September 1, 2020
“You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You cannot have both.” – Brené Brown
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. We share an ambitious Extra(ordinary) Executive’s journey with you this month; highlighting not only a driven individual’s courageous efforts to success, but also a team that inspires collaboration beyond borders; and beyond Hollywood’s fame. These down-to-earth Executives are eager to use creativity to impact people around the world; with friendships so humble, we gain an appreciation for the varying degrees of Hollywood’s stardom.
We go behind the scenes with Chris Kneeland, Co-Founder and COO of Communo, a Calgary owned and founded company with an innovative platform that helped launch John Krasinski’s Some Good News. Chris made a move to Calgary from Dallas, Texas, in 2010 to pursue ownership of a small advertising agency. A series of events led Chris to meet and partner with Ryan Gill, Co-Founder and CEO of Communo. Referring to their partnership as “Yin and Yang”, Chris and Ryan’s complementary skill sets launched Cult Collective, a leading North American marketing engagement agency, which helps brands win a sustainable competitive advantage by focusing on eight proven principles that drive customer and employee engagement and forge fanatical loyalty. This venture birthed a creative, world class conference called The Gathering, voted by Forbes Magazine as the “Top Business Conference in North America”.
Chris admits he is not a naturally programmed entrepreneur. His journey to learn about entrepreneurship was very intentional and continues to this day. “Entrepreneurship is very stress inducing for me, I don’t have the stomach for it most of the time”, he states light-heartedly. With his experience and background consistent with new business ventures, Chris enjoys exploring and exploiting unmet needs. Having been afforded many opportunities to explore big brands and their success strategies, Chris and Ryan launched Communo. “Ryan and I agree that some of the best services are solutions you create for yourself. So we built Communo as an on-demand talent platform for our firm, which was facing an increasing volatile marketplace with quick turn projects and a hyper need for speed and expertise. I couldn’t attract the best and the brightest in the world to Calgary fast enough; so, we had to think differently about talent management and how to balance full-time versus contingent workers. Communo was born to solve that problem – first for us, and now for thousands of creative, digital and marketing firms like us.”
Chris is humble in taking us through Communo’s creation: “I didn’t realize while doing it how exceptional our approach to sourcing talent was. I just thought it was what agencies did to solve the disruption of their industry. But in talking to peers of mid-sized agencies, I realized we had something significantly better in the way that we were operating.” Communo grew first as a small start-up business for themselves; but in 2018 Chris and Ryan spun it off, incorporated, and raised third party capital. Cult Collective remains a power user, and have some shared leadership and shareholders.
Some Good News united people around the world in a significantly short period of time during COVID-19’s initial quarantine. It was Communo’s team who was successful in launching this series for John Krasinski. “Communo started with Ryan’s human connection. I call it his super-power. He doesn’t network, but rather builds mutually beneficial relationships of trust.” Chris continues, “Ryan is very good at having a sincere connection with people. He enters every relationship with a ‘what can I give versus what can I get’ mentality.” Several years ago Ryan met Mike Germano, and eventually convinced Mike to join the company in August 2019. “Mike was our most expensive resource,” Chris explains. “It was terrifying, but we had to put our money where your mouth is. We wanted to pursue bigger ambitions and faster growth, so we had to fund that. With Mike, we now had boots on the ground in New York, and had entered a hot new market. The best leaders hire people smarter than themselves; Mike had run bigger companies, played in bigger games; he was a unique asset.”
Chris is proud as he recalls the moment: “We took a huge risk! But if you don’t take exceptional risks, don’t expect something exceptional to happen.” He challenges. They placed a bet on talent, having no idea what would bear fruit from that relationship. What they were confident in was Mike’s ability to take the business in a trajectory they weren’t currently enjoying. “Mike had a personal relationship with John Krasinski,” Chris elaborates. “Back in March, John was in New York to film Saturday Night Live; it happened to be the week of the government shut down due to COVID-19. This was a very personal blow and disappointment for John in not being able to move forward with Saturday Night Live.” We learn that the Jack Ryan star had several goals on his bucket list; dreams that were indefinitely postponed, which included work he was pursuing with Amazon and Marvel. “John’s genuinely a nice person with a huge heart. He said he had this crazy idea for years that maybe one day in downtime he should do something about this idea, which was Some Good News. He was self-aware enough to know what he didn’t know; so John called Mike and asked if he would be willing to help him. Mike said yes, and the rest is history.”
John faced obstacles in selling his Some Good News idea. “The first few phone calls made to industry insiders were filled with pessimism”, Chris explains. “John was receiving advice and guidance that was discouraging by telling him to not proceed with his idea. ‘It’s not good for your career, John; this is not what A-List actors do, John; what are you doing making a web series, John; no one will watch it’.” Chris recalls. “John received a lot of negativity; but it was Mike who was positive. Mike understood John’s passion and his vision. Mike had a lot of resources that John didn’t have.”
