April 17, 2012 -- Drinking on the job? Some employers say they're fine with that. In fact, some will even buy the booze, on the theory that a little tippling makes for a happier employee—and maybe, too, as a new study suggests, a more creative one. Those "Mad Men" of the '60s may not have been so mad after all.
For anyone unfamiliar with the hit TV series, "Mad Men" depicts the goings-on in a Madison Avenue advertising agency of the 1960s, including the manners and mores of boozing at that time. We see office workers having an in-office pop before heading out to a multiple-martini lunch, then returning for an afternoon aperitif. This isn't furtive drinking. It's proud, assertive drinking, with liquor bottles and decanters in plain sight.
Though a variety of companies today serve alcohol to employees, it's still ad agencies who hold highest the gin-soaked torch. The ranks of liquor-serving firms have recently included J. Walter Thompson, BBDO, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Grey, and Mindshare.
In New York, J. Walter Thompson has in its offices a 50-foot-long bar with pedestal stools that would put many a commercial bar to shame. "Yes, we have a bar," says a spokesperson, "and it is frequently accessed. We think it incentivizes and enthuses employees. It's generally used for off-hours consumption, but that's not to say there isn't on-hours consumption as well."
Ad agency Kirshenbaum, Bond, Senecal + Partners hosts internal, open-bar events called Trolleys. The name comes from a drink cart, known affectionately as the trolley, that 20 years ago rolled around the agency dispensing cocktails. It since has been retired, but the liquor still flows, including brands belonging to agency clients. These currently include Svedka vodka, Glenfiddich whiskey, Milagro Tequila, Sailor Jerry rum and Hendricks gin. Non-alcoholic drinks are also are provided.
Jonah Bloom, head of digital strategy at Kirshenbaum, says the firm tries to make Trolleys "a fairly regular thing." Employees need a chance to bond, he says--to get away from their desks for a while and have fun mingling: creatives with accountants, accountants with staff.
"We work hard," he says. "Most employees get in around 9 a.m., but they may work as late as 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. or even later. Clients recognize that. If we have a bit of fun, that's okay."
Plus, a drink or two has been known to aid the creative process. "Say there's a group of employees standing around chatting," says Bloom of the Trolleys. "They're just having fun, having a couple of beers together. It's a social occasion. They may not set out to solve a problem. But somebody comes up with an idea, and somebody else builds on that." Result: Problem solved.
The agency, he says, has plenty of formal problem-solving processes. But informal ones have merit, too. He makes an analogy to sports: "Part of what makes Wayne Gretzky so good is all those pickup games he played."
Just how much credit should go to booze, he isn't sure. "I'm not sure it's the alcohol," he says of the Trolleys' success at solving problems. "It could just be the socializing. But who knows? [Alcohol] may act as lubricant."
Recent evidence suggests he's right.