Valentina Culatti: How UNIT9 Use the Principles of the Happy Manifesto

In: BlogDate: Nov 14, 2016By: Claire Lickman

UNIT9 has had the best ever staff survey we’ve ever seen – and Valentina Culatti, Managing Director, explained how she achieved it using the principles from the Happy Manifesto in this inspiring talk from the 2016 Happy Workplaces Conference in May. Watch the full video of her talk (20 minutes).

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How UNIT9 use the principles of the Happy Manifesto

I am Valentina and I am Managing Director at UNIT9.

We produce anything from film content to online campaigns and interactive installations to VR games. So, it’s quite easy with such a diversity of disciplines to have people that work on what they really like. It’s quite a fun industry and people get to work on creative projects, so we have an advantage on having a good staff survey. We are about 150 people spread around the world, and it’s a very international environment, with lots of different cultures and 18 different languages. And we obviously are not a non-profit organisation, so we pursue success. We believe that success comes from empathic leadership, so that’s why today I would like to briefly touch on empathy at UNIT9.

So, what is empathy? Well, as you all know, it’s emotional intelligence, it’s the ability of putting yourself in other people’s shoes and understanding their emotions and their experiences. When I was appointed Managing Director of UNIT9, I was bowled over by this question (How to practice empathy) – it looks like companies that run with Emotional Intelligence are more successful, so you increase your bottom line and you are doing better business. So I was wondering, how to find out if we are running it in an empathic way, and if not, what could be the guidelines to introduce empathy within UNIT9.

And then, something happened.

The Happy Manifesto.

We bumped into the Happy Manifesto – one of the founders randomly was on a plane with Henry, and of course they were chit-chatting, and he passed the Happy Manifesto. And the founders said to me, “Valentina, have a read, I thought it was interesting, what do you reckon?” I read it, and to be honest, I thought it was yes, loads of common sense, yes, I’m doing this, yes we’re doing it, yeah UNIT9 pretty much follow these guidelines. And for me that was the answer, because it was like, empathy at work, it was giving us confirmation that what we were doing was empathic and the opportunity to test if it was successful because there was a survey, so we ran the survey.

So just quickly I wanted to tell you how we apply the principles.

So, trust your people. It’s absolutely something that [we] practice, because we are an innovation-based company and the principle is really inspired for software development. So we work according to the Agile methodology, I know how many of you are familiar with that, but basically we are commissioned on projects so we work in small teams and these small teams are made of people that are responsible for the task they deliver. So if you don’t trust the people to deliver their task and take the responsibility of doing it, then basically your business model fails immediately.

We do make our people feel good – why? Because basically the people that work for us are the people that make things happen. We are makers, we build stuff, the interactive installations, we go on set shooting, we code the online website that you browse. So these people are like tailors, they are like craftsmen, and we need to make sure that they feel good about the environment where they work because they are our main assets.

We believe in giving freedom within the guidelines. So for instance, we pre-approve, and we don’t micromanage. That’s something essential. So we provide them with the tools, the best practices, what we think a production company should follow in terms of methodology and process, we make these tools available, but we’re not there to manage the way they use them. It’s very much the team that is self-managing, as long as they meet the milestones they are absolutely free to define their goals and achievement.

What is important is also that we give them a clear mandate. I’ve noticed that in the few cases that we’ve failed, it’s because we didn’t clearly clarify with the person in the case what their mandate was. For instance, we created a new role called a Pitch Producer, because we needed someone who could help us outputting the huge amount of pitches every month. It was supposed to be a facilitator role, but because it remained mixed between a project manager, a creative, an assistant, the guys had tried twice but they failed, and we realised that it was our mistake because the mandate wasn’t clear – not that we had to dictate that, but it wasn’t clearly discussed with the person that was hired for that job.

Be open and transparent – I think we’ve experienced it very clearly myself. At the end of last year, at the end of the last quarter, we were a bit stressed. The shareholders were a bit stressed because they felt the finances wasn’t clear, it was the first year we were going through an audit so a nice learning curve as well, and it was a bit stressed and panicked because they weren’t convinced the numbers were talking the right story. So when you’re stressed you’re not really able to be empathic, because you’re prevented from being open, transparent and communicating properly. So people started being suspicious, they weren’t trusting anymore, they were gossiping, they were telling stories because they couldn’t get the actual story. So the minute I calmed down and realised that everything was fine, and started being open and transparent and explaining to them all the steps that we had to go through and the steps we were going through, and what the concerns were, and how we were overcoming them, we had a marvelous response. They were all caring about the company and their lifestyle within the company and the fact that we were not hiding anything, so they bought into it, and again it was a leap of faith and a vote of confidence. So again, transparency is absolutely key for empathic leadership.

