Mike Fromowitz
May 17, 2013

Growing and nurturing an ad agency culture

In order for ad agencies to stay relevant, they must embrace, grow and feed a unique agency “Culture”.

Growing and nurturing an ad agency culture

Why do I believe this?

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but more and more creative reviews conducted by global brands no longer hinge on creative or strategic ideas alone. It seems the main criteria are efficiencies, price and resources. In other words, the single biggest differentiator among agencies—the creative ideas they conjure up—do not drive the decision.

As technological advances and Digital media massively impacts how we think and work, the advertising world as we use to know is changing fast too. More and more, we are dealing with products and services that are “commodities”.

Ad agencies are “commodities” too. But you don't have to be.

Regrettably, many marketers see ad agencies as “commodities” too, delivering much the same services. Of course, I believe what separates one agency from another is “creativity”. And some are much better at it than others—the reason why some agencies are more successful too. I think ad agencies with a “creative” culture have a greater chance to differentiate themselves and to succeed in today’s highly commoditized and competitive marketplace.

There are several reasons why an understanding of organizational culture is an imperative if ad agencies wish to compete successfully and thrive. A distinctive culture is probably the most powerful way for an agency to establish a "chemistry" and show its real point of difference.

As advertisers seek potential agency partners, they look for one that stands out from the pack. Many clients consider "chemistry" to be essential component in the new partnership. How well an agency articulates its culture is a source of competitive advantage.  An agency's differentiation is often grounded in its vision, creativity and its values. Knowing who you are and what is important to you and to the clients you want to work with, is fundamental to an agency of any size to effectively solicit and win new business.

The best talent seeks an agency with a unique culture

One thing is certain, the very best talent is always attracted to agencies with the best culture. Over the years I have noted that agency talent bases their perception two things: the quality of the work, and the agency culture. I'm convinced that the impression people form of the culture of an agency is a big factor in whether they say “yes” or “no” to a job offer. Most would rather work in an agency that feels contemporary and fun, rather than one that does dull work, and feels like a sweatshop. Culture goes deeper than the furniture and awards you may see when you walk through the front doors.  That's why it's essential that you be able to define your culture so that you can sell it to people.

The most successful agencies have a defined culture: Ogilvy, TBWA, Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein and Partners, and BBH. Those are some of the names that often come up time and again in conversation with talent. From many of the agency principals that I've met, including the agencies that I admire, they exude a common trait. They love the business they are in, and they love their ad agency. You can see it in their passion to create great work that inspires, and in their intellectual curiosity to solve business problems. When you've got that energy and passion in an agency, you will find a lot to like in the culture, whether you can see it or not.

I’ve always believed that ad agencies can be more successful too with the right company culture. In an agency has a vibrant, fun and collaborative culture,  great creative ideas are more likely to happen. When an agency’s culture puts emphasis on team achievement and pride in individual accomplishments there’s a greater chance for success.

The right company culture recognizes the importance of its employees to the economic health of the agency. To attract and retain creative people, the agency needs to foster its culture each and every day. It never ends. And if you are management, you have to keep your eye on it. As we often say, advertising is all about people and accounts. David Ogilvy wrote, "The assets go up and down in our elevator every day." It is so true.

Culture overcomes negative forces of commodification

As I see it, the basic role of culture in an ad agency is to fight the negative forces of commodification. Agencies have got to differentiate themselves to keep competitive. Never has it been more important for ad agencies to deeply consider their “Culture” as a point of difference, and a way to create an environment where agency people can thrive.

Organizational culture is a powerful influence critical to fulfilling an agency’s purpose. Culture is constructed by the use of symbols, rituals, stories, beliefs, values, context, point of difference, membership and perspectives of the organization.

A strong agency culture improves performance. It appeals to employees' higher ideals and values. It helps them to unite around a set of meaningful, unified goals.

According to Gallup, top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a leading indicator of financial performance. Studies, such as those done by Gallup show that engaged organizations have 3.9 times the earnings per share growth rate compared to organizations with lower engagement in their same industry.

By establishing an agency culture, company leaders can more easily realize the agency’s new business agenda, create sustained competitive advantage and increase their own agency-brand value.

