Candid perspectives on the people side of the business from seven of this industry’s Best Places to Work…
What really makes a Best Place to Work? Is it the Ping- Pong table and the bar cart on Thursdays? Is it the open plan office and the 401k match? Or is it less about the perks and really, truly all about the people? As the economy bounces back and the job market tightens, we wanted to know what the industry’s top agencies are doing to keep their people motivated, happy and sticking around. So we chatted with the h.r. execs, ceos and coos at seven of this year’s Best Places to Work for a rare glimpse inside their cultures, and their h.r. practices. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. (For the list of winners, click here.)
EM: What makes a best place to work?
JEANELLE DEGRAFFENREID: Generally speaking, having a place where employees actually love what they do, and enjoy coming to work. Having a learning ground that breeds and fosters opportunity and growth. The culture of the company is essential to how employees feel about where they work.
MARIE-PIERRE HUOT: For us, it’s really about the people and the culture—about supporting our employees’ careers and their goals. Understanding that they have a life outside work, and really making sure they have a clear career path, so when they come and work for us they know that they don’t necessarily have to go somewhere else to learn new skill sets.
BRAD PENMAN: It’s not going to be a good place to work if the people aren’t right. So, it’s all about putting our people and culture first, which we do regardless of the economy or the time commitments we have to our clients. And really, that starts with hiring the best people. So, we’ve identified characteristics at The Marketing Arm which are: happy, scrappy, committed, inspired and people who think like entrepreneurs. We feel like those characteristics really define the best people at The Marketing Arm. We actually hire based on those characteristics and use those as filters to hire the type of people that really fit well in our culture.
BRIAN GORDON: You can establish culture. You can provide ideas and parameters, and give people a general vision. But if they don’t embrace that, and then begin to kind of create it, and take ownership of it and develop it themselves, in my opinion, it doesn’t really work. And so to me, the single most important thing at a great place to work is when people truly feel like they had an active role in creating their own work environment. And that’s when you really start to win. There are things that we do, in order to try to create an environment that’s conducive to that.
TOM SLASKI: We recognize very clearly that people are our business. Without people, without talent, we don’t come up with the strategies and the ideas that our clients are looking for. One of the things that we’re really putting a huge emphasis on this year is our managers, and really equipping our managers to really listen and to respond to each individual; recognizing that what each person on our team wants out of this company, out of his career, is probably different. The best managers can really understand those differences and respond to them, whether that be the time that they’re in the office, the events that they’re working on, the type of developmental opportunities, their career direction, you name it. We’ve got a whole series of training classes that we launched this year, that are focused solely on our managers—setting the bar rather high, but with the goal of becoming the best managers in the world.
ERIN MILLS: You have to evaluate what’s important to each individual employee and find a way to allow that. For example, some employees might really value fitness and they have a 5:30 spin class once a week and that means leaving the office a bit early and it’s that that keeps them going, that makes them tick. It allows them to have interests outside the agency. And that’s important. Someone else might have a young son, and for them it’s important to go to a parent activity once a week in the morning. So what makes a great place to work is, as much as having a team environment, approaching each person as an individual. What’s important to note is that work-life balance for every person.
EM: Are you hiring the same kind of people you were five years ago?
JD: We’ve become a lot more strategic in how we hire, and trying to identify the best people. And it makes it easier now that our name is out there more. Our company is bigger, and now candidates are seeking us just as much as we are looking for them.
MH: It’s a yes and no answer. There’s always going to be the support system, but the organization has grown so much for us where now we’re a full service agency. We provide social media, digital and ROI services. So, those roles five years ago, we didn’t recruit for that. And some of those roles, in fact, didn’t even exist in the work market. If you want to stay on top, you have to follow the trend.
Every year we do something different to get employee referrals. Last year we did a 10K Challenge where we spent $10,000 in referral money [internally]. This year is a March Madness program. Around Valentine’s Day we gave out chocolate and cards, and other incentives to refer candidates. So, we always try to make it fun and light and enjoyable for people, so they don’t feel like it’s always a task.
BP: Our hiring from a cultural standpoint has been consistent since we started. But the type of programs and the type of clients and the growth that we’ve had has allowed us to attract smarter, more creative and more digitally savvy people.
