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August 11, 2004
Cultivating Culture in an Advertising Agency

I have been pleasantly surprised by how frequently we have been requested to talk about our culture, as well as our vision and our mission, in new business pitches. It is a sign that clients are recognizing how important cultural compatibility is in establishing a long-term partnership.

Here are some of the ways we have tried to make Austin Kelley's culture something that helps differentiate our agency:

1. Set a clear vision. People desperately want a very simple, single-minded vision that they understand and can relate to. I also believe that you have to continue to reinforce the importance of that vision to the point where you feel like you're being overly repetitive.

2. Find and hire the right talent. I wish there was a fool-proof way to determine whether a candidate is going to be a star, or somebody you'll regret hiring. As a matter of practice, we have a candidate interview with as many people as is practical, to get a sense of the individual's compatibility and potential to contribute to the organization. One of the challenges is getting people to open up to the thought that not everybody has to come from the advertising industry. There is great merit in someone coming from outside of our industry, possibly with a client's point of view, and bringing new ideas and practices that will make us better.

3. Remove the traditional silos. It is very important for us to think of ourselves as a single team, rather than a collection of departments. Clients don't care about departments, they care about their team and results. Fostering teamwork sometimes means getting rid of the people who don't play well with others, even though you may be losing a valuable piece of talent.

4. Remove the fear of failure. If you micro-manage people, particularly advertising people, they become really good with details, but do not to grow into strategic thinkers. I encourage our team to talk openly about failure in an environment where we don't point fingers, but rather learn from what has gone wrong and what we can do to prevent these occurrences in the future.

5. Answer the whys. I'm a huge believer in sharing financial information, so that collectively we understand how we make money, and how we are doing right now. Many years ago, Austin P. Kelley sat six of us down and explained our people costs, our overhead, and how we made a profit. I continue to think this is a critical area of our business-you need to understand the business of our business. It answers many questions people have, like why we can't buy a piece of equipment or hire another account person.

6. Have a quality of life. We actually have a Quality of Life committee that coordinates our agency meetings, team competitions, weekly pet days and a number of ongoing employee recognition efforts. The beauty of this group is that it takes this activity and puts it right where it belongs, in the hands of those who can shape what's important to them.

7. Foster artistic talent. For us, this starts by recognizing that creativity is not solely the domain of the creative department, and that good ideas can come from anyone within the agency. But it also goes beyond that to recognizing artistic talents—whether in music, writing, painting, or photography—and giving those with those talents an opportunity to share them with the rest of the agency.

8. Create a place clients want to come visit. I take a lot of pride in the fact that many of our clients say, "I'd rather meet at your place." This is a sign that we have something special here, and that they appreciate the energy and welcoming environment. This is a piece of our culture that has been with us from the very beginning, when our founder put such a great emphasis on hospitality and the treatment of your clients as if they were guests in your own home.

9. Learn from others. I was recently inspired by a comment made by Andrew Keller, Creative Director with Crispin Porter + Bogusky. He allowed that one of their keys to success has been that they are "a culture of not saying no." This struck me as an incredibly important thought, so much so that I brought it back to the agency. Once I convinced everybody that Andrew wasn't saying you should always say yes to your clients, but rather that they have prospered with an attitude that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, it was embraced immediately, and ultimately became the centerpiece of our most recent company meeting. Thank you, Andrew.

10. Be resilient. Really good creative people have this as their fundamental strength because they see so many good ideas die, yet continue to press on. Our business has never been easy, and today more than ever, an agency culture needs to be resilient, because invariably, there will be times when there are things beyond your control that happen and you need to look each other in the eye and say, "We're going to get through this."

We work in an industry where 70% of new Chief Marketing Officers switch agencies, and as a result, unfortunate paranoia and cynicism can creep into an agency. Strong agency cultures don't let this take hold. They believe in themselves and the fact that they will live to fight another day and that next great client relationship is right around the corner.

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As president and CEO of Atlanta's Austin Kelley, Jay Shields has built a shop with national creative prominence. Originally an art director, Jay has won numerous awards during his 27-year career and has successfully made the transition to senior management.
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