Do the "Best Places to Work" Produce The Best Work?

by , Dec 17, 2013, 12:46 PM
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For many people in our industry, doing their “best work” has nothing to do with working at a “best place to work.” 

A telling anecdote: One of my colleagues used to work at a highly decorated international agency known for edgy creative. One day, one of the senior staff was reviewing his company’s “Best Places” survey results and noted that they were ranked rather low. Just then, a creative director came in and yelled, “I don’t want to be on that list…it means employees are coddled and get to do whatever they want. We’re all about the work!” 

This is not an uncommon point-of-view: one must suffer for the craft. There must be conflict, fighting, Sturm und Drang. “This ad is crap.” “Get the hell out of my office before I burn your script.” Or, on a more personal note, “This ad (and therefore you) sucks!” 

Can this kind of behavior produce the best work? At some creative agencies, it can and often does. But at what cost? I’ve been thinking about this because Phelps was recently listed as a “Best Place to Work” (by the Los Angeles Business Journal) for the 7th year in a row, and I wonder what effect this has had on our work. 

First, to define terms, the annual list of “Best Places to Work” is developed by an independent third party research organization that administers a standard employee questionnaire across a variety of industries, with about 15-20% of them hailing from the advertising, PR, digital, creative and production sectors. 

Most surveys are conducted online, and there are two major components: the employer completes a benefits and policies survey and employees complete an engagement and satisfaction survey which focuses on areas such as leadership, communications, work environment and supervisor relationships. So, from an employee perspective, it’s this level of engagement and satisfaction that more closely defines a “best place.” 

And what constitutes the “best work?” One place to look is the myriad of awards contests held throughout the year…from the international Cannes Lions to the local Addy Awards. In fact, if anyone has the inclination, it would be possible to count the awards and somehow correlate to a “Best Place” ranking. But this is often impossible as many big shops don’t even participate in the list survey and it would be just as difficult to assign a value to both the quantity and quality of awards.

Here’s what the survey revealed about Phelps: our 85 associates say they like our flat structure, organized in client-based teams with no departments to divide us and no bosses to boss us. They embrace the responsibility that comes with these self-directed teams – as well as the freedom that gives wing to their creativity. According to our people, they actually like coming to work every day, have respect for one another and like the culture of open, honest feedback and collaboration. They don’t shy away from criticizing the work, but they’re mindful of doing it constructively and respectfully. 

Of course, if you’re us, this is all great to hear. But does it produce the “best work?" At our agency, we define great work as big creative ideas that deliver immediate sales results while building our clients’ brands for the future.

Let’s look at the record. We’re fortunate to have a lot of great clients and they stay with us for a long time--more than half of them have been with us for over a decade. Since these are quality clients that could choose any agency they want, we assume they stay with Phelps because they’re convinced we’re doing the best work for them. 

As an added bonus, we’ve won more than our share of advertising industry creative awards, all of which leads me to one conclusion: being a “best place to work” definitely produces better quality work. And just as importantly, a better quality of life. Many of our associates have been with us for a long time (10, 15 and 20+ years) and while we’ve had the usual steady stream of new blood turnover, it’s the combination that seems to work. 

For the record, I’ve now served at both types of companies. Early on in my career, I worked at such groundbreaking creative shops as Doyle Dane Bernbach and Wells Rich Greene where a “best place to work” was exclusively a function of the creative output. Employee satisfaction wasn’t even secondary. 

I built my career there and enjoyed this way of life for a long time…until I didn’t. Maybe it’s a personal life-stage issue. When you’re starting out, you’re willing to tolerate, and even embrace, harsh working conditions in the pursuit of killer creative. But with time and experience, the pain of long hours and unmitigated stress can become a killer in itself. That’s when we begin to seek more balance in our lives and quality long-term relationships. 

So, do the “best places to work” produce the “best work?” The answer may be as elusive and subjective as the nature of creativity itself, and it depends on how one defines “best work.” Awards are great, but this is a business. If clients aren’t happy, who cares? 

It’s often said that “conflict is an essential part of the creative process,” and that resistance and a critical orientation are key to pushing the envelope to breakthrough work. But I also know “we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Civility and honesty can coexist. While this business is about the quality of work, it shouldn’t be at the expense of quality of life.

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