Best workplaces 2006: The farm team - AdFarm

Agricultural PR firm AdFarm foster a friendly atmosphere to compete with higher salaries in the oilpatch.

Calgary, with three satellites | advertising | 81 employees

The first thing that strikes you when someone from AdFarm hands you a business card is that it gives no job title. From the office receptionist up to CEO Kim McConnell, all there is to identify a person is a name. That omission sums up the culture at the Calgary-based advertising and public relations agency, which specializes in the agricultural sector. Laura Laing, a PR specialist who moved from London, Ont., to Alberta last year to join AdFarm, says, “Titles aren't important. What is important is that everyone feels part of the team.”

McConnell acknowledges the best way to get everyone working together is accurate information. In addition to regular team meetings and updates, he gives quarterly “state of the union” addresses. They are so important to the company's culture, AdFarmers will attend even when they are on vacation–or get patched in by conference call. (While AdFarm is headquartered in Calgary, it has satellite offices in Guelph, Ont., Fargo, N.D, and Kansas City, Mo.)

It's difficult to compete directly with the higher salaries in the oilpatch. Yet there's little turnover at AdFarm–less than 5%–unusual in a business where churn rates can average about 30%. McConnell attributes the loyalty to a profit-sharing program, good benefits and flexible working hours, as well as formalized performance reviews. Then there's AdFarm's physical space–like the colorful office in the Mission area of southwest Calgary. Its lobby was created inside a grain silo, and clients are greeted by dancing papier-mâché pigs. “Staff bring friends and family to see what the office looks like, and clients prefer to hold their meetings here,” McConnell says.

AdFarm was formed in 2002 from four predecessor agencies controlled by two owners. It was a challenging integration, especially since the combined entity inherited two huge accounts, Dow and Bayer, that compete with each other. This meant a “firewall” had to be put up between employees and some staff don't get to interact with others on a daily basis.

So the firm must find opportunities to galvanize employees. One way it does that is through a “matrix” corporate structure that cuts across all the AdFarm offices, rather than dividing the company into location-based silos. Staff in different locations work together with the help of video-conferencing and webcams. Says McConnell: “We're a one-agency company, not a company of four similar-named agencies.”

And then there are the two farms AdFarm operates on leased land. One is about a half-hour drive northeast of Calgary, the other near Fargo, and both specialize in grain and cereal crops. (A third operation with a livestock emphasis is on its way to AdFarm staff in Guelph.) AdFarmers can purchase up to four shares in one or both farms for $25 each, and with the help of a full-time manager, make decisions about what to grow, what fertilizers and practices to use, and when they'll sell the harvest. “We go through the same decision-making processes that real farmers use,” says Laing. Whatever profits are made are divided among AdFarm shareholders. AdFarm staff are encouraged to participate directly in the operations, an especially valuable experience to those who have skills in advertising, but don't know much about life on the farm. “For some, it's the first time they've ever driven a combine,” says Laing. McConnell sums it up this way: “We're not trying to make them farmers, but it allows us to live out our grand promise.”