When’s the last time you attended a new business presentation, and a guy on the pitch team broke out into a hip-hop act?
When’s the last time your boss paid you to learn how to perform stand-up comedy?
When’s the last time your boss himself took the stage—and his jokes actually made you laugh – (not at him, but with him)?
New York-based Peppercom prides itself on doing things a little differently. The firm’s unique emphasis on comedy in addition to high quality work has brought it media attention in recent years, and in this week’s Firm Showcase we pile on just a smidgeon more—first because we need a few laughs to get us through another steamy New York summer, and second because Peppercom is a standard-bearer for how firms in our industry can differentiate themselves and reap amazing business results in the process.
In his book Animal Farm, George Orwell famously said that, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Likewise, all PR firms are different, but some are more different than others. Peppercom recently completed a brand inventory, interviewing 100 people both inside and outside the organization. As the firm found, people had a strongly positive vision of Peppercom as being a “fun,” “self-deprecating,” but also “intelligent” organization. Not too many firms can say that, and in Peppercom’s case, a strong emphasis on humor has made the difference.
Why humor? Doesn’t Peppercom risk having people shrug off the firm as too light or “unserious”? Might not some jokes prove offensive to clients, prospects, and others? Steve Cody, a Peppercom founder, acknowledges that his organization walks a fine line in embracing humor. But then again, anything that sets you off as different can feel a little scary at times. If you want to be different, you have to earn it, and that means taking risks.
Cody got the inspiration for Peppercom’s culture when encountering people in business, who, in his estimation, took themselves too seriously. “When we started Peppercom, we wanted to do high quality work and attract the best and brightest, but we didn’t want our culture to be hierarchical, top down, and stuffy. As the whole digital revolution took off, we really started to inject more and more humor into what we did. We attracted a big client, Whirlpool, specifically through our humor. The husband of their head of corporate communications in Chicago listened to my podcast and thought we were smart and funny. We got into the pitch and won it on the basis of our quality but also on the basis of our humor.”
Since then, the firm has worked humor into many corners of its business. The firm offers comedy training in a New York comedy club to all new hires. All employees are encouraged to inject humor into client conversations and to crack jokes in front of senior management. Every year, the firm puts together a funny and much anticipated holiday card. At twice monthly employee meetings, the firm holds what it calls “shout outs” where everybody can chime into the discussion, frequently with laugh-out-loud results. And check out the firm’s podcast, which features rapping from Senior Account Executive Paul Merchan: Paul’s Intro
Cody becomes especially animated when talking about the business results flowing directly from Peppercom’s comedy-centric culture. In recent years, clients have paid the firm to train their own employees how to be funnier. “When push comes to shove,” Cody notes, “and everything else is equal, clients select people they think they’ll work well with. We think humor is a huge differentiator for us.” Having a “fun” culture also attracts loyal and highly skilled employees. Reflects Merchan: “The culture of working hard and playing hard is very attractive and helps you get loose and become more comfortable talking with people. I participated in the comedy workshop just a little while after I got hired and surprised myself with how I can captivate an audience.” Administrative Coordinator Ray Carroll also appreciates the benefits of learning about comedy: “I believe that humor helps me understand another’s personality, and the more in-depth I can understand a person, the better I can service them.”
Still skeptical? Peppercom’s numbers don’t lie. Between 2005 and 2011, the firm saw revenue rise from about $8.4 million to an estimated $14.5 million—and that’s with a Great Recession thrown in.
Comedy isn’t for everyone, but don’t let that stop you. Cody offers a few tips for any firm seeking to become more distinctive:
1) Be yourself. People at Peppercom have humor in their DNA. Other firms should pick a brand focus unique to them; firms could build the same kind of differentiation around social consciousness, say, or outdoorsyness.”
2) Stay the course. Be consistent. You either are or you aren’t what you claim to be. Make sure your actions match your talk at all times.
3) Start by doing a brand audit. Survey a range of constituent audiences—former clients, clients, people in your region who know your business, ad agencies you share an account with. Ask them what makes you special and sets you apart. Align their impressions with the way you see yourself—and then you’ve got something!
E.B. White once observed that “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Yet we think that firms across our industry have quite a bit to learn from analyzing Peppercom’s approach. Real, honest differentiation can prove hugely profitable, and in particular, it can allow small and mid-sized firms to achieve disproportionately louder voices. Quality work allows everyone to stand out, but Peppercom demonstrates that if you’re known for something else, too, you’re ahead of the game.