Unless you move in certain niche Philly circles, you’ve probably never heard of Truth & Consequences, a small, newish ad agency based in Old City. You have, however, heard of their clients: Loyola University, for one. Ohio University. The NBA. The New York Yankees. The Phillies. (Remember this glorious hype video for the 2020 season? That’s from Truth & Consequences.)
A client roster like this might seem fairly remarkable for a startup that’s less than two years old—in fact, it is remarkable. But the brains behind Truth & Consequences have actually been at this for ages: Digital marketing. Branding. Rebranding. Social media campaigns. Print. TV. Copywriting, developing, directing … the whole shebang. As a collective, their website points out, they have almost a century of experience doing this stuff.
At their new agency, they are still doing this stuff … but along with it, they’re also radically reinventing the (grueling) business model that’s long defined the ad agency world around more holistic principles—things like fairer pay, employee ownership, and the sort of benefits you don’t often see in corporate America. (At least, not lately.) As such, they are joining a cadre of employers across industries that are working to change the usual way of doing business in America with the notion that it is possible to be profitable and generous with the people who get you there.
A culture-first philosophy
The origin story of T&C really begins at the marketing and branding behemoth 160/90, where T&C’s five founding partners all spent years working together. As partners at that firm, they helped shape an agency that began as a boutique business and grew into one of the world’s top agencies, known for its work with high-profile clients in the sports and higher-ed worlds.
When, in 2017, they helped guide the firm to a sale, the current Truth & Consequences partners reaped the benefits of the $175 million deal—obviously, an enviable milestone. But to have reached that point came at its own price. By that time, T&C founding partner Jim Walls says, their relationship with the work had changed.
Walls, a genial guy with salt-and-pepper hair and an easy smile, recently chatted with me about the agency over Zoom, along with fellow T&C partner Brendan Quinn (dark-haired, bearded, quick with a joke). Both men spent more than a decade at 160/90 in creative director positions and then partner roles.
Before that, they’d both worked for other well-known local marketing and branding firms; they also both got their start in the business through copywriting. All of which means they know the business fairly well at this point. (Not to say it’s all they know: Walls’s bio, for instance, also points to stints in writing, roofing and forklift operation.)
“The industry sort of has a bad reputation for hiring young talent and wringing everything you can out of them,” Walls says. The result? “A lot of disenchanted people in their late 20s.”
As Walls tells it, the current T&C partners were essentially victims of their own success as 160/90 grew in size and acclaim over the years. “We weren’t able to be as involved in what got us in this business in the first place.”
That “we” includes himself and Quinn, as well as the other three founders: Maggie Insogna, Corey Levin and Stephen Penning. The work they found themselves missing were things like sitting down one-on-one with clients. Listening to their challenges. Coming up with the creative solutions, hammering it out, tweaking, and perfecting it all with a tight-knit team. “It can be a lot of fun, and we sort of lost that,” Walls says.
Quinn puts it thusly: “It’s like a band that gets to arena status, and all they want to do is go back and play the small clubs.”
Fast-forward a couple years and through the end of a non-compete clause—a time in which the five different founders took various and sundry jobs in consulting, marketing, teaching—and the group decided to get back to the agency work they loved. Only this time it would look different. They wouldn’t try to recreate the agency they left. Or recreate any agency, for that matter.
“The industry sort of has a bad reputation for hiring young talent and wringing everything you can out of them,” Walls says. The result? “A lot of disenchanted people in their late 20s. This is all they ever wanted to do, and then they get into it and they realize, ‘I’m working myself to the bone, and for what?’” By the time people get to their 40s, he adds, they tend to move on. “I think it’s an unfortunate hallmark of the business, and I think it drives some people away.”
And so right off the bat, the partners decided to forget trying to build “the biggest agency in the world.” Instead? They envisioned a business that enabled everyone therein to “live happy, successful, fulfilling lives doing what we do best.”
They wanted a place where smart, experienced, talented people truly wanted to work. Wanted to stay. No revolving doors, no hired guns, no wrung-out brains, no clients facing a rotating cast of creatives. So they set about designing a workplace that would make everyone working there … well … happy.
