Business as Usual: Nashville's cj Advertising raises the bar on company culture

Business as Unusual

By Drew Ruble

Nashville's cj Advertising raises the bar on company culture

Arnie Malham, founder and CEO of cj Advertising, the nation's largest full-service ad and marketing agency geared toward personal injury lawyers, describes the process of interviewing new job candidates the following way.

Potential Employee: I want to work at cj Advertising.

Malham: Great! Why?

Potential Employee: Because it's advertising. It's cool.

Malham: OK. You know, we advertise for lawyers.

Potential Employee: Oh, lawyers...Well, okay. That's all right.

Malham: Well, it may not be. You see, we advertise for personal injury attorneys. That's all we do.

Potential Employee: Oh. Then I don't want to work here.

Malham has managed to attract and retain top professionals and overcome the stigma of serving a clientele often stereotyped as ambulance chasers by creating the most unique workplace in Tennessee -- one dedicated to its employees in a way that some in the business world might find counterintuitive, or even bad for business. But Malham says he has simply done what was needed to build his business. And build it he has -- to the tune of roughly 20% annual growth in each of the last five years.

"I'm not a philanthropist," Malham explains. "I'm running a business. And the most profitable way, in my mind, to run a business is to have a workplace where people like coming to work, where they are reaching their dreams and helping me reach mine. It's all for profit."


Outside the Box

In simplest terms, Malham and his business partner Jimmy Bewley have built their unusual corporate culture around training, staff camaraderie and transparency. But that's where the simple explanation ends.

For instance, Malham adheres to the adage that if a person reads 10 books on a single topic they'll know more about it than 99.9% of all people. "So we like reading," Malham says. "And we have a book club that pays people to read."

Inside cj's offices sits a shelf full of books on marketing, management, leadership and other business topics. Monetary figures scribbled on the inside covers of the books read "$25" or "$50." Read the book and as a cj employee you will get reimbursed that dollar amount (once you have presented what you learned that was valuable about the book at a company meeting, of course). "At last count, we've spent about $25,000 paying people to read," Malham says. "We're on a clip now of about $4,000 to $5,000 per quarter paid out."

In addition, cj spent over $60,000 last year alone sending employees to training or bringing experts in to train. "People know that we want them to improve themselves," Malham says. "And I want cj Advertising to look good on their résumé."

Malham also believes that group philanthropy -- focusing his workforce around a single project -- not only achieves greater results than individual efforts but also builds cohesiveness and teamwork amongst employees. As a result, the firm's charitable endeavors focus each year on two or three projects that will allow the firm as a whole to, in Malham's words, "leverage all our power as an ad agency to make that charity rock."

One example would be the East Nashville Tomato 5K, which benefits the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA. Putting all of cj's Web, design and media buying expertise into that effort allowed that charity to become something much bigger than it was the year before. According to Malham, in addition to giving something back, such philanthropy serves a solid business purpose. In-house designers, editors and production folks get a break from legal work and the opportunity to be creative, which goes a long way in curbing creative inertia or workplace boredom. For the company at large, the experience serves as a team-building experience. "It shows that the group can achieve more together than separately or individually," Malham says.

Transparency -- at a level that would cause many a corporate executive to blush -- is also key to cj's culture. An office hallway openly displays strategic information and updated company financials including: How much each client is spending. Where the money is being spent. Who got bonuses and for how much and why. The percentage to which cj has successfully moved clients off of traditional media platforms to a more diversified approach. Turnover rate. On and on it goes. In addition, company-wide morale survey responses are published in a book that sits in the company's main lobby, available even for visitors to skim.

Toss in smaller perks like Wii in the break room, and you begin to form an accurate picture of cj's unconventional corporate culture. On the day of this reporter's interview with Malham, he paid a Nashville Predators' beer vendor to come by the office and distribute frosty ones to willing staff on a Friday afternoon -- replete with ball-game-style shouts of "Cold Beer!" ringing through the office. "I think it was a hit," Malham says.

Betty Hintch, Chicago-based human relations expert and editor of Workplace HR & Safety, a magazine for professionals responsible for managing the total workforce experience, says Malham's employment practices are innovative and get to the heart of employee engagement problems. "When employees know their leaders care about them, they will perform, even during crunch times. Mr. Malham has customized training, recognition and outreach programs that speak to his employees," she says. "Many large companies, with far more resources, are working hard to accomplish that type of worker loyalty and engagement."

Working the Dream

What's next for cj? Based on his belief that when people earn the things they really want out of life they are happier, more stable, more energetic employees and do the things they need to do to help advance the business, Malham says he is poised to hire a "dream manager" to help employees craft a master plan to get the things they want out of life both professionally and personally. Is hiring such an individual really worth it to a company's bottom line? Malham simply says do the math. "Per person, it's just not that much money," Malham explains. "But the better output from those people, the lower turnover -- all the upsides -- it's huge."

Malham is quick to point out that he didn't invent all these creative workplace ideas. Every aspect of cj's culture, he says, has been gleaned from some book, some speaker at some conference or from some helpful organization like EO (Entrepreneurs' Organization), of which he is a member. What Malham has done, though, is put the various elements together in a compelling package for employees. And that has paid off in the form of one of the fastest growing companies in Middle Tennessee. Malham's agency currently represents 36 of the top personal injury brands in about 60 markets across the nation. The firm, which provides everything from television commercial production to online services and public relations and even call centers and medical malpractice screenings, has seen its gross revenues jump from $16 million in 2006 to $40 million in 2009. Now among the five largest ad agencies of record in Nashville, the umbrella company, Malham Leverage Group, boasts 125 employees (up from 68 in 2007).

Malham says his goal is to represent the top 50 personal injury brands in the United States and to become a $100 million company. As long as he can continue to arm his workers with workplace stories that provide needed ammunition against negative public sentiment, he's well on its way. 

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