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July 5, 2005
Defending the Company Culture

This is a true story.

Recently, I was having drinks with a chief operating officer (I’ll call him Biff) and a creative director (Bob, for our purpose). Both worked for successful national agencies.

Come to find out they both handled product lines of the same multinational food and beverage company, but that’s about where their common frame of reference ended.

As he sat there, Bob obsessively peeled the label off his beverage bottle, lest anyone see he was drinking a competitor’s product. Not endorsing it, mind you, drinking it. But this was clandestine behavior—an offense more egregious in his mind than throwing a bag of puppies off a bridge.

Biff seemed not to give a flip what his clients might think about his choice of beverages, as he waved each successive beer (of another competitor) in defiance.

In fact, he said, his clients were well aware of his company’s stance on this sort of thing and actually respected his agency more for the commitment to their beliefs.

“Everyone knows our values,” Biff preached. “The word ‘freedom’ is painted right on our lobby floor. Hell, our client’s vending machine sits next to the competitor’s machine in our lunchroom.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, Biff later confided that his agency did subsidize his client’s machine, in effect promoting it to his staff as well. But still, it was a choice.)

Bob countered, “You take your client’s money and don’t even support them.”

“The only reason you buy their product is because they hired you. We are hired to promote products and that’s what we do.”

Each seemed to consider the other hypocritical. The lines were so clearly drawn that I was prompted to consider where I stood on the subject. What exactly is the handshake deal we make when we take on our clients? I landed firmly on Biff’s side.

It wasn’t that Biff refused to support his clients. His shop created truly effective, award-winning work for them.

It’s simply that their company was defined by something much deeper than who happened to occupy their client roster. I admire them for that.

In the first twenty-plus years of my career, I have left more than one client meeting feeling the need for a shower. I am ashamed to say, on many occasions, I’ve behaved no differently than a Hollywood Boulevard hooker. I bent over. Clients wrote the check.

Today, as the owner of a fledgling but intrepid agency, I have come to value culture over everything else. Yes, even over paying clients.

A company’s culture is its soul. Without strong beliefs, the agency body possesses the blank stare of a runway model. Here are just a few of ours:

We will not lie.

We will not represent a product that cannot be used healthfully. (Brown & Forman, do not call us.)

We will not work for a company that has cannot positively affect the world in some way.

We will fire clients that destroy company morale.

We will not be treated as servants.

All this may lead some to think I have developed a sort of disdain for clients over the years. Quite the contrary.

I adore good clients. We live and die with them. In fact, we encourage them to tie our compensation to their success or failure. Our values help us find great clients and weed out the bad ones before we get in bed with them.

The last thing any client should want is spineless “yes men.” Agencies with real values are agencies of substance. Their integrity is more than words on a mission statement. Clients will get better work from them because of their beliefs about what it will—and will not—do.

They will get honesty. They will get pushback. They will get new thinking. And they will get perspectives that they won’t find from any corporate drone in their own hallways.

If more agencies would act this way, perhaps we’d move a notch or two above the used car salesmen and telemarketers with whom we currently rub elbows.

I think it was Bill Bernbach who said, “It’s not a principle till it costs you money.”

I’m hoping my principles don’t cost our agency too much money. I’d like to stay in business. I think the industry needs more companies like ours. And Biff’s.

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Gregg Bergan is the founder of Pure, a company of diverse thinkers on a mission to profoundly impact their clients' brand experiences. A copywriter by training and creative director by default, he spent the last two decades helping build some of the world's most famous brands, including Lexus, Microsoft, and IBM. He is obsessively building a "big-brained, small machine" in the shadow of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
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