We have two people that just focus on creating educational and learning programs for The Marketing Arm. And the thought there is that who better to know what our people want and what interests our people, than people that actually work here? We develop educational learning programs every single year, based on what our people need and what our people want. So, we’re big in improvement. And making sure that people are improving, not only every year but every day. We want to teach them and help them get better, and obviously the benefit of that is, they do a better job on our client’s work, and create these incredible programs. It really plays well with millennials as well. Because they definitely want to learn, and they like to be taught, and take that experience and go share it. The smarter you are, the happier the clients are going to be.
BG: Hiring for culture has become equally important. When you’ve built a distinct culture, that’s got to be as important as what’s written on the resume. That’s the biggest change—really starting to understand who we are as a company and the types of people that work well, have the ability to thrive but also have the ability to make the company a better place. And being confident enough to maybe pass on somebody who looks great on paper, but you just don’t get the feeling that they’re going to buy in the way that you want them to buy in.
VALERIE HILL: We’ve always been able to consistently maintain the hiring of our entry-level people. But then we’re also hiring higher level, more strategic people, and trying to offer more services and tools for our clients. And those resources we really need to grab from outside. So I’d say we’re doing a mix. We also added a whole new strategic solutions group into our company. And we really grew our design studio with designers and art directors. So those positions are a little bit higher level, and they are different than what we were hiring probably five years ago.
EM: Things have changed. We are looking at specialty hires, to a degree. We’re looking to hire people with significant experience in digital and in partnership strategy across the board—whereas five years ago we were hiring more liberally in terms of backgrounds. And we still do that to an extent, but we would hire from a variety of disciplines. Now we’re much more inclined to hire people with an agency background versus a brand marketer background just because we find that the learning curve is unique in experiential. And there’s a variety of experiences that can qualify you, certainly. Coming from a fast-paced agency environment where you’re working on multiple brands at the same time is really, really helpful. And we find that the people who have that ability to focus on multiple brands and multiple objectives at a time do really well in this environment.
EM: How do you keep employees happy and staying with you in a rebounding economy?
JD: We listen to our employees and respond to them. At least three times a year we’re soliciting feedback, and we actually respond. In a lot of companies, there’s an annual employee survey—and people kind of just do it out of obligation. But we go through each survey response, and we respond to the team, and let them know what things we can make a priority, and what things we can’t at the moment. And some things that we’re just not going to likely implement, like having a manicurist come every day to the office.
VH: We encourage work-life balance by making sure that they’re taking time off and they’re not being scheduled too much. Our owners are also really transparent about what is going on with the company, and that really helps the employees understand where the company is going. So all of our employees know what our forecast is; where we need to be in regards to our gross margin. And we report on that every single month, so they feel bought in. They feel like things don’t get decided behind a closed door.
TS: The one-size-fits-all mentality doesn’t work. So it’s really based on the individual, and we try to have a large variety of extra programs, extra things in place, knowing that what one person is pretty excited about and finds a lot of value in, another might not. So in the “play hard” types of things, we certainly have our fair share of fun events and happy hours and bands that play at our corporate offices, and off-site events that are a lot of fun. But we also have things such as, bring your dog to work day. And just a couple of smaller programs that are, again, just trying to hit up all sorts of different people, who are interested in different values.
BP: I know we’re really talking about our experiential group today, but we’re a very diverse company. So, if someone has a position in the company and it may not look like there’s a lot of growth because there’s someone above them, or a client reduces their scope of work, they can move. Our priority is to keep the best people in our company, regardless of where they’re working. We feel like if they’re in their culture and they’re smart, we can find a place for them. So, that’s really allowed us to keep people.
EM: A lot of it returns to looking at each individual employee and not only rewarding their unique contributions, but also uniquely incentivizing them and rewarding them—basically the rewards should be as unique as their contributions. And again, what does that mean to some people? We don’t have a structured evaluation plan so it’s not as though there’s an algorithm in place that you’re going to make this percentage of a raise, or at this juncture you receive a company laptop, or at this juncture you receive a corporate card. It’s much more based on necessity as well as individual performance. Some employees would rather work from home a day and some would rather be in the office and have the corporate card, so it’s really a very individual format that we’ve developed here. As much as we try to be fair and have universal justice, if you will, we do so on a one-on-one basis.
