Agency Culture

Culture in an ad agency is unique to the place and the personalities of the people running the shop. There is the outward agency persona, and then there is the inward true cultural persona of the agency that we all work within.

Why do agencies try so hard to share theIR inner workings?

Agencies are a business and the established distinctive culture of the place is there on purpose. For one thing, as a brand seeks a potential agency partner, they look for agencies that would be a good working relationship fit. An agency's culture is part of what the shop is selling to a client. It is part of the promise to the client, on what type of work they are going to get and how they are going to work together to get there. If the agency is all about ROI and analytics, think about the types of people and processes that would be in place as opposed to an agency that is known for design or an agency that is known for very out-of-the-box thinking. 

The cultural lens — how we want others to look at the world.

Agencies have an inherent culture and value system. It may not always be articulated in a clear manner, but it is there. This means that agencies hire against it and seek out clients that are aligned with specific cultural values. When agencies are clear about it and communicate what that culture is to both potential clients and existing and future employees, it helps to solidify what the agency is about, and down the road it can go a long way in stabilizing the agency's business and relationships. 

I can walk into a shop and very quickly feel and tell what the vibe is going to be. I'm always evaluating a place on the overall environment. However, culture goes beyond an office working space (or agency perks). At the same time, some agencies also have a very strong culture that you won't get just by walking in the door. Some places do a great job of matching up (screening) employees against the agency culture and continue to foster the culture on a continual basis. Other agencies do a poor job at defining and maintaining a set of company values, and may find themselves going through high employee turn-over. It takes a lot of effort and nurturing to maintain a company culture. 

If you are going to have a strong agency culture, at starts at the top and is lived by the bigger team. First a big truth in creative land — the values that started the agency may not be the values it currently lives by — for good or for bad. As firms evolve, the people who start an agency, the ones that led the starting culture are probably no longer the ones that are actively maintaining the culture. He or she may have left a legacy and probably an agency manifesto (it may even be in the form of a placard to the wall), but the meaning behind those words is often long lost.

It can be very hard to maintain the original set of corporate values over long periods of time. Current management may not subscribe to all the points the founders subscribed to or subscribe to values-based leadership. Some agencies tend to go through more upper management changes that others, and if upper management is key in maintaining and defining organizational culture, it can be pretty hard work to maintain long-standing values over time.

Real organizational culture can not be dictated. Culture can not be segmented to a set of individuals, an HR department or your office manager running weekly parties. Your leadership leads the culture, but your team lives it. 

to shed a positive light, as agencies mature, cultural shifts can happen that make positive changE. 

In the agency world, there are some awesome leaders. To them, culture doesn't mean ping pong or pool tables, a funky space and beer in the fridge. Culture is setting an environment (both physical and intellectual) that focuses on specific values. For me, the best agencies allow for an environment where employees can feel safe while taking (creative) risks and communicating, unafraid of making mistakes, open to questioning, doubt and curiosity for going beyond what is being asked. The best cultures foster innovation & collaboration — inspiring others and creating a place that helps to recruit talent.

When culture and personalities collide.

Anyone who has ever worked for an agency knows that it's very hard work and stressful. Agency culture is undoubtably linked to top management, and the heavy influence of the creative forces in the agency. It wasn't long ago that we use to put the names of the people who ran the agency on the door. When your name is on the door, you are making a big statement that the agency is heavily influenced by those people, their work and personalities.

While the trend has turned away from putting names on the door, an agency's culture is still influenced by the strong personalities that are running it. Think about some of the names agencies have chosen to call themselves. Today, many agencies are named specifically for a core agency value.

David & Goliath, Mother, The Barbarian Group, Sideways are just a few agency names that place a stake in their beliefs and values on their agency name.

Agencies can be fun places to work in, but they can also be influenced by the ebbs and flows of strong personalities. Each agency has its own quirks, of what is and what is not acceptable behavior. It goes with the territory. Big agencies may be more evenly keeled, but more political. Smaller agencies tend to have more swings, but you may get to have more input. There are pros and cons to every agency. Some creative leaders tend to be a little nutty, hard to fathom at times and tend to lead by their own uniqueness. Sometimes you work for someone and they become life long mentors and friends, and sometimes you find yourself working for some hard ass people.

Realities of a bad fit.

Every agency will tell you that they have a "no a--holes" policy when it comes to hiring. However, agencies are businesses and will hire people who have great portfolios, or great new business connections and look the other way at times in regarding cultural fit. All I can say is, get use to working with all types of people.

Even nice people can get stressed at times, and agency life can be very stressful. More than likely you will work for several agencies in your career and you may encounter the same people again down the road. So be mindful, you don't have to kiss butt, but you may have to work with them again. Chances are new hires made that can't adapt to the agency culture will leave.