Recruit for attitude and train for skill. We are very famous to be the ones that recruit people from the schools or remote locations around the world – so much that sometimes they call us UNI9 instead of UNIT9, you know, as we train them.
And the other day there was a guy that we hired 3 months ago and he just finished his probation as a creative, and he came to me and he thanked me, and said ‘thanks Valentina for confirming me in the job, because nobody would ever have given me a chance because of my CV, my profile, it’s so weird, I want to be a creative in this industry but I come from architecture – so when they were looking at video, they couldn’t see the potential, they couldn’t see how I would have performed, so it was an immediate barrier.’ But we didn’t – we just see the potential in the guy and he’s doing great.

In another example, this is a bit random, I was interviewing a project manager, and he was perfect, perfectly dressed. And when you think about the UNIT9 crew, you think about those London hipsters that trashed the London fields recently, right, so that’s the kind of crowd you’re talking to! So if you get a guy who has great manners, very polite, and the CV is perfect – and yes on paper, but where is the quirky angle, how are you going to fit in this environment, how are you going to get on well with your peers, with your colleagues, because that is key, because it’s team building, team management, and then I asked him a random question because it’s what I do, that’s how I feel my gut, I interview not based on the curriculum, but on my gut. ‘what music do you like?’ and it was perfect, he was wearing a suit, and he was like, I am a fan of heavy metal. And I said oh, okay, now I get it, and I wasn’t expecting it – so he got the job, and he’s doing brilliantly.

Celebrate mistakes. So that really comes from the industry and the philosophy of the company and we do celebrate success, we are one of the most awarded production companies in the world, but we do award mistakes because we are innovation-based. So we are always asked to come up with ideas or produce something that has never been done before. So the level of risk is high, and if we don’t go for that leap of faith, we will never achieve anything. So the motto of ‘never tried, never failed’ and ‘fail again, fail better’ is very much welcome at UNIT9.

And how do we celebrate them? Basically we do post-mortem on projects, so we analyse what we’ve done and we learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we are reluctant, I must confess, sometimes we repeat the same mistakes again and again, maybe because we haven’t shared enough in the knowledge base what we learned from them, but normally they help us do better. So wherever we have to take on a project with a client, the next time will be better with another client.
Love work, get a life. So we work hard on trying to maintain a balance between life and work. As I said it’s an interesting industry, it’s creative, it has loads of pros because your problem for the day could be like, how do I make that penguin look nice in that VR environment? But there’s also crazy deadlines, we work in London, we have a team in Poland, and the client’s in Los Angeles, and you’ve been commissioned for something that would normally take 12 days to develop but have to deliver it in six. So our guys are sometimes stretched and have to put in long hours into their days.

So what do we do? We try to offer them the opportunity of working remotely so they don’t have to come into the office every day, as long as they are able to continue with their task, without interrupting the production, it’s absolutely fine for us – they manage themselves because they are responsible and we trust them. As I said we have different nationalities, so people come from different countries. We allow them to go and work remotely from their home towns, because that allows break – break of perspective, break of routine, it allows them to work more efficient, and it seems to be working very nicely, and it is also the trade-off of working in production where there are loads of different companies and competition. The salaries of production will never be the same as salaries of agencies, so we need to make sure that we guarantee some other benefits for our guys, which could be like travelling the world, they are in their 20s and we’re not, take a sabbatical and enjoy it.

And now this one is fun, you see this picture of the lady with the bicycle. The girl in the yellow skirt, she’s our Marketing Manager, and together with her boyfriend, they designed the lightest bicycle on earth, and now it’s a crowdfunding project that we are sponsoring. It’s about, ‘I’ve got an idea Valentina and I would like you to support it and promote it’ and we try to make it happen.

Select managers who are good at managing. We would never promote anyone to a manager position just because they have been there for five years and he’s seniority. It doesn’t work like that, there are people that are skilled to that and are good at that, while others are horrible. And I was inspired by one of the talks this morning that said that people see something that you probably had not seen, so it’s our ability to do that. I’m proof of it – I was offered the Managing Directors position when I was on maternity leave. When does that happen? Never, right? So I was very very lucky!

