Working Hard, Having a Blast

By Brad McEwen

It would be folly to attempt a list of all the exciting and memorable moments I’ve enjoyed since coming to work at AB&T nearly two years ago.

There’s just been too many.

I can say, however, without a hint of doubt, that definitely one of the highlights of my tenure with the bank has been the opportunity I’ve had to work with Blake Cook, Tracy Goode and their incredible Levee creative team.

From the moment I first met a Levee camera crew for a video shoot—just days after joining the AB&T team—to spending the intervening months working shoulder to shoulder with the entire Levee family to help craft the bank’s story and connect it to the community, I’ve had nothing but respect for the groundbreaking creativity and attention to detail that have become hallmarks of the company Blake and Tracy have guided to exciting heights.

While I’d had occasion to interact with Blake and Tracy on numerous occasions over the years (even prior to the creation of the Levee), I had no idea what to expect when Perry informed me I’d be the subject of a Levee-created video announcing my arrival.

To say that I was a little concerned about having to be the subject of a video production is an understatement. As a career reporter/photographer, I’ve grown accustomed to telling the stories, taking the pictures and the shooting video, not being front and center with the focus on me.

Despite my fears, however, when I finally met Blake and the production team being used to handle the shoot, it didn’t take long for my concerns to prove unfounded.

What I encountered during that first meeting was a team of consummate professionals whose vision, talent and creativity were clearly evident.

Quite frankly the shoot could not have gone any better, and even though I still don’t love seeing or hearing myself on camera, the finished product from that day is indicative of the kind of exceptional work the Levee is known for, even if the two perfectionists who led to its creation would admittedly cringe to watch it less than two years later.

“We will both be quick to say that we hate everything we’ve ever done in about six days,” Blake told me recently with only a hint of a smile. “Because we always want to get better. We always want to one up the last thing for our clients.

“It’s not just the matter of the wow factor. It’s… we’re in the needle moving business. If the goal of a customer is to have 10 more hits on their website a week, we want to create the creative that will get it there. And so we want to look at the measurables and we want to look at the data and we want to marry that creative with it.

“So when we hit a home run we high five a little bit, but then we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do better next time. And I know everybody says that; the coaches always say to focus on this win tonight and tomorrow we’ll go right back to watching film, but that’s kind of what we do.

“Pardon the expression, if we get too big for our britches we don’t want to do that. We want to keep growing and getting better.”

“The process that we have at the Levee is: create, learn and repeat,” Tracy added. “Everything that we do, everything that we create, whether it’s a video production, a digital ad, whatever, we create these things and we learn from them, and try to learn from them by making mistakes or what went well, then try to repeat that process again, just in a better way. I think that’s where a lot of the success is coming from; it’s continuing to grow and just not being stagnant in finding a product or something that we’ve done well in the past and just staying there.”

Of course, as a creative type myself, I totally understand the desire to improve and get better, and there’s no denying that Levee’s passion to always push forward and create the next exciting thing is one of the chief reasons I cherish our partnership and quite frankly, get excited every time the team delivers a new creative asset.

That dedication to excellence is also one of the reasons I was thrilled recently to sit down with the two business owners at their new downtown Albany work space to talk more about their creative process, the paths that brought them together and how the love of telling stories has blossomed into a thriving local advertising and production firm, whose success has led to the development of relationships as far away as Nashville and Dallas—even if the dynamic duo themselves were a little hesitant about being on the other side of the lens.

“We’ve always appreciated being Batman and Robin for the sake of our clients, because we didn’t want it to be about us,” Blake said of the low profile that belies the volume of Levee-created media being created for area businesses and seen by local residents. “As soon as it becomes the Blake and Tracy show is when we lose focus on them. And I hope that in this interview or in any advertisement that we do, it’s never about us. It’s about how much we want to produce success for them.”

Indeed, throughout our conversation Blake and Tracy made a concerted effort to highlight how important it is for them to always keep the client first and to always remain focused on their clients’ needs—and building relationships to truly understand those need—is the foundation of their business.

“Whenever we do take on a client, or we get a production job, or whatever it might be, it’s always in our best interest to have their best interest in mind, to know what our clients want and how we can serve them best,” Blake explained. “Pretty much all the clients we work with, I think currently and in the past, all have a niche that they have, something that they want exploited and they just don’t know how to tell that story.

