How Do You Foster Community Within Agencies?

Agencies Big and Small Struggle to Connect the Accounts

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Alex Kniess Alex Kniess
At the University of Oregon, the directors of Allen Hall Advertising are taking a very hard look at our humble student-run advertising agency. We are reevaluating every aspect of what we do, tearing it all down and making it purposeful. Of the many things we have debated and struggled with, there is one aspect of our agency that seems to be the most important, an aspect that seems also to be the key to unlocking all of the rest of the wonderful things we would like to do and become. The elusive bit I refer to is community. More specifically, how we as a small agency can build our community across accounts, disciplines and personalities.

When I wrote earlier about leveraging the intellectual capital that is abundant in every agency for thought leadership, I neglected to elaborate on how to do this. That's because I'm not going to pretend to know how to do this (that's what this post is about), but I do believe that in order for this to happen there needs to be a strong foundation of agency community. I've noticed in many agencies, including AHA, that the accounts are segregated and that it's normal for there to exist a strong bond within these relatively small groups. But how do you extend this bond beyond each account? How do you create a thriving agency community that can be nimbly leveraged for change?

I recently learned that Wieden & Kennedy physically segregates their people based on their respective accounts, regardless of their discipline. In contrast, when I interned at BBH this summer, I sat with the other new-business people, and the segregation by account was only for the account people while the creatives each had their own glass cube scattered throughout the office.

I've noticed that this physical configuration certainly has an effect on collaboration and community. When I visited W&K, they spoke passionately about collaboration across disciplines in a true creative strategist model. They also claimed profusely that the best part of working at W&K was the people. BBH certainly had collaboration too, but it was often between people of your same discipline as a result of the physical configuration.

It's unclear which model is better or which fosters stronger community within accounts versus within the entire agency. So how do agencies connect accounts that often have very different people working within very different client industries?

At AHA we are starting small, with bonding activities and weekly meetings that encourage feedback across accounts. Yet the sense of community we experience within our agency lags far behind that of each of our accounts. If we could somehow match the two, then there would be more respect, collaboration, pride and enjoyment in what we all do. Maybe there is a way to systematically shuffle talent? Something like this may be possible in a small agency like AHA, but it's still not the most efficient way.

So how do the big players tackle the issue of community? What can we smaller agencies learn, or maybe, what can the big players learn from us?