How Two Frenemies Went from Biz Rivals to #GirlBoss Partners
We all want to do and be our best in our careers. From listening to TED Talks for tips on how to move up the ladder to waiting to have kids until your career is where you want it, we all make decisions to be our best work selves. Which is exactly what Cassie Hughes and Gabrey Means, co-founders of experiential marketing agency Grow Marketing in San Francisco, do every day. And if you think you’re handling your work frenemy like a boss, just wait until you hear their story. Cassie and Gabrey were former business competitors in the cutthroat world of retail until it all ended over a conversation and a bottle of wine. Read on.
B+C: Give us the deets. Where were you both before founding Grow Marketing? How did you decide to join forces? Are you really enemies turned partners?
CH: Before launching Grow, I led Presence and Publicity for Levi’s and oversaw PR for Esprit. Today, I serve as Grow’s Strategy Director.
GM: Before co-founding Grow, I was the Experiential Marketing Director for Banana Republic and served as the in-house creative for co-branded initiatives at GQ Magazine. Today, I serve as Grow’s Creative Director.
While at Levi’s and Gap respectively, we knew and were BUGGED by each other. Cassie took over Coney Island for a huge Levi’s anniversary event and every fashion editor I wanted to be paying attention to my brand could not stop talking about hers.
CH: And Gabrey shut down streets in Union Square for a huge launch event and all of my colleagues were raving about it the next day. Needless to say, I was steaming. We had the same job at frenemy brands, thus becoming frenemies by association and using each other’s work as fuel to push ourselves to go bigger and better with every product launch, store opening and new campaign.
GM: Everything changed when a friend introduced us, who insisted we should know each other. Having been rivals, we were both a little skeptical, but we met over a glass of wine for a new business pitch, which quickly became a bottle, and found that we not only respected each other’s work, we really enjoyed the person behind it. It was love at first brainstorm. As we talked about the agencies we managed and the kind we were looking for but could never find — equal parts strategy, creative and execution — we quickly realized we were better together. Shortly after, Grow was born.
B+C: What was it like in the early years, coming from leadership roles with major retail brands to owners of a small business?
CH: It was exciting and invigorating on every level. We were freed from the corporate chains and dismissed have-tos and bureaucracy and replaced them with our own values and ideals. We empowered ourselves to build an agency exactly the way we wanted to. We had years of experience and management and were liberated to only do the work we wanted to do and only with the people we chose to do it with. We cared about every detail and never took the opportunity for granted. While we did miss the stable paycheck and benefits at first, the money you make on your own can’t be compared to a dollar made any other way.
GM: From the moment we started Grow, I have loved it… deeply. We are total Northern Californians and spent time setting our vision and intentions for the culture-driven shop we wanted to grow. We kicked the corporate politics to the curb and focused on attracting great brands with lovely clients to fuel a happy, balanced life. I am so thankful for my time at Gap, as our client-side rigor is what sets us apart in our industry.
It was hard going from a stable environment with computers that worked and coffee at the ready, but it was all so exciting to be able to build exactly what we wanted. I will always remember sitting on the floor of our first office while my dad helped us put our first desks together and the late nights typing away together with a bottle of wine between us. It was so exciting to chart our own destiny, and now here we are.
B+C: Grow works with brands to create experiences for consumers. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it differs from traditional advertising and PR firms?
CH + GM: We are an experiential marketing agency that builds award-winning campaigns from strategy to creative to execution. In a nutshell, we create flawless live experiences — from pop-up stores to mobile tours to large-scale events — that drive consumer action and advocacy and fuel brand conversations.
With shrinking newsrooms and the explosion of social media, brands have to work harder than ever to get attention. While traditional advertising and PR still serve a purpose, consumers have developed a voracious appetite and ongoing need for shareable content, which can be satisfied with intimate experiences and thoughtful brand engagements. Over the years, this has fueled the growth of experiential marketing and taken live experiences from a nice-to-have to a core element of the marketing mix.
B+C: Can you tell us about one of your favorite collaborations?
CH: As experiential marketers, buying and renovating our own building in San Francisco was by far one of my favorite collaborations. It was the manifestation of all the things we love — creating beautiful experiences — although this time it was for us and our team, designing each nook and cranny as we so desired and creating the physical embodiment of our brand. There is not a day that I come into the office and forget how grateful I am for what we created.
