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June 9, 2004
Too Much Information Can Be a Good Thing

Each month, the employees of archer>malmo gather together for an agency update, an event we affectionately call the “Stairwell Chat” (appropriate, since it’s held in the stairwell between 5 and 6). Besides the usual updates on financials, new business, existing clients and employee news, we sometimes add different elements to the “program” to make the meeting more fun. One of these additions is a game called “Too Much Information.” Basically, I collect unique and often embarrassing facts about employees (yes, they voluntarily give up this information), narrow it down to four really unusual ones, then have the employees stand up, holding a sign with one of the facts, in front of the entire agency. It is then the job of a fifth employee to put the “right” fact with the “right” employee. So, what have we learned about our co-workers from this game?

Well, someone got thrown out of church camp. Another employee didn’t bathe for two weeks (granted, it was an Outward Bound experience but still…) and, a Too Much Information classic, one employee admitted to passing gas in front of former in-laws. Notice that they are former…

The thing is, our corporate culture does not place any value on being so proper or politically correct that we cannot laugh at ourselves. The people that are employed here are able to be themselves so they can spend their time thinking about far more important things like great work, great clients, work/life balance (a nice way of saying, “We need more vacation!”), feedback about the job they do, promotions, recognition and the occasional swipe at having to contribute to one’s parking. By listening and acting on feedback from our employees, archer>malmo’s management has made measurable improvements in everything that the agency does – from our creative product, to hiring decisions, to employment practices, to doing the right things when it comes to our employees and our business.

Several years ago, we made a couple of pretty significant changes to our time off policy and actually (gasp!) put some fairly liberal limits on the personal time off. We also created a vacation bank, where people could donate unneeded vacation to be used by other employees in emergency situations. After the laughter had died down and comments like, “Who in their right mind would ever donate vacation time?” subsided, the bank had collected six weeks of donated time in less than seven days. And, the bank sat, unused, for approximately three months until several employee situations arose that required vacation bank donations. All of the situations were unforeseen, and, thanks to the generosity of their co-workers, employees in need were able to handle their issues. In terms of the personal time off policy, employees actually became more aware of not wasting their hours off, not because they were concerned with hitting the limit but because they finally understood the impact of billable time on the agency. We saved over $135,000 dollars in unbillable hours that were normally coded to the dreaded agency time job number.

Do I believe that all agencies have a culture (and companies for that matter)? Sure. Are all cultures created equally, and more importantly, fun? Not in a million years. Culture and its importance within an organization varies with management’s commitment to its perceived value. Some companies protect their culture fiercely, ensuring that everything that touches its employees matters. Others take pitiful stabs at their culture, trying to throw some things together that make the agency or company seem “cool.” But they don’t really have a long-term strategy or cohesiveness to their programs.

So, what is the “value” of a strong culture? Well, employees say they are satisfied working here (the agency has earned a 3.85 on a 4.0 scale in our agency satisfaction survey, two years in a row). Our turnover is far below the industry average, and the people who leave usually do so not for better opportunities but for situations that we have no control over. This, conversely, means that we usually are focusing our recruiting efforts on new employees and not back-filling positions. To top it all off, we started winning national creative awards for our work, and we managed to earn a profit when other agencies weren’t fairing so well.

What does this mean for the “value” of your agency’s culture? It means looking at everything that you do (creative, staffing, events, communication, self-promotion, etc.) and making sure that all of these components are acting in sync. It means listening to your employees and the little pieces of personal information that they want to share. It means facing up to deficiencies or problems, addressing them and moving forward. It means having a champion of the culture and all it involves. It means taking the time to think about culture and its importance.

Whenever I mention that I work for an advertising agency, people always say, “Wow, that must be a cool place to work.” Yes, being an employee here isn’t so bad because we work so hard on making it great. And, I can also say that someone here streaked through a grocery parking lot. But, I’ll never say who—that would be Too Much Information.

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As director of Human Resources for archer>malmo, Heather Collins has helped make this Memphis agency a truly wonderful place to work. Heather is a valued speaker and has recently presented to the AAAA, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). In her spare time, Heather is the head chauffeur for three athletic children.
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