As the talent war heats up, more agencies offer sabbaticals

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Mike Dobbs hits the waves -- or are they hitting him?
Mike Dobbs hits the waves -- or are they hitting him? Credit: Mike Dobbs

As a search marketing expert at 360i, Mike Dobbs spends a fair amount of time surfing the web. But last summer, he spent weeks riding actual ocean waves along the shoreline of Costa Rica. He rented a beach house, took his wife and two kids, and got far away from the agency's Atlanta office, where he works. He barely responded to emails and was never on the phone with work. "I was truly unplugged," says Dobbs, the agency's senior VP for content discovery, overseeing SEO and voice marketing.

His seaside respite came courtesy of 360i's sabbatical program, which gives employees a month of paid time off after five years of service. The perk is not commonplace in corporate America. Only 15 percent of U.S. companies offer sabbatical programs, down from 17 percent last year, according to the Society of Human Resource Management's annual benefits survey. And of the companies offering programs this year, just 5 percent gave paid time off.

But in the agency industry—where leaders are jousting for talent with consultancies and tech giants like Facebook and Google—a significant number of shops offer sabbaticals, which are given in addition to regular vacation days. They include Wieden & Kennedy, Edelman, Anomaly, Pereira O'Dell and Droga5, which started its program last year. FCB awards sabbaticals on a case-by-case basis, but is considering starting a formal program open to everyone, according to a spokeswoman.

"Our war for talent within the industry is so high we are all doing whatever we can to attract talent," says Maria O'Keefe, executive director of human resources at Edelman. Employees at the PR agency earn a three-week sabbatical after 10 years and then get another sabbatical every five years, with the time off increasing the longer they stay.

Mike Dobbs' family in Costa Rica.
Mike Dobbs' family in Costa Rica. Credit: Mike Dobbs

The programs differentiate agencies from Google and Twitter, which don't offer formal sabbatical programs—but not Facebook, where employees earn a month-long sabbatical called Recharge after five years. One of the sabbatical pioneers is McDonald's, which has run a program dating back to the 1970s. The fast-feeder currently gives all full-time and benefits-eligible, part-time U.S. staff eight continuous weeks of paid time off for every 10 years of service.

At agencies, typically there are no mandates that employees do anything career-related with their sabbaticals, or even any strings attached at all, according to an informal survey of shops contacted by Ad Age. Leaders are using them to reward and retain employees, but also to let workers expand their horizons by traveling to faraway places or dedicate weeks to pursue a hobby or passion project. At Edelman, plenty of people take exotic vacations. But some people already travel a ton for work, so they seize on the breaks to spend time with their families at home, O'Keefe says.

W&K's Jon Parker takes the family to Amsterdam.
W&K's Jon Parker takes the family to Amsterdam. Credit: Jon Parker

Anomaly awards a month-long paid leave after five years of employment and even kicks in $5,000 in spending money. Founding partner Jason DeLand says the shop wants its employees to be able to travel and experience other cultures because "the more diverse experiences they have, the better they are going to be in our line of work." And, he says, sabbaticals encourage work-life balance. "This industry can be very stressful," he says. "You are working mostly on other people's deadlines, not your own. You are not going to be any good servicing a piece of business, or coming up with ideas, or building a brand, if you are in a constant state of stress."

Expanding worldview

At Wieden & Kennedy, U.S. workers get six weeks of paid time after seven consecutive years of employment, and an additional four weeks off every subsequent five years.

Zoe Schrepel, a W&K production manager, spent her sabbatical hosting a refugee from Iran who arrived the day that President Trump enacted a policy blocking citizens of some predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Azsa West, a W&K creative director, spent her time off directing a music video in Tokyo. Ben Grylewicz, W&K's director of film craft, caddied at the Masters golf tournament. John Parker, a creative director, took his family on a four-week RV trip across the country, followed by visits to Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and Vietnam, where they met members of his wife's family whom she had not previously met. Matt Hunnicutt, the agency's co-head of production, went to spring training baseball games in Arizona and Florida.

Karl Lieberman, executive creative director at W&K's New York office, says the program builds loyalty. "People three years in start thinking about their sabbatical in year seven," he says. "Typically it expands people's worldview as well. They come back with a more interesting perspective on the business."

David Burkus, a management professor at Oral Roberts University, says sabbaticals are a good way for companies to "stress-test" their organizational charts. Because when one person is out, someone else must step up to handle their duties. "Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an extended vacation," Burkus wrote in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article that advocates for sabbaticals. "And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to test it."At 360i, leaders are trying to ward off the four-year itch. "A lot of people after four years on a job start feeling the need for a break," says agency Chairwoman Sarah Hofstetter. "Sometimes people feel like they need to change jobs to do that. We are saying, 'You don't need to, actually. We will let you take that time to recharge yourself.'"

He cited a program run by financial services company The Motley Fool called "The Fool's Errand." Each month the company randomly awards one employee two weeks off, with Motley Fool kicking in $1,000 in spending money. The catch: Employees must take the vacation the same month they win it.

"Typically an unplanned absence is a result of something unpleasant like illness, and only then the team learns where the single points of failure are," The Motley Fool says in a blog post describing the program. "This way Fools can get a much-needed and enjoyable break, while we as a company can make sure everyone is cross-trained in the event someone on our team needs to take time off unexpectedly."

Bucket lists

For the "Fool's Errand"—which is in addition to a more traditional sabbatical given to employees after 10 years—the company draws names, with every employee getting one entry for every year served, says Jeff Haslow, the company's finance director, who helps oversee the program. Then the company runs a contest to pick the winner. One month, for instance, it filled buckets with gummy candy, hiding a single gummy shark. Whoever found the shark won the time off.

Employees have seized on the unexpected breaks, and cash, to check items off their bucket list. One worker rode horses on a dude ranch. "We've had other people that have taken trips they've wanted to take," Haslow says, or guitar lessons. "And they've had the uninterrupted time and money to do it."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said 360i's Mike Dobbs works in the agency's New York office. He works in the Atlanta office.

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