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Work and Play

Work and Play

Back in 1995, the Los Angeles office of ad agency Chiat/Day embarked on an ambitious experiment. The agency moved its headquarters to a Frank Gehry-designed warehouse, that it deemed its "virtual office." There were no cubicles, no offices, no desks, no place to call one's own. High-and-mighty execs worked at cafe tables with the lowliest newcomers, and they weren't allowed to sit in the same spot two days in a row.

That is, if they were there at all. Chiat/Day encouraged its employees to work at home, on the beach, up a tree, wherever. So if a client wanted to reach a Chiat/Day employee, he or she had a problem-a problem that IT needed to solve.

Remember, this was four years ago, and there was no software on the market to forward calls from an employee's permanent phone extension to the seat where he happened to be located for the day. Nor was there a standard way for people to get faxes, e-mail and text messages via pager-a necessity for Chiat/Day's nomadic employees. So IT crafted its own fixes for these problems, developing programs to suit its virtual workforce. After all, a fluid workplace demands a fluid IT department.

The only problem with the virtual office was...it didn't work. Productivity suffered because employees had to spend so much time setting up and breaking down their workstations every day, and constantly assimilating to new surroundings took its toll. People began to arrive at work at ungodly small hours to stake out the same space every day. Teams migrated to the same areas to work together.

Today Chiat/Day has reinvented itself yet again, with a new home in a soaring warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Now part of TBWA Chiat/Day (though still colloquially known by its former name), the agency has moved away from the virtual office concept and created instead a virtual village. And again, the IT department is loping alongside the staffers they call the "creatives" with its own creativity.

"It's a true virtual community-it's about drawing people in to a place they want to be. We found the culture ebbed as more and more people worked from home [in the old virtual office]," says CIO Greg Holladay (one of five CIOs on parent company TBWA Worldwide's global IT board). "Something magical happens when creatives are together under one roof."

Stroll around the agency's 120,000-square-foot warehouse-dubbed Advertising City-and you'll agree it is enchanting. Housed in an old plumbing fixtures storehouse, the city features a "Main Street" running the length of the ground floor and a "Central Park" with geometric rows of rubber trees and cafe tables.

Most striking are the bright yellow "cliff dwellings," set up on the mezzanine level of the 27-foot-high space, where pairs of creative workers (usually an art director and a copywriter) work together in open view. Other employees work in modular NESTs (Nice Environment for Sitting and Thinking): apple green, black or blue cubicles that offer more autonomy than conventional workspaces because workers can reconfigure them according to their desires. At the back of the building, teams collaborate in "dens," sweeping, tentlike structures that evoke tall ships' sails.

The centrepiece of the boardroom is a table made of glossy vintage surfboards. Even the fish (in a huge aquarium left over from an Energizer Bunny shoot) are cool. Bright young things sporting T-shirts, jeans and funky piercings amble about the place, one or two cell phones to ear. Dogs roam freely. A surfboard-topped red 1950s Datsun truck sits at the end of Main Street, ready for a trip to the beach.

This place has buzz.

In the land of high-concept image making, TBWA Chiat/Day tops them all. The 15th largest agency in the United States, with headquarters in New York City and offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, it has created some of the most recognisable ads in recent memory, including the butterfly-eared Taco Bell Chihuahua, the Apple Computer "Think Different" campaign and "Enjoy the Ride" for Nissan. Its 1984 "Big Brother" TV commercial introducing the Apple Macintosh is legendary in the industry.

The accolades are hard-won. The entire staff-including Holladay and his crew-work long hours under intense pressure. But the work is leavened by frequent play. Employees can blow off steam at a row of punching bags (helpfully adorned with management caricatures), on the basketball court, or at a Foosball table. You never know when you'll run into celebrities like Shaquille O'Neal or Ben Affleck. Holladay and his staff of 14 have an enviable life.

But to a great degree, you might find Holladay's methods somewhat counterintuitive. For him, hiring and retaining the right sort of IT people is not so much a matter of finding methodical people who live for crossed t's and dotted i's and claim to have all the answers, but rather those who can bend with the travails of technology and, not coincidentally, the agency's ever-changing needs.

