Inside Grey’s ‘Base Camp’: A training ground for agency millennials

Millennials are fascinating to ad giant Grey’s CEO, Michael Houston. Which is why, amid the sprawling four-floor space of Grey’s office — characterized by its exposed ceilings, communal wooden tables, mosaic floors and plenteous glass — he created an area designed specifically to house its millennial staffers.

“Base Camp” is Grey’s pilot program launched last August to help cultivate its crop of young millennial recent hires, with the idea that they will some day take on leadership roles at the firm. Located on the third floor of the agency’s office in the Flatiron district of New York City, Base Camp is aimed at teaching millennials how to be grown-ups, by driving collaboration, building interpersonal relationships, fostering talent and ultimately learning how to manage others.

Grey’s “Base Camp”

The initiative is led by Grey’s svp of account management, Maria Gallione, who also sits among the 40-odd assistant account executives in the designated Base Camp area, serving as their mentor and guide.

“Millennials think and work differently than Gen-Xers — they’re very collaborative, they want to feel like a part of a community, they want to feel like they belong and that they’re making a real difference,” Gallione told Digiday. “We wanted to create a system that provided them with structure but also gave them a lot of freedom to experience these things.”

Inspirational quotes, such as this one, dot the walls throughout the office

Structurally, these associate account executives still work on client accounts with their account teams. But instead of sitting with their teams, different AAEs sit together in a central space, sharing desks and their own meeting rooms as well as lounges. They also attend training sessions and talks together, constantly learning from one another.

Grey has also devised several supporting programs for its Base Camp employees, including an online personal assessment tool to address means of communication; “AAE Spotlight,” in which a different member is profiled weekly; and a weekly team meeting called “Wisdom of the Week,” in which employees share experiences and outline what they’ve learned over the course of their careers.

A communal table adjacent to the “Base Camp”

“We also wanted to create an opportunity where we could start creating a culture, give them some qualitative life lessons” said Gallione. “It also creates a bit of healthy competition, where these AAEs are motivated and inspired by each others’ successes.”

Grey’s Base Camp initiative is prompted at least in part by the character of many of the agency’s clients — including Marriott and Volvo — which are eager to experiment with new approaches to marketing in order to reach out more authentically to millennial audiences. Beyond that, it may serve to help retain talent in an industry that’s feeling a crunch.

The deck area at Grey, which resembles a ship deck with views of Madison Square Park

“It is absolutely geared toward acquisition and retention,” said Gallione. “We want to let them know that when you come in, you’re going to be a part of a community and be getting this very hands-on training, not only from your team but from people who’ve been in the business for years.”

Six months in, the program appears to be working. Micole Himelfarb, one of the assistant account executives at Base Camp, is a fan. She said that the guidance she has received from her mentors, as well as from observing her peers, has fueled her personal growth.

“Base Camp was formed to tap into that pop culture that runs through our veins,” she said. “It’s an incredible feeling to know that while we may be the lowest tier here at Grey, our voices matter.”

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