Op-Ed: Ad Agency Exec Tells the Tale of Unplugging for a Day

By Kiran Aditham 

L.A.-based Zambezi, which has given us NBA 2K14 Lebron spots and vitaminwater ads as of late, regales us with a story about unplugging for a bit, meaning abandoning email for a day (like we did over vacation). According to founder/managing director, Chris Raih, the agency “lived to tell the tale.” And now, here we go, with video included above.

Our mid-sized creative agency recently banned email and instant messenger for a period of 24 hours. No outgoing or incoming messages; email was even de-activated on mobile devices. In-person contact, video chat, and phone calls were allowed.


And guess what? It was glorious.

The ‘keyboard gangsters’ had to take the day off. No hiding behind email. Tone was not lost in translation. Nuanced concepts were communicated clearly. Meetings were quick, informal and productive. Even clients were pleased – as the account team started the day with morning phone calls, Skype sessions, and 1:1 status check-ins.

The creative department? They asked if we could make it permanent. Yep, the art directors and copywriters loved a day free from overwrought conference reports and unnecessary interruptions. They concepted in peace, and held meaningful sidebars with their CDs – most of which happened in casual, “hallway” settings.

Why did we ban email? Besides the fact the ad industry has become over-reliant on email to nearly epidemic proportions, let me try out some stats on you:

·         MIT analyzed Bank of America and deduced that when the company began aligning their employees’ coffee breaks to allow more face-to-face communication, it resulted in productivity gains worth approximately $15 million a year.

·         Another study found that employees at info-intensive companies wasted 28% of their time on unnecessary emails.

·         On average, people spend 67 hours per year merely checking their inbox.

And beyond the numbers, we all know intuitively that face-to-face is where the ideas are born and decisions are made — email is designed as follow-up medium. Real-time communication is more human, personal, and effective. And as individuals, we also know that sometimes our best work is done on long airline flights with no Wi-Fi (God bless those old planes), or when our IM status is set to ‘offline.’

So the decision to hold Email Free Day was an easy one – but the details were a little trickier.

We assessed the four key external types of partners (clients, production companies, sister agencies, and press). Senior account leaders who explained the concept and the spirit behind it notified clients well in advance via phone call. Production companies were asked to hold morning and afternoon calls to cover off hot items. Sister agencies were similarly requested to pick up the phone – and to expect us to do the same. And our PR firm was instructed to funnel any press inquiries via phone.

Internally, we set expectations several days in advance with “team leader” announcements, save-the-date style cards left at desks, and boilerplate Out-Of-Office auto-replay copy that all staffers set up. One creative director personalized his:

Zambezi is having an email free day today. Take that technology. So unfortunately you will not be able to reach me using this method for the length of the day. However, I will still exist in the real world, so if you want to chase me down on the street or use a carrier pigeon, you’ll probably have better success that way. The world will be plugged back in tomorrow. Maybe.

The results of our little behavioral experiment were overwhelmingly positive. Immediately, we saw a spike in the number of spontaneous meetings that took place around the office. People left their desks far more frequently and conversed with coworkers that they typically wouldn’t otherwise, and there were certainly more phone calls to our clients and vendors. The agency was literally buzzing – more so than the average workday.

Will we ban email long-term? Of course not. But the point is for us as communicators to reach a higher level of awareness about HOW we communicate; to encourage more human and personal connection; and to think critically about decisions made throughout the workday.

So if you’re reading this and are intrigued enough to pass it along, don’t email your colleagues – go talk to them about it.