Fast Company

Mind Games

According to the people at Play, whose clients include some of the world's most serious companies, the best ideas come from playful minds. And the way to tap into playful minds is to play -- together.

Where is it written that important assignments must be carried out with an air of grim determination? That breakthrough ideas can only emerge in a business-as-usual environment? That work must always feel like, well, work?

Here's a glimpse of the creative process at Play, a boutique marketing agency tucked in the historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia: The corner office is usually called the "playroom," but a hastily scrawled sign has temporarily dubbed it the "hall of justice." The 20 or so staff members in the room are instructed to invent their own superheroes, create costumes for them, figure out their superpowers, and invent Clark Kent-like alter egos. "You have 10 minutes," declares Courtney Page, 27, who's leading the exercise. Page starts by trading the blue, furry Grover hat that she's been wearing -- complete with googly eyes -- for a custom-made construction-paper headdress. Robert Throckmorton, 36, looking resplendent in a purple velvet shirt, draws a lighthouse on his white jacket made of Tyvek (that papery, indestructible stuff that's used in mailing envelopes and for housing insulation) to become Beacon Boy, whose mission is to banish evil and darkness. Geof Hammond, 29, tapes a 12-inch red rubber ball to the top of his head using strips of masking tape that are secured under his chin. Henry McCoy, 37, decides that the day job of his superhero, Ennui Boy, is whipping up lattes at Starbucks.

These folks aren't goofing off. They aren't fooling around. They're not even acting strangely. They're actually engaged in real work for an important client with a tight deadline. But they are trying to be creative -- which means, they insist, that they can't sit in boring meetings, in boring conference rooms, and expect to generate much beyond boring ideas. Indeed, this brainstorming session, which included several people who would be labeled (and dismissed) as mere accountants or support staff at most other agencies, was the beginning of an afternoon that generated more than 70 ideas for Play's client, the Weather Channel, which wants Play to come up with a marketing campaign that focuses on a specific cause.

Play's undeniably playful workplace reflects the company's overall approach to the hard work of creativity. Cofounder Andy Stefanovich, 33, says the basic idea is simple: When you turn work into a place that encourages people to be themselves, have fun, and take risks, you fuel and unleash their creativity. The best ideas come from playful minds. And the way to tap into that playfulness is to play -- together. "Creativity is not a solitary occurrence," he argues. "It's very much a collaborative effort. One person is as creative as the next. That creativity just needs to be discovered within each person. What we're doing is building a creative community -- not mystifying creativity as a special talent of a chosen few."

A diverse and demanding group of clients are finding themselves at Play. This small (31-person), fast-growing organization delivers creative concepts, marketing and branding campaigns, promotional products, and event strategies to the likes of American Express, Calvin Klein, Nationwide Insurance, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Oscar Mayer, and Disney. What's more, about 30% of the agency's business comes from teaching companies to be more creative themselves by using Play's methods.

Just how creative is Play? The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), the only non-business-school institution to make Business Week's top-20 list of executive educational programs on leadership innovation, recently evaluated the firm using a tool that rates a company's ability to foster creativity. Play not only beat CCL's benchmark model, but it also beat all of the companies in CCL's database. "Its scores were off the charts," says Bill Howland, product manager for CCL. "I have not seen another company with such an open and creative environment in my six years with the center." Indeed, stop by Play on any given afternoon, and you might find that a UPS guy has been pulled into a brainstorming session, or that a visitor has been asked to join a role-playing exercise. Most significantly, this anyone-can-do-it philosophy suggests that creativity can be learned.

Charlie Kouns, 46, who sometimes calls himself the unofficial conscience of the company's brand, likes to talk about play as both a process and a movement. His less-than-covert agenda is to absorb the firm's clients into its creative community, to infect them with a reverence for playing that will, over time, have an impact on how business in general approaches the creative challenge. "When people feel phenomenally valued and respected, their creative passion and energy can erupt all over," Kouns says. "That energy is infectious. It's wonderful to watch clients play ball and do other 'silly' things. And before you know it, you've got 22 ideas that are 10 times better than anything you could have come up with if you hadn't approached the project that way. The simpler you get, the more open and the more creative you become. We just want to share that."

