Why We Took the Whole Company to Wilderness Festival
Creating distinctive moments in an agency culture doesn’t come without its risks.
Work hard play hard has been a mantra I’ve followed since starting in advertising as a fresh faced graduate. Influenced in part I’m sure by my first agency experience, back in the day when champagne at your desk at breakfast was still a thing.
Now, my fellow directors and I often find ourselves debating how to strike the right balance between creating an inspiring place to work AND a high performance culture. What does ‘work hard play hard’ mean for a cohort of staff who are a couple of decades younger? Are the needs of our workforce tangibly different to ours in a world where ‘perks’ are apparently, more important than ‘package’?
We follow the advice we give to our clients for our own brand. Having a regular drum beat of ‘activity’ - or ‘perks’ - for staff (free food all day, pets in the office, audible subscriptions, payday pub-day), punctuated with quarterly peak moments (aka a Bottle social) are part of the norm in our culture. But the signature event of the year is Summer School. Past years have involved decamping from our Oxford HQ to live (and work) by the beach for a week (think Big Brother house, without the diary room).
But, just like any brand, we need to keep our hero moments fresh, original, always moving forward.
So this year, we decided to fill our welly boots, at Wilderness Festival and feast ourselves in the sensory treats that the immersive festival promised.
When I spoke to friends about our plans I was met with a range of reactions from ‘that’s cool’, ‘that’s generous’ to ‘couldn’t think of anything worse than go camping with my colleagues.’ Nothing I didn’t expect. But perhaps the most pointed response was ‘don’t you think you’re encouraging these millennials in their sense of entitlement?’ Hhhmm.
As a Gen Xer, I’ve caught myself saying that statement that makes me sounds like a granny “when I was a grad” - one too many times. I’ve also fallen into the trap of referring to the team as Millennials - a phrase that is now so over-used, so loaded, so...inadequate.
That last comment has played on my mind so it’s time to clear it up.
Welcome to my internal dialogue (or the pain in my proverbial brain), before, during and after we took the team to Wilderness Festival.
Sleeping under just the thinnest of Go Outdoors canvas tentage, 24 souls losing themselves in a field - potentially in the rain - filled up to the brim with booze...what could possibly go wrong?
Burning the candle at both ends - for four days, short fuses and irrational behaviour. Remedy? Nada. Just going to have to trust their self-control.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison - camping isn’t for everyone. Nor is glitter. Solution? Buy up every stock of glitter, jewels and tattoos that Amazon can offer, believe in the herd mentality, and pray the team fall in love with their glitter-bombed sleeping bag.
Once bitten, twice shy - if we get this wrong, the team might never have faith in our ‘summer school’ activities again. Fail safe plan? We got everyone involved on the premise that if we failed, we’d go down together.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst - what’s the worst that can happen at a UK festival. Oh yeah - it pisses down for four days. Preparation? Can’t. Just gotta pray - and send love letters to the lovely Carol Kirkwood. She’s a weather god, right?
Money doesn’t grow on trees - is it irresponsible to spend a chunk of profit midway through the year rather than keep the cash in the bank for a rainy day (aka, work dries up)? Action? Spend it. Money sch-money.
Did it shape up? Or were my worst fears realised? Was it outrageous?
Well, Carol Kirkwood is a proper babe. She over-delivered in fact. The heatwave got us up early as the temperature in the tent rose with the morning sun. (That is, apart from the newest team member who on morning number one, was sick on her new auto-inflating air-bed. Awks.)
As for the rest? Sorry, but what goes on tour and all that...
But in the words of the other new team member: “Probably the greatest – and most surreal – job induction I’ll ever experience. It set the tone for me - innately fun, vibrant, and relentlessly creative. Bottle is special. Even other festival goers could tell there’s something magic here.”
So now we’ve got past that first, rather challenging sleep deprived week in the office, and into the new normal, I feel equipped to reflect on my original anxieties, and respond to the doubters. Was it risky business or a bet worth taking? Have we contributed to our culture and employer brand or simply set a new precedent that the team is now going to expect us to update their employment contract to include a ‘fully paid for festival’?
A few lessons I’ve learnt, or reinforced through this experience:
Make rewards unexpected and creative
Psychologist Tasha Eurich has been helpful over the years as I’ve tussled with internal debates in navigating the generational differences at work - and importantly - how to quel feelings that I’m feeding Gen Me’s Cult of Self. Her article in Entrepreneur is bang on. I salute (and plagiarise) lesson number 3.
Originality is key in everything we do at Bottle. So before deciding on what ‘perk’ to arrange for this year’s Summer School, we ensured it hadn’t appeared on any ‘top 20 job benefits’ list. So far, we’ve not been able to find a ‘go on a four day festival’ on any list - yet.
Take risks, and trust your intuition
Be careful not to listen too much to your internal doubts - or the doubters around you. A culture that’s ‘safe’ and ‘cautious’ won’t be a successful one. Nuff said.
Relationships grow through unusual experiences
Working in stretchy places, having walking meetings - all great ways to engage with colleagues (and clients) in a different way. Going down the pub, seeing each other compete at treasure hunts, or punting down the river - all good ways to get to know each other and build rapport.
Beyond the coming out of an office romance (the worst kept secret), camping and festivaling together took our relationships to a new level. In the words of a team member: “When times are tough and it feels like I can't go on, I know my amazing colleagues will pick me up and spur me on (with more success than chilli dogs and gin)”
The best things in life are free
The TED Talk that Nic Marks gave about the Happy Planet Index is a good reminder that as leaders, we shouldn’t just measure business success and ignore what makes working worthwhile. He challenges our need for ‘stuff’ as a basis for happiness - especially if our pursuit for such ‘things’ results in us robbing the planet of its resources.
Nic lists the five things that are positive actions for well-being, which I think translate well to employee happiness:
To connect: social relationships are so important. Do you invest in them?
Be active: fastest way to get out of bad mood.
Take notice: seasons, people around you, culture.
Keep learning: curiosity, throughout every part of life.
Give: generosity, altruism and compassion are hard wired to our reward mechanism so it makes us feel good.
Suffice to say, the Wilderness experience ticked all of these off. None of these need to cost the earth. But doing them fosters a more enriching, joyful working life. And it’s infectious.
I firmly believe that a happy team = happy clients = happy business. And as an independent agency, we are not constrained to what’s expected or the norm. We can choose to let loose, allow the lines between work and play blur and enable the culture we create to drive the high performance we expect.
So was this experience worth the risk? Unreservedly. Here’s to our Happy Planet.