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October 12, 2005
How Did We End Up Here?

Most of us know what it takes to make an agency a success. You have to have good clients. You have to do great work. And, of course, you have to make money. So, if it is that easy, why is it so damn hard? Well, I don't know the answer to that question, and if I did, do you think I'd share it with all of you? But, what I do know is that if you want to build a successful agency, you better be the kind of place where people want to give their blood, sweat and tears to make all of the above possible.

Sure, you bring talented people from all over the world to manage these different elements. You have the best account people, the most talented creatives, the most savvy media folks and the smartest finance and operations people. And, who out of this team of fabulous resources is responsible for the culture of the place? Is it the president? Is it your HR team? Or, better yet, is the culture of your agency simply something that has emerged and evolved on its own?

Culture is hard to define. It is intangible so we can't wrap our arms around it. It sounds a bit touchy-feely so it couldn't possibly contribute to the bottom line. Oh wait, maybe it has something to do with that mission statement we plastered to the wall after last year's leadership meeting.

You may not be able to find a clear definition of culture. But, you should be able to clearly define the culture of your own agency. What would someone outside of your agency say if asked to describe it? Is this how you would describe it? Is it how the majority of the employees would describe it?

One of the most vital steps in managing this nameless, faceless entity we call "culture" is to recognize if there is a disconnect between what your agency says and what it actually does. If so, you have "cultural inconsistency". No, you don't have to run to your local pharmacy. But, you do need to figure out how to fix it. Maybe you've been more focused on the perception of the agency than on the reality. Or, maybe you assumed someone else was paying attention to it. Or, perhaps you simply have an outdated view of what is going on.

Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure. There are tell-tale signs when a good culture goes bad. The morale of the office starts to fade. Recruitment and retention become major issues. The aura of the office just doesn't feel right. And, I promise you, it is affecting the work and the bottom line.

So, how do you find a cure? Start by taking a good, hard look at yourselves. The good, the bad and the ugly. What does it take to succeed at your agency? Do mavericks fit in? Is it a high-energy place? Are roles well defined? How do conflicts get resolved? Is there much of a process? Is it family-friendly? Who makes the decisions? Is it hierarchical? How is information communicated?

The answers to these questions provide invaluable insight into what is going on at your agency. And, more than likely, responses to the questions will differ depending on who you ask. That is why you need to hear from all levels and all areas of the company. Agency-wide assessment tools, employee surveys and 360 degree feedback provide easy access to this vital information. And once the various components of your culture have been identified, you can take an active role in shaping it. You will have the knowledge on which to build programs and systems to sustain and perpetuate the positive elements of your culture. And, similarly, you will be able to address and remedy any facets of it that are affecting the health and well-being of the agency.

Defining your culture is a critical component in finding, hiring and developing talent. As you know, the most experienced account director in the world may be the worst possible fit for your agency. And, hiring and promoting the wrong people (especially in the most senior roles) will surely affect your culture. These types of decisions along with all the others you make within the course of the day shape and define who you are as an agency. The location and the layout of your office space, your website, your pay system, the work you do for your clients and even the clothes your employees wear – these things are all part of your culture.

A healthy agency culture may not guarantee that you win the next pitch. It may not help you sell the work. And, it isn't going to pay the bills. But, it will absolutely, positively contribute to each and every one of those things. So, if you aren’t going to be the one to focus on it, make sure as hell that someone else is. You can't afford not to.

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Melissa Rose is a genuine people person, which is rare in the HR business. As director of Human Resources for ISM in Boston, she makes certain the right people are in place at her agency, ensuring they are happy, motivated professionals. Previously, Melissa worked in HR for Hill Holliday, a Boston law firm, and ran her own recruitment agency in Arlington, Virginia.
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