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Martian family Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007
It’s a true story — Martians saved Marilyn Barnett’s company. When MARS Advertising Co. Inc.’s office burnt down three years ago, the retail consumer marketing agency was in serious trouble. But Barnett, the company’s president and CEO, has always worked to foster a family atmosphere at MARS — lovingly dubbing her 340 employees “Martians” — and that paid off as the team pulled together after the fire.

After the building burned down on a Friday, the team gathered Saturday and vowed to move forward. Employees began calling clients and promising that deadlines would still be met and projects would be finished.

“The family feeling kept the family together,” Barnett says. “The building burned down, but we were fine, and they broke off in their teams and moved forward and achieved what they were supposed to.”

Smart Business spoke with Barnett about how to create that family atmosphere and how it empowers employees to succeed.

Q: How do you foster a family feeling at your company?

When someone makes the decision to be part of the MARS family — we call them Martians — their department leader tells this employee that we are really a MARS family, and who they are and what they are is very important to us.

Whatever an employee does, it leaves a lasting impression. Whether it’s a client or a supplier or a vendor, it’s the impression that they leave, which is kind of like a family because they’re representing your name, and you don’t want them to go out there and make you look bad. So we work to promote a family-type atmosphere and environment, and we have a lot of events focused on bringing that specific idea to the forefront during the year. We have picnics during the summer, and we go to a ballgame, and we have parties — all the events that bring people close together.

It’s really important that they do fit in to that family feel. It’s important that they are team players because there are no silos here. We all are part of that team, including me, and if it’s good for you, it’s good for me. So the person has to have a happy spirit and has to feel like they want to be a team player.

Q: How do you grow into new markets?

If you believe strongly in what you’re going to do in this other city, then it’s easy because the person you sent to this other city is a leader you trusted; so then you just stay close with communications. We have a division in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the reason it’s in Scottsdale is because the leader is in Scottsdale, and in this day and age, you don’t have to be in this office in order to work well with us. Technology allows people to be other places.

They come to Detroit once a month, and one of us goes to these offices once a month, but we’re also on the phone all the time and doing e-mail, so it’s really not as hard as it used to be to keep that going.

Q: What is the main component to empowering employees?

I never say I want us to do something because I said so. I try to get everyone that’s involved in the discussion. I have the ultimate decision in my group, but I want other groups to come to their own decision.

Sometimes they aren’t right, but we give them that authority, and most of the time, they are. It helps build a feeling of responsibility.

We go to a meeting, and we’re in the car and we’re driving, and normally I’ll say, ‘OK gang, are we all in agreement that this is what we’re going to do? Let’s talk about it and make sure.’ And we do. And normally people add what they think, and we say, ‘Yeah, that’s good,’ and before we walk into the door, we are in accord, and that makes for a happy group.

There aren’t people there who feel like they have to be the hero today because we work it out together.

Q: What’s the key to hiring good people?

You don’t ask them a set list of questions that probably they’ve heard and rehearsed for. You talk about life, and talk about where they worked and why they want a new job, and what is their motivation for getting into this business, as opposed to where they were before.

Or, if they worked in the same field at another agency, what did they do before, and why didn’t they like it, or why do they want to move on? You kind of get into a conversation with people.

HOW TO REACH: MARS Advertising Co. Inc., (248) 936-2200 or www.marsusa.com