Mike’s relationship with Communo enabled him to find experts within hours, and his experience with understanding the different parts of the process awarded Communo an advantage. “When you’re in something so deep, you can’t see the forest because of the trees; all you see are the rules,” Chris says. “When you don’t know what you’re doing, there are no rules! You don’t know what you’re breaking; you don’t know how reckless it is; you don’t know how responsible you’re being. The big production companies and big agencies all said that this couldn’t be done, and that nobody would watch. It was the smaller agencies and freelancers that wanted to be a part of something cool; gave themselves permission to create without worrying about what rules they were breaking”.
Although John completed a tremendous amount of the work personally, he required support and subject matter experts. “John didn’t know how to submit online content, edit video, promote video, solicit sponsors, or write contracts. It took an army of people to pull off what looks like a one-man band. John was super human in what he pulled off with Some Good News, but the entire cast of Communo supported and promoted him”, Chris explains.
We learn that the Jack Ryan star is humble, down to earth, and hardworking. “There is a huge misunderstanding between humility, ego and ambition,” Chris highlights. “The opposite of humble is not small or meek – you can have big dreams and still be humble. Humility is how you deal with people, how you express gratitude, and display graciousness.”
Some Good News offered two opportunities for success. “John was never placing his career on a permanent hold to run Some Good News,” Chris reminds us. “He did it as an opportunity due to the COVID-19 environment. He never thought it would be indefinite. The fact that it went viral and was as popular as it became was a pleasant surprise. Due to John’s good nature and humility, he never viewed himself as the critical component of the show’s success.” Chris continues, “John thought it was user generated content anyway. He would have felt selfish if he thought he had to stay at the centre of this. Today, Some Good News continues to be watched and is still very popular; but the success for this show is to now see what is going to happen in the next iteration with John as Producer.”
Some Good News also changed false paradigms that small cities are unable to partake in and become successful in doing big things. “It wasn’t a network; this wasn’t Netflix, it wasn’t Apple, and it wasn’t HBO that made Some Good News work,” Chris says. “It was a team of freelancers and small agencies from all over North America, but predominantly here in Calgary that did something that hundreds of millions of people are now craving. We have amazing talent all over Calgary, we just need to know how to access them; aggregate them; and this is what the Communo platform is trying to do – talent is judged by competence and portfolio.”
Communo’s success story with Some Good News offered Chris insight into a measure of success he considers imperative for him to continue his journey: “Freedom!” He smiles. “It’s the freedom to make choices; the freedom to have options; the freedom to do more of the stuff you want to do; and less of the stuff you don’t want to do.” We learn Chris has chosen not to retire; a refreshing perspective that connects personal and professional passion. “I won’t wait until I’m 65 to be happy. I will live the life I would like to live today, and work at it forever! I’m okay with this because I’m creating a job I would never want to quit; an intellectual job I enjoy and would like to do as long as I have the mental faculties to do it”.
Chris deals with realities by playing the cards he’s been dealt, and sharing his knowledge with others. “The most powerful viruses on earth are optimism or pessimism. If optimistic, you always learn more than the student. The mere act of learning something well enough to teach it means onus by default. Follow your own practices and be a role model.”
A large part of Chris’ journey has been to embrace a mindset of stoicism. He has chosen the path of a perpetual state of learning from the best practices of others; whether it’s helping clients by modelling best brands in the world, or through relationships he’s fostered at The Gathering. “There has to be something in our DNA; wiring, training, rewiring in our brains that says regardless of these external situations, I am going to succeed. And this must be driven internally.” Chris encourages us to question what and who we surround ourselves with. “We need to overcome the affinity score of what other people think. If your goal is to be popular, you will likely settle for something well below your means. Be courageous and tune negativity out so that you are not dragged down.”
We’re impressed with Chris’ candour. He is intuitive and reads the silence in his interactions; unafraid of offering advice to explore his intuition. His words will resonate for entrepreneurs seeking “a-ha” moments, as his spirit goes beyond defining a brand, a title or an organization. Chris drives his ambition toward possibilities others may not see; he highlights a person…he goes raw. But, this isn’t Chris’ secret sauce in discovering talent. There is more to Chris and the team at Communo that leads the competition in brand awareness and creativity.
It’s confidence. Impulsivity within parameters.
It’s risk. Liquid courage.
It’s placing a bet with your eyes closed. Eager for the PRIZE that awaits.
“If we expect external factors to increase or decrease our confidence, then we are going to be victims our whole lives. Stop apologizing for who you are. Be the person you want to be. Spend your calories on where you’re going; and worry less about where you’ve been. Because where you’ve been will hold you down.”
Some [more] Good News…? YOU are the prize.
COMMUNO – Chris Kneeland
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar Sharma, Founder & CEO