MEDIA: Behind the Hype - No room for cynics in the department of freshness

MediaCom has an unusual approach to boosting staff creativity.

Not a lot of people know this, but MediaCom employs a director of freshness. A director of what? Is it serious? Talk about leaving yourself open to ridicule. Especially when you hear about some of the things the director gets up to.

Like hiring a magician to arrive unannounced and stroll about the office floor doing tricks for a while before mysteriously disappearing. Or getting an account team to convene for a crucial meeting and then surprising them by playing bingo with them for an hour.

Is he Colin, the office joker from The Fast Show? No, he's not Colin.

He's actually Matthew Mee, a MediaCom veteran who has been in the freshness role for two years now.

He doesn't sport a cap and bells. It's not a frivolous tax dodge. And, yes, there is a serious point to this.

MediaCom is sensitive about this whole subject - and you feel it's really rather reluctant to talk about it. Rival agency bosses know all about this, of course - but that's because they've been desperately trying to find reasons for MediaCom's awesome new-business record in recent years.

Freshness may just have something to do with it.

Mee admits he expects to get his leg pulled about the title - but he also points out that magicians and bingo are only a part of what he does.

They are "emblematic" and important, he adds, but hardly the whole story.

Freshness involves a broad remit - to ensure that no-one at MediaCom feels in a rut and that everyone is thinking imaginatively about all aspects of their work. That may involve bingo or holding meetings in the British Museum but it might also involve more "mainstream" coaching and training.

Sue Unerman, MediaCom's director of strategic solutions, says that Mee has "empowered" people in the company. "In a full-service agency, the creative department was always allowed to swan around and indulge themselves. We're legitimising that for every department in MediaCom. The attitude of 'but I'm not a creative person' has stopped," she explains.

One former MediaCom staffer says: "It sounds like the ultimate in media wank, doesn't it? And, yes, there were one or two people who were cynical about it. But the agency has a strong sense of collective identity, so you tend to go along with a lot of things. They went about it the right way too. It was well presented."

And when you look at it that way, it's maybe not as dubious as it sounds when you first hear that freshness title. After all, St Luke's employs artists-in-residence and Ogilvy has dance sessions. And the whole concept of freshness was actually borrowed from courses organised by a creative training company called What If.

When you talk to rival media bosses, you soon realise this is probably an idea whose time has come. Some claim they are already doing this in one form or another. It's not just the fact that there are outfits such as Naked foraging on the periphery of everyone's vision but also that clients are genuinely asking more of their communications agencies. Or telling them there could be a greater role for them if only they could raise their game.

Trista Grant, the chief executive of Vizeum UK, agrees that creative thinking, or freshness, is something that ideally should be imbued in the company culture from top to bottom. But she can absolutely see the value in having someone whose job it is to disrupt people's days. "Taking people away from their computers and the short-term stresses and panics can be beneficial. The goal is to put everybody into a stimulating business," she states.

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