In the dystopian fiction of Brave New World, Soma is the drug that keeps the masses happy and relaxed when really, they should be questioning everything and rioting in the streets. “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects,” as Aldous Huxley wrote.
In our twisted reality, we call that "agency culture".
And it works the same way. But it’s not one little pill, it’s a whole host of rituals and totems.
It could be a cult of charismatic personality preaching from the top down, or an invitation to the cooler bar with the "in crew". Maybe it’s your boss' card behind the bar every week till the small hours, or a franchised barista, fuzzball, pool tables, Google-style sleep pods, fist-pumping townhalls, wine from a certain terroir to celebrate a win, or an agency chef (yes, really).
I’ve even seen a full-size antique boxing ring... with matching gloves.
I once heard an HR bloke bragging that if you put better biscuits in the staff kitchen, then you don’t have to hand out bonuses. It’s all just a series of behavioural nudges.
That’s not agency culture... it’s Kool-Aid.
And we’ve all seen what happens when it runs out.
Without it, you start to see the cracks and notice the imperfections pretty damn quickly. And then you can’t "unsee" them.
You question things: "Why do we have to work through the weekend again exactly?"; "Why do I feel guilty when I leave at 7?"; "Why is he on more money than me?"; "Why haven’t I had a pay rise in three years?"; "Why does he give all the good briefs to them?". I could go on (so could you).
But instead, you’ve started "The Great Resignation". Covid’s thrown so much into stark focus hasn’t it?
But hey. That’s why they want you back. While you’ve been home, you’ve not been taking your "Soma". You’ve rediscovered your family, your pets, your food, your environment, your health (and how to look after them all).
You’ve rediscovered that you quite like yourself and your own company. You’ve rediscovered your own culture, not their approximation of it.
Your family, your friends, your life, where you’re from and where you want to be… the stuff that really matters. And it isn’t another "all nighter" and then straight on into the pitch meeting.
In fact, they want you back so bad that one network has said you can work from anywhere in the world for six weeks.
Hang on – why six weeks? Surely if six weeks can work, so can six months or six years?
Is someone sitting on a bit of insight that the idea of distributed working is more appealing than the reality? Are they trying to let you scratch that itch? Speaking as a curator of a distributed global network, I have to tell you a whole lot of them really won’t come back. I mean why would you? The world has changed. You can work from anywhere. And they will love it. Yes, we all need people, and the theatre, and pubs and restaurants and life... but on our terms.
The key is to flip the pyramid. Culture has to flow from your people, not be imposed by the few from above.
That was true before the virus, and it’s even more so now.
Listen... really listen to them and build something that works for everyone, not just a few alphas who don’t have a home or a family to go to.
There is that horrible, unspoken rule in some agencies where you almost have to break yourself on the wheel to pass some form of bullshit initiation ritual. To prove yourself. Dear god, let’s leave that behind with the virus, shall we?
The answer is kindness and compassion. With our talent, we co-created the model and culture I believe our industry actually needs. In order to blend into the lives of the massed creative diaspora, we built the model around a tech stack that allows people to work from wherever and whenever they want. Forever.
We created an invitation-only, curated guild of the best independent creatives and strategists in the world. We have no buildings. No baristas. No beanbags. Just a renewed focus on ideas. Switching from full-time to freelance, from shackled to a desk to liberated and spread across the world, we’ve enabled a unique culture to flourish.
You can call it culture if you like. But it’s more like common sense. We pride ourselves on the joy of "we". We’re proud of being a progressive assembly of talent that strives simultaneously to write both history and the future. Yes, we’re disruptive, hungry and relentless but we’re also kind. We’re always kind. That’s our Soma. It should be yours.
Jon Williams is chief executive of The Liberty Guild