Q&A: Mekanism CEO Jason Harris on the Power of Improv

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How does Ad Age's Best Place to Work two years running get even better? With offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle, collaboration is key for Mekanism, whose work has earned them a slew of accolades and clients ranging from MillerCoors to the United Nations. We've worked with Mekanism on team-building workshops at their annual company-wide summit, where CEO Jason Harris and Marketing Director Meagan Cotruvo dove headfirst into Yes, And and other classic improv rules alongside employees from their four different offices. They had a lot to say about the experience.

Tell me a little about Mekanism and your annual summit.

Jason: The purpose of having the summit is to bring all four Mekanism offices together (San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle) to form a more cohesive company. So, UCB is perfect because it facilitates interactions between people immediately from the word “go.” Because you’re doing improv and working out a storyline, then you go on and perform. It's a really quick and fun way to get a group of people interacting and working together and coming up with creative ideas.

And I don't know anyone else that's similar in that regard. With a lot of the other speakers, it’s much more of an individual path of experience. It's not a lot of interacting and collaborating with people you work with.

Is cross-office collaboration a big part of Mekanism’s typical operations, or do the individual offices typically operate independently from one another?

Meagan: Our offices are in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. We do have a lot of cross-office collaboration, but you can’t replace face-to-face. If I have worked with you for six months, but I have only ever seen you in a video conference -- getting everyone in one physical space can give me a sense of your true personality. One thing UCB does really well is use improv as an icebreaker; you can’t replace that kind of in-person bonding.

Jason: The other thing is, it allowed us to do something across offices that didn’t involve working on a brand. So you’re immediately opening yourself up to something new -- you’re opening up your character or personality in a different way. It allows you to approach your work persona differently.

Did you both participate in the workshops? What do you remember?

Meagan: The first year, we focused on advertisement as a form of communication. The workshop was built around “Yes, And” because in advertising we move fast, and in the advertising world at large, resources are constrained and agencies are operating at a razor-thin margin.

Jason: Professional services firms -- whether you’re an ad agency, a law firm, PR firm, anything, you sell hours to clients. When you’re selling hours to clients, it’s always about being at capacity. So, the reaction, whenever a new business pitch comes in and you’re maxed out from a resource standpoint, is often to say that you can’t take on a new client -- or, to say no.

Jason: I would say we’ve really adopted the “Yes, And” phrasing from those workshops. It’s part of our culture; our culture is very optimistic, so what we talk about now is, “Yes, we will do that, and I will lead X, Y and Z in order to pull it off.” So we’ve modified the improv technique to use it in a business sense.

Meagan: So, where UCB training helps is the ability for advertisers to adopt the mindset of, “Yes, we can take that on, and I will need X, Y, and Z to make that happen.” So it's a shift in mindset from shutting down opportunities to sharing -- to having the first answer be a yes, and now, also requiring what you need to fulfill it.

What’s another exercise that sticks out in your memory?

Jason: The second year, we started off the summit by watching the troupe do a show where people would call things out from the audience, and the group would perform a show based on that (which you guys do every night).

So what we did was model that behavior in smaller groups. Your team got people saying things, landing on story, acting it out and then performing it. That showed me how to spontaneously interact with people you don't really know that well from other offices and then overcome that fear that everyone has of looking like a jackass -- because you had to just get up and perform it.

It was super fun. I think in our culture, people like to make people laugh. Usually, in advertising, when you’re presenting, you’re overly prepared. The idea of being fast on your feet took us out of our comfort zone, It takes a different part of your brain to be open and spontaneous. That was a good feeling.

How did performing and doing exercises together let you see each other differently?

Meagan: Jason does travel to the different offices a fair amount, and people get face time with him. But developing personal face-to-face relationships is important. It's more important to see your CEO has a sense of humor you know or dances on the seat --

Jason: -- or is not afraid to be a jackass.

Meagan: Exactly, puts himself in the same position as everyone else.

Jason: It levels the playing field.

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