Agency culture: it’s about the people, stupid.

If your staff turnover is high and client tenure short, it says a lot about your culture. Having a good one is all about people, not ping pong tables and soft furnishings.

Working with a difficult boss, direct report or colleague isn’t unusual over the course of a successful career. That kind of information isn’t always in the brochure or welcome pack.

Ad agencies obsess over this concept of “culture” but having a good one is about more than just “matchy-matchy bean bags,” free pizza and ping pong tables. It’s more than onsite parking, flat screen monitors, two free pairs of glasses and a new office with panoramic views (real incentives from real job listings). It’s about how people feel about working with and for you.

“If you take a job where there’s lots of assholes, the chances are you’ll turn into one too” 

Bob Sutton, The Pineapple Project, ABC, 2019

When they’re trying to recruit you, companies are on their best behaviour. You may meet everyone from CEO to receptionist, have orientation or on-boarding sessions galore and be told: “you’re a great fit”. You get a true feel for corporate culture once you’re in the door and it’s often after the novelty has worn off. Most probation or trial periods are three months but, like a New Years’ resolution gym membership, the harsh reality of what you’ve signed up for can set in after about six weeks. Think of Tom Cruise in The Firm.

The advertising business is increasingly about selling (brands, ourselves, our ideas and our work) and winning (budgets, clients, pitches, awards). If you remember high school, the same self-preservation mentality can exist in advertising. It’s a popularity contest, and it’s competitive, political, often fun and sometimes, boring. It’s a melting pot of personality types, from introverts to narcissists and backroom people who feel they exist to make the front end famous. It takes all kinds of people to make the place function and that also makes it interesting. Add in forced socialising, lots of booze and a more casual work environment (we can wear jeans and talk about telly at work), it can feel like one big frat house party. We’re told it’s only banter, suck it up, it’s dog eat dog, that’s just the way it is or “if you don’t like it, the door’s not locked from the outside.” If you always need to be the smartest person in the room, a smaller room is all you’ll end up with.

Big agencies are made up of internal department tribes and specialist roles with different priorities and many layers of hierarchy. Some people have more power than others. It can be so cliquey and bitchy it hurts. Asshole holding companies and asshole clients with unrealistic expectations add to the mix. We’re so desperate to please, we never tell them they’re wrong. S/he who has the client wins and everyone else is overhead. It can’t always be about the short-term – we spend a fortune on talent and promote “our culture” to attract it.

Staff are increasingly seen as returns on investment rather than assets that appreciate over time. We’re driven by proving our value instead of our worth. Obsessed with merit and getting credit like toddlers needing gold stars for everything we say. Unsurprisingly, burn-out syndrome is a thing; “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

In research conducted by Digiday+, 32 percent of agency professionals reported being worried about their mental health.

As our careers progress, moving up and around in the small world of advertising is pretty standard. Strong relationships and reputations matter. Look after you, look after your people. Play nicely with others. Don’t be an asshole.

Written originally for Corporate Gaslighting. To find out more about the initiative:

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