Word Of The Year: Culture

Merriam Webster named Culture as the number-one word of the year. I’m going to talk about that because everyone talks about that in an agency.

As in, “We have an awesome culture!”

One of the definitions given by MW:

a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

Does anyone really know what culture in an organization is?

When I talk to agency folks, it usually comes down to

  • ·        we have an open workspace
  • ·        I can work any hours I want
  • ·        I can work from home
  • ·        we have free food in the kitchen
  • ·        there’s a keg of micro-brew in the gameroom
  • ·        I can bring my dog to work

When I look online for articles about agency culture, usually find something like this from AdAge.

From the article: "There's a vibe that you get from a place that feels contemporary and fun, and another you get from a place that feels like a sweatshop."

Written from the AdAge perspective, there are only two options. So I guess I’ve been working in sweatshops.  

Read a little further in the piece, we find 10 items listed that, they say, define culture.

Every single one of those items is superficial. A lighthearted newsletter or talent show don’t a culture make.

Culture is deep, and it exists without all that . . . stuff.

Culture is the mutual trust that management and staff have in one-another. It is the ability to voice an idea or opinion that is considered by others without fear of ridicule or retribution. It is simply thinking about others down-the-line – are you doing your part / making everything clear / tying up loose ends – so the next person in line can do their job without a whole bunch of extra work?

Doing a good job; being considerate, giving your colleagues an assist (without being asked), being inclusive and basically not being a jerk. And apologizing when you are.

It’s all the stuff we (should have) learned growing up. No, you’re not priviledged, you don’t always get your way or win a prize; perks are nice but not required to work in a culturally cool place.

Culture is organic. It’s not an outing, space age building or bringing your dog to work.

It’s enjoying the people you work with and loving-the-hell out of the work you do.

It’s actually liking going to work.

Management can foster this in any environment. I’ve had some of my best experiences in a cramped, crappy office with the lone amenity of a fridge for my sack lunch.

Management can kill this in any environment too. Even an onsite brewpub and doggie daycare can’t fix an absent, condescending stuffed shirt.

We all have jobs to do. Do yours well. It makes everything in the agency much easier. That includes managers, partners, veeps, and chiefs.

Now get to work, then go pet the dog and have a beer.

Whistleblowers, Responsibility And My Life Before Advertising

Hard to believe it, but I actually had a job or two before advertising. (By the way, this story relates to any workplace).  I worked in the Auto Industry – for a division of Ford Motor Company, and later, for a division of Toyota of America.

I have seen a lot of shoddy work roll off the line that really doesn’t have to be. It’s frustrating, and bottom line, it’s all about responsibility, caring and culture.

Last week I wrote about management putting process (or tools, or just have a real culture, for crying out loud) in place so they know what’s going on – and can act on issues that affect anything from their bottom line to their customers.

I noted a few instances of where leaders [claimed they] “didn’t know” and I called B.S. on that.

One of those instances was faulty ignition switches – which is the latest big issue that GM is addressing.

An article on Bloomberg Businessweek about whistleblower Courtland Kelley talks about his efforts to alert GM management of issues which were met with, well, they didn’t want to hear about it. Mr. Kelley’s predecessor was demoted for making an issue of defects and was removed from his position; and Kelley who continued to make management aware of problems (more than the ignition switch), finally sued GM. GM denied there were problems, the judge sided with GM (that judge should be removed), and Kelley was demoted. He was a lifetime GM employee reduced to doing stuff that doesn’t upset anyone.

It is a really lonely place to be when you decide to take serious issues to management. In Kelley’s case, these were life-and-death issues. And the really heinous part was (and still is) an issue of cost – it was “too expensive” for GM to recall and repair the vehicles.

I can’t even imagine what Mr. Kelley felt when he read about the fatalities that he knew were a result of GM’s inaction – issues he warned them about. In writing. Multiple times.

Is it really cheaper to pay restitution to the victims’ families than to recall and fix those defects out on the road?


So, way back when, I worked at Ford. Actually, it was a Predelivery Service plant where we did a few tweaks, like alignments; installed a few accessories; fixed any minor damage done during transit (via rail car); and basically made the car clean and pretty for the dealer. The shop had everything from mechanics, to body and paint, to detailers.

It was the early- mid-seventies and the gas crisis hit. I was laid off three times during those glorious times, but while I was working, I first did claims – both damage claims during transit that the rail carrier paid, and warranty claims that were paid by Ford; then I became an inspector. As an inspector, there were things I could see – the hold-down broke during transit (from the Midwest to Oregon), and along the way the car bounced around and got pretty beat up; and things I couldn’t see – usually the warranty stuff . . . like missing piston rings or brake pads.

We documented everything we found to be a problem and fixed every car. Those warranty claims always went to Ford corporate. I have to wonder if they ever tracked trends.

We jokingly called ourselves Final Assembly.

I worked there when the Pinto was rolling off the line like mad because it was Ford’s only fuel-efficient car. We had no idea it was so faulty that it would eventually be pulled from production due to dangerous design.

Segue to keeping management informed  . . .

The point is, telling the truth is really important. That’s where culture comes in. There have to be channels for employees to advance issues to management. Employees have to not only feel safe raising the red flag, but able to do so without fear of retaliation.

At least at Ford, I had the warranty claims process to inform management. What they did with that data is a mystery.

But as for Mr. Kelley, he told the truth – and then, due to stonewalling by his bosses, even sued the company for not taking action. They rewarded him with demotion, humiliation and an end to his career that was far from what he ever planned.

But we all have to go with our conscience. GM’s management went with their pocketbook.

I have raised issues many times and have been shot down more often than been a witness to change. If they don’t know about it, they can’t fix it – right? I can never shake the feeling that if it seems wrong, it is usually wrong. I have to speak up.

As much as we hate to bring something that went horribly wrong to our boss, it really is much cheaper to fix it now than later. Damage control is hard, expensive and hangs on forever.

Do what’s right. Use all your channels, and as I said before, do it diplomatically.

Management, at any level, can be a bunch of jerks. Be prepared for whatever happens. Save your email – send them to yourself. You just never know when your hard drive at work will crash, or IT won’t be able to recover your saved emails.

Oh, and my stint at Toyota? In thousands of cars that were processed while I was there (they came by ship from Japan back then), I only saw one – really one – with a defect: a broken tie-rod. Of course that was a long time ago, before they too became greedy and started ignoring issues.

We’re learning a lot about culture here, so pay attention.

How does your agency or company work with employees who ask questions or enlighten management about issues with regard to product, workplace or improvements?

You can develop great ideas, turn out great work, enjoy your job – and management is there to support and promote you all along the way.

That’s why we do what we do. That’s when we have jobs we love. That is great culture.

When Management Knows What’s Going On

Earlier this week I wrote about management taking responsibility and having the tools (and even more so culture) in place to know what’s going on.

And that includes responding to issues – hopefully having the wherewithal to respond.

Part 1: Know what’s going on

Part 2: Responding in an intelligent, thoughtful way

Therefore, when issues arise – and they always will – how management responds is a highly reliable barometer of how engaged they actually are. Are they attending to their own agendas or are they looking out for the firm?

A great culture is evident when the bosses put all the personal stuff and political crap aside and do what’s best for the firm – that means the product they produce and the people who create it have priority. But . . . there has to be great culture in order for that to happen.

Kind of a chicken-or-egg thing.

Now, I have worked for awesome companies and agencies that truly care about employees, the product and profit – only to have one employee (in a key position) completely f*ck things up. That person is usually in HR, but I digress. . .(why is HR such a pain?).

So I find it a complete mystery - and really sad - when an agency or a company has to have an anonymous suggestion box, or worse, do a survey to take the pulse of the employees to reveal any issues that are causing grief.

Surveys are usually anonymous, but these days, no one truly believes that.

I can go one step further. One step that's worse:

Holding formal queries of staff to get their un-censored take on the firm, their department, their boss and their colleagues.

Total transparency some say, and complete vulnerability I say.

I have worked in and with several places that have done just that.

I was always candid.

I thought my employer [finally] cared enough to really know what was happening – and how I thought we could make it better. They wanted my input!

What happened next? Absolutely nothing came of those gut-wrenching episodes.

So you’ve poured your heart out – both about issues that need resolution in a serious way, and heartfelt, intelligent ways to make it better – and now management knows more about you and your great ideas that you know about them.

Would I take another survey? Yes. I̶’̶m̶ ̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶t̶e̶r̶n̶a̶l̶ ̶o̶p̶t̶i̶m̶i̶s̶t̶.̶  I’m a pragmatist, so I’ll be honest within reason.

When I’m asked for my unfettered opinion on issues and recommendations for improvements I will always give them. Diplomatically. It can’t be personal. It has to be about getting the work done, identifying the roadblocks and gaps, and finding solutions.

That is what I do every day for every client.

That is what you should do if you’re ever asked open-ended questions on a survey.

Be realistic. If management is asking you to tell them something they should already know, do so with focus and clarity on problem/solution.

Maybe they do care enough to query staff and make improvements and things will get better. However, if it all remains the same, prepare your resume or settle to keep doing the same things in the same way with the same frustrations. It can be “just a job.”

