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Minnesota ad agency gives workers 500 paid hours to pursue passions

9:39 PM, Aug 22, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Another summer racing by; so many plans, so little time, but this summer is different for Janie Waldron.

"My neighbor he goes, 'What did you win the lottery or something?'" she says. "I sort of did. I won the time lottery."

While her neighbors toil at their jobs, Waldron has been home most of the summer transforming her simple Linden Hills yard into a showplace, complete with rock wall, stepping path and a rain garden.

Now the clincher: She did it while earning her full salary and benefits from her employer.

"Oh, it's a total gift," she says. "It's a huge gift."

The gift giver seems delighted with the reaction of his employees.

"I think people were stunned more than anything else," says Stuart D'Rozario, president and executive creative director at Minneapolis advertising agency Barrie, D'Rozario, Murphy.

Last spring, as the agency headed toward a cyclical lull in business, the agency partners gathered their employees and gave them something quite remarkable -- time.

D'Rozario's message to his workers: "You have 500 hours of your life back, figure out what you're passionate about and go and do it."

BDM's workers were told the 500 paid hours were theirs to use. The one option they weren't afforded was to do nothing. Instead, they were told to seek out something they'd always wanted to do, but hadn't had the time.

D'Rozario smiles, "That's like four years of vacation in one Minneapolis summer."

BDM partner and executive creative director Bob Barrie admits to skepticism when D'Rozario first approached him with the idea.

"My initial reaction was, 'You're crazy, right? Are you seriously suggesting this?'"

D'Rozario reasoned the agency had built up a comfortable cash reserve in its first seven years. BDM's existing clients would still be serviced, but the agency would delay efforts to attract new business until the 500-hour project was complete.

Barrie says it wasn't Stuart, but his wife, who finally brought him around.

"I said, 'Why do you think we should do it?' And she said, 'Because you can.' And at that moment I realized that was the best reason of all."

With Barrie fully on board, BDM employees were off to pursue their projects. One of them was Kim Schmitt, the agency's finance controller, who grew up in the city always wishing she could be around horses.

With her 500 paid hours Schmitt spent her summer volunteering at Sundown, a shelter in Hugo for horses neglected and abused.

"So why now?" she asks rhetorically. "It's because I had the opportunity. The opportunity was pushed on me."

The opportunity was "pushed" on all 18 of BDM's employees, who spent the summer doing unexpected traveling, making music and putting paint to canvas.

Barrie, the initially skeptical partner, picked up a brush for the first time in years and renewed his passion for painting.

BDM account director Andrew Langdell designed a hands-free dog leash he hopes to market.

Mary Pastika, an agency project manager, made pottery and furniture.

Art and creative director Steve Rudasics -- who commutes to the agency from Seattle -- instead stayed home for the summer recording on video moments with his three children.

"My project is basically replacing 'I wish I had, with I did," he said in video chat from his deck in Washington with a son and daughter by his side.

Rudasics still did some agency work from home. D'Rozario says the expected ratio was 25 percent agency work and 75 percent personal project. In fact, the agency was buzzing only on days when employees gathered to present ideas for their projects and share their progress, which happened every few weeks through the late spring and summer.

A couple of times BDM actually turned down opportunities to make pitches for new business, which Barrie says was difficult, "but we had made the deep dive into this."

Even BDM's freelancers were included in the project. Freelancers like digital designer Natalia Berglund were "hired" for 100 hours, only to be given that time back for their projects.

Berglund used her 100 hours to create her first sculpture, using her two daughters as models. Her emotions showed as she spoke of the opportunity given to her by the agency.

"It's just the generosity," she said, "trusting the people to do something good with this time."

D'Rozario spent his 500 hours working on three projects: a squid cookbook, a musical album and a book he's calling "3 Bits of Advice," in which he solicits random secrets of success from high achievers in various fields.

"If the only thing that comes out of it is that everyone got time to do great things and have an amazing four months which are the best times of their lives then that would be well worth it," D'Rozario says.

The 500 hours came to an end the first week in August. The BDM office is again buzzing; the race of commerce back on.

But scattered about are subtle reminders of the rarest of summers -- a bandaged blister on a keyboard from landscaping, callused hands on a calculator from wrangling horses and videos of laughing children pulled up on a work computer.

D'Rozario believes the 500 hours will make the agency better, but that was never the explicit purpose.

"Honestly, my big hope for this is now that they're back, people realize, the things you wanted to do, you could always be doing and find a place for it in your lives," he says.

Year after year we let the sun go down on dreams because we can't take time. Maybe it's time to start giving it.

Boyd Huppert, KARE

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