Blog: The three ingredients of a winning agency

Michael Brown, managing director of psLIVE takes a look at what makes an award-winning agency: vision, values and diversity.

Michael Brown talks about the importance of the 'c' word - culture
Michael Brown talks about the importance of the 'c' word - culture

"And the winner of Brand Experience Agency of the Year is psLIVE!"

My delight in hearing those words, coming to me as unexpectedly as they did, during Event’s newly-transformed Event Awards at the Hammersmith Apollo last month, also arrived as a moment of self-realisation: in that joyous and very public instant, I recognised in myself how so very badly I had wanted to hear them.

The psLIVE table erupted – a Vesuvius of skyward drinks, whoops, hugs, air punching and mile-wide grins suggesting that, like me, the rest of the team also desired to be similarly blessed as winners. We were a microcosm of the room – everyone wanted to win so very badly and as you would expect, quite a few others in the room did just that. Claire Stokes, founder of The Circle Agency, Chris Dawson founder of The Field, Phil Edelson, chief exectuive of Mash and Kate Woodcock, senior experiential consultant at Major Players, join me to take a look at the vital signs of a winning agency:

The C Bomb

The obvious tick boxes include factors such as having a strong leadership team and a clearly articulated vision. A marked year-on-year growth would also help to impress any judges, while a commitment to innovation and possessing a differentiated offer to your peers should combine to see the agency consistently doing great work for great clients. Who would think twice if you stopped right there and said those things were enough to win? For sure, I would claim all of these benchmarks for psLIVE, but to describe the single most important factor that underpins agency success I am going to have to drop the C bomb on you: culture.

Culture is a bullet. It ricochets around the corridors and meeting rooms of any organisation. Senior managers are so hot for culture it’s almost unseemly, but is it an apparition? Has the heat caused them to see a mirage in a desert where the only culture is in working long hours? Is it possible to make culture tangible? What are the base ingredients and how long do you put it in the oven for? 

I am probably not alone in my belief that great culture starts with a vision. I tend to think of it as both a destination (not necessarily one I will arrive at) and a means of transport: it’s where an agency wants to be and how it will get there.

If the culture is the way in which the people within an organisation collectively act to achieve a vision, then the way they act also has to be defined within a set of values. It is no good being a winner if there is a trail of dead bodies all the way to the podium. At least not in a people-focussed industry like ours. Let’s face it, vision stands for zilch without a team to engage with it.  

The people an agency selects to join its ranks should be recruited with vision and values to the fore, which is different to singularly focussing on ability and experience in a role. If, in the interview process, you are looking to see if a candidate stacks up favourably against your vision, then I would contend that you are ensuring the evolution of your culture is no happy accident. Your values are like clay on a potter’s wheel. Turn it on, roll up your sleeves and shape it into a culture shaped vase!

Phil Edelston, founder and chief executive of Mash, winners of Staffing Agency of the Year at the Event Awards has a similar outlook: "We look for identifiable qualities in all of the candidates who want to work with us. By being clear about what our values are, we feel we hire the right people who all buy into that ethos and help feed into a winning culture."  

However he goes on to confess to things not always being this way. "When we were smaller it felt like culture was something that the guys just got on the office floor, as they were working closely with me. In getting bigger we have realised how powerful an exercise it can be to identify and communicate company values and this is something we have now invested in."

Guiding principles

Claire Stokes, founder and managing director of The Circle Agency, knows what it is to be an agency of the year. She has identified the guiding principles around which her agency is built and enshrines these in every company communication. This includes an internal annual awards system in which The Circle Agency team are celebrated for bringing the values to life within their work."

"If you focus your teams efforts on their ability to deliver what really matters to the client, the awards naturally follow," she said. "Over the years we have successfully developed a culture that thrives on innovation and creativity, but never, ever, at the expense of delivering the client objectives and this is inherent in our company values. We have six values but my personal favourites are: be bold and innovate, put clients objectives first and be accountable."

Despite such ringing endorsement of the importance of values, Kate Woodcock, senior experiential consultant for top recruitment agency Major Players, confirmed that many agencies in our sector seldom brief her to recruit against agency values. "Not all agencies have their vision and values formally articulated. Many clients will brief us on the key functions of the job only," she said. 

Kate has a clever way of getting around this: "I will ask my client to describe the culture in their own words to tease out what their business is really like. This helps factor in cultural fit when looking for a person for the role. My end goal is not to just find someone who can do the job - that’s usually easy. For me it’s about finding people who will also love the company and demonstrably show a passion for the client I’m presenting to them."

The importance of trust

Chris Dawson, founder of The Field, finalists in the Best Brand Experience - B2C category, is unequivocal on this point: "People are the raw materials of any agency. Therefore your recruitment techniques and processes could be viewed as the single most important strategic input into a business. One can never spend too much time honing the process by which you recruit and interview."

He also speaks passionately about the unpredictable nature of any given individual within a team ethos, and how this impacts on his culture. "Even with the best experience and attitude, we are sometimes unreliable as individuals. An agency needs to leverage the values of the team ethos. A well-focussed and galvanised team is strong and adaptable, able to innovate and overcome obstacles, and can rescue individual team members when they may need it. Therefore the potential of the whole team, its combined ethos, is really top of the list in factors of success."

Chris is of course talking about trust – perhaps the most important currency in terms of values. It is this singular value that drives his agency’s success. "Recommendation is widely accepted as the Holy Grail in any business," he said. "We understand that ‘trust’ is the bridge to that recommendation, therefore our job as marketers is to help consumers build trust with brand," he adds.

The benefits of diversity

Coming hand in hand with values is the similarly hot topic of diversity. My take on the February 2015 McKinsey and Company report Diversity Matters is that the D word (let’s call it that) is both a vision and a value. Winning is underpinned by financial performance. The authors of that report are very clear:

"More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity - for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency) - are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain diverse talent."

The Diversity Matters report examined data from 366 public companies in Canada, Latin America, the UK and the US. It contains a very illuminating conclusion: 

"The findings are clear, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians."

Putting this in context of that common output of agency life - the response to a brief. In any given year, those briefs collectively speak to every demographic profile under the sun, yet how often do we see a collection of people from one very common demographic in media life, (white, youthful, middle class) come together to respond to a brief against an audience they cannot possibly have much empathy with. Diversity of opinion, beliefs and life experience are required to bring the success you need to win more clients, win your team’s hearts and minds and yes, do well at the awards.

Referring back to the night at the Hammersmith Apollo, it is in such rare moments that your culture is celebrated; the way you specifically do business is held up as the right way of doing things. It does not matter what line of work you are in: whether a jury of your peers has voted you Britain’s Best Brand Experience Agency or the finest French polisher in Peterborough, the bonds between a group of people are gilded with the varnish of success to further strengthen your culture and justify your vision.

In turn this increases the likelihood of winning more stuff in the future. Drop the C Bomb and the gongs will gather in multitudes on your mantelpiece. To this, Claire Stokes added an advisory note as the last words: "What I would reiterate, is the importance of ensuring that your team values success, not by how many awards they win, but how many happy clients we have."

Hear, hear!

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