Game Changers in Big Agency Culture | LBBOnline
Advertising is often accused of tapping into young minds and putting in ridiculous hours while not paying the same amount as other industries that require the same levels of talent and commitment.
During our frequently occurring late nights, we often joke and fantasize about leaving agency life belatedly for something a little less “awful,” but the fact that we’re still around for the next presentation proves that there must be something wonderful about agency life to keep us here.
But how can we resolve this tension? How can we retain and amplify what is so great about working at an ad agency while minimizing the pain that has become so ingrained in the culture of our industry?
A call for volunteers, a generous budget, and an open brief
In the first half of 2021, our CEO emailed agency wide asking for volunteers for a team he was assembling. Aside from sitting in a management meeting once a month, this team will have a very generous budget and an open brief on how best to use those funds for the benefit of the agency.
The idea was about driving the culture from within and trusting that the people who know how to make employees happy are the employees themselves. Those interested simply had to reply to the email with a brief description of how they used the money.
After a few drinks on Friday, I chatted with a few colleagues about how it can be really fun to be part of a team. I decided to make a proposal that I thought was simple, highly achievable, and would have the greatest impact on the quality of my daily personal life at the office – using that money to provide the office with a wide range of free food and drinks. Other volunteers have suggested ideas such as looking at compensation, streamlining operations, or various other ways to improve the life of the agency.
And this is how the Game Changers, a team of six mid-level employees across departments, were formed.
A year later, we not only stocked up on more food and drinks in the office, but also fought for more rights to claim generous expenses, streamlined some frustrating internal procedures, introduced a mental health day, and launched a compensation vacation policy for weekend and holiday work, making Employees are finally allowed to take their weekends back. We have also hosted a lot of parties. As a result, not only does the agency feel like a better place to work, but according to our semi-annual engagement survey, recent employee satisfaction levels were among our best ever, increasing 15% over the year.
This is not just about fixing the culture of one agency, but the entire industry
In our discussions about Game Changer, we often come across problems that cannot be resolved because the problem is not the culture of our agency, but the culture of the entire industry (such as compensation and presentation fees). But on the flip side, we’ve also been inspired by and able to take initiatives that are already in place at other agencies in the market.
Realizing that fixing agency culture is also about fixing the culture of the entire industry prompted me to consider sharing what we’ve learned. By having more open conversations about how we can improve the culture of our industry, we can certainly collectively influence change for the better, destroying many of the toxic characteristics our industry is notorious for, and which so often contribute to alienating talent.
So, based on my experience as part of a team of game changers, who feel we have in fact changed the game, here are some tips for agency leaders who want to create a better work environment:
Humble leadership is the first step
The first step to fixing a problem is to acknowledge its existence. Our industry attracts a lot of big people at the top, and it’s very easy for egos to react intuitively. “If you’re not happy, don’t work here.” But that doesn’t get you anywhere, really talented people will simply go elsewhere.
Instead, asking for help with humility and sincerity will help you most of the time.
Put your money where your mouth is
Bill Birnbach once said, “A principle is not a principle until it costs you something.” We don’t want to admit it, but as I’ve noticed through countless internal initiatives, money is paramount in all of this. If you are serious about wanting to improve the agency’s culture, stick to a budget for it. Not everyone will have an opinion on how to improve culture, but everyone will have a say in how a significant amount of money is spent.
Amplification of less audible sounds
Let’s face it, agency life is, in many ways, the hardest for youngsters. The average executive or assistant technical director in your entry-level account spends the most hours, while receiving the least pay and recognition. Their posture is the one most in need of improvement, yet they are the group of people least likely to speak up. Unfortunately, management teams often fail to address their pain points because they either feel like everyone should “take their time” (just as they did), or they simply don’t remember what the daily grind is for beginners.
Success is when you activate the youngest and quietest employee to share an idea or proposal from their point of view. One of the ways we’ve been able to do this is just through the old suggestion box where people can submit ideas and complaints anonymously. But I’m sure every agency has had a suggestion box at some point that was empty in a corner…which brings me to my next point…
Show that you have listened… literally to every single suggestion
In our monthly town halls, there’s a session dedicated to game changers sharing what we’ve been up to in the past month. We’ve used that session every month to publicly share every suggestion or complaint we’ve received in our suggestion box – no matter how big or small it is, as well as how we and management aim to address it.
The day after the first engagement session took place, the suggestion box filled up instantly. Of course, we couldn’t provide a solution for every item that came up, but having one idea publicly acknowledged and discussed is empowering, and just encourages greater participation. Not every problem can be solved individually, but it is still important to have each conversation individually.
The smallest things matter more than you think
During our time as game-changers, we’ve fixed more small issues than big ones, in part because fixing them is more achievable, and also because we’ve received more suggestions for small issues than for big ones. Small suggestions like providing emergency sanitary pads in the women’s restroom, getting better coffee beans, and paying overtime that can be claimed half an hour in advance.
Serving better coffee may not solve the agency’s overall culture, but little things like this matter because they add to the quality of our daily lives. If we spend a lot of time working in the office, we should do our best to make this time as comfortable as possible.
Don’t forget to have fun
There is a reason why we all choose to stay in this industry despite the long hours and constant pressure. That’s because advertising is fun and attracts fun. Nobody is here just for the money.
I consider one of Game Changers’ greatest accomplishments to be the amount of fun we’ve had with the agency. We’ve had some great parties, and while this may seem superficial at first, I have to say that parties actually matter. After each gig, you see an overall boost in morale, and new friends being made across the departments. Just make sure you have a generous budget, and don’t let management plan it.
It was also the fun that made us change the game the most. Something like the Game Creators can only work when they are deep in the trenches. Old enough to be able to speak frankly with management, but also young enough that they haven’t lost touch with the business level. But it also means that they will be some of the busiest people in the agency. What drives us to do all this extra work voluntarily is simple. it is fun.
So invest in the fun of your agency, enable this and entrust it to the right people, watch the joy of people doing what they love in an environment they love doing, and having an impact on the business, clients, and your partners. And most of all, your people.
Yes, agency life is hard. So, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.
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