Featured Founder: Crafting Creative

“Featured Founder” is a series that profiles founders and entrepreneurs connected to The Ohio State University.  Today, we are featuring Doug Joseph, founder of Serif Creative. He gives us the big picture on his evolving into the leader he is today . . . 

Tell us about your business or organization.

Prior to starting my agency, Serif Creative, I traveled the world as a freelance filmmaker. I shot and produced documentaries in Iceland, Nepal and Indonesia.

Serif Creative was founded in 2009 out of my apartment — on my kitchen table. Originally we were a video production company. We have adapted and evolved to serve clients more holistically. The agency was founded upon three pillars: story, emotion and truth.

When those are combined for strategy and creative, that is how attention, trust and behavior is changed for our client's audience.

Since then, we have been able to serve more than 200 companies, ranging from Abbott Labs to The Ohio State University, and small to midsize businesses. Through serving our clients we have grown to become a multi-million dollar agency, with a great in-house team and an integrated team of more than 80.

Our services fall into three primary buckets: strategy, creative and production. We have put into place a fantastic executive leadership team. Andy Stiebler, our president and COO, oversees and owns strategy. Todd Novak, our creative director, owns and oversees creative. David Ball, our senior producer, owns and oversees production.

Between those three, there is more than 60 years of experience in creative services. There's nothing a client can throw at them that they can't handle. It's an honor to work alongside them every day; they're complete studs!

In late 2018, we purchased a building in the Brewery District and we are currently in the process of relocating, which has been very exciting for us.

Why did you decide to take a leap and become a founder? How did you reach that decision?

I decided to take that leap because it was in my DNA; I had no other choice. It's been my calling since childhood. I've always been entrepreneurial from mowing yards, to putting on card shows in my attic and selling baseball cards. I used to hang up signs in the neighborhood to market my card shows! Filmmaking, advertising, marketing and communication have been in my blood for as long as I can remember.

The timing to make that leap wasn't perfect and I believed it would never be perfect. I had a full-time job working at a loading dock and I was doing freelance filmmaking. I had produced a pro-bono commercial for a coffee shop, which in turn led to landing a contract to produce four commercials for a different business. I had a window open, and after landing that contract I decided to take a leap and I haven't looked back since.

Serif Creative was never a traditional startup, we generated revenue day one by serving our clients. We never had a plan B because we knew once the going got tough, our plan B would become our plan A. But when the going gets tough, that's when the tough get going.

How have you had to develop your leadership skills as a founder? What leadership lessons have you learned through leading your organization? 

I've never had a strong conscious desire to have others follow me. Having people follow my lead was never really on my radar. My leadership style has always been to serve and lead by example, and if people choose to follow me, then that's great. I used to be DIY to a fault; DIY is still there, but I've adapted.​

I've surrounded myself with great leaders and mentors who are better than me. Some of the skills I've had to develop are: self-discipline, executive presence, communication, how to delegate and empower others, and ultimately how to build trust with my team and our clients. I'm aware this isn't an exciting answer, but I feel trust and communication are the foundation of leadership.

I believe attention, trust, and community are the three most valuable resources in the world.

An additional area that I’ve had to work on is solitude. We live in a day and age where there is so much noise, it's easy for our minds to numb out. I've had to be intentional about carving out pockets of time to think and solve big problems and really learn to rewire my brain to think differently. This wasn't a problem leaders faced up until the last 10 years with smartphones, social/digital, etc. The leaders who learn to think and have original thoughts are going to be the ones others turn to in times of need and conflict.

Describe a success that has been made possible through your leadership skills.

In the early days of Serif I used to do pretty much everything. Looking back, I realize now, how much of a micromanager I was. I've learned how to delegate and empower others.

I believe there are three basic rungs to leadership that we climb over time.

  1. We start first by leading with skillsmanship and how you execute tasks and projects.
  2. Leading by your thought leadership and how you solve problems.
  3. Lastly, leading by developing other leaders around you.

Currently I'm in between rungs two and three. Back to the question, when I was in the first rung of leadership, I directed films; I shot and produced them. I've had to empower others, and now they're better than me, and that's a great feeling.

We had an upcoming national commercial shoot in California involving one of the top running backs in the NFL. I had made up my mind that I was going to direct the commercial. One of our youngest team members, Adam Brigham, a Buckeye alum, approached me and made a case to direct the film and I simply told him, "No, I'm directing it." He fought tooth and nail and made a great case to direct the film and really challenged me — and by a miracle somehow changed my mind. I finally said, "Alright, you can direct it!” I couldn't believe I gave up that control. Adam ended up doing a better job than I would have directing the project. He really stepped up and seized the opportunity. We ended up winning awards for that project. I was so proud of him and to this day am still proud of him.

Based on your experiences as a founder, what is the most important leadership trait that founders must possess? How did you foster that trait in yourself?

I don't think there is one magic trait leaders should possess. At the end of the day, I think it's about being true to yourself. People know when we live lies and can feel whether or not we're living from a place of authenticity. For example, to make a sports analogy, can you imagine if coach Jon Gruden were to try to lead Tony Dungy, or vice versa? John Gruden is a fiery animal and Dungy is a quiet sage. Imagine Gruden being a quiet sage on a day-to-day basis. His team would know that he is faking it.

Hollywood and the media typically portray a leader as one who is alpha, in charge, brass, etc. Frankly, that couldn't be further from the truth. It’s about being true to yourself.

Lastly, I believe it's critical to determine your core internal beliefs and really take time to shape them. Your beliefs will shape your values and your values will shape your actions, and your actions determine your name, reputation and legacy. The fruit is in your roots.

What other advice would you give a current or future founder about leading others? 

Lead yourself first, build trust with yourself, your team and your customers/clients. The command-and-control style of leadership doesn't fly like it used to. To lead others, they have to trust you. Don't try to do everything. We can do anything, but we can't do everything. Surround yourself with people who are better than you, and only listen to others and heed their advice if they are where you want to be.

Some other maxims I live by that I learned from the great coach John Wooden are:

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Discipline yourself or someone else will.

If you're not prepared, you're preparing to fail.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.