Once upon a time I was Planning Director at a now defunct digital marketing agency called Blonde. Our values were Flair, Action, Rigour. We chose those values as a strategic remedy for growing pains in the business. We defined them to affect a shift in culture, underpinned by some universal behaviours. The change in culture would come from common behaviours, which would come from the values. Hence, ‘values as culture as strategy’. Whilst these values were specific to Blonde, the thinking and the approach can be applied generally to any service business.
Thank you to De:strukt Studio for allowing me to use images of their work on the mural that used to adorn the back wall of the Blonde office in Edinburgh.
The Wild West of digital marketing
In my LinkedIn profile, I describe Blonde as a swashbuckling digital agency. And therein lies this tale. Blonde was founded in 2006, the year after YouTube, the year before Facebook rolled out in the UK, a year before the first iPhone. The internet had existed for years but this period felt like the Wild West for digital marketing. Every project for every client was innovative. They couldn’t not be, because so little of what we were doing had been done before. And digital marketing people in client organisations were an adventurous and optimistic breed, happy to experiment and usually operating outside of the well-established risk management processes that governed things like NPD and advertising.
So Blonde was a start-up in the middle of what felt like the Big Bang for digital marketing. Maybe everyone was swashbuckling and we were no different but, for a while at least, it was acceptable, maybe even inevitable, for our modus operandi to involve a seat of the pants approach at times.
The thing about white knuckle rides is that they make for great stories after the event, if you survive, but they can be a lot less fun at the time. At our best Blonde was bold in outlook and bombproof on process. But we were inconsistent on the delivery side. As we grew, and as clients came to expect our discipline to be more disciplined, we needed more structure, more efficiency and more predictability in our lives. Our best needed to be the rule.
Values as culture
Some of that predictability would be provided by tighter, repeatable processes. Some of that structure would be provided by strategic decisions about which platforms we would and wouldn’t develop on. But we needed a shift in culture as well.
Culture is a function of customary behaviours. We wanted to retain the useful behaviours from our swashbuckling past, and augment them with new behaviours that, if adopted by everyone, would move the culture to a more disciplined desired state. But, ‘if adopted by everyone’ is obviously a big if. For this to happen, the target behaviours would need to be universally relevant to everyone in the agency. The target behaviours would need to be conspicuously adopted and modelled by senior people. And the target behaviours would need to be precisely, simply and, most importantly, memorably expressed.
We decided to define a set of values that would (in theory) make more disciplined behaviours inevitable, at the same time as recommitting the agency to the curious, adventurous spirit that made Blonde what it was.
What common attributes and behaviours do our people and teams exhibit when we are working at our best?
To this point, Blonde had never explicitly documented its values. In the early years we’d all intuitively, almost telepathically, known what they were, and acted accordingly. But as an organisation grows it reaches a point at which this telepathy breaks down. You can no longer take it for granted that your values are intuitively obvious to everyone. Without some kind of corporate scripture to work from, your culture becomes listless and you lose your voice. We decided that our scripture would take the form of shared values. More specifically, we defined our values on the basis of the attributes that we most valued in our people. Our values were an answer to the question, ‘What common attributes and behaviours do our people and teams exhibit when we are working at our best?’
The method by which we defined these values was relatively loose and informal. And it was entirely internal. I’d usually argue that it is essential for a brand definition project to be informed by primary research among clients or customers. In this case, because we all worked at the coal face of client relationships, we felt that we had a decent enough grasp of what they liked about us at our best. More importantly, the model that we had adopted was deliberately inward-looking. It was about our people and their attributes. So the research was internal, our people talking about our people, our people talking about us at our best, our people talking about job satisfaction, teamwork, trust, and fun.
We distilled these conversations down to the values of Flair, Action, Rigour. And for each of these values we could define associated behaviours for any person in any department, or any team on any project.
- FLAIR – all about deep expertise, original thinking, and elegant solutions
- ACTION – all about being proactive, embracing change, and making progress
- RIGOUR – all about establishing solid ground and exercising due diligence
The values were designed to establish and embed customary behaviours and thus have a positive influence on culture. That’s what we meant by values as culture.
Values as culture as strategy
How would these values work as a pragmatic strategic framework?
Firstly, the values were universally relevant. They had meaning for anyone at any level in any role. For instance, flair in the dev team would be evident in the economy of someone’s code. Flair for a finance person might mean a proactive suggestion for more useful ways of collating and presenting management information. Flair in a testing role might have meant a proposal for the early adoption of automated QA techniques. Any one of us could demonstrate a flair for listening and bringing out the best in our colleagues.
Secondly, the meaning behind each value could be made specific, personal and action-oriented in job descriptions. The values could provide structure to appraisal and coaching conversations. What Flair, Action and Rigour behaviours are expected of you in your current role? How will those expectations change over time as you career progresses? And what support should you expect from the agency to make that progression? Culture is a function of customary behaviours, and these values provided a basis for regular, formal and informal conversations with everyone in the agency about shared behaviours that would move our culture in the desired direction.
Going FAR at Blonde.
Finally, the values were memorable. They make the three letter acronym FAR. Under the banner of ‘Going FAR at Blonde,’ they allowed us to talk about attributes and behaviours that would be encouraged and rewarded. These mnemonic devices are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but they are deceptively powerful. New values are fragile and take time to put down roots. They are often met with cynicism, which can only be addressed by an inclusive development process, and by palpable commitment during and after the launch. There is great risk in under-communicating. But, in my experience, it is impossible to over-communicate in these situations.
What might have been and what should be
There is a lot of conditional language in this post – woulds and coulds rather that dids. That’s because sadly none of this detailed implementation work came to pass. Before we had time to roll out these plans in earnest, Blonde was merged with two sister agencies. Blonde’s brand new values and theirs were ripped up, and I had to do the exercise all over again, but differently, for the new agency which was called Signal. So this is a case study that lacks a results section. I do solemnly believe, however, that all the ingredients were in place for this to have worked as planned. The ingredients, which are applicable to any service business are as follows:
- A short list of precise and emotive values. None of your bland usual suspects.
- Values that are authentic and tell the truth. In this case the truth of the agency at its best.
- Values defined as the attributes that the organisation values, and is seen to value, in its people.
- Values that are universally relevant to any person at any level in any role.
- Values that translate into common behaviours for everyone, and specific behaviours for each individual, and which can be easily and conspicuously modelled by senior people.
- Values that therefore form the basis of regular, meaningful conversations about desirable behaviours with all members of staff.
- Values with vitality that have a positive impact on culture, rather than empty statements stuck on the wall.
- Values memorably expressed so that they are almost impossible to forget.
- Values which focus on the internal workings of the organisation, but which make the organisation attractive to external audiences such as potential clients and potential recruits.
- Values as culture as strategy.