The Mother of All Brands: Agata Clevenger, Destination Maternity
In this episode, we host Agata Clevenger, whose impressive career includes leadership roles at both David’s Bridal and Destination Maternity. We take a look at how branding helps companies succeed in fixed categories with short consumption cycles. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Agata Clevenger: Really, neither one of those brands is a brand that can grow the pie or the market. You’re dealing with a constrained amount. The market is only so big, you really have to figure out how you’re going to capture what’s already there.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding, I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and your host for today’s interview with Agata Clevenger, the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Destination Maternity, which is a fascinating business. She came also from David’s Bridal. These are high emotion, short time horizon retail concepts, omni-channel really, that are focused on building strong connections with female consumers. Agata will take us through an amazing and interesting career with twists and turns, she’s brilliant, she’s high energy, she’s really fun to talk to, enjoy.
Here we are in the lovely headquarters of Destination Maternity in Moorestown, New Jersey with Agata Clevenger and soon to be something else. We were talking and you’re in the midst of last name changing, which is not a pleasant thing apparently, but thanks for joining us.
Agata: Thank you for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure, and thank you for hosting us. Amazing, interesting career with quite a journey. Would you mind starting by just telling us a little bit about the twists and turns of the career journey up to this point?
Agata: Sure, well I came to the US when I was 21 years old and I changed my major. I decided I was going to study Economics and International Business and then that’s what I studied. When I graduated I was lucky enough to get enrolled in this financial leadership program with Johnson and Johnson. I don’t know if you guys have heard those programs. General Electric has a similar thing, or UniLever.
They essentially take people who are coming out of school and they put them in high exposure positions where every eight or so months you end up having a new job with a different company or a different responsibility. You get a lot of access to executives, you get a lot of additional training, and it’s a really fabulous experience in general if you can get in one of those programs. They are quite competitive. Every time you come in for a session together you see fewer people. You’re like, ‘Okay, where did my five friends go that I had from the last session we were in?’
It was a great experience. I got to work on the finance side with supporting marketing on Tylenol, Motrin, St. Joseph’s aspirin, I worked on Splenda. I also moved to the pharmaceutical side and worked on biologics that were in development, so they were being tested on animals and also on humans.
Bill: Sure, all three phases, yeah, the whole thing.
Agata: All three phases, yes, you got that. I was lucky enough to work for Centicore which is part of J&J …
Bill: Sure, Remicade right?
Agata: There you go.
Bill: First Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, amazing. Yeah.
Agata: Absolutely. Some of those compounds I got to work as well so I was kind of the finance person with a bunch of mad scientists who didn’t know a thing about building a budget or what not. It was a really great experience learning how to work with different personalities, because you go from a company like McNeil when you’re working with really world class marketers who are great business people.
Most of them are MBA’s from Ivy League schools and I was the finance partner, if you will, so I was the person telling them, ‘No, don’t spend on this. Spend on that,’ or, ‘How do we measure that?’ You’re looking back in the early 2000’s where some of those metrics we have today in marketing were not in place, so how do you measure success of a campaign?
It’s funny because now I’m on the other end, often times talking about how I need metrics, or I say, ‘Marketing is not only data. There’s quite a bit of art to it.’ I used to be that person on the other end telling them, ‘No, it has to have an ROI. You have to stay in budget.’
Bill: Now you tell your finance person to, ‘Shut up and let me do it. This is magic that we’re making here.’ Perfect.
Agata: Yes, but it really gave me a wonderful exposure to marketing and the inner-workings, and how to make marketing campaigns successful when it comes to the ROI and getting that investment back and how do you measure that. Then going over to Centicore, learning how to work with someone who was MD, PhD’s, mad scientists in the lab. You talk about budget and they look at you like you have three heads growing out of your neck.
Fabulous experiences again, they would change, they would bring us together for sessions and they would bring Ivy League professors to teach us negotiations and marketing and finance. I graduated from that program, ended up in, of all places, financial planning and allowance. It’s like this is the last place a person with my personality should probably end up. I just had way too much personality for those guys. I’m like the one person on the team that doesn’t have a CPA.
Bill: Right, you get to talk to the clients. Everyone else sit and crunch the numbers.
Agata: This is, FPNA at J&J, it’s a hardcore finance function so you’re doing profit and loss statements, you’re doing cash flows, you’re making some really complex journal entries as well. I was not an accounting major and my heart was not really in it, but if you perform well no one is going to push you out of the company.
This is a fabulous company to be part of so as far as poking around, looking at other areas of the business, I went to my CFO and the CFO says, ‘Agata, you’ve been here for a few years. What do you want to do, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘Listen,’ his name was Don. I said, ‘Listen Don. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up but I don’t want to be you.’
