Street Culture: G/O Digital Building Community via Nerf Wars

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G/O Digital Marketing

Friday. High noon. Ozzie Harris is working — wait, no, he’s being attacked by the Nerf-gun-armed paid advertising department.

That’s a normal day at localized digital marketing company G/O Digital. Harris, an SEO team lead, said the good-natured competition between departments is something he loves about working there.

“They allow you to be silly,” he said. “Every now and then the PPC [advertising team] will try to take out a department with their Nerf guns.”

G/O is a part of digital media company TEGNA, a break out of Gannett,  and has been operating as a separate entity for about a year and a half. CEO Tim Fagan said G/O currently has about 500 employees and hires anywhere between 20 and 40 new employees every month. He tries to go to the orientation “start classes” twice a month to talk to the new hires.

“It’s a good way for me to understand current trends and what people are looking for in the job,” Fagan said. “When we onboard them we want to communicate what’s important to us and what things we do to instill a very client-focused culture. It all starts with the people, the team you assemble, and the culture and the vibe you create. If you can do it the right way, the business can really grow and become a really cool place to be.”

The right way to build a company culture: it’s different for every company, every leadership team, and every squad of employees. Fagan said that when G/O spun off from TEGNA, the strategy to build culture was intentionally developed with just three short, simple values: accountability, quality, and urgency.

“I’ve always said that if we’re doing something right with a customer or a partner, we’re firing on all three cylinders for those values,” he said. “When something goes wrong or something is broken, you can point to where we fell down on one of those three fronts. We use them as a lens through which we run the business, interact with customers, and judge each other.”

Fagan knows the three values aren’t new concepts, but that he had worked at both larger organizations and smaller startups and knew what he wanted to avoid.

“In large organizations, the core values can become this laundry list with all buzzwords, and then at smaller companies, the core value is the customer, and that’s all you ever talk about or ever have talked about,” he said. “Thus far, I think [the three values have] been working. How can I be more accountable, how can I delivery a higher quality experience for customers, and how do I do it quickly?”

Fagan has an 87% approval rating as a CEO on the reviews website – up 1% from two weeks ago – while the overall company rating has 3.2 out of 5 stars. Fagan doesn’t sugarcoat the truth about how difficult it can be to keep all balls in the air as a company scales.

“The business grew so fast so quickly, teams starting training employees their own ways,” he said. “Everyone was doing things a little bit differently and while everyone’s intentions were very good, we were building an organization that was somewhat fractured.”

From surveys and employee exit interviews, the staff learned that many felt training was inconsistent and too infrequent to be worthwhile. The company mission was unclear. With this information, the company launched a new employee onboarding program in November 2015. Recognition and wellness programs were also initiated, one being a money management seminar to help the young workforce manage their income with starting families, buying homes, and retirement planning.

“Not every day is chocolates and wine,” Fagan said. “We screw up; we have to admit it, fix it, and move on. That’s the environment we’re trying to create.

And speaking of wine, Fagan noted another company initiative created by some women leaders, called the “G/O Girl” women’s network that apparently has its own wine (Fagan had a bottle on his desk).

“It’s to foster a community where women of G/O can network, they can support each other across a number of topics including their careers,” he said. “That’s something fun that we’ve done. TEGNA has a pretty good track record of having a diverse leadership team. The CEO is a woman; the chair of their board is a woman. Diversity is good for business.”

Fun is good for business too, and as for the Nerf wars, Harris wouldn’t explain how he and the SEO team plan to retaliate.

“We have our ways,” he said with a smile, and looked around suspiciously for eavesdroppers. “I can’t divulge anything else, but we have our ways.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.