Industry Watch

Empowering creativity

For Clockwork Active Media, focusing on respect, relationships, and interaction has paid off

By Erica Rivera
Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Our intention is to be the best digital agency on the planet,” says Nancy Lyons, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Clockwork Active Media, which creates websites, apps, digital collaborative tools, and intranets. 
Clockwork was formed by Lyons, Chuck Hermes (now the “chief experience officer”), Kurt Koppelman (now CTO), and Michael Koppelman after the company that three of them had worked for, Bitstream Underground, was sold. They launched Clockwork in 2002, toiling from their respective basements. Thanks to relationships formed while at Bitstream and their reputation for honest work, the partners quickly established themselves as a go-to resource in the tech community.
What Clockwork does is “not truly advertising and not truly software development, but aspects of both of those worlds,” Lyons explains. “Marketing and communications and business and analysis and data all play into what we do.”
The company grew and by 2006, Clockwork had just over a dozen people on staff. A key hire came that year in the form of Meghan Wilker, now COO. Lyons and Wilker, it turned out, worked rather well together. “It was a match made in heaven,” Lyons says.
They co-authored the 2012 book “Interactive Project Management: Pixels, People, and Process” and launched the Geek Girls Guide blog, on which they post tech-related musings and podcasts. The two also speak extensively nationwide.
“It changed my working life and Nancy’s in many ways,” Wilker says of their partnership. 
Meanwhile the agency, which now employs 67, has been careful about who it hires, using a rigorous peer-based interview process. “As we’ve grown, we’ve maintained that deliberate, careful, thoughtful process around who would be the best fit,” Wilker says. “It’s not just about skills. It’s about chemistry and so many intangible things.”
When asked to describe the management style of Clockwork, Wilker says, “We hire adults and let them do their jobs.”
From the very beginning, Lyons envisioned “a place where people really wanted to be, had respect for each other for the work that we did, and worked really hard to develop a process and a place that they felt empowered by and had a voice in.”
Lyons feels strongly about not outsourcing Clockwork’s projects, and she expects all of her engineers to be multi-disciplined and fluent in their clients’ business. 
As an advocate for social justice, currently serving as vice chair on the board of The Family Equality Council, Lyons also emphasizes giving back to the community. Last year, Clockwork donated more than 1,500 hours of service to organizations in need.
There is not a lot of micro-management at Clockwork, but employees are expected to work in a “collaborative, ego-free way,” says Wilker. 
The “human-centered” Clockwork culture leads to such perks as beer in the office, walking and cycling work stations, a babies-at-work program, and freedom to work remotely.
“Look how we treat people, look how empowered they are,” Lyons says. “Even if people aren’t technically owners, they feel some ownership for the evolution of the organization. I really believe it’s a key ingredient for our success.” 
Employees have a “deep and distinct interest and intellectual curiosity for the work that we do,” she adds. “That feeds our growth and our ability to serve our clients in innovative and interesting ways. 
Clockwork fosters its own “family” with fellowship meals and knowledge sharing to reignite employees’ connections to the business and their desire to do good work. Employees also attend an annual “internal un-conference” during which they give presentations to their coworkers on a multitude of topics. “We try to create an environment where people can hone their crafts,” Wilker says.
The agency has done work for corporate giants such as Best Buy, Cargill, Disney, and General Mills, but also for clients in the entertainment, financial, and hospitality industries, as well as for educational organizations and nonprofits.
“They were very creative, and we very much worked in a collaborative approach,” says Ellen Rohrer, who as the senior director of Nutrition Ventures at PepsiCo worked with the agency on a digital campaign. “This is a hands-on agency from top to bottom.”
Amber Richard, director of digital marketing for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, also appreciated Clockwork’s thorough involvement in the redesign of the organization’s website. Richard was deeply involved in the redesign, and Clockwork kept her updated weekly on its progress. “I think Clockwork’s communication with their clients is one of the things that sets them apart,” says Richard, “They engage us at every step of the way.”
Richard was also impressed by the agency’s track record, its local roots, and how easy it was to interact with the team. 
“What I like about them the best is that they’re not afraid to help save us from ourselves,” Richard says. As she discovered, sometimes what the client wants isn’t necessarily what works for users. Richard appreciates that Lyons would say, “‘We’re going to tell you when we think something is a bad idea, but you’re our clients, so we’ll say it three times, we’ll try to say it different ways, but ultimately it’s your decision.’”
Richard notes that having close contact with the CEO of a creative agency “doesn’t really happen, industry-wise.”
As for the future of Clockwork, it appears the sky’s the limit. The agency does not measure success in terms of the size of the staff or by the bottom line (though Lyons states Clockwork is strong in both areas). Instead, “it’s about the quality of the deliverables and how clients feel about the relationship and the work,” Lyons says.