Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How Corporate Culture Dissipates, Especially In Advertising

This is actually the third piece I have written about ad agency corporate culture.  In December I wrote about how ad agencies grow and can maintain their culture. And just a few weeks ago I wrote about defining corporate culture This post is an extension of both posts.

Maintaining corporate culture is an arduous and difficult task.  First and foremost, it requires that the culture is defined, articulated, understood and agreed upon.  Management must be totally committed to the agreed upon mission and then it must be disseminated to all employees and clients. It has to be an integral part of new business.   

Maintaining culture is an arduous task and requires a total commitment on the part of management.  I call this my theory of 10%.  It goes something like this: Two people go into business together.  They can agree on 99% of everything.  Then the business grows and they have to hire.  They screen as carefully as possible, trying to hire someone just like themselves.  And they can find someone who is 90% like them.  And then they grow some more and then the person they hired has to hire.  And he or she can find someone 90% like themselves.  And now that person has to hire….

Well  what happens on about the fourth or fifth generation of employees, is that the initial partners make a not so surprising discovery – that fifth generation person is only 50% like them.  They simply don’t share the same corporate values.  And when that happens, the culture can dissipate and get away from them. 

That is why it is so critical for senior management to carefully interview everyone who gets hired, first and foremost to insure that those people fit within the culture.  An agency president told me a story of rejecting a potential account director because she couldn’t imagine that this person could possibly fill in for the group account director if she was unable to attend a meeting.  The president’s attitude was that her account directors should have enough “chops” to be able to fill in for the next level up.  Ditto every level.  The president felt that the group director was merely being expedient and that the person they wanted to hire was not strong enough for the level.  I agreed that she did not fit within the culture.

Quite simply put, that is how cultures defuse. It requires an immense amount of strength to hire appropriately for the culture and not let the exigencies of day-to-day business take precedence.  Everyone in a company must have the same values and management has to work hard to instill their values in every employee.  This is particularly important in advertising where the product is open for interpretation and opinion.  In the long term, maintaining the culture, enables and facilitates growth because it insures that everyone is marching to the beat of the same drummner.

But in order to do that, the culture has to be defined, agreed upon and fully understood by everyone in the organization.  In a previous post, someone commented that the CEO is the sole determinant of the culture.  While that is partially true, the mission has to be fully embraced by all employees.  For instance, if it is a creatively driven culture, all account people and planners must fully understand what they can and cannot do vis-a-vis the creatives and the work. (One example: at the old Grey, account people often got away with simply changing copy;l today that could not happen.)  In every culture, account people must know their clients.  That doesn't mean blindly accepting assignments or rejecting work which might be rejected by the client..  Assuming that the account people fully understand their clients' businesses, the account people have to know how to give direction and evaluate the result, including working with the creative department to develop an agreed upon execution which is within the purview of the assignment.  When this doesn't happen, agencies end up in trouble with their clients.

Again, to quote Jay Chiat, "I wonder how big we will get before we get bad."  There are agencies like Goodby, Wieden, Fallon, BBDO which have gotten big without losing the essence of who they are, but it requires a lot of work and belief by everyone.  And it requires clients who believe in that mission.


  1. For whatever it's worth ... Account people changing copy at the old Grey was a "process" problem, not a cultural one. Culture may have enabled them to feel so free as to mess with the creative product, but "policy" and process should have been clear.

    Which is to say, "suits" changing copy would never happen at Grey today (especially under the watch of Jim Heekin) and that's a very good thing for all agencies and their clients. Bill Crandall


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