On this week’s episode we have Savannah Alvarado, president of Hancock Group – a full service advertising agency based out of Midland, Texas. Hancock Group specializes in providing expertise in all areas of advertising. Savannah and her team provide traditional advertising, web design, digital media, branding, apparel, and promotional products.
Savannah’s inherent creativity has always been a driving force within her, though she hasn’t always been certain about the specific path she would take. She grew up in Midland, Texas – a small town that operates around oil and gas. Savannah aspired to leave her small town behind her, but it would be here in her hometown that she would eventually start working for Hancock Group.
Savannah fell in love with the agency right away and found herself looking around the room and wondering if she could be the President by the time she turned 30 – and she did just that. She feels that purchasing the name and the clients and everything that she had already been working with gave her the confidence to feel legitimate but Savannah’s climb to the top didn’t come without hardship.
There was a point after she purchased the company that the president at the time ended up retiring and the team was down to Savannah and her bookkeeper. It took the concept 6 months or so to take fruition, which seems quick from the outside perspective but according to Savannah, it came with the stress of rushing and figuring out which way to go in a time when Covid was very active. There were a lot of answers she had to quickly learn for herself, but she persevered with a drive to self-teach and educate herself along the way.
Savannah’s takes us on her journey from employee to president of Hancock Group and showcases her incredible determination, authenticity, and transparency throughout the episode.
Enjoy the Story.
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Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.
Welcome to An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russel. Today’s guest on the show is Savannah Alvarado owner of Hancock group, a full service advertising agency based out of Midland, Texas. Savannah started out as an employee of Hancock group and eventually took over the reins as owner as a result of her dedication and determination. West Texas is known for being a hotbed of Texas Tea, or oil for those that haven’t listened to the intro to Beverly Hillbillies. And it is not known for being an easy place to run a marketing agency. Hear how Savannah overcame the odds on our journey from employee to owner and never looked back. Enjoy the story. Welcome to the show today, everyone. I have Savannah Alvarado with Hancock Group. Thank you so much for joining us today, Savannah.
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
First question always, start us off with a quick overview. What does Hancock Group do and who do you do it for?
Hancock Group is a full functioning advertising agency out here in West Texas. What that means is, yes, we do advertising, but we operate as an extension of different businesses. If somebody comes to us and they need a logo created or help with figuring out what the right direction is for their business name, all the beginner stuff that you need whenever you’re launching a business, like a website, business cards, all that stuff. We do all of the beginning work in that creative, but then once all of that’s launched, you’re ready to go and you say, okay, now how do I advertise? How do I market? We handle that as well. People will outsource their whole marketing to us and have us run advertising campaigns or social media, any of that fun stuff. The other part of our business is promotional products. Pins, hats, coozies, anything with your logo on it. That’s how I explain it to people. If it’s anything to do with your logo or getting your name out there, that’s what we do.
I always loved getting something with our logo on it. That’s always neat to see. It can be the simplest of things.
Makes it feel official.
From our previous conversation, sounds like the younger up and coming version of yourself didn’t quite expect to be where you’re at today, in maybe multiple ways. What was young Savannah initially thinking, as you were coming outta high school and college and beyond? Where was your career headed?
Honestly, I don’t know. I wasn’t necessarily a bad student, but I didn’t excel in one class over another. I knew that I liked something creative. I enjoyed art classes and I didn’t mind writing essays or anything like that, but I didn’t know where it was gonna go. I started out in special education and then I ended up switching after an internship. As I got into college, I thought maybe I’d go down the graphic design route. I had two goals. I knew that I wanted something where I wasn’t gonna have to keep switching and figuring it out. Everybody always said, don’t worry. You have plenty of time to figure it out. Don’t worry about that. You can change your mind or whatever, and I really hated that advice. It gave me anxiety because I wanted to make a decision and go from there, and start working on it. That’s what I liked. I always played sports, so it’s like working towards a common goal, but that’s where I struggled, figuring out, okay, what do I wanna do? Every single question is what’s your favorite subject in class? Go for that. I did go to the graphic design route, but then landed on advertising where I could still use a little bit of creative, but it was more structured. I watched the show Mad Men and I was like, let’s give it a shot. I fell in love with my classes and grew from there.
