Democratizing PTO in the Ad Industry: Hope For a New Standard

What’s good for people is good for business

Richard Branson famously called U.S. vacation policies “something of a disgrace” and I agree.

Compared with the rest of the world, the U.S. stinks at providing paid leave, and when it is given, Americans are bad at taking it. Employees historically cite guilt, employer pressure, and trouble unplugging as reasons for not taking vacation.

In 2020, Coronavirus compounded the problem. According to a study of over 2,000 workers in July 2020, an overwhelming majority of Americans canceled, postponed, or shortened vacations.

Statista, “Vacation: Americans Get a Raw Deal”

I’ve been in the ad industry since 2003 and believed the PTO standards were adequate—not great, but OK. However, the relationship between team mental health and creativity came into sharp focus during the pandemic. In a creative business, what is the cost of minimal PTO?

As our founder Joel Beckerman says, creativity is not born inside the workplace (or home office). Life experiences, culture, art, being outdoors are all critical to the creation of meaningful artistic work.

If our promise to clients is iconic and enduring music and sound, our main concern must be our talent and their capacity for amazing creativity. “Adequate” isn’t an investment in creative people or creative culture.

What the pandemic taught us about PTO

It took the pandemic for us to reimagine PTO. A year that challenged the premise of how we work, where we work and brought us face to face with the importance of mental health.

It didn’t take long for the novelty of working from home and remote happy hours to devolve into bleeding work hours and Zoom fatigue. We emphasized the importance of frequent breaks, asked people to take walks, encouraged working off-camera and guarded after-hours time.

But the truth is, mental health (and the resulting creativity) doesn’t come from a midday walk around the block. Many companies offer mental health days designed to combat stress, but studies show they are too little too late—reactionary rather than preventative, and with no lasting impact. In fact, research shows you don’t reach peak health and wellness benefits until the 8th consecutive day of vacation.

We began to believe our industries’ PTO standards were hindering us all, and the research agrees:

A fresh take on time off requests

If you run a company, you’ve likely read some version of this data, but few completely rethink their PTO policy. We decided it was time. Made Music Studio adopted a simple standard based on the simple idea that what is good for people, is good for business.

Rooted in European models of PTO, we implemented the following key changes at MMS:

  • Democratized PTO—28 days for all team members. Regardless of tenure or seniority, everyone gets the same, much-needed time off to reset.
  • Incentivized PTO—twice-yearly bonuses if you fulfill PTO requirements including five (5) consecutive days out of the office. We want you to take your days. We will pay you to take your days.
  • Two (2) recharge weeks during the year. The week following Jul. 4th and the week surrounding the winter holidays, all internal meetings are canceled and only critical client work continues. Lighter work weeks for the full team.

These changes need to be invisible and seamless for our clients meaning every team member must do their part to allow their colleagues to take meaningful PTO while the work continues. We trust our team to deliver on that commitment, for each other and our clients.

There are of course challenges to covering for our colleagues over longer vacations, but the overwhelming response from employees is it’s worth it. We continue to revisit staffing to provide the right support for the change.

We need to acknowledge the privilege of PTO—for many Americans, no work means no pay. At a creative company, people need to feel safe, inspired, and provided for to do their best creative work. None of that happens without constant reevaluation of the environment we are creating as leaders—admission of failures, and the ability to commit to change, sometimes radical change.

We want to prove that in creative business, there is a direct connection between mental health, amazing work, and revenue—what’s good for people is good for business. And if entire European nations make 28 days work, so can we.