CLOSE-UP PERSPECTIVE: Agency culture is key to longevity in successful shops

Asked by a reporter to explain the concept of American jazz, Louis Armstrong was reputed to have said: ’If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.’

Asked by a reporter to explain the concept of American jazz, Louis

Armstrong was reputed to have said: ’If you gotta ask, you ain’t never

gonna know.’

I veered towards the same conclusion last week, when the conversation

with an eminent advertising personage turned to what makes some ad

agencies ’better’ than others. What makes the agencies that swamp the

awards books different from others? When an agency consistently churns

out effective advertising, what accounts for that? And when an agency

consistently churns out dross, what accounts for that?

Is it simply that the agencies with the best creative talent have the

strongest cultures? Well, it’s probably not that simple - and hasn’t

been since CDP’s Collin Millward became the first creative director to

raise the status of his department by paying them more, fighting for the

budgets needed to employ world-class photographers and directors, and

then insisting they earn every penny.

The proof that agency culture is not just down to the creative talent is

in the varying performance of some creative people before and after

their stints with the agency. And where do account people and planners

come in?

Is it because some clients encourage their agencies to do better


Partly. But how do you explain the fact that some Unilever shops produce

ads that have you reaching for the remote control, while others produce

sparkling work that stands out a mile? And sometimes after account

reviews we see work get dramatically better (eg the Times, Impulse) or

dramatically worse (eg the Guardian, Wonderbra). So it’s not solely down

to the client.

Is it that some agencies simply have a better handle on what it takes to

do great work, and to keep churning that work through the system, year

in, year out? That’s the closest thing I can find to a true common

denominator between BMP DDB, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Abbott Mead Vickers

BBDO, Leagas Delaney, Lowes and those newer agencies that consistently

do admirable work - Mother and St Luke’s, for example.

Think about what makes these agencies interesting places to work for and

work with. At the older agencies, many key staff have come and gone.

And many clients, definitely, have come and gone.

So what remains? There are some common characteristics. Strong desire

from all. Strong relationships with clients. Encouragement from creative

management. Genuine support of top management. Tolerance for risk


High standards. Investment in technology. Ability to make tough


Account people and creatives that believe in each other’s ideals. In

other words, culture.

If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know? Only when it comes to

American jazz.


Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content