One of the things I thought was interesting from our first conversation is where you’re at location wise. Cause I got the feeling you were like, I’m getting the heck out of Midland-Odessa and I’ve never coming back. Yet you’ve come back and it seems to almost be centralized into your mission and purpose. Is that accurate?
I grew up out here in Midland, which is an oil and gas town. It’s a mix between a big city but still has that small town feel where everybody knows each other, and it operates around oil and gas. I grew up here as the outlier that didn’t have family that was in oil and gas, but all of my friends were. I knew a little bit about it, but not a ton. I didn’t grow up in that household. Whenever I left Midland, I was like, I’m never coming back. Off to the big city, doing something different. Whenever I ended up back here, none of my family was here and it was a place I never expected myself to be back at. I had to find my own path. My now husband, he works on the oil and gas side, but there’s so much, I wouldn’t say instability, but up and down. Oil and gas cycles in and out in terms of if it’s doing well or if it’s not. I definitely wanted to stay in marketing, but I came back and there was no marketing jobs. I really didn’t know where that was gonna go. I had worked on the client side in San Antonio. Whenever I moved back, I ended up taking a job at the paper, which, it wasn’t for me, but it was great because I got some print experience. Once I came over to the agency side of everything and I started working for Hancock Group, I started working here before I ended up purchasing the company. Seeing how the economy does focus around oil and gas is interesting because I don’t technically work for an oil and gas company, but it drives a lot of our business and how the town functions, which is really interesting.
One of the interesting things I love as part of your story is that you started out as an employee and then eventually turned owner. What was that evolution like as you were coming into this business and then the eventual decision to pursue that ownership?
My dad, he owned his own business. I liked that idea of being some sort of entrepreneur, but I didn’t think that it was a possibility for me. I didn’t have a bunch of resources that I could fall back on or just go for it. Whenever I started working at Hancock Group, there was five or six people working here, and I looked around and was like, okay, this is a good gig. Maybe I can be president before I’m 30. Seeing how everything worked and who was on their way out, you can see the writing on the wall. I stuck around. I fell in love with an agency and so then I thought, okay, what would this look like if I did branch out and start on my own? What kept me from doing that was totally starting from scratch. I didn’t even know, do I go get an LLC? How do I do that? What is that even look like? I knew nothing about the business side of things since I had such a creative degree. I didn’t take a bunch of business classes in college. There wasn’t anything that I knew about it. Then Covid hit and we had to downsize. Some people were laid off versus quitting and going to another opportunity. It came down to just three of us. There was three of us in the office. A really small team. The owner oversaw everything. She wasn’t super involved in the day-to-day. I could see the writing on the wall where I was like, okay, things might need to change. I might need to go find another job. Maybe this is my chance to actually go after it. What does that look like? I was lucky that my husband was supportive of it. He was like, why don’t you see what it would look like if you wanted to approach her? I asked the current president at the time, I said, do you think, with everything going on, the owner would wanna sell? She says, you might as well ask. I went to her, I took her to lunch and I said, is this something you’re interested in? And she said, yep. I said, okay, let me figure out how to round up some money and all that. I went down this long road of figuring out, okay, how do I get funding? What do I need? Do I need to hire an attorney, or do I just need to go to my accountant, what does this look like? Do I have to have a contract drawn up? I literally knew nothing. I learned the difference in buying the corporation, just the name and buying the assets. What I ended up doing was purchasing the assets. The client list, that was the biggest thing. The client list, QuickBooks, all that stuff, because there are different licenses with advertising agency and doing promo products. That was such a plus that I didn’t have to do that legwork. At the end of the day, I’ve gotten the question so many times, do you wish you would’ve started it on your own instead of making a big purchase like this? And honestly, I think that I did make the right decision. Purchasing the name and the clients and everything that I had already been working with gave me the confidence to feel legitimate. I felt like I actually could do this. If I was on my own, I think I would’ve second guessed myself. It gave me the legitimacy to actually go for it and I think that changed everything. It was a hard road. There got to a point, after I purchased the company, the president ended up retiring so then it was just down to two of us, me and my sweet bookkeeper Theresa. It was a lot of hustle and figuring out which way to go, how to turn around those finances in the middle of Covid where, what’s the first thing that everybody cuts whenever they need to save some money? It’s usually advertising. Many of our budgets were cut and everything, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Obviously quite an involved process, encountering a lot of different things you hadn’t seen before. How long did it actually take from concept to actually closing the deal?
