Your company culture will determine its future

Written by Jon Ross
16 May 2022

In our experience, an agency’s culture is one of the most important drivers of success both short-term and over time.

There’s nothing soft about “Culture”. It can become the reason why your firm is able to attract and keep top talent… and why your people are relentless in their pursuit of excellence.

Today’s market factors have already sparked a new war for talent, knowing how to create and nurture a winning culture at your agency is more important than ever before.

Our Culture Audit will help you achieve that. Here’s how.

The seven key contributors to creating and sustaining a strong, distinctive culture for your firm.

  1. Values and behaviours
  2. Corporate governance and decision making
  3. Communication
  4. Management style
  5. Talent management
  6. Commitment to training
  7. Lifestyle/Work balance

Our approach: Using in-depth interviews with the senior team, online surveys including more or even all the agency staff or a combination of the two, our Culture Audit will show you how your company is performing on each of these factors, where improvements are needed and how to make them.

Hand heled sparkler
Culture begins with your agency’s values and behaviors.

Culture begins with your agency’s values and behaviors.

The strongest cultures flow from a deep alignment throughout the agency on its mission, vision and plan. This creates a shared purpose, commitment to and steadfast belief in what the agency stands for and where it’s going. It unites, excites and motivates your team.

At agencies with strong cultures, values are clearly defined. The leadership lives by them (and never just pays lip service). They’re applied equally to everyone. These values are factored into decision making. And they’re kept alive and front-of-mind through documentation in materials as well as ownership’s personal interactions with the staff.

These values are also promoted externally to attract the attention of talent and clients (both current and prospective) while internally reinforcing credibility.

The Audit: Does your agency in fact have a stated mission, vision, plan and values? What are they? Have they become institutionalized into the DNA and daily life of the firm? Do your people clearly understand them? What do they think of them?

Corporate governance, decision making and communication – The importance of what you say and how you say it.

Many agencies don’t fully appreciate the major impact on culture of not only how they make decisions but also how those decisions are announced.

Most talented senior people who choose to work at an independent agency do so because they wish to be closer to major decision making. Often at large agencies owned by even larger holding companies, the senior practitioner is far removed from the holding company level where most agency decisions that really matter are made or at least blessed.

In these situations, senior talent has zero input into the major decisions. Worse, senior leaders can become victims to edicts from on high that impact their team resources and even clients (due to conflicts with the mothership).

On the other hand, the owner of an independent agency can include the senior team in the formulation of all agency decisions (although the owner still makes the final call). This leads to greater loyalty to the agency and higher job satisfaction.

Developing a decision-making communication tree is also important. Senior team members should learn about and understand decisions before announcing them generally to staff. Your people at all levels want to understand why their leadership team chooses to do what it does. The senior team wants to have at least some level of influence on that decision-making because it profoundly affects their future.

Agency decision making should be consistent and predictable based on the agency’s mission, vision, values and strategic plan. Communication to the team should be consistent. The owner should be as transparent as possible regarding the reasons behind each decision and then tie back decisions to mission, vision, values and plan.

The strongest cultures flow from a deep alignment throughout the agency on its mission, vision and plan.

The Audit: What’s your process for making decisions? How do you announce them? What proof of accountability is there to evaluate the actual effect of these decisions vs. expectations or intent? (As part of our approach, we review the major decisions made by the firm during the past two years and how they were handled.)

Management style – There’s more than one way to be effective (or not).

Research shows that how employees feel about their direct supervisor is the number one determinant of how long they’ll stay in that position. This also has a significant effect on their job performance, attitude and morale (all of which rub-off on their peers). And it’s true at all levels throughout the agency.

There’s no one way to manage people. Successful managers often have different styles. So do ineffective managers. However, while they vary by individual, the best “styles” are anchored in the same substance which includes:

  1. Do the managed employees feel appreciated and valued?
  2. Do they receive clear direction?
  3. Are their contributions evaluated fairly (in both recognition and compensation)?
  4. Do they feel they’re being mentored as well as managed and proceeding along a career path that excites and motivates them?

The Audit: For the owners, senior team and mid-level people, how do they feel they work with and treat those who report to them? In return, how do those people feel they’re being treated by their bosses? What are the common elements for what’s working best and what’s not working at all?

Talent must be carefully managed and nurtured from recruitment through retention.

For your firm to be successful, you must be able to attract and retain A-level talent. There’s simply not enough of it to go around. However, the strength of your culture can help you appeal to more than your fair share.

Effective talent management is complex. It requires the development and daily execution of best practices in:

  • Recruitment
  • Onboarding
  • Compensation (Market-competitive salaries, bonuses, fringe benefits, retirement plans plus long-term incentive plans for key people)
  • Clear and rewarding roles (Do people know what success looks like for their role? Do they understand the performance metrics being set for them? Are authority, responsibility and incentives aligned?)
  • Career road-mapping (Understanding what you need to do to be promoted, timelines for promotion to the next level, mentoring and ongoing engagement between senior people and those reporting to them)
  • Retention (What do the facts say about the agency’s success here? What issues might there be? What improvements are needed?)

The Audit: We’ll dive deeply into each of these areas to develop an objective, unvarnished picture of what you do well and what needs to be done better.

Commitment to training helps grow both your people and leadership team.

Talented people want to know where they’re going. They want to understand how their talent will help them proceed from Point A to B to C and beyond.

Strong cultures include a formalized professional development program whose purpose is to grow people from one level to the next. The methodologies which the agency uses for client service and business development are at the core of these programs. Regularly scheduled performance reviews are also included as two-way tools for learning, growth and advancement.

These agencies understand that they’re not just developing and retaining talent. They’re developing a built-in leadership pipeline for the firm.

The Audit: How truly committed is your firm to training and development? How do you know that? What are the strengths and where are the flaws?

Lifestyle/Work balance is tipping towards the employee.

During the past 15-20 years, the goals, work habits, expectations and desires of our workforce have changed dramatically. This is perhaps most apparent among the relatively younger and better-educated men and women we so often see in marketing communications agencies today.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, they’re not wedded for life to their jobs and employers… or even for the next year. Whether agency owners like it or not, more and more employees want their personal lives to take precedence over their working worlds (and aren’t afraid to do what it takes to make that happen).

The pandemic drove the adoption of a stay-at-home work model which has clearly altered how many employers and employees perceive the function of the physical workplace. Here too, your agency’s culture will be vitally important to how well you navigate through these changes.

The Audit: What’s your firm’s attrition rate and the reasons for it? Are you setting reasonable performance targets that balance learning, work hours and billability? Do you regularly conduct team-building sessions? Do you offer opportunities for social engagement within the agency?