It's Free Beer Friday!

Leveraging the Small-Agency Culture

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Tom Martin Tom Martin
It's 3:30 p.m. on Friday and Homer Simpson has just announced that he'd "kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer." And so begins another Zehnder Communications cultural tradition -- Free Beer Friday. But it's more than just a culture builder, it's a creative employee benefit and recently became a wonderful way to haze new employees. The price for all of this good stuff is a couple of cases of beer.

One of the great benefits of being a "small agency" is the ability to do fun things that big agencies can't because the cost of a Free Beer Friday for a 600-person agency can quickly get out of hand, but for our folks here in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it is quite manageable – well, as long as it isn't a Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest or Jazz Fest weekend. And that is an important benefit that we offer employees and clients. Yes, clients are invited too. In fact, it is surprising how many decide Friday afternoon is a great time for a meeting!

Let's face it, if it were all about the money, we'd likely lose all the greatest talent to the big boys because they have far deeper pockets and, with their holding-company affiliations, can spread the risk of client defection over a far broader base. Luckily it isn't just about money, and successful smaller agencies need to understand how to leverage their culture to gain and retain the best and the brightest.

Agency culture matters because we often spend more time with our fellow employees than we do with our own families. And with the razor-thin margins we work under and the ever increasing pressure on those margins by clients wanting more for less, we must turn to our creativity to give employees a reason beyond the paycheck to show up each and every day.

Here are a few that we've used recently. I invite everyone to post his or her own creative perks via the comment tool.
  • The above-mentioned Free Beer Friday once became a margarita mix-off between our chief creative officer and myself with employees as the judges. It is rumored that a salsa showdown is next. That is, if he isn't too chicken.

  • Betting a media planner dinner for two and her boss a spa visit that they couldn't negotiate a million dollars of added-value on a million dollar print buy. Yes, I lost -- but the client won.

  • Sending folks to conferences in cool cities and encouraging them to take their mate.

  • Flextime to our media director so she and her husband could train for the IronMan.

  • Free movie passes for a member of our PR team (he's a movie buff) that got coverage in our local paper of said media director's accomplishment.

  • Monthly Shout-Outs where our employees nominate their peers to receive one of two $100 gift certificates to world-famous Galatoire's restaurant (an agency client).

  • Giving an employee a guilt-free pass on a major meeting so she could be in the delivery room with her sister at the birth of her newest nephew.

  • The occasional early closing on a Friday just because it's a really, really nice day.
As you can see, many of these ideas are programmatic but others, like the bet, the baby and closing early are just spur-of-the moment gestures. They are just nice or fun, and the end product is an employee feeling valued, respected and -- in the case of the media planner -- full.

Are we the only agency doing this? Of course not. Others do similar things, and that is the point. All of us should be actively thinking about creative ways to make our agencies better places to spend almost 40% of our waking moments.

Some folks think "small agency" is a bad thing, but I prefer it. It gives us a freedom to create an environment and culture that simply cannot be matched by the big boys. That's important because I'm convinced that the best and brightest in our industry will begin to flock to agencies that can offer them something beyond just monetary reward or agency/client notches on their resumes.
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