“To create a fantastic work culture empower your team”, with Denise Blasevick and Phil Laboon

Empower the team. When people are part of a team that they believe in — and that believes in them — they are not afraid to make decisions, to take chances, and to do things that go beyond their job description. That’s because they know that, as long as they act in accordance with the culture, they will be […]

Empower the team. When people are part of a team that they believe in — and that believes in them — they are not afraid to make decisions, to take chances, and to do things that go beyond their job description. That’s because they know that, as long as they act in accordance with the culture, they will be supported (even if they make a wrong judgment call). We have a pro bono program called “S FREE” that allows us to provide creative services for companies that cannot afford a creative agency. Whenever we open up S FREE for new potential clients to apply, we bring the applicants to the team for them to vote on. Their votes determine who we will be working with, which let’s us all take part in the excitement of “doing good.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Blasevick, co-founder and CEO of The S3 Agency, a full-service creative agency that that elevates, activates, and amplifies world-class brands. For more than two decades, Denise has developed groundbreaking communications programs for b2c and b2b clients such as BMW of North America, Eight O’Clock Coffee, the National Kitchen & Bath Association, Tetley Tea, and Wyndham Worldwide. Her creativity and business acumen have been recognized with hundreds of awards (including Advertising Hall of Fame induction and NJ’s Best 50 Women in Business), but what drives Denise is helping clients find unique solutions that measurably move the brand needle. In addition to heading up tradigital strategy at The S3 Agency, Denise enjoys scuba diving, solving crossword puzzles, and traveling as often as possible with her husband and 12-year-old son.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for inviting me, I’m honored! What brought me to the advertising industry? It turns out it’s the dream job I never dreamt of as a kid. When I was growing up, I was a very driven student who had my hopes set on being a doctor. I started college with that in mind, but quickly discovered that I was far more drawn to the arts than to the sciences. Especially literature. Delving into books written in and about different time periods, cultures and experiences brought worlds far beyond my own to life and helped me understand various experiences and points of view. I enjoyed the process of digesting each author — internalizing what I had learned to deepen my connection with the author, the subject matter, even the audience (of which I was a part). Discovering what I believed to be the truths of these great works, my papers were full of salient arguments that proved what I believed to be these truths. And I believed that this had clarified my career path: more lawyer than doctor. Looking back on this now, I can see how it relates directly to the advertising industry — instead of authors, I work with clients, and use creativity to share their truths with their audiences. After graduation, I wasn’t sure what type of career my degree in English would help me land, so I decided to go to grad school to study Greek literature. (Who doesn’t love Greek gods and goddesses?) Well, I think one of the gods must have intervened, because during the summer before I started grad school, I needed a job — and an ad agency needed a summer receptionist. The first day of that summer job changed my life. I heard a creative team brainstorming headlines for an ad campaign, and immediately my mind started racing. I spend the rest of that day, in between answering phones and greeting guests, writing a lengthy list of headlines — and then handed it to the creative director on my way out. I had no idea this could be a job, I just loved writing and wanted to help out. So when the creative director offered me the position of copywriter on the spot, I said yes without hesitation. My passion is for learning about my clients, their industries, and their audiences — and then using creativity to connect the dots in meaningful ways. That’s why I co-founded The S3 Agency in 2001 with my friend and business partner, Adam Schnitzler — and we have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s greatest brands since then.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Wow, that’s a tough one. The advertising industry is ALWAYS exciting — but one of the most exciting things I’ve personally experienced has been the introduction of social media. I imagine it must be what it felt like when TV first came into being…and brands realized they had the opportunity to reach consumers with commercials. One of my favorite experiences dates back to 10 years ago, when we launched Eight O’Clock Coffee into the social media space — well before most of their competitors. Our social activity got the attention of Mad Men executives, the stars aligned, and Eight O’Clock ended up doing an enormously successful, multi-faceted social/digital integration that included sponsoring the “Mad Men Yourself” avatar creation app. While we have exciting moments literally every day at the agency, you never forget when the phone rings and someone says, “It’s Mad Men.”

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We are launching a new campaign right now for Centenary University, a small private university that leverages its agility to continually evolve its majors so they are in line with what today’s students want to study — in order to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. Called “The Future U,” this campaign builds upon the insights unearthed in our strategic positioning process. The concept features current Centenary students, the future career they are studying for, and our newly created tagline “The Future U” — and it is initially launching across outdoor media, digital, social, and on campus. It’s a very different look / feel / tonality for the university — one we believe truly captures the essence of who they are and what they offer, which is something very special. By amplifying awareness of Centenary’s unique learning environment, we believe we are helping future college students discover what may be the best path to their future success.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

That stat saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. I think one big factor causing this is a lack of commitment in the employment world. With previous generations, it was common for people to begin and end their careers with the same company. Today, many people feel like they are supposed to “move around” frequently, hopping from company to company like it’s their job. That can prevent someone from feeling a true sense of belonging or of accomplishment. On the other hand, some companies seem to feel that, since people won’t be in the jobs long anyway, why go beyond the superficial in terms of investing in its team? Commitment is a two-way street, and without it we simply have shallow relationships that lack satisfaction. It’s a pretty vicious cycle — one that doesn’t lead to the best work.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Let’s take that question in reverse: since we know that stress is bad for our health and wellbeing, an unhappy employee is more likely to have health issues that interfere with their wellbeing. Now I’ll jump to the productivity part: if people are out sick frequently, or working while they are not feeling well or in pain, their individual productivity will decrease, as will that of their team who is picking up their slack. I like that you put “profitability” in between “productivity” and “health and wellbeing,” because I believe those are the two primary factors that affect how productive a company can be. Happier, healthier employees who work together productively create a company’s best chance for sustainable profitability.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each? can use the 5 items you provided me above.

