Every marketing firm is unique, but many end up sounding and looking the same.

agency culture branding pack of dogs

“Hire me!” Clients often end up on this end of a pack of agencies all asking for their business. How can you pick one? How would you? What stands out?

The key question is why? Marketing firms, from traditional ad agencies to creative hot shops to specialty firms, all have a difficult time finding a way to create a unique brand that stands out in the market. Too many of these marketing firms say similar things about themselves: that they’re creative, full service, win awards, fun, and so on. This verbiage becomes a wall of words that ends up sounding the same to clients.

So what is truly unique about each of these firms? Unless you have something that is unique, an industry focus or a specialty, it can be nothing more than the agency’s leadership style.

Leadership style drives each marketing firm’s culture. Culture can be felt as soon as you walk through the doors into any marketing firm. It’s the one thing, doesn’t matter if you work at it or not, that every agency has. It’s a very real feeling everyone gets as they walk through your door. Generally, strong cultures go hand-in-hand with strong brands. If you want your brand to stand out in the market, start with identifying your marketing firm’s culture and use that to help drive your brand.

Everything a marketing firm does is a reflection of its culture. It’s everything you and your leadership team do: your management style, Twitter feeds, blog post, discussion points, articles, office space, and more. It’s how you manage and reward your staff, how you treat your clients, how well you play in your community at large. And it’s something prospects notice. It’s one of those hidden factors in new business success – or failure.

The culture you create is nothing more than a system of shared values, beliefs, and activities that unite your staff. It’s that intangible feeling about “the way things are done around here.” Culture affects how your staff feels and acts. It affects the types of people that are attracted to your marketing firm and it shows in new business. If you let your culture drift without direction, you may end up projecting the wrong image. And this often happens at the worst possible time.

The key to establishing and creating a strong marketing firm culture is to identify consistency in attitude, action, and style. A strong culture makes it easier for marketing firms to maintain their individuality, their focus, and their direction. Marketing firms that adhere to a well thought-out culture are less likely to be sidetracked by the fickleness of client pressure or vagaries in the marketplace.

Essentials in the development of a strong agency culture:

  1. Top Down: Culture starts at the very top. Without the active participation and support of agency leaders, culture ends up being driven by the strongest personalities – perhaps one that is toxic.
  2. Purpose Driven: Have a strong point of view about the “who and what” your agency stands for. State your purpose for being in one simple sentence. Make it simple, real, and most of all, true.
  3. Value Based: Make sure you’ve established a clear set of values that everyone in the agency practices. No excuses. Publish them. Publicly show them on your walls.
  4. Holistic: Anything and everything that is a reflection of your agency brand should be in line with your values. From business cards to titles, make sure everything syncs with your culture.
  5. Consistent: Everyone in the agency must do more than just follow the stated values, but know them, live them, believe in them. You must find a way to recognize the type of behavior you strive for, and eliminate behavior that runs counter to your values. Inconsistent handling of behavior is a culture killer.

Your culture is being defined all the time. A few agencies work hard to define and promote their culture. Most just end up happening. If leadership does not take charge of controlling the agency’s culture, the market and competitors will. And you may not like the result.

Take time and fix your brand today: How To Brand Your Marketing Firm

Toxic Agency Culture Leadership Lesson:

Many years ago I was hired by the local office of a large global agency to do a review of their operations. It was a very successful office, well-recognized and rewarded for their work. The global name and famous brand had sustained them for many good years. Sadly the past few years had been a struggle. It was becoming difficult to keep good staff, and they hadn’t won any new business or awards in years. It seemed too difficult to get any work out the door, and the clients were complaining it was off strategy or late. In short, the agency was looking for some answers.

As soon as I walked through the door, I could feel something was off. There was a lack of energy in the office, no buzz, and the staff had that cautious look one gets when waiting for the other shoe to drop. After spending a week with various departments, interviewing staff, conducting process review sessions and pouring over old projects, the feeling was stronger than ever – but I could not figure out what was wrong. Nobody was talking.

The operational issues were easy enough to address. The agency suffered from departments that were overstaffed, or understaffed, or suffering from a lack of leadership and or direction. These issues could be fixed with a little research and planning, and I soon had an action plan designed to address the shortcomings. But I still could not identify the source of this feeling something was wrong. I could fix the operational issues easily enough, but the culture, the source of this odd vibe, was proving difficult to isolate.

Throughout the staff interviews I asked and probed as much as I could and, at some point I hit a wall. With my time running out, I decided to dig deeper. I offered to take some of the young account executives out for drinks. If you want to get the inside scoop at any agency, get some of the younger staff out and feed them drinks. Soon enough the truth came out. One of the young staff members took me aside and told me the real story.

It seemed one of the very top officers was using his position to take advantage of some of the younger staff. I’ll leave out the details, but it was an open secret within the agency, and one that the senior management team had addressed years ago. Or so they thought. The leadership team felt they had corrected this issue years ago and had moved on. But it was still going on.

The staff felt the leadership team was just turning a blind eye to the issue. Any new staff quickly figured it was “the way things were done around here” and moved on. Over time it became business as usual. But it was having a direct impact on employee morale, culture, and clients. Good staff left for brighter futures, the bad ones stayed. I’m sure the clients and prospects had the same feeling I did when they came by for a visit.

I immediately addressed the issue with the CEO and advised him this situation had to change – fast – or it would kill the agency. Together we engaged their HR team, legal counsel and some of the best advisors in the business at handling this type of situation. A quick action plan was developed to get this senior officer out of the agency, save the client relationships, and restore trust with the employees. Within a few days the plan was put in action. The senior leader was removed from the agency, the leadership team briefed, staff informed, clients contacted, and a page was turned.

A few months later I returned to the office, and you could feel the difference. The new organization structure was humming along. The younger and smaller leadership team was active and engaged. There was vibrancy, a buzz in the office, and staff was no longer hiding. After my last meeting, the entire agency was on hand to give me a very nice gift for all the hard work. A few years later they were recognized as one of the hot creative shops, and went on to win many awards.

Every marketing firm on the planet is unique, but there are only so many ways you can describe creative thinking, advertising, direct, PR, design and marketing. This makes it very difficult for most marketing firms to stand out. If you maintain a strong culture this can help you create a lasting point of differentiation from your competition.


Photo by S. Carter and used under creative commons.