GM: I think the growing of Grow would have to be my favorite collaboration. From a two-person consultancy to a 75-person agency, Cassie and I have built a creative shop with a unique culture that mirrors our values. We have lovely, collaborative folks who roll up their sleeves and like doing the work. We generate amazing output from a team that appreciates balance and has robust passions outside of Grow, which helps keep the fresh ideas flowing. We like cocktails and good laughs. We appreciate pretty details from well-curated design books to Parisian fabrics and artisanal candies. We like to be in each other’s company, and it shows.
B+C: What does success look like to each of you?
CH: Success for me is growth and balance in all areas of my life. When I am challenged in new ways and can grow as a business owner, wife, mother, friend and general human being, and have time to be all parts of who I am, I have achieved success. On a day-to-day level, success includes meaty projects I can sink my teeth into, a glass of wine with my husband at night and sleepy bedtime minutes with my daughter.
GM: Success for me is not solely measured by money (even though it never hurts). It is by the buzz of good energy in the office, great work going out the door and interesting calls coming in. When Grow is humming it is easier to fully unplug outside of work and deeply connect with my family. We are here now and I do not take it for granted.
B+C: How do you complement each other and how do you challenge each other?
CH: Gabrey and I complement each other greatly because while our values, perseverance and desires look identical, we approach things with different styles and energy. We have distinct passions and strengths, and when you put us together, 1+1 = 3. She might be the perfect match for one client, and myself for another. We have always played to and embraced our differences and learned how to make our collective strengths grow into something truly amazing. I wouldn’t want anyone else watching my back.
I’d say we champion, more than challenge, each other. We push one another to be our best self and will be the voice of reason and support to the other when needed. We take turns being in the stressed out or worried chair and are the first to tell each other to go exercise and take care of ourselves when we are going off the rails. We challenge ourselves as a collective team driving the business more than we do one-on-one.
GM: Cassie and I are the perfect pairing of opposites. She is calm and I am caliente. She is strategic and methodical and I am more free-form. Our differences are what make us more powerful, but can also sometimes lead to friction; however, the energy created from different thinking and conflicting styles always leads us to our best ideas.
B+C: What should future besties know before going into business together?
CH: Gabrey and I became close because the work and mutual visions for ourselves brought us together, not vice versa. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want it any other way — our love grew from mutual respect, hard work and sharing similar values. I love my BFFs, but can’t imagine doing this type of work with them. If you take this path, just know you’re going to need date nights and a lot of time talking! Spend time getting to know each other, talking about how you plan to weather and watch each other’s backs in hard times; understand each other’s level of commitment and how you both define balance and success. Your lives will be interconnected in ways you can’t even imagine, and you’ll need time outside of your business and families to get to know each other as entrepreneurs.
GM: I feel like I won the lottery that Cassie and I have such a great relationship, but partnerships are like a marriage — they are not always easy and require a lot of nurturing. Cassie and I were not friends before we started Grow; we were rivals who became friends. I think it would be really hard to dive in with a friend who you have not worked with before. We were lucky that, from the very beginning, we have been on the same page in terms of values and vision — this is a critical component to having a successful partnership.
You need to talk about it, all of it. Discuss your vision for the amount of work you want to do and the money you need to earn. Where do you want to be in five years — does it align? If partners are not on the same page from the beginning, it is not going to work.
B+C: What advice do you have for women in competing roles?
CH: Never be catty, and always take the high road. You can learn a lot from your competitors, so you should be a grown-up and respectful at all times. Who knows, a glass of wine together might lead to future magic. The more good, strong women we all have in our circles the better off we will be as a collective. Be sure to also spend more time cultivating great women on your team than you spend watching your competitor and comparing yourself. Do great work with your heart and your time will come.
GM: The world is small, especially if you are in the same field, so always act with integrity. You never know when it might come back to haunt you if you don’t. Your ex-competitor might become your boss someday!
B+C: Best piece of advice for fellow and aspiring #girlbosses?
CH: First and foremost, always listen to your gut. Set clear intentions for yourself and your company so you are clear about what you want to make happen. You have to know what you want to get it. And be careful what you wish for; it very well might come true!
GM: DO IT! Just jump and have confidence in yourself — the hardest step is the first one. Also, know what you don’t know and surround yourself with the best talent to round out your team.
Have a #GirlBoss in mind we should talk to next? Tweet us @BritandCo!
(Photos via Grow Marketing)