Elemental Thinking: What's Your Squish?

The Quirks Are What Give Small Agencies Their Culture

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Jennifer Patterson Jennifer Patterson
Since this is the Small Agency Diary and I have yet to post anything truly small-agency related, this week I thought I'd take a stab.

There was a time at the agency when the floor squished as you walked from reception into the kitchen. The squish eventually migrated from reception to one of the offices and soon became a sort of character in the office. People would come in and ask "What's the squish-factor today?"

When the squish was vacuumed out, we lost more than a water-logged floor. We lost a part of our culture.

This sounds absurd, but anyone who works at a small agency will know this to be true. At a small agency, we're used to communing with the elements. Those little inconveniences are part of day-to-day work life. At a large agency, these inconveniences are efficiently handled -- there are plans, there is a person whose job it is to deal with the squish. At a small agency, you just keep squishing along.

We never really mentioned the squish to outsiders. After all, no client wants to hire a (literally or figuratively) sinking agency.

But I am here to say the squish is worth something.

Small-agency culture is all about creativity and spontaneity. On a given day you deal with the highest altitude issues of client's brand and business and the lowest altitude issues like what kind of coffee to buy. But getting your hands dirty with the in's and out's of your own business is a great reminder that your client's business is also about the elements.

A few years ago (in my big agency days), I worked with Starbucks.

One of Starbucks' introductory practices is that every new employee has to work at a store for a week. This means pulling espresso, steaming milk, sweeping floors, putting out the trash.

The idea was that everyone -- from the CFO to the junior marketing assistant -- gets a sense for the what this big company was really about: the myriad of little things that go into making a successful one-to-one exchange of a cup of coffee.

The best thing about this trial by hot-milk steamer was the culture of stories built from these experiences. Everyone had experienced a challenging client, a complex order or a valiant moment when a barista went above and beyond. When you've been in the trenches, it's easier to keep that experience top of mind.

(Hearing these glowing accounts, there was also irony: each of these success stories had resulted from the very thing Starbucks was trying to combat -- exposing consumers to the elements. While efficiency and scale means faster coffee, it also means a narrower window of opportunity for these human exchanges. Interesting that in these darker, lower-stock-price and no-more-breakfast-sandwich days for the brand the pendulum seems to have swung back to the human touch.)

As a lesser-known agency, we're always jockeying to differentiate ourselves, to stand out in the crowd. We used to talk about the stuff everyone else does: Here's what makes a strong brand. Here's how we've made strong brands.

Now, we try to talk about the squish. Not the wet floor per se, but rather those small elemental things and experiences that make our agency unique. Those moments of humanity that truly represent our culture and have created a strong, coherent team.
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