Building Your Ad Agency on Values

In today’s corporate world, it is trendy to brandish the terms “culture” and “values” when discussing strategic plans or objectives. Many business leaders claim to understand how strong core values drive employee purpose and engagement, and how engagement and purpose increase competitive strength and profits. Yet commitment to values and purpose seems to be all talk and no walk. Too many businesses spend time and money to assert their values… and then trust that the culture in place will magically match those values. Too often, those values are more aspirational than real.

Values are not something you choose; they’re what you already are, do, and practice. The culture you work in daily must align with those values, or your values statement is just dandelion fluff, blowin’ in the wind: pretty, but insubstantial. Values must have substance if you’re going to make them the foundation of your agency business.

What’s the Big Deal About Values?

Research indicates that values and purpose offer benefits to businesses. Consider these stats regarding companies with a high sense of purpose

  • They outperform others by 400%
  • 300% are more innovative (HBR)
  • 40% have higher retention (Gallup)
  • 37% enjoy increased sales (Shawn Achor)
  • 31% experience increased productivity (Shawn Achor)
  • 125% have lower employee burnout (HBR)
  • 66% have fewer employee sick leaves (Forbes)
  • 51% track lower employee turnover (Gallup)

What about the impact of strong values? Your values are the reasons why you do what you do. Employee alignment with the company’s professed values, mission and philosophy is a top reason why employees say, “I love where I work.”

Living up to those values is also a strong reason why customers cheer you on. Alignment with a company’s professed values, mission and philosophy is the primary reason consumers feel they have a relationship with a brand. Younger consumers are especially attuned to values alignment as they shop for and select products/services. 

How Do Agencies Integrate Values into Their Cultures?

Identifying your values is not unlike the process for discovering your brand positioning

You need a discovery process to dig into what drives and motivates you every day, and what guiding principles help your business steer a clear course in good times and bad.

First, ask the team to share their personal values. Ask for 4-5 values from each employee, expressed in one word or short phrase. The values should define “who you are and who you want to be.”

Share and discuss the most common shared values and select 5 (certainly no more than 10) that you want to adopt as company values.

Second, assess the company’s vibe – how it feels to work there. This can cover attitudes (positive vs. negative); collaboration and community; willingness; how you respond to wins and losses, and so on. Chris Moody of Twitter (formerly with Aquent, BBI and Gnip) shares a few questions for determining which elements of vibe may be an essential value:

– Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
– Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
– Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
– Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

Say yes to all of these, and you’ve likely discovered a value worth not just hanging on the wall, but living up to daily.

Once you have your list of values, identify the values leaders who will help craft your final values statement. Jim Collins, author of leadership books including Good to Great, Built to Last and Great by Choice, runs an innovation lab to help companies define values and mission principles early in their development. One of his exercises is “The Mars Group.” He says, “Imagine you’ve been asked to recreate the very best attributes of your organization on another planet, but you only have seats on the rocket ship for five to seven people. Who would you send? They are the people who are likely to be exemplars of the organization’s core values and purpose, have the highest level of credibility with their peers, and the highest levels of competence.”

Collins recommends no top company officers be in this group; ideally, the entire team nominates 5-7 people, and the most nominated become the Mars Group. This group drafts a final version of core values, runs them by top officers, and then shares the draft with everyone.

Alignment, with Flexibility

Defining core values may come with some pain. Not everyone will agree with the defined values. That means some people may leave… or need to be let go. Obviously, these adjustments will happen over time, so don’t panic about sudden personnel changes; assess values alignment over time to determine who will stay and where you may need to seek replacements who better align with your core values. 

You will also need to tighten hiring practices to ensure you bring new people aboard who practice or aspire to the same values. Also, remember that the most qualified job candidate may also be the most egotistical and possibly culture-disrupting. Remember the No Asshole Rule. No amount of talent justifies the damage an AH can do your culture and values. 

Just be careful about being so wedded to values alignment that you start stacking the talent deck against your company’s growth and potential for future change. Some conflict can be a good driver of incremental improvements and diversity of thinking. Innovative companies need to allow wiggle room for differing viewpoints. Be prepared to adjust values, especially as you hire more people and adapt to resulting operational and strategic demands.

Remember, agency employees will expect leadership to model your stated values. If the company expresses values, and then fails to live up to them by modeling aligned behaviors, the values are not true and employees will cease to support them. Leaders should expect—and welcome—employees correcting or calling out behaviors that do not align with agency values. We are all “works in progress,” with room for improvement.

Following are some rules of thumb for developing your core values list.

The Best Core Values:

  • Are memorable.
  • Are brief.
  • Are few.
  • Guide employees’ (and leaders’) daily actions and decisions.
  • Can be easily recited by all team members.
  • Are actionable.
  • Are beliefs everyone (especially leaders) is passionate about.
  • Are embedded in daily culture and practices.
  • Are used to attract and recruit the best people.
  • Are applied to employee goals and performance.
  • Are used to frame sales and marketing objectives.
  • Are connected to the mission and vision.
  • Are integrated in how you do business.
  • Are aligned to customer experience practices.