Firehouse CEO Talks Work Culture, Leadership

Steve Smith
Steve Smith | Image by Steve Smith

A career marketing professional, Steve Smith has become a disruptor for Firehouse — a small advertising firm near Dallas.

“For the last 17 years, I’ve sort of turned the agency into something different,” he said. “I joined the company 18 years ago when it was kind of a pivotal time in the company’s history. The founder was largely operating Firehouse as a promotional agency but was looking to move it into a brand agency. They hired me to come in and be in charge of strategy and planning.”

Today, Smith calls himself a “Swiss Army knife” of the advertising industry.

“I have always been an ad guy,” he said. “I’ve been in the market for over 30 years now, having worked in most of the roles at an ad agency. A few years ago, the founder retired, and I became CEO in 2020. I don’t think you can provide guidance or lead a team better than when you’ve had that kind of experience.”

After initially working as a copywriter early in his career, Smith, 58, joined Firehouse in 2006, building the company’s brand. It was his idea, he said, to combine media, planning, social media, and public relations disciplines into a single strategy.

“Our job is all about creating thriving and dynamic relationships between great brands and their customers,” Smith said. “I’ve told you how important values are. Doing the right things is a big deal around here. We really are unconventional with the way we approach our thinking. We tend to work primarily with national brands, which is unusual for an agency this size. Our team is attracted to those types of brands, and we think we have an interesting position in the market.”

Firehouse was named one of Ad Age’s “Best Places to Work” in 2024 in the category of 200 employees or less — the third straight year it has received that distinction. But it was the first time Firehouse has appeared atop the list, and it is the only Texas firm to make the list altogether. In 2010, Firehouse was named “Southwest Small Agency of the Year” by Ad Age.

“We appeared on Ad Age’s Best Places to Work for the first time in 2021,” Smith said. “We became No.1 [this year]. The effort was intentional. It was a focus for us in terms of giving our employees what they need, and the recognition is a nice side benefit. We’ve always been a people-centric organization.”

And his employees are what Smith wanted to talk about the most in his interview with The Dallas Express.

“When the pandemic hit and our business slowed a bit, we decided that we were really going to double down and focus on the organization and our people,” Smith said. “We saw a need with people. They needed to feel supported, to feel like they had somebody in their corner.”

That’s when Smith effected change.

“We really started looking hard at our organization and the benefits we offered,” he said. “We focused on career mapping, and we went from those old performance reviews to having ongoing conversations about where people are going and where we are maximizing their strengths. And every month, we sit down on a Thursday to celebrate the good things we do that month. We drink champagne. We do a toast. Those touch points are so important.”

But Smith didn’t stop there. He recognized his employees wanted — and needed — a work-from-home policy.

“I think we are a great example of a culture that evolved,” he said. “We are on a hybrid schedule. We value collaboration, so three days a week we’re in the office. On two days, people can work offsite independently. Ultimately, it’s the right combination. We asked our people what they wanted, and that was the selection they made. They’ve been very happy with it.”

Not to mention, Firehouse would struggle to recruit new hires if the policy were any different, Smith said.

“I don’t know if we can be competitive with people in the office five days a week. I’ve lost candidates who wanted to be home five days a week. I think our combination works not just for us but others as well,” he said.

Firehouse’s policy fits into what The New York Times found in March: American companies have gradually shifted to a hybrid-work approach since the COVID-19 lockdowns, despite a struggle between employers and employees when the former pressed the latter to return to the office. According to NYT, about 10% of employees work in hybrid roles and a similar number work remotely.

“One of the things we went to during the pandemic and that we maintain is paid mental health care,” Smith said. “If you choose to seek mental health care, we supplement a certain amount of that every year. We also have a parental leave policy, and we’ve always been an organization that helps the community. I think it is essential for people’s well-being they make a difference, and that means more than going to work every day.”

A Coppell resident, Smith likes to travel and considers himself a “foodie.” He’s also Firehouse’s “unofficial bartender.”

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