4 Reasons the Death of Agency Culture, a Vital Differentiator, Is Near

Disconnected talent and lack of real mission is behind the decline

Agency culture is dying a slow death for 4 main reasons. Getty Images

What makes one agency different from another, really? Judging from an informal sampling of the propaganda on many agencies’ websites, not that much on paper. However, the one true and demonstrable difference, as fleeting and intangible as it might be, is the individual agency culture. And beyond cooking up some groundbreaking patent, it’s the only true way to build something unique from the shop across the street.

An agency is a symbiotic organism, where the sum of talented people rubbing up against each other is greater than the abilities of the individual parts.

It’s a primordial soup of work, personalities, environment, the crummy or cool physical space, the remnants of history, the eclectic mix of clients, work, recognition, the paintings of the founders in the lobby, or the actual founder lounging in his office. Inside jokes. Lucky charms. Old shoot props. Meeting rituals. Culture. All of this has a direct effect on the output of the agency in ways as important as the impact of work they do, and as meaningful as how much people look forward to coming to work.

Once upon a time, all of the best-known agencies had a very distinct culture—they had a specific atmosphere, like the smell of their favorite dish cooking in the halls. Great agencies were similar to our favorite sports teams or bands; you could name the players and recite their greatest hits.

And then, at some fuzzy point in history not that long ago, the agency business began to evolve.

A while back, I joined a large and venerated advertising agency as its new creative director. Relishing the opportunity to work with new people and solve unfamiliar problems, I showed up early that first day, found my office, and then stepped out into a maze of empty desks.

“Where is everybody?” I asked. “Oh, they went to ‘concept’ at Starbucks,” I was told. As far as these folks were concerned, they had a pretty sweet gig. They came and went as they pleased, cashed their paychecks, and nobody bothered them. As far as I was concerned, that was the problem.

Our slavish dependence on servicing the latest piece business has degraded our sense of mission to the point where the mission is to simply stay in business. Survival is not a mission.

The challenge: If everyone is working in little groups at Starbucks or the bar down the street, then there is no “Agency,” at least not one that is any different than the other agencies in the phone book. If John Lennon and Paul McCartney are working at different Starbucks, there’s no Beatles. Sure, they might write music, but they won’t change the world. And that’s the power of culture. If everyone is in the office these interactions are forced to happen.

And that, Dear Reader, is increasingly under threat today.

Agency Culture is on the endangered species list for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s hard to say what came first. Some of these things we have control over, and some are just the inevitable curveballs the evolution of the business threw us. Here are four for your consideration:

The Internet

There is a lot of buzz around the idea of virtual reality in our industry right now (“Make the world your office!” some thought leaders opine). As the rise of connective technology has made working across time and space easier, it has blown our team up into disembodied voices echoing on a speakerphone, or ghosts remotely clicking through slides in a shared link.

In addition to all the great things it makes possible, the internet has also enabled a noxious cloud of “working from home” and “telecommuting” and other bullshit. Also, the “24-hour work day.” I know some of us are morning people and some are night, but if we are allowed to go that way we don’t get our eight hours a day of “Agency Culture.”

We are often in different cities or even continents, and while some see this as a triumph of progress I don’t see it as a huge secret that you get a lot more done in a one-hour face-to-face meeting than you do in a day of conference calls and email chains. Here’s a crazy idea: Let’s work to make the office our office because it’s really hard to build a culture when we have been reduced to a bunch a vaguely connected nodes, nibbling away at our work by the sickly glow of a laptop screen.

The rise of the downsizing phenomenon

Agencies have become casual daters of their staffs. They go out for a while and when things aren’t so fun anymore, they send a text telling them they’re sorry, but it’s just not working out. It used to be a lot harder to hire someone, and subsequently let them go. But between client procurement, Wall Street, the business constraints and razor-thin margins that are being increasingly imposed on us, it’s no wonder we have sunk to the drawing-straws-in-the-lifeboat mentality at many agencies.

The proliferation of project-based work

This deserves its own essay, but the fact that agencies are now tasked with running a business on these dead-end revenue streams has given rise to an unprecedented level of freelance staffing. Many of them are wonderful people. They are talented and yet won’t be around long enough to warm a chair. This army of freelancers floats from shop to shop, taking care of the latest surge in work. The challenge is, now the very same mob of talent is doing a broad cross section of work at different agencies on all kinds of business. It’s no coincidence that people complain that all advertising looks and feels the same. That’s the dilution of culture in action, because these days, a lot of that work is being done by the very same people.

A lack of mission

If you go to great agencies, they are all bound by a sense of “mission.” This may be articulated, or not, but there is a collective sense, from everyone there, that they are all in this together and on a journey towards something. Our slavish dependence on servicing the latest piece of business has degraded our sense of mission to the point where the mission is to simply stay in business. Survival is not a mission. I tell myself this every day.

The unique culture within continues to be what makes great companies stand apart, and why good clients take their business there. It is the DNA we unconsciously create with a million little decisions; from who we hire, to the creative we do to what we think is funny. And you can’t fake it. Some companies will buy a foosball table or stock a bar with curated microbrews in an effort to create instant culture, but the fact is, it only really comes from the people. Their shared values, taste, sense of humor. It is organic. Vital. It’s our only true competitive advantage.

And it is increasingly seen as dispensable. Clients don’t want to believe they are supporting culture—they are paying for work. But they need to understand that great work is a direct byproduct of great culture; it is the smelter where ideas are forged.

The industry bitches and moans about the downward trend of client tenure, and it’s our own fault because agency cultures have become more and more generic. They casually date us, the way we casually date our people. We want them to commit to a long-term relationship, and so we need to as well—we need to commit to creating culture.

And that doesn’t happen at Starbucks.

Markham Cronin is co-founder and chief creative officer at Markham & Stein.