Creativity Is Not Just for "Creatives"

As Andy Stefanovich's SUV nears Play's headquarters, his dog, Gekko, a rust-colored retriever mix, goes nuts. She stands up and pushes her way into the front seat, whining eagerly. "She knows we're getting close," Stefanovich explains apologetically. In a world of Silicon Valley-casual, bringing a dog to work is not unusual. But Gekko is probably one of the few company canines who has her own business card and title (top dog). She also gets picked up for "work" by another Play staffer when her owner is traveling. But she's not the only "employee" at Play who's eager for the workday to begin, nor is she the only one with a cool title. The group invents its own titles, which are a mix of in-jokes, role slang, and pure lunacy. Stefanovich himself is "in charge of what's next." Some of the other unusual titles at Play include "buzz"; "whatif"; "Houston, we've got a problem"; "#17"; "check, please"; "voice of reason"; and "1.21 jigawatts."

Those titles don't always reveal a job's function -- which is part of their beauty. Conventional titles tend to categorize people as either "creative" or "noncreative." But Play's employees are all part of the creative process -- no matter what they do on a daily basis. Cathy Carl, who at any other marketing agency would be an account manager, prefers to call herself "point guard" for Play. "When I go into a meeting with clients, they always think that I'm one of the creatives," says Carl, 25, whose thick, silver-glitter eyeliner and boisterous personality fuel that impression. "I'm encouraged to bring my own creativity to my job. We have so many people with dynamic personalities and myriad interests who keep us growing and learning constantly. It's as if we all feed this organism that is Play."

During its 10-year history, Play has developed a formula for inspiring innovative thinking, which includes curiosity, open-mindedness, energy, and risk taking. That's why Play's environment -- and its approach to work -- is designed to maximize both stimulation and safety. Players call that feeling "mojo." Mojo includes the physical surroundings (dozens of large, red rubber balls; Polaroids and graffiti plastered everywhere; and lots of toys and Tyvek suits) as well as certain rituals (such as drumrolls to announce meetings and morning story time). "One of the things that attracted me to Play was its open, caring environment," says Chip Leon, 32, the company's "what's next" strategist, who first used mojo to describe Play's magic. "It's just a good vibe, a feeling of positive energy, a familial closeness," he says. "It's like Disney's pixie dust -- a little bit of intangible magic that helps make us who we are."

That mojo is especially tangible at creative sessions. During the second part of the brainstorming for the Weather Channel, the group breaks into teams to come up with ideas for the cause-related marketing campaign. Each team grabs a stack of magazines to flip through to "force connections." The point is to come up with ideas -- no matter how silly, bad, or inappropriate -- from random input. This exercise in free association both removes penalties for "bad" ideas and guarantees exposure to unrelated and offbeat sources of inspiration. Stefanovich's group heads outside and sets up kid-size plastic stools in the middle of a large patch of sun. The team flips through magazines, calling out ideas, while Hammond takes notes on the arms and back of a teammate's Tyvek jacket. An ad for ties spawns an idea for clothing with patterns of clouds, sun, rain, and such on them, the proceeds of which could benefit hurricane-relief efforts. Stefanovich riffs off a picture of the sky to suggest an "adopt a raindrop" program to which people could donate money for a cause and in return track a fictional raindrop via computer simulation from its beginnings in a lake in Wisconsin to its destiny as part of a tropical storm.

After 15 minutes of a steady rush of ideas, team members take a few minutes to think about the question from their invented superheroes' perspectives. When the teams meet back in the conference room, all their ideas are written on the white board. No one worries that some ideas are weird, off brand, or lousy. There's no eye rolling or derisive laughter. Instead, everyone tries to "hook on" to an idea by adding to it or spinning it to make it better. The session ends with applause and, on cue, exuberant barking from Gekko.

Play's refusal to pass judgment during the creative process reflects its deceptively simple approach to creativity: Look at more stuff; think about it harder. Instead of locking themselves in a conference room with the goal of emerging with the perfect idea, teams venture into the world with a voracious appetite for inspiration. Exposure to new ideas is encouraged through "radical sabbaticals" -- opportunities for employees to climb mountains, explore unfamiliar terrain, learn to surf -- any experience that will inspire them creatively. Play believes that the more connections you make between seemingly unrelated concepts and the more perspectives you have on a problem, the more likely you are to hatch a winning creative solution. "That's what playing is all about," Stefanovich says. "It's an attitude and approach that encourages boundless thoughts. It helps you let go of parameters. If you think about it, you were at your most creative as a child, because you had no fear. You took more risks. No one judged your performance and said you were 'bad' at playing. Our process tries to recapture some of that freedom."