BG: We try to be very inclusive. We try to over-communicate with people. They want them to know everything that’s going on with different areas of the company that they’re not involved with. They want to understand what the vision is, where we’re going. And so, really communicating, so that they feel a part of the overall business, is incredibly important. And again, that speaks to their feeling of ownership. Transparency, and really feeling like they understand where things are going, and that you’re being honest with them, for good or for bad, is a really important thing. It’s non-monetary. It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s just about having a philosophy that it’s OK to be really open with people.
EM: How do you keep those lines of communication open?
BG: We have peer groups at the company. So we have a junior staff group, a senior staff group and an executive management group. And they meet once a month to once every two months. They talk about issues that are important to them. Sometimes it’s how do we improve the company? Sometimes it’s venting and griping. But the important thing is, I meet with representatives from each of those groups, personally, after every single one of those meetings, and I’m responsible for making sure that I’m following through on everything. So really, every single person has a direct line to either try to implement things that they feel are going to benefit the company, or try to rectify things that they feel the company isn’t doing particularly well. Beyond that, we’ve really tried to come up with benefits and things that aren’t always just monetary, but that resonate. And instead of just deciding, here’s what we’re going to do for you, we ask them to come back to us and tell us what’s compelling, so that we don’t give them a benefit that they really don’t care much about.
The single hardest thing is that you can’t stop. You’ve got to be relentless in your conviction to commit to it. If you’re going to commit to communication, you’ve got to communicate. If you’re going to commit to being transparent, you’ve got to be transparent. If you’re going to commit to being flexible with your staff, you have to do it. And it’s not easy. Some days you just don’t feel like communicating. And that’s the secret—commitment and consistency. That’s the secret sauce.
TS: A lot of companies love the clichés, “We have an open-door policy” or “Work hard, play hard.” Everyone from the top down has to take it very seriously. If we’re going to say some of those clichés and say that this is something that’s important to us, we really push ourselves to go the step beyond, and say, OK, now how do we really turn it into reality? We want to make sure that someone six months out of school—whoever it is, from top to bottom—that they’ve got exposure. They’re not intimidated. They feel OK going up to whoever it is, having a conversation, letting them know their ideas. And quite frankly, that fresh perspective is pretty key for us from a business standpoint as well.
EM: Talk about some of the office perks and incentives that your employees really respond to. What do you do to make it fun?
JD: We have a unique model, in that more than half of our employees [work] at client offices. And in an effort to make sure that everyone, no matter where you sit, feels connected to us, we’ve recently launched a cross-office buddy program, where we give each buddy pair a $50 stipend and allow them to have some down-time together. You can catch a movie. You can go out for drinks. You can go for a manicure. Whatever you want to do, to be able to foster a relationship with someone that you typically wouldn’t. We have programs like that, to show that we are very keen on collaboration, and then also maintain that family sense, even though we’ve grown rapidly.
We also launched a Random Acts of Kindness program. If someone is feeling down, when that person comes back from lunch there might be a little gift on their desk. It’s kind of like a secret admirer, but it comes in a branded box—something that we think that person would appreciate. We have a corporate social responsibility committee that focuses on health and wellness initiatives, as well as sustainability practices and volunteering. So we have an annual paid volunteer day for all employees, where we go out for the day, and give back to a charitable cause. We do that as a team. We also have what we call the FP Fit Club. Right now we have a weight-loss challenge going on for the new year, and an ab challenge going on. And if you can show that you’ve gone to the gym a certain amount of times within a given time period we reimburse you towards your gym membership.
We also have summer and winter off-sites. We’re really big on teambuilding and camaraderie building, because we do feel that that will make the work relationship better and produce better work. There’s always a team-building component… and everything is always a surprise, too. So you never know until the day of the actual off-site, what the activity is. On year we made a movie, and then we went to a secret location, which was a movie theater that we rented out, and watched all the films. And we voted on the best film, best actors, best actresses, et cetera. We’ve done scavenger hunts around New York City. We’ve done cooking competitions.
MH: We make sure that people attend client events and really understand, “Hey, this is what I supported [the team] on.” We celebrate our success. Our president buys lunch every Wednesday. And he does that so everyone actually takes the time to have lunch and sit down. If you line up to pick up some lunch, you’re inclined to mingle with people you normally wouldn’t, because we’re on two different [office] floors. We do trivia games and engage the whole organization so they feel like they take part of something bigger. Sometimes [our employees] have to give up weekends or weeknights. So we want to make this up to them. We understand that they’re making some serious sacrifices in their personal life. And we want them to feel good when they’re at work, and feel like it’s always paid back.
