Top Places to Work | No. 1 Midsize Employer - Hill Holliday

Truth in advertising

It’s a demanding business, but this Boston firm helps employees find balance

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By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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AS SHE LOOKED at the unfamiliar faces in companywide meetings, Jenna Swan-Gross, senior consumer insights analyst at the Boston ad agency Hill Holliday, realized that she didn’t know a lot about her colleagues from other departments.

“You always wonder what the other person does,’’ she said.

That all changed when Swan-Gross took part in “Bridge Builders,’’ a new peer-mentoring program that pairs up midlevel employees from different departments in four-hour shifts throughout the year.

“It was a life-changing experience,’’ said Swan-Gross, who has been at the firm for five years. “This program allowed us to shadow, for a day, the almost-other you.’’

Bridge Builders is one of about 30 initiatives that helped Hill Holliday rank as the number one midsize employer company in this year’s Top Places to Work survey.

The company’s managers, employees said, cultivate camaraderie through skills enhancement programs such as the “Sharpening the Saw’’ series of monthly workshops, which feature outside guests.

Staffers said Hill Holliday also offers strong opportunities for career advancement, is dedicated to community groups, and pays special attention to balancing work and home life. (See page 8 for details about the firm’s designated “beauty room,’’ where employees can get haircuts, manicures, and massages.)

“There are probably 20 or 30 individual things, just to make people’s life a little bit better, that we can do that isn’t necessarily costly,’’ said Mike Sheehan, the firm’s chief executive. “It’s a lot of little things done well.’’

Sheehan said the employees created Hill Holliday’s success — the agency represents brands that include Dunkin’ Donuts, Bank of America, and Liberty Mutual — and he aims to repay their efforts by creating a supportive work culture, a principle that dates back to the agency’s founding in 1968.

“From a leadership perspective, you try to put yourself in their shoes, and you never forget what it was like when you were coming up in the business,’’ said Sheehan. “People work really long hours. We ask a lot. We expect people to be fully dedicated, and we should be fully dedicated to help them.’’

A big part of that has been a focus on wellness, Sheehan said, adding that it has paid off for the company. Hill Holliday hasn’t had to raise health insurance premiums for the past two years, and the same is expected for this year.

Sheehan credits that as “a mathematical function of people being healthier.’’

Hill Holliday also has an in-house Weight Watchers program that allows employees to meet with a nutrition representative weekly in one of the firm’s conference rooms.

One of the company’s newer health initiatives was the launch of its “Biggest Loser’’ contest, where participating employees weigh in each week, and updates are shared in a newsletter. In the most recent session, employees had lost a combined 2,000 pounds.

“Everyone knows who is participating,’’ said Sheehan. “It becomes highly competitive. People talk about it throughout the whole company.’’

And Hill Holliday has softball and bowling leagues — more than morale builders, employees said. “You meet other people when you do this, and you build these bonds outside work,’’ said David Hill, a senior analyst. His bowling team is called “I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Gutter.’’

Whimsical touches dot the offices to remind employees of their firm’s clients. A giant red chili pepper, symbol of Chili’s Grill & Bar, sits at the end of one hallway. Around the corner is a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup mounted onto a wall.

The agency offices, which occupy four floors of space in the Financial District, were set up to encourage interaction, Sheehan said. Every office has glass doors and windows. Staffers also sit in rows of borderless work pods. Nearly everyone has a commanding view of the city. “It’s all glass and open space,’’ said Sheehan. “When we moved here, we wanted to capture three things: a sense of community, transparency, and accountability.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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