Culture Club: One Dozen Steps to Great Agency Culture

Culture Club

No industry, except perhaps the dot-coms of yore, ever paid as much lip service to office culture than the advertising and design industry. There have been legendary agencies noted for their unique and highly creative culture. Think of Chiat/Day and their football games on Main Street, as they call their in-office common area; and their flag (a skull and crossbones with the motto “God, Creativity, Guts”). Sadly, too many imitators craving similar success ploughed money into designing a physical office space without also imbuing a strong mental and emotional culture into the mix.

Culture is about more than the latest trendy office furniture, funky plasma monitors and recreational areas. It is about combining the many personalities, ideas and work methods of a disparate group of people under one roof in a way that encourages teamwork, gets the creative juices flowing, and somehow staves off chaos. Most important, culture builds employee loyalty by keeping everyone in the agency pointed toward the same goals. We are all happiest when we know where we are going and have a plan for getting there to which we can all contribute.

How do you build a great culture, one that will both sustain and energize your current staff, and attract new recruits to “the cause”?

Give everyone a voice. All opinions matter; mutual respect should be the rule. By the same token, everyone is responsible for the agency’s success. Everyone contributes, everyone is accountable.

This atmosphere of “all-for-one, one-for-all” fosters creativity and innovation. Most employees will embrace the opportunity to reach for ever-higher goals, especially if they have a say in setting the goals.

Further, employees who know their ideas and work are valued and important will push their own abilities beyond their respective comfort zones, stretching themselves in new directions that can only benefit the agency.

Instill structure beneath, flexibility on top. Establish strong processes. Hold regular meetings to schedule workflow, initiate new projects and review completed work—but keep them brief. Try to maintain a forty-hour workweek—work overtime only when necessary. Today’s employees want to have a life. So do agency owners and managers. Encourage collaboration, but give employees “ownership” of projects. Don’t pit one against another in some sort of sadistic competition—that is certain to generate negative vibes. Break down departmental silos, but clearly define responsibilities. Everybody can wear different hats; in a strong agency culture, collaboration and idea-sharing should happen naturally, as long as the work gets done.

Design workspace to promote collaboration. Cubicles are great when you need to concentrate, but to foster an open, team-oriented ambiance, open space layouts or adaptable work stations are vital. Try to build in space suitable to the tasks you need to perform. Have designated areas where employees can go to work solo, other areas built for collaboration, still others for larger gatherings. Remember to build in break areas to allow employees to step back from a project and refresh their minds before resuming work.

Allow employees to personalize workspace. Creatives especially feed off each other’s energy, ideas, inspirations and enthusiasms. But employees may feel more connected to the agency if they have a corner of it they can call their own.

Invoke with materials and textures a sense of the agency’s style. Are you industrial and high-tech, earth tones and organic, or hip, witty and Pop art? Choose art to reflect, or perhaps, contrast the environment. Hang employees’ art—or your own!

Hire for diversity. We do not mean simply promoting an ethnic mix of people, although this is great in our increasingly global economy. Also look for people who think differently from those already working for you, who bring new skills, new methodologies and new interests into the cultural mix. Like the royal families of Europe, you can become too inbred. Bring in new blood to keep the culture growing and vital.

Avoid an everything-for-the-job attitude. Encourage employees to invest time in outside interests. Well-rounded employees are more creative, full of fresh ideas and ever-changing perspectives. Promote memberships in professional organizations, contribute time as a group to charitable causes, socialize frequently outside the office. Do day-outings to museums and events, hold a retreat, declare a breezy April morning “Go Fly a Kite Day,” and get the heck out of the office! Bonding outside the agency walls is the glue that binds teammates for the long haul.

Encourage a spirit of play. This does not mean a license to goof off. Play is vital to creativity and innovation. This is why many agencies have games and recreational areas. Keep an area with toys or gadgets where employees can fiddle and tinker. Many people need this kind of stimulus to keep the mental gears turning. Freedom to play now and then makes the work more pleasure than burden.

Make the commitment to doing great work. Fight for good clients. Support the ideas of your creative staff. Encourage all employees to get behind the work. Your reputation will precede you in only the most positive ways.

Be a great leader. Have a mission and a vision—one that everyone helps build and can get behind. Know where your agency wants to go and help people find their place in the effort to get there. Then step back and let your people shine. A great leader doesn’t march along in front dragging everyone behind her, but rides beside the herd, keeping them moving with an occasional nudge in the right direction.




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