Probably six months or so. Which was hard because, compared to a lot of other people, that’s quick, but in 2020 nobody wants to lose anything and everything was in a rush. Trying to figure out which way to go. I spent two or three months digging into P and L sheets, looking at the balance sheet, figuring out trends. I also had to figure out a way to present myself to the bank. Going through our contracts and seeing where I could make easy improvements before committing to a business that was going in a different direction. What were easy ways that I could do that? Did I have the experience? I might have these great ideas, but did I have the experience to actually execute them? What was that gonna look like? And creating a business plan, had never created a business plan before. It was just a lot of learning in that way. The biggest thing was figuring out, what do I pay for this? I would ask people, I’d say, what’s the formula? This much revenue times this or whatever. I was wanting somebody to give me that answer where it was so broad and vague of, at the end of the day it’s your decision, which I understand now, but in that time, I had to shift my mindset of thinking, okay, I just need to go find these answers. Where instead it’s, I need to find paths and advice, then come up with my own answer from that, which was hard whenever you are in your twenties and making a huge purchase that will be totally life altering. There was a lot of doubt because I didn’t have anything to fall back on. If this didn’t work out, it would be bad, just like anybody with a business. Figuring out a way to find those answers, but also believe in myself and figure out which way we were gonna go from there.
Having gone through the sale of a business myself and finding out, there’s not so many concrete answers. What a crazy process, but so much experience, I’m sure you gained in that. Just even going through the process of financing, what was that like? Any sage words of wisdom for someone else approaching a similar situation?
Totally. My words of wisdom is find people that believe in your cause. I definitely felt like a bit of an underdog, coming in with my age and being a woman in a male dominated industry. The funds that I was looking for are nowhere near what they are in oil and gas. I very much was the little guy and nobody really took me seriously or cared. Even some of the bankers, they were like, don’t wanna deal with all of this. I was asking a lot of questions where to somebody else, they’re like, it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just, you do this or do that. I had a lot of granular questions that I had to figure out, but then also, I talked to two attorneys that I feel like just blew me off too. In the beginning it takes a little bit longer, but my advice is find people who you do feel like believe in you. Once I finally found an attorney that actually took the time to answer my questions, didn’t make me feel like I was stupid, that’s when everything changed. There was a shift there because I felt like I had a good team in place that did have my back because this is a huge life altering decision. Find people who you feel like are on your team, on your side, but also you have to go with the decision that you think is right, and have confidence in that.
Very much experienced the exact same thing, we were going through this process and so many questions. To your whole point, talked to people that I thought were in our corner and we were paying and found out they were just phoning it in. It ended up being we did similar thing where it was our CPA had done a lot of transactions himself, started taking the reins and answering stuff for us, even getting involved in some of the conversations. I was so thankful for them stepping in. Quite a juxtaposition from showing up one day as an employee and then the next day owner. Was there a mindset shift from that exact transition or you already had prepared yourself? What was that like, showing up that first day as owner of your new business?
