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Forget conferences. This branding agency is sending employees to Europe

By the time you read this, Julie Molloy already will be settled in Paris, beginning one of the more unusual worker enrichment and training initiatives in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Molloy, a designer at Buffalo branding and strategy agency Block Club, is spending the next six weeks in Paris.

It's not a vacation. She'll be working from her temporary home away from home. But she'll also be visiting French advertising agencies, meeting with graphic designers and seeing for herself how the French approach graphic design.

And she's hoping a few weeks in France will help open her eyes to new flavors of graphic design.

"I'm going to Paris largely because it's the opposite of me. It's a romantic city. It's historic and it's cosmopolitan," Molloy said, seated in Block Club's trendily modern office on the 700 block of Main Street, two days before leaving for France.

"I tend to design from a very minimalist perspective," she said. "For me, I think a lot of this will be noticing the ornamental touches. A lot of it will be to see how I can incorporate some of it into my work."

From left, designer Julie Molloy, founder and creative director Brandon Davis, and content strategist Ben Siegel in the Block Club office on Main Street. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

It's all part of a worker enrichment program that Block Club launched last year, aimed at steering the agency's workers away from the more traditional conferences and seminars and toward a more immersive and exotic experience.

The 10-year-old agency has long had a budget for conferences, seminars and employee education. But what employees were getting out of those conferences and seminars wasn't all that impressive, said Brandon Davis, who co-founded the agency with Patrick Finan.

"We weren't taking away as much as we were hoping," Davis said.

So Davis and Finan, both big travelers themselves, decided to try something entirely different. Davis knew how much he enjoyed traveling, and how much he gained from experiencing cultural differences, seeing the differences in communications and interaction. He found it inspiring and a source of new ideas. He thought Block Club's employees might find it just as enriching if they had the same type of experience.

So Davis came up with a plan: Send two or three workers each year to live for six to eight weeks in a cultural capital in Europe or South America.

From there, they work remotely for four days a week, interacting with clients in Buffalo and beyond, just as they would if they were at Block Club's Main Street office. Only now, they rely exclusively on cellphones, videoconferences and email.

While they're away, they're also expected to develop contacts with other branding agencies in their temporary homes. Spend some time there, see how those agencies work. Meet with their counterparts to see how they approach their work, what kind of different ideas they have.

"It's about having the opportunity to immerse and learn and be inspired," said Davis, who was waiting to have surgery last week after breaking his leg in two places and tearing cartilage in his knee after falling on a ski trip to Vail, Colo.

It's also a sabbatical of sorts, the chance for Block Club's chosen workers to get away from the office, get away from home and get away from their routine.

"There's nothing like having that clear head space to be inspired," Davis said.

Ben Siegel was the first to go.

The content strategist and copywriter spent five weeks in Amsterdam last October and November. He spent time at Dutch ad agencies, from a two-person shop not far from his apartment to bigger firms an hour away in Rotterdam, where connections from the Crowley Webb ad agency in Buffalo helped open doors for his visit.

Once he was in Amsterdam, he found more connections, through a Buffalo expatriate and social media sites, like Instagram.

In between, he worked. He met with clients through videoconferencing apps and conference calls. He spoke to them from his cellphone.

The big difference was the time. With Amsterdam being six hours ahead, it was mid-afternoon by the time Siegel would log on by videoconference for Block Club's daily staff meeting at 9:30 a.m.

"I have a better sense of my work day and keeping my schedule and being focused," he said.

"Being outside your comfort zone – if you're not someone who travels a lot – that translates back to you, sometimes in obscure ways," said Siegel, who also does freelance reviews for The Buffalo News.

For Siegel, it was the bluntness and directness of the Dutch that he found most striking.

"You learn to say more in fewer words. You learn to listen in a more intensive way," he said.

"Things work very strategically in Amsterdam. The Dutch are very efficient," Siegel said. "And even though we're connected to everything on the internet, it's different being there and seeing it."

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