This column was written by guest contributor Sam Ford.
I didn't set out on my professional journey expecting to land at a marketing and communications strategy firm. In fact, before I came to Peppercomm, I was co-managing a research group at MIT and teaching there. But Peppercomm's approach and culture made me interested figuring out how my area of expertise might impact the marketing and communications sector.
Today, I find myself in a position that I don't think exists elsewhere: I'm the agency's in-house media studies academic, dividing my time between academic research and teaching (with affiliations at MIT and Western Kentucky University), translating that research and thinking into marketing/communications industry insights, and consulting with our teams and clients about how to approach engaging their audiences in new ways.
Why did I start working with this company, and why do I find myself still invigorated and challenged by this work seven years later? I've come to realize that it's primarily because the firm has built a culture that encourages people to "bring themselves to work."
Rather than encouraging employees leave their own interests and personality at home, the firm has gotten cultural, creative, and even business benefits from people bringing their unique interests, backgrounds, and talents--many of which may not seem at first to relate directly to our communications strategy work--into the office. Here are seven key ways that fostering that environment has made a difference for our organization.
1. Building an award-winning office culture
The people who thrive at the company are often ones who could also be classified as characters. We truly get to know one another as people rather than only as co-workers, and the personalities of our teams come through to our clients and prospects as well. We like to think it's the characters who inhabit the rows of Peppercomm's offices that helped us get named the best workplace in New York City by Crain's New York Business in 2012.
2. Retaining superior talent
Enabling those characters to be who they are is also key to developing a culture of people who want to stay with your company. If you meet Peppercomm account supervisor Laura Bedrossian, our historian extraordinaire, you probably won't forget her--her love of 19th century U.S. political facts doesn't just propel her to the top of office trivia, but also brings up unexpected ways of thinking in Peppercomm brainstorms.
Nor will you forget data scientist Dan Salazar. He inhabits "Salazar Enterprises," an area on our top floor where, among other ventures, he serves his own coffee brews inside cups that he also makes himself. People like Laura and Dan are colleagues who you want to have in your office, and serve as a big reason that others don't want to leave.
3. Enabling unconventional communication
We don't want to be seen as a "normal" communications firm. That requires our people to know how to communicate in ways outside traditional agency-speak. Perhaps nobody better exemplifies that than account supervisor Paul Merchán, whose experience with freestyling rap lyrics has come in handy in holiday parties, and even made a long-term impression on a client when he used his unique delivery to demonstrate our firm's expertise in document solutions. Paul's personality has also propelled him to become a key public face for Peppercomm, including as the host of our RepTV video series.
4. Cultivating new ways of thinking within the agency
Time and again, allowing people to bring in their outside interests has helped us find new ways to approach what we do. Account supervisor Morgan Salinger's personal passion for philanthropic work, for instance, is now driving a major new initiative to institutionalize Peppercomm's work with a nonprofit. Meanwhile, senior manager Lauren Parker's desire to keep up with innovative ways to tell stories and connect with audiences through digital media led to The Innovation Mill, a newsletter that became required reading inside our agency. Innovation Mill turned into an e-newsletter after our clients started hearing about it, and eventually into an entire website.
5. A balanced team
Peppercomm creates flexible work arrangements that allow people to work from home in locations like Utah and (in my case) Kentucky, or to balance working from the office with working from home. And we strive to build positions that allow people to work in the way they are most productive and that best suits their personalities and talents. When we don't create a "one-size-fits-all" approach, it helps us enable everyone to work in the way that makes them happiest.
6. Building new business
This isn't just about building a unique culture. It's also about listening for new business opportunities. Integrating employees' nontraditional interests has helped the firm build out an events division. It's enabled us to build a thriving licensing practice. We've discovered new business prospects, and found unique angles to win new clients. Our co-founder Steve Cody has even taken his personal interest in comedy to create not only stand-up comedy training for all our employees, but workshops that enable clients to use comedy strategically for business transformation.
We by no means claim to have the perfect company or the perfect culture. But we do try to create an environment where our employees don't have to check their personalities at the door and where we can truly get to know one another. We've found that it has transformed who we are as a company--and that Peppercomm is a true reflection of its people.
What about each of you? Have you found benefits--whether personally or for the company as a whole--when people bring their personal interests and talents into work with them?
Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm and co-author of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. In addition to his role at Peppercomm, he is an affiliate with MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies Program.
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