Q&A: Nancy Lyons, founder of digital agency Clockwork

Nancy Lyons is a CEO, entrepreneur, and all-around good human. She has made it her life’s work to champion a human-centered approach to business. She’s someone I deeply admire, and I was grateful for our exchange.

Q: What led you to start your digital agency Clockwork?

I started Clockwork with three close friends. Two were the co-founders of Bitstream (Mike Koppelman and Chuck Hermes), where we all worked together. After Bitstream was acquired, we realized we had learned so much over the years and felt like we had a unique perspective and skillset that would be of value to potential clients. So, we started Clockwork and instead of calling it a start-up we called it a start-over. What drew us together, really, was that we cared about the same thing: people. And that became our business strategy: people first. We started the company to create a place that valued humans and put them first. We focused on creating a workplace that we’d want to go to every day and where others would want to go and do great work with other great people.

Q: Your mission is to create “human-centered digital experiences.” Can you share one of your favorite recent examples of that?

From the beginning, Clockwork has been human-centered. That doesn’t stop with our employees; it’s embedded into everything we do. Before user experience or customer experience was accepted as a business reality, we prioritized people and the interactions we were tasked with creating on behalf of our clients. It wasn’t sexy and it took a lot of energy to get our clients thinking not about what they liked, but about what their users needed. Now, this is a priority for most businesses. And if it isn’t yet, it soon will be. But for the last 18 years we’ve had this focus. Both online and off. And our entire culture has been built on this foundation. A recent, and excellent, example of this work would be the newly launched “digital ecosystem” for Marketplace. It is a public radio property with an amazing mission to increase the economic intelligence of the country. It had a big goal of being digital first and we had the privilege of helping it create the strategy to get there. You can check out the new Marketplace here.

Q: You wrote an amazing piece for MinnPost about why you advocate for Minnesota-backed paid family leave. Can you briefly share why that’s such an important topic to you?

We need to think differently about how our tax dollars are used to take care of the people that pay them. I think paid family leave is important because life is getting more complicated. Most people are managing some combination of jobs, families, extended family, self-care, and other caregiving. All these things add layers of complexity to simple survival. It’s hard enough to show up. It’s harder to show up for loved ones, or to get the care we need when, God forbid, we deal with health challenges on our own. What’s more, small businesses have a hard time competing with the rich benefits packages that large businesses offer. Small businesses employ 50 percent of the workforce and that’s an important and large portion of our citizens. The competitive landscape is already rough. If there are state-funded options available to people then small businesses can be more creative with their budgets and show up in different, complementary ways, for employees. Bottom line: it’s tough to be alive right now. As a culture it’s time we accept that and start to do something about it.

Q: I love your slogan “Think strategically, act thoughtfully, be a good human.” You and I agree that nice people finish first. Why is that still so hard for some in the business community to believe that?

Because capitalism isn’t nice. And that truth is baked into the DNA of business. That’s why people like us are, slowly, but surely, making real change.

Q: I loved your team’s musical performance at The Battle, an event that raised funds for minority students in advertising. Why didn’t I know you were a rock star? And what’s your rock star name?

You are nice. You didn’t know I am a rock star because I am a closeted rock star. And my rock star name is Cher. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?

Q: More companies talk about doing good but it’s little more than lip service. I advocate for how important it is to take “brand purpose” and turn it into actual brand action. How important do you think it is that companies move beyond basic philanthropy and actually get involved in advocating for and making the lives of their customers better?

I think the only way to make your brand promise and your values true is to show up in real ways. Philanthropy is a starting place, but there are other things we can do. For most companies, their values are just marketing speak. But customers are getting savvy and they are making decisions based on truth, decency, and values. They have expectations of brands. They have expectations of the human side of companies. Companies need to wise up and recognize that everything we do and sell starts and ends with people. How we treat one another, who we are in the world as individuals, and how we show up for people.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given from a female mentor?

I have so many fantastic female mentors. And I’ve been lucky to receive so much good advice. But my favorite is simple: Don’t let the jerks get you down. The world is full of people who are mean for sport. We can let them hurt us and we can let them get in the way of progress. Or we can choose not to give them that kind of power and we can keep moving. We have the power to choose what matters and what doesn’t.

Follow Nancy on social media at:
Instagram: nylons
Twitter: @nylons
Facebook: nancy.lyons

Amanda Brinkman

August 20, 2019

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