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25 min watch with captions and full transcript

Paul Venables, Founder & CEO of Venables Bell & Associates, a US-based marketing agency shares their creative and rebellious approach to recognition.

In this interview, Paul shares his tips for:

  • Creating a long-service award that does so much more than celebrate a milestone.
  • Designing recognition awards such as the ‘golden toilet award’, ‘asskicker of the year’ and ‘spouse/significant other/partner award’ that recognize employees in unique and meaningful ways.


Learn from Paul's rebel insights, like:
  • The importance of being “quirky” and not “too corporate” when designing recognition programs to make your employees feel appreciated and special.
  • The importance of keeping recognition programs fresh and current, involving your employees to make sure they evolve and continue to deliver an impact.
Our favorite quotes:

What I care about most is doing what’s right for my clients and for my people.

Culture often happens in the most difficult conversations where you show you care.

Paul's interview

DEBRA COREY: Hi Paul. How are you today?

PAUL VENABLES: Good. Thanks for talking to me about this. I'm excited.

DEBRA COREY: Thank you for welcoming us. It's a lovely day here in San Francisco, it is. We're going to talk a little bit about the play that is going to be in the book. Very excited to have your company in the book so thank you for that.

PAUL VENABLES: I am very excited about that.

DEBRA COREY: Yes. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your company first before you do that?

PAUL VENABLES: Sure. Venables Bell & Partners is an advertising agency but of course we do a lot more than advertising. We are kind of ... I always consider us the consigliere of our clients, which means we know where the bodies are hidden.

DEBRA COREY: I've never heard it described like that.

PAUL VENABLES: And so we help them with strategic things and initiatives, obviously creativity, we're a creative agency. But also experiences, market experiences now in this new and crazy world. It can happen anywhere and anything, whether they're digital or in real life. We cover a gamut to try to help clients be more effective. We've always had ... We're a one office agency, independent, on the West Coast. What that means is it gives us a lot of leeway and freedom to truly serve our clients. All I care about is doing right by my clients and my employees.

When you have shareholders and when you're owned by someone, when they enter the conversation, it changes everything, because you're legally bound to serve shareholders and so we are a little bit purer that way. So we're independent. We're very creative. We have considered offices around the globe and when the time is right and it makes sense for our clients, we will do that. But until then we are happy to be here. About 200 people.

DEBRA COREY: And you keep growing in this office, don't you? Taking over different floors.

PAUL VENABLES: We do. We started with two floors. We started in what I would call our garage start-up space and then we moved here, which is a beautiful building and then we've been lucky and blessed to have grown and now have the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth floors. So we're doing okay.

DEBRA COREY: I do think it's a lovely office. My only suggestion is you need a slide from the top to the bottom.


DEBRA COREY: I think that would be very nice.

PAUL VENABLES: When we were designing it, there was talk of a fire pole.

DEBRA COREY: Ooh. That would be nice. Very good, yes.

PAUL VENABLES: I don't know if there was an insurance issue or building maintenance wouldn't approve of that.

The other thing is that we have what I call real accounts. We're not trying to win awards on silly little side projects. We want meaningful accounts and we try to do meaningful work. I mentioned REI. We have Audi, we do all of their work, for Audi of America. We actually work globally with them as well.

We do Reebok. We have 3M, which has wonderful brands like Post-It Notes and Scotch Tape, et cetera. We have Sheraton, Westin, MillerCoors. Significant brands. A piece of PlayStation business. We've worked in the past with Google, and Intel and eBay, and Barclays the bank. We have tried to focus on real accounts, real business and tried to move it forward meaningfully.

DEBRA COREY: Picking up on a couple of words that you said, you talked a lot about how you've got a lot of creatives, no surprise, doing what you're doing, and also about the experiences. If I bring that into employee engagement, it's good and it's bad. So it's challenging. You've got a bunch of creative people. How do you engage creative people? What's your trick for getting them excited? They're the face of your company. How do you make sure that they're excited about the company and what they're doing?

PAUL VENABLES: Creative people are not just the face of the company, the heart and soul of the company, oh by the way, they're the product. That's what we sell.