Culture enables better business decisions

When an organization is able to articulate its unique and aspired agency culture, and build it into their DNA, company leaders can make far better business decisions regarding employees, new business, and clients. Culture also means having performance-management systems in place to reward attitude and actions that reflect the agency’s desired cultural values and integrity.

Despite the rapid changes in our industry that I spoke of earlier,  creating an agency “culture” can have huge impact on differentiation. However, even in this highly commoditized environment,  the advertising-agency value proposition remains deceptively simple. Clients will pay for  business ideas that are of monetary value to them. The best clients know the true value of creativity, and they are the ones who will pay for genius, and the skill sets that ad agencies use to bring ideas to life. Luckily for us, clients do not produce creativity within the confines of their own organizations, though there are some trying to do just that. I can assure you, the work is uninspiring, mostly because they demand and value consistency and stability from their in-house agencies.

Experience has taught me that cultural environments are critical to ad agencies.  I believe agency culture will be the ultimate business strategy that propels our industry forward. By adopting an agency culture of creativity in all things, I also believe agencies can regain the respect from clients that our industry seems to be losing.

Here are some things your agency can do to foster its culture:

1. Set a Clear Vision
It’s easier for people to understand and relate to a company with a simple, single-minded vision. Agency leadership needs to continue to reinforce the importance of that vision. If your team doesn’t know where it’s headed, don’t act surprised when they end up at the wrong place.

2. Create a Newsletter
When I worked at The Ball Partnership, Bates, and TBWA, we put together an agency newsletter (also an e-newsletter) that contained the best of our work, case studies, agency staff interviews, trend reports and more from our various regional offices and beyond. Contributions came from anyone on staff. We started the newsletter to stay top-of-mind with clients, prospects, media and with our own staff.

3. Hold Conferences
We created some “away-days” and held agency management conferences. They were opportunities for our key staff from around the region to gather and discuss the unique challenges each agency faced in their market. The events also covered topics such as talent, new business, creativity, managing the businesses, case studies, emerging technologies and other relevant topics.

4. Reward Loyalty
                                                                                                                                         Your agency should recognize and reward staff who meet or exceed the company’s expectations. A loyalty program helps to motivate and engage employees-but of course, it also is meant to improve your bottom line in measurable ways.  It boosts employee retention,  encourages performance improvement, and more.  One of my former agencies, granted a $5,000 bonus toward a vacation anywhere in the world to longtime staffers who worked at the agency for 10 years. Before the person embarked on their trip, their agency office gathered to hear about the itinerary and bid their colleague a safe and fun voyage.

5. Be Open to Change
An agency needs to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Things change so fast today. If we need to know exactly where things are going to be tomorrow we are just fooling ourselves.  The only constant is the pace of change and we need to get comfortable with it. You don’t get better by staying the same. You get better by doing something different. By trying new things. By pushing out of your comfort zone. To grow an agency culture you have to remove the fear of failure. You have to encourage your team to talk openly about failure in an environment where you don't point fingers, but rather learn from our mistakes.

6. Be Well Mannered
David Ogilvy liked people with “gentle manners”, people who displayed “professionalism combined with civility” in their relationships with other colleagues. Agency culture grows when everyone is both encouraging and challenging—but challenging.  "Hey, I think you dropped the ball today, because....”,  or “Great job on that client presentation” are both fair and good feedback if your intention is to help.  
7. Giving Back                                                                                                                                                     
It’s amazing how an agency’s culture can be stimulated by its staff giving back to society for the greater good. By adopting some pro-bono projects, staffers work to promote awareness of pressing issues and causes that are dear to them. For example, at Mantra Partners, we took on a project for the homeless in the United States (Coalition for the Homeless). It included a get-out-the-vote initiative. The campaign helped the coalition target politicians to legislate more money to build housing for the homeless. Projects like these bring staff together under causes that make them feel good for giving something back to society.

8. Half-Days on Fridays
At BBDO New York, the agency allowed its staff to take half-days on Fridays throughout the hot summer months. I liked this idea, and took it with me to another agency, but with an alternative approach, setting up an opportunity for interested staff to participate in a series of workshops about technology and innovation,  or to speak about some of the latest technologies or ad campaigns they’ve seen and admired.

