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5 questions with Kara Redman: How a creative agency thrives on its own terms

Fueling her business with mutual respect, love, and a fulfillment-first perspective, Backroom CEO Kara Redman, has grown her creative agency on the guiding principle of “don’t work with assholes.”

Kara Redman is the CEO of Backroom. (Photo by Margaret Roth)

This editorial article is a part of's Team Dynamics Month of our editorial calendar.

It’s unusual to hear someone say that the idea of working in a corporate office is glamorous. But for Kara Redman, the stability of a 9-5 with her own desk at an agency was a goal to drive toward. Yet once she got there, the “rinse, repeat” methodology and personal imbalance of agency culture left her wanting more, and knowing that there must be a better way to build a life as a creative.

Redman and her five person team at Backroom, a brand strategy and activation agency headquartered out of Port Covington’s City Garage, celebrated their fifth year in business this spring. While she sees this as a major milestone for the agency, the more significant milestone for Redman is in knowing that her vision for an agency with a steadfast commitment to protecting its people and its culture can stand the tests of an early stage business — and grow its client base.

“Work is a part of our lives. It’s not the driver of our lives,” Redman said. “That’s really been important for us in understanding mutual respect, having fun on the projects that we work on, and bringing in projects that aren’t garbage. We’re not just bringing in things for the sake of making money. We’re all doing this because we want to do meaningful work.”

As the leader of a business that continues to adjust its offerings to impress market demand, we spoke with Redman about how she brings the culture of Backroom into the work of brand discovery and marketing strategy to build relationships with clients like DC United, Volo City, and Gundalow Juice. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us the highlights of your career so far. How did you get where you are now?

I don’t have a college background, but I did a little bit of college here and there. I was a single mom very, very young, and so I have always followed this idea to find the thing that’s interesting to you, pursue that and don’t worry about what’s next. Being 18 years old and a mom in Section 8 housing, my life was to go work bartending shifts in the evening and work retail during the day, and get really excited about things like when I went from Mr. Rags to Up Against the Wall at the mall. I was just moving my way into different retail and restaurant arenas and I got to a point where just the idea of sitting in a corporate office felt very glamorous to me. I knew that there was no upward trajectory for me and I was bored already. I always loved the service level of retail, the short-term interactions, and being able to delight and I think that has been a common theme throughout every role that I have pursued.

So I went to a temp agency and took a huge pay cut to have stability, and worked my way up from a leasing agent to working in the corporate office as an executive assistant. I loved the idea of working at an agency but wasn’t able to make that happen for a few years down the road. I’ve done everything from being a leasing agent, being an executive assistant, a public relations assistant, work as a marketing coordinator for a stem cell research company, cutting samples of corporate carpet, and done telemarketing for landscaping companies. I’ve done everything. When I did finally land my first agency gig, I didn’t love it. I was there for three months, popped over to the next agency, was there about a year and a half, and went to a third agency for another year and a half. I was already seeing that rinse, repeat sort of methodology. I thought I could probably have more fun doing things my way. So I started Backroom a little over 5 years ago.

What defines your team’s culture? How do you make culture part of every day, and intentional?

I came from this mentality of corporate, where we’re going to buy a ping-pong table and we have birthday celebrations. I don’t think culture is something that you slap on top of things. I think that it starts from the ground up. It starts from me, as a lead sales person, bringing in really solid clients that have been pre-vetted, that we can add value to, that are good people. That’s a part of culture: when the team is excited about working on something and they have the skillset and the capacity and just enough challenge to learn new things. It’s bringing in really good work. It’s not, how can we make the most of this 9-5? It’s, here are the projects, here are the responsibilities, come in when you feel like it, and be there for client meetings.

Our creative director is in South Carolina right now and you wouldn’t know it unless you saw him on Zoom and he’s in a tank top with the beach in the background. That works because the work is really what’s important. Work is a part of our lives. It’s not the driver of our lives. That’s really been important for us in understanding mutual respect, having fun on the projects that we work on, and bringing in projects that aren’t garbage. We’re not just bringing in things for the sake of making money. We’re all doing this because we want to do meaningful work. And so if I drop the ball and I bring something in just because cash flow is low, our culture gets dinged.

I’ve always viewed culture as a team that comes together, works really, really hard, and has passion. If you have good culture, you don’t need a ping-pong table. Go home after work! Don’t play ping-pong with me! Go hang out with your family, go on vacation, do something that you want to do. And we do come together and do things as a team, but that is just a side effect. That’s not something that we have to bake in.

