On a Friday morning in early December, some 150 accountants and staff boarded a Manhattan-bound R train. It's doubtful any of their fellow commuters guessed they were all from the CPA firm of WithumSmith+Brown.
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That is, until the dancing started.
Even then, the "CPA" part might have been suspect, were it not for the subsequent YouTube posting of this "flash mob" (a sudden assembling of a group for a brief public performance) by the Princeton, N.J.-based Top 100 Firm the following January.
Further investigation would also reveal that this was not the firm's first Web-friendly video. The previous January, WS+B struck viral gold with its lip-synced performance of the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling," which reached an audience of 13,000 and was named the best small-business video of the year by Accounting Today columnist Gene Marks in The New York Times small-business blog.
But shooting had only just begun on this follow-up, as WS+B managing partner and CEO Bill Hagaman, senior marketing coordinator of interactive marketing Sarah Cirelli and their colleagues began jumping around the train in unison to LMFAO's popular song, "Party Rock Anthem."
When the train reached Times Square Station, members of the firm, still dancing, flooded up the steps to what has since been revealed as a significant location following the merger of WS+B with New York firm EisnerLubin, which had headquarters on that block of Broadway and 39th Street.
There the dancing only expanded, causing curious passersby to stop and watch, some ducking around the firm's eight hired camera people to take their own cellphone videos.
"We wanted to make a real statement about New York, and have a presence in New York," WS+B director and management committee member Jim Bourke hinted at the time. The firm, ranked No. 35 on Accounting Today's 2011 list of the Top 100 Firms, will add the New York office to its 13 other locations, primarily in New Jersey but also in Florida, Colorado, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Between the merger (since formally announced) and the "Party Rock" video's YouTube viewership hitting roughly 9,000 at press time, it's safe to say: presence achieved.
But what about other progressive firms looking to launch their own online campaigns to bolster staff recruitment and morale? There are a few lessons to be gleaned from WS+B's success:
1. Don't set out to make a viral hit. WS+B's "I Gotta Feeling" video was shot for internal purposes, as a way to open the firm's 2011 state of the firm event. In previous years, the firm used photo montages set to music to kick off the meeting, but after partner Dan Vitale saw a "lip dub" (lip sync) on the Today Show, he found it interesting enough to e-mail to Hagaman and Rhonda Maraziti, director of marketing and practice growth.
Maraziti was intrigued and thought Hagaman and the staff could pull it off, so she contacted Cirelli and creative manager Jin Young Park. They decided to create their own video set to that particular hit because it was a "catchy, feel-good song" and, as a bonus, its huge popularity made it a hot Google search. "Sarah found the right videographer, and it turned out surprisingly well after only four takes," Maraziti remembered. "I can't believe how well it turned out. The true flair and culture of the film came out in it."
2. Stay true to the culture. For last year's shoot, the creative team invited all the firm's employees to participate and encouraged them to bring props that showcased their personalities. The 60 people who did danced with everything from tambourines and paintbrushes to inflatable guitars and Mardi Gras beads that, along with the jubilant dancing, at the very least evoked a culture of fun.
The completed video spread through the firm's numerous Twitter accounts and e-mails to friends in the profession, garnering a response that helped nearly triple participation to 150 people for the December flash mob shoot.
"We didn't have to convince anybody to do this - a flash mob in the middle of New York City - and it's such testimony to the people we have here," Cirelli said. "[For the "I Gotta Feeling" video], we invited everyone and some were a little wary, but after they saw the final product, they tripled. The group that we got to participate were not just 90 young guys, but a true representation of everyone in this firm, every department, every office - a little bit of everybody."
3. Get support from the top. "Everybody" not only included managing partner and CEO Hagaman, but featured him in a starring role for both videos. "Party Rock Anthem" begins with him boarding a New York-bound train in Secaucus, N.J. When he eventually reaches the midtown destination of the impromptu dance, he alone initiates it in the middle of a crowded New York City sidewalk. "Not too many managing partners are comfortable enough with themselves, and would think the industry is forming some kind of opinion," said Maraziti. "[But] he has a comfort with who he is, our firm and our culture."
Hagaman called the video shoot and six weeks of practice leading up to it "a huge team-building exercise. You can see the energy and the excitement."
While little encouragement was necessary to get Hagaman on board, the video's creative team still had to be organized. "Sarah had to answer the right questions, since this is people's time, and that of a responsible CEO," Maraziti explained.
Overall, the video cost a little more than $10,000, including payments for permits, camera people and editing. Luckily, the firm ducked paying up to $100,000 in license fees for the song when Universal Music Group approved its use (with minor restrictions).
Cirelli, certified in the Latin-dance fitness program Zumba, choreographed the dance and posted instructional videos to the firm's YouTube channel.
4. Take advantage of Web success. After the firm posted the "I Gotta Feeling" video, it reached 5,000 hits on the first day.
"Even overnight, the clicks on the Web site were so much fun to watch," said Cirelli. "After that, we kept an eye out on Twitter, ran keyword searches, posted on Facebook, sharing it any way we could."
The firm was not content to just track the climbing numbers, however. The video has since hit the road to be screened at numerous recruiting events, where Bourke said reaction has been good. "Nowhere they go will they see that," he said. "Kids say: I want to work with you."
Retention is also a goal - WS+B has a 7.17 percent turnover rate in staff.
The reception has been just as warm within the profession, according to the firm. "It was something so new, a bold move in our industry, and brought us together with people in our industry," said Maraziti. "We go to different trade shows, and sometimes show the ["I Gotta Feeling"] video at our exhibition as an ice-breaker and people always stop ... . A friend from a different accounting firm - her daughter would post it on Facebook - and she asked [a senior marketing coordinator] for her autograph to give to her daughter."
The video's success also led to another opportunity, when the firm's name came up high in the Google search results for Rachael Ray show producers seeking a New York-area firm for a busy season makeover segment that aired last April.
5. Mirror company policies online. According to Maraziti, the free spirit showcased in WS+B's videos is reflective of the firm itself, which was founded in 1974 and ranked No. 2 in the Large Firm Category of Accounting Today's 2011 Best Firms to Work For.
"We foster an open, creative, innovative environment and an open-door policy in general," Maraziti explained. "You're free to share thoughts and opinions, and the management and CEO are open to hearing what staff has to say, absolutely following through on suggestions to improve the firm. Because of that, the staff is happy."
Staff-generated improvements were on display at WS+B's state of the firm event in January 2012, when awards were bestowed on progressive-minded employees in such categories as client relations and community service. When Cirelli and Park won the newly created "Withum Way" Award for their coordinated social media strategy, they received a standing ovation.
All nominees were given a token of appreciation and saw their picture displayed in front of the large crowd as the grateful words of the colleagues who nominated them were read aloud. Employees celebrating benchmarks and newly appointed partners to the group of 82 were also honored.
"We don't want to lose that family feel," explained Maraziti. "You come here and the camaraderie among the staff is evident. [On employees' desks you see] pictures of their family and pictures of their Withum family."