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7 reasons why a surf trip is the fastest route to collaboration

Why is it so hard to ‘do’ integration and collaboration in big agencies? Because, in a big agency, we mainly work with strangers. The size, the layout, the turnover and the turf-wars all conspire against becoming familiar with people you share office-space but not projects.

Ogilvy (where I work) is no different from most other big agencies – our success has bred scale which is now, in some ways, working against us. This is compounded by our ‘screen addiction’ and the belief that everything you need to know is “in the computer”. Something had to be done.


Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 12.04.37 AM

Who wants to go on a surf trip to Sri Lanka?


The idea was, ahem, borrowed from Paul Dunne, a Creative Director formerly of the Sydney office, who organised an informal agency ski trip a few years ago. This one-off trip that started out as a bunch of mates car-pooling for a weekend at Perisher snowballed (see what I did there?) into a hugely-anticipated annual festival: a busload of agency people booking out an entire chalet, having a ball and making a lot of new friends in the process.

Management got behind it, giving everyone Friday off for travel and buying everyone a steak dinner on Saturday night. I loved those trips, so when I moved to Singapore last year, I decided to scale it up and re-mix it for the tropics: Welcome to the Ogilvy Adventure Squad!Screen Shot 2013-08-04 at 12.16.46 AM

There was an entirely selfish reason* I started the Squad, but the official reason, the one I pitched to management during a ‘David’s Den’ internal incubator session was:

1. it’s a great way to bust silos.

I argued that if we could get a bunch of strangers from around the agency and take them away together doing something exciting and slightly dangerous, most of them would come back friends. And an agency where everyone had a friend in every department would be more naturally collaborative, creative and productive. Best of all, I concluded –

2. it doesn’t have to cost the agency a dime.

Ok, I lied about the cost part. Although the individuals pay their own way for each trip, we did spend a little money, buying props for the teaser campaign: a few pieces of obscure sports equipment scattered around the halls, and tiny little signs that suggested if you knew what these objects were for, we needed to talk. We chose the stealth route, because –

3. it attracts curious, passionate individuals

– who, in our case, revealed themselves to us as mad-keen surfers, divers and rock-climbers. We asked them if they were willing to research, design and lead a random collection of their colleagues on the three-day trip of their dreams (it could just as easily  have been of their nightmares), according some fairly simple criteria:

      • Somewhere out of the country
      • But not too far
      • Suitable for beginners, with instruction and equipment provided
      • Insure-able
Dive, buddies.

Dive, buddies.

Once word got out, plenty of people came back to us with trip suggestions, but ultimately only a couple stuck with it long enough to actually manage all the travel logistics and ‘cat-herding’ required to get a trip organised and filled with confirmed participants. We discovered it can be risky to let each leader organise things independently, but it pays off as –

4. it unearths the hidden leaders

– from parts of the agency or roles where you wouldn’t expect (or maybe we’d just never given them the opportunity to lead). The Adventure Squad began to behave like a de facto client, requiring meetings, publicity, project management, stakeholder communications and so on. It had everything except a budget, which can be a pain in the arse, but on the plus side –

5. it shows you who the real resources are

– within your agency, people who know how to get things done and, with the right motivation, actually do it. Management often knows who these people are, but it’s very powerful to watch these people discover, help and respect each other. It generates a series of informal networks and a living ‘favour bank’ with more natural liquidity than the far more common practice of senior people roping more junior talent (and usually the same, small dedicated crew), into unpaid & unbilled work.

Solid, like a rock.

Solid, like a rock.

The reason we set the ‘remote location’ criteria and favoured the more extreme activities to launch the Squad is the belief that once you’ve shared a 5-hour bus ride down the coast of Sri Lanka, a cramped boat cabin for 3 days or wedgies and rope-burn with your colleagues –

6. it stops people acting like dicks

– especially at that crucial moment when you see each other in the staff kitchen on Monday morning and have to make that split-second decision about whether you’ll engage in conversation or just make your tea and head back to your desk. Those are the little moments, multiplied across hundreds of staff and dozens of Monday mornings, that determine what sort of ‘Agency Culture’ you have and whether collaboration becomes a habit or a perpetual to-do item.

Everyone gets a seat at the table.

Everyone gets a seat at the table.

You were looking for seven things, right? Because the name of this story is “7 ways… “. Wow, we’ve all become such suckers for lists on the internet, haven’t we? Okay, because –

7. it makes them feel, just maybe, they’re in an industry that might still be considered cool.

Or at least in an Agency that knows how to have fun. In a high-turnover environment like Asia, attracting and retaining talent can be a full-time job. So being (and being known as) the Agency that lets you go surfing in Sri Lanka, diving in the South China Sea or rock climbing in Malaysia for the weekend with 10 brand new friends, does have it’s advantages. Here’s the video that the crew put together to showcase the adventures.


Get the teams to document and merchandise their adventures back to the wider agency - video works well.

Get the teams to document and merchandise their adventures back to the wider agency – video works well.


Ogilvy Adventure Squad is back for 2013, bigger and better. We just launched the end-of season calendar to a packed crowd in the agency arena (yes we’re that big now) and confirmed 8 new adventures:

          • Dirt-biking in Johor Barhu
          • Paddling around Sentosa Island
          • Yoga on the Gili Islands
          • Hiking up Mt Bromo, Java
          • Diving in Cebu
          • Whitewater rafting in Chiang Mai
          • Surfing agin, but this time in Lombok, and the trip that has everyone on this equatorial island very, very excited:
          • Snowboarding in Japan. OMG, right?

What’s particularly satisfying is to see that 1 leader is returning, 2 people who were on last year’s trips have volunteered as leaders and 5 new leaders are stepping up – including one who is doing so expressly to meet new people. Almost all of them are mid to junior level and many are new to the agency. It’s the sort of shot in the arm a big agency needs to continually give itself if it wants to keep producing results like a hot shop.



About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+




* The selfish reason I started the Squad?  My entirely reasonable wife allows me to go on surfing trips pretty much any time i want, provided I go with a surf buddy. The Squad was really just an elaborate way to find some of those, but don’t tell management.