A little bit of, I would like to say fear, but no, there wasn’t at all. I just kept my head down for as long as I could because I was so driven by totally turning around the balance sheet and making sure that things looked profitable. I knew with there only being two of us whenever I purchased it, that I had to do the work for five people. I knew that going after that was something I needed to do. I was excited because I felt like I had the permission to do the ideas that I wanted to and had thought about. I was able to go ahead and go for it. I didn’t have to ask anybody, what do you think about this? Do you think that we should try this? I walked in and I definitely had a weight off my shoulders of, this is done. We’ve made the purchase. We did it, but now I’m like, okay, I’ve got a business loan and payroll to make and rent to pay. That was a shift. It was, okay, I’m done with this stress of figuring out if it’s gonna work out, but now I have a new stress of being a business owner, being the boss and making sure that I do a good job. I have to set an example. If I don’t make this work, nobody’s gonna make it work for me. It was a maturity shift, I would say.
As I understand it, doing this in the middle of all things Covid, there were some pain points in the early days of the business as you took it over. What was going on, what was happening, and likewise, how did you go about navigating those issues?
That was interesting. It’s like we got the ball rolling. I felt like things were looking good. Now in hindsight, I’m like, I was working way too much and focusing on the wrong things, but I was able to hire one more person. I had started to grow the team, things were looking good and trending the way that I wanted them to. I was at an event, running an event, and I got the call that we lost our biggest client. My first thought was a word that starts with f, what are we gonna do? What am I gonna do? This is huge. We were too reliant on them, whenever it comes down to profitability. That was hard too, I was at an event. I had to keep face where you feel the lump in the back of your throat. Everything that we’ve been working towards and this big client has dropped us now. What do I do? There was a few things. It was shifting my mindset to see how is this a good thing? I did realize, hey, that was the one client that was keeping me up at night. I was bending over backwards for them and they didn’t appreciate the work that I do or really understand the work that I did. That’s not sustainable. It made me understand how to say no to people in the future. Having a good partnership with clients is huge. Everybody comes to work every day, and it’s a job. The whole, you wanna have a passion, that’s great, but there are so many things and changes that a boss can make in a work environment that make it better for their employees. Being selective in who we decide to partner with, having a mutual respect and understanding for each other does help with longevity. I had to think into, who is our ideal client and what do we want from them, but also, how do I protect myself in the future? We implemented a 60 day cancellation policy. That was something that has benefited Hancock Group on paper, but also it helps protect me if there are things that come up because I don’t wanna lock anybody into these crazy contracts where they feel like they’re trapped. If somebody doesn’t wanna work with us or it gets to a point where it’s mutual. If somebody doesn’t wanna be around you, you’re not gonna be begging them to stay. Figuring that out and giving myself a little bit of that cushion so if something like that happened in the future it wouldn’t be so devastating. Also continuing to diversify our clients. After that, within four or five months, we got a lot of new clients, but 80% of our clients were ones that I had onboarded since I had been with Hancock Group. There were a few that were there before and maybe had worked with different account managers, before I bought the company. After we lost that bigger client, everyone was somebody that I had the relationship and built it from the ground up. That was a great way moving forward. I realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be. It was tough, but you lose something and you replace it. We were able to replace it a lot easier than I thought just by simple improvements and onboarding a few new clients. In hindsight, it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. It shook things up in the beginning but it taught me a huge lesson early on.
As you’re looking ahead and you’ve got things settled down a little bit at least, what do you see the long-term goal with the business and particularly your role within it?
Long-term goal is to be able, obviously we’re in the business of making money, but if we get to a little bit more personal side, I want to create roles for young women like myself. Somebody coming outta college wanting to create their own path and find a career in a city that doesn’t offer a ton of opportunities for this industry. Building them up, creating a place that people enjoy working at. I think that there’s a big importance in balance. Especially being a woman, I had my first kid this year but I wanna have it all. I wanna be able to have my career and have a family and have time off. That’s the great thing about being the business owner, is I can create that environment. I don’t want to create it for myself. I wanna create it for women like myself to have the same path.
