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Why having fun at work is crucial to the future of marketing

For an industry so at ease with asteroids, curly wurly slides and even the odd ‘chill-out aquarium’ (Google Zurich, in case you’re wondering), you’d think workplace fun would be a familiar concept for those working in marketing and technology companies.

But with an increasing number of startups maturing into multimillion-pound businesses, the pressure to turn a lightning fast profit seems to be weighing on challenger firms that would otherwise have been proud to, as Nathan Barley would say, ‘keep it foolish’.

Such is the scale of this cultural shift that Twitter founder and serial entrepreneur Biz Stone used his session at this year’s SXSW Interactive to call on a new generation of marketing and technology companies to focus on fun. “If you’re in tech you must have an emotional investment in what you do,” he said. “If you’re building things just because you think people will like them, you will fail. It’s just too hard unless you’re having fun.”

Of course it’s easy talk about fun when you have £170m in the bank, but there is merit to what Stone is saying. For some years now psychologist Shawn Achor has been pioneering what he calls ‘the science of happiness’, an exploration into how having fun and focusing on happiness can lead to success at work.

Our brains have long been programmed to believe that if we work harder we’ll be more successful, and if we’re more successful we’ll be happier. But Anchor argues this is arse about face. The fact is, every time we experience success our brains simply move the goal posts. If we get a good job we want a better job, if we hit our targets we get new given ones – and so on. Happiness is always just out of reach.

However, if we reverse our approach to happiness and simply focus on being more positive, we can experience what Achor calls a ‘happiness advantage’. It’s not quite as hippy dippy as it sounds. Having fun releases dopamine into the brain. This makes us feel happy. When we’re happy our brains perform 31 per cent better than when we’re negative, neutral or stressed. As a result we’re more productive, more resilient and more persuasive. So in short, when we’re having fun we’re happy, and when we’re happy we’re better at our jobs.

Taking this one step further, Stone claims that designing fun into any new digital product or service is crucial to getting people to use it. “Anyone hoping to build a platform capable of toppling a despotic regime also needs to make sure it’s capable of supporting fart jokes,” he said.

You only have to look back at Volkswagen’s legendary ‘fun theory’ experiments to see that people are much more likely to do what you want if you make it fun. You may remember the car marque successfully encouraged 66 per cent more people to climb a flight of stairs over an escalator simply by turning it into a giant piano. It also reduced littering by making a rubbish bin sound like a 50ft-deep well and turned a speed camera into a lottery machine. Of course, gamification and behavioural economics are now everyday tools of the trade, but all too often we forget about the transformative power of fun.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, Stone argues that in order to be good people, to do good work and to make good things we need to broaden our definition of success. In today’s world we need to move beyond measuring financial benefits to consider two other crucial metrics.

Firstly ‘pro-social impact’ or ‘doing good whilst making money’. This is an approach every smart company needs to take to remain relevant to its customers in today’s world because as Stone says: “The future of marketing is philanthropy. People are increasingly attracted to meaning.”

Secondly (you guessed it) ‘joy at work’. Because if you’re in marketing and technology and you’re not having fun, the chances are you simply won’t succeed.

Gareth Jones is chief brand & content officer/international chief marketing officer at DigitasLBi