Performance Culture: Does Your Agency Have What It Takes?

Last week I attended my 58th youth baseball game of the year, and as you might expect, my mind wandered a bit. I started thinking about the conventional wisdom of American sports. We’re a star-driven culture. Give me a Hank Aaron, a Derek Jeter, a Mike Trout, and I can take on anybody. But in the early stages of every athlete’s career — whether in Pop Warner football, youth hockey, or Little League — the emphasis is on the team, not on the star. I immediately thought about our business, and the pressure on today’s CMOs.   

We celebrate the stars in our industry. We look longingly at the big names and say, “Man, I wish I had one of those.” Yet, what I observed in youth baseball this year reminded me of the star power of a team that works together. My son's roster has a wide range of raw talent, skills, and experience, but what struck me was the growing ability of each player to step up where needed, and step back when appropriate, for the overall good of the team. 



This is the true definition of a High-Performance Collaborative Culture. And the marketing industry, which demands partnership but rarely delivers, can take a humbling lesson from it. Agencies will only survive and thrive if we eagerly — not reluctantly — work with others, both internally and externally. That has to start with a “team” mindset. 

I’m not just talking about internal teams; I’m talking about the extended teams we need to create and enable if we’re really going to win and deliver better for the brands and marketers we serve. It takes a hard look in the mirror: Why are we so greedy about revenue? So unable to acknowledge where we suck? Why are we so rarely capable of endorsing ideas that are better than ours? 

We too often look within ourselves to be more attractive to brands and their marketers. We try to perfect the mix of capabilities we offer, or focus on our org structures, or bolster digital, analytics, and CX capabilities. 

But the fact is, these are table stakes. Without them, you won’t understand today’s marketing conversation, let alone be able to contribute. Agencies that simply build endless new capabilities and offerings that match the shiny topic of the year are unlikely to become great at any of them, let alone able to successfully put them to work for brands. To build an agency team that can sustain itself — one that can truly stay ahead of the curve year after year — requires changing your culture so that being a better collaborator becomes muscle memory, rather than a ten-step swing thought. 

What does a High-Performance Collaborative Culture look like? 

One that values action and results over planning and consensus. Let’s face it — agencies can get trapped in the hamster wheel of deliberation and process, especially when it comes to big brands with complex marketing challenges and huge teams. And outcomes lead to results and insights, one way or another. 

One where shared goals are brand focused, not internal. Revenue and growth are what drive every agency’s leadership, but if I’m an IT specialist, associate digital strategist, or junior copywriter, how can I really affect revenue in my day-to-day responsibilities? What I can affect are our work, our client's businesses, and our partners. That’s where the goals should live. 

One where progress toward goals is measured and openly shared. Periodically getting everyone together — in person — to explain where we’re at, where we need to go, and how we’re going to get there, is crucial for performance. Not a checklist of successes, but rather a "self-scouting" of strengths and openly discussed weaknesses. If you’re not doing that, you shouldn’t wonder why your teams aren’t pulling together. 

One where what’s outside is as important as what’s inside. When you involve partners who are better than you, the answers instantly become better. When you leverage the things around you — be it other holding-company colleagues, or creating a welcoming environment for independent experts and innovators — your performance instantly ratchets up. The brands we serve will grow, the marketers responsible will benefit from the transparent collaboration, and your people will learn something (imagine that!). 

What does a High-Performance Collaborative Culture look like in action? 

It’s going to be different for every agency. We’ve identified three KPIs to measure ours by 2020. We call it the 75/50/25. It’s actually pretty simple, but like all simple things, it took us a long time and a lot of thinking to articulate. 

75 – 75% of the time, we aim to gain approval on our work in the first round. That means making the marketers part of the process, with not only their fingerprints on the thinking but also their genuine business insights, every step of the way. The days of show-and-tell and crash-and-burn in one meeting have to be over. We’ve had success with this approach — our next three major campaign launches are for brands who are featuring the work that won the business in the pitch. And every one involved outside partners, who contributed insights and ideas, at some point.   

50 – This goal means that 50% