You learn a thing or two as the managing director of an advertising agency.
Like what makes a good agency tick.
Like what motivates good people.
Like how it feels when the agency’s heart is in the right place.
I was fortunate enough to be given temporary stewardship of such an agency for six years of my career.
The agency in question was a bona fide challenger shop. It was based in Edinburgh but regularly won pitches against London and international agencies. And its client list was choc full of challenger brands in markets such as beer, cars, banks, soft drinks, media, whisky, you name it.
I must have taken about a hundred staff meetings during that time, covering all sorts of topics, sharing both good news and bad.
In effect, and with hindsight, those staff meetings were a series of all-agency focus groups.
I prepared a discussion guide for each one.
And I observed collective and individual reactions to a range of stimuli and messages.
Here is my debrief of that research.
Here, in reverse order of importance, are the four things that matter most to the staff of a healthy agency.
4. Good news about money
Glad tidings about the financial performance of the agency, glad tidings about pay rises, or glad tidings about bonuses tended to receive a lukewarm reaction. That does not indicate a lack of gratitude or a lack of concern. Rather it is the lukewarm reaction one gets when people’s minimum expectations have been met.
Everyone here is talented.
Everyone works hard.
The output is good.
We’ve done our job. And if management has done its job, why wouldn’t the agency be profitable?
Why wouldn’t we all share in the spoils?
Financial good news is a hygiene factor in a good agency and is treated as such.
3. Good news about new business.
The agency always responded well to pitch wins.
It responded to what we had won, and it responded to whom we had beaten to win it.
Looking forward, what kind of opportunities would this new client afford? (What’s in it for me/us as employees?)
And looking back, against whom had we been weighed, measured and not found wanting? (Affirmation of the calibre of my employer.)
2. Personal recognition and progression.
Loud, heartfelt cheers, always, when individuals were called out for great contributions and when promotions were announced.
It’s a decent acid test of culture, I think, how people react to colleagues and peers doing well.
Of course there will be an element of professional jealousy and that is no bad thing if it is constructively channeled.
But it speaks volumes when the overriding emotion is one of vicarious pleasure. Confident, secure people draw comfort and inspiration when they see evidence that they are working in an environment in which progression is possible or probable, even if it is not their turn this time.
1. Showcasing new work.
By a mile, by a country mile, the best, the warmest, the loudest and the longest lasting reactions were reserved for new work.
(It goes without saying that we only showed work of which we were proud at staff meetings.)
“We did this.” (spoken.)
“And every other agency in the UK is going to be as jealous as hell.” (not spoken but understood and appreciated by everyone in the room.)
The work mattered more than all the other types of good news put together.
The work was our Why as well as our What.
Everything else was about How.
And that is the way it should be if an agency has its purpose, it’s priorities and its people right.