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The Most Valuable Assets

Posted on November 10, 2011 and read 3,883 times

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pierno The Most Valuable AssetsAdam Pierno
Creative Director

Partners + Napier, Atlanta

The old ad cliché is “the most valuable assets walk in and out of the door every day.” It’s the people behind the brushed aluminum sign in the lobby that make an agency. Of course, this is mostly a reference to the output of the agency. The work. The ideas. You can get a sense of those things, the style of the agency just by reading the award books. Or by the agency’s conspicuous absence from them.

But when you visit an agency, you get an immediate read on something more. The culture. Is there a buzz in the air? Is it as quiet as a library? Do you hear laughter? Foosball? Are chairs flying? It rarely takes long to nail down the feel of an agency. This is attributed to the people working inside. Agencies I’ve visited with powerful cultures take great pains to match potential employees to their existing vibe. To make sure that they introduce people who will either complement or improve the energy of the shop. To make sure that they don’t throw a turd in the pool, so to speak.

It is not requisite that the agency hires funny people. Or geniuses. Or the most noble, generous saints in the industry. But it’s important when you hire that the people you bring on like each other, by and large. Agencies work best when people want to spend more time together, and time in the shop. Solving problems is more fun when you enjoy talking to the people in the room, and not when it feels like you’re getting your ass kicked inside the octagon.

This is what great agencies understand. They create cultures that make people feel comfortable, encouraging them to spend time in the office. The people of these agencies don’t mind going in on the weekend (as much).

Every decision contributes to culture. Doors on the offices or no doors? Or no offices at all? High wall or low wall cubes? Or no cubes, just shared tables? Laptops or desktops? What gets expensed? What is provided? What is supported?

When I’ve asked agencies about what makes their culture work, they can usually easily point to the successes. They can name people who are champions for the culture, or at least examples of what the culture should be. That’s powerful. They can single out policies that make employees refer friends for open positions. They can think back to the initial idea from which the culture sprouted, the decision that started the ball rolling.

But many agencies are reluctant to name, if not altogether oblivious to, things that are harmful to their culture. I’ve worked in some tremendous agency cultures, and a couple absolutely terrible cultures. What the bad ones have in common is an inability or unwillingness to look in the mirror; to find the flaws in leadership, to find the bad seeds, to find the shitty policies. They’ve failed to synthesize the complaints of the staff about the culture into problems to be addressed. As in any good recipe, it’s as important to add the right items as it is to omit the wrong ones.

It takes strong, disciplined leaders to hold the agency and themselves accountable for culture. It’s easy to hire someone you know might be a bad cultural fit but has the killer portfolio, or the client connection. Really easy. And it’s awfully hard to be objective about policies and how they affect employees’ attitudes. Any business decision is tough when made as part of a long string of decisions. “That’s how it’s always been done.”

Unfortunately, there’s no formula. There’s no HR handbook or methodology. You can take the rules and structure from 72andSunny and drop it into another office made up of different people and it could flop. Because it’s not about the rules or structure being book-perfect. It’s more important to create the right rules, guidelines and structure for the group of people you have. It’s about tweaking the policies to help that group come together, to feel supported, to encourage them to create.

And it’s about keeping the old ad cliché in mind and your eye on the collective value of the people behind the brushed aluminum sign.




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