For me, as a consultant, I talk to every single employee and get their take on issues and improvements. I never reveal sources and I’m always totally honest with management on what needs fixing and ways to implement change.

That’s my job. Whether management chooses to adopt it is a different issue.

Therein lies the culture of a firm.

Really. Boring. Stuff. But Agency Life Will Be Better.

I’ve been reading about Kanban (as it relates to software development) and The Theory of Constraints.

It’s really super-boring when you read this stuff and apply it to an advertising agency. But there are a few nuggets in there.

In my line of work, I’m all about Process, Tools and People.

A.     Process – how you get stuff done, start-to-finish
B.     Tools – what you use to do your stuff, communicate about your stuff, and store your stuff
C.   People – the people who do the stuff and their willingness to do A, and use B

It’ll all come together. And by the way, I don’t like to use jargon unless I’m looking to confuse my audience. (yes I know you’re all highly intelligent folks, but Orwell said it best:  “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” My everyday word is stuff.

So The Theory of Constraints, as identified in Wikipedia (my go to source for all things about organizational management) goes like this:

The theory of constraints (TOC) is a management paradigm that views any manageable system as being limited in achieving more of its goals by a very small number of constraints. There is always at least one constraint, and TOC uses a focusing process to identify the constraint and restructure the rest of the organization around it.

TOC adopts the common idiom "a chain is no stronger than its weakest link." This means that processes, organizations, etc., are vulnerable because the weakest person or part can always damage or break them or at least adversely affect the outcome.

It goes on…

Types of (internal) constraints

  • Equipment: The way equipment is currently used limits the ability of the system to produce more salable goods/services.
  • People: Lack of skilled people limits the system. Mental models held by people can cause behaviour that becomes a constraint.
  • Policy: A written or unwritten policy prevents the system from making more.

So I could repackage these three constraints as:

A.     Tools – inadequate, redundant, time-consuming
B.     People – unskilled, unmotivated, crappy attitude
C.   Policy – the notion that you are maxed-out and have to say no, or worse, you outsource because A and B were not addressed (aka process – you actually think you have one – but you don’t actually follow it)

Now as for Kanban (as it relates to software development – which is kind of like the process in advertising) – is all about efficient process and improvement. In other words, one that is free of the baggage and crap we load onto a project (or anything for that matter) – which could be an attitude or too many bells and whistles for that website you’ve been trying to get done…for months.

The Kanban method is rooted in four basic principles:

  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  • Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles
  • Leadership at all levels

Now, I’ll repackage Kanban as:

A.     Don’t re-invent the wheel – there’s actually a nugget of process in there. You start a project; it goes through your machine and comes out the other end, finished. Your process is probably messy – it just needs tweaking
B.     Get along, make it better and don’t be an asshole about it. You can actually work with others to improve life at the agency (and it doesn’t require dogs in the office or Beer Fridays), and realize it takes a little time and a bit of input
C.     Respect the things that work, don’t cross into another’s territory, and be honest with one another for cripes sakes
D.    Own the project, the process and give credit. There are huge benefits, like making more money and not hating coming to work every day

So, before you fall asleep I’ll wrap this up into a neat little package. Take a look at the issues in your agency or marketing department (your constraints). What’s driving everyone nuts? What's too cumbersome and taking too much time? Who's not pulling their weight, or worse, being a jerk?

Start practicing a little Kanban and get things done without so much grief.

Yep, that’s a start. Need help? Give me a call (702-370-7447). The first one’s free. I’ll do a little Kanban magic and figure out what constraints are ailing ya.

A couple parting items:
Here’s a lovely link to Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing
Here’s a link to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Read it.

What Is Agency Culture? Beer? Billiards?

Yes, I usually work on electronics whilst drinking suds.  Credit where credit's due: "Image courtesy of marin/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net".

Yes, I usually work on electronics whilst drinking suds.

Credit where credit's due: "Image courtesy of marin/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net".

I just read the People page of Bernstein-Rein’s website

It says:

“Culture is about so much more than a ping-pong table. Which is why we also have shuffleboard, foosball, billiards, beer on tap, a candy dispenser, a Beauty Brands retail store, a spectacular view of the Kansas City skyline and pens with our company logo. But the truth is, our most valuable asset is our people.

We are artists, scientists, strategists, technologists, storytellers and data analysts. And every day, we put ourselves in the same room and figure out how to make an impact on the brands we serve. This is the approach that defines who we are and how we work. Also, we have a professional-grade coffee bar.”

I’ve written about it before, agency culture is more than beer Fridays and billiards. Or bringing your dog to work.

