Before I met Joe Phelps, I would have described The Phelps Group as an advertising agency. Sure, the firm’s website talks a lot about “integrated marketing communications,” but I am rather a skeptic when it comes to buzz words, especially when they sound like social psychology meets business administration in the New Age. “Yeah, but what do you really do?” I want to ask.
After spending the better part of an afternoon with Phelps, I came to realize that his firm really does integrated marketing communications. Honest.
In its own words, The Phelps Group “offer[s] public relations, advertising, promotions and marketing consulting services for television, print and Internet marketing” for the purpose of “building brands and generating sales for our clients.” In the modern business environment, a company’s self-description or – worse yet – “mission statement” generally is written to sound terrific, but really means nothing when you read it a second or third time. In the case of The Phelps Group, its description of itself is actually loaded with content that a second or third reading only reveals more clearly.
Don Shultz of Northwestern University’s Kellog School of Management describes the firm’s work this way: “The Phelps Group believes that if a variety of tools is used to reach the consumer at different contact points, they can all work together to communicate consistent core product benefits and brand image.”
Now celebrating its 25th year in business, the privately held company came to Santa Monica after sojourns in Burbank, Century City and Brentwood. It bought the building at 9th and Wilshire in 1996, and has been growing to more fully occupy the space – blowing out walls and ceilings along the way – ever since.
The second floor hangs like a huge loft in the open volume that rises from ground level to the exposed ducts and fixtures two stories above. This openness, scattered with workstations – Joe Phelps occupies the first station you pass after leaving the reception area (“This is where I’m working today,” he tells this visitor) – is symbolic of a philosophy of organizational structure.
The company believes that hierarchical, top-down management is dead, and prefers a model of “self-directed teams,” each focused on serving a particular client. Phelps has even written a book – appropriately titled Pyramids Are Tombs – espousing the ideas behind the firm’s corporate structure.
The space at 9th and Wilshire also provides room for the physical tools that The Phelps Group uses to practice this philosophy: there is The Wall, on which each client-oriented team posts drafts of its work-in-progress for the entire agency to mark up with comments and suggestions; and there is the Brain Banger’s Ball, a sort of open theater (complete with raised stage and audio-visual facilities) adjacent to the equally open coffee area, where the agency gathers weekly to consider en masse the ongoing efforts of the separate teams.
Up on the third floor, where there are still some tenants in more traditional office space with walls, the firm keeps (and uses) the high-powered electronics for developing HD client product.
Amid all this activity, I asked Phelps how many employees the company had, and he replied, “Two.” I should have known. “How many people work here?” About 65, I was told. “And the receptionist is the only one with fixed hours,” he added.
Joe Phelps likes being in Santa Monica. Clients like to come here, he says, and the City government has not gotten in his way. When I asked whether the recent influx of entertainment industry operations had impacted the business of The Phelps Group, he allowed as how it had certainly increased the pool of creative talent in town. “Because there’s a lot of new media around here, we have a lot of new media to recruit from.”
The Phelps Group represents the best of what Santa Monica strives to be known for. It is among the very best at what it does – and in a creative field, to boot: “Joe Phelps is recognized as a top innovator in a business that innovates for a living,” says Gary Burandt, executive director of International Communications Agency Network, and former CEO of the Dentsu, Young & Rubicam Partnership.
And the firm works to do what it does in a socially responsible, and yet realistic, way: “[T]o do great work for deserving clients,” says the firm’s mission statement. “Of course everybody here drinks,” says Phelps. “We go to Vegas for trade shows, pop quarters in the machines or play blackjack or something. But if you’re going to work here, you’ve got to realize we’re not going to spend our time – and the one time we have to live – promoting these kinds of businesses.” (The company’s client list includes Tahitian vacations, Petco, City of Hope and L.A. Orthopedic Hospital, but it does not include any brewers or distilleries, gambling casinos or arms manufacturers.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Phelps Group is that it provides substance and results to define and fulfill its carefully constructed phrases – it is a communications company that brings meaning to its words.