BP: We plan for fun. Whether it’s huge events that we do for our staff, or just little things like Popcorn Wednesdays or Beer Cart Fridays. Little things just to say thanks. But we’ve found that just having something every day and every week, whether it’s small or big, really, really helps our culture and has been able to keep our people intact. Some things happen like clockwork every week that people look forward to. I don’t know about you, but I’m the happiest when I have something to look forward to that’s fun.
For our L.A. office, we rented a beach house in Malibu and threw a party. We’re taking 250 people in Dallas to the Texas Rangers opening day. We just had a bowling event last week where every single person at The Marketing Arm across all of our offices were bowling at the same time. And then we also do a program called Life Support where we send our staff who have been here seven years, and then again at 15 years, on an all-expenses paid sabbatical. It’s about giving people something that they’ve never been able to do that they always wanted to do.
BG: We spend a lot of time every year on a retreat. We fly people in from all over the country to a destination and spend a few days together as a company. A lot of it is fun. It’s also kind of a state of the union, getting people to understand where we’ve been and what we’re trying to do. And it’s one of those times that everybody really looks forward to. We also do spot bonuses and we have a profit-share plan, so those are some monetary things that we do. And then we’ve instituted summer Fridays and “flake days,” where people have the ability on a certain number of times over the year to basically just call a supervisor and not come in, provided they don’t have an event to be at.
VH: We have a Fun Day Committee and they plan fun gatherings for the staff, like a Valentine’s Day celebration. So they really try to encourage that collaboration that doesn’t have to be work focused. Right now, we have a contest on decorating everyone’s front doors and cubes, so everyone knows where everyone sits. We also do Every Monday Matters, and every Monday there’s a new focus. One’s about spreading kindness, and how can you do that? So they have a low, and a medium and a high level, of what someone can do [to participate]. We might also have a pop-up project, that is writing letters to the troops, or doing something in regards to connecting our employees with things outside of work.
We started a wellness program this year called Good for You. They do everything from bringing resources from local gyms to making smoothies to a walking club. We also really try to match our benefits, to not just what our competitors would match, but also what our clients would, which is kind of rare and hard, because they’re so much larger than we are. So things like life insurance and long-term disability that normally, a smaller company like us wouldn’t have. We really try to go out and make sure that our employees feel covered and taken care of.
We also do a large celebration for employees who have been here 10 and 20 years. Our employees who have had over 20 years get a month paid sabbatical. We just came back from our annual off-site, where our office is closed down. We meet in one location, and we really recognize those employees. You know, those are huge contributions because we know that over half of our staff has been here for five years or more, and that’s been the key to really keeping us successful.
EM: As an agency, we’re known for how we celebrate our birthdays. A lot of our clients have joked that we have more birthdays than employees because they’ll see on social media literally every week there is some kind of birthday. We actually have a prize wheel. It sits in our conference room and the prizes range from a $25 gift card on Seamless, to an extra vacation day to some not-so-exciting prizes such as leftover premiums from a campaign. You can even win the ceo’s office for a day. What’s fun about the prize wheel is that we spin it on personal occasions, whether it be a birthday or a milestone such as a wedding or a baby is born. We also have Massage Mondays, so a few times a quarter on a Monday we bring in a massage therapist and she camps out in our conference room.
We also have an educational stipend that’s available after a select number of years of service. So we encourage everyone each semester to do something to better themselves within a business context. That can mean if you’ve always wanted to learn Photoshop, you can take a Photoshop class and that’s fine if you’re an account executive. You don’t have to be in the art department. In addition, we have a monthly fitness stipend, so whether that means you want to hit the gym or go to a SoulCycle class or Crossfit—whatever your cup of tea is—we reimburse a certain amount each month for fitness. We also have “work from anywhere Fridays” a select number of Fridays each year where employees can work remotely. And that gives them the flexibility of, if they want to travel, they fly out on a Thursday evening and they hunker down and they are at their satellite office for the day on Friday, but we don’t care if that’s in Bangkok or in their backyard. Part of honoring your employees, and knowing and trusting them is extending that benefit to them, and it does go a really long way.