Transparency Begins at Home

Keeping Employees in the Loop Makes a Stronger Agency

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Darryl Ohrt
Darryl Ohrt
You're blogging about your agency. Tweeting about minutia. Pitching transparency to your clients left and right. But how transparent are you, really?

We've been operating under an open book and open management philosophy at our agency for more than a decade, and it's one of the greatest policies that we ever created.

When I was employed by a much larger firm, I saw that people were stressed over things they couldn't control or didn't understand. Eliminating those obstacles makes for mighty happy, productive and invested employees. We've adopted two key strategies that keep us transparent with our employees:

1. We share our financials. Employees at our agency get a regular review of how we're doing. Good or bad. We share our profit-and-loss statements, cash-flow details and budgets.

Our creative people learn a thing or two about finance, and the company benefits from the shared understanding and input.

2. We strategize as a team. Giving employees a say in your business is one of the most freeing activities that they'll likely experience as an employee. They'll gain valuable entrepreneurial skills, a better understanding of the company mission (because your mission statement is just a sentence on a website) and care about your agency almost as much as you do.

How does it work?
Before making most major strategic decisions, we chat about the possibilities. Everyone has input. This creates valuable discussion and sometimes brings to light options that weren't on the table before. When we make decisions as a team, we can rest easy that the team will support these initiatives, understand them, and be capable of communicating the who, what, why with people outside of our organization.

Toward the end of each year, we push this even further with a sweet trip to some place warm and relaxing, where we reinvent the company. While on the beach or at the bar, we examine every aspect of our firm. What's working, what's not, and what we can do about it. Each year, we build a new annual plan for the next year. Our "planning trips" have proven to be incredible investments that have shaped our company year after year, all while giving employees perspective they might not get on their own.

What scares other small firms from embracing an open management philosophy usually comes down to questions about sharing the financial stuff:

What will I tell employees when things make a turn for the worse?
In more than a decade of business, we've seen hard times on more than one occasion. Sharing financial details with employees during these times made us stronger:

  • Employees now appreciate the good times more than ever
  • Employees operate with an understanding of the company's situation
  • Employees do everything in their power to make a difference
What about salaries?
This is the one area of our financial statements that we keep private. Employees see a single line item of "wages" in our profit-and-loss statement, so they can review the cost of our crew but not the individual detail of each other's salaries. Here's one area where big picture is more important than detail.

You'll get plenty in return for sharing:
Employees won't ask for things they know the company can't afford. We tour the nation visiting other agencies and creative people, and get to see some stunning workplaces. While our space is impressive, Plaid employees don't sit on Herman Miller chairs, don't work with Apple Cinema displays, and don't enjoy some of the other niceties that exist in some other agencies. We're small and growing, so investing in luxuries is difficult. Our employees support this.

When at other agencies, I've seen employees remark how they're "appalled" at the fact they don't have this or that. At our agency, I've had employees talk me out of purchasing something we didn't really "need." Think that ever happens at the big shops?

Insight that you never imagined possible. Look around your firm and you'll probably see a diverse bunch of people from a wide array of socioeconomic backgrounds. They each bring to the office a unique and valuable perspective. Sometimes it's easy to get blinded by entrepreneurship. Your employees have insight and opinions that you likely haven't thought of yet. They're more likely to share it if they know it's possible that it could have a real impact.

Another edge over the behemoths. True transparency would be mighty difficult to effectively manage in a larger agency. Here's another area where as small agencies, we can build tighter, smarter, more efficient and loyal teams just by keeping our people more thoroughly informed.

Looking back on our firm's history, I can honestly say that we're an agency that's been shaped and influenced by the people who spend time here. That makes me proud, and I know our employees feel the same.

So what are you waiting for? What do you have to lose? Start sharing in the office just as much as you do outside the office. Your employees will thank you, you'll become more profitable, and your clients will benefit from the difference.

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Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker, the founder of creative agency Plaid and chief contributor to the greatest blog in all of the land, BrandFlakesForBreakfast. While his business card says he's "band manager" for the agency, Darryl prefers to call himself an internetologist. Darryl knows just enough to be dangerous. He's on the internet right now, playing, investigating and exploring. Watch out.

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