Interview with Steve Cody, Founder & CEO of Peppercomm

Humor is a HUGE Strategic Differentiator

Tell me a bit about Peppercomm’s founding. I need to know where the “Pepper” part came from!

Peppercomm was founded in September of 1995, after I had become disenchanted with the stultifying life of being a top executive at a global holding company. I couldn’t stand the bureaucratic, administrative, operational and financial tasks I had to attend to – all while trying to make sure the trains kept running on time and that those leading client accounts were delivering.

I decided that I had it with big agency life, foolishly thought I was just as good as any top global agency executive and, most importantly, didn’t want to one day reach the age of 65, look back and wonder, “What would have happened IF I had started my own business?” 

And so I launched my embryonic firm, Peppercomm, and named it in honor of my Labrador Retriever, Pepper, for three reasons:

–          There were (and still are) far too many eponymous PR firms.

–          I wanted a distinctive and memorable name that, love it or hate it, people would remember. That said, I still read and hear people mistakenly calling us PepperCorn, or, on one memorable occasion, Leppercomm.

–          I knew that most Americans loved canines and figured the name would create animmediate connection in any new business pitch (which it did and still very much does).

I’ve been seeing a lot about humor in the workplace and know that’s something your team has talked about for a long time. Can you give me some background on what it means to incorporate comedy into your professional day-to-day?

Humor and comedy have always been intrinsic to Peppercomm’s culture. We formalized our service offering about 12 years ago. It all began when I decided to tick off a bucket list item and perform stand-up at a Manhattan comedy club. I immediately fell in love with performing (however mundane my material was and no matter how small the audience size). While I’ve never been anything more than a highly mediocre comedian (my stage motto is “Expect Less”), I started noticing a marked improvement in my business communications abilities – everything from listening and presenting to creating an immediate rapport with an audience and dealing with a hostile, or even worse, impassive audience.

I’ve come to see that humor (especially self-deprecating humor) is a huge differentiator for an individual, a department or an entire organization. Over the past 12 years, I’ve seen the marketplace perception of using humor in business go from “meh” to “How quick can you begin?”

Corporate America has DEFINITELY awakened to the power of humor. This is a result of employees everywhere calling for a new generation of leaders who are empathetic, unafraid to display vulnerability and fully transparent in their communications (especially in the age of the pandemic and myriad, distressing societal factors). This is also evidenced by the major articles about humor in business in The Harvard Business ReviewThe Stanford Business Journal and The New York Times. In fact, stand-up comedy is now a required three-credit course for MBA students attending Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Why levity is such an important part of Peppercomm’s business and how does it differentiate your team?

Levity is a HUGE competitive advantage for Peppercomm.

First, it immediately sets us apart from other agencies in any new business pitch. Plus, it’s impossible not to like someone who makes you laugh. There simply isn’t another PR, digital, advertising, branding (or even online sports gambling-centric) firm that trains employees in the art and science of stand-up and improvisational comedy. Nor are there any with three distinct “New Normal” humor offerings.

Since the pandemic’s beginnings in March of 2020 (and no matter how bleak and uncertain the times became), we found ways to inject humor in our twice-a-week “12@12” staff meetings, regular employee communications and our approach to storytelling on behalf of our clients. 

As a leader, my comedy training has served me well since the beginning of the pandemic (and all of the societal ills we’ve been experiencing on a 24X7 basis). It’s enabled me to be more accepting of, and resilient to, the doom and gloom. That, in turn, has made me even more open, vulnerable and empathetic to our employees and their needs.

How has comedy impacted your culture over time?

Comedy in our workplace has led to a true open-door culture where ideas are shared, collaboration thrives, mentoring happens organically, and we can focus on building bonds between our senior and junior team members. Comedy has humanized and personalized senior management with younger or new employees and enabled employees to see (and connect with) their peers in a different, deeper and far more human & humane way.

For example, I’m very comfortable performing (very poorly, I might add) in front of my employees either at a Friday night show at The Greenwich Village Comedy Club or making a fool of myself when I handle the MC duties at our annual holiday fundraisers. I’ve continued to further lower the bar in the virtual comedy shows in which I’ve participated in during the past 16 months.

By displaying my frailties and sharing truly cringeworthy moments from my world, I send a very clear signal to employees that it’s beyond cool to bring their full selves to work. We were enabling the latter long before it became a rallying cry of the New Normal workplace.

COVID-19 obviously impacted the way we communicate, and I know you’ve expanded and hired a few new people while virtual. Do you think promoting humor in the workplace has helped your team bond when they can’t be together?

We’ve hired about 10 people since the pandemic began and there is no doubt in my mind that our comedy-based culture helped us attract these talented individuals. It also helped make them feel right at home on day one. There is no question that, by training our employees over the past 16 months in the new ways in which to leverage comedy in a virtual world, we’ve created a bond and freedom that simply doesn’t exist at other agencies (or most corporations for that matter).

How does a preference for humor affect your relationships with clients?

One has to be very cautious in determining how and when to employ humor in client interactions. But years of comedy training have sharpened our listening skills. As a result, we instinctively know if, and when, a client partner enjoys laughter and believes in making it an intrinsic component of the relationship.

Make no mistake. Comedy/humor is NOT for every organization. It must begin with the CEO and cascade down. As a result, we have several client relationships that are traditional, buttoned-up and nearly always serious. At the same time, once we’ve established trust with a client who enjoys self-deprecating humor, we can oftentimes have interactions that begin and end with a laugh (and further enhance an already robust relationship)

I like to say that, while we take our clients’ business and our business very seriously, we do NOT take ourselves seriously at all. It’s a value proposition very few of our competitors would even contemplate much less communicate to the marketplace. And that’s a key competitive advantage for Peppercomm.

What are some ways other companies should look to implement comedy strategies in the workplace? Are there training programs available? Peppercomm has a specific offering, right?

As I noted earlier, comedy and humor aren’t right for every organization. Many are still managed by fear and, despite what they may say in their purpose statements, continue to put profits ahead of people.

A humor-centric culture will only work IF the CEO (and her fellow C-Suite colleagues) can laugh at themselves, be comfortable in displaying their vulnerabilities and are willing to empower the most junior (and newest) employee to feel empowered to stand up and speak out.

We have retrofitted our traditional comedy offering and now have three, distinct humor services intended to put smiles back on employees’ faces, help senior executives better manage change by presenting the “new way of doing things” in an unexpected and humorous way. That eases tensions by creating shared experiences, facilitating open and honest dialogue that can build bonds, and makes employees feel they are empowered to add their thoughts to the change process. The end result is workers and mid-level managers can bring their true selves to work and support belonging and inclusion.

Every Peppercomm employee is trained in stand-up and improvisational comedy. It’s become embedded in our DNA and helped us win countless workplace culture awards. The offering immediately attracted the attention of the business world at large and we began managing comedy workshops for organizations ranging from Bristol Myers Squibb and Colgate to Syracuse University and M&T Bank. We’ve also tied comedy to our holiday, charitable initiatives. I’ve MC’d comedy fundraising events for the likes of Autism Speaks, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the ASPCA. We typically raise $5,000 for the charity and seven or eight Peppercommers perform bits during the show. How many agency employees can say they’ve performed stand-up comedy at a top Manhattan comedy club? Believe me, it’s a very big deal for every employee who’s experienced the true adrenaline rush that is performing live comedy in front of an audience of complete strangers.

When we connect with the right client culture, our humor service offerings not only deepen and enrich an already existing bond, but truly elevate the relationship to a level that is at once both strategic and empathetic. No other firm can make the same claim.

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