Interior design is not something that excites me—you can ask my wife. Decoration for the sake of decoration runs counter to my design sensibility—ask our creative team. Interior design, in my opinion, should be functional and not get in the way.

I do need to make a confession, though. When I see an interior design magazine that has a before and after feature, I pick it up. For some reason I am drawn to the before and after photos of how something used to be, and what was done to transform it.

My personal before and after story is much different than my professional one. When I run into someone I have not seen in 20 years, they are not surprised by the fact that I am very happily married with two amazing kids, and mow the lawn on weekends—they expected that. I never saw it coming, but they did. When they realize I am a business owner, managing people and pouring over financials—they are surprised.

They are surprised because, in their heads, they remember my before image: a fuzzy black and white photo from 1994 of a graphic designer with no formal managerial training still using the 1040EZ. Jump forward to the present day and in front of them is my after image: a full-color, unforgivingly sharp transformation with less hair, leading a successful team of talented and gifted people. The story that accompanies these before and after images, 1994 Charlie to present-day Charlie, is an evolution defined by and intertwined in the evolution of Punch. While not quite a fairytale, it is magical to me.

Over time everything and everyone evolves. With evolution comes change, and with change comes challenges. These challenges come in many forms and each one is a milestone in the story of Punch.

My personal role has changed many times with the demands of a growing company. The roles of doing the work, managing the work, and managing the company have given me an incredible opportunity to learn on the job and make some colossal mistakes along the way.

In the early years of Punch we were known as an agency that did not make mistakes. We had a proofreader, we knew how to prepare files, and we did not miss deadlines. But one of the side effects of growth is being busy. The busier you are, the more chances you have to make a mistake.

As a new manager of other people, I decided that I needed to do something to motivate the team to not make mistakes. I was inspired by a sign in front of an armory that made explosives: “256 days since our last accident.” In our office at the time we had a large wall painted with chalkboard paint. I put a giant number on this wall that showed the number of days since our last mistake—brilliant, I thought.

No one felt comfortable enough to tell me how demoralizing and idiotic this was. Each day I changed the number on the wall. Every few days, in the morning production meeting, someone would drop their head and tell me about an error that would require me to replace the number on the wall with a ZERO.

This was not going well.

To motivate the team, I told them that if we got to 30 days of no mistakes there would be a special surprise. Finally, the number of days since our last mistake started to grow—26, 27, 28. Excitement built among the team and they were all on the edge of their seats as I changed the number on the board. Boom, we hit 30!

It was as if confetti fell from the ceiling and a marching band was playing in the background.

It was as if confetti fell from the ceiling and a marching band was playing in the background

It was over, and they were ready for their reward. The special surprise they had won, the reward for this massive accomplishment: an hour with me.

Mistake number two.

They were expecting a trip to Busch Gardens or an office puppy. I went to lunch with most, I had a pedicure with one teammate, and did a pub crawl with another. The only good thing about this lousy reward was that after their hour with me, they each knew me well enough to tell me when I was doing something idiotic. If you ask my teammates, each of them will have their favorite Charlie-colossal-mistake story, but I am honored that they have trusted me enough to still be with me.

Even though my management skills improved over time, as the company grew it was pointed out to me that I couldn’t manage everything. It wasn’t easy for me to start delegating authority and responsibility, and it is still difficult at times.

Forming a management team from within our current roster was difficult. Not because of the lack of options, but just the opposite. I wanted everyone to be happy, challenged, and fulfilled, but I couldn’t choose everyone to step up to management. Once selected, the management team took on additional responsibilities and became advocates for their teams. It took time for the entire team to adjust, but now I can’t imagine us operating any other way.

In our before image, we were proud to operate as a non-traditional agency. Clients had direct access to our creatives, who had the complex role of creative, account manager, project manager, and traffic manager. This worked when we were small, but as we grew this became problematic.

It became apparent that our clients would benefit from someone on our team that could dedicate themselves to thinking about their brand in a broader sense. Assigning account managers to each of our clients was difficult in the beginning. At first clients felt disconnected from the creatives, and our designers felt removed from the clients.

With time the clients saw the account managers add value to their projects and the creatives had more time to do what they loved. Win-win. This transition was so successful that it led to more work.

But, before we could celebrate that victory the account managers were spending less time thinking about the clients’ goals and objectives, and more time making sure the projects were completed on time and within budget. Enter the project managers. The initial grumbling from all sides about another additional layer in the process quickly subsided as the benefits became apparent.

We were now starting to look like a traditional agency, closing the door on where we started in 1994—an English basement in Church Hill. And, I count myself lucky to have some of the same clients and teammates who helped build Punch through this transformation. And where we are headed to next demands a big shift in the way that we think about our ourselves.

Punch’s simple beginning demanded that we each have personal ownership of our work, but we’ve evolved to work together and lean on each other’s strengths.

This is accentuated by our interactive team, who instinctively operates in a way that was initially foreign to all of us. Before we built an internal interactive team, we utilized a waterfall workflow process and produced work that looked good and fulfilled requirements, but admittedly was not great.

But, after our in-house web team was established, our web projects started with strategy and content first and demanded that all pitch in. The results are clear to see, and we are proud of the great websites being concepted, designed, and developed in our shop. While our interactive department is relatively new at Punch, the pace at which it has evolved, like technology, is much quicker and exciting to witness.

I do not want to give the impression that integrating two disciplines that think and work differently is an easy accomplishment. There has been compromise on both sides, open communication, and an understanding that a little bit of headbutting is okay.

In our before image, I measured success by how well we were able to create what the client asked for and make them happy. In our after image, we ask the client why they are asking for it. We’ve evolved beyond simply creating. Knowing why we are doing this work and achieving real results is a great place to be. This place can also be frustrating to some clients because you have to answer a lot of questions to get in. But, once you are in you rack up bonus points quickly.

The before and after transformation of Punch shows massive change, risky moves that could have sunk other companies, and amazing personal growth. Asking my teammates to trust that I have everyone’s collective interest at heart has been a difficult thing—for them and for me. Trusting myself to know that I have made decisions that have given Punch not only the best chance for survival, but the best chance to succeed is something that I will always struggle with. Having a 20-year track record, the teammates that share my vision, and my family give me the courage to embrace the evolution.

Today’s after image is tomorrow’s before image — I look forward to the next 20 years and the magic it brings.

Charlie Connell

As principal, Charlie contributes over 25 years of experience guiding the vision of Punch. He served on the initial council and is currently a board member for ART 180, is a former Ad Person of the Year, is a member of The Virginia Council of CEOs and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, serves on the advisory board of the Connor’s Heroes Foundation, and is a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

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