Paul Eckelmann, Head of Project Management, Droga5 - Ad Age Agency of the Decade

Boldly headlining the homepage of Droga5’s website are the following words: “we solve problems through creativity and collaboration.” A promise the Ad Age Agency of the Decade fulfills on a regular basis when it’s business as usual. But now, at a time when business is anything but, these skills are helping them redefine the way they work as a team.

We sat down with Paul Eckelmann, Head of Project Management at Droga5, to hear how his team is not only navigating the “new normal,” but proving just how good at creative problem solving their agency really is when it matters most.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way your team works?

It was Friday, March 13th when Droga5 was told their offices would be closed for the foreseeable future. “The initial communication was to keep everything ‘business as usual’ as much as you can,” Paul explained. So kitchens and living rooms turned into offices, and meetings became Google Hangouts from home. 

“The first two weeks were very challenging while learning how to set personal boundaries during the transition. So that’s been where a lot of our energy and time is focused—communicating that we do have these boundaries, we all understand and respect that, and there are ways to work around it.”

Like many ad agencies, the Droga5 team has members at all stages of life. So working remotely looks a lot different from one person to the next. While some of the young adults have roommates and are stuck in their rooms all day, others are juggling home school with young kids. “It quickly became apparent we needed to address new ways of working,” Paul explained. “When schools shut down, it took a coordinated effort logistically to work around schedules. If there were two parents at home, maybe one would work in the morning and the other in the afternoon. So it was about creating a cadence that isn’t disruptive to the work, but is also sensitive to their obligations at home on a case-by-case basis.”

Tell us more about the challenges of working remotely and how you’ve adapted.

Initially, the sedentary workstyle was taking its toll. “A lot of people were completely burned out being on a screen all day. Not having those quick social interactions, or even just walking to and from each meeting—you kinda take it for granted. You’re just stationary, clicking from one meeting to the next.” 

So one thing they did almost immediately was implement mandatory lunches. The agency built out a shared calendar across all departments where team members must block out one uninterrupted hour for lunch and another 30-min to get away from their computer each day. 

Another pain point: virtual meeting overload. “There is a really big strain on project management right now because we are the hub of communications and generally set up team meetings. It depends a lot on the creative leadership you have to determine how they can best drive and disseminate information without overwhelming people on a single call.

“We’ve tried to limit the amount of meetings we have—do things more through comments or smaller chats. We’ve created a standard where 45min meetings become 30min meetings, 30 become 15, etc.” And to be able to accomplish this, they make sure each call has a very clear agenda that everyone is aware of before hopping on.

How do you keep morale and well being a focus during this time?

“We’ve developed a really great and supportive culture here at Droga5. There are a lot of different virtual offerings we’ve circulated. For example, we promoted when Yale provided a wellness class for free online, or whenever there’s some sort of fitness or yoga activity they can virtually join. Our agency does a great job at trying to let people know what’s available to help keep everyone active and healthy to enhance their well being while being remote.” 

But what’s even more challenging than individual well being while social distancing is the well being of the team together. “We look for opportunities to engage each other that aren’t too time consuming—especially at a department level. Like every Friday at 5pm, our Project Management department doesn’t schedule any meetings, so we can do a PM toast/happy hour through video call. We even have themes; last week was Tiger King and tonight is a space theme. We give away virtual prizes and have a lot of fun. It’s a great way to end the week.”

How else do you keep motivation at a high level?

“Right now, I think there’s even a strain on people just to keep busy whenever they’re not working. They aren’t able to take vacations, and they don’t have those normal social distractions on the weekends. So what I’ve tried to do is encourage everyone to even take a day off during the week to give themselves a mental break. We’re approaching this on a rolling basis, so we can find the necessary coverage to give people a chance to refresh and reset, which has been really healthy for them,” and in turn, has translated to higher productivity and better work. 

How do these efforts translate to your clients during this time?

In order to look out for its clients during this uncertain time, the agency has taken the go-ahead mentality, acting as their own task force to stay on top of constant changes. “For some clients, we’re continuing to strengthen our relationships and support them by proactively finding new trends and pitching them ideas on how we can be genuine and unique.  For others, we’ve had to be more integrated in production in finding more unique ways to tell our clients stories versus traditional film shoots.

“We take a lot of pride in the work we put into the world, and we’re really intent on not being tone deaf and just saying the same messages as everyone else,” Paul explained. “I think it’s a great challenge for us creatively and strategically to develop a message that’s relevant and impactful to the consumers, but also to create the work in a much different landscape than we traditionally would.”