Courtney Page is pulling a Radio Flyer wagon full of markers, index cards and minipackages of Sweetarts and a red rubber ball over the craggy surface of Franklin Street in Shockoe Bottom. She is wearing a green construction hat and a crinkly, white-paper Tyvek shirt with a large No. 17 carefully drawn on in marker. She is followed by Doris Tarjan, also in a construction helmet and Tyvek shirt (marked "Boss Lady"), Todd DeFrancesca, Natalie Greenberg, Henry McCoy (sporting both a construction helmet and protective goggles) and Andy Stefanovich.
They are, to say the least, conspicuous.
As the wagon wheels rumble and screech for attention, pedestrians and drivers try to figure out this bizarre construction crew, who are shouting out things like "OK, how about a smart house?" writing things down on index cards and throwing the cards into the wagon. The group arrives down the block at Showcase, a retailer of used department-store displays, and disperses in groups of two. They dart like children toward the unique (and often bizarre) items in the store. For more than an hour, they run around looking at things like replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the front half of an old Volkswagen Beetle, paintings and mannequins.
This group is playing.
But this is not play the way you knew it as a child play for its own sake, for the sheer joy of release. Lurking beneath the Sweetarts and the red wagon and the folly of paper shirts there is the whiff of a purpose. There is a point. And believe it or not, the point to all this play is work.
Certainly not work the way you know it as an adult, but it is work. Something is being produced here, not a widget you can hold in your hand and put in a box and place on a shelf in a store. The production line here is a conveyor belt of the mind its cranks and cogs are grown men and women hopped up on Sweetarts who turn and twist their brains like Rubik's Cubes until out pops a bright, new, shiny idea.
This is Play. With a capital P, it is the name of a 31-person Richmond creative agency, which has seen stunning growth in just the past year, working with clients such as General Mills, The Weather Channel, Philip Morris, Nationwide Insurance, Disney and Chevrolet. Along with The Martin Agency and Virginia Commonwealth University's Adcenter, Play is helping to put Richmond on the map as a small but vibrant hub of commercial creativity. Earlier this year, Play was even the subject of a large profile by Fast Company, the slick, hip national business magazine. The company is growing so fast it will soon move into a newly renovated, larger Shockoe Bottom warehouse.
Play is not an advertising agency. It is not a creative boutique. It is a unique hybrid of the boutique a kind of creative think tank which produces ideas and leaves the execution to the client and the ad agency, marketing firm or public relations firm which has full implementation (or activation, as Play calls it) capabilities. The people at Play say they struggle to find a category for their own company. "It almost can't be categorized," says Geof Hammond, who handles much of the public relations function in addition to creative coaching. "It's paradigm-breaking."
Play offers its clients business solutions, from developing and naming products to strategic positioning and branding of products, to promotions, street marketing, merchandise and public relations. Play also goes inside its clients' companies (when invited) to teach clients how a sense of play can unleash the creativity in its own staff. They believe there is a creative solution to every business problem and that through the process of strategic play free-form thinking, exploration and "forced connections" any company can advance in the marketplace. And most importantly, they believe any member of an organization can offer creative ideas that "creative types" aren't solely manufactured in university arts departments. Their employees come from all backgrounds some from traditional ad agency and marketing firms but others who have been toy designers, teachers, TV news photographers and legal assistants.
Practicing what they preach, the people at Play have created a corporate culture unlike anything most people have ever worked in. They create their own titles, hold fierce four-square competitions most afternoons at 5, whoop and applaud at meetings, and share their office nonchalantly with the firm's 32nd employee co-founder Andy Stefanovich's dog, Gekko. She has a title, too. "Top Dog." It says so right on her business card.
With their mission plastered on the wall of their Shockoe Bottom offices people, play, profit (in that order) and plastered on their psyches, this group is out to do no less than change the way business is done.
Spend an hour with Stefanovich and you just might believe Play can do it. Being in a room with Play's 34-year-old co-founder feels like someone nearby just split an atom. He talks a lot, and fast. His feet and hands are in almost constant motion, but his gaze stays laser-focused. Never too far from his hands is either Gekko or a red rubber ball Play's logo which Stefanovich will bounce off of anything: a wall, a car, you.
He talks in streams that include phrases like "forcing connections," and "differentiating advantage," but he also uses the word phat a lot.
His official title is "In charge of what's next," but it might as well be "guru" or simply "soul." You know there is something different going on here when the co-founder of a multimillion-dollar corporation says with a gleam in his eye: "Business is not battle. It's romance."
If Stefanovich is the soul of Play, then his sister and co-founder, Christine Rochester, is its heart. The company's "ambassador," Rochester spends less time on client contact than on employee contact making sure employees are never farther than arm's length from a sugar fix (candy bowls are full of Pixie Sticks, Sweetarts and other dental nightmares), bringing in milkshakes for the entire staff, packing a to-go bag for an employee leaving on a business trip, sending a letter to the spouse of an employee who has been putting in long hours, or getting everyone's car washed.
Rochester's focus has changed over the years. When she started the company 10 years ago with Stefanovich, it was all work and travel. Now, with a 4-year-old son, Rochester says her traveling days are behind her. It's just as well. The very survival of Play seems intimately tied to and dependent upon its unique culture so much of which depends upon Rochester.
"Christine is the reason why I love this business," says Jeanette Foster, who works in Play's activation department.
"That nurturing is a great gift Christine has," Stefanovich says of his sister and partner. He calls her the Madeline Albright of the company "candid, honest, brutally upfront, and doesn't take s from anybody."
Stefanovich and Rochester, 44, started the company 10 years ago as an event-marketing firm. Until last fall it was called Opus Event Marketing. It announced the change with an IPO an Initial Play Offering. At $0 per share, companies could register for " creative shares" at Play's Web site (www.lookatmorestuff.com
) and would receive ideas for increasing creativity by e-mail every two weeks.
It's not hard to see where Stefanovich and Rochester got their inspiration. Their father, Steve Stefanovich, was an executive with Chevrolet, who moved the family around as many as a dozen times to places like Detroit, Indianapolis and Kansas City. Steve Stefanovich handled trade shows, sponsorship deals and GM's presence at the annual Detroit Auto Show. His flair for making everything an event was true at home as well: He would do things like organize scavenger hunts for the whole neighborhood. Even when it came to menial tasks such as raking the leaves or mowing the lawn, Steve Stefanovich told his children, "Think of another way and do it better." Andy Stefanovich describes his father as "extremely disciplined."Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2