Cultural revolution Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

When Rick Eiserman became CEO of the Southern California branch of Young & Rubicam Brands, the advertising and marketing agency’s conference room was almost entirely filled by a massive wooden table.

The table was where the agency’s executives met and did business with its senior clients, and 40 people could fit around it.

Not surprisingly, it caused quite a stir when Eiserman ordered it taken out. The table, which had to be disassembled to move it out of the boardroom, was rebuilt in a large open area of the organization, where it became a lunch table — and more often than not, a dinner table.

“When we’re in the middle of a huge amount of work or if we’re in the middle of a new business pitch, that’s where we gather at night so people aren’t away in their offices, just working,” he says. “We’re getting together, we’re sharing and building that culture, that community of the agency.”

Eiserman moved the table to send a message to his employees. He wanted a strong company culture to help his branch of Y&R Brands, which pulled in more than $400 million in billings in 2007, stand out in a global company that has 182 offices in 82 countries. As a result, the culture has become a major factor in the attraction and retention of talented employees.

Here’s how he turned Y&R Brands So Cal into a tightly knit community.

Motivate your team

Eiserman puts a tremendous amount of importance on the people who make up his company — and for good reason. Under the Y&R umbrella are many specialty companies, like Wunderman, a direct advertising firm, and Landor Associates, which specializes in design and brand building. It’s also the agency of record for clients like Land Rover, Callaway Golf and Mattel Inc. Whatever the client’s marketing challenge, one of the companies that constitute Y&R Brands will have the resources and expertise to solve it.

In other words, Y&R is only as good as its people. “We don’t produce the widgets,” he says. “Motivating people is literally the key to the success of the organization.”

Eiserman says motivation comes from an individual understanding the role they play in the company, and then understanding how critical that role is to the overall success of the organization. Once the employee has a clear idea of where his or her role fits in the big picture, it motivates that employee and reinforces what the CEO has said about the importance of every person’s role in the organization’s success.

Achieving complete clarity of purpose throughout the organization isn’t something that happens overnight. Eiserman says that there are a few keys to getting everyone rowing in the same direction.

First, you need to establish expectations for everyone in the organization — top to bottom. Make sure everyone knows their responsibilities as an individual employee, and each department should have its own plan, as well.

“That way, people aren’t left guessing what’s expected of them,” Eiserman says.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, plenty of open communication is needed between the boss and the employees. Eiserman says that it’s the CEO’s responsibility to share his or her vision for the company with the employees, and then to show them how they fit into it.

“Talk about them as individuals and set their objectives for the year — what their goals are,” he says. “Then, invest time in those individuals to help give them every chance at success at what they’re doing.”

Another way to keep employee motivation high is celebrating and acknowledging the success and the contribution of those individuals.

Every month, the branch’s 270 employees get together for breakfast. Besides making sure there are enough boxes of cereal and gallons of milk for everyone, Eiserman’s biggest responsibility at the breakfast is to spread the good word — whether it is by detailing an individual’s recent achievement, recognizing the employees who worked to help the agency win a new account or just welcoming a recently hired staff member.

Eiserman also created the “Unsung Hero” award to help celebrate an employee whose contributions, while significant, may be overlooked. The constant stream of praise for the staff’s efforts simply reinforces Eiserman’s mantra, while proving that management takes each employee’s role very seriously.

“Just giving it lip service isn’t going to cut it,” he says. “Literally, everything we do starts with our people.”

Stay in touch

One of Eiserman’s sayings is that you have to genuinely value your employees or else you might as well go get new ones.

Occasionally, some staff members of his team will work 70- to 80-hour weeks. It’s during those long hours, and those many dinners around the old boardroom table, that having a good company culture pays off.

“If someone is going to work every night until 10 p.m. and be here on the weekends, then this is not only their job, it’s their social life, as well,” Eiserman says.

“So, it’s got to be a place that they like to be. That culture often has to be able to sustain a competitive offer from the agency down the road or a crazy workload for someone who hasn’t had a day off in three or four weeks.”

The task of keeping quality employees becomes even more difficult when it requires paying double the going rate just to get the right employees in the door.

The shortage of quality employees with the right skill set changes the way Eiserman plans the vision for his organization.

