72andSunny’s Matt Jarvis encourages teamwork and collaboration Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

A fairly familiar diagram hangs on the wall in Matt Jarvis’ shared office. It’s a copy of legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, building on traits from cooperation to initiative to team spirit to competitive greatness.

But the picture hanging next to it at 72andSunny isn’t so common.

It’s a cover of “The Onion” with the headline “Holy shit, man walks on [expletive] moon.” Jarvis, partner and managing director at the Los Angeles-based advertising agency, laughs as he explains how the lampoon newspaper serves as a reminder not to be uptight.

“Obviously, to be successful, you have to be very engaged and take things seriously,” Jarvis says. “But things don’t always go your way, and there are bumps in the road, and how you handle those is a mark of a leader.”

With a hybrid leadership style that seems to echo those decorations, Jarvis handles bumps by balancing a serious strategy with a more modern, laid-back approach. For example, the 72andSunny website identifies him as chief strategy officer, which you’d think would warrant him an office of his own — or at least his own desk.

Not at this L.A. agency.

Jarvis shares the company’s only office — and the table in it — with the other partners: John Boiler and Glenn Cole, as well as Robert Nakata when he’s visiting from the Amsterdam location. That sets the stage for the other 103 employees to work together flexibly without sacrificing solid strategy.

“Our entire organization is based upon the premise that people — particularly in modern culture — are hybrids,” Jarvis says. “They are fluent in multiple things, not just one thing. A disease of our industry has been to pigeonhole people into one narrow function that’s really relying on only a small percentage of their skill sets, not really getting the most out of the people.”

By encouraging collaboration in an open environment where strategic initiative sets the pace, Jarvis gets more from his employees and better results from their projects.

Build a collaborative culture

Collaboration begins with the structure of 72andSunny’s headquarters — literally.

The aforementioned executive office is the only office, which leaves the rest of the floor plan open. Employees cluster together at long tables in lieu of individual cubicles.

“That, in itself, just structurally forces people to interact with each other in different ways,” Jarvis says. “We don’t sit people by function like most agencies do. Usually at most agencies, there’s a creative department. I’ve always thought that was the craziest thing; you’re in this creative business where you need the best idea and then you’re relegating creativity to a single department.”

Of course, the building alone won’t create a culture where ideas flourish from every level. You need interaction within that setting.

Because employees watch how the partners interact, it starts with the example set by leadership.

“It’s really a three-legged stool from a management standpoint,” Jarvis says. “Anytime we start talking about roles and responsibilities, it does change a little bit day to day — who’s on vacation, who’s busy with other things.”

Instead of each partner holding a narrowly defined role, the partners are collectively responsible for the performance of the organization in terms of client satisfaction, financial health and a vibrant culture. They rely on transparency, honesty, integrity and communication to keep overlaps from becoming obstacles.

The key to avoiding a free-for-all is that you set expectations in terms of generally outlined roles and tediously laid-out goals and strategies.

For example, employees are organized into teams by their core functions to ensure that skill sets on each team are balanced. Each team consists of a design-oriented creative director, a creative director with a writing background, a brand director serving as the business leader and a strategy director with a focus on research and analytics. On larger projects, the teams can scale by adding more people to each function.

“It’s important that just because you have the strategist title doesn’t mean that you’re going off in your corner writing a strategy,” Jarvis says. “The strategy is a product of a conversation between all those people. Now ultimately, you’re accountable for the strategic product and you’re accountable for bringing these people together and building consensus, but just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean that others don’t participate.”

Hire team players

Getting employees to interact collaboratively in that environment goes back a step further. It begins with bringing team players into the organization.

“We don’t do any enforcing. Our culture enforces,” Jarvis says. “People who can thrive in that kind of environment tend to be here for a really long time and have great careers. And people who don’t operate that way, there’s a little bit of a white blood cell factor. … Half the battle is getting the right people in who buy in to that.”

The 72andSunny partners have brought in a talent director and a chief culturista — who has both a background in advertising strategy and experience as a life coach — to screen candidates in terms of their team-oriented culture.

For example, they talk to candidates about environments that they’ve been most successful in. Sometimes, experience can speak for itself. If candidates have been active in team environments before, they’re probably comfortable at the firm. For example, people with athletic backgrounds often do well at 72andSunny.

“One of the things you learn really well in sports is that you can’t control the past and you need to turn around and perform very quickly,” Jarvis says. “Things like guilt and blame and victimhood, all that stuff is not productive.”

But the specific language candidates use when discussing their previous experiences and future goals can be even more indicative of their ability to push themselves in a team environment.

“There’s a lot of us versus them in advertising, like the suits against the creatives,” Jarvis says. “If there’s even a hint of that, I would say that’s kind of an automatic veto.