DEBRA COREY: Good point. You're selling your people.

PAUL VENABLES: They're the craftsmen of what we do. They come up with ideas. How you manage creative people is an age-old question and a lot of places get that really wrong. So we have a couple of basic tenets. Honest, fearless and independent are our values. Creative people do not like to be bullshitted about anything. In fact if you know good creative people, they have the most highly-calibrated bullshit detectors that exist. So you have to be straight and you have to be honest.

They want to do bold and powerful work, impactful work. So fearlessness, you can't be too risk-averse. You can't be too shy. How you work and the kind of work you're after is very much a key starting point in managing creatives.

Then a couple other things, I think, follow from that. One is, they like to know what's going on. You can't just leave them in the dark. You can't just go, "Oh, we decided to take a different turn." They want to know, why did you take that turn? Why aren't we taking that turn? How fast are we going through that turn? What's the next stop after that? You kind of have to bring them along in the process. A lot of transparency, a lot of conversation.

They have egos, and we try to squash ego in the sense that ego does not dictate anything around here, I hope. But we also want to nurture people and make 'em feel confident and good and loved, right? And those things bring out creativity, because when people are comfortable, and they feel good in that environment, and they know what they do, they're gonna get credit for, and if someone else is gonna steal their idea, they're not gonna get swept aside. When they are treated that way, they're gonna rise to the occasion and do their best work. So our environment has to be collaborative and fun and rewarding.

But all with substance. A lot of people talk to me about culture in advertising, and invariably, if you sit long enough in those conversations, culture becomes "Oh, we have beer and foosball on Fridays," or "We threw a good party" and it's like ...

DEBRA COREY: And you're gonna have fun.

PAUL VENABLES: And you're gonna have fun, corporate sponsored fun, right? Asterisk, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. And that's not what we're talking ...

Culture, to me, always happens in the most ... And sometimes the most difficult conversations, the one-on-ones, meaningful long ones where you actually show that you care about someone's career or their development, or an issue they're having that they have to correct, but you actually care about it and you're gonna work with them on it. That kind of environment, that's where culture really comes out.

DEBRA COREY: And that honesty and transparency, all those things that you talked about.

PAUL VENABLES: Managing creatives, herding cats. Same job. But I think if you do it with your heart, and you do it with that kind of honesty, they're gonna rally around you.

DEBRA COREY: Well, I've been told you have someone who has a title of Queen of Heart and Soul?

PAUL VENABLES: Yes, Queen of Heart and Soul. Yes. Not Queen of Soul, that's taken. Aretha Franklin has that I believe. Queen of Heart and Soul, yeah, because she, first of all, has been in this place for a long time and has seen it and knows it and also knows the culture and the values and what drives it and why it's different and why it exists and how we've treated people and so she's wonderful.

We also have a cultural curator, who is a guy who also ... He's been here about five years, so a little bit newer to the game, but he understands not only the culture, but then what kinds of things would we do to advance it and to cultivate it? And he has all kinds of great ideas and he bounces them off a lot of people, creatives included, and we kind of figured out, okay we'll do that program. That's us, let's do that.

DEBRA COREY: I think the fact that you make it a full-time job shows that it's really important, because it's difficult to do it on the side. Life gets too busy. So the fact that you've got two people ... But one's a queen, is the other person jealous that he doesn't have a title?

PAUL VENABLES: Well, this is the kind of queen that if you met her, you don't fuck with her. He accepts it.

DEBRA COREY: He is okay with that. Okay.

PAUL VENABLES: And the other thing too, is that if you don't invest in it, whether it's positions or programs, you end up with "Hey we have a ping-pong table. Isn't that fun?" And that's not culture.

DEBRA COREY: Again, as you said before with the product being the people you need everybody to embody the culture, 'cause they're out there representing your company day in and day out.

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, they're the ambassadors of what we do and who we are, whether that's in a client meeting or we're in with a partner, or a vendor. You know people treat vendors like vendors. We try to treat them like partners because that's a reflection on us. If we don't say please and thank you, bad on us.

