently enough to charge a modest growth spurt.

This growth gives us the ability to create even higher-impact work on a larger, global stage. The associated financial gains in turn fuel our ability to reinvest in helping our people develop their skills, level-up our facilities and be even more selective with which projects we take on. We also give back to our team through consistent raises and promotions, European inspired benefits, killer off-sites and super challenging projects that push the limits of our craft.

Organic growth is great, but we’d be doing a disservice to the people that instigated it by not understanding and cultivating that growth. That cultivation can -- and should -- exist in the realm of our invaluable financial analysts, but of equal importance, it requires micro-adjustments at the project level, and it only works if everyone has skin in the game.

These concepts manifest themselves through an integrated approach to everything: pitches, planning, budgeting, creative and technical decisions, and beyond. There is no “decider” at Stink. We reject in entirety the notion that “I am the ___ Director, this is a ___ decision and thusly I make the call”.

This integrated, team-first approach decentralizes and flattens, but also puts increased responsibility on our Discipline and Project Leads to think and behave as business leaders as well as practitioners of their craft. 

The good news is, we keep it light. Really light. Essentially it comes down to what’s coming in, and what’s going out. If we sweat those details, the higher-brow operational metrics (effective rates, utilization percentages, etc.) tend to work themselves out.

Our analysis occurs in three cycles: annual game plans, quarterly updates and monthly deep dives.

Our annual game plans set the tone for the year and serve as an opportunity to gut check alignment with the staff.  We share…

  • Revenue targets
  • Work category splits
  • Overhead benchmarks
  • Cost benchmarks
  • Qualitative benchmarks that hold equal importance
    • Brands or industries we should be working with
    • Technology we want to be creating with
    • Impact our work should be making

Quarterly, we meet again as a team to reflect on our work, and to openly discuss how we’re tracking against these KPIs.  If we are on track, we celebrate that. If we’re not, we share insights into why that may be happening, and talk through the plan on course correcting.

On the monthly cycle, we hold a Discipline Lead team meeting with the heads of Strategy, Creative, Technology, Finance and Production. This is the deep dive.

We run through a monthly studio health check to look over

  • Monthly revenue earn
  • Monthly cost burn split by staff/overhead and project costs
  • Revenue cliffs in coming months and biz dev strategies to fill the holes
  • Run rate against booked work to maintain margins

We also review individual project P&Ls, with commentary from our EPs and Creative, Strategy and Technical leads. They interrogate each other to tease out insights about our process and teams, and we collectively raise our working IQ off of both our successes and failures.

These three cycles reflect the entirety of our reporting system and philosophy.

We hope our open-door approach gives context to the business decisions that get made throughout the year, and also hopefully provokes dialogue at key points with staff that may not feel totally aligned with our course.

The emphasis on transparency also keeps our leadership on-mission and on-task, present company included.

We know that there are deeper metrics available that can provide added layers of insight, and as we grow we’ll carefully consider expanding our scope. For the moment, we believe we’ve found our sweet spot.

Chris Mele, Stink Studios

Chris Mele, Stink Studios

About the Author: Chris leads Stink Studios New York headquarters, working closely with Strategy, Creative, Production and Technology leadership to develop and manage all relationships and work in the 50 person studio. With a background in brand strategy and product development, Chris has led teams on large scale product and platform builds for The Wall Street Journal, Stumptown Coffee Roasters and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as campaigns for Levi’s, Google and Red Bull.