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Bossing It: Putting the People First with Stephen Snyder


Co-founder and producer at Parody Studios on graduating from your rookie years, putting on the Batman armour and keeping a network of 'advisors' in your life

Bossing It: Putting the People First with Stephen Snyder

Stephen Snyder is co-founder and producer at Parody, a creative content production and post-production house based out of Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Stephen> My first experience watching great leadership in motion was my first agency experience. I landed an internship at a great indie ad agency called Stick & Move, where I was working in the account management group. I had no agency experience, and I’m just two years out of college. I didn’t know shit. But I learned a lot in a real hurry. The kind of experience where you’re thrown into the fire but ultimately in the best of ways. My direct report at this agency - my boss - had a magnetic personality and a leadership style that was very human, but equally rock n’ roll. The bug got me. I was in. This experience shaped everything for my career. Probably the most important career moment for me personally, when I look back on it. By the way, I’m still very close with my boss from that agency, who still serves as one of my mentors today. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Stephen> Leadership style is equal parts your unique qualities and disposition, and the best attributes of previous mentors / bosses in your past life. Somewhere along the way, because of the great leadership above you, you become a valuable, productive employee - you graduate from the safe cocoon that is your rookie years, and you start to develop your own style and approach. But you always take the best from what was handed down to you from your best experiences, and you implement them into your arsenal. After a few years in the business, working at different agencies, you start to realise the kind of person you don’t want to be as a leader. And just like that, you know exactly what kind of leader you want to be. 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership? Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Stephen> There have honestly been so many great moments of leadership in my career. And not all of those moments are from leadership. Great talent at all levels, across-all-departments, lead great moments. But I never considered myself a natural leader type, and I often say early on in my career, it was kind of like the Batman thing. I was able to recognise important moments or situations that needed leadership, and I stepped up. I put on my Batman armour because I recognised the moment called for it. And what that does is give you the confidence to have a strong opinion, and comfortably share it with your team to influence the conversation, strategy, and/or creative process. When you love what you’re doing, and more importantly, love the people you’re doing it with, you want to become a better leader, and you’re constantly working on becoming even better of a leader. And there are nuances of leadership roles in terms of types of companies and departments, too. And this is part of the reason why great leaders always want to learn more because you have to adapt and evolve. 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Stephen> A little bit of them all, I suppose. Natural personality and drive is definitely a big aspect of it, but as I’ve talked about in the above questions, you ALWAYS implement things that you’ve been taught and learned from your career. And I’m a big advocate of keeping a network of 'advisors' in your life. Peers in the industry that you work with or respect, and even others outside the industry, where you can talk business and trade advice, etc. If you’re smart about this, it could have a huge impact on your leadership and career trajectory because of the knowledge gained. 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Stephen> The ever changing culture and industry will always make leadership challenging. The past few years are a perfect example of this. The industry is changing, the industry is dead, the industry is going through an AI revolution - we’re all going to die! There’s always been chatter like this around the industry, but it continues to carry on. On the other side of the coin, employees are bullish on staying in the remote work lifestyle because of the flexibility, and you have to be sympathetic towards this reality. There’s a lot more to think about from the leadership perspective these days. 

You work through these challenges by putting people first. Usually happy employees = great employees. And talent is everything in this business. And talent = people. Be honest with yourself about the kind of leader you want to be in terms of fostering talent. It’s really important. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Stephen> Yes, of course I have. There was one time I was in a situation where I was placed into a project to fix and redirect the momentum of the relationship. It was a really pretty bad situation for both sides of the table. At first, I was a bit pissed that I was even put into this position because it seemed pretty doomed. I realised when you’re dealing with a bit of a sinking ship situation, it’s important to recognise that the situation is problematic, and immediately start talking about it, put action items in place, and communicate the plan of attack with all shareholders. Maybe the project is still doomed, but you’ll earn the respect of folks on both sides because of how you handled the situation. Leadership is easy when good news and smooth projects are plentiful, the trick is to be a great leader in the challenging moments. 

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Stephen> There are obviously many different leadership styles, and the styles vary across different industries. As we talked about earlier, the industry is changing for sure, and I do think leaders have to keep a more open mind across-the-board, especially when it comes to their own employees. But I do think many great leaders know exactly when to be open and transparent, and know exactly when to be calculated and careful. I always steal the ‘styles make fights’ quote because I believe it’s true. But human first will always win. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Stephen> It's been a really challenging few years - and that's an understatement. 