DEBRA COREY: So, let me ask you a little bit about the play that's in the book. There's lots of things that you're doing well ...


DEBRA COREY: So it's difficult to pick one, but the one I wanted to talk about was just because it was a bit unique, is what you do to recognize when people stay with your company, something about a boot? A boot? Not from Canada, a boot.

PAUL VENABLES: Not a boot, not a boot. Not the boot where we kick you out the door.

Debra Corey: No, no, no, not...

PAUL VENABLES: It's a different boot. Yeah, it's funny. We were just a few years old, and we started to notice that unlike advertising, people move. It's a young people's business and they move, 18 months, two years, or whatever. They're popping. So we started to notice, actually people are kind of sticking. And we were excited about that. So with again with our programs, we want to cultivate that. We want to create that continuity and that culture where people feel that they have, this is a home and they can find their place.

So then we came upon ... It came to our attention that a bunch of people were gonna hit their five-year anniversary. Five years in advertising is like dog years. It's a long bloody time. We're like, what do we do for them? So we came up with this idea. I'm not exactly sure how the boot came to be ...

DEBRA COREY: Ugh, I was hoping you would tell me that.

PAUL VENABLES: You know it was, I think it was a little bit of a weird drinking chalice. So this glass ...

DEBRA COREY: You do have it over there to show.

PAUL VENABLES: Shall I pull it out?

DEBRA COREY: Yes, yes.

PAUL VENABLES: So here's the boot.

DEBRA COREY: I love it.

PAUL VENABLES: It is quite a cocktail glass. It's got a five-year tab, and a logo. I don't think I've seen anyone ever drink outta this, nor have I seen it used to fend anybody off in a violent act. Both I guess are a victory.

But the five-year boot came to be because ... And it's a tab, so we decided there was one hole-in-the-wall place that we had all seemed to gravitate to, to blow off some steam after work, called the Irish Bank. And we decided, "you know what? What if we rewarded people by giving them a tab there?" So everybody with a five-year boot gets a thousand-dollar tab at the Irish Bank for the year. And it renews, every year, it's a thousand dollars.

What I love about it is, it's recognition, yes, 'cause it acknowledges, "Look, you're a veteran." But it came with a little responsibility in the sense that ... When they take that tab, one of the key thoughts is, okay, "you've been here. You're a veteran. You're a grizzled veteran. Share what you know. Give a little bit of yourself. Mentor, talk to people. Coach people. Share some fun, even, with the newbies. So take that money and take a bunch of people out to lunch, some of whom you don't know. Some of whom aren't in your department and you don't interact with. Take people out to lunch. Take 'em to have after work drinks." So it was a way to create some sort of cross-pollinization of the old veterans who know us and know what it takes to succeed here and what we believe in and care about, and the youngsters who are just wide-eyed and hungry and green. It's been wonderful and it's evolved and certain things have happened.

So we changed. You can go to the Irish bank, and then we added other places in town, 'cause people got sick of ...

DEBRA COREY: You still get the boot, though.

PAUL VENABLES: You get the boot.

DEBRA COREY: Oh, good. Good, good.

PAUL VENABLES: But if you get sick of the chicken wings at the Irish Bank, there's another place you can go to, two or three. Then the other thing that happened, then some people really started using it for one-on-one engagement. So when they wanted to coach someone, or someone was having a personal issue with somebody else in the department or they work with, wanted to go and say "Hey, let's talk" and "How could we work through that?" Or mentorship one-on-one. So it's a one-on-one vehicle.
Then recently, a couple of old-timers came together, and they asked if they could do this. I love it, they came to us, "Can we do this, can we pool our boot money and throw a party and invite everybody?" So they did that. So the three of them ...

DEBRA COREY: That takes it that one step further, doesn't it?

PAUL VENABLES: Yes, exactly. So three of them got together, pooled their boots, and it was a three-legged I don't know what. They had a party and it was fantastic. They picked the venue and it was like a pool hall. That's what they wanted to do and they made posters for it and sent it out to everybody and of course a bunch of people showed up and it was just wow, to create again, connecting people that maybe otherwise wouldn't normally connect.