“And that’s what we really enjoy doing, is really telling the stories and helping them express what it is they want to get out to the community.”

That philosophy is so important, in fact, that the Levee’s main areas of focus have evolved out of working to meet the very real needs of some of the company’s clients.

“We really focus on three areas,” Blake said. “That’s advertising, production and corporate training. So any of the projects we’re working on could be incorporated into those pieces. In advertising we’re kind of full service marketing where we have digital, design, social media management, web design, video production.

“Then we see video production as a whole different department. So at any given point, we may have 30, 40 videos going on at the same time. We may have 40, 50, 60 digital ads going on at one time. So again it’s a lot of different products that are servicing our clients in the best way possible.

“And that’s what it’s all about.”

A prime example of the Levee venturing into different avenues in order to meet the needs of their clients is the company’s recent foray into corporate training, a decision conceived out of necessity that has become a distinct and important line of business.

“On the training side, it’s kind of a separate wing of what we do,” Blake said. “And that’s something new to us that we’ve started recently—helping organizations with their employee onboarding processes, employee training, things like that.”

“And that’s a pretty cool avenue to be able to train your people in a standardized way, because that standard will never change until you’re ready to change it.”

While the duo’s commitment to staying attuned to clients’ needs, and helping them express themselves through various forms of advertising, is assuredly a foundational pillar of the company’s business philosophy, so too is their belief in surrounding themselves with other creative people, which is something that has become a necessity as the company has continued to grow.

“First of all, commitment to our people,” Blake offered when I asked about the reason for the company’s recent success. “(And) having the best possible people that we can find.

“Many people think you have to go off to film school to figure out how to tell a story, but there are story tellers running around here who are in high school. So (there is) opportunity for one of those people to cultivate and grow their own skills. I mean we have the intern program and we’ve had people who started out here as interns and now they’re running divisions for us, so that commitment to good people is one of our pillars.”

In fact, having spent time with nearly all of the Levee’s Albany-based employees, I feel confident saying that not only is the company’s commitment to their people impressive, so too is the company’s ability to find and nurture talent.

“We have 10 employees full-time and we have a lot of contractors that we use all over the place,” said Tracy. “We operate a lot in the Dallas and Nashville areas and so we have people who work over there as well. But right here in this office, we have 10 people that we employ. And we take it very seriously.

“And to be honest, with you, it’s kind of everyone here is out of necessity. There’s no fluff jobs here. I know everybody sees the ping pong tables and foosball tables and everything, and think, ‘Man, I really wish I had your job.’ But everyone here gives it 100 percent when they are here and they’re working.

“And everyone here is extremely talented.”

So talented in fact, that the pair—whose own creative instincts are strong and have clearly been the company’s main engine—have had to learn how to open up the creative process and allow others he chance to provide input that has been vital to the company’s success.

“I think one of the hardest things as we have grown is for Blake and I to let go of the reins on some things,”’ Tracy said. “We are always watching for quality. We are always watching to make sure nothing suffers or is sub-Levee standard, because we take pride in that everything we do is going to be our best effort.

“But to watch someone edit a story I have to trust that they’re going to make the right decisions and let them get better. Because what I want for them is to get better. I think it’s very short-sighted of people, and I think a lot of businesses don’t grow, they hit a ceiling and stay there until they retire, because dad or the business owner couldn’t let go of the reins.

“I think that cripples a lot of businesses, especially creatively. You think you know best. Well hey, there’s a ton of creative out there and they just might have (a better idea).”

“We were talking about this the other day, and (someone) said to say, ‘Eisenhower,’” Blake continued. “’When in doubt say Eisenhower.’ Never be the smartest person in the room. And for here, at the Levee, I think it’s, ‘Never be the most creative person in the room.’

“At some point you have to let those reins go and notice that you holding onto that really is making our clients suffer, right, because somebody else has a better idea for them than you do? But you know, with that being said, every product, all those hundreds of products that run through here currently do, and always will, run through us. It’s not like we’re quality control. We definitely have a vision for what we want and we want to provide to our customers and clients. It’s definitely something special you know.

“I think that every person leaves their ego at the door when they come in. And you have to because if you’re going to grow, you’re going to have disagreements,” he continued. “And you’re going to have to come to some sort of a conclusion somewhere. And that doesn’t always land on me and Tracy.

