The Best Agency Cultures: Heartbeat
Best to do a nice full body stretch and have a shot of espresso before riding the elevator at One Penn Plaza up to Heartbeat. That’s because once you arrive, you may be asked to shoot hoops, spin a roulette wheel or answer a truth-or-dare style question. In fact, I did all of these within the first 10 minutes of my visit.
I was there to meet with Michelle Edwards and Amir Diwane, driving forces in Heartbeat’s Operations department, and the Julie McCoy & Captain Stubing of “Employee Experience.”
I wanted to learn how to design an authentic and enduring culture and this notion of Employee Experience was my first clue.
“Our employees are our clients,” explains Michelle, “They work really hard. We have to figure out what they need, what motivates them, and how to keep them happy.”
Rather than building programs top down — assuming they know what Heartbeaters want — the Employee Experience informs all aspects of culture.
Let me start by explaining my fascination with Heartbeat’s culture. It began years ago when one of my candidates received an unconventional job offer, which began:
This is an offer email.
Not for 40% off jeans or oceanfront property or another taxi service.
It’s for a job. A real, live Group Account Director job at Heartbeat.
I was enthralled, because it captured the giddiness that should accompany a job offer, instead of the drizzly employment-at-will language that makes you feel like you received a legal settlement instead of an awesome new job.
Over the years, I would hear more stories from people I placed there:
“Oh yeah, this is from the goody bag from my first day at Heartbeat.”
“Sorry I missed your call. It’s Employee Appreciation Week. I was at the omelette bar.”
“We were kind of bummed about moving to midtown, but they gave us $10 to go explore our new neighborhood and bring back a souvenir.”
These perks were easy to produce when I started recruiting for Heartbeat back in 2009, then a privately-held company of 50. The amazing thing is that they scaled, and became even more elaborate thru rapid growth, the opening of a West Coast office, acquisition by Publicis, and the move to Publicis Health headquarters in Herald Square. When I saw Heartbeat’s summer outing picture at the beach in the Hamptons, I declared that I must investigate.
Heartbeat’s Cultural Calendar
In addition to the events I hinted at above, there are regular activities planned by the “Upbeat” Culture Committee, an 8-person team lead by Michelle.
For starters, every year Heartbeaters are given a colored bandana which connects them to a team. Each team competes in twice monthly challenges to win points. Recent challenges have included an Easter egg hunt, a guacamole-making contest (complete with Alton Brown Cutthroat Kitchen style handicaps), a balloon toss, and an ugly sweater competition. “Points boost participation,” says Michelle, “People get really competitive!” Not to mention the prizes. At the end of the year, members of the winning team get to choose from a list that includes iPads, GoPros, Apple watches and gift cards.
Then there’s a healthy number of “Worldbeat” events geared toward charity and social service. For example, this year’s Drag Bingo during Pride Week earned money for The Trevor Project. The annual Heartbeat’s Got Talent Show supports causes like the American Heart Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. They’ve bought and wrapped gifts for victims of domestic violence and filled backpacks for underprivileged kids. During Career Day, they host teens from the Fresh Air Fund at the office.
Along with employee appreciation days, the summer outing and holiday party, Heartbeaters will also be treated to pampering during “Bodybeat” month this October. Massages, nutritional counseling, yoga, a smoothie bar and pedometer challenge are in the works.
Finally, “Beat Basics” offers coursework in foundational skills like creative brief writing and presentation storytelling, and includes a knowledge share program that matches you to another Heartbeater with a skill you want to learn, like say, UX.
The volume and richness of Heartbeat’s cultural calendar begged me to ask about the budget.
“So, what are the metrics you use to evaluate program success? Do you look at retention?” I venture. Michelle looks puzzled.
“How do you justify your budget?” I continue, trying a different angle. But she just shakes her head no, as if to say That’s just not how we operate. Happiness is the metric.
How Culture is Connected to Heartbeat’s Mission
While all these perks are creative and fun, how do they ladder back to Heartbeat values? Can anyone, at any level in the company, articulate what Heartbeat stands for, based on their participation in agency events?
