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  • December 9, 2002, 12:00 AM EST
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I was once in a new-business meeting with David Abbott, founding partner of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, when the client asked him to talk a little about our agency culture. David paused for a moment before replying, "Please don't ask us about our culture. It makes us sound like yogurt."

He wasn't being dismissive. He was trying to do two things. First, he was making the point that a culture, like a good sense of humor, should be lived and demonstrated, not talked about. And second, he was trying to refocus the discussion on our work and its results.

The relevant part of the definition of culture in the Oxford English Dictionary (oops, sorry, cultural roots showing!) is: "... the whole complex of learned behavior ... of some body of people." Put more simply for an ad agency, it's "the way the people work together."

This is important in any business, but it's particularly important in ours, because all we have is people.

The point, though, is that a culture is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Some agencies go to great lengths to codify their cultures. In my view, however, like yogurt, a culture is organic. It grows from two sources: the attitude and behavior of the agency's leaders and, to some ex tent, the cultures of its clients. It is created day by day, person by person, interaction by interaction.

Which is why mergers and breakups can be tricky. In the case of a merger, the new culture may be shaped by the leaders of one com pany or the other, but almost never both. Or it may be shaped by neither: by someone new.

When an agency is broken up and its parts are transplanted into other bodies (as is planned for D'Arcy), some developments will be more successful than others. For example, one Procter & Gamble account team may graft well onto another P&G agency because the effect of the client culture will be strong. In other cases, the transitions may be less than seamless.

Howls of protest can often be heard when an agency culture is changed, and wails of grief accom pany the killing of one. But these can be misguided.

When an agency stops growing, there are only three possible explanations: First, your people may be focused on the wrong thing(s), not on the areas where there is real value and where you have a competitive advantage. At BBDO, our focus is on "the work, the work, the work" because we think that's where an agency's contribution adds the most value and where we have our competitive advantage.

Second, it could be that your people are not working together productively. In other words, there may be something wrong with the culture.

Finally, of course, you may not have the right people.

An agency culture is worth preserving if, and only if, it is a means to achieving better work and results for clients, and hence for the agency itself. If it is not, it must be changed, either in part (keeping the bits that are working and changing the rest) or entirely.

A bit like yogurt, really.