After 30 years working in advertising, often for some of the country’s biggest agencies, Barbara Yolles still finds it hard to believe that the industry is relatively unchanged from the cut-throat, male-dominated workplace famously depicted in the AMC hit-series “Mad Men.”
Though the aesthetics may look different—no more smoke-filled offices—Yolles said agencies continue to perpetuate many familiar stereotypes, prizing politics above all else and passing over talented employees for promotions if they fail to strictly hold to the company line.
“In the advertising world, your only asset is truly your people,” Yolles said. “Employees need to work in an environment where they can ideate and come up with brilliant ideas. I’m shocked that any sense of culture is disregarded in the big, holding-company-agency world.”
At the height of her career, Yolles had what Adweek deemed “one of the worst jobs in advertising.” As CMO, she had a target on her back, tasked with delivering tens of millions in revenue or look for a new job. Yolles eventually left agency life for the mortgage industry, where she led marketing on behalf of two of the country’s top lenders and, interestingly, got her first taste of what a strong corporate culture looks like.
“Often a company’s DNA and culture are its most powerful differentiator in the marketplace,” Yolles said.
In August 2019, after three decades working for big companies, Yolles made the leap into entrepreneurship, forming LUDWIG+, a brand transformation and business acceleration company. Today, she is in an exceedingly small class, one of only .1% of woman-owned creative agencies—with 39 employees and likely to grow to 50 by the end of Q1.
From inception, Yolles made cultivating a strong culture an integral part of the brand—which is smart considering that the advertising industry is plagued by high employee turnover, which averages approximately 30% a year. When a new employee joins the company, Yolles introduces them to the L+ WOW (Way of Working)—which includes G.S.D.N. (get sh*t done now) and other pearls of wisdom.
“We’re creating a culture that focuses on the pursuit of happiness for everyone, every day,” she said. “An environment where collaboration and creativity can flourish. Then get the hell out of the way and let it thrive.”
In addition to daily standing huddles, weekly and monthly meetings, team members participate in collaborative exercises like StrengthFinders, where they discover their top-five strengths and then meet with likeminded coworkers; and create-your-own superhero (Yolles’ superhero: Super Stiletto, with superpower “the higher, the better”).
“The Pursuit of Happiness is our collective cause. It’s not about winning or losing.” Yolles said. “And while I love winning, win/lose is a game with an endpoint (a destination). We created L+ for the infinite game (the journey). Happiness is the way.”
Of course, COVID-19 has disrupted Yolles’ best-laid plans. With the team working from home, Yolles has had to get creative to continue nurturing the young company’s culture. Several months ago, team building took on a virtual spin with Coffee Roulette, where employees meet for coffee over Zoom to discuss their strengths. After a recent meeting, Yolles discovered that her new art director is also a math and science prodigy, and a marketing manager has been a serial inventor since she was a little girl.
A big part of LUDWIG+’s culture centers on caring for one another as humans. Before COVID-19, Yolles would do little things to brighten a coworker’s day, like regularly cleaning off the desk of one of her chronically messy employees. She made this small act her own little secret, believing that everyone should care and pitch in whenever we see someone in need.
Much of the company culture ends up spilling over into client and campaign work. LUDWIG+ touts its InsideOut Brand Transformation as the company’s unique strategic approach.
For instance, when LUDWIG+ came up with its award-winning “BE” campaign for 21st Century Oncology, the largest integrated cancer care network in the country, they took inspiration from their own core values, which challenges team members to BE fully present, BE mindful, BE aware.
It’s clear LUDWIG+ is doing something right. With ad spending falling (50,000 jobs lost during the pandemic), LUDWIG+ has more than doubled its business in little more than a year—proving that happy people create happy clients.
“We care about each other and our clients because, if you really care, you’re going to do better work,” Yolles said. “Ultimately, we want to create a place where people can be happy, where we can work with clients we respect and make a difference in the lives of people we touch—our own people, our clients and their customers. If we can do that, we’ve achieved success.”