“A lot of times, Andrew, Jordan, McKenna, Jason, they will have a lot better ideas and like I said, we’re not always the most creative people in the room. So having the participation of everyone in that creative process really helps.”

“It takes all of these people,” added Tracy. “And we do take it seriously that these are our brothers and sisters. And not just them. We’re helping to support their families and the community as well. And that’s not something that we take lightly.”

Of course, being able to find talented people and give them opportunity is one thing. Being able to draw the most out of them and get them to commit to the mission of the company is something completely different.

Thus far, Blake and Tracy have done what they consider to be a good job in that regard, and they think getting their employees into the right roles to best utilize their talents is important not only for the Levee but for the employees themselves.

“You want to have the right people in the right seats,” Tracy said. “Early on, we would have someone doing something that probably wasn’t their best skill set or wasn’t in their wheelhouse and things would fall through the cracks. Not because they’re a bad person or they hate you, it’s just that that wasn’t their thing.”

“We’ve grown our own talent,” Blake added. “It’s like a baseball team has a farm team. Again, I go back to the interns that are running divisions for us. They truly had talent. You’ve just got to chip away some other stuff. And they chip away at us. And so yeah, we’ve hired some talent that has amazed us after they got to the right seat.”

Thanks to that collection of talent, the Levee is currently clicking along like a well-oiled machine, but by their own admission, it took some time for company to find its current groove, something that was mainly driven by the fact that in the early days of the company, everything rested solely on the abilities of Blake and Tracy, who first started working together back in 2011, after the original Levee concept had gone through a metamorphosis.

“We started in 2008 as a music school,” Blake explained. “I was actually an accountant and started teaching music just for fun on the side. I’ve always enjoyed playing music and we’re all still, for the most part, musicians here at the Levee.

“We started really just teaching students how to play guitar, drums, bass. And that side just kind of blew up and we started a music school. We had a blast during those times.”

Blake went on to explain that the company kept the music school going until 2015—well after the original iteration of the Levee had given way to today’s Blake and Tracy partnership—but ultimately decided to shutter it when then-manager and close friend John Wills passed away.

“When he passed away we felt the need to just kind of let that go and focus where we know we can best serve our community and outside our community,” Blake said.

And that current focus really came about thanks to a decision that was made nearly a decade ago, back when the music school was still gaining momentum and today’s vision of the Levee had not taken shape. As Blake tells it, it was a seemingly unimportant decision made in those earliest days that led the Levee down its current path of serving its clients through the areas of advertising, production and training.

“Back in probably 2010, when we at the Levee were a music studio, we bought DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras that no one really had here,” Blake said. “Maybe this was 2009, 2010. But nobody had the DSLR cameras. If they did have them, it was all for photography.

“We got them for video, for ourselves, just to make funny videos, make commercials for ourselves. And we started producing these things and putting them on Facebook back when My Space was probably still cool.

“And we put them out there and just started having people come up going, ‘These look awesome, can you do my videos?’ And I think that’s when the light bulb went off.”

As Blake was likely having his lightbulb moment, his future partner, however, was on his own creative journey, nurturing his childhood passion for video production through a series of different jobs and sidelines.

“I had a weird path,” Tracy told me when I asked what led him to the Levee. “I always had a passion to own my own production company. When I was a kid, I had a VHS video camcorder and I’d shoot commercials; I’d shoot movies. I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to own a production company and I wanted to be president of the United States. I gave up on one of those.

“I actually had a business license before I had a driver’s license,” he continued. “I had this video camera and someone asked me to shoot their wedding. So I shot it and I had no idea what to charge them, I didn’t even know what that entailed.

“But at the time I was working part-time at Fox 31, part-time at Darton State College and part time at my church, Sherwood Baptist Church. I had three little gigs doing whatever, had only one camera, so I got a business license to do stuff on the side. So when I was 14 I had four jobs. I was a straight C student like everyone else. I’m kidding. I just had a passion to do those things.”

“Fast forward to 2000,” Tracy continued. “I went to work at Sherwood Baptist Church and helped them do their movies and stuff. So I just gained a ton of knowledge of how to work the cameras, light the right way, work with audio. After I left Sherwood, I worked at Darton State as the Chief Advancement Officer over there in marketing and development and that’s where I met Blake. I had heard about the Levee; I had seen some of these commercials. I was like, ‘This stuff looks different.’