If talk of “happy work culture” in 2021 conjures images of office ping-pong tables and beer taps and all the other “cool startup” staples we’ve grown accustomed to reading about, rest assured that this isn’t another story about that. T&C’s happy-making policies mean that interns aren’t just paid; they’re paid $15 an hour because “it’s just the right thing to do.” (“Seven months into our small business, we said, ‘Let’s pay our interns $15 an hour and see if it hurts us,’” Walls says. “It didn’t at all. In fact a month later, we gave them a raise.”)
It also means that the company, which includes the original five partners, five employees and one intern, pays 100 percent of full-timers’ health care, because they don’t want anyone on the team to worry about their family’s well-being.
Also: Maternity and paternity leave are both paid, for 16 weeks. Not just because it’s a “perk,” Walls says, but because studies have shown that those weeks have a lasting positive effect on both parents and child. People can work at home or the office; nobody tracks vacation days.
Nobody—not even the founders—ever makes more than five times the lowest-paid employee. And after one year, every employee gets the opportunity to make the case for their own partnership—meaning ownership—in the company. In January, T&C welcomed its first employee partner, senior designer Tim Gough.
So you can see, maybe, that what makes Truth & Consequences stand out in the sea of agencies—or even the sea of startups, or workplaces in general—isn’t the cool client list, or even their creative process. In terms of the latter? “All agencies are pretty much the same,” the Truth & Consequences website flatly declares. There’s no “magic fairy dust” anywhere in the business, Walls says. Talent and experience are what makes for excellent work, he believes. In every case.
No, what makes T&C different is their philosophy about how to best recruit and treat their talent, how to foster employee experience. It’s their idea of a workplace that is, as Gough says, “tuned in to the welfare of every employee.” And it’s the fairly refreshing operating system that Walls sums like this: “Do things for the right reasons, and you’ll be successful.”
Designing a different blueprint
It isn’t such a revelatory concept, really. Treating your people well (okay, really well, in this case) feels like a fairly sensible path toward sustainable long-term success. Right?
And yet: Have you ever worked at a company like this?
Truth is, it’s not completely unheard of for a company to go to great lengths these days to take care of its people. Big tech, for instance, is famously excellent at offering parental leave. And you can search Fortune magazine’s list of “100 best companies to work for” specifically by benefits offered, from subsidized childcare to student loan repayment to unlimited sick days. (That magazine also recently noted that much of Silicon Valley—you know, the birthplace of the “fun office”—is rethinking post-Covid about what’s truly attractive to employees, namely, “pay, health and flexibility.”)
“Seven months into our small business, we said, ‘Let’s pay our interns $15 an hour and see if it hurts us,’” Walls says. “It didn’t at all. In fact a month later, we gave them a raise.”
That follows the research on what employees want from their workplaces. A 2018 survey of more than 5,000 workers in 21 industries around the world, for example, uncovered three things employees are most looking for from their companies: flexibility; a commitment to their emotional, financial and physical well-being; and working with a purpose. There’s a reason why the treatment of employees is one of the five categories companies must satisfy to become a B Corporation.
In any case, it’s not cheap to build a business this way, the T&C founders will tell you. The astounding expense of full medical coverage, paying the intern(s) a living wage, paid parental leave—all these things meant that T&C partners had to agree to make significantly less money than they would have otherwise. But Walls likes to quote Bill Bernbach—an ad-man icon of the industry’s heyday—on this matter. “It’s not a principle until it costs you money.”
Don’t get him wrong: T&C isn’t just about principle. “You do something because it’s moral and it’s the right thing to do,” he says. Maybe sometimes you do it to show that it can be done. “But it also just so happens to be the right business strategy. It’s not like the two things have to be at odds to have a successful business.”
In fact, the founders are betting on the opposite with Truth & Consequences. “You make decisions that aren’t based on money, and the money follows,” Walls says. Not exactly a typical approach in the ad business. Or any business, really.
“I had a professor in college who said, ‘When you enter the advertising field, you’ll spend the first half of your career wildly underpaid, and the second half wildly overpaid,’” Quinn says. “That’s like French Revolution stuff right there. That’s a recipe for disaster. And I think that’s what the industry has been feeling. Younger employees today have more options. I think if you want to grow a sustainable agency, you can’t follow this old blueprint.”
And so in designing a different blueprint, Walls says, they didn’t start out by thinking about what they had to do to compete, or how quickly they could grow and turn over the company, but instead, what they could do for their people. “If we can take care of some things, does it make their lives easier? Does it make their job better?” Walls says. “It all goes back to fulfillment. Can you make the work personally fulfilling, and—as Brendan says—not be greedy?”