To answer that, you must first know Heartbeat’s mission, and their romance with Challenger Brands:
Founded in 1998, Heartbeat is the digitally-native, full-service, Consumer & HCP AOR leader for Challenger Brands. Challengers are brands that are breaking new ground or entering highly competitive environments and thus need a decidedly different approach to breakthrough and have market impact. We help brands overcome the odds and exceed their business goals by outsmarting, outworking, and outperforming the competition with unexpected strategies, daring creative, innovative solutions, faster processes, and a scrappy mentality.
To achieve these results for clients, Heartbeat must encourage its own people to question the status quo, e.g. Do the current systems and processes represent the best ways to do things, or can they be improved? The monthly Challenger Award, in the form of a handcrafted slingshot, goes to the Heartbeater that champions a new approach.
Says Nadine Leonard, Executive Planning Director and one of Heartbeat’s Managing Directors: “We celebrate the people who stand up and say, ‘You know what? This is dumb.’”
Like my offer letter example. Why settle for the hissing flat tire of legalese when you can present a new job with the flourish it deserves?
Values like “infectious enthusiasm, genuineness, all-in mentality, and humor” aren’t made up in a board room and floated out like hopeful paper lanterns in town hall meetings. They are a reflection of leadership. If you study Bill Drummy, Heartbeat’s Founder and Chairman, you’ll find he is regularly recognized for his passion, as in 2015 PharmaVOICE’s 100 Most Inspiring People: “His passion and conviction for the industry, his ability to view industry trends as opportunities and not obstacles, the ability to innovate in developing breakthrough strategies and services, for pioneering new paths and lifting his company to new heights, for taking the time to mentor and guide the next generation of industry leaders, and for his dedication to improving the lives of patients.” (Not a surprise he was just named to the same list for 2017.)
And in MM&M Magazine’s 2017 Innovation Catalysts: “His infectious enthusiasm for inventiveness, creativity, and next-generation technology [raises] the bar for his peers.”
While he was CEO at Heartbeat, Drummy insisted on “Breakfast with Bill”, where he’d take out small groups of new hires so he could really know his team. This is a practice that Heartbeat’s Managing Directors have continued: “Cocktails with James & Nadine.”
Agency culture wouldn’t be as pervasive and credible if its leaders said one thing but did another. They are solicitous of ideas, democratic and accessible — qualities that James Talerico, Executive Creative Director and Managing Director has captured in the “Manager’s Manifesto”, which serves as a compass for future generations of leaders. (In fact, James’ creative touch can be seen everywhere: From the slingshot and roulette wheel, milestone anniversary gifts, office design, even the flatware and plates in the kitchen. No detail is overlooked.)
The Candidate Experience and Onboarding
Before the Employee Experience, there’s the Candidate Experience. Michelle, Amir and Matthew Dolce in Talent Acquisition have thought through every step from interview to offer to first day on the job. When candidates arrive, they are energetically greeted by Amir and given a tour of Heartbeat’s office, a sprawling bright space of high ceilings, large windows and white walls that’s home to almost 200 employees. Chalkboard name tags introduce future office mates, like John who likes cars, beer and avocados.
Then it’s off to meet the hiring team for interviews. Michelle is the last stop, gathering impressions and responding to questions before candidates leave. This attention to detail, similar to a Chef Bouley restaurant, is a recruiter’s dream!
We’ve already covered the offer letter, which triggers an impressive fan of prompts and reminders such as having the supervisor reach out to their new hire before the start date. This is critical to keeping the momentum going, especially if several weeks have passed since the first interview.
Remember I mentioned the roulette wheel? Well, it’s all part of the surprise and delight that awaits new starts, along with a team bandana, a box of goodies and a red helium balloon at your desk. You’ll find appointments already on your calendar too, for meetings with your manager, your HR benefits coordinator, and a buddy assigned to show you the ropes. Check-ins at one, three, six and twelve months are also part of the plan.
Heartbeat in 6 Words
By now I’ve written and you’ve read many words about Heartbeat’s culture. But I can’t send you on your way without a final nod to one of their favorite parlor games, meant to sum up your personality in 6 words. All Heartbeaters have completed them anonymously, leaving you to wonder about your colleagues.
For fun, I wanted to come up with 6 words that distilled Heartbeat’s personality — a shorthand I could use with candidates. It would have to be something that captured their game-faceness, silliness, curiosity and sense of adventure. Something like: Never was one to say no.