Creative Advertising Lessons
Agency Culture is Pointless
I graduated with 100 advertising professionals at VCU Brandcenter, and I think all of us compared workplace culture like Pokemon cards — trying to divine which were toxic and which were exemplary.
And who could blame us? Workplace culture is the focus of magazines, scholarly journals, court cases, and entire industry-rocking scandals.
And yet, despite our divination, plenty of us landed where the culture didn’t match the packaging. Most of us didn’t. And ever since then, I’ve slowly crept to a realization.
Workplace culture is real, but it’s pointless to look for it.
What is Agency Culture?
Culture is a feature, like Corinthian leather in a car. You get told how it works and how it will make you feel when you get inside of it. And before you know, you’ve driven off the lot— you accepted a position at a new agency.
Which is why we value culture, we use it to predict our future. Will it lead us in the right direction? Will we like our coworkers? Will we belong? Will they care about our family, our time, and our intellect? Will we do good work?
After long conversations with my classmates, I’m convinced culture is a false metric. Once advertising realized it existed, they started branding it, which means agencies have every reason to hide or distort what culture means or looks like. Even in the real-life metaphor, Corinthian leather isn’t real. It’s made up. And that’s what “culture” is now.
The truth is: culture is a manufactured abstract and unreliable.
Culture vs. Values vs. Behaviors
Go somewhere with people who look differently than you, sound differently than you, think differently than you, and are different than you, but never go somewhere where they don’t share your values or behave as you do.
It may not be the perfect indicator, but values inform behavior. It’s why we work, grow, and expand. Shared values lead to culture, and I don’t mean the Values™ found on the agency about page (a mission statement without a KPI), I mean values and behaviors as seen in individuals. The harder it is to quantify, the better.
If an agency’s people share your values, behave as you do, and there are lots of them, you’re more likely to work with them.
Values aren’t physical. You have to use your gut and get to know people (cliche but true). Find out what the leadership likes and wants. Listen to how they describe the agency. Does it sound personal? Do they live it?
What’s the team archetype?
Finding commonalities in the people who work there is an excellent place to start. Are they geeks? Do they say stuff like “yeet” or “grok?” Do they love sports? It sounds obvious, but what we like shapes what we care about.
I’ve never met a Star Trek fan who didn’t want to make the world a better place, and I never met a Lebron James fan who didn’t love talking openly and passionately about their hot takes.
Does the work indicate values?
Nope. When you’re pleasing clients and trying to win awards, you can pretend to be anything. So don’t use that fancy project as your yardstick. Focus on the consistency — or better yet — listen to them describe it.
If they have a story about the coworkers they worked with or have a long account about how cool or fun something was, that’s a better indicator. If they did a Twitch activation and talk about how they fooled those gamers — toss them a Molotov and hoof it to the nearest airport.
What does your biggest fan care about?
Find your mentor. Find your mentor. Find your mentor. It’s the only cliched advertising advice that isn’t rife with exceptions.
At the end of my job search, I went to work for a fellow weirdo. He had a graying beard, wrote crazy scripts, and wore flannel like it was a uniform. His art director had a bigger beard and wore even more flannel.
If it weren’t for them, the agency would have been a lonely place because agency life is monotonous. Shared values don’t just prevent worst-case scenarios; they give you someone to vent and laugh with on the small stuff.
That’s the weirdest lesson I’ve had in my first two years of agency life. Most days aren’t full of exciting work or explosions — they’re boring — and dull in a lousy agency is dangerous.
What if I can’t figure out the agency’s values?
If you can’t figure out their shared values, they might not have any.
Values are hard to determine. They’re hard to foster or cast off when inconvenient. They’re personal. They expose us. They make us appear weak — which most agencies don’t want.
No rule states a company has to have a culture or a shared set of values. Sometimes they don’t. In that way, toxic workplace culture often isn’t the presence of something terrible, but the absence of anything good.
Toxic workplaces are sometimes the product of having nothing to focus on besides deadlines, clients, budgets, and making things “work.” That’s what you have to worry about the most.
Are values a perfect replacement for workplace culture? No.
There’s no way to know for sure what an agency’s like, but I’m convinced workplace culture is especially useless. It’s a buzzword. Culture is not a means to an end, it’s just the end product, and none of it has to be real.
So don’t bother thinking or talking about workplace culture. You’re going to spend your entire career making campaigns and selling brands, why bother consuming the agency’s?
This article is for the young creatives looking for a job, I was in that boat two years ago, and I’m happy to have washed up where I am now.