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Part 2

All Play and No Work


Despite surface appearances and assumptions about creative environments, the discipline Stefanovich and Rochester got from their father is in evidence at Play. There is a name and a process for everything. You don't just take a walk around the block, you go on a walk-a-round. When someone is under a tight deadline and needs help, he or she puts up a red flag, literally, and the rest of the company flocks to that person to offer assistance. It's called a red-flag day.

Either individually or in groups, employees are encouraged to get out of their typical environments to expand their knowledge of, well, everything — from mountain climbing to short-order cooking. This isn't just a trip or an experience, it's a "radical sabbatical."

There are daily staff meetings at 8:30 a.m. that are called with a drum beat, a chalkboard that lines the hallway where employees do "recreational thinking" and what about all those little red cards which are everywhere? Tacked to walls, the bathroom mirror, and stuffing Stefanovich's pockets? They are called Think Cards and they are sort of the filing system for ideas. On them are scrawled random thoughts and ideas: "If Gekko was a person ... what would her job be?" ... "Levi's needs help!" ... "Cab vouchers" ... "Why do aircraft carriers float? The same reason a rubber ducky floats — water displacement. The weight of the object does not matter." ... "Courage or fear."

Play's "catalyst," Lynn Spitzer, runs the day-to-day operation (like a COO) and says that underlying structure is crucial to maintaining the freedom of Play's culture. "There is no culture that I have worked at that's as free and open for individual contribution as this one," Spitzer says, adding, "but it still requires a structure, a foundation. There is a delicate balance between total chaos and total rigidity ... between creativity and discipline."

It's Spitzer's job to maintain that balance — to make sure processes support the culture and aren't put in place simply because it's what's expected. The agency ran without a traffic manager until about a year ago, when Spitzer, who worked for 20 years in Richmond ad agencies, says she cried "uncle" and created the position which an ad agency couldn't exist without. Still, when it came time to hire a traffic manager Spitzer and others agreed they should not interview traffic managers from ad agencies, knowing that Play's traffic manager would deal with much more than the traditional placement of TV, radio and newspaper ads, and they didn't want to hire someone who might be too rigid about the position.

It's that kind of thinking, and not just the metal box full of tiny containers of Play-Doh, that supports Play's culture. Spitzer says the ad agencies she has worked for could only dream of a culture like Play's: "In those environments you aspire to be what this culture is and you think you are, but you're not. This is true to the passion, to the spirit of creativity."

ook at more stuff. Think about it harder.

It is Play's mantra. It is, in a sense, the very key to Play's brand of creativity.

Think of it as Extreme Creativity. Play's creative sessions are to the conference-room brainstorming session — with its easels, markers and Post-It notes — what trick bicycle jumping is to a leisurely bike ride around Byrd Park. It's faster, riskier and a heck of a lot more fun to watch.

Take the creative session at Showcase, for example. The group was there trying to come up with ideas for The Weather Channel to create a consumer promotion that would provide added value to the cable network's advertisers. Page's group went to Showcase specifically to force mental connections between what they saw at Showcase and the model for a promotion of a house giveaway. Staring at an abstract painting depicting swirling cold colors, Page is reminded of wind. "What if you had a house with a wind room, and if you just came in from a run you could have cool air blowing, or if you just got out of the shower you could have warm air." Greenberg follows Page's lead and within seconds the idea for a weather house emerges: In addition to the wind room, there is the sun room and a floor of mirrors below a glass ceiling so you are always surrounded by the weather outside.

Later, that idea is refined by the group into a seasonal house, one that is transformed for each season in decor, furnishings, maintenance and conveniences right down to the medicine cabinet — which is stocked with cold medicines in the winter and products such as Claritin — a Weather Channel advertiser — in the spring.

Not every idea gels that way, but no idea is rejected out of hand. Another of Page's ideas is a crazy, impractical, impossible one: a giant umbrella that opens over an entire New York City block when it rains.

But when Page presents this idea to the group, there are no responses of "Yeah, but ..." or "That's impossible ..." Every idea is given the same chance.

In the course of an hour and a half, five groups generate probably close to 200 ideas, many of which are as ill-conceived as the giant umbrella, but the end result is about a dozen winners, including the all-season house and guaranteed perfect weather for a year (trips to any climate you choose).

