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Code and Theory Is Fueled By Punk Energy

Code and Theory Is Fueled By Punk Energy


Being in a punk band is not a requisite for getting into the ad industry. In fact, it’s anything but the normal starting point, but it worked for Michael Treff, who went from punk musician to record label owner to agency CEO.

Treff is CEO of Stagwell agency Code and Theory, but he followed a very unconventional route to the position. He started off playing in a band called Closure in Long Island, New York in the mid-1990s and managed to wind his way into the ad industry with a high-decibel mode of trial and error.

Treff talked with ADWEEK about how the ups and downs of the independent music industry made him a better leader, one who is able to balance creativity with the need to solve client problems through collaboration.

Learning through failure

Treff was a skateboarder and found his way into the punk scene. He played guitar, wrote songs and dreamed about scaling the heights of the punk music industry.

“When you’re 15, you join a band, you make records, you go on tour, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is totally going to be my life.’ And then you realize quickly when you’re out of mom’s house, it’s not your life and it may not pay the bills,” said Treff.

But the DIY spirit of punk kept him in the game during the ’90s. He not only played in Closure, he started record labels, including Tiger Style Records, a label he ran for five years, putting out over 50 albums.

“I’m really proud of the work we did. That total punk ethos, 50/50 profit splits, the whole thing. It was all independent,” said Treff.

The music industry, unfortunately, started sinking at that point, but running the label gave him a sense of empowerment and creativity.

“You have to be creative to figure out how it’s going to work, and you take those lessons with you. It also sets you up for failure, which I think is so important in leadership. Being comfortable to sit in failure is OK and you learn from it, it makes you stronger,” said Treff.