Culture matters – a lot. Plenty of business leaders would agree that a company’s fate is decided by its ingrained behaviours and beliefs –basically, the way things get done. As the management consultant Peter Drucker put it: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
Mark Fields, the chief operating officer at Ford, is reportedly a big fan of Drucker’s bon mot and helped make it famous. But you could argue that, if culture is important to a car manufacturer, then it goes double for ad agencies, which have few assets beyond their people.
Indeed, the founder of one creative agency recently told Campaign that they spend more time and effort trying to get their culture right than anything else.
Beyond the usual reasons of fostering creativity and productivity, culture is essential for agencies to stand out from the herd and attract the best talent. This need is especially great among ad agencies since, as Sir Martin Sorrell observed at a Nabs event in April, "in this industry, we don’t train people, we steal them".
Sorrell was adamant that this practice had to change, but it is difficult to see it happening any time soon. And, until then, agencies will continue to differentiate themselves on culture.
Campaign asked some agencies with very distinct cultures to define what they stand for. We then asked former employees if these descriptions stack up.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Charlie Rudd, managing director
"BBH has always believed that positive people have bigger, better ideas so, over the years, creativity has been applied with vigour to the culture as well as the ads. Our ten founding beliefs – covering areas such as fairness, integrity and creativity – are etched in steel on the wall of every office.
"At the very heart of BBH is the ‘Culture Club’, a team of BBHers dedicated to making work life more interesting. Their programme of events includes free lunches, massages, free theatre tickets and art competitions. Then, in June, the agency switches to ‘Summer Fridays’, where everyone leaves early to enjoy the lighter evenings.
"The culture is also one of strong social conscience and wanting to apply our creativity for good. This includes the pro bono work we do for the likes of Refuge and Missing People.
"Our culture is summed up by Jim Carroll: ‘Culture is a strategic imperative at BBH. It helps us make the work better.’"
What others say:
"Culture Club was brilliant at creating a community and there would be a lot of socialising beyond work. If you wanted, people there could be your friends and family."
Another source said: "The agency is ruthless in its pursuit of perfection. I was always told I’d find out quickly if it suits you or not, and you felt the pressure when you weren’t producing good work. There’s a reason some people nicknamed it ‘GBH’."
Anil Pillai, UK chief executive
"We’re seen by many as a pretty serious outfit, so we take pleasure in exposing our humour.
"Working at LBi comes with a cosy dose of casualness. We wear plimsolls, have shaggy beards, sign e-mails with kisses and send each other animated GIFs. But it doesn’t mean we’re any less focused or professional. Smartness has nothing to do with the way we dress; it’s all in the way we behave.
"We believe, if we have a culture that is galvanised around our future strategy and business challenges, we’ll perform better and we’ll enjoy doing it. As LBi evolves to become DigitasLBi, we’re excited about introducing our culture and way of doing things to new colleagues. If our people are our greatest assets, then our Brick Lane headquarters is not far behind.
"We recently hired Sophie Ling as our chief people officer. She’s working to redevelop our employee offering and launching a wide-ranging culture and talent engagement programme."
What others say:
"When I was there, it was all about experimentation. It was all very cutting-edge. Everyone was in it together and they downplayed the hierarchy. It was a bit Nordic and North American, and all the after-hours parties would be in the building. It wasn’t Google or Facebook, but it had similar traits and people didn’t just join for the work, they did it because they believed in the brand. I’d like to believe that it won’t change [after being acquired by Publicis]."
Rob Doubal, president and chief creative officer
"Describing McCann London’s culture at the moment is like trying to describe two singing squids riding a motorbike through a psychedelic sandstorm. The culture is changing and things are very colourful but, rest assured, the bike is on the same well-defined path it has always been.
"‘Truth well told’ has been McCann’s credo since 1912 and it still defines our culture. But telling the truth well in 2013 needs an appropriate culture. One of versatility, speed, incisiveness and bravery.
"So we’re fostering a versatile and eclectic workforce where ideas can come from anyone. An open culture with an entrepreneurial spirit, future-proofed by our Truth Studies. Our training schemes and inspirational tea-talks are there to encourage people to consider new ways of doing things.
"We sit open-plan so that all departments are free to walk, talk and create. We’ve opened a bar to promote joy, love and free speech. Once we’ve found a reliable source, we’re going to get a stuffed bear and perhaps two singing squids."
What others say:
"There has been a dramatic shift away from an agency dominated by global account fiefdoms that made the organisation opaque to a more modern, open culture. What was a hierarchical culture has changed – now, nobody has offices. That’s gone. It’s a radically different beast that has definitely moved in the right direction."
Josh Krichefski, chief operating officer
"MediaCom’s philosophy is ‘People first, better results’. Our culture is built around the concept of freshness.
"Every employee gets a day out of the office to have a new experience that will stimulate their minds and engage their curiosity. All we ask in return is that they report back on what they learned and experienced.
"At ‘if I ran the company’, each team develops an idea they would implement if they ran the company. They pitch their ideas to management. The best idea is implemented.
"MediaCom’s Enhance programme provides one-to-one coaching on both personal and professional issues. We’re the only media agency to run an apprenticeship scheme.
"And, to maintain a stimulating workplace, Project Tiger organises regular events. This year, they have included sumo wrestling, long jump, tug of war and help with pre-Christmas gift-wrapping."
What others say:
"It was hard work. But, of all the agencies I’ve worked for, it had the best support structure. There’s a bar in the basement where you could get free drinks on the Thursday before you got paid.
"But they work you hard. There was a fairly distinguished hierarchy, but your bosses were there to support you and would take responsibility if things went wrong. I’ve been at other places where, if you fuck up, it’s very much your fault."
Mother has set itself up as a democracy in which staff win, lose and party together. It never discloses individual roles on creative work – a practice that has spread to other shops. The name was designed to pull focus away from the founders. It’s commonplace now, but it wasn’t when Mother launched in 1996.
Every month or so, a team gets £2,000 to host an office-wide meeting. The team can spend the money on booze or food, or even gamble the lot on the chance to host a blow-out party (one team did; they lost). At one such meeting, the host team sourced a giant vagina and made joiners pass through it to be reborn as Mother employees. Contrary to popular myth, this was only done once and has not become a rite of initiation.
And if that all still sounds a bit intense, that’s because it is. As the Mother partner Andy Medd says: "It’s somewhere between a family and a cult."
What others say:
"Mother is all about culture. About creating an environment and space in which creativity can thrive. It has a family feel – very supportive and nurturing, with the only hierarchy being the strength of your ideas.
"They do everything to protect the creative culture. As an example of this, they have partner meetings outside the agency so they take the financial business conversations outside; conversations in the building are about ideas.
"The culture was created by the founding partners and, as the agency grows, the challenge is to keep it alive as new generations take on the legacy."