The primary creative group at Play is called the wallpaper team, because it "covers" everything. J.B. Hopkins, 39, a member of that group, explains it this way: "I'm at my creative best when I'm in my stream-of-consciousness mode. Often, my concepts are not clearly or precisely thought out. But if I have to stop and edit them, I lose some of that energy. Because I'm allowed to throw out half-formed ideas and then to refine them later, I'm able to work at my creative peak."

Killer Creative Gets Killer Results

On her flight back from a radical sabbatical in Hawaii in August 1998, Courtney Page wrote Stefanovich a thank-you note -- on an airsickness bag. He was so amused by the gesture that he used it in a speech, as an example of risk taking and creativity. "It's a great example of communicating in a clever, unique, interesting, and more relevant fashion," he says. "I'm not a guy who wants to hold a boring piece of paper. I want to hold that barf bag. I want to fold it up and put it in my pocket and take it home and say to my wife, 'Look, I got a barf-bag letter today.' That's cool." A senior vice president from Nationwide Insurance heard that speech and called Stefanovich to ask him to fly out for a meeting. Two days later, he and Lynn Spitzer, 43, Play's equivalent of a COO, were sitting in a conference room at Nationwide's headquarters, in Columbus, Ohio. Senior VP John Cook walked in and tossed a barf bag across the table. It read, "Let's play." Nationwide was in the midst of a major branding effort that included a logo change. The company had used a stellar agency to develop the new symbol, but it wanted a different approach to introducing it to employees. The new logo was an emotional as well as a strategic issue for Nationwide. Market research showed that although the company's slogan ("Nationwide is on your side") had widespread recognition, its logo did not, despite having been around for more than 40 years. But inside the company, feelings about the logo were curiously strong. Some employees got tattoos of the blue eagle and the letter N. One person even had the logo inlaid on the bottom of his swimming pool. "It was a very emotional issue," says Chris Gay, strategic communications officer at Nationwide. "Forty-five years is a long time; the logo was cemented into our culture."

So Play helped Nationwide design an event to introduce the new logo, as well as follow-up training for a crew of "brand builders" who would help employees adjust to the new brand strategy. The highlight of the event, which was beamed by satellite to more than 30,000 people, was the release of a bald eagle, raised by the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, which rehabilitates birds of prey. Nationwide made a donation to the center and launched a program on its intranet that tracks the eagle using a transmitter in a tag that the center had placed on the bird. "We wanted to have some kind of symbolic gesture that respected the 45 years that the logo -- and the people who had been loyal to it -- had served the company," Spitzer says. "The event was intended to acknowledge that contribution while getting across the need for change."

A follow-up event trained 350 employees on how to teach their peers and colleagues about the brand changes. The new logo was a blue frame with an empty, white center -- an interactive logo into which customers and employees could envision the faces of people the company served. Play suggested that the training room re-create the inside of the frame. So those 350 people, dressed in white Tyvek suits, spent four hours creating the brand in a room that had white floors, white walls, and white furniture.

The result? One month after the training session, a survey showed that 86% of Nationwide's employees understood the new brand strategy. And 90% of them believed that they personally could make the new brand happen.

"Play's energy, creativity, and willingness to push us was critical to the success of this project," says John Aman, brand officer for Nationwide. "The team at Play really stepped up the energy level significantly. What started out as a simple speech by the chairman became an event that this kind of change deserved and required."

For Play, the Nationwide project was an example of the power innovation has to shape culture. "We were especially excited about this project because of the opportunity to change business. We can change the way business does business," Spitzer says. "And if we can inspire, motivate, or instigate -- in whatever capacity -- companies to have those kinds of experiences through playing, we want to do that. It's part of our mission, and it's why I joined the company."