“It was because of their commitment to just tearing down the walls of normal. There was no normal at the Levee and there still isn’t. They were just making good stuff and I was like, from a distance, watching that stuff.”

Eventually, Tracy said, the pair’s friendship grew and the opportunity presented itself to work more closely with each other, leading the two to become partners and make the Levee their number one priority.

“We started working together on nights and weekends,” he said. “It was just he and I and John Wills had the music. We were shooting commercials and it was a lot of fun doing that. So I think it 2014 when we stopped working full-time and dove into the Levee full-time.”

Although they were having fun and opportunities were presenting themselves, Blake and Tracy did say it was still a little nerve-wracking making the decision to give up the security of their regular jobs.

“Growing up it was just a given that I was just going to graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, work 8 to 5, come home,” Tracy explained. “Whatever. Those days aren’t there anymore. There are not many jobs that are stable out there. It was kind of an eye-opening experience to say, ‘If you go out here and you’re really good at something, give it a shot.’”

“I mean looking back I think we just got lucky,” Blake added. “I think that we just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to do that. I’m not sure I would have the guts to do it again in that way.

“There’s nothing that says, ‘You’re an accountant, why don’t you go teach at a music school, or start a music school?’ I think really just the passion I had for business, for music, for creativity, probably drove a lot of that. And we had a lot of good people along the way as well. It just kind of evolved from there. I just really had the drive to make things work.”

“I think when your unhappiness is greater than your fear, that’s when you really step out and say, ‘I’m going to make something happen,’” added Tracy. “I think that’s where we were. We had great lives otherwise, we just weren’t fulfilled.”

While the need to find fulfillment in their work lives led to the pair taking the leap to do the Levee full time, once that decision was made, they both said they realized very quickly that they had made the right decision.

Through their work at the Levee the pair has been able to satisfy their need to be creative and follow their dream of running their own business. But perhaps more importantly, they’re having fun.

It’s easy to look at a Levee production and immediately see the quality and the talent that is on display, but anyone who has spent any time around the two men, and the folks they employ, realizes pretty quickly that the Levee team simply loves what they do.

In fact, that joy permeates everything about the company, from the time and attention they put into finding employees, to the creative processes they use to meet clients’ needs.

“A core value, as it’s printed on the walls around here, is, ‘Have fun,’” Blake said. “I don’t want someone to just come here because it’s a J-O-B. I mean, jobs, you have to have work; you have to have a job; you have to be a productive member of society. But why not have fun while you’re doing it? We want to make sure that while we’re creating excellence, we’re having a blast doing it.”

Of course, while the Levee team is all about having fun, Blake and Tracy have also created a culture where they expect a lot from the people they employ.

It is not lost on either one of them that any success the Levee has had, came not only from producing quality work, but also from realizing early on that they were running a business, and as such, needed to make sure they set certain standards and expectations.

“The process that we have at the Levee is create, learn and repeat,” Tracy said. “Everything that we do, everything that we create, whether it’s a video production, a digital ad, whatever, we create these things and we learn from them, and try to learn from them by making mistakes or what went well, then try to repeat that process again, just in a better way. I think that’s where a lot of the success is coming from, is continuing to grow and just not being stagnant in finding a product or something that we’ve done well in the past and just staying there.

“We’re always progressing. We’re always learning and always pushing each other to get better here.”

“You know, Tracy and I are not in this to make a million dollars,” added Blake. “I don’t wake up every day and have that goal in my head. I want to service our clients and I want to love the game of this more and more every day.

“Cliché as it is, to us it’s really about the journey. We find love in this business.”

As someone who has had the pleasure of seeing the Levee magic up close, I can honestly say that the love Blake and Tracy have for creating something new and finding the best way to tell a story and take care of the people they’ve built relationships with, is what’s so impressive about the team they have assembled.

As important as the quality of the work they’ve created has been in casting a vision for AB&T, I think what might resonate most with me is the passion and love that lives at the heart of every Levee creation.

I’m truly honored that I’ve gotten the chance to spent time with impressive and talented people like Blake Cook and Tracy Goode, and that I’m fortunate enough to have them helping me tell this community’s story.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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