9. The Right People
By hiring people who naturally treat others like they want to be treated, helps to build a great agency culture.  Of his agency Ogilvy & Mather, David Ogilvy said: “We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble—with their jobs, with illnesses, with alcoholism, and so on”.

10. Be Compatible
Despite a desire to be active in engaging with marquee brands and winning new client business, agencies should target clients with which they have some degree of cultural compatibility and values. The simple truth is that many clients seek comfort in a harmonious relationships with their agency when the world at large seems brutal. And conversely, people are incrementally stressed by relationships that do not work.  

11. Improve Staff Skills
By allocating a small budget toward staff taking a class in a discipline or subject that's not linked to advertising or marketing,  I believe ad agencies have much to gain. Staff are encouraged to acquire a skill they don't already have. This could be anything from a photography course, acting classes, book-writing course, or presentation skills course. It’s amazing how you can nurture your people by encouraging them to develop personally and not just professionally.

12. Staff Swap                                                                                                                                                     At Bates Asia we started a program that gave our people across Asia the chance to work for one month in one of our other regional offices. By swapping staff, this inspired them to meet other colleagues and learn about our other offices in uniquely different markets. There was one requirement. You had to write an article in the company newsletter about your experiences so the whole agency could learn from it.

13. Agency Days
                                                                                                                                      Consider holding “Agency Days” where you hold a full-day meeting (twice a year). At Batey Ads, these meetings became an agency pep-rally to bring together staff from all disciplines in the office, to briefly celebrate our successes, to see the agency’s work, and more importantly, to leave everyone with a clear sense of the agency's vision and mission, and how they are integral in the agency’s success. On Agency Days management should openly discusses new-business prospects, financials, agency challenges and opportunities,  and more.

14. Invited Guests
At The Ball Partnership we invited guest speakers to attend our conferences. At Batey Ads we invited guest speakers into the agency during lunch hours to inspire staff. Topics included Branding, Art and Culture, Great Movies, Multi-Media, Music, you name it.

15. Pride in The Work
The best agencies take pride in their creative work. They grow their ‘creative’ culture, it helps to get recognition from your peers. What we’ve always done at my agencies is reward our people by printing our best work on large format lithographic paper. We then distributed copies to all those that worked on the campaign (for their portfolios of course) and also sent samples of them to our other regional offices so that they were informed of our best work. Of course we sent them to our clients too to show them how proud we were of the ideas and the work we did for them. Each and every year, we also produced books of our best work. The books made some of our peers jealous.

16. Agency Environment
The agency’s office environment is also key to its culture. Office design says a lot about the way an agency thinks and feels. One agency I know of in California is housed in a refurbished movie theater — just steps from ocean. It contains a basketball court, ping-pong, billiards and foosball tables, an outdoor terrace with a garden and an entire room devoted to storing surfboards. To encourage creativity, the agency also hosts a gallery event to showcase employees’ recreational art projects. The office should also be place clients want to come visit. It’s far better when clients say, "I'd rather meet at your place." This is a sign that you have something special here, and that they appreciate the energy and welcoming environment.

17. Be Open
As part of his agency culture, David Ogilvy said, “The way up the ladder is open to everybody. We are free from prejudice of any kind—religious prejudice, racial prejudice or sexual prejudice. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their characters as by anything else.

18. Be Resilient
One of the fundamental strengths of creative people is their ability to spring back when their good ideas die. The agency business has never been easy, and today more than ever, an agency culture needs to be resilient. The pendulum often swings up and down. Invariably, there are times when things go beyond your control, and you need to stand firm and say, "We're going to get through this." And which agency doesn’t lose clients along the way? Strong agency cultures don't let cynicism and paranoia take hold. They go on to fight another day. They can see the next great client is right around the corner.

Agencies that have developed a unique brand culture have an easier time winning new business. Why? Because clients take notice of an agencies culture. They feel it when they walk in the door. They can tell whether or not your agency has lots of energy, is collaborative, has close working relationships, enjoys all things creative and a desire to have fun while doing what you love.

That's what culture looks like.


Mike Fromowitz


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