Play Is a Team Sport

It's 9 AM on Wednesday, three weeks after the initial session for the Weather Channel. The wallpaper team is in "potential crisis" mode. Hopkins, who's been shepherding the development of ideas since then, has drawn a small red flag next to the project on the white board. He'll be presenting the final ideas to the Weather Channel on Friday, and there's too much left to organize. He's not yet comfortable with what the team has fleshed out. No one is panicked. But it means that the rest of Play will kick up the intensity and pitch in, even if they're not assigned to that project. "That's just part of our culture," Page explains. "No one goes home before the owner of a red-flag project feels comfortable, no matter how long it takes. It's not an emergency -- yet. But it's a way for us to call for help and get support so it won't become one." Page takes a few minutes to clarify assignments. Hopkins is excused from the afternoon brainstorming session, and a couple of wallpaper team members shift tasks to free up time to help.

For Hopkins, who at the time had been with Play for a little more than two months, that was his first red-flag experience, and it left quite an impression: "People who were busy with other projects stopped what they were doing. Everyone in the office pitched in -- whether they were helping us refine the concept or running out to get lunch for those who were working. It was a sense of teamwork that I've never encountered before."

The intimacy of Play's culture is a direct reflection of its cofounders, Stefanovich and his sister, Christine Rochester, 43. The two of them started the company (originally as an events-marketing business) 10 years ago. Rochester was an experienced events planner, and Stefanovich, though only out of college for two years, had worked for the service-obsessed Ritz-Carlton hotels. But their high-touch approach began at home." My mom used to clothespin notes on my dad's suits every day," Stefanovich says. "She would also put notes in our lunches. She was always trying to make people happy."

Play's values today (people, play, profit -- in that order) are the result of the whole team's efforts, Stefanovich says. And it pleases him that the team clearly agrees. Earlier this year, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the state of Virginia. Stefanovich, Rochester, and Hammond went to the award ceremony not expecting to win. Caught at the podium without a speech, Stefanovich gushed in Sally Field - like fashion, "This is so cool." After the ceremony ended, the three went to the hotel bar and began calling coworkers. Employees and spouses started showing up -- more than 40 altogether -- to help celebrate the award. "People came from the gym," recalls Stefanovich. "Someone came by bicycle. Others came with their families. There was a sense that all of us should be really proud of ourselves. There was an honesty too: It wasn't just me winning an award. It was the entire team. We all had our arms around one another, saying, 'Look what we did! Look what we did!'

"After about the 20th 'we,' my dad glanced over at me and said, 'We. That's beautiful shit.' And he was right. It was the most powerful thing that I've ever experienced -- and it wasn't winning the award, it was seeing us win the award."

Robb Pair, 37, Play's shaman of stuff, has led the company's merchandising division since it began. He describes the 31-person outfit this way: "The company is almost like employee number 32. It has a life of its own. It has feelings, passion, emotion, and desires, just like an individual. Working at Play really gives me a feeling of 'no limits.' Risk is encouraged, and I have the chance to explore my potential and abilities."

Play Is Personal

Hanging out with the staff from Play after work can be a surreal experience. Didn't these people just spend an entire day together? What could they possibly have left to talk about? And why would they choose to spend so much time together? The answer is simple: Play is personal. It's hard to be creative with people whom you don't genuinely like. And these are friends as well as colleagues. Indeed, many of the Play staffers know as much about one another as most people know about their siblings. For instance, everyone knows that Natalie Greenberg, 26, gets weak-kneed over fashions from Milan. They know that Stefanovich uses his blue jeans as a four-pocket filing system: personal stuff in the left front, notes on stuff happening today in the right front, stuff that needs to be acted on today in the right back, and ideas that need further development in the left back. They know that when Page was 12 she was bitten by a shark. They know that Hammond is extremely competitive in all games involving a red rubber ball. They know that John Morgan, 24, who now sports a goatee and thick-rimmed glasses and talks like a surfer, was once enrolled at Virginia Military Institute and later taught English in Estonia. ("Just think of all these poor Estonians running around going, 'Duuuude!' " Stefanovich jokes.)

It's not unusual for Play's people to play together after work two or three nights a week -- attending one of Throckmorton's plays (he's an actor on the side), working out (Stefanovich, Morgan, Leon, and Page entered a triathlon last year), grabbing beers, or just hanging out. Tonight, the plan is to get beers at a new microbrewery and then catch Morgan's band, which is playing at another joint. The band, which the staff is trying to help Morgan name (some top contenders include Cirque du Suck and Nary the Twain), mostly does Grateful Dead covers. But Morgan's coworkers don't seem to care what he plays -- they're just excited to see him on stage. When he notices the whole crew troop into the bar at a little after 10 PM, he smiles broadly, salutes with a drumstick, and keeps on rocking.

