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November 30, 2010
Culture: Common Currency for Marketers and Agencies
One of the reasons I love marketing communications and the advertising business is that something always comes along to shake things up and move the industry out of its comfort zone.  I’ve seen advertising evolve, morph, twist, and turn through five decades, and have gone from a Mad Man to a Twitterholic and enjoyed every minute of it. As we close out 2010, there is no question that advertising has moved out of its comfort zone and, in my view, where it’s headed next is awash in exciting and wonderfully uncomfortable possibilities. 
Here’s why: Marketers (our clients) are leading cultural and operational changes in their organizations that inevitably must be reflected by and shape the agencies they work with. Perhaps the most powerful and prevalent factor influencing C-Suite thinking and their marketing strategies is a renewed energy and emphasis on the importance of “Culture”  -- a marketing culture best summed up in two words: Open up!
Open = Opportunities
The advertising business that evolved over the years was built to service a traditional, controlled, “broadcast-out,” closed-marketing communications model. Today we live in a 24/7, open-access digital world; media is everywhere and everything and social media has changed the communications paradigm. The marketing communications model has rapidly shifted to shared, more spontaneous, open platforms that value dialogue and engagement. Marketers recognize that the consumer is in control and are revamping their organizations, programs, and budgets to address this reality. The opportunity to get closer to and meaningfully interact with consumers is unprecedented. While digital “hard-tech” may be driving much of this shift, the end result is an evolved communication framework that enables and rewards “soft-touch,” inclusive marketing.
Open = Human
The movement to humanize brands and businesses is growing rapidly. One has to look no further than this year’s Association of National Advertisers (ANA) conference to see evidence of this shift. The agenda and presentations were highlighted by discussions about the value of the “people and purpose” behind the brands. Truth, transparency, and trust were identified as important brand values. Attendees heard real stories of how authentic “purpose-driven marketing” can deliver passion, pride, and profits to a business. The “hard assets” that make brands competitive are as important as ever, but they are just “costs of entry.” Don’t show up without them. Very often, human, “soft assets” are the brand differentiators that separate the great from the good.  The culture of a brand and the company behind it is increasingly tied to success in the new marketplace.
A Gift of Disruption
Communications agencies should see this open, culture-driven marketing mindset as the best disruptive gift to come along in quite some time. As marketers harness the power and potential of the people and purpose behind their brands, they will be looking for communications partners that understand, respect, and know how to make the most of the opportunities and responsibilities that come with this open mindset. Agencies have an opportunity to align their own businesses with the same market drivers and practices being put into play by enlightened, forward-thinking marketers.
A “Culture First” Mindset
Now is the time for agencies to re-energize themselves around a brand and business model based on truth, transparency, and trust -- with clients, employees, partners, and the consumer -- and lead with their culture.
Great agencies live by a set of business and creative principles that are more than a snappy slogan or marketplace positioning. They put their cultural DNA on display for all to see. This cultural DNA embodies how great work gets done, why people want to work for them, the reasons partners and suppliers enjoy doing business with them, and why clients entrust the agency with their brands. Too many agencies have lost sight of the importance of their cultural DNA as the industry has become siloed, specialized, engrossed with technology, and inundated with metrics. Agencies should be as proud of their culture as they are their reel, awards, billings,and resources.
Here’s an example of how this mindset came to life for all of us at The Concept Farm: Our agency is 10 years old and we’ve enjoyed a good amount of business success and creative recognition. Then, something interesting happened. In 2008 and 2009 we were named as one of the top places to work in New York City by Crain’s New York Business. This year, Ad Age named The Concept Farm as one of the 30 best US Marketing & Media companies at which to work. Our culture is one of the agency’s most powerful and cherished assets. 
Being part of a company that received this recognition is one of the proudest moments in my business life and reaffirmed two important beliefs: At its best, advertising has been and always will be a business powered by creative people, fueled by powerful ideas that are brought to life in an ever-changing array of media; and leading with your culture is not only good for business, it can also make you feel good about the business we’re in.
Culture matters. Open up. 

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Hank Wasiak is a communications industry leader, partner at creative hot shop The Concept Farm, and former Vice Chairman of McCann-Erickson. He is a best-selling author, teacher, and a three-time Emmy® award-winning television host. Hank is a frequent keynote speaker at industry events, a guest writer for Mashable, and a columnist on Technorati’s blogcritics.org. He has taught Marketing Communications at a number of universities and currently teaches at USC’s Marshall School of Business. @hankwasiak

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