And to conclude, play to your strengths – make sure your people spend most of their time doing what they are best at. That is as I said, that is quite easy for us because there are several disciplines, so you make sure that the guys who want to develop interact with installations and is put on those projects, and the guys who want to do visual stuff or content are put on that. So we’re not to the point yet where our business plan is for 80% commercial production and commercial project and 20% on development of IP, Intellectual Property, but I would really like to get there as a goal, so the guys could feel fulfilled.

The last two points are those I think are where we lack the most though. Like Community: Create mutual benefit – so remember, we work in advertising, sometimes it’s a struggle to try and say ‘yeah, it’s full of purpose this project, you’re selling crisps, come on!’ No, it’s not like that, but as I said, we try to listen to our guys, we give them a voice, if they have projects to pitch we allow them to do that, we fund them.

We have a program called UNIT9 Presents, so for instance there was a Director who contacted us out of school in Germany, at film school, he had this amazing script, an amazing story, and we believed in him, no matter if all the other shops in Europe didn’t, and so we said ok, we’re going to support you, and thanks to the UNIT9 brand and support we put behind him, his experience, which was like an interactive video game, came on the website called ‘the Favourite Website Awards’ – a place where you get voted and get ranking throughout the world, and that project became the best and most voted project for 2015.

So you see, if you take the chance, if you have a leap of faith in something that is not commercially viable but is charitable or has a benefit for community or even just for a person, it can get results.

Q: So you mentioned you work across different countries and cultures. Could you give an example of where one of these principles has come across perhaps a cultural difference, and how you’ve worked through that?

A: I wouldn’t say that there’s ever really been a cultural difference, and I’m amazed by that, because no matter the nationalities, the guys are always aligned. I think it’s because of that desire of doing what we produce, it makes them immediately aligned. And then I think again, it’s working in this innovative technology industry, we are used to working together remotely. The majority of our projects happen via Google Hangout for instance, and no matter even if you’re in the same building, the guys sometimes are like oh, you know, I’m a bit lazy, I can’t be bothered to take the stairs, so I’ll just talk to you via Google Hangout. It’s fluidly happening, it’s something that I never had to force. What I’m trying to say is that we read the Happy Manifesto and tried to put in place the principles, they were already naturally happening within the company.

Q: I was wondering how have you put some of these principles in place – it’s one thing having these principles and it’s another actually getting them adopted and reinforced. I was wondering if you could elaborate on some of the programmes you’ve put in place.

A: I think it comes to trust and trust is very much related to the methodology that we approach. So, we assume that the guys take responsibility for what they are doing, following the agile philosophy. When it comes to balancing work and life, again, try to give them the opportunity of travel among the different offices, to take the time off to develop their own projects. When it comes to transparency, what I do is every quarter or even at the middle of the quarter, a bulletin for the whole company. They’re very against anything that might remotely seem corporate, so if I say ok let’s hire a venue and have a company meeting, they’d shoot me. So I need to find an inventive way of doing it, so I’ll email everyone like ‘hello guys!’ and then you hear the chitter-chatter that happens on Skype or hear people commenting, but this is what we’ve done, this is what we’ve done well, this is what we’ve not done well, etc, and then you find some key people, like those you know that help the team building. You give them the right information, and so you give them a 1-to-1 chat because you know that 1-to-1 chat will spread. Or you have team meetings, so for example we have producers, we have developers, we have creatives, so I make sure that we do every other week a meeting with the producers and I tell them this is what we’ve done over the last 2 weeks, and this is what we’ve won and this is what we’ve lost, and this is what we’re going to do for the next 2 weeks, and going through what is exciting, and this is the direction that we’re following. And the beauty of it is that this keeps it real, there is no strong hierarchy, I’m super approachable and accessible, and I answer the phones sometimes, or I help on the project if people need help.

Click here to download her PowerPoint slides.

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Claire Lickman

Claire is Head of Marketing at Happy. She has worked at Happy since 2016, and is responsible for Happy's marketing strategy, website, social media and more. Claire first heard about Happy in 2012 when she attended a mix of IT and personal development courses. These courses were life-changing and she has been a fan of Happy ever since. She has a personal blog at

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