The Importance of Developing an Organizational Culture

Why Developing an Agency Culture is Important

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 we try so hard to show how we work?

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 cannot 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.

On a positive note, as agencies mature, culture shifts can happen that make for 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 cultural 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 big 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 of support.

Agency Values.

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?

Teams and Values

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.

Agency Rituals

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 also one of the best storytellers I ever met in my life. When George was telling a story, a random group would often gather and we would be enraptured. To this day, 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. Both internally and externally everyone knew what they would expect from George’s agency.

In creative land, we are natural storytellers. Storytelling is how we can share positive stories of our 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. 

Alignment - Creating a Culture not a Cult.

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 the organization is going to embody every organizational value.

However, nothing kills an organizations culture more than having someone in the agency that works opposite to 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 and will want diversity in thinking in your agency. As a leader it is very important to be consistent, and that goes for developing your culture. If someone isn’t right, or being an ass-hole, they should be gone. No if’s, ands or buts. Core values are ones that should exist for the lifetime of your organization. They should be able to guide you through every decision and help your organization grow.

Now Breathe.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” - Lao-Tzu

I’m going to share something with you that is very important. No matter how much structure, process or cultural building that you create, no matter how many good habits you build, there will always be things you cannot control. No one will ever have the exact same set of values as you. 

When people run counter to your values in the way they work it can brew trouble. Values are a product of the whole person. As people bring with them their whole self, and not just a work persona — not everyone is going to be a perfect match or be able to follow every value or rule that’s in place. Projects will go wrong, clients will act unethically, people do stupid things. Shit happens.

We cannot control every situation, we cannot prevent problems from happening, no matter how much we prepare, and if we let these situations control us, they can be a huge source of anger, frustration and stress.

We have to learn to go with the flow. 

When things go wrong on a values level that do not match up with your beliefs, it can hurt deeply. You can choose to get angry, you can choose to be disappointed. But you need to stay centered and direct your energy so that you can reset the situation. As an agency owner, team or project leader these are the times where people need you to be a rock.

Realize that you can’t control everything. What learned very early in my career was to maintain perspective.

I grew up in production, where everyday I would have people coming to me with end of the world, fire, hail and brimstone emergencies. Or at least that’s how they perceived them. From their perspective, I’m sure it felt like it. What they didn’t know was that they weren’t the first to come to me that day with a crazy emergency, and they wouldn’t be the last.

I think my calmness in these situations was a bit unsettling to them. One of the things that experienced people learn in the work environment is that change is inevitable. Things don’t always go perfectly. 

As a manager and a leader, I need to be clear headed. Me getting pissed off as well would do no good. If I can diffuse the panic, then I can get to understand the problem and help the person work through it. It’s not that I was there to solve the emergency for them, I was there to help them change their mental state and provide them with possible strategies they could apply to the situation so they could solve the problem on their own.

At the end of the day we make stuff that people are going to see, use , touch and react to, and now through social media, we can get almost instantaneous feedback. How cool is that?

We don’t always see the beauty, because we let things effect us, instead of us effecting it. You have an opportunity to change that. As a leader this is the real value that you can bring to the table, to shape your team and your company.