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When Work Becomes Fun and Games: The Marketer's Dilemma

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Shortly after the birth of my second child—at a previous job, long ago—I found myself climbing a pole 30- feet above terra firma. My goal, according to the "coach" yelling at me from way down below, was to stand up on a small wobbly wooden disk nailed to the pole's top and then make my "victory whoop."

It was another team-building exercise and I was having no fun at all. My harness was being managed by a goofy-looking belayer who could easily be rattled to distraction. Moreover, my lifelong fear of heights had kicked into high gear.

I did what no one on my team had dared. I said, "Forget this" and slithered back down the pole without standing on the wobbly disk. No whoops, either.

Rejecting corporate games is risky, especially for marketers who need to be—and should be—team players. I write these words from many years of experience engineering scavenger hunts through Disneyland and cruise ships, directing countless silly videos and employee film fests, and choreographing send-up musicals, dance-a-thons and sing-alongs.

Most of these team-building activities were actually quite fun, but I wonder whether my own enjoyment stemmed from organizing rather than participating in the games. I'll admit weathering many eye-daggers from execs as they groused their way through a sing-along of the new corporate ditty to the tune of "A Pirate's Life for Me."


As an organization's marketer, you'll inevitably be asked to participate or organize a corporate game or team-building exercise. It is a fact of American corporate life these days. (I blame the Japanese karaoke bars for helping spread this trend of weird behavior by otherwise self-respecting adults, but that's another story.) The key is to retain a modicum of maturity and purpose while still allowing corporate fun

A few tips for marketers assigned game-organizing duties:

  • Be goal-oriented: You set goals for all other marketing activities. Do the same for your corporate games. Unfortunately, many "fun days" bring people together for a few hours, but the spirit of team building dissipates a day or two later. If you truly want to build a team, don't lose the lessons of the day at the amusement park or ropes course. Spend a few hours back at the office to talk about the lessons learned during your outing. Make commitments to re-tool your team relationships and use benchmarks to measure your success.

    Similarly, if you're holding a corporate rally to get employees engaged, don't just leave them with a hot dog, popcorn, and logo wear. Give employees pocket-sized references with talking points (or "pride cards"). Or have everyone in the organization make a commitment to further organizational values and hold them to it six months after the event.

  • Keep it clean: If you're charged as the corporate lyricist or playwright, quell your urge for "colorful" language. In fact, any form of blue humor risks peril. Someone will be offended and you'll take the heat.

  • It's a corporation, not a faith: Encouraging corporate loyalty is key, but some folks take it over the top. Consider the Bank of America corporate crooner whose paean to the company's merger with MBNA was broadcast worldwide on You Tube. He's not a bad singer and could easily handle the song set to U2's "One." He also received admirable applause from his colleagues.

    But the earnestness with which he delivered the song made him fodder for snarky Web commentary. Or, as a Wall Street Journal reporter commenting on the video aptly put it, to an outsider the whole thing looked "cringe worthy."

  • Play it outside: Ever engage in a day of corporate fun and have your spouse look at you incredulously, saying, "You did WHAT at work?" Just to ensure that your activity isn't too over-the-top, try the concept on a spouse or someone outside the organization. If they cringe (too much), try tweaking it back to acceptability.

  • Steer clear of stereotypes: Another marketer I know tells me of once sitting through a "cowboys and Indians" skit that was filled with moments for cringing. Someone should have pulled the plug on that long before show time.

  • Be smart: Don't subject adults to infantile or otherwise embarrassing behavior and then scoff at them as "poor sports" when they don't want to participate. Think of activities that encourage people to be intelligent. For example, a simple book discussion instead of a ropes course may be a welcome change. And if you do opt for a song and dance routine, employ smart humor and satire that can be delivered with a wink, not a sledgehammer.

  • Think meaningful rewards, not games: Some organizations spend considerable dollars orchestrating crazy hat days, backwards days, favorite movie star days and polka dot days. It's a way to keep those with somewhat routine jobs engaged at their workplace. One wonders, though, how much more engaged workers would be if they were rewarded with bonuses and more time with their families.

  • Be a role model: The millennial generation is coming into the job market. Do you want them to think that it's all fun and games, or do you want them to know that smart thinking and behavior are key to their success? I'd venture to believe that intelligent thought and acts are your preference.

So, if you are asked to organize the next corporate game, be smarter about the whole event. I'm willing to go out on a limb and bet your colleagues will appreciate a break from silly activities. (Yes, I'm willing to go out on a limb... just not a 30-foot pole.)


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Susan Solomon is a healthcare marketing vice-president in Southern California and a marketing instructor at four universities. She was a Fulbright scholar and she has written extensively on marketing, branding, and social media for more than a decade.

LinkedIn: Susan Solomon

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