Compassionate confidence: why ex-agency boss Will Travis built a retreat for industry leaders

Elevation Barn in Bali, Indonesia

As January draws to a close and new year resolutions are gleefully still in action, or routinely disbanded, the story of Will Travis could inspire towards a marathon-length attachment to meaningful goals.

Travis left the agency leadership world behind in 2017, saying goodbye to a career at the helm of successful and famous shops, such as ATTIK, Dentsu USA and SidLee. Many inspirational names have officially left the world of advertising, and some have spoken to The Drum about the reasons why, but he's now set up a new business that he believes uses the best of the industry’s creative grit to inspire leadership across all industries.

Elevation Barn is essentially a chance for leaders to reinvigorate their mojo, set in beautiful surroundings in the US, Bali and the UK. An intense few days are spent alongside business leaders from a variety of industries, purposely diverse in order to inspire new thinking, working under a curated set of experiences that are meant to leave the attendees with a ‘purposeful transformation’.

The Drum spoke to Travis about this new business, as he welcomed the first attendees of 2019 to the sessions in Bali, Indonesia.

The majority of your career has been running international advertising agencies (ATTIK, Dentsu USA, SidLee). What have you learnt from that experience?

The key two things I learnt, besides how much I love the creative industry, was how critical the creative industry is in helping address so many of the worlds pressing issues, and while our main incomes come from the focus on growing sales for products and services, I realized we can have so much more impact if we are given the opportunity to do so.

I believe that in advertising, more than in most other industries, we understand how to overcome rejection every single moment of every single day, and instead of feeling pity for these walls we face, we relish them and take them as hurdles to be overcome. We are constantly, both internally and externally, told our solutions aren’t answering the need… so we dig and dig and dig to find the answers that will move the needle. This incredible ability to keep getting back up and leap challenges, vs being stopped by them, arms us with a resilience that the world needs now more than ever before.

The second is our insatiable appetite to find solutions from wherever they come. Most industries lean on the disciplines they work within, yet creatives are a generalist when it comes to inspiration and this allows us to look at challenges with fresh eyes each time. Sometimes our solutions are naïve, often ignorant of the traditional parameters – but this is where the brilliance comes from. When then matched with deep knowledge and guidance vs restrictive parameters, we can solve challenges siloed business only dreams of… inside, but also most importantly, outside of the advertising remit.

But one thing I noticed building, that was pushing against this ability for us to make a difference, was the growing lack of self-confidence many of our leaders inside and outside the advertising world seemed to be possessing. That their inner beliefs were being shaken and disrupted by the negative influences in the world we lived and this was holding back the impact we could all have if united against them.

Why did you move away from that career path?

I decided to leave adverting directly and do something about it. Not by turning my back on the industry, not in the slightest, but by going out to help leaders in all industries, including advertising, unite to re-find that inner confidence I felt we could help gain clarity and focus with to quash uncertainty and drive impact on the real grand challenges we faced. I felt my ability as a brand builder, focused on the ‘why vs the how’ I could dig that layer deeper in the human spirit to really connect to the true inner purpose and help fuel an inner fire for good and united impact. And once proven, unite other brand builders to join me to help others transform and re-ignite that confidence to make a difference.

How did the idea for Elevation Barn come about?

I decided to invite five friends, from five different industries, in three different countries together to explore my philosophy. All of them had succeeded in their careers to date, and all of them had a yearning to give more in their next chapter of life, rather than just maintain the same job waiting for retirement or a lucky venture to land at their feet. The idea was that we would spend three days together to help each other look at where we were in life, what we had loved in life so far and explore together, from our diverse experiences, where we could go in our next chapters.

What immerged was an incredible relief that we were sharing our concerns and dreams and together ‘smoke jumping’ the obstacles we each face, be they in our personal or business lives. The results were incredible. What seemed to be a wall to one, was just a hurdle to another and by caring for each other and realizing our dreams we helped each other over each obstacle, leaving our time together recharged, re-believing and ready to refocus on new and more meaningful goals. Myself included.

