Is your agency like this…

Colorful coral reef.jpg.824x0_q71_crop-scale

Or this…


Creative boutique. Process driven. Sweatshop. These are some of the terms we use to describe one advertising agency or another. And while they are often accurate descriptors –delightfully or painfully so- what is less true is that the agency chose to be defined that way.

Allow me a metaphor. In the fish keeping hobby, of which I am a passionate member, we are all familiar with how corals get their beautiful colors.  They do so via a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to the host animal. (Yes, corals are animals not plants.) One square inch of coral may contain millions of these microorganisms, which transmit their iconic gorgeous colors. Or they may be drab brown, depending on the zooanthellae.

For better or worse, an agency becomes the clients they work with. If an agency has one dominating and difficult client it will become a dominating and difficult place – a sweatshop. It matters little if the agency’s beloved mantra extolls a different and virtuous path: “The Power of One” “The Truth Well Told” “Human Relevance” If its clients demand, for example, an endless slew of cheap “how to” videos and “creative wrappers” for their email campaigns and tool kits then that is what the agency will be. Conversely, an agency that is hired to make sexy brand campaigns, and actually produces them, will be known for doing that kind of work. Everyone wants to be the latter. Many become the former.

The coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Without the right nourishment it bleaches and can die. With fewer and fewer bright corals, it loses its ability to attract. Usually what happens is the reef becomes an ever uglier place, even hostile, with its beleaguered inhabitants struggling to survive, using all their resources just to maintain.

Large reefs can tolerate a fair amount of blah corals and still be healthy. The ugly stuff is swept under a carpet of jewels. Smaller agencies do not have this luxury. Many of those succumb to the prevailing currents. “This is what we do,” they say, about making Power Point for example. And they survive, albeit one dimensionally.

Improving the reef (agency) is rarely just about chasing after better fish (talent). Desirable species would come if the reef were healthy. Management isn’t the solution either, although predation at the top is often an outcome. Above all, the solution is not about redoing the agency website. The mission statement is always aspirational. Who doesn’t want a creative culture? But it matters not if clients don’t adhere to it.

The solution, obviously, is to find those clients –even just one- that arrive with creative zooanthellae alive in their DNA. Even a small “zoo” culture will inspire the host and all those considering residing there. If a small agency cultivates one of these it quickly becomes a “creative boutique.” Big agencies on the cusp of bleaching need to make room for these delicate corals, even if it means expending valuable resources. The smart ones do. The puzzle is how do you attract them if your current culture is meh? It can be done. Back in the day, Fallon McEelligott became synonymous with awesome creative by committing to myriad tiny clients, fanning gorgeousness out of them. Much later Crispin, Porter & Bogusky did the same, using burgeoning social media as their live rock. The corals grew fast and furious. Grey in New York was a big gray slab that hit it big with E-Trade babies. Leo Burnett in Chicago rose above its bedrock of CPG coral with its “curiously strong” campaign for Altoids, which was a tiny speck when it arrived. Later, they achieved amazing results in unexpected places by creating Mayhem for Allstate. Transformation happens. But not without catalytic clients.

Though few like to admit it, luck plays a big role.  Without the right clients, a talented crew and a good leader is a meeting you don’t want to be in.

culture needs something to grow on…

I’ve been thinking about agency culture or the lack of it. By definition, a “culture” forms in/on something that has permanence to it, like mold on a piece of leftover bread. I know that’s a gross analogy but it’s not inappropriate.

In Adland, we like to talk about our respective agency cultures. It seems vitally important to everyone, old and young. The CEO makes impassioned pleas about it, resurrecting old ideas from old dudes. Yawn. Even more insufferable, the under-30’s rhapsodize about culture’s importance and how f—king awesome it is at that other agency, you know, the one over there, the one with the culture. News flash, kids! Culture is an old-fashioned idea. It ain’t trending…

I can relate to culture. After all, I “grew up” at Leo Burnett in Chicago and was part of its second golden age (88-98); I swear on some days it seemed even the sewage spewing out of 35 Wacker smelled like Pillsbury biscuits baking in the oven. Back then Leo Burnett had one hell of a culture. From a work perspective, it was all about rolling up your sleeves and telling a good story. It was also about long-term relationships and big ideas. And not just with clients but with each other. People stayed at Leo Burnett -for the above reasons and an Xmas bonus that would take your breath away like a fishbowl martini at the Drake. I was there 18 years! I made a lot of ads, a lot of friends and a lot of money.

Needless to say, that culture is long gone. Like a vampire sprouting new flesh after its silvered, LBCO endlessly reinvents itself. Or tries to. And I’ll wager a lot less people are getting a lot less bonus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a big, important shop (certainly among the best in Chicago) but its culture has been greatly and necessarily diminished.

Remember culture?

I say, “necessarily diminished” because, honestly, all agency cultures have suffered greatly or gone extinct. Why? It goes back to my gross analogy about mold growing on stuff. For better or worse, advertising (or whatever you call it) is simply not a permanent enterprise anymore. Not for anyone. For myriad reasons (most of them shitty) clients and employees don’t have loyalty to a company or its people. Everyone leaves.

And what about you, Gentle Reader? How long have you been at your present job? Thought so. When did we start counting in months? That’s life in Adland. Commercials are now 6-second Vines. Work is all project based.

Therefore, why should one’s career be any more permanent? Maybe it shouldn’t. But don’t talk to me about culture. How does anyone expect a culture to grow if no one sticks around long enough to cultivate one?