Bill: I’m sure he took that well.
Agata: To this day, this is a person who is actually a reference for me quite often, so we had a fabulous relationship. He started laughing and he’s like, ‘That’s really nice of you to say. What else would you like to do? Let’s see if there are opportunities internally and if there’s something external you want to take a look at you should.’
We started looking internally, I started looking also externally, and an opportunity came up. It was kind of odd. It was a company that I’d never heard of. The company was called Korn Ferry. It’s a preeminent global advisory firm when it comes to senior talent. It’s executive search, it’s also talent management solutions. It’s leadership development, all those things.
An opportunity came up with this company in their healthcare practice. They knew I had this experience from J&J, they knew I understood enough to be their interest about the different types of businesses within pharma and healthcare services, so they took me under their umbrella in this healthcare practice and I got to work with a superstar of a business developer.
This guy was just a pleasure to watch. When you talk about doing business development as an art. He had it down. It was just an unbelievable thing, to see how someone can develop relationships, maintain them, how you can ask questions and be consultative. I made this 360 degree switch from spending my entire days in Excel spreadsheets, in general ledgers, working on pivot tables, doing analysis to spending 100% of my day talking to people about people.
Bill: It’s a switch.
Agata: Quite a switch. I remember when I told people at J&J that I was going to leave to do this, honestly people had very interesting reactions to that. They said, ‘You are completely out of your mind. People who get into the J&J and graduate from this program, you should not leave. This is a mistake. You’re going to regret it. This is the best company to work for. This is not good. This doesn’t make any sense for your career,’ but I really liked the guys I interviewed with and I felt there was a connection and we’re going to work well together. I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to take a chance on that,’ and they were taking a big chance on me as well.
Bill: Yeah, you were A-typical in terms of background.
Agata: Absolutely, but I was able to really take off and I took it as an opportunity to really hone in on my business development skills, negotiation, on storytelling. Often times what you have to do in a business is you have to be able to go out and spend four or five hours with a senior leadership team of an organization or a board of directors and they tell you a story of what they need in terms of a talent. You need to then kind of package it, make it exciting, take it out to the market and sell it to people and find someone who is super successful today and convince them that they actually need to drop everything they are doing today.
Bill: Throw it all away!
Agata: Throw it all away, and come work for this organization because this is the story I am going to tell you. This was a lot of fun because you’re 20 something and you get to work with CEO’s and boards of directors and you get to ask them questions.
Bill: Travel around. It’s glamourous.
Agata: Travel around, and wine and dine, and all kinds of things. You’re working with these superstars of partners within the firm who are just amazing builders and just amazing at what they do and they’ve been doing it for many years. I spent there about five or six years at Korn Ferry. During that time I also decided I was going to do my MBA, so I was working full-time and I was getting my Executive MBA full-time at the same time.
Bill: That’s a lot.
Agata: It was a lot. It was a pretty tough couple of years but fabulous from the perspective of making new friendships. I think there’s a few friends I lost along the way because my social life outside of school and work did not exist whatsoever.
Bill: Right, not a lot of happy hours or anything.
Agata: No, there’s no happy hours. You’re going home and you’re working, and then the weekends I was never home because the weekends you were obligated to actually stay on campus. Imagine this, you’re working and you’re traveling, because my job involved a lot of travel. You’re traveling a lot for work and then come the weekend, no you don’t get to go home. You go to school and you stay overnight at school.
Bill: In the dorms! Right.
Agata: Yeah, it was the executive program so it was kind of fun actually. They feed you well. It’s very nice. A phenomenal program, and as I was going through the program my boss was given additional responsibilities. He was a big biller so he was making all kinds of money and he was given this responsibility to grow this international healthcare service business but honestly there was not enough hours in the day for him to do that.
He said, ‘Agata, I have this thing. Can you just take on this and run with it?’ I really jumped at the opportunity and it was a very successful project. We were able to develop a business case for expansion of healthcare services internationally, pulling partners from all around the world, grow that business and really put it on a very successful trajectory. In the course of working on that I ended up being promoted to Principle, which is like a junior partner in the firm, which I was pretty happy with myself because I was one of the youngest junior partners in the firm at the time, so pretty happy with that.
I was also finishing up my MBA and I think I’m not unique in that sense that when you’re finishing an MBA or a graduate program and you had worked before you’re kind of looking for something new, like what else should I go …
Bill: It’s a switch, typically a path to a switch.