DEBRA COREY: And do they try to do that, they try to reach people in different areas to make that connection?

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, and we really encourage that. We remind them, I think once a year we have a bootholders' meeting, not shareholders, it's a boothold.

DEBRA COREY: Do you have to bring your boot with you?

PAUL VENABLES: No. No, no, because there would be broken boots everywhere. So we talk about things, like "hey, should we expand this to some other restaurants and bars in town?" And that's ... went into this idea, "hey, can we do a party and sponsor it ourselves?" There's a dialogue and there's a reminder, that "Hey, get out there. Go invite some people to hang out with and share." That's just our culture. "But your personal story, because that matters, 'cause you're one of us and you clearly have what it takes to survive and succeed here, so share that."

DEBRA COREY: I know when I met you we were at a conference and when you told that story, everybody ... You could hear a pin drop, because it really is unique. It is very creative, which again makes sense given what you do. Have you heard of anybody else do anything like that? I haven't.

PAUL VENABLES: No, no, and if they do let me know 'cause I'll sue 'em. No, I'm kidding.

DEBRA COREY: It's your boot.

PAUL VENABLES: I encourage anybody that sees this and wants to use it, do it, because it's just a great program that hey, it connects people.


PAUL VENABLES: I'm a big fan of that so I think it's a good thing.

DEBRA COREY: And it's that responsibility, because yes you've been here for five years, but as you said, it comes with some responsibility. I like that. And do people feel recognized?

PAUL VENABLES: Yes they do because we make a big ... So the Christmas party we have is a big shindig. We have a whole set of ...

DEBRA COREY: We can come back for that if you need us to film this. For "research", for the book.

PAUL VENABLES: If you need ... I'll show you my dance moves. We do a big thing and it has a couple of components that I particularly like. We have a bunch of awards. We have creative rewards that we give out. But we make a big point of stopping the awards ceremony and announcing this year's boot winners, because usually there's multiple people who have survived together. And call them on the stage and say nice things about them, so it's a big moment then. And then it sits at your desk, so it's a constant reminder. Other people see it. It's a little bit of a badge of honor, you know? Or courage, depending on how you look at it. Or it's stupidity, if you look at it that way. People see that and recognize you as an older statesman of some sort.

Then it comes with this other thing where you're out there, you're using it. People like to go "This next round's on me," that's a fun thing to do and this gives them that opportunity.

DEBRA COREY: It gives it more of a life. You know your wedding, it happens in two seconds. You get recognized for five years, and then life goes on. But the fact that you have it at your desk, you celebrate it at different times, it makes it meaning...

PAUL VENABLES: It's our version of I guess a wedding ring. Mine has a rivet on the side, my wife installed it, it holds it in place. It is, it's a visibile manifestation, a reminder of "Hey, you matter. You're with us, you're one of us, you get us, and we love you."

DEBRA COREY: So if you were a company who was thinking about doing something unique like this, is there any suggestions that you have for them, things that you've learned through doing this?

PAUL VENABLES: I would brainstorm what it is. So we brainstorm and someone had this idea for this boot. If you gave them a big ... some stupid paperweight, it's almost better if it's quirky and it has no real utility or relevance, you know? And it's of a certain size so there's a visibility.

DEBRA COREY: You can't miss that boot.

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, it's a visibility, not a certificate, whatever. So I would just encourage you to come up with something quirky. A big stuffed animal, whatever it is. A rubber chicken would be a good one.

DEBRA COREY: Maybe you could do that for ten years. There you go, rubber chicken.

PAUL VENABLES: Chairman's Chicken, we'll call it.

DEBRA COREY: I think we've come up with a new idea. For the next book we'll put that one.

PAUL VENABLES: I think we have, right on the spot. Chapter, yeah, Version 2.0. Yeah, go quirky, have fun with it, get other people ... It can't feel too corporate. And people distrust when the corporation speaks. When the company has mandates or has ... When you have more people involved, and particularly people that aren't necessarily senior or leadership, but those cultural people that everybody respects or knows are fun and knows that they're ... Bring them, invite them into it. And then it gives the company legitimacy when then you roll it out, and you go "So-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so helped us do this," and everybody standing there in the town hall meeting goes "Oh, that's good. They checked with the right people."

