It’s lunchtime at St. Lukes, a one-year-old advertising agency on the edge of London’s Bloomsbury district, and the daily battle for Ping-Pong supremacy has resumed in the corporate lunchroom. Today’s employee-competitors are not Andy Smith and Vince Gant; true to the British fondness for nicknames they are ‘Smudger’ and ‘Banco.’ Because the two contestants are more adept at graphic production and finance than Ping-Pong, a lob occasionally lands solidly, if unintentionally, in someone’s plate of pasta. On a nearby shelf a boombox blasting Tchaikovskys ‘1812 Overture’ sounds an appropriate anthem for this agency’s explosively original experiment in ownership structure, management, and business philosophy.
Smudger and Banco, as well as all of the diners — every single one of the 55 employees of St. Lukes — own the company. Not the token percentage that accompanies the traditional corporate stock participation program — they own it all. Everyone holds equal shares — from the people who answer the switchboard to the creative director. St. Luke’s was created with an obscure communal ownership structure, established by the British Parliament, called a ‘Qualifying Employee Shareholder Trust.’ The acronym has a heroic ring: it is referred to as a QUEST.
A five-member council governs the firm. Rather than call itself a ‘Board’ — which smacked too much of pinstripes and privilege — the group borrowed the acronym to call itself the Quest. Two seats on the Quest are elected by the employees; they are now occupied by a print production manager and an account executive, positions that at any other ad agency would be decidedly low in the management food chain. All financial decisions are debated publicly and voted on by a treasury committee made up of everyone in the company who commits money on behalf of the agency or its clients.