Agata: It is. There was some kind of switch in the trajectory, and I also had this memory of me traveling with my new boss at the beginning when I joined Korn Ferry. We’re traveling for a client meeting and we had a drink and he tells me how he wishes he didn’t start in this business because he makes so much money now that it’s very difficult for him to make a switch to go back to doing what he loves.
Bill: It is a first world problem by the way, but yes, fair enough.
Agata: It is very much. I’m like this is a good problem to have, so I asked him questions. ‘What do you mean by that?’ He’s like, ‘Well now you have this mortgage, you have this house at the shore. You have all these cars, you have kids in private schools. My happiest professional days were when I was a VP of sales for this organization,’ he shared with me.
When I was finishing the MBA and I was thinking about my trajectory, like do I stay at Korn Ferry? Now I have a great launch pad, I was promoted, everyone loves me. I can take on this international thing now and really blow it out, or do I move on into something else? I remember that conversation because literally this was a conversation I had with a guy in the first week I joined the firm.
It really resonated with me that here is someone who you really would aspire to be and this is the story they’re telling you. I’m like, okay, if there was a time in your life to make a change, if you want to try something, this is the time I should do it.
Randomly I saw an opportunity posted at David’s Bridal. No experience whatsoever in fashion, no experience whatsoever in retail, absolutely zero. I submitted my resume. I actually didn’t expect to even get a call back, and I get a call back. We spend about five or seven minutes with this woman on the phone. It really felt like speed dating at that point. She just powered through a couple of questions and she was done with me even though we had half an hour scheduled. She was just like, ‘I want you to come in.’
I met with her. Our one-hour interview turned out to be a four hour interview, somewhere midway I do recall her assistant knocked on the door to check if she was still alive or if I was some random person off the street there dead, that something bad in the office and that’s why we’re not getting out.
Bill: Came in, murdered her. Right, yeah.
Agata: We really hit it off. This is a woman who had a tremendous amount of experience in partnerships. She had a tremendous amount of experience in retail. She came out of the music industry, some agencies, and when you talk partnerships she knew it all. She took me in. Within a week I was there.
Soon after joining I realized that, okay, not only am I going to be doing this thing that’s new to me but also, they gave me to sell and pitch these new partnerships that no one before was ever successful in. You have something that call you endemic categories and non-endemic. If you’re coming in to sell something you want to sell something that makes sense. Here was a situation where I was given this opportunity to grow something that no one was successful doing before. Really, when you think about the bridal space …
Bill: You can’t screw it up.
Agata: You can’t screw it up. It wasn’t done before, but you can do nothing. Nothing might happen, and that’s not good when you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to create new partnerships, bring new partners. When you think about the wedding category, I had to think from flowers, to jewelry, travel, those are some key endemic categories.
When you think about non-endemic categories, some of the partnerships I brought in were with NationWide, Home Depot. How do you create a story and how do you create a connection between Home Depot and a bridal space? It took a lot of really thinking and storytelling and research as well, to validate some of the points, statements I was making, to create a story and be able to package it and sell it to the senior marketing teams at those organizations.
That position at David’s Bridal was really a launch pad for me and I learned so much over time. I took over a local sales team and then a few years in, when my boss left, I took over the entire department, so all of the partnerships when it comes to sales but also the client services, the analytics teams. A really great opportunity for me to learn from some of the best and really continue to grow the business for David’s Bridal.
I remember the CEO, of David’s Bridal, on his last stay we had this farewell lunch with him and I was working on that Home Depot deal and I was working so hard. He goes to me, ‘If you close this deal it’s going to be the end of the world. This is an impossible deal.’ It was his last day. ‘This is an impossible deal to close, just so you know.’ 48 hours later we did close it, he wasn’t there to celebrate, but I said, ‘No Bob, I will close it. You’ll see.’
When I was at David’s Bridal I took over the department and on LinkedIn I followed different companies in the areas, opinion leaders, stock leaders, companies that may be of interest to me at some point, I want to see what they are up to. This thing at Destination Maternity pops up, that there is a VP of Partnerships position open. I knew that Destination Maternity did a similar thing that David’s Bridal did, which is those revenue generating and other types of partnerships. Out of curiosity I reached out to them.
They called me right away and they brought me in, but it was more about me learning about what are they doing. I really was going to the interview trying to figure out is there something they are doing that we are not doing. I come in and I really hit it off with the executive team. They bring the CEO to the meeting, they bring the CFO, and everyone. By the time I make it home from the meeting I have an offer. This is a 60 minute drive we’re talking about, so I’m like, ‘Wow, they really want me,’ which is a great feeling to have.
Bill: Sure, right. That was your first career switch that actually made sense perhaps.