It pays, says one client, to let a creative agency like Play do the thinking for you.

General Mills, one of the leading consumer food companies in the world with products such as Wheaties, Cheerios and Betty Crocker baking goods, is working with Play on a project involving its snacks division. That's all Marketing Manager Derek Scott at General Mills will say about the hush-hush project, but he does offer high marks for Play. He says Play has done creative concepting for and creative coaching with his group in the snacks division and that both their ideas and their culture have caught on. "People are starting to feed off it in our organization," Scott says of Play's creative energy. "They have forced creativity [in us] by being amazingly creative themselves." He praises the number and quality of the ideas Play has helped generate, and having worked with other creative agencies says flatly, "This is the best idea group we've ever worked with."

Crestar Bank has also called on Play's services to help sell its merger with SunTrust to its own employees. Strategic Marketing Manager Kathi Liebschwager says Crestar enlisted Play to develop internal programs to keep Crestar's 10,000 employees informed and enthusiastic about the merger. Play's core creative team, called the wallpaper team (because they "cover everything") developed the strategy for the program, which they called "Building Bridges" and the design team designed the program's logo and visual identity. From there, Play's stuff team (that's merchandising) put together a kit for Crestar managers including an explanation of the "Building Bridges" program, Slinkys (to emphasize the need to be flexible), branded Post-It notes, branded rubber bands which could be worn like bracelets, a Tyvek poster, a newsletter and a deck of exercise flash cards promoting the new culture. It contained ideas for starting meetings, celebrating accomplishments and performing random acts of kindness.

Liebschwager says things like Slinkys could be seen as silly, but it tied in perfectly to the purpose of the campaign. More recently, Play's idea for introducing Crestar and SunTrust staff was to provide disposable cameras to every Crestar cost-center manager and branch so that the employees could photograph themselves and send their pictures (along with a little information about their job, their hobbies and interests) to their counterparts at SunTrust.

But how do $6 billion corporations and stodgy old banks react to bouncing red rubber balls and Tyvek shirts anyway?

"Corporate America is dying for our message," asserts Cathy Carl, 25, Play's "point guard" or account manager. She handles the ball between the client, the core creative group and the traffic manager. Still, she says, companies want what Play has to offer, they know they need it, but often don't know how to use it. She says clients can get frustrated when they see a great idea they can't execute or at least know might not fly with the higher-ups. "We counsel clients on how to sell or pitch it up," Carl says.

Scott and Liebschwager admit that Play's style takes some getting used to. Scott says it was a jolt to the General Mills' corporate system, but "in a good way."

"If companies aren't shocked once in a while," he says, "they are going to flatline."

Still, hiring a creative agency must be a tough sell to the board of directors. While most companies have a line-item budget for their ad agency and their marketing firm and their promotions firm, where does the creative agency fit in? Scott says it's most cost-effective to keep planning time to a minimum to allow for maximum execution time. It's more costly, he says, to spend three weeks planning internally and coming up with bad ideas. It's cheaper to hire someone to come up with great ideas that can be executed quickly.

And what if this booming economy should thud? Stefanovich asserts that's when companies will need creative agencies all the more. "We'll help them survive in that time," he says, by helping companies reinvent themselves and their products. Creativity will be needed to solve problems in every aspect of business — operations, hiring, firing and branding.

But is Corporate America ready for work as play? Is Corporate America ready for Play?

General Mills' Scott says it's obvious Play is "trying to give people some religion about how to do business — to get people excited about what they are doing and give them the freedom to come up with great ideas." But he adds that the very top spectrum of the corporate heads will be the hardest to reach. "The CEO of Proctor & Gamble is a little farther down the road," he says.

Crestar's Liebschwager thinks it's just a matter of time before Play does exactly what it's set out to do — to change the face of business. "Creativity is not just for marketing concepts," she says like a true believer. "You need it for everything you do. If companies aren't ready for it, they'd better get ready."

If you could make up your own title at work, what would it be? Here are some of the titles at Play:
foreman over function
shaman of stuff
check, please
flap ball change
voice of reason
1.21 jiggawatts
who what when where
rum pum pum pum
houston, we have a problem

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