What do you feel, just looking at your own experience thus far, what’s been your secret sauce or maybe your key to success?
A little bit of what I said earlier, whenever we lost our biggest client, learning how to say no, which is such a cliche answer. There are times when you do have to say yes to everything. If you are desperate for cash, you have to hustle in the beginning, and I totally do understand that. Taking jobs that you’re not super fired up about, paying the dues there, but as you get to a point, you have to realize when to say no because the repercussions in the end won’t be worth it. Nowadays everybody needs a rush job and although most of the times we can get it done, sometimes it’s really tight. It’s better to say, look, no, I would hate to get into a situation where I tell you that I can do this and then we end up disappointing you in the end. I wanna make sure you know a hundred percent that you’ll leave being satisfied with the company instead of a sour taste in your mouth. It’s always hard to turn somebody away, saying no whenever you need to and understanding when to. I think that’s been our secret sauce. There are clients, sometimes you have to break up. We’ve had that a few times. It’s not often, where you feel things are getting a little bit rocky. Mutual accountability is important. If you can’t see eye to eye, it’s not going the right way. Learning when it’s time to separate and say no to the future with them. That’s the advice that I would give to anybody. That also helps with your own decision making skills and being confident in those decisions too.
I can certainly a hundred percent agree with that. That was a big turning point in our business, it was became less about what we were saying yes to and more about what we were saying no to. I always likened it to, I don’t remember what poker player said it, but being a successful poker player is more about the hands you fold than the hands you actually win. You’re in this very oil and gas concentrated region, and you’ve highlighted on a couple different things, but what sort of challenges has that presented for your business?
I would say two, the vendor mentality, but then also the predictability of it. With that first answer, the oil and gas is so fast paced, there’s a lot at stake. It’s a male dominated industry and depending on what company it is or which facet it is, you are working with a lot of vendors. The mentality or the norm is to be very sharp and sometimes it comes off rude, like demanding cuz they need things that are fast. Where with us, it’s not rocket science. We’re not doing brain surgery. We take our job seriously, but if you send me an email at 6:00 AM I can wait till 8:00 AM to get back to you because it’s not usually life-threatening. Whereas if there’s a problem with a well or something in oil and gas, they need answers right away. An engineer needs to be on call 24 hours a day. Sometimes there’s a little bit of loss in translation there. People get really worked up because that’s how they’re used to talking to other vendors where that’s not the thing. That’s not how we do things here. We do need that mutual respect, but then also knowing that it’s just how people operate. Don’t take it too personally. Sometimes people treat vendors a certain way and it’s because that’s how the rest of the company operates. We have to figure out, where’s the balance there, learning how to communicate with them. The communication style of a doctor’s office is gonna be different than the communication style of somebody out in the field. That’s one, figuring out what’s a good balance of that. Then also, being in an oil and gas town, there’s a lot of unpredictability as far as where things are gonna go. It might be great one year, and then it might be down the next. It’s interesting, in Midland, you can see how oil’s doing based off of how full the parking lot is at the airport. If there’s cars, trucks parked all the way to the back, so many people are coming in, getting to work and being busy, things are good. Whenever things are good, that trickles down to us too, because people are wanting to spend the money to appreciate their clients. Get the word out there, take full advantage of that opportunity. Whenever oil’s bad, people are cutting budgets and not able to spend. Especially with marketing and advertising, it should be the opposite. When things are bad, you should invest more time and resources into marketing and advertising to try and generate business. But, everybody operates differently. For us, it’s figuring out, okay, everybody wants to go after oil and gas clients because there’s a ton of them, and usually they have resources to spend. But because of how unpredictable it can be, we had to diversify our clients so that if oil was down, it didn’t totally devastate us as a company. Going into different industries and making sure that everything’s a little bit more stable.