Agata: It is, but then I made it in to not make full sense actually, because I think the only way to truly grow is to do something you haven’t done before. My condition on joining sort of was, ‘Okay, I’ll come in and I’ll do the marketing partnerships but I also want additional responsibilities,’ so I was given the celebrity and licensing partnerships. We have a line with Jessica Simpson, we have other celebrity partnerships as well.
I was given all the sports licensing partnerships. I was given international business development and all of our franchise partnerships, and all of our lease partnerships. Today we have more than 150 stores internationally. We have operations in Mexico, and Israel, and middle east, in South Korea, we have in the UK.
Agata: Poland no.
Bill: Uh oh.
Agata: I’m trying to put it on the map. I’m working on that.
Bill: Krakow needs a bunch of these.
Agata: Have you been to Krakow?
Bill: I have not but I know of it.
Agata: It’s a beautiful city.
Bill: I’ve heard it’s beautiful. I’d love to go.
Agata: We have a huge relationship also with Macy’s. It’s our biggest lease partner, so imagine an idea of renting a space, a shop someplace else. So that’s another relationship that’s really big that I manage from this strategic point of view. While I have this half of a background of things I did, I grabbed and held onto additional ones that I thought, ‘I think I can transfer the skills that I developed so far at David’s Bridal and my prior positions into this opportunity.’
I took the position and it was an interesting one because I came in and I essentially had to rebuild 90% of the team. I find myself today to be in a really good spot, having a fabulous team and people working so well together. Literally I have people on the team come up to me and say, ‘I’m just happy to come to work.’
Bill: That’s great.
Agata: It’s a great feeling to have, and we even recently had some additions that we stole from your ex-employees.
Bill: We’re still irritated by this, although there was something in between so that’s fine. How long have you been …
Agata: For one year.
Bill: For about a year. That’s great. Thank you for the description, what a ride and much more to come. One of the things that’s interesting, parallel I think with terms of David’s and Destination Maternity, you’re dealing with a consumer that has a certain window of time where they’re engaged in the category.
I know you view this from a partnership but also a brand perspective. What are unique challenges of working to market brands or build partnerships where you really have a consumer that is deeply engaged but for a fixed period of time. Both of these things, whether it’s weddings or the process of pregnancy are very emotional. They’re high emotion. When you look at the world through that sort of lens of these limited time windows but deeply felt beliefs, what are the challenges associated with those that might be unique?
Agata: It’s a great point and it’s very comparable between bridal and pregnancy space actually. It’s a great point. Both of those are major life stage events if you think about it. Things like brand affinity is changing, brand loyalties are changing, it’s what enables the partnership side to really exist actually because it is a life stage event. On the other end, when you look at the marketing to those types of customers, it is a very sensitive moment in their life, whether it be bridal or being pregnant.
Bill: Both of those moments in my household, by the way, I couldn’t do anything right.
Agata: There you go.
Bill: Probably partially true but partially the emotion of the periods of time.
Agata: When you’re planning a wedding you’re so stressed out, there’s all those things happening, all of this planning, everyone has their needs and wants. There’s all of those loose ends you have to tie so you’re very sensitive because of that, because it’s so much on your mind.
Actually we search that suggested that an engaged woman spends about 10 to 12 hours a week planning her wedding at work. As you can imagine, on our team, it’s a highly female skewed group. There was a group that was in that age range, to be engaged, recently engaged, having babies. I remember we have to account for one FTE of someone who is going to get engaged and is going to be planning. When you are in a bridal company and you’re walking past someone if they are on a bridal website maybe they’re doing work research or maybe not.
Bill: Sure, right.
Agata: Very interesting from that perspective how much pressure is placed on a young person and they really never had to plan an event like that in their life. To your point earlier Bill, having this limited window, it was always important at David’s and it is also important here, to attract the customer as early as you can.
Bill: Yeah, you have to engage. There’s not much time to waste.
Agata: There’s not much time, there is only so big of a window of opportunity to capture her. In bridal, you also have the very high likelihood that the first place that she’s going to go to look at the dress, she will find the one she wants.
Bill: Yeah, right.
Agata: It’s very easy. I forget the exact statistics but I think it was close to 60% of people picked their favorite dress on the first visit, so if you’re not the first shop that she’s visiting …
Bill: You’ve got to be there.
Agata: You’ve got to be there. Number one, the sensitive time when you’re stressed, you’re planning, then on the maternity side you’re stressed and you’re sensitive because your body has changed in a way that you never experienced perhaps.
