RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to pay a visit now to one small advertising agency in New York that's hoping to survive the recession by doing business in a really different way. It has opened its doors and extra cubicles to the industry's many jobless people so they can both look for work and maybe do some as well. NPR's Jim Zarroli brings us this story of a unique approach to the workplace.
Mr. ARIEL HORN: So then I guess the next steps are to - all of us sit down and define what our official roles want to be.
JIM ZARROLI: Ariel Horn is sitting at his glass top desk in the small ad agency he operates in a mildly grungy loft building in downtown Manhattan. Around him are three of the young men he's working with, and they're all trying to get ready for an upcoming job: producing an online video game tournament.
Mr. HORN: I've put some discretionary funds in, figuring that we were going to get suckered into, you know, doing some of that stuff.
ZARROLI: What's usual about the setup here is that none of the people Horn is speaking to is actually employed here. They get no benefits and no regular salary. Not long ago, with the recession killing off ad agencies right and left, Horn came up with a new business model.
Mr. HORN: Typically, when times are tough, when you hit a recession, there's the natural tendency to want to shutter up and to kind of close down until things wake back up. But we took a very different approach.
ZARROLI: What Horn did was send out the word that anyone in the advertising business who needed a job could come in here and use his office to look for work. They could bring their laptops and sit at one of his empty desks and spend the whole day sending out resumes.
On any given day, there's a small, shifting crowd of job-seekers here, like a pickup basketball game. There are people such as 36-year-old Gary Wapnitsky. He's worked at some of New York's biggest agencies. Now he's out of a job.
Mr. GARY WAPNITSKY: It's very unusual to just be able to come into an office and plop yourself down with your computer, you know, and work on your own things. You know, we're all trying to find full-time jobs while we're all doing this, and we're all trying to help each other out.
ZARROLI: And while these job-seekers are here, Horn encourages them to brainstorm with him as much as possible. He wants them to talk about projects they'd like to take on — and they have a real company behind them if they want to pursue them.
Dustin D'Addato used to work in TV production at one of the big networks, but he grew bored. He likes the loose, free-wheeling atmosphere here.
Mr. DUSTIN D'ADDATO (Head of Production, Horn Corporation): When you're in a more corporate environment, anything that's out of the norm was beaten down right away. And here - you know, I don't want to sound hokey - but we dream and give it a shot. You know, we have enough connections where if somebody says, hey, I think this would be a great idea for this company - okay, well, let's ask them about it. Worst they could do is say no.
Mr. HORN: You explain what the format of the show is and the fact that, you know, you may be injecting Britney Spears with your - with a larvae and the venom.
ZARROLI: Right now, Horn's invited a couple of outside TV producers he knows into his office. They're pitching a series to Comedy Central, and they're looking for ideas about how to market it digitally. So Horn and his crew are firing suggestions at them.
Mr. HORN: And so it's like that and the digital shorts with Adam Samberg. So it's like - we want to sort of create a show almost that has some of this likeability, in a sense.
ZARROLI: Some of the ideas seem to land with a thud, but sometimes the producers nod and write something down.
Unidentified Man: The concept of making it all into kind of like a helpful - like a sketch is - to make it who knows what other thing is really interesting, though.
ZARROLI: If one of the ideas takes, it could lead to a job for Horn and his agency. It's happened before, and when it does, Horn hires the person who came up with the idea. So for job hunters, coming here sometimes leads to work.
For Horn, this kind of business model has a big advantage. The people who come in here have all kinds of backgrounds - digital marketing, social networking, music videos. Horn has a huge brain trust he can draw on. It means Horn's agency can function like a much bigger company than it really is.
Mr. HORN: We try to focus and use the power of the people that we have here. So while we are a group that's been constructed primarily by our open-door policy, we do like to keep the structure of a real corporation.
ZARROLI: Horn acknowledges that he's essentially getting free labor out of people. But he says he's also giving something back in a business where personal contacts are essential. The job hunters have a real company to work at each day, and it might lead to real work.
It's an unorthodox strategy. But the advertising industry is undergoing seismic changes, and Horn says a fresh approach is the only way for a small agency like his to survive.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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