What outsiders notice when they’re on the inside
Yogurt has it. Cities and countries have it. And every ad agency claims to have it too.
If you’re interested in evaluating your agency’s culture, you don’t need to hire a high-priced consultant. As a freelancer, it only takes me a week or so on-site to figure out what an agency is doing right or wrong. I suspect I’m not the only one. A few savvy freelancers can figure out your culture in short order. And culture has nothing to do with beer taps or foosball tables (well, almost nothing.)
But I’ll give you some help. Here’s what we’re really noticing, and the questions you should be asking:
Are projects organized? The freelance life is littered with projects that get delayed, cancelled, or are so immediate they need to be done yesterday. Sometimes it can’t be helped. But if that chronically happens to projects, those are likely signs of disorganized agencies and dysfunctional agency/client relationships. With a broken project management process, the work will suffer—along with everyone involved.
Are the meetings on time? It’s bad form to constantly have 10:00 meetings that start at 10:20. Especially if the freelancers (and some of the full-timers) are sitting around biding their time. There’s nothing wrong or uncreative about having a meeting on time, scheduling it for a certain time frame, and sticking to that. Let the jazz musicians, and the creative teams, jam freeform on their own time. Anything else is a sign of needless disorder.
Are people constantly looking for space to talk or think? Yes, open offices are all the rage, particularly in agencies located in hip, high-priced neighborhoods. But all too often, teams are scrambling to find open rooms to collaborate or meet while other folks are scrambling to make and take personal phone calls. To an outsider it looks like chaos. And it makes your agency look bad.
Is everyone wearing headphones? This ties in with the open office thing: Too many distractions. Too many overheard conversations. And too many people trying desperately hard to concentrate, needing to shut the rest of the agency out in order to do it. I once freelanced at agency where the oft-used foosball table was in the middle of the open office. Trust me, working next to an airport runway would’ve been more sedate. Noise and buzz can be good—some of the time. But mostly, it leads to rows of people in their own headphone-ensconsed worlds. When co-workers isolate themselves even when they're seated five feet away from each other, it's not a healthy, or productive, environment.
Does anyone leave for lunch? Together? When I was an intern at a small agency, the entire creative department went out for lunch most days. It was at these lunches where I learned the good, bad, and ugly of agency life. Now, I’m very guilty of eating at my workspace, but it’s not healthy. So my suggestion is everyone should get out more. In groups. Agency managers should encourage their people to not feel chained at their desks all day. Who knows, it might lead to more actual conversation and camaraderie.
Does IT have their act together? At some larger agencies, I’ve been set up with a workstation and my own company email in an hour or two of arriving for a freelance gig. Impressive. But in other places, Google Drives and Dropboxes have left needed files impossible to find and made communication a mess. Cloud-based systems can enhance collaboration with freelancers and clients—if they’re properly implemented and managed.
Do you cut your checks in a timely manner? In the creative world, horror stories of vendors who get stiffed on the job are legendary. And when clients are slow to pay agencies, agencies are slower to pay their vendors. Do your best to make sure freelancers and others get paid within a reasonable period. Good agencies should always be well-run businesses.
Short-term projects and freelancers are becoming the norm. Everyone accepts that. But it requires agencies to pay attention to the operational details. Many times you’re asking people to jump into the class V rapids midstream. And when your agency is dysfunctional, freelancers can smell it. Then they tell other folks, because freelancers are often the most networked people in a given city.
Whether you regularly use freelancers or not, it helps to have an outsider look at your agency’s inner workings. Agency culture doesn’t mean fresh coffee, free sodas, and beer Fridays. All those are nice to have. But it won’t compensate for a truly rancid environment. So pay attention to the part of your culture that, like a petri dish of good thinking, truly allows your agency to grow.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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