We as a brand over index heavily on first time mothers, so it is the first time she’s experiencing this in her life. In both situations, the sale is much more consultative. This is not someone coming in and saying, ‘I’m just going to get this, this, and this.’ People are actually getting caught into the selection process, our consultants, and we call them consultants, our sales associates serve in a very consultative way.
There is a very high level of trust, and those things are similar between bridal and maternity. The level of trust that you have to develop with the client is really deep, so you have a short period of time, you have to capture their attention, they are sensitive, they are emotional.
With bridal you are also competing for the wallet. She’s going to have to plan this party, she is going to have to spend money on the honeymoon and how many guests she is inviting. This is a dress she is going to wear once. This is the dress of her lifetime, hopefully, but it is a one-time kind of wear.
Bill: A lot of different voices in that process too, to make a check.
Agata: Absolutely, you have the mother of the bride, you have all kinds of people with opinions standing around. Then when you look at the maternity side we compete very much with her mindset. It’s this race, she’s trying to see how long can she survive without having to get maternity clothes.
Neither one of those brands is a brand that can grow the pie for the market. You’re dealing with a constrained amount. The market is only so big – in the wedding space you have two million weddings a year; in the maternity space you have four million babies born a year. That’s been pretty constant.
While it is a beautiful thing for a business because it makes your business cycle quite predictable, the work is on you to do a good job, but the size of the market is quite predictable. The back end of that, you can’t grow the pie.
Think about a Fitbit, that market didn’t exist. The market for wearable fitness technology did not exist. Someone came in and created it and suddenly it’s huge, but that happened in the last few years. Here, you cannot come in and grow the pie. You really have to figure out how you’re going to capture what’s already there. The importance of getting them early, getting their attention, and working through some of those emotional things that exist and knowing how to work with this client.
A lot of times some of the most successful people when it comes to our sales associates are people who have spent a tremendous amount of time with our company and they know how to talk to the client. I think those are the key things. The sensitivity of the life stage that is happening, the constraint demand, and getting them early, because with pregnancy, if we wait until she’s in her third trimester we’ve lost this entire length of her journey.
Also educating. It’s a lot of education for those brands. In maternity, our number one educational goal now is how do you show her that these clothes are not clothes that are one and done. You can actually wear many of the maternity clothes after you have your baby. You don’t have to dispose of them. They are absolutely wonderful fashion that you can wear later, so really showing her that.
Then the last one would be the guilt factor. The one who is pregnant, she feels guilty perhaps spending on herself because she has this baby coming. Right there and then you’re competing for your fashion versus the money for her baby. In the wedding, you’re competing the money for the dress versus the money for having a better type of alcohol for your guests or a better venue. There’s always these competing forces that are in place.
Bill: It must be fascinating to, on the data side, watch the reactions of people across that life cycle, limited though it may be. When it comes to the partnership side that you’re working on day in and day out with your team, as noted there is likely a strong desire to do as many as you can, to help get them early and make sure that they’re feeling and touching the brand in different parts of life.
Then again, with retail and with consumer facing concepts, there’s the notion of the brand fit. How do you and the team balance this desire for maximum amplification of the message, just getting the name out to begin to engage with defining what is or isn’t the right fit for the company and its brands?
Agata: I think it’s a very important question. The brand fit is very important. It really comes first. If the brand is not a good fit, if it’s not relevant, at the end of the day the campaign is not going to be successful because the customer will not engage.
If we want to realize whether it be a broader reach or some kind of financial benefit from a partnership, because we have all kinds of different partnerships, it will not be a success if there is not a good brand fit. Sometimes it may be obvious that there is a brand fit and sometimes you have to do a little bit of research and actually validate some of the statements.
You also have to be careful because at the end of the day the number one priority for us is our own brand. There is always this halo effect, what is it going to do to us when we associate ourselves with someone? Is that the right message?
We do say no to certain types of partnerships quite often. It’s whether someone doesn’t have a great reputation or we definitely research the companies. Even once we go into a partnership we constantly monitor what’s happening in the news, what’s happening on social media with our partners, to be able to spot something that might be alarming, because we are associating ourselves through those partnerships with brands.
I think number one is a good brand fit because you’re going to realize the engagement you’re hoping for and then you’re going to have a repeat business or a repeat partnership. At the end of the day I do not want to have to create new partnerships every few months. The best partnerships are the ones you have going on for years and years for many years and you’ve optimized them over the years and they work wonderfully and you just continue to add on and develop them deeper.
You don’t want to have to invent it every single year or every few months. It’s a lot of work to launch a new partnership, it’s a lot of work to get it going, to get it right, it doesn’t happen right away so just because you’re launching something doesn’t mean it’s going to work wonderfully within 30 days.
