Two owners, one name, and one vision for the future of Level Agency
Get to know the Patrick Patterson, Managing Partner and President (also known as PRP), and Patrick Van Gorder, Partner and Executive Vice President (also known as PVG). From fun personal facts and what they did before coming to Level, to insight into their plans for the future of the agency, come along for a peek inside the minds of our owners.
Rather listen than read? This article is adapted from a podcast interview, available here:
What’s a fun personal fact about you?
PRP: My first job was at a quaint little amusement part called Idlewild. I started out working on the games, but at the end of my career, which spanned four years, I was an entertainer in the park. I did ten shows a day dressed up as Ricky Raccoon. So, in addition to my experience as a marketer, I also have theme park and entertainer experience.
PVG: A fun fact about me is that I have lived on four out of five continents. Before I was eleven years old, we traveled and lived everywhere except for Antarctica. Which makes sense – who would want to live in Antarctica?!
How did you get started in marketing? And ultimately, how did you find your way into Level?
PVG: I graduated from college in 2009, into what was (at the time) the worst job market and recession in decades. My degree was in journalism and political science and got my start in publishing working as the managing editor of a fashion magazine.
Which is hilarious because, if you know me, you know my wife essentially has to dress me.
My work at the magazine led me to start doing some content creation for a company called University Bound, which eventually became Level Agency. The CEO hired me and over the last 11 years I’ve pivoted with the company until arriving where we are today. I’ve always embraced the idea of being challenged and learning new things and working that growth edge for myself.
PRP: I went to school for math and computer science. When I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle and code for the rest of my life. I knew I liked working with people and so I came over to what I refer to as the “dark side,” and I found marketing.
I worked in various jobs for a large education system – everything from recruitment to web development and digital advertising. Eventually I was responsible for over $43 million in digital ad spend for three major brands.
In 2010, I helped create the initial tech platform for University Bound and eventually joined the company to help build it into Level Agency. It’s been a really awesome journey, as the Mad Men quote says, “turning a chair into an agency.”
So, what we know today as Level Agency, began as a company called University Bound?
PRP: That’s right. Our initial network came from our previous careers in education, so focusing there made sense. As we started to develop our playbook, we realized that our approach for education clients actually worked really well for companies in other industries that also dealt with long sales cycles.
However, when you’re pitching a B2B company and you tell them your name is University Bound, there can be a bit of confusion. So, we changed our name to Level Interactive. And, with equal confusion, people thought all we built were websites. So, about a year later we switched to our current name – Level Agency.
PVG: The thing I am proudest of in our journey is the fact that we were able to successfully pivot from a publishing company to a pay-per-lead education agency, to our current state as a performance marketing firm across a number of different verticals.
What has it been like for you two as you transition from employees to owners of Level Agency?
PRP: The day we bought the company was surreal. Pat and I had been working with Tom, the founder, on this for over two years. And, in some ways, even longer. I’m very excited to have been given the opportunity to be in this position.
There’s a new sense of excitement around every decision we make now. Pat and I have coached employees about ownership as one of our core values for over eight years and training on what it means to embody that principle. Now, I’m getting a new lesson on what that truly means. Every decision we make has always had real consequences, but it feels different now.
One of the things I’m working on is figured out how to maintain an edge – learning to balance innovation and the amount of risk taking that is required to grow with the knowledge that as an owner things could go wrong. Finding that balance is going to be critical.
PVG: Not a lot has changed in terms of my day-to-day, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s equal parts exciting and stressful all at once. From my perspective, I think we’ve done a really good job of finding a group of people who really have embodied ownership. More than anything, we’ve felt excitement from that team of people and from our clients and we’re excited to build on that in the months ahead.
What is a change you two are excited to bring to the agency as new owners?
PVG: In the past three months we’ve begun two massive changes. The first has been our move to entirely restructure the agency into cross functional teams, which I’ll let Pat go into more detail about. The other is our renewed focus on what we’re calling CSRDI, Corporate Social Responsibility, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Some work we’re doing now towards that focus is with 412 Food Rescue, an awesome charity here in Pittsburgh. We’ve also established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion council. Pat and I are both passionate about how that group will help shape the future of our company.
It’s an opportunity to lean into the purpose side of things. We’re problem solvers. We find purpose in problems and enjoy finding innovating solutions. I’m excited to feel like we are a small part of societal change and forces we believe in from the owner’s chair.
PRP: On January 1st we moved from a typical agency structure, with a client services team, a media team, a data team, etc., into cross functional teams. So, we’ve basically created mini agencies within the agency – all focused around specific verticals.
Our strategy was to support this idea of lean marketing, where we get into market quickly with a hypothesis, test it, learn from it, put something better out there, repeat, repeat, repeat, and then optimize. Even though 2020 was our most successful year, we knew that in order to grow we would have to get way from an assembly line approach of a traditional agency and redesign everything.
Today, we’re seeing more collaboration from teams. Team members at all levels and disciplines in the agency now see the final product and understand the impact on client results.
You mentioned ownership earlier as a core value of the agency, can you explain all the values?
PRP: Our five company values are Partnership, Respect, Ownership, Urgency, and Data Driven Decisions. Which just so happens to spell PROUD, which we love.
Partnership is a main value internally and externally. We don’t want to be order takers. We want to be sitting at the table with our clients, sharing the risk and sharing in the reward.
Respect is often the difference between a vendor relationship and a partner relationship. Respect is a core tenant of it. You need to give people the benefit of the doubt. You need to trust people. You need to be radically candid with people where you care about them personally and you address them directly. Being a partner can mean having hard conversations and sometimes saying “no.”
Ownership means spending our clients’ dollars like they’re our own. These three all go together in a kind of triad. We want to be at the table as partners, helping clients make the best decisions to reach their goals.
PVG: Urgency is not do it fast and do it crappy. It’s executing tasks in the spirit of a minimum viable product – key emphasis on viable. It’s a focus on getting something into market quickly and then iterating off it. Urgency can be tough for people to wrap their heads around sometimes because it can be misconstrued as an excuse to move in a slipshod manner. But most often slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Data Driven Decisions are a critical centerpiece of our ethos. We are going to be evidence based in our approach. We’re going to answer questions about our clients’ and our own organizational design with as much relevant data as we can bring to the table. We use this data to make the best decisions.
PRP: It’s not linear. It’s a framework of coming to the best strategy. A quote that I love is “true strategy is discovered.” We generate data, turn that data into insights, act on those insights, and then repeat and repeat.
Another thing I say to everyone who walks through our doors is that your gut is data. A lot of people forget that. Your gut is telling you everything you’ve learned over the years. What we’re doing is a mixture of art and science and there isn’t always a clear-cut answer. Sometimes, as marketers, we have to listen to our gut, come up with a hypothesis, and ask what would have to be true for our hypothesis to be true.
We can test a hypothesis, learn from it, and grow a mentality that’s focused on getting better every single day that we’re in market.