Knowing is certainly half the battle, and you’ve prepared very well for that situation. Sounds like you’ve got some resilience built in there. Last big question for you and this will be an interesting answer, given your case. Are entrepreneurs born, or are they made?
Made, I would say. Whenever I was a kid, I wasn’t in an oil and gas family. Sometimes those kids are a little bit more privileged in terms of things that they can do and allowances and things like that. I noticed that a lot. How do I get things that I want? How do I figure that out and how do I make that path for myself? My dad was like, you have to do it on your own. You have to figure it out. My dad was a big hunter and he had brought home some beef jerky or something one day that was pre-packaged. You shoot a deer, you send it off and they make beef jerk for you. He brought home all of these bags. I took all of the bags, without his permission of course, took it to school and I sold all of ’em for, five bucks a bag, where of course my dad probably spent 25 bucks a bag or something. It was definitely a loss on his end, but for me, I figured out at an early age that you could make money from doing whatever. That’s what I learned along the way. In college it was paying attention to trends and seeing what it was. Anytime that somebody would want a creative service from me, I was like, yeah, I’ll do it. You just have to pay me for it. Even in high school, people who didn’t wanna write papers, I was like, I’ll write your paper for 20 bucks. I think you might be born with that drive of wanting to figure things out, but you learn things along the way that do make you an entrepreneur. I didn’t necessarily realize that I had been doing it my whole life, but selling the beef jerky, writing people’s papers. When I got into college, I dabbled with making jewelry for a little bit. A big thing at our college was to paint coolers and so I painted coolers. I always was the queen of the side hustle, you always have a side hustle. I didn’t realize what it was. To answer your question, they are made based off of the experiences that you have and things that you go through.
Another similar alignment in our story, I did the same thing growing up. I’d take things out of my grandma’s pantry or I’d draw pictures and try to go door to door to sell them. I think I picked up more donations than actually selling anything or sympathy money. If people wanna know more about Hancock Group, where can they go?
You can go to our Instagram, Hancock Midland or our website hancockgroup.net, but there’s plenty of info there. My personal handle is savsalva, and there’s always a direction there through my bio.
Love it. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Savannah. Loved so many different parts of your story and your journey that you’ve gone through. Best of luck to you going forward.
Thanks, you too.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.
One time I was asked to come and speak to a local school and do a Q&A for high school seniors for their career day. They were like, we wanna put you in the marketing category, and I was like, oh my gosh, I’m so honored. Thank you so much for having me and for inviting me. This is so cool. I felt, what an amazing honor. I told my team, okay, I’m gonna be out this day. Just be without me. There was four of us in the office at that point. I see it on my calendar. I mark it down, pack up my office. I go home for work that night and then I come into work the next morning and I get my coffee, I sit down. I’m having the easiest morning. I have something on my schedule. What is it? It was written down, but something I had totally forgotten. Which is really not like me. My book keeper came in and she was like, I have written down that you’re supposed to be gone this morning. It had started at nine, it was 9:15. I’m a person who hates being late, it made me want to throw up. I was like, do I say that I’m sick and just not go, what do I do? I was so mortified. Speaking of a career and this new business. How terrible for me to show up and be late. I rush over there and I was like, I’m just gonna go in, keep my head held high, own up to it. Sorry I’m late. Let’s get to it. I show up and they’re like, oh my gosh, we’re so glad you’re here, so many people weren’t able to come this morning, we’re actually going to move you from the marketing panel over to the entrepreneurship or business owner panel. I was totally not prepared and I didn’t even know, I had to wing it, showing up late and stuff, but it was fun. You just roll with it and figure it out.
Yeah, it happens to us. Unfortunately, there’s so many things going on as a business owner, but sounds like what you’re very adept at is rolling with the punches and making the best of a situation. Sometimes a little serendipity can help you along the way.