Not everyone thrives in an environment where the culture is loose but the deadlines aren't. In fact, Holladay has lost people with excellent technical skills because they just couldn't handle the fluidity. Just before resigning, one worker complained to Holladay, "Yesterday, you told me to focus on this. Today you tell me to do something different." Holladay's unapologetic response: "Yes, that's right." "The culture here is different-it's not for everyone. We're very cutting-edge risk takers. We're not about being safe. Some people don't like that," says Holladay.

Most CIOs will never be able to begin to duplicate Chiat/Day's environment (cliff dwellings and NESTs are not for everyone). But even the most staid workplace could handle a shot of creativity. Take a peek into Holladay's world and see if you can't import an idea or two.

Chiat/Day and Night

It's a good thing Chiat/Day created a welcoming workplace because most of the employees spend long, long hours there. Staff members are young, by and large. The corporate culture is young-and that's not just because one of the agency's offices is located in youth-obsessed La-La Land.

"They're not yet wise to the business-and that's a good thing. They are not tied down by the family commitments that typically come a bit later in life," says Holladay. Younger employees tend to thrive on the work-hard, play-hard culture. Holladay himself is an exception: age 38 with two kids, he works mostly from his home in Reno, Nev., flying in every few weeks.

These hard-charging employees demand the most cutting-edge technology tools. All employees have the latest Apple iMacs and PowerBooks. (The agency used Macs even when it temporarily lost the Apple account in the late '80s; Holladay says the agency considered migrating off the Macintosh platform but elected to stick with it.) They also carry low-frequency radio phones, pagers that receive e-mail and Palm computers-or combinations of the same. Using the most up-to-date technology is an integral part of being a cutting-edge company. Fortunately for Holladay, he says, TBWA Worldwide's Chairman and Chief Creative Officer Lee Clow and CFO Neal Grossman understand this and have ponied up the necessary funding. "We're committed to providing the best IT tools that people can have. And that takes money," says Holladay.

Technology can be unstable on the cutting edge-sometimes that means Holladay has to cut his losses and move on. Even technology that you'd think would work gets the boot: Holladay is about to pull the plug on a fax server that was supposed to let users pick up faxes on their computers rather than having to walk to the fax machine. Aimed at saving time, this product (which Holladay declines to name) has actually caused more work for the users because there's no way to sort or store incoming messages.

"Things are a bit flaky around the edge. Our challenge is to make our users understand that it's not just the way [the IT department is], it's the way the technology is," says Holladay, who acknowledges that for the most part IT doesn't spend enough time making this distinction clear. Holladay frequently explains to management the risks involved in using immature technology.

Merry "Mad Scientists"

Holladay scans all IT job candidates closely for signs of flexibility, a quality he prizes above all others. "The needs of the agency change on a daily basis. We have to be flexible to support that," says Holladay. After all, in advertising, the creative teams regularly see months of work thrown out at the last minute if the client doesn't like it. The IT people have to be equally ready to change direction. And it can be tough to tell in a couple of interviews how someone will react on the job.

Some candidates who come to Advertising City are overwhelmed by the facility's appearance. Rather than being charmed, as most visitors are, they get a look on their face that Holladay translates as What did I get myself into here? That's a first sign that the person may have trouble fitting in.

Another bad sign is someone who seems to have all the answers. That always makes Holladay uneasy. Single-mindedness may be right for someone in charge of a Novell network at a manufacturing company, say, but it doesn't work for Chiat/Day's IT staff. Holladay likes to cross-train his staff members, and he has them swap roles from time to time. So he needs people who are loose and open to learning.

Even those who do make the cut don't always thrive at Chiat/Day, which has a renegade pirate skull-and-crossbones as its unofficial internal logo. "We've had people run screaming out of here in three months," says Holladay. As a rule of thumb, Holladay looks for multifaceted people, and he never hires anyone he doesn't like. "I have to trust 'em, and I can't trust 'em if I don't like 'em," he says.

