Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam launched Chicago-based Commonground, an integrated multicultural and general market advertising firm, in 2004 after a chance meeting during separate vacations in Cancun, Mexico. At the time, the Alpha Phi Alpha frat brothers were both vice presidents at their respective ad agencies and first-time expecting fathers. As they pondered their future over margaritas and cigar-fueled discussions, they sketched out a business plan in the sand that would take a year to full execute.
Part of that first order of business was to establish a clear division of labor. “Early on it was about what we felt we enjoyed and did extremely well and based on the needs of the business,” says Wright, 45, a veteran on the creative side who worked at marketing and advertising agencies Upshot and FKM. “We played to our strongest strengths.”
“Our skills set are very complimentary and then there is some overlap,” adds Islam, 45, who honed his skills in the sports and fitness industry, first at Nike and then ad agencies Campbell Mithum and Leo Burnett Co. “Sherman is more interested in the back of the house operations of running the business. I am much more interested in the creative product. Those are the natural separations. Our areas of strength, our capabilities and our personalities—I’m fierier…Sherman is much more chilled—are what drive the business.”
Wright and Islam understand that when it comes to partnering there has to be a strategic advantage to justify the extra time and effort partnering requires. You can never afford to forget that this is business. It doesn’t matter whether you like the one you’re partnered with; what matters is whether the business grows stronger and more profitable over time.
Today, the two lead certain business by the sheer volume of clients, which includes American Family Insurance, Bacardi USA, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, NBCUniversal, Nike, Nissan, Verizon Wireless and The Illinois Lottery. The duo is operating one of the fastest-growing BE 100s agencies, ranked on No. 5 on the list with revenues of $26.4 million, which was named Advertising Agency of the Year in 2014.
Partnering doesn’t make good business sense if you simply like the other person. A business owner has to manage the business; a partnered business owner has to manage the business and the relationship, too. A partnership, like any relationship, should be based on trust, compatibility and communication, both Islam and Wright note. Without these factors a business could be doomed to failure, and as such should not be taken lightly. Having a business partner can be a very intimate experience as they will share every aspect of the businesses growth with you.
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