Five Tips for a Strong Agency Culture

To complete our serie of blog posts about culture in creative agencies, we want to share with you five important  straight-froward tips. This post was written by Deborah Budd, from Second Wind.

…The boss took on a hefty catalog job for a factory parts supplier. Then the creative director dropped the news on an overloaded art staff that they had a bullet train bearing down on them. Upon hearing this news, the art room supervisor exploded, swore at the CD and stormed out of the office.

The case above actually happened. You might have experienced something similar at your agency. What you hope is that these conflicts be work-focused; a certain amount of disagreement and debate fosters better creative thinking and improves the creative product. Employee conflicts are not out of the question among freewheeling agency types. Personalities don’t always mesh. Sometimes workload approaches the impossible, staff start logging too many hours, and clients demand more, more MORE. Stress happens.

But there was more going on at this agency than a simple clash of personalities or a too-heavy workload. Their conflicts revolved around management consistently putting client demands above agency needs. The creative and production staff felt so disconnected from management and clients, they began to view their own leaders as the enemy. The culture, in fact, had disintegrated… and agency leaders seemed unaware it was happening, until an employee got so steamed, she boiled over.

The Seeds of Conflict
Let’s dig deeper into this confrontation. The immediate seeds of discord were sown through good intentions:

  • The principal, to satisfy an important client (and seeing dollar signs in that big catalog job), promised to turn the job around in record time, because the agency’s production staff had always found a way in the past. He assumed the job was doable, and neglected to verify his dates with agency production.
  • The creative director saw the agency as committed to the job; deadline in mind, he was focused on getting the job into production. He failed to speak up for the production department, although he knew they were swamped.
  • The art room supervisor and her team, stressed and working frantically, were already under the gun for several other large projects on tight deadlines. They would have to use less reliable freelancers for the new project, or reshuffle work-in-progress—knowing that errors often occur when transferring projects to new hands in midstream. Other project deadlines might also be jeopardized. Facing an inevitable monster project (and sincerely concerned about honoring client commitments versus the agency’s ability to deliver a product worthy of their time and effort), the art room supervisor had nowhere to vent but at the creative director. Like magma in a volcano, if enough pressure builds up, she’s gonna blow.

All concerned felt they were “right.” All to some degree were pursuing what they saw as the agency’s best interests. Conflict happened because each party was more focused on “how this affects me.” The principal wanted to look great with the client; the CD was all about keeping the boss happy; the art room supervisor was stressed and fighting for her peeps. No one was really serving the entire agency, but only their own little piece of it. Because each piece was perceived differently, the fragmented culture actually fostered conflict.

What Really Blew the Lid Off the Pot?
Below the surface were deeper issues that had not been addressed. Agency leadership consistently ignored workload and disregarded already scheduled work. A poor project mix had developed: too much down-and-dirty, labor-intensive work, and too little profitably fun stuff to balance things out, led to the agency bleeding creative staff. Finally, there were limited personnel available for the new project. The art room supervisor anticipated rebellion among her staff, which she would have to cope with directly; overtime hours, which would undercut the agency’s desire to make a profit; and minimal support from management if she asked for adjusted deadlines or more help. In simple terms, the “yeomen” employees had lost faith in agency leadership, forming an “armed” camp of factions tearing the agency apart from within.

Looking Out for Each Other
In a strong agency culture, leadership would have a finger on the agency’s “pulse,” know what the workload is, and check to make sure the job could be scheduled and subcontracted. The CD and production manager would have stepped up to recommend the project be outsourced, and shuffled workloads to assign an in-house project manager. And the art room supervisor would have counted to ten and recommended her preferred freelancer.

All agency personnel, top to bottom, would be looking out for the agency’s best way to get the job done, while ensuring the client is served with a quality product. No one at our agency was “looking out for the other guys,” so everyone suffered.

Strong Culture Reduces Conflict
Culture is a unifier. It’s the “Yea, team!” sense of all working together toward a common goal. It’s what makes agencies fun places to work. If culture is allowed to dissolve through neglect or inattention, conflict such as the one described here will be the result. Pay attention to the following to ensure your agency’s culture stays healthy, strong and uplifting.

  • Know who you are and what you stand for. If your agency lacks a core belief or mission, make time to identify your central values. Your entire agency must participate in defining agency values to ensure everyone buys in and “owns” them.
  • When you know your values, your mission will become clear.Develop and publish the mission. This is what you strive to live by every day.
  • Re-tune agency processes and procedures. Eliminate or revise any that conflict with core values. A vital agency culture must be supported in all you do.
  • Encourage “we” thinking. Try to get agency employees to focus on the agency as a whole, not on the personal. Have an agency plan, and tie employee goal-setting and career paths to the plan. The agency’s success should lift up everyone who works there.
  • Make civil discourse a point of order. Anger is fine, as long as you are focused on making the agency and the work better. Ask employees to think before they speak. What are they really angry about? Can it be fixed, and how would they fix it? Instead of shouting,” You’re wrong!”, ask that employees try, “I disagree. May I suggest…” Duke University basketball fans, (a.k.a. “Dukies”) have been known to dispute referees by chanting, “We beg to differ!” If half-naked, blue-and-white-painted sports fanatics can be civil, agency employees should be able to pull it off.

The agency in our story suffered the ultimate blow for letting culture disintegrate—their art room supervisor, then their longest-term employee, quit rather than continue at a firm she felt no longer valued or respected its employees or culture. Don’t let your agency come to this. Lead your agency toward a common set of values and a strong mission. Culture, like passion, must be tenderly nurtured. Keep your culture alive and thriving. And please… keep it civil.

Follow Second Wind on Twitter: @secondwindbuzz

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