The Invisible Hand of Agency Culture

How to Pick the Winners

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the grand scheme of agency culture, but I still don't think I've answered my one big question: All things being equal, why does a talented person choose to work at one agency over another? Even more important, why do they stay? If you're a small or midsize agency, you've got to be able to answer this question if you want to create an environment that attracts great talent.

There are the top-level answers that we'd all agree upon. People choose an agency for location, size, reputation, good accounts, opportunity, specific people they like. They all sound like excellent reasons to work somewhere. But none of them defines what the work experience will be like and whether people will be happy. Given two agencies that stack up on every other attribute, what makes one agency a more appealing culture? And how do you know it when you see it?

I've got a personal agenda here. Increasingly, we find ourselves in competition for people who can choose between any number of good agencies. I know that we're not the only game in town, and often we're recruiting people to help us create a future that they cannot see today. Sometimes we're stretching to attract people who might not immediately think to join a 60-person independent agency. We're also trying to recruit people with digital credentials that might naturally gravitate to a purely digital shop. Regardless of the job title that we want to hire, I'm convinced that the impression people form of the culture is a big factor in whether they say yes or no to an offer.

As I said in an earlier post, culture goes deeper than the shiny objects that you see when you walk through the front doors. The best parts may be invisible. That's why it's essential that you be able to define your culture so that you can sell it to people. On the flip side, if you're evaluating an agency, you should know how to spot the true signs of the culture and not get taken in by the free donuts.

While there may be dozens of attributes that help shape a culture, there are three areas that I believe give you an accurate indication of whether an agency will be a good place to work and whether it has the characteristics to hold on to good people.

Take a close look at the commitment to agency infrastructure. It starts with the physical infrastructure and extends to communication systems. It then goes deeper to include financial management systems, quality control, and production processes. Management should be relentless in showing both clients and staff that the agency is committed to the highest standards, and will go to extraordinary lengths to make it easier for people to do good work without a lot of hassles. It's a waste to put big LCD screens in the lobby if you don't also have adequate Internet bandwidth and the most up-to-date laptops for your creative staff. The hardest working people in the world become demoralized when they need to use their energy to compensate for inferior tools and systems.

Look for signs that the agency has the capacity to grow and reinvent itself. Agencies love to dream of glory. All that creative imagination makes them susceptible to occasional self-delusion. The path to all good things -- whether it is accounts, awards, or riches -- is the willingness to change. The only way to go beyond the limits of today is to become skilled at reinventing yourself. In this case, talk is cheap. Look for tangible evidence that an agency is a learning culture where everyone pushes them self to master the defining technologies of the day, the latest business theory, and the shifts taking pace in communications behavior. An agency that waits until it's safe to hop on the bandwagon is already out of the medal category.

Maybe the best clues of the culture will come from the agency leadership, most importantly the President and the CEO. When sizing up the people at the top, we often focus on qualities like nice person, demanding but fair, and miss the more important attributes that shape an organization. From all the agency principals that I've met, and from all the agencies that I admire, I've noted one common trait among the top dogs. They love the business. You can see it in a passion for craftsmanship, a joy in the process of creating work that inspires, and an intellectual curiosity about solving business problems. When you've got that energy and passion behind the day-to day decisions, you'll always find a lot to like in the culture, whether you can see it or not.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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