For Morgan, and for many of the staff members at Play, there is no rift between work life and personal life. Their lives have a seamlessness that is rare. And they know it. "Play is my life," Morgan says simply. "And I don't mean that in a cheesy way. But this is definitely not just a job. When I go home, I'm no different than when I'm at work. The clothes that I wear to band practice are the same clothes that I wear to work. My friends on the weekends are my friends at work. They come to hear my band play. When Andy's out of town, I bring Gekko to work. We have a passion at Play that is deeper than anything I've come in contact with.

"I try not to talk about it very much with friends who don't work at Play, because I can see in their faces that they don't work in the same kind of place. It's just something that we have to cherish and try to preserve because we like it so much."

Preserving that culture is Rochester's full-time job. As company "ambassador," she represents Play to the outside world on various boards and on pro bono projects, and she is the keeper of the flame internally. How does she keep the creative fires burning? With lots of small gestures that reflect people's commitment to one another. "I'll ask different people for their car keys, and then I'll go fill up their car with gas and wash it," she says. "I'll place a plastic cone in front of the building and reserve it for a certain person for the day. When somebody goes on a road trip, we put water and fruit in a bag and hand it to that person on the way out the door. The other day, I bought 31 milk shakes and brought them in. You would have thought I brought in a million dollars. It was just $80 worth of milk shakes. What's 80 bucks in the grand scheme of things when it comes to keeping people excited about being here?"

That support really matters. It's the reason that many people who work at Play say they can't imagine working anywhere else. "I get to act like me," Hopkins explains, "which is my favorite thing to do." Hopkins is divorced, and he spends every other weekend with his daughter, Morgan, who is five and a half. Recently, he took a half-day off of work to have lunch with her in her kindergarten classroom. He drove more than two hours to her school, met her teacher, and ate lunch with her. "As I left, she got really sad because she didn't want me to leave. It was pretty awful. She started to cry, asking, 'When am I going to see you again?' I hugged her and told her that it wouldn't be long. Just till the next Saturday. And as I left the classroom, I looked back and saw her counting out how many days that was on her fingers." Hopkins sighs heavily. "That was so difficult. The last thing you would think I'd want to do would be to head back to work. But I was driving back as quickly as I could. I was just so grateful to have those people to come back to."

Cheryl Dahle (cdahle@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit Play on the Web (www.lookatmorestuff.com), or contact Andy Stefanovich (andy@lookatmorestuff.com) or Christine Rochester (christine@lookatmorestuff.com) by email.

Sidebar: Get Creative

"Look at more stuff, and think about it harder." That's Play's advice to folks who are serious about getting more creative. Geof Hammond, a creativity coach at Play, explains the firm's approach this way: "We call what we do 'observational creativity.' We look at things, notice stuff about them, and turn those observations into new ideas." Here are tips from Play on ways to unleash your own creative genius.

Stay limber.

The crux of creativity is putting old ideas together in new ways, or giving common concepts a twist that makes them uncommon. You can get better at doing that if you practice, says Andy Stefanovich, Play's cofounder. How does the team at Play get in its practice? There's a chalkboard in one hallway that has daily random topics, such as "H2O," "city," "marathon running," or "teens." People who pass by the board then jot down related words and thoughts, which go into a file and are used in brainstorming sessions on those topics. "We get some of our best ideas from 'recreational' thinking," Stefanovich says, "like the brainstorming you do while getting to work or exercising, when your mind is not completely task-focused."

Change your perspective.

You can't come up with new ideas if you approach each problem in the same way. Play's creativity exercises are built around "forcing connections" -- making yourself connect seemingly unrelated ideas. For instance, coaches give clients lists of random quotes from kindergartners and ask them to relate those sayings to their business problem.

Worse is better.

One way to lose your fear of looking foolish and to come up with great ideas is to offer the worst possible idea you can think of, and then riff off of it. When Play was asked by the Woolmark Co. to come up with an event that would promote summer-weight wool clothing, the team started with a strange question: What's the worst way to promote wool? How about letting a bunch of sheep loose in New York City? Lousy idea, right? Well, from there the team refined it. The final iteration was to have wool-clad models walk sheep on leashes on Madison Avenue. The stunt snared more than 8 million media impressions. Not baaad.

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