Strategy for a Digital Age

iStrategyLabs is a digital agency that invents ways to engage communities online and off.

By Nick Sommariva 15C

Peter Corbett 03B was no ordinary Emory student. During his senior year, Corbett walked into one of Atlanta’s largest nightclubs and told the manager that in one month he would be back with a plan for a concert that would “blow his mind.” Corbett’s concert hosted Grammy-nominated talent and nearly 5,000 people. Over time, he’d come to know, “My future was not going to be like my friends,” Corbett said. “Their careers were more traditional.”

Now, Corbett is the CEO of iStrategyLabs, a digital agency that crafts campaigns, websites, apps, animations, social strategy and multi-day festivals. As their website states, “Everyday, we invent solutions that make for happy clients.” 

Corbett didn’t start his professional life as a globally recognized leader. Indeed, Corbett’s career path has been anything but traditional. He grew up as a programmer and began reading the Wall Street Journal when he was 12. By 27, Corbett had immersed himself in digital strategy and business development, rising quickly to the top of a 200-person agency with offices in Washington, DC.

He reflects, “I was pitching and winning huge accounts; I had closed millions of dollars in new business.” Corbett’s compensation was structured such that he earned commission for any deal he closed. But, one Friday in 2007, Corbett was laid off by management – and he was suddenly out hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It was hugely unfair. Seventy percent of the business revenue I brought in was paying the salaries of the people in that office.”

Fuming, Corbett did the “whole laid off thing” that weekend. But, that following Monday morning, he launched istrategylabs.com – the business that would become one of the best known digital ad agencies in DC, and later the US. Confidence pushed him forward. “It was just a simple Wordpress website with a logo I had designed when I started. To be honest, I didn’t necessarily have an idea – I just didn’t want to get a job.”

Strategy Means Solving Problems

Corbett understood his strengths and weaknesses. Never the winner of awards, he often looked on as his friends and peers received accolades in academics and sports. “The beautiful and frustrating part of my background is I grew up being good at a lot of things, but never the best at anything.” However, if there was anything Corbett considered himself the best at, it was strategy. “Strategy means solving problems. With iStrategyLabs, I knew I could solve complex problems, which would be valuable to customers but also make me happy.”

iStrategy Stats

Just a few of the impressive client statistics iStrategyLabs shares.

Corbett quickly proved strategy is his forte. For the first year, he was the only employee of iStrategyLabs despite working with 65 different contractors and on projects with huge brands like Geico, American Eagle Outfitters and Corona. “The company was a website and an apartment, but I was a super-hero strategist and solved lots of problems.”

Fast forward to today and the website still exists, but now has over 60 employees and a brand new 17,000 square foot office in D.C. as well as a new office in New York City to go with it. “To date, we’ve worked with 29 out of the Fortune 100 companies.”

Corbett’s role has transitioned as his company has grown each year. “CEO can really mean Chief-Email-Officer. I spend about half of my time in my inbox.” However, his heart is still in strategy and he often will work on projects for clients. “I included 'strategy' in the company's name because it is one thing I love and the one thing I thought I could beat anybody on.” Currently, Corbett is working on TV show launches for NBC/USA. And it just so happens the client is also an Emory grad who was on Corbett’s freshman hall.

Business, iStrategyLabs Style

Now the manager of 60 people and two offices, Corbett has developed his own ethos surrounding management. “I realize my role, my job, is to create an organization for self-actualization. That means that all that we do has to lead to you becoming your highest and best version of yourself.” That ideology has led Corbett and iStrategyLabs to run the company for the benefit of its employees, not its shareholders.

Arista Ware II 13B has directly benefitted from iStrategyLabs and Corbett’s management philosophy. “I was one of those sad souls in the B-school who did not graduate with an i-banking job,” she says. “I moved up to DC -- all I took was my suitcase, not even a pillow.”

With help from Goizueta faculty and advisors, Ware connected with Corbett. In typical Corbett fashion, Ware’s first meeting was not traditional. Corbett organizes a ‘Meet and Greet’ where he joins 10 or so strangers who want to meet with him for pitching an idea, networking, or advice. She remembers that first meeting. “I walk in and this guy with all this money was trying to pitch Peter on his new software idea, and an older guy wanted Corbett’s advice on how to build a park on a bridge. I remembering thinking to myself, ‘Who is Corbett?’”

After meeting Ware, Corbett put her in touch with his VP of Client Services. She received a phone call that day. “I was in my pajamas and Kristen calls me and says, ‘Oh, by the way, this is your interview.’” Three days later, Ware became a Strategy Apprentice and has been with the company ever since.

Today, Ware is a Junior Creative Strategist and says she hasn’t had a boring day yet. For her role, Ware often sits between the client and the internal design team. As the liaison, her job is to make sure both sides are happy and satisfied. “I like to think of myself as the blocker, or the funnel. I enjoy it a lot. My day-to-day is never the same and I am constantly interacting with clients and our team.”

iStrategy Work

The iStrategyLabs client roster includes 29 of the Fortune 100 companies.

Echoing the culture Corbett describes, Ware loves the diversity and energy of the company. “Peter is all about giving you your due diligence and proper respect. Quite simply, our culture is freaking awesome.”

In addition to the fantastic culture, iStrategyLabs does amazing work which Corbett describes as, “focused on the intersection of online and off. We take technology and bring it into the real world and let people connect through social.”

Ware says, “We have such a talented team, we can really do anything the client needs, from digital redesign to brand creation and ideation.” She uses Kroger as an example. iStrategyLabs handles all of Kroger’s social spaces, including Facebook, Twitter, and more.

Corbett sees the internet of everything as the near future. “Everything from the street corner to the bar is going to be integrated and get smarter. That leaves a huge opportunity for the digital plus physical space.”

Corbett, who woke up that fated Monday morning and started his company, said the one lasting piece of advice he has is to not wait. “So many people come to me and say they have this great idea they want to do. I know people who have been saying that for 10 years, and quickly they get older and the opportunity disappears. It’s totally in your power to live that life now. Don’t wait.”

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Michelle Valigursky