What are some of the strategies that you use to build great relationships within your team and with your clients?

We’re very much invested in people and relationships. We’re in the relationship industry and what comes with that is a lot of different people that have different moods on different days, and different overall motivations, personal goals, and people they have to answer to. I think that if we have this mindset of continuing to work through things rather than pouting in our corners, we can come together and use the right language and have conversations about moving forward and talk about how we feel about things and how we can improve. It’s much more difficult to check your ego when you’ve been blasting through a deliverable that you think is great and something was miscommunicated. These things happen. They happen in professional relationships, they happen in personal relationships, they happen with our own selves. Having the ability to come together to take a breath and have a very constructive conversation that 100% is fueled by love and mutual respect for the person in front of you, then it doesn’t matter. Even if the outcome is that we’re not going to work together anymore, it was done from love. For our clients, we are helpers, we are therapists, and we come in and do have to be a basket for a lot of things.

But, the common theme has always been: Don’t work with assholes. Who wants to do that? Why put everything on the line to start your own business to do the same thing you could be doing at an agency? I could go back to my old agency and do soul-sucking work. I remember, during the early days of Backroom, saying ‘no’ to things that didn’t make sense because they were jerks, or because of scope, or because we weren’t really confident that we could take the leap from our capabilities to what they were asking for. I just remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be eating cold ramen for a year.’ But it’s so worth it to say ‘no’ to things that don’t honor you. I have to remind myself of that, especially when cash gets tight. But I don’t want to have a business for the sake of having a business. I want it to fulfill my life, and if I can’t make it work with this strategy, I’ll find something else to do.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten recently? How has it impacted your team?

There are five of us on the team — the most we’ve ever been is seven. A year or so ago, I got to a point where I was like, ‘Cool, we’re bringing in more revenue. We’re doing more work. The team is growing.’ But it just felt like we were working on the same exact problems, just that they were bigger. When you’re a client services company, you’re not creating a lot of replicable process. We’re strategy centric, we’re not a lot of automated workflows and popping things into place and setting them and forgetting them. We’re in the industry of brains, and human capital is what we’re selling. We are very, very smart. We ask really good questions. So I got to this point where where I was like, ‘I can stay where I am and have these problems at this scale. Or, have the same problems, they’re just gonna be bigger, because everything is scaling at the same time.’ So, I got this really great piece of advice from a peer: “Don’t keep adding people, upgrade people.” I took her advice, and upgraded the team rather than grew it. The biggest benefit is in our efficiency. We pride ourselves on our efficiency. We’re an incredibly efficient team, that’s why we can do so much remotely. We get more done with less people because we’re so strategic in the people that we bring on.

What is something that you do every month that keeps you charged up?

I don’t know that I do anything to keep myself charged up because I’m exhausted all the time. But, I think that I’ve structured my life very deliberately. My partner and I have six kids, two grown out of the house, four minor children still at home. So even just where I live in Baltimore is a part of self-care for me. I can walk to my dry cleaner, my physical therapist, my gym. I get my groceries delivered. The things to me that feel like time waste I’ve been able to eliminate and create a sort of automated system for the way that I live. Doing things like that, thinking ahead, being very proactive, and planning is kind of the way that, rather than keeping myself charged up, I eliminate load.

I also think of self-care and keeping myself fired up in more of a preventative way in what I say ‘no’ to and what I don’t take on than something that I add on when I’m starting to feel stressed. I think a lot of people struggle with, ‘Oh my god! I’m all freaked out. I need to go get a massage.’ and I’m like, ‘No, you need to have not gotten to this stage to begin with.’ I’m very religious about therapy. I’m very religious about my sleep; prioritizing sleep is incredibly important. I don’t like TVs in the bedroom. My partner and I, we eat well, we go to the gym at the MAC. But we also jump rope at home, and we do yoga in the living room. There is always some level of checking in with your body, checking in with your brain, checking in with each other, making sure our partnership is connected. Having that balance throughout life, which is why Backroom is mostly remote. Structuring your life around how you feel your best means that you don’t ever really have to do something nice to recharge. You never need to take a vacation if you just fucking take care of yourself.

Connect with Kara Redman on LinkedIn.

Series: Team Dynamics Month 2019

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