“When we’re setting a vision for the company, it’s not only, ‘Here’s what we think will give us solid business performance for the next few years,’” he says. “We also have to wrap that vision in something that will attract people to the organization so that they will say, ‘Of the 10,000 agencies out there, this is the one I want to be a part of.’ Because at the end of the day, all we have is our talent.”

One reason that employees want to stick around at Y&R Brands is the agency takes more than a passing interest in their development. Eiserman says if you are in over your head at your current position, you won’t be for long. If you’re not sufficiently challenged by your current job responsibilities, that will be fixed, too.

Although every employee has a core skill set, management can develop a deeper understanding of a staff member’s capabilities as his or her skills evolve. So Eiserman devotes resources to readjusting the agency’s knowledge of its staff’s capabilities. By making sure each employee is well-suited and happy in his or her role, you can maximize productivity and improve retention.

“The financial pressures in an agency environment are extreme, especially in an agency that is publicly owned,” he says. “So you really need to maximize the work capacity and the potential of literally every employee that you have.”

Communicate with your staff

Many CEOs love to talk about their open-door policies. But the way Eiserman sees it, the open-door policy is a good idea that just doesn’t go far enough. When a CEO says, “My door is always open,” it places the burden of responsibility for open communications solely on the back of the employee. It seemed a little one-sided to him.

“I used to think that if you were just approachable and if you instituted your open-door policy that was going to be enough — but it’s not,” he says.

Instead of sitting in an office and reacting to problems, Eiserman says CEOs should be more proactive. Get out there and communicate with your staff because the more informed they are, the more motivated they become. Find out what their concerns are, and do what you can to help them understand the big picture.

“If you’re trying to build a culture, how could an employee feel a part of something if they don’t know what’s really going on?” Eiserman says.

Sometimes, it can be painful to keep up truly honest and open communications with your staff. When Eiserman was planning for his first all-staff meeting as CEO, the agency’s HR director gave him an incredulous warning about a particular item he had placed on the agenda.

“He said, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do Q&A. You don’t know what these people will say to you,’” Eiserman says.

That attitude didn’t sit right with Eiserman, and from that day on, he has made it a point to end each meeting with a question-and-answer session.

No question is off-limits, which means facing some occasional tough questions.

“‘What happened to this person? Why don’t we have raises?’” he says. “Sure, you get asked the hard questions, but you also get an environment where people feel like they can ask questions, and if they’re not clear on something, they can actually raise it.”

Although the process may sometimes be painful, Eiserman says it beats the alternative — keeping your employees in the dark.

Link growth to opportunities

Business growth can be a tricky obstacle to overcome for an organization looking to improve its company culture. When you’re encouraging the organization to constantly pursue growth and new business, after awhile, your employees ask, “What’s in it for me?”

For the agency’s need for new business to coincide with his cultural plan, Eiserman had to completely change the way the company looked at growth. For years, Y&R had wanted growth simply for the sake of growth, and it was growing at about 30 percent each year.

“The agency continued to get bigger, and all it was, was more work,” Eiserman says.

Now, all business growth is considered an opportunity to invest back in the agency — whether the investment is to expand resources or train employees.

For instance, when Y&R recently picked up Jenny Craig as a client, Eiserman was already thinking about which employees would be a good fit on the new account.

“As that win came in the door, the first thing we said was not, ‘These guys are $70 million in billings,’” he says. “We said, ‘OK, this is going to create incredible opportunities for a lot of people in this room, so let’s start there.’”

Eiserman and his management team got to work mapping out skill sets for each position they needed to fill on the account. Then, they put the word out that anyone who was interested in the open positions should apply.

When the agency’s growth is simply boiled down to a bullet point on the quarterly report, it’s difficult for employees to fully invest themselves in it. However, when they see that the agency’s growth translates into more opportunities for them, they will be much more motivated and focused. Also, when they start to see the improvements around them that have resulted from investing previous growth back into the agency, it only reinforces their faith in management’s commitment to building a strong company and culture.

“Suddenly, people start to view growth differently rather than, ‘Oh, it’s just more work,’” Eiserman says.

HOW TO REACH: Young & Rubicam Brands, Southern California, (949) 754-2000 or