Culture Shock: Defining Moments in an Agency's History

It's Not What Your Office Looks Like; It's What's Inside That Counts

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
You couldn't ask for a better drama than the Zappos agency review. Among other things, it really underscored the importance of culture, for both agency and client. In the end, Zappos announced that Boston agency Mullen "clinched the deal because it simply understood the culture better than the other agencies." I'm cheering because Zappos chose a hometown team, and as much as I like to rag on big agencies, Mullen's culture and business strategy seemed to fall into perfect alignment with Zappos. All this news got me wondering about agency "culture" and what it really means. That word gets tossed around quite a bit and is probably misused just as often.

A lot of the qualities that we call culture are really just the retail experience that we create for other people. Think about what you observe walking into your favorite agency. The physical space screams creativity. You encounter smart, genuine people who obviously like each other. You can feel the energy of small groups collaborating all around you. It's easy to get seduced by the music and sense of fun and the kitchens full of sodas and cutting-edge snacks. You know that management has worked hard to create an innovative work environment, and that they treat their staff with respect.

It's all window dressing.

These impressions may shape your opinion of the culture, but they don't answer the big questions. How are we going to treat people? How far will we go for our clients? What will we do in order to win? How do we resolve conflict? Where do you find the balance between being nice and being great? How much crap are we willing to take? What's the agency's responsibility to society?

The answers to those questions tell you more about the culture of an agency than any of the shiny surfaces. They provide the operating instructions that determine how an agency responds to every situation and where the lines get drawn at decisive moments. To discover that knowledge you need to look into the history of an agency and identify those critical moments when someone made a decision that shaped how people will behave, what they believe, and where they will or will not compromise. In every agency's life, there are a handful of those big moments, and they're seldom the easy ones.

I've tried to remember some of the defining moments, good and bad, that determined the culture of PJA. I'm sure there are dozens, but here are a few that stand out.

In the earliest days of the agency, I hired people based on talent without much thought about personality fit or behavior. I can't say I'm proud of this fact, but at one point interpersonal conflicts caused the agency to spin out of control. It became very hard to move forward, and I was too young and too stupid to figure out how to fix the situation. After some soul searching, I came to work one morning and asked two of the most talented people in the agency to leave. It took me three months to stabilize the organization, but I'm convinced that at that moment I introduced the culture of respect and collaboration we have today.

At another point, during one of the last market downturns, I could feel morale plummeting. All my efforts to motivate people fell short. I felt more and more disconnected from the organization. On a whim I asked a few people what was the worst place to sit in the office, and I gave up my private office to move to a desk in the middle of an open studio area. To this day, I still believe that was the first mark of our turnaround. A commitment to an open environment started at that moment, and continues to shape a lot of the ways in which we communicate and work.

An ambitious agency has to be audacious at some level, and I can pinpoint the decision that made that trait part of our culture. We were 12 people, with a handful of local clients, and somehow we got our hands on an RFP for a $5 million account looking for a national agency. We had no business going after this account, no category experience, no office in their geography, and absolutely no reason at all to believe that we could win. But we went after it. We kept telling ourselves that we'd never make the next round, but we kept ourselves alive right up to end. We got the good news while were we were waiting in an airport bar for a flight back to Boston. I always thought it was fitting that we had a long layover in Vegas. Since that moment, we all share a belief that certain times demand that we pursue opportunities against our better judgment.

Sometimes a stranger walks into town and changes the culture beyond expectations. In our case, I hired this clean-cut young man as the newest member of the creative department. He seemed innocent enough at the time. Within days he was walking through the creative department demanding the work be better, that we push harder for our ideas, and take more chances. He introduced a restless ambition and drive for excellence that he continues to keep alive throughout the entire agency.

Just to mess with your head, and keep things interesting, the best parts of an agency culture periodically clash with each other. We've worked hard to create an environment where people support their peers and treat each other well. We also expect people to be ruthless about the quality of their work and their performance. Sometimes, those two mix like oil and water. At times we're too polite, not willing to be honest with each other, or too slow to make decisions. The flip side is that any pursuit of excellence requires a level of criticism and conflict. At its best, that tension can push people to elevate their ideas and perform at peak levels.

Whether you're looking for a job, or conducting an agency review, look beyond the cool lobby, the foosball table, and all those glamorous people walking the halls. Somewhere along the way, someone has made, and is continuing to make, some hard decisions that determine what that agency is really like.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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