Yes, 100% We touched on some of this above. I’m huge on mentorship as it was absolutely pivotal in my career. My first traditional mentor was my boss at Stick & Move, the indie agency in Philadelphia at the time. Working under him was my 'advertising capstone' course that I never had in college. Learned the fundamentals of account management, learned the dynamics that separated average account folks from great account folks, learned that work ethic runs faster, and developed a fantastic dark sense of humour. Now as a mentor myself, especially during these challenging few years, I try to give realistic, actionable advice. Not everyone has the same support system or means to take a risk on a non-paid job like an internship. Some people have not met their mentors yet. Some people simply don’t know. The reality is the business has always been challenging to break into initially, but now you factor in the times we’re in, you have to be honest when mentoring someone today. One piece of holistic advice I give everyone is something that Logan Roy from HBO's Succession, said to his kids. “I love you, but you are not serious people.” This is overlooked in the industry sometimes I feel. You’ve got to take yourself and the business side of this industry very seriously. 

LBB> How do you lead a team out the other side of a difficult period? What are some ambitions and plans you have for the company and yourself in the coming year?

Stephen> You have to recognise and acknowledge this difficult period with your team. You have to talk about things. Relationships are everything in life. And the key to great relationships is communication. It sounds silly. But difficult or uncomfortable topics can be just that…difficult and uncomfortable.. Pushing off dealing with these kinds of situations or problems does not solve anything. Make the game plan clear. And start moving. One foot in front of the other. It’s not different than when you’re procrastinating on a task at work. You realise that once you start moving, it’s never as bad as thought it was going to be. 

One of the big decisions we are moving on for this coming year is investing in physical office space. We’re still keeping things flexible, but the leadership at Parody Studios is all in agreement that we’re looking forward to some much needed human time. Our families are supportive of it, and we honestly think it’s going to be extremely healthy for the business. One of the great aspects of this business is getting to meet and work with some really amazing production talent across the country and across the globe. We plan on continuing our commitment to being people first, and working with talented people who are passionate about great storytelling and production craft. We really enjoy working in different industries as well, and the plan is to continue to mix it up with a variety of clients next year. 

LBB> What have you noticed as the biggest changes in the industry during your career thus far? And do you have any predictions for future trends or themes?

Stephen> I love this question. The doomsday chatter always cracks me up. Change will always be around consistently. It’s just how it goes. Have things changed? Yes. Will they change again? Yes. Have some things remained the same? Yes. Geoffrey Colon (Microsoft Advertising Brand Studio) has a  great philosophy riff on ’everything is a remix.’ It’s definitely true, and certainly relevant to our business more than ever. Invest and focus on people - the talent - the most  valuable asset - because ultimately good people have to figure out how all of this new technology seamlessly integrates with our human lives, which in the end, will just be another remix. Amazing people. Amazing stories. It has worked for a long time. It’s the ultimate case study. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Stephen> Company culture is extremely important to us as a company, but the general idea of company culture has evolved for sure. It’s not just about a cool office space and perks anymore. The remote work life is alive and well and therefore the idea of company culture shifting. We think the idea of more personal freedom is a great thing. It’s a big reason why we started this company. So of course we embrace this for anyone who works for us. But we’re also clear on roles, responsibilities, ownership and goals. Both can exist and when it works, everyone usually wins. Balance… We’re forever chasing…

When I think about useful resources along my leadership journey, I think about a few different things.

1) Network of Advisors: This is a group of peers, people you admire, and mentors. Some in the business, some outside the business. Get together. Talk about the business. Talk about life. Ask questions. Be direct.

2) Stay Curious: Definitely read books to get some different perspectives, and learn some new things. Listen to some podcasts. Check out some new  content. Go to some LIVE shows. Be a student of business and culture.

3) Do Something New: As we get older, sometimes it can be hard to keep doing new things. But doing new things are healthy and often amazing experiences. I started jiu-jitsu a year ago and it has helped in aspects of my life, especially as a leader.

4) Family Feedback: Welcome feedback and engagement from the family. Chances are that most of your family is more deeply rooted in culture than you are, and they’re following more interesting things than you are. Engage them about your role and what you do, and listen to their perspective on things - you might be surprised. Family is also the one unit in your life that keeps you human and has permission to check you with love. 

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Parody Studios, Mon, 18 Sep 2023 11:37:56 GMT