DEBRA COREY: It's that buy-in. It's the buy-in and also I'm the first to admit I'm never the one with the great ideas, but I surround myself with people with great ideas.

PAUL VENABLES: That's all you have to do. That's my trick too.

DEBRA COREY: Great. Anything else that you wanna say about the program, or just anything in general that you want to talk about in regards to engagement.

PAUL VENABLES: I'll just talk a little bit about that Christmas party, 'cause there's a couple things, and there's one other little project and I'll mention it. But what I love about the Christmas party ... because I went to a lot of Christmas parties in my career in advertising, and one thing was always true. Spouses were not invited. Significant others were not invited.

DEBRA COREY: That is very common, yes.

PAUL VENABLES: Right? One it's expensive.

DEBRA COREY: To save money.

PAUL VENABLES: You just literally, immediately doubled the expense. We have always, always, always, invited spouses and significant others and partners, because they're part of this family too, in a weird way, because we have mom or dad here a lot, and we share that mom or dad with another side and it's nice to all get together and celebrate. So we actually even have ... So we have a bunch of awards, we have Employee of the Year award, of course, but we have one called the Spousal/Significant Other/Partner Award ...

DEBRA COREY: Really? Never heard that.

PAUL VENABLES: And we literally give that award not to the employee, but to the spouse or significant ...

DEBRA COREY: How do you pick the person?

PAUL VENABLES: We find out, maybe somebody has a newborn at home and they were working a lot, or they were traveling, or there's somebody that's always been very supportive of the agency or their wife or their husband working here. We call 'em up on stage and we celebrate them like they're a big employee. We usually send them away to like Sonoma to have a weekend away together as a couple with massages and restaurants and the whole thing.

DEBRA COREY: That's great.

PAUL VENABLES: It's just a small gesture, but it reaches out to a really key audience, which is the loved ones of the people that actually work here. They matter.

DEBRA COREY: Especially in an industry like yours. I'm sure there's times when you have to work very late at night because that's what the client needs.

PAUL VENABLES: Exactly. We're a service business.

DEBRA COREY: Exactly. So you want your partner to support you.

PAUL VENABLES: To at least understand, "hey tonight's a late one 'cause we have to figure this out." 

Some other awards that night we give away are the Ass-Kicker Award. That's a great one.

DEBRA COREY: Is it a good award, a bad award? You want that award?

PAUL VENABLES: You want that award. That means you take care of business. There's one called The Glutton for Punishment, for everybody who returns to the company. They've left and come back. We always have a few of those. We have something called the Noah Award, we named it after some guy who's still here, who's just contributed to the culture so much. He's the cultural curator, that if anybody else has that kind of same impact culturally, they get the Noah award.

We have one called the Multiplier Award. Everything they touch they make much better.

DEBRA COREY: Oh, that's a nice one.

PAUL VENABLES: What we do in turn for that one, is we take their salary for January and double it. So no matter what they're making, January they get a double salary ...

DEBRA COREY: Wow. That's fantastic.

PAUL VENABLES: 'Cause they're a multiplier.

DEBRA COREY: That's great!

PAUL VENABLES: We have one called the Golden Toilet Award, and they literally get a golden toilet, full size, and then they go "What do I do with that?" We go "I don't know. We'll put it in the closet again for next year." Some people used to put it by their desk ...

DEBRA COREY: You don't get to keep it?

PAUL VENABLES: You do if you want to, but people might not have room near their desk. That one is for ...

DEBRA COREY: Do I want to know? Can we say this on tape?

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, I guess. It's for taking care of shit gracefully, with class. You gotta go on the toilet. It's a way to reward people in the trenches. The people who do dishes well you really value, because they do a tough job well. This is a way to just give them a little extra credit.
I mentioned the spouse, of course we have Employee of the Year Award.

Speaker 3: Coach?