In my experience it takes about three to six months to actually get it to where you want it. That’s why I’m a strong believer in longer term partnerships actually. It really gives everyone an opportunity to learn from one another. You have two marketing teams working together as well so you have two different cultures.
You have a company the size of, I don’t know, Home Depot as an example, which is a huge company. Then you have a smaller group, and you’re balancing always the egos or really the work ethic or the workload I should say. Not even work ethic, the workload, when you have a team that manages five projects versus a team that manages 100.
To us this might be the most important partnerships we’ve ever done. To them this might be the least important partnership in place. Getting a little bit of perspective and putting ourselves in our partner’s shoes is also very important.
The culture of the partner is important, the brand, whether your brand is positioned, is it aspirational, is it going to harm us in any way, is there any controversy around that brand? As I mentioned before, we have a very high trust level with our customers, close to 90% of them say they trust us as a brand and our recommendations. We have a ridiculous net promoter score. Our net promoter score was 80.
Bill: Wow, that is ridiculous.
Agata: Amazon is 64. Zappos is 60. It’s off the charts, so we need to really be guarding it and making sure this does not get effected in a negative way, so we definitely pay attention to that and we definitely have some healthy discussions and conversations.
I remember when I was at David’s Bridal, I always had this strong belief that we should do a partnership with someone in the space of the honeymoon, the KY jelly and all of that. There was a ton of people that said, ‘No absolutely not.’ I used to come in and say, ‘Listen but we do honeymoons. We do all this. It’s such a great fit. Of course it’s happening. We need to do a partnership with those brands. They have a lot of great things going on, they have fabulous budget, they have fabulous marketing people. We need to be working with them.’ I had all these friends at J&J who also wanted to create a partnership. KY is actually their brand, I think they just spun it off recently. But we really needed to be working with them, it was such a good fit.
It just didn’t go over too well. I was given another couple of times. Then I tried to sneak it in another way so I created a honeymoon campaign that had all these things. I remember my CMO coming to me with the printout of this marketing campaign I created and he’s like, ‘Really Agata, I see you didn’t give up on that.’
Bill: Deep in the copy line.
Agata: Yeah, ‘it’s right there I see it. It’s not a stand-alone but you kind of buried it in there.’ You definitely will have disagreements on what is a good brand fit or what is not, and really understanding what your brand stands for is important. It’s definitely always a healthy balance of conversations of what is or is not a good fit.
Bill: Right, is there an extra level of scrutiny and analysis when it comes to celebrities who are people, when you look at brands, whether it’s spokespeople or co-branded product lines? Obviously what happens with celebrities in terms of things they say, things they do. You mentioned that’s part of your portfolio. Companies may be a little bit more stable, but talk a little bit, if you would, about the celebrity side of partnerships and some of the pitfalls that may be associated with that.
Agata: It’s definitely a consideration and you have to understand that at any time those kind of partnerships or ambassadorships happen, there’s always a risk. We’ve been very fortunate to have fabulous partners in that space but that’s why I think we are super cautious in general when it comes to that space because it’s a little bit outside of your control at that point.
We’ve had some really stable and long-term relationships, so for us, we’re not very voyeuristic in that space and not super aggressive. We’re kind of happy with what we have now. We recently had a Jamie King partnership that went really well but we are not super active in that space. We have the Jessica Simpson partnership. That’s a fabulous one for us. She designed an entire line for us and it performs well and her name has been so widely recognized and associated with a certain lifestyle and certain aesthetic. Those do very well for us.
Bill: She’s trustworthy, she’s not going to go do something that you don’t want her … well who knows, I never put it past anybody but yeah, that’s funny.
Agata: Yeah. There’s always definitely that risk because all of those partnerships are. You’re putting a little bit of yourself and your brand out there.
Bill: Sure, absolutely. We’ve kept you beyond what we promised but on this amazing journey some of the decisions you’ve made and some of the situations you’ve found yourself in, based upon looking around and interests and the switches along the way, are there any words of wisdom that have become important personal principles to you?
I’m sure a portion of our listener base are those who are starting out or are early on. Anything to share for those who’ve been inspired by what they’ve heard from you about your own path?
Agata: Having a good attitude and being a curious person are the top two qualities I look for in people and I always appreciate. Those are pretty easy to identify when you are talking to people. In general, we all want to work with people who are in a good mood, people who are happy.
Bill: No doubt. Steve here is a big problem (sarcastic). He’s very moody, and difficult.
Agata: He’s a Debbie Downer?
Bill: Yeah, just not fun to work with this guy day in and day out. Steve’s our executive producer by the way, but go ahead.