In fact, it's important that the entire staff accept each new person because they spend so much time together. In addition to workdays that routinely top 12 hours, Holladay's group often hits the movies together on worknights and enjoys a few evening cocktails standing around in Holladay's cube. (The second drawer of his file cabinet contains a stash of Bombay gin, tequila and a collection of martini glasses and accouterments.) Holladay doesn't have to work very hard to retain his staff-for the most part the unique environment does that for him. Half of his current staff has been with the agency for more than two years. "Once people get settled in here, it's very hard to leave," he says.

Holladay affectionately calls the team his "mad scientists" and "inventors." By this he means his staff often experiments with brand-new technology to see if it will some day be useful to Chiat/Day. Holladay calls such experimentation "laboratory opportunities." For example, two staffers have been working with Apple OS 10 for the server and experimenting with server-based applications.

Says Holladay, "While we don't need [OS 10] yet, we brought in the hardware and software to give our guys a chance to play with it and see what it's capable of doing." Some may consider this time wasted; Holladay doesn't. "[At] other places I've worked, the attitude was, unless there's a specific need for it, don't waste your time. We like to give our folks a chance to touch it and feel it before we need it."

Bonding Time

One thing that can make some IT staff members uncomfortable is the requirement that they bond with the users they support. Holladay requires his staffers to leave their NESTs and interact with the art directors, copywriters, production people, editorial assistants, executives-anyone who uses IT on a regular basis. "We get them close to where the problems are," he says. Holladay himself probably knows more about advertising than his peers at other agencies, since he started out at Chiat/Day in 1985 as a client accounting specialist before transferring to IT.

Holladay is too modest to say his team is better at understanding user needs than the average IT staff, but Chief Marketing Officer Laurie Coots isn't. "Our IT people understand the business we're in. They understand why someone who has a particular application problem might get very hysterical," especially with a deadline looming, she says.

Holladay uses weekly staff meetings to role-play difficult user situations with his staff. He often holds up a star customer support person as a role model for everyone to follow. For example, when the company recently migrated to colorful iMacs, the support people were swamped with requests-sometimes more like demands-for the grape (purple, that is) machines. Although the staff was unable to accommodate this request-Lee Clow had determined the staff should have an even mix of colors-the best support people diffused the situation with humor. Holladay had them relay their war stories to the rest of the staff as a sort of ad hoc best practice session.

In order to meet user needs, Holladay has his staff work a staggered schedule that officially runs from about 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and unofficially to 10 p.m. That way, there's almost always someone available to help out a user burning the midnight oil on a client account. Holladay is also examining more ways to further bond his people to the users and the business issues: Although the whole company has a centralised IT organisation, Holladay is considering dedicating an IT support person to live with each of the main user groups in L.A. (The users, by contrast, don't really care if they have their own dedicated IT person-they just want their problems solved.) Respect for the Individual Supporting this special user population also requires a lot of tolerance for individual preferences. Holladay's group will support old versions of applications until it becomes unworkable. The company recently upgraded to QuarkXPress 4.0, for example. "Sometimes people prefer the earlier version of the tool. We'll support the older version for as long as we can," he says. The emphasis is on doing what is best for the individual worker, not the IT department.

In fact, the issue of setting standards is a thorny one for Holladay and his colleagues. Of course, there have to be some corporate data standards or it's impossible to communicate among offices. But to the greatest degree possible, the IT executives hold back from issuing decrees. "We try to provide the best tools to get the job done without imposing arbitrary limits on people," says Holladay.

Like standards, staff training is a chronic issue. The workers simply can't afford the time away from their work to attend a traditional training course, whether onsite or off. Holladay is interested in Web-based training, but at present most online training is geared for PC-not Mac-users. So he's working with a few vendors to develop such training for the Mac-but exploring other training methods as well.

In the meantime, his staff uses guerrilla tactics to get people trained on-the-fly, conducting impromptu training sessions standing over someone's desk at odd hours. The IT staff gets frustrated with the heavy support needs of users who aren't adequately trained, Holladay admits.

But it's a two-way street. Says Holladay, "Our users need to take more responsibility for getting the skills they need. But the IT people need to have a better understanding of what [the users] do." Holladay views his job as navigating the "whitewater" of continual change. There's no perfect way to handle change-nor does he seek one. Says Holladay, "You give it your best shot and then you go home and hopefully come back refreshed the next day.

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