PAUL VENABLES: Coach, yeah we have a Coach of the Year. Anybody that shows that skill in mentoring gets a Coach of the Year Award. We try to keep it diverse and fun. Not every year, but almost every year we invite for people to suggest other awards, and then who might win them. So sometimes you get really creative, funny one-offs.

DEBRA COREY: That's a great idea to keep it fresh.

PAUL VENABLES: Yes, and that one may never appear again. But that year we had that silly one. It's been great. Again, a little bit of creativity applied to awards and recognition makes it so much more meaningful.


PAUL VENABLES: A little effort makes it feel special and valued, and now we have people vote on things and see ... So they feel like they have participated in it.

DEBRA COREY: A cookie cutter approach is not going to work, especially in your industry.


DEBRA COREY: I don't think anywhere, but no, definitely.

PAUL VENABLES: And then the last thing I wanted to touch on was, I mentioned our values, our principles. Honest, fearless, and independent. Interestingly enough, honest and fearless don't exist to the degree they do without independent. When you're part of a big corporate holding company, you're a little more conservative, you can't take the risks, so the fearlessness ... You also might not be dishonest, but you might not be as quite as boldly honest. One thing I like to say is, we're the kind of agency that if you're the client, we will point and go "the emperor is naked." We have no problem calling the emperor naked.

DEBRA COREY: They probably appreciate that.

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, and let's figure out how we're gonna get some clothes on it, 'cause I don't want to look at that mole any more. So we do that with clients. They appreciate it. They do appreciate it. I think that's one of the reasons they come to us. So that's where independence really is a valuable thing. But for fearlessness, we created something called the Fearless Project. Last year, we put out the word that we were going to give $15,000 to fund someone doing something fearless. Convince us. So we heard pitches. We heard 30 pitches. They had deadlines and presentations, and we narrowed it down to five or six and then we had them pitch again to the whole agency and had real-time voting right there on the spot who won.

So this young guy won, an Irish guy, from Ireland who decided he wanted to travel through hostile countries, to the LGBT community. So he went through Mongolia and China and Russia, and talk to and document the lives of the LGBT community in those places, a lot of it in secret, a lot of it being hostilely oppressed, and fearlessly going into ...

DEBRA COREY: That's definitely fearless.

PAUL VENABLES: I was like, "Pack a gun, please." No I didn't. He went in there. He created a whole separate identity on Facebook in case he got stopped because he had to prove that he was straight, if the authorities caught him. He shot a film, that we've seen chunks of it and a trailer for it, and interviews and light and it's amazing. It's so human and it's beautiful and it was truly fearless. That was last year's winner. So we just put the call out recently again... So all right, "send your entries in and make your pitches", and so we'll do that again.

DEBRA COREY: I think what I like about that, it does two things. Again it seems every program you have does at least two things. It aligns with your values. So not everybody can go out and do a Fearless Award, if it's not part of your values. And it recognizes people for doing something, but different. Was it difficult to pick the one, though, were employees pretty much aligned ...

PAUL VENABLES: No, because we let them do it. It was reasonably difficult to cull, right, so we got five or six that were great. We thought, they're all good in their own way. We actually ended up helping ... Somebody had this idea to do a book drive for this orphanage in Malawi, so we ended up, just as a company, sponsoring that book drive. So we kind of just did that one on the side. So there was elements of that.

But then the people voted and so it was easy. And that's the third thing the programs seemed to do, even these silly awards we give out, is that it does engage everybody. So you may not win it, but you're voting on it, or you're submitting names that you think should win it, or you're part of ... There's the fun of the pitch, and now we all watch the trailer together and there were tears and laughter and cheering. So it's a communal thing ...

DEBRA COREY: They get to know each other at least.

PAUL VENABLES: Yeah, so each program is giving back in that way as well.

DEBRA COREY: Brilliant. Lots of fantastic things that you're doing.


DEBRA COREY: Book chapter's getting bigger and bigger now, yes.

PAUL VENABLES: Excellent, excellent.

DEBRA COREY: Well thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

PAUL VENABLES: No this was fantastic. Thank you for thinking of me. I really am flattered and honored that you reached back out and that we're doing this, so thank you.