Agata: That’s important. You can be a good student, you can have great grades, you can work really hard. Now the hot word is grit. It’s all about grit, like everywhere you go it’s all about the grit. You can have all of those things but if you’re not a person who comes in every day to work and is happy and makes other people want to spend time with you and be around you, I think that’s really important.
That’s something that people miss quite often. They think, ‘I’m going to do hard work. I’m going to put 100% into this venture, into this position,’ but they forget to be happy in it. When you’re happy and when you have a good attitude, in general your outcomes will be much more positive, and the interactions with others.
For me, attitude is the number one thing I look for in people. It actually trumps experience quite often because I do believe you can teach people certain things. You cannot teach a person good attitude. That is something someone either has and cultivates on a daily basis or they don’t.
Another thing that I don’t hear people talk about quite often and I think that’s something we all can learn and practice is learning agility. That’s a phrase that I came across at Korn Ferry actually. Korn Ferry talked quite a bit about that. When we did a lot of research on the top performers, top CEO’s, etc. across the country, across the world, the number one thing they had in common was learning agility.
If you had learning agility you were twice as likely to get promoted and move up faster than the rest of the people. Really, about 12% to 15% of people of professional workforce actually has that. Now learning agility is very difficult to test for in general. It’s something you observe.
How do you deal with failure? Are you able to be in a first time situation and maybe you don’t deliver 100% but you actually deliver results in the first time situation that you are finding yourself. What do you do with failure when you have one? Do you use it as a constructive, learning, teachable experience or does it bring you down? Do you get up and move on? Are you a quick study? Do you throw yourself in situations that you don’t have a guarantee you will be successful in?
Those are very easy. You have projects, you’re like, ‘I’m just going to do a great job on that,’ yeah, then that’s very easy to jump in, but if you see something that there is a potential for you to fail in it but you still go ahead and you succeed and maybe you don’t deliver 100% but I am a huge believer in the Pareto Principle, 80-20. If you deliver somewhere there and if you learn from that and you go to the next situation and you apply it, that’s the essence of learning agility.
There’s actually a really good Harvard Business Review article about learning agility if you Google it. It will come up and they talk about how to cultivate it in yourself, how to coach it in others. I truthfully believe that learning agility is the number one predictor of someone’s success and something that you just don’t hear people talk about.
Like I said, grit is the thing now. You hear people talk about positive attitude and I do believe in that as well, but learning agility and knowing how to cultivate it in yourself and others is also very important. Failure is okay. One of my professors at the grad school, he was a professor of systems, thinking, and organizational design. It’s like a combination of psychology, anthropology, and engineering.
Bill: That’s fascinating.
Agata: Yeah, if you look it up, systems thinking. It’s amazing. He always said in his Persian accent that success is the devil. It took me awhile to get what he meant by that. I’m like, ‘No, I want to be successful. It’s not the devil. What are you talking about?’
When you’re going through life and all you have is success you haven’t learned much. It’s the people who had to get through obstacles, who had to overcome some failures and learn from those, those are the people that will, at the end, be most successful.
When you are in a position of success in a situation as a company, as a brand, or whatnot, when you’re doing really well you should be a little paranoid and you should be looking around because it’s not a very long term, sustainable state. I’m understanding that while you may enjoy the status-quo of success things are constantly changing and what are you doing about that?
Bill: Sure, one thing from your bio that made an impression on me, you early in the training program and on the backend of it at J&J, you were in a function that was not of great interest to you, but you made the point about how if you were successful within it, that would enable you to get taken out of it and keep relationships intact and to have advocates. A lot is written about different generations and their approach to things. Is there anything in that experience that has been central to your own success, that maybe we don’t see as much or we want to encourage in younger people today?
It seems like a lot of folks expect that first job to be the dream job, and everything is perfect, or expect to be promoted or shifted within an unreasonably short period of time. As you work with folks of different ages how does that experience compute with what you’re seeing out there?
Agata: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because I, to this day, am so grateful for that experience in finance and I use that skillset to this day. I actually strongly believe that people should know how to be financially savvy and understand how to read financial statements. Just to extrapolate in a more general sense, I think being okay with the fact that when you’re 19 or 20 years old you may make the wrong decision and you will not know what it is you want to be when you grow up. It’s okay.
People are 50, 40, and they still do not know what they want to be when they grow up. That’s okay. As long as you continue to learn I think that’s fine. For me, making transitions that on paper may not make a lot of sense, and taking risks early on. I do strongly believe early on in your career you should move around quite a bit and learn a lot of new things, a lot of different things, because then at the end it’s all going to come together nicely and you’re going to be able to pull from a very extensive toolkit.
