Ross Toohey | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ross Toohey


St. Louis-based 2e Creative is a brand communications agency with services that include marketing plan development, content marketing services, app development, and media and government relations. Its client list includes Abbott, Ascension Health and Siemens, among others. In 2014, Ad Age and Modern Healthcare named 2e Creative the agency of the year in the supplier campaign category of the Healthcare Marketing IMPACT Awards.

The Mistake:

Not recognizing the importance of company and team culture early on.

We are a creative agency and we are in what we refer to as the business of ideas. The big mistake I made early on in my career was believing too deeply in the fallacy that an idea is the product of an individual, and misunderstanding what that means. Ideas can come from one person, but they’re influenced by teams.

Going back 10 years, I was sitting in a meeting with executives from a Fortune 100 company talking about the trajectory of their company. When executives in the room ask you for your personal opinion, you realize what you are responding with is the product of the environment and the people you have back at the office.

That was a major turning point for me; that someone so far beyond me in tenure and title would be willing to hear what I had to say, much less absorb it and act on it. That was inspiring to me.

Culturally, it meant me going back to the office and creating an environment where people could learn from each other.

Culture isn’t just happy hours and being able to wear jeans.

The Lesson:

That experience genuinely opened my heart and my mind to listening to a 20-something intern straight out of college, even in my role as CEO. Maybe some idea they have would influence me. It was important to realize that, regardless of what age you are, the experiences you’ve had or where you’ve come from, there’s something you can learn from everyone.

Step one is being able to actually articulate that and other values important to the culture of the business in words and concepts people can embrace. For us, that was a major genesis for our culture.

Seven or eight years ago, we had a identity crisis. We were successful, but didn’t know why. We were growing and worried about us losing what was great in our business as we continued to grow. So we sat the entire company down and said, “Let’s talk about what makes this thing great, what we would be sad about losing, and what we want to cherish moving forward.”

We distilled that into six items we call our code. They are things like respect for each other and our clients, and challenging ourselves to never stop learning from the world around us. Articulating those values in a way that people could rally behind and believe in is where culture starts, I think. Culture isn’t just happy hours and being able to wear jeans. Those are manifestations of culture. Where it really starts is that belief set.

These were all things we were doing, but we didn’t know we were doing them, or at least didn't recognize it. The challenge was that, as you grow the business, you can’t just assume that people are going to absorb culture. You can’t assume that you’re going to hire someone and they are going to instantly recognize what’s important to the people and to the business and to the clients. You can give them the handbook and point them toward the posters on the wall, but that’s not how people learn and that's not how people decide if they are interested in being part of something.

At first, we made a lot of mistakes, a lot of bad hires and kept a lot of people on for too long. But once we were able to articulate what was important to us, almost like a constitution, it was a lot easier to evaluate someone as they were coming in and evaluate ourselves on whether we were staying true to those promises.

Ross Toohey is on Twitter at @ross2e and 2e Creative is at @2eCreative.

Photo courtesy of 2e Creative.

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