Fishbowl aims to unite agency leaders and staff with anonymous conversations

About 25 percent of U.S. employees across the top 200 ad agencies use Fishbowl.

Fishbowl, a social network that connects professionals within the same industry and allows them to be anonymous, has launched a new feature that is focused on creating trust and transparency between ad agency leaders and their employees.

The new "Company Bowls" feature invites users to join verified agency bowls for their places of employment, while maintaining their anonymity if they choose.  

"This is an opportunity to build trust with employees," said Matt Sunbulli, CEO and cofounder of Fishbowl, who believes engagement between senior leaders and staff is often neglected.

Over the last few months, Sunbulli said the social network noticed users creating their own "unofficial" company bowls, so it decided to formalize them. Senior leaders who join a verified Company Bowl can choose to identify themselves or simply say they’re a senior manager or c-suite executive.

Sunbulli said it’s encouraged for CEOs to come in and do live Q&As or "all-hands" meetings in their bowls so that employees can ask candid questions they may be too shy to ask in person.

While exact user numbers were not disclosed, Sunbulli said that Fishbowl – which launched last June – has been adopted by 25 percent of U.S. employees across the top 200 advertising agencies, including Publicis, BBDO, McCann, Droga5 and more.

Hill Holliday CEO Karen Kaplan said she has been on and off of Fishbowl over the last year, but mostly feels like she’s intruding when she’s on it since it’s used for employees to share personal work stories and gripes. It felt too much like a principal eavesdropping on students, she said.

However, Kaplan said she would be willing to join a verified Hill Holliday Bowl and disclose herself as the CEO so that staffers could ask her anything. "I believe in transparency," she said.

Jon Cook, global CEO of VML, said being completely anonymous with no guardrails or structure isn’t very productive in terms of feedback. Company Bowls, he said, could potentially be the "balance of both worlds because it allows for anonymity mixed with some level of constraint."

"Our industry could stand to have a more sophisticated and professional means for these types of communications," said Cook, who is currently not a Fishbowl user.

Some agencies have internal platforms for anonymous questions or comments, but employees may feel more comfortable speaking openly on a network that’s run by a third-party, like Fishbowl.

Every agency leader is trying to create an open forum or place to interact with their employees, said Cook, adding that the Company Bowls could help "legitimize" Fishbowl and attract more usage among senior leaders.

Fishbowl is looking to add value for its users with the Company Bowls feature, but some industry professionals are still concerned about certain aspects of the app, like cyber-bullying and third-party data-gathering.

On the data front, Sunbulli said users can be verified through their work email or LinkedIn profiles, and Fishbowl does not collect – and can’t collect – users’ LinkedIn contacts.

"Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn is extremely strict with its API [application programming interface] and does not provide third-party platforms access to users’ contacts," said Sunbulli. "Only relevant profile information about their work experience is validated when verifying via LinkedIn. Once a user’s professional identity is verified on Fishbowl, they are then provided flexible identity settings. These settings enable users to be comfortable yet accountable while engaging in honest discussions with coworkers and senior leadership."

When it comes to cyber-bullying, Sunbulli said posts are "part community and part admin moderation" and any questionable posts are reviewed by Fishbowl moderators.

But, according to Sunbulli, Fishbowl has run its own data analyses and gets "a fraction of the reports" that other anonymous commenting sites receive.

"The general ethos we try to feed is a model of support and vulnerability and empathy without being bullied," he said.

Fishbowl also embraces the #MeToo movement, said Sunbulli, adding that the network can be used in a positive way for the effort.

Whistleblowing has its own "purpose and value" and the app has seen occasional names of alleged sexual harassers posted on its network, but Sunbulli said he wants the platform to be used to help people heal and share experiences.  

"There are people living through sexual harassment and dealing with the aftermath and there are people who can relate and share emotionally how to deal with it and start a discussion thread that’s supportive," he said.

These discussion threads, added Sunbulli, are not just about harassment, but gender equality and discrimination issues too.

"We see tons of threads saying, ‘I know for a fact that my male counterpart with the same experience is being paid 15 to 20 percent more than me.’ We probably have hundreds of those posts, literally," he said.

The goal with Company Bowls is to provide a space for employees to chat with their coworkers and openly ask questions or bring up issues with their leaders, whether about salary, diversity or health benefits.

"Our mission is to make industries and companies more open and connected," said Sunbulli.