AdForum took a closer look at iconic agency TBWA Chiat Day’s internal culture and how the agency plans on remaining disruptive and uber-creative. We found out that their current approach stays true to founder Jay Chiat’s tenet, that creativity is the key to everything. Along with hiring a Culture Curator with a BFA in Theatre from NYU.
ADFORUM: Could you tell us a bit about yourself. What does it mean to be Culture Curator at TBWA?
My background is actually not in advertising. I joined Chiat around three years ago from the music and theatre space, and started in the admin team. Around nine months into that role, I started having conversations with our leadership around how we could change the experience of working in advertising. Being new to the industry, I saw a few things that I wasn’t happy with, such as always communing around alcohol and, more often than not, to complain rather than celebrate.
We started thinking of agency culture as a client rather than a by-product and, to do this, we had to identify our core values and what we stood for. It turns out that Jay Chiat had been thinking about this very topic some 40 years ago, the concept of disrupting the workplace with creativity: Can the office become a museum? / How can the office be a music venue or a movie theatre? / How do we change the 9-5 and create a different experience for the staff? I am able to say that this thinking is part of our DNA and has been since the beginning. It’s an honor to be able to continue Jay’s legacy, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Since we started two years ago, we’ve pushed the boundaries by utilizing creativity as the focal point of everything we do. Jay Chiat always said we were the most creative company on the planet. Working with Renato Fernandez, our chief creative officer, led to the creation of a series of programs focused around creativity. We bring in speakers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and thought-leaders to talk about creativity and to inspire our staff. Art shows and installations in particular have led to a new era of understanding what it means to work in our building and in our space. Now our staff are happier and engaged; our retention rate is at its highest in the last five years.
All of this is a people-initiative. Happy, inspired staff means that our work is better, more interesting and more effective. In turn our clients are happy, which makes leadership happy. It's a beautiful cycle that is self-sustaining.
ADFORUM: How do you promote the professional growth and the development of your employees? What are some of the agency’s initiatives?
We have a bunch of avenues that do this. A monthly series called Intermission highlights artists and offer a consistent dose of inspiration. Throughout the year, Disruptor Series showcases high-level speakers focused on pushing boundaries in a wide range of fields. In addition we have learning and training programs: Academy is a learning initiative where we bring in external speakers. Four times a year we run topic-specific classes, for example: Photoshop; long-form writing, creative collaboration, presentation skills. Last year we ran a three-week collaboration with Facebook and Instagram where we worked on actual client briefs. We often also allow for our own employees to lead their own classes, which is a fantastic opportunity for our talent to share their skills and become more comfortable presenting to large groups.
Overall Academy provides everyone with an opportunity to learn creative tools and skills. We believe that everyone has the potential to be creative. In addition to Academy, we also offer accent neutralization, leadership training, coaching, tuition reimbursement and worldwide learning programs run through TBWA.
ADFORUM: Moving on to lifestyle, how do you promote work-life balance for your employees?
First and foremost, we try to have honest conversations with people in every department to figure out what is happening. Are people working too late? Are people working too hard? Are they getting time with their family and time off? Ultimately, if we're going to create work that resonates with everyone outside the agency, we believe we have to allow people to experience the world outside the agency’s walls. We offer unlimited paid time off, encourage working from home when our employees can, an extensive Summer Friday schedule and a long winter break, but we are honest about how much work is left to do. This industry has a terrible burn-out culture, so work-life balance is an uphill battle but it is one I am deeply passionate about.
ADFORUM: How does the company celebrate successes and achievements?
We do everything we can to promote our employees’ mental health, to celebrate their growth and to let them know that we see them working.
Part of this is a really robust reward and recognition system. Every month we privately give out gifts to people that we think are going above and beyond their job. Separately, we do a bigger annual recognition gift for five to ten employees we think are showing growth and doing great work.
Outside of work related rewards, we also celebrate life milestones, like adopting dogs, getting married, having or adopting children, and celebrating milestone years within the agency. We find these sorts of rewards remind our employees that we see them as more than just workers, we see them as human beings.
ADFORUM: How do you measure the success of positive and productive culture? What does success look like to you?
The most obvious performance measurement is engagement. Seeing people engaged, bringing their own ideas to the table, wanting to collaborate, wanting involvement, that is our success indicator. Everyone has a full time job already so any time they work with me is extracurricular. Our staff retention rate is higher than ever and that people want to work here is the measure of success.
ADFORUM: Speaking specifically of working parents, how do you help this group?
We have the channels of communication open for everyone, so that we can configure the best plan for them as individuals.
We created a space in the office where working mothers can come together and meet. They have access to flex-schedules, a new leave policy, a mother’s room on campus. Parents also get a subscription to a food delivery service, to make things easier. When they return to work, we offer them coaching. This goes for both working mothers and fathers - all working parents, adoptive or otherwise.
One of the biggest parenting concerns for travelling mothers is of course, breastfeeding. Our solution is MilkStork, a program that enables milk to be shipped overnight.
ADFORUM: Looking at the external world, do you give back to local communities?
At the end of 2018, we did it an agency-wide survey to find out with which initiatives and organizations we should partner with for last year.
We discovered that our staff is particularly interested in giving to the homeless, children and underprivileged communities, so that became our baseline for charity partnerships. The second insight that we collected was the importance to our staff of partnering with local charities, rather than nationwide. The reason was that people really wanted to work with charities where they could immediately see the impact. So running the survey was essential so that we could be active from the bottom-up and align with our staff’s values.
From there, we’ve collected over eleven hundred items of clothing from our female employees to donate to the Downtown Women's center. At the end of the year, we hosted a ‘rain-kit’ drive where we collected items such as ponchos, blankets, umbrellas, for the homeless. We build the kits on site and donate them to an organization called The People Concern. Lastly, we’ve held ‘flash’ drives in the past to respond in the moment to local catastrophes, for example the wildfires here in LA. We know that people in our community are directly affected, and we feel that we are in a position to help.
We’ll run another agency-wide survey to make sure our interests have remained the same and, coming out of that, will continue to partner with organizations we believe are making a difference so that our impact is larger than just the work we make.
AdForum would like to thank Arya Davachi for the inside line on being a TBWA Chiat Day staffer and how to bring arts and culture into the agency world.