How One Top Promo Distributor Built a Culture of Creativity in the Workplace—and the Big Ways It’s Paying Off
As we say all the time around here, one of the ways distributors can stand out in a heavily commoditized market—where buyers can easily find and purchase branded merchandise online in just a few clicks—is by providing value beyond price. One way to do that? Exceptional creativity that elevates an otherwise basic product to build a real connection between customers and their target audiences.
That’s easier said than done, of course. You can teach or learn customer service skills, consultative selling strategies and other crucial aspects of the business. But creativity is not exactly a learned skill—generally, you’re either creative or you’re not. That makes it extra important to seek out and hire creative minds at all levels of a distributor organization. And it also makes it critical to allow those people to, well, be creative. It’s easy to stifle creativity in the workplace, to hold back your most creative employees—usually without even realizing it. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
For Jo Gilley, CEO of Overture Promotions, Waukegan, Ill., the answer is fairly straightforward: make creativity the focus of your organization, a foundational principle that everything else is built upon. “It’s a core competency!” Gilley said. “How you help build a customer’s brand, the just-right products you find, how you make their logo pop on a product, building an engaging web store, how you set up an efficient kitting line, how you solve complexities and problems—all require creativity and thinking outside the box.”
Overture is one of the industry’s true full-service distributor companies. It offers end-to-end services including domestic and international sourcing, graphic design, web development, in-house screen printing and embroidery, kitting, packing, shipping and warehouse space for inventoried programs. The company even has a proprietary web development platform for hosting custom web stores. This gives Overture full control over everything from cost and decoration to design and brand integrity.
Essential to all of that, though, is creativity. What good is a kitting program if the products don’t resonate with recipients? What good is in-house decoration if it’s all just one-color imprints? Overture understands this. And Gilley’s description of creativity as a “core competency” isn’t just a corporate platitude. The company goes out of its way to foster a creative work culture for its staff.
When Overture relocated to a new headquarters in 2019, it invested in various shared spaces designed to provide a change of scenery for work or meetings. It added puzzle tables, a “serenity room,” a family room, a ping-pong table and a pop-a-shot game. Gilley said Overture has always emphasized a “lively and colorful workplace,” with vibrant decoration and welcoming spaces throughout its offices. One of the company’s core values, stenciled on a wall, is “weird is cool.” Another is “do more with less.” Overture also offers volunteer opportunities for staff, including a diversity and inclusion council and a garden club.
The company’s processes are designed to promote creativity, too. Each year after PPAI Expo, Overture has an all-hands meeting where sales reps present their favorite products from the show. One of the company’s sales managers, who Gilley describes as an “expert at using our ERP to analyze his business,” hosts workshops to share his knowledge and findings. Overture’s art team holds regular meetings where they take a customer’s design request and show one another how they’d complete it.
All of that combines to put creativity at the forefront. And Overture’s commitment to creativity is evident in its work, as well as its growth—the company grew sales from $60.6 million in 2018 to $81.7 million in 2019, a 34% increase. The pandemic has certainly made it more challenging for companies to inspire employees and maintain any kind of company culture, much less a creative one that depends so much on collaboration. But Overture seems unfazed. (In a prescient move, the company had Zoom conference rooms and Zoom phones installed as part of its headquarters relocation, enabling staff to stay connected and share ideas more easily even before the pandemic began.) The company grew sales to a reported $127 million in 2020.
“I believe the best way to cultivate those expressions of creativity is to create opportunities for employees to collaborate—to brainstorm, to solve problems, to show each other how they do something and to share their best ideas and products,” said Gilley. “The problem-solving collaborations are my favorites—getting everyone involved to walk through the process together and talk about where it’s not working and how to make it better. I believe that planning processes give employees opportunities to dream big and then find the ways to get there. I always call the management team’s annual strategic planning process ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’”