And yes the a--holes do exist (no matter the stated culture of the agency). But fear not, for there are all sorts of interesting leaders out there that you may work for one day, talented jerks, nice guys but  hacks, brilliant but crappy managers, strategic geniuses without a creative bone, and then there are some really truly gifted creative leaders out there that you'll never forget. (Hey, even talented jerks make you work better sometimes.) The one thing I will always remember is that I've worked for some great people in my time, that motivated that crap out of me.

Why we need strong personalities in advertising.

Here's my perspective, creative leaders who can get clients and brands to take major cultural shifts in messaging need to have very persuasive personalities. In order to convince a brand that they need to develop and execute communication that incites conversation, provokes a strong response and forces competitors to react takes some pretty strong leadership. And that leadership style spills over into managing and leading on the inward agency side and helps to create an agency's culture.

The divide — you can't have a values-based organization without values-driven leadership.

This is where many agencies struggle — strong personalities may not have the personal characteristics that are required to build a value-driven agency. In order for creativity to thrive in a collaborative team-based fashion, the organization needs to embrace cultural values that often run counter to the values of these individuals.

As an agency leader, the take-away is this, while your own intentions and personal values are important, what's just as important is the cultural system you develop so that the organization as a whole can be resilient, sustainable and kick-ass. Being a leader who is value-based is hard if you don't have it in you. It requires that you know yourself, and that you are self aware when leading and interacting with others. It requires having the ability to be emphatic, that you value different viewpoints, and can see things from multiple perspectives. It means knowing your strengths, and having the self-confidence to accept what they are. It also means treating everyone with respect.

When you are busy and stressed, I know it requires an extra effort to be in the moment and focus on being the leader the organization needs, and the leader you would like to be. This is why it helps to build out a system to support your intended culture.


Values are at the core of building an effective culture. Values are what your organization considers most important. Earlier, I mentioned how easy it is to spot the cultural cues in an organization. If you step back and just watch the way people work, their behaviors — how they run a meeting, how they collaborate (or don't) — you can start to get an idea of how they make decisions. Values drive decision making and how people behave. Think about a time in your organization when your team was working well, where everyone pulled together and had fun (yes, fun) doing it? What were the reasons why? How was the team aligned with each other? What behaviors did they exhibit? 


Different teams can often display different sets of values. While there may be one culture that is sought after in an agency, individual teams in the same organization can display different sets of values, creating organizational subcultures. 

Teams depend more on human dynamics not predefined structures.

A healthy project culture or efficient working climate is when everyone on the team embodies a similar set of beliefs and principals. You may have noticed this in your own organization. You have a standard of process, but wildly different teams. Set common expectations for how people are going to work together, and understand that when you develop new teams it takes a while for people to gain trust. To be a real "team" and not just a bunch of people working in a group, a team must exhibit a minimum set of behaviors, such as co-operation, information sharing and team work, which is built on a foundation of shared vision, values and positive relationship qualities. There is an element of bonding within a team, both on a rational dimension and an emotional plane. If the team isn't functioning properly, it can be directly related back to a mismatched set of values between team members.


Rituals are ways organizations can build understanding of organizational values through real experiences. Agency's are known for having parties, and doing some whacky things that can be pretty memorable. There is one creative agency that won't be named, but was known for when a person was permanently leaving the agency, they would gather at the door, and they would say goodbyes, and everyone in the agency would start clapping as they left. It could be pretty emotional for people, but it was ritual based on a value the agency had.

Ritual's don't have to cost a lot of money or time. They can be almost anything that creates a shared experience that supports one of the organizations core values. These shared experiences, in organizations are a lot more effective than any mission statement written and framed on the wall.

Tribal Storytelling

I was very fortunate, early in my career to work for George Lois. Certainly, George could be very controversial at times. However, he was one of the best storytellers I ever met in my life. When George was telling a story, a random group would often gather, we would be enraptured. I remember every story he told. They defined George's view of the world. You understood where he was coming from, his values and the message he was trying to get across. It was consistent.

In creative land, we are natural storytellers. Storytelling is how we can share positive stories of core values in action. We do it for our clients, we can do internally. We also know that the more a story is shared, the deeper the understanding about what you are about becomes. 

Storytelling can also go the other way — we all know how fast rumors can spread. A negative story can kill motivation and build internal politics lightening fast. So we have to be very mindful to make sure we head off bad gossip.  


Cultural mismatches happen — in agency leadership and in our best hires. Too many times, our stated culture does not reflect reality. Not every individual in organization is going to embody every organizational value. 

However, nothing kills an organizations culture more than having someone in the agency that isn't living by your core values. You cannot build a consistent set of core values in an organization if you are tolerating behavior that is not in alignment.

I'm not saying everyone has to drink the kook-aid. You need diversity in thinking in your agency. As a leader it is very important to be consistent. If someone isn't right, or being an asshole, they should be gone. No ifs, ands or buts. Core values should exist for the lifetime of your organization. They should be able to guide you through every decision. 