I’m honored to share some of the things I do to help cultivate the positive culture we have at The S3 Agency; hopefully these tips provide some value for other leaders as well.

1. Remember that culture starts with you. As the CEO, I believe that the company’s culture starts with me — but all managers affect the culture within their departments. The #1 thing I write on my “to do” list is always cEo — reminding me that I’m not just the Chief Executive Officer, I’m also the Chief Energy Officer, and I need to do something to inspire my team every single day if I want my culture to be strong. “Bringing the energy” doesn’t always mean something big; sure, major off-site social events are great culture builders, but you can’t do that every day. So little things — like sending an email thanking someone for extraordinary work, celebrating a new client win with impromptu goodies, or having a bake-off for bragging rights on Pi Day (3/14) — help keep our team tight. (Yes, I’ll be baking a pie, no I won’t go easy on everyone else just because I’m the boss…)

2. Culture may start with you, but it isn’t all about you. Culture is about the team, and we need to constantly be listening to them, their needs, their suggestions…and incorporating insights from their perspectives into our proactive culture-building. After hearing some of our employees mention that they work better at different times for different reasons (such as leaving later to get their kids on the bus, working earlier because that’s when they are most creative, etc.), we changed our business hours to a flexible schedule that helped improve their quality of life at home and at work. It was a significant change with a significant impact — and it was the result of listening to small-talk and discerning the value it could bring to our team.

3. Take the culture pulse. Culture isn’t a thing. It’s a reflection of the living, breathing people who are a part of it — and that means it’s constantly changing. Once you have created a great culture you’re not done, because new influences, people, situations mean that the only constant thing is change. One of our newer employees is a Tai Chi master, so we are looking at offering Tai Chi classes here at work as an ongoing team building opportunity!

4. Empower the team. When people are part of a team that they believe in — and that believes in them — they are not afraid to make decisions, to take chances, and to do things that go beyond their job description. That’s because they know that, as long as they act in accordance with the culture, they will be supported (even if they make a wrong judgment call). We have a pro bono program called “S FREE” that allows us to provide creative services for companies that cannot afford a creative agency. Whenever we open up S FREE for new potential clients to apply, we bring the applicants to the team for them to vote on. Their votes determine who we will be working with, which let’s us all take part in the excitement of “doing good.”

5. Culture thrives more on accountability than free coffee. Company success is key to a strong culture — after all, it’s not fun if people are fearful that they won’t have a job. Clearly defining everyone’s role in helping the organization that success — and holding them accountable for their part — will help the culture, and the company, thrive. Rather than wait for an annual review as the once-a-year time to officially check in, we meet with each employee quarterly. We start each meaning by reviewing our core values and evaluating performance against those values. This frequency of meeting allows employees and managers to hold each other accountable, and to bring up and discuss issues virtually in real time — so that solutions can be found. (Ok, we also have free coffee. We’re an ad agency, everyone needs their caffeine!)

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I think we should eradicate the “B” word from our vocabularies! Busy. People like to say they’re busy, as if it’s a badge of honor, but many times it means that people are stressed because they are not accomplishing what they need to accomplish. Instead, let’s replace “busy” with “productive.” That focus shift can let businesses and employees evaluate their activities through a different lens, and find a way to do the things that bring the most meaning to their jobs and to the company. Instead of constantly feeling overwhelmed by an un-doable “to do” list, we can feel a sense of accomplishment for doing what really matters at the office — and having time to enjoy our lives outside of the office.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

That’s a tough one, because I think that leaders employ different styles in different situations. Overall, though, I’d say I’m fairly democratic in my approach to running my business. I enjoy getting people involved in making decisions when possible, because I respect the people on my team and I value their brains! Also, those decisions affect them, so I want to make sure I hear different perspectives. Collaboration and creativity are core to our business, so it feels very natural to bounce ideas off of my employees. I feel like the agency has benefitted from this approach, for fun things like what to name our sub-street-level working area (“The Underground”) to more business-critical issues such as what types of clients to work on.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This may sound cliché, but my parents were my first supporters and remain my biggest supporters. We started the company in my mom’s kitchen, and my dad loaned us money in the early days. My mother always told me to use my powers for good, and giving back is part of our DNA at The S3 Agency. In addition to our pro bono work, we only work with companies we can believe in — we want to help those types of companies survive and thrive! On the business side, I cannot overemphasize the value that EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) has brought to my business and to my life. This global network brings together entrepreneurs to help each other through the journey of founding and leading companies, supplementing that peer-to-peer learning with amazing events that inspire and teach me how to constantly improve my business. As a member of the New Jersey chapter, I meet once per month with a group of other business owners to share issues and learn from their experiences. I also attend local and national learning events. I’m not sure if you are familiar with Traction, the business operation philosophy, but I learned about it years ago at an EO event — and it transformed our business for the better the value that EO has provided to me and to my company is simply priceless.

Thank you so much for joining us!

About the Author:

Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. Phil also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column on the subject of how great leaders build great companies. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges. If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE.

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