So when an agency defines their culture by the stuff they have for their employees, it makes me wonder what culture really consists of. (I know that by using this example they're gonna be hatin' on me.)

Don’t get me wrong, this agency looks like a great place to work, but if you take away all that . . . stuff . . . do they have a culture? Or does any agency without stuff have a culture, for that matter?

Back in the olden days, when I was actually employed by an agency, we all had separate offices. Yep, and collaboration worked really well. The good old days before open space, BYOD and, for cripes sakes, hotelling, sigh.

There were chairs, desks, drawing boards, pillows on the floor, Molskine notebooks, pencils and markers, an awesome library, and lots of people working in each-other’s offices.

We didn’t have billiards or beer on tap. However there was plenty of that downstairs in the bar – where we gathered quite regularly – sometimes before quitting time, but more often, hours later.

Granted that what the folks at B-R wrote about culture is clever, fun. But when you take that stuff away, does everyone leave the agency? Do they hate the partners?

I’ve talked to a lot of young creative folks over the years about where they want to work, and when they tell me they want to work for X Agency because they allow dogs or have a room dedicated to Xbox, I have to wonder . . . What happened to wanting the opportunity to work with the best agency and do the best work?

Do they know what advertising is about?

So to B-R, yes you got it right, because it takes all kinds – artists, scientists, and so on to do great creative – in the same room. That in itself creates the culture. The rest are perks.

Everyone should be grateful for the perks. Thank your partners for them, and then go and do great work.

Nothing Will Ever Change

I spend a lot of time with folks in agencies who are dealing with their fair share of grief.

Well maybe it isn’t fair. Or are they getting what they deserve?

Things aren’t going well: things are late, over budget or wrong; disagreements, arguments, or the ever-popular passive-aggressive collaboration.

Finger pointing. Blame game. No one accepts responsibility for anything.

Email folders brimming with CYA and little bombs you or a coworker are just waiting for the right moment to drop.

Stop it. What a waste of time.

I will tell you what’s wrong. Lack of leadership. Lack of clear direction. Mixed signals. And a staff that has become so jaded that they. . . Just. Don’t. Care.

My ex used to say, “Not to decide is to decide.” Awesome insight from someone who didn’t have much initiative. And yet, so true. If you don’t make a decision to act, it will be done for you – in one way or another.  

If there’s anything I have learned in all these years is that things will change. If you’re not part of initiating change, then what you are about to experience is a result of it. Then you feel like a victim of it.

You have no room to bitch. Sorry. 

When you sit back and wait for everything to get better, it won’t. Your days at work will remain shitty. And you can just sit there and keep on complainin’.

So, when an opportunity comes along to do something to improve how things work, get off your chair and give it a try.

Do not tell me that it’s too hard, too much work, it’s been tried before, it won’t matter anyway. . .

And tell your manager to get on the stick. They have a job to do too.

Things will never change is a lament for losers.

And truthfully, nothing stays the same way forever. Be a part of making things better. The alternative is that you get fired for being lazy or the agency goes out of business because no one cares.

There, it was decided for you.

Are You Happy At Work?

I’ve been thinking about happiness at work recently. I dwell on this a lot actually. I dwell because I’m usually called upon to work with clients who are experiencing challenges. Projects are late, over budget, clients are beating up the AEs regularly (and the AEs are allowing it), and everyone is generally pissy.

So I recalled an article I read a few months back on economywatch.nbcnews.com about Ken Bernanke tracking happiness.

What? He’s tracking happiness? Maybe he should stick to tracking the economy, gifts to banks – and bankers, and well, I don’t have to tell you…

From the article:

"The Federal Reserve chairman said Monday that gauging happiness can be as important for measuring economic progress as determining whether inflation is low or unemployment high. Economics isn't just about money and material benefits, Bernanke said. It is also about understanding and promoting "the enhancement of well-being."

So the article goes… "The Kingdom of Bhutan has been tracking happiness for four decades. The tiny Himalayan nation stopped tracking gross national product in 1972 and instead switched to measuring Gross National Happiness."

Just like out there in that big old world, when you get really local – like right there, in your office – there are measurements that must be taken and reviewed. It’s how you get the best out of everyone, eliminate (at least reduce) frustration, and just make it a better place to work. 

The article goes on to say:

“Bernanke's own definition of happiness might baffle anyone without an advanced degree. He called it a "short-term state of awareness that depends on a person's perceptions of one's immediate reality, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes."”

Which also in itself a caution: don’t make it complicated. Happiness at work is simple:

Do your employees feel they have some control over the processes and outcome? And if not, perhaps it’s time to fix that.

And maybe start with: is anyone happy?

Of course I had to add kids and puppies. It's so simple.