I realized was it was fabulous solving a brand’s challenge for ‘being’ and creating a go-to-market strategy, but the dreams of my purpose are helping others see what they could do with the right support and by helping them gain clarity in the best path forward to get there. Not only this but critically having them realize and respect the power of we more than I in the process of doing so.

This wasn’t supposed to be a new business idea for my next chapter, even though I had this niggling feeling there had to be more and that I could do more. I was trying to convince myself I was perfectly happy in my agency life. But the phone started to ring and ring and ring and I realized that it wasn’t just me and my friends that needed this team process for self-clarity and gain support for how it gets there, but many others from all industries, for all corners of the world. And once united in helping each other, the kicker was that they wanted to stay connected and apply their diverse united strengths to help others with their personal, community and grand challenges. And so the Elevation Barn was born. A place where we would elevate, not motivate each other through the power of a ‘barn raising’ philosophy of respect for each other’s craft and united impact.

How closely does it tie into your former experience?

This runs in absolute parallel to my former experience.

It's the empowerment of my career in advertising, where we united the incredible cross-disciplined skills of our teams to find solutions. Motivated and nurtured, often suppressed beliefs that they could. I tried to bring assignments of purpose to the team where they could actually see a change from their skills happen in the world, through projects like SAFE, Meal for Two, the Refugee crisis, Let Elephants be Elephants and Mission Blue.

It also includes my respect in harnessing the power of different professions and nationalities being united in good, that I have learnt through iconic events of our time like TED, C2Montreal and Burning Man. And it fuels my belief in the power of teamwork that I gained through near-death situations climbing several of the world’s seven highest summits and riding across the Himalaya and with the Dakar Rally.

The Elevation Barn is about all of the above. Elevating inner purpose and confidence to then positively impact the communities in which we live and the world we inhabit.

It's the first time I’ve put all I’ve learnt together. It builds confidence and community and through a solid internal narrative, we build resolves for action.

How does your life now differ?

I now spend my hours focused on people vs organizations. It’s still as non-stop as my agency life but every time I put my head down exhausted, I lift it higher after hearing the impact we have had on helping each person that has been through the Barn.

What’s the key aim with Elevation Barn?

To be action-based, not just process-based. By helping people celebrate the real them. By uniting them with others of strength and diverse perspectives, we propel lives forward to make a positive impact in all aspects of life.

Why is this sort of business important in 2019?

We need to fuel a new level of compassionate confidence in leadership so that we can make a larger impact on society in need. This is not one industry responsibility, but the united impact fueled by the power of storytelling our industry excels in.

It will lead to newfound belief and redeployment of talent that can then really move a needle that we are all accountable to.

What’s in store for 2019? What can we expect to see from you?

We created two locations in 2018 for people to join the Barn, upstate New York and Bali Indonesia and now we’ll be expanding this to Park City Utah this February, London in April and Singapore in June.

Our team of 22 will need more support from other brilliant hearts and brains, and our membership platform will soon launch uniting the 200 plus leaders from 36 industries and 12 countries so we can together take on grand challenges internally and out, in a platform we call the Elevation Table. Dr Sylvia Earle, Donna Karan and Nadya Hutagalung have all personally become involved and with our group's mix of industry strengths, we will be embarking together, making a difference through our united actions.

For myself, Elevation Barn is so much more than a company; it’s a brand and a lifestyle one at that. I’ll be fueling the holistic weight this will give its members. I want to give all involved the access to the world it has given to me. A connection to amazing people who want to squeeze every ounce out of this life and who respect and support a better planet. For example, epic ‘chance of lifetime’ expeditions of impact (we’ve four in the planning for 2019), united access to some the world’s most impactful and innovative business conferences and a daily network of diverse thinkers and doers to dine with, chat with and solve with.

How can people get involved with Elevation Barn?

Right now, the Elevation Barn is 100% invitation-only but we are looking to broadening the model in 2019. Advertising industry professionals of all disciplines bring a great deal of strength to the Barns, especially to those attendees outside of creative fields looking for solutions. Our dexterity to think disruptively needs to be harnessed and this calls for more members who want to share their skills and facilitators to lead retreats.

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