Creativity in lockdown 

— Every agency, whether large or small, has found ways to keep employees engaged and enlivened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Christiane Truelove • [email protected]

Agencies and networks featured in the Med Ad News Healthcare Communications Agencies Edition have kept client work going smoothly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and when it came to sustaining their own cultures, managed to rise to that challenge in unique ways. From Zoom coffees and cocktails, to ice cream deliveries, to art exhibits, to showing off the activities and things that kept them sane during lockdown, many healthcare ad agencies strove to extend their culture to everyone’s work-from-home situation.

At FCB Health New York, as everyone pivoted to remote work, agency leaders say thoughtful, detailed internal communication became more important than ever before. “It was immediately clear that we needed to keep our people connected and in the know about all things FCB. Without our beloved coffee bar conversations, and in-person meetings, we switched to virtual town halls.

“We all desperately missed our colleagues, our gorgeous office and seeing all of the beautiful creative hanging on every wall,” says Kathleen Nanda, chief creative officer of FCB Health New York. “Our virtual town halls gave us the connectivity we craved, and also proved to be a great way to showcase the amazing work we do daily. In many ways, we’ve been able to become more connected, and are planning on making our creative showcases tradition.”

Knowing how tough it has been to handle all the societal and personal challenges 2020 unleashed, FCB Health leadership worked hard to find ways to support the staff, providing telehealth services, offering free memberships to Headspace and Talkspace, and strongly encouraging people to use their flexible time off for reflection and self-care. 

“Leadership guided us through the pandemic with compassion and poise,” says Jenna Brownstein, group management director, FCB Health New York. “They added new programs on how to effectively work virtually, ensuring that no one missed out on opportunities in this unusual year. They also expanded offerings to include in-home care and dependent care, in addition to childcare and online tutoring.” 

Being remote did not stop agency leaders from helping their people grow and thrive. “We continued our robust curriculum of offerings,” FCB Health management says. “Whether through live digital workshops with facilitators and peers, or online applications like LinkedIn Learning and Get Abstract, we ensured all of our learning opportunities were equitable. We also continued our unparalleled internship program this year, along with The Residency, our exclusive six-week program for new FCB Health Network hires who are also new to healthcare.” 

“We believe that career development is fluid, and we make room for our people to explore the myriad opportunities the Network can provide through ‘Proactive Career Management,’” says Lisa DuJat, chief talent officer, FCB Health Network. “This means that we’re always looking for ways to help our employees grow. That could mean transferring to another agency, another role, or another client team. We want our talent to thrive and will do whatever it takes to provide opportunities to do so.”

At PRECISIONeffect, management says the agency’s talent team proved especially nimble in the face of the pandemic and made it their first priority to ensure its employees, who are referred to as “effectors,” felt connected and prepared to succeed, no matter where they were. The talent team launched a robust onboarding portal, developed guides for remote hiring (of the 62 hires in 2020, 49 of them were remote), and hosted virtual learning and development trainings across a wide range of topics including: “Managing Difficult Conversations” and “Leadership Essentials for New Managers.” 

According to Carolyn Morgan, president of PRECISIONeffect, the agency consistently encouraged its teams to focus on what matters most: taking care of themselves, their families, and their clients. “Even as they dealt with home schooling, cramped quarters and spotty internet connections, our teams delivered, providing clients with timely, implementable, and meaningful solution. Through virtual meetings and toasts, we cared for each other and helped each other out. I am confident that we will come through this as a stronger team and family. It is humbling to see what people can accomplish when they choose to work together.”

Even in the face of a global pandemic, Sound Healthcare Communications found a way to bring all employees together for their annual summer outing – a virtual summer concert featuring New Jersey’s most popular cover band, The Nerds. “Everyone really enjoyed themselves, myself included! We had tons of requests coming through in the chat and the band put on one heck of a show,” says Jeff Hack, managing partner, creative. “It was a great event that allowed us to feel close even when afar.” 

At Centron, agency culture continued to thrive in the remote environment. Within the first week, an employee-generated newsletter became a highly anticipated weekly favorite at the agency. Long-established activities, such as Coffee Club and Rise and Thrives, continued without interruption on Zoom. “2020 put all dimensions of our agency – culture, collaboration, work – to the test,” says Celine Vita, president. “I am humbled how we came together to support one another and to deliver against our agency and client goals. We may have been physically apart but we have never been stronger as a collective.” 