Agency Environment - 101 

The hours.
We all work long hours, evenings and weekends in advertising. You will get calls on your days off and will have to check in on vacation. The quality of your life while working in an agency is typically directly related to your own mental outlook and how much you are able to set boundaries. Expect to stay late for pitches and important presentations. Typically, suits come in earlier than creatives, but creatives may stay later. Some agencies are ok with teams working "off-site" some are not. Some agencies are good about work / life balance and some of them are not.

Nothing can tell you more about how an agency's value people than by how they treat their employee's time. Watch for how the organization values their employees productivity, physical and mental well-being. 

Things that are cool about working in an agency.
In general, you often get to work in pretty cool environments and office spaces. You get to work on cool stuff (generally) as well. Dress codes are typically lax, even when you are a "suit," and especially in Movember. Typically there may be a lot of younger people around and that means built in social groups and cliques. Expect to go to some cool parties and expect to be hungover at some point. 

Table Tennis, the Playstation and other sports
Yes, some agencies have table tennis in the office, and all sorts of stuff to make the place seem cooler. (Did you know that studies have been done that show table tennis in the office place actually increase office productivity?) However, more than likely not everyone takes advantage of it and the rest of the toys around the office. Lots of agencies have intramural teams (or ping-pong, softball or bowling teams). It is a sad day, when the table tennis table starts getting used just for trimming layouts or eating lunch.  

However, an easy way of building rituals into culture in an agency is around the stuff that you can bring in or do around the office. The agency physical environment can be used extensively. If you have a lot of people riding bikes to the office, make a space. If you have an open office plan, create spaces that people can use for quiet areas or informal gatherings.

If you find yourself working with someone who has a willingness to share their experiences, take advantage of it. Learn all you can, no ad school in the world will teach you better than actively working under a great mentor. 

If you have worked in an agency, you may have started out as an intern. Some intern basics, you may/may not get paid, do expect to be at the agency long hours and work hard. (Make connections while you are there, you may need to be proactive in very creative ways.) An internship is what you make of it. The experience you gain is invaluable, and it may lead to a permanent position down the road. When you are working as an intern, people are looking at you to see how you would work as an employee. Don't goof off and remember the Starbucks order. (Hey, I was a managing director, and sometimes I took out the trash!) You will be asked to do a variety of things, no matter what your background, but you may also get to work on things that are pretty darn cool as well. 

Functional vs Team Management
You will probably report to a department head, but more than likely you will also be part of a cross-functional team as well. Functional management is where you are an account executive and report into a head of account services. A cross-functional team means that you are part of a team that works on a specific project or agency client and the team is made up of many different disciplines. Teams come and go regularly in an agency. You will work with all types of people, so it can be helpful to learn how your personality jells with others. You will have many people that you report to for different reasons at an ad agency, your immediate boss, the head honchos, your ECD and your project managers. At the same time, you may also have a very flat structure in your work environment, where everyone is expected to contribute and be responsible for their work.

What is it with these time-sheets?
While not unique to the workplace, expect to do them and get badgered to complete them if you don't. Do them, and the ADHD people in accounting will stop bothering you and your boss wouldn't have to hound you. For the most part, the biggest part flaw in the agency world is that we still bill for time by the hour. However, doing your timesheet accurately really helps. Project managers and producers in the agency kind of rely on these things to estimate and create real world schedules, oh and charge the cleint for stuff. 

Sudden in-flux of new employees
Ok this can mean a few things.
Don't worry, they are only there for pitch time, they are paid extras, they'll be gone by morning. Don't worry, you won an account and are staffing up. Worry, someone in broadcast overheard the word "restructuring" on "merger" on set.

Sudden out-flux of employees
Don't worry, everyone is at the bar, fueled by the agency's credit card.
Don't worry, it's the holidays.
Don't worry, someone said something about free food.
Worry, it means you lost a client, or in the case of a holding company, it's the end of the fiscal year.

Free food
I've known interns who survived solely on left-over client meeting catering while working an unpaid internship. 
Tips for scoring free food in the agency;
- Don't touch the food prior to the clients arriving. It is frowned upon.
- Best way to score, have a desk near the main conference room door or be in the kitchen area to keep watch to see when the meeting ends.
- Study the times when the interns are picking up food.
- Signing a group birthday, announcement or retirement card is a sign of impending food, specialty cupcakes or cronuts. 
- Stay after 8:30 p.m., most agencies have a policy so you can charge back for food (if you are honestly working).
- Broadcast shoots always have better craft service then print shoots.
- See "Free Beer," since there is usually snacks where there is beer.

Free Beer
Tips for scoring free beer in the agency;
- Working for an agency that has a beer account may limit the brands of beer in the fridge.
- Unless the boss is drinking with you, don't touch the beer in the fridge before 3:00 in the afternoon. 
- "Beer O'clock" is a common agency term.
- It's Friday afternoon.
- Make your boss go out with the group.

Article originally written in 2012, revised in January 2015.