For some people, it’s the right path to be an expert in one area and go really deep. If that’s the kind of person you are and you recognize that in yourself, that’s okay. I do believe in changing at the beginning of your career quite a bit to figure out where it is that you fit best and finding the job that actually makes you happy so that Sunday at 5:00 pm, 6:00 pm, you’re not sick to your stomach about Monday morning starting but you’re actually looking forward to it and you’re happy. That’s when you know you have the right job, if you’re actually happy on Sunday at 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm …
Bill: Or you have small kids and you cannot wait to go back to work.
Agata: That’s another one.
Bill: No offense to my family. They’re not listening.
Agata: It’s okay to make mistakes and take it as an opportunity to learn. Be a little reflective, take a minute to think about why it didn’t work out, what will you do differently next time, and just don’t beat yourself up.
Listen, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made deals that didn’t work out. I’ve come up with ideas that didn’t take off. It happens and it’s just how you deal with it, what did you learn from it, and move on and forget. I literally, if I had to count how many times people say no to me on a daily basis it’s just a ridiculous amount of time. What I hear when they say no, it’s not, ‘No, never,’ it’s just, ‘Not now.’ Okay, well I look forward to talking to you again.
When you hear no just take it as, ‘not now,’ not, ‘No.’ In general try to be an optimist because when it all boils down people who are optimistic and happy are not because of the jobs they have but because of the type of person they have become.
I strongly believe that happiness starts with us personally and if there is something in your job that is not making you happy, if your boss is not making you happy, I also believe strongly in having the right boss. I think you can have a fabulous job and a boss that’s just not a good fit for you, I believe in moving on.
There’s absolutely nothing worse than sticking to a job that is not making you happy or is making you miserable every day. I will put a little caveat on it. There is no perfect job in the world that you will be happy 100% of times, but if you are happy 80% of the time, that’s where you’re good.
Bill: Sure. Last question I promise, you’ve been so great. We’ve been grateful to get this time and you’ve been generous with it. As someone who came to the US at 21, you said, what perspective does that give you or any reflections on maybe what you see in American culture or in others of your generation but were here the whole time and what you observe about the different ways in which we behave or have been taught to behave? Any reflections of someone who came from Poland in your early twenties?
Agata: It’s interesting. Someone recently asked me that question. I see a lot of differences number one, but it also gives me a great perspective. I don’t take things for granted, that’s number one. I appreciate how optimistic Americans actually are in general and when you look at people they are much more solutions-oriented here. It’s a very tolerant culture.
The biggest difference for me, and I observed it on myself and others when I was in the university, and even later on in my early career, was the authority. In Europe, or at least back in the day when I was there and I was studying, there was a very different way you would challenge your bosses, your professors, versus here. It’s much more open here.
I came to the university and I saw students challenging the professor and I was honestly terrified because it was completely unacceptable back home. We couldn’t do it. You would not question the professor or complain about something. You went back and you did what they told you.
I also recognized how it really makes people in the US very innovative. It’s something that at first you’re like, ‘These people, there’s no authority. There’s no respect. We’ve lost all the respect.’ No, this is actually what breeds creativity and innovation and I think that that should be celebrated.
That was a little bit of a shock for me personally coming to this country. I had to make a switch. Then the fact that back home, when you stand for a picture no one smiles. That doesn’t mean this family is not happy. It’s just no one smiles. If you smile they’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?’ You come here and everyone smiles in pictures and you ask people how are you doing today and, ‘Oh it’s great,’ and you ask people back home, ‘Oh it’s terrible, my back hurts and I missed my train and it’s probably going to rain today.’ You hear this whole litany.
Having this mental switch and appreciating that different cultures are different, for me was a huge learning experience. That’s really what made me more agile as a person to adapt to new environments.
Think about something as basic as I used to be a funny person. I used to be a really funny person in my first language. I’m 21 years old, I come in here, and I’m used to people cracking up when I make a joke, and no one is laughing. When I try people get offended, because European humor is so much more sarcastic, so it takes me years to get back to this level of comfort of being actually comfortable joking with people.
It’s a dramatic experience if you’re used to being a fun and social person and suddenly people either don’t laugh or they’re deeply offended by what you said. There’s a lot of learning and being open. I definitely had quite a few failures on that front and I think it just makes you more resilient. You take failure a little easier when you go through that.
Bill: Awesome, well great place to end it. Thank you so much for your time and insight. Agata Clevenger of Destination Maternity was our guest. Thank you so much.
Agata: Thank you.
Bill: What a stud, so much fun to talk to her. All that’s happening at Destination Maternity and all the energy and joy that she brings to what she does.
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