For Create NYC, where working mothers account for nearly 50 percent of all staff, the pandemic created serious burdens, including managing work, children, homeschooling, health, and basic tasks such as grocery shopping. Employee support included a year-long effort with mental health PTO days, workshops and monthly resources, optional one-on-one sessions with a child life specialist, a grocery/meal allowance for home delivery and to support local business, and mask shipments. 

At Schaefer Advertising, to fortify connections across the business, the company instituted virtual work anniversary celebrations on Zoom with heartfelt tributes from colleagues, and a daily ‘silver lining’ thread where team members shared bright spots in their day to encourage positivity during quarantine. Schaefer even set up an emergency cash fund for employees whose households may have been affected by a layoff or furlough, the leadership team points out, with staffers saying they have felt “seen” and “supported” from the very start of the pandemic. 

And despite the fact that many employees live between 40 and 150 miles from Schaefer’s offices in San Antonio, Texas, the company’s owner personally delivered pints of ice cream from a local artisanal creamery to every employee, offering some much needed cheer and supporting a local business in the process. 

Sarah Kuhns’ board shows the importance of music and plants in her life.

A year into lockdown, SPLICE Agency co-founder and creative director Kevin Stokes found himself settling into a groove by creating new routines to replace his old, regular working schedule. For him, this centered around mountain biking and hiking the hills above his home. One day, after returning from a ride, he thought it would be interesting to arrange some of the everyday items that have been key to his mental and physical survival into a flat lay. He shared that image with the agency on the Slack social channel, calling for others to create one of their own to share with the group. Stokes says the response was overwhelming, as dozens of people jumped at the opportunity to participate. 

Stephen Peterson’s board shares his love of skateboarding and taking photos.

“It was a shining example of the agency’s core value of Creativity Without Walls (where creativity is expected and demanded from everyone) and of how that core value could be leaned upon to help bring people closer together after spending so much time apart (or having never stepped foot in the office),” SPLICE executives say.

SPLICE’s Sarah Kuhns explains her board: “Gotta have the jams – new school or old. Armed with my Polaroid camera, my new budding relationship, and my trusty sidekick, Banjo, I’ve made the best of this wild year by experiencing moments and capturing snaps of some of those most secluded areas this beautiful state has to offer. I have realized and embraced that, regardless of where you are going, from mountains to the desert, half of the adventure is simply getting there. I’ve also discovered that I love working with my hands, so pottery and houseplants have kept me content and occupied. Here’s to more years of self-discovery.”

Lisa Ladehoff’s board displays her outdoor hobbies.

For Stephen Peterson, “Throughout COVID I focused my attention on activities I can do that will help me maintain inner peace. I always try to take a moment to be as present as possible, whether I’m skateboarding, biking, or working on building a greenhouse. Despite my hobbies being very social activities, I’m also able to enjoy them on my own without putting others at risk. My camera has enabled me to interact with the world from a distance and seek variation wherever I go. At the end of the day, I am always searching for new ways to help my body decompress.”

Davalyn Powell’s board features her cat, her “adorable officemate.”

According to Lisa Ladehoff, “I’m fortunate and grateful that many of the activities I’m passionate about have experienced few changes since the pandemic hit – and that I live in Northern California, where I can enjoy all of them pretty much year-round. Motorcycling and customizing my motorcycles have particularly captured my attention. Really just getting outside (riding, skiing, hiking, backpacking, fishing, mountain biking, whatever!) and taking advantage of California’s incredible outdoors has brought me so much joy. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee.”

And for Davalyn Powell, “One of the upsides of the last year of WFH has been spending all day with my adorable officemate/cat, who is usually napping next to me, making an appearance on Zoom, or encouraging me to take a break and bring out his favorite toy – an old, frayed bootlace that he loves to chase. I also try to find balance by getting outside and appreciating nature (and the year-round California weather) with a walk around the neighborhood or weekend camping trip in the Sierras with my husband. Otherwise, I’m often in the kitchen cooking or baking, opening a new bottle of wine or cider from one of our local shops, or listening to a podcast (economics and true crime are my favorites).”