“If people feel like where they are or the ideas [they have] are good enough for them and they’re completely satisfied, they probably wouldn’t be interviewing with us. We’re attracting people who want more out of their careers and more out of themselves than a lot of companies in our industry are currently providing.”

Candidates don’t get through the 72andSunny interview process without meeting a lot of employees, and each interaction acts as a cultural filter. But the crucial key is having a position completely devoted to finding that fit and having someone in that position who can clearly communicate the expectations of your culture.

“Making that investment in recruitment and hiring … has been helpful,” Jarvis says. “You have to be really up front with people in the beginning: ‘Hey, this is what you’re signing up for and this is what it’s like. If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine, but you need to be aware that that’s what we’re doing here.’”

If you devote the extra effort up front to finding team-oriented players, you won’t have as much difficulty getting them to take advantage of your collaborative environment later.

Focus on strategy

Even when the right employees are in the right setting, it still takes the right process to encourage collaboration.

“There’s an open forum for everyone to lob in ideas and participate in a process,” Jarvis says.

But it’s not enough to just have an open forum where ideas can flow. The key is to have a process for that sharing. At 72andSunny, that process revolves around strategy.

“When people are presenting ideas … part of the expectation is there’s a strategic setup to it,” Jarvis says. “So it’s part of their product. If you don’t have a strategic setup to what you’re presenting, then it’s not complete and it’s not ready for consumption.”

To keep that focus, conversations center on strategy from the start of each project. The first line on each brief, for example, lays out the problem that needs to be solved for that particular client. The company starts with that goal in mind and devotes the most time to discussing how to do that.

That focus guides the brainstorming process by predetermining the parameters that define the best idea.

“There are not conversations of, ‘This is a good idea,’ or, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Jarvis says. “The conversations are, ‘We’re trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t think this idea is going to get us from point A to point B and here’s why.’ So you keep the conversation on a strategic level.”

As you get deeper into a project, keep bringing it back to the client’s ultimate goal and how your method will achieve that.

“When you do that, it definitely drains a lot of the subjectivity out of the creative process,” he says. “You can go back to the strategy and the expected results and say, ‘OK, which of these ideas is going to deliver this result?’ That’s one way of taking the ego out of the creative process. It’s not about you; it’s about the result.”

While those constant strategic reminders maintain concentration on the goal, they also encourage teamwork by eliminating ego from the equation. That keeps conversations open, giving each employee a voice and each idea a chance.

“Ego can be toxic to great creativity,” Jarvis says. “So we spend a lot of energy trying to separate people from ideas.”

One of the best tools for that, which Jarvis refers to as “the most important little slice of real estate in our office,” is a work wall. The company borrowed the concept from Dutch design culture via Nakata, who’s spent most of his career in Amsterdam. Boiler and Cole both worked there several years, as well.

“Everything that is being worked on, whether it’s a website, a wireframe or a TV commercial or a strategy deck, goes up on a work wall for the other team members to comment, consume, revise, etc.,” Jarvis says. “So you encourage teamwork by getting the work off of people’s computers and onto the wall. … When we have an idea on the wall, we’re not talking about me or John or Jim or Susan. We’re talking about the idea.”

Improve future processes

That constant visibility and transparency is crucial for monitoring a project’s progress along the way.

“This is a business where people work very hard and very long hours,” Jarvis says. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to work on things that aren’t going anywhere. And it doesn’t do anyone any favors to pussyfoot around opinions.

“People come here because they want to be great, and part of that process is sometimes doing things that don’t work and figuring out why and then going back and learning. It’s iterative.”

Results don’t always meet expectations. Because Jarvis often relies on employees to identify those breakdowns, he has to make a safe environment for them to share. The way you respond to glitches will determine whether employees open up about personal mistakes and weak spots in the process.

“You figure out where along the way did we wobble and why did that happen,” he says. “There’s not a culture of wrist-slapping. If something bad has happened, it’s already out of our control. Let’s focus on what we can control, which is our process going forward.”

If you berate employees for mistakes, you’re illustrating that the past is more pertinent than future fixes.

“There’s no blame. One of our mantras here is, ‘No victims,’” he says. “The people who work here are so conscientious. If something goes wrong, they don’t need somebody piling in on them. They need, if anything, a forum to talk about how it’s not going to happen again, how it’s going to get better.”

This is where sports backgrounds come in handy, when employees understand that the game won’t pause for them to dwell on mistakes. When results are on the line, it’s about picking up the ball and running.

That philosophy has been successful at 72andSunny, where 2009 gross billings totaled $270 million, up from $160 million in 2008.

“You just look at the process and where in the process was there a failure,” Jarvis says. “Sometimes you get great results from bad processes and sometimes you get bad results from great processes. As long as the processes are solid and improving and considered, in the long run, there will be a lot more wins than losses.”

How to reach: 72andSunny, (310) 215-9009 or www.72andsunny.com