Close-Up: Do nice surroundings fuel creativity?

A strong culture will be more conducive to creativity than a nice office and perks, John Tylee says.

The Sunday Times' list of the Top 100 Best Small Companies To Work For makes curious reading for those who have always believed it axiomatic that the best creative work always comes out of happy shops, not the sweatshops.

The seven marcoms agencies that get a ranking, such as Haygarth (36th), RPM (40th), Meteorite Marketing (80th) and Jack Morton Worldwide (81st), are not familiar names. And none are seen regularly carrying off either Cannes Grands Prix or D&AD Pencils.

This would seem to raise the question not only of whether a place on the list is worth all the palaver, but whether brutal workplaces are the essential prerequisite of great creativity.

"Being on the list may be good for internal morale and for attracting talent," Paul Phillips, the AAR's managing director, says. "But I can't see what's in it for clients. And I've never known one ask about how an agency treats its people."

What's more, it's often claimed that the more "ruthless" cultures of some agencies, such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Fallon, have been no barrier to outstanding work down the years. "You don't have to be all warm and cuddly to deliver great advertising," Phillips adds.

And those with "ruthless" cultures are unrepentant about how their agencies should operate to produce the best work.

Laurence Green, the chairman of Fallon, says: "Fallon is a tough place in which to work but it should be because we have high standards. People don't come to us because they'll have the most fun but to do the best work they've ever done."

Obviously, not everybody agrees that this is the way to go and some agencies - such as Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which has long been renowned for its paternalism towards its staff - believe that it makes commercial sense if people feel valued, respected and well looked after because the good work becomes great work.

Sometimes it becomes all about personal choice and the atmosphere the senior management thrive in themselves. Marc Nohr, the managing partner at Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw (77th place in the table), feels the same way: "There are some creative directors who shout and scream and may get some good work out of some teams as a result. But it's not for us."

What's widely agreed is that staff need added benefits, but creating the right working environment goes well beyond subsidised beauty treatments, nap breaks, air hockey, private healthcare and an extra day's holiday on your birthday, even though such fringe benefits may be important markers.

What employees really value is a culture where they're listened to, their thoughts are acted on and they have career advancement.

James Murphy, the Adam & Eve founding partner, says: "Advertising is a team sport and you need a strong team spirit not only to produce good work but also when you're pitching. Having a good culture helps with that."

Of course, there's a balance to be struck between a Stalin-like approach to people management and making the place a bit too nice.

"There's no such thing as an agency where it's too good to work," Farah Ramzan Golant, the chief executive of AMV, claims. "But you can make it too much of a warm bath if you're not careful. The danger is that if you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything."

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INTERMEDIARY - Paul Phillips, managing director, AAR

"It's perfectly possible to get good creative work out without necessarily being recognised as a good place to work - and there are a number of agencies that continue to prove it. It's arguable that challenging times are the catalyst for great creativity.

"Trying to get a ranking on the Sunday Times list reminds me of the way companies used to be so eager to get an ISO9000 standards recognition. It's nice to have - but it isn't as though you're always being asked if you've got it.

"It isn't like winning a recognised industry honour such as an IPA Effectiveness Award or a D&AD Pencil."

CLIENT - Chris Jansen, group commercial director, British Gas

"It's absolutely critical to get the working environment right for your teams. This is true for any business but particularly service and people organisations. Ultimately, the creation of a very successful business is driven entirely by the people that work within the company.

"The happier, healthier and more motivated the team are, the more likely the business is to do well - assuming you have the right strategy too.

"A very important element to driving motivation and commitment is the working environment. This isn't just the physical elements but how the leaders of any business interact and listen to their teams."

AGENCY HEAD - Jim Carroll, UK chairman, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Some might argue that great ideas can't be generated without some fear or stress, but that's not our experience. The best ideas come from people who feel fully engaged.

"We're not one of those places that's fuelled by parties and seat-of-the-pants behaviour. But we believe people work best if the environment is positive.

"I wouldn't say we're ruthless but we take our work seriously and I think anybody you spoke to at BBH would say we have a strong sense of community and that our corporate social responsibility programme is more developed than any of our competitors."

AGENCY HEAD - Martin Semmens, founding partner, Elvis

"Being seen as a good place to work is something we take very seriously because, if we want to do great work, we have to attract the best people. And if you're not a good place to work, your best people won't stay.

"It's not the fringe benefits that are important, it's about having a shared vision and allowing people to get on with what they want to do. I alone can't make Elvis a good place to work - but I can help make it possible for others to do so.

"But we always have to remember that we're a commercial organisation. We're not just here to have a good time."