Surely, though, it’s easier to be generous or to abide by things like executive salary limitations when the executives all got a sweet payout from their last gig, no?
“While it’s true that we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy successful careers up to this point, we all still very much need to earn money to live,” Quinn notes. “So we don’t see our agency model as one big utopian experiment in a new way of doing things; we are committed to recruiting and retaining talented, experienced people and see that as a way to build a successful sustainable agency for all of us.”
This thought process is how they landed on everything from what company growth should look like (the plan: grow slow and aim for eventual 100 percent employee ownership) to how they’d keep executive pay in check and nurture a sense of camaraderie (they borrowed the Ben & Jerry’s model for their aforementioned 5x salary-cap rule) to dealing with medical coverage and 401Ks (matching contributions for up to 6 percent of salary, and free access to a financial planner).
The decision to operate in this way—and to really double down on it, and highlight these operations as part of what really sets them apart—is also part and parcel of the agency name, Truth & Consequences. “What we’re all trying to find is an amount of truth about an organization,” Walls explains. “We want to find out what’s authentic, and take that authenticity and amplify it. And when you do that honestly, it has positive consequences. I think that applies to our business, and I think that applies to the work we do for our clients.”
“We’re not Elon Musk solving the mysteries of the universe”
Of course, as with all startups, there’s some element of the experimental at Truth & Consequences. “We came up with a lot of these things, and they’ll have to be tested and see how they work in the real world,” Quinn says. They’ve had the opportunity to do this with things like intern pay, and Gough’s partnership, and Insogna’s maternity leave, which just so happened to coincide with the debut of the agency.
“I think those types of things we’ll continue to experience,” Quinn says. “And we’ll have to say, ‘Are these ideas working right, working as intended?’ We want to make sure we are sticking to the things we outlined in the beginning.”
So … is it working so far?
“Well, no one’s left yet,” Walls says. “That’s a good sign.” Also? They were profitable as an agency in 2020, “despite taking no outside investment or funding,” Quinn notes. “We’ve been very conservative with spending and projections, and we only hire people full-time when we know there’s a year’s worth of work to support them.”
“We’re always looking for a better way of doing things,” Walls says. “That’s what our industry is about. It’s about going into a company and saying what’s broken here, and how do we fix it? We apply the same model to ourselves.”
And then, of course, there’s the work itself, like the Phillies hype video, which was specifically designed for a season unlike any other. There was the “Loyola Ready” digital and social media brand campaign; there’s the cool branding work they’re getting to do with smaller local organizations like Side Project Jerky and the Chester Children’s Chorus. They are, both men say, liking it all.
In the past, Walls says, “we had the luxury and the pleasure of working with these massive organizations in higher ed like UCLA and Texas A&M and University of Florida.” Multi-billion-dollar giants. “And right out the gate, when we launched Truth & Consequences, really our first client who put their trust in us was tiny Bryn Athyn College here in Philadelphia, one of the smallest institutions we ever worked with. But they took a risk with us.”
This was a defining moment, Walls says. “One, that was really terrific of them to do that. And two, it reminded us what it was like to get back to our roots. That it’s not about always working with the biggest or highest-profile organization, but about working with people you like, sitting down and doing good work with people you enjoy, and doing stuff you can be proud of. And I think that will always be a hallmark of what we do.”
Meantime, another good sign for the T&C model: Word is getting out. They’ve been surprised, Walls says, at the number of people who’ve expressed interest in jobs in the agency’s relatively young life. “I wish we could hire everybody.” But then, that’s not the T&C model. It’s slow growth, remember? And deliberate hand-picking of employees, especially because one day, they’ll likely be partners and co-owners.
That day is still a bit down the road for the agency. In the meantime, Walls says, they’re still looking at other businesses with unique models, asking how things work for them. Brainstorming new ideas.
Truth is, Quinn says, “we’re not Elon Musk solving the mysteries of the universe or anything like that.” He’s wary of anything that might present them as something other than what he believes they are: a business simply trying to come up with “ideas that make sense” for them, long-term.
In that vein, Walls says, “We’re always looking for a better way of doing things. That’s what our industry is about. It’s about going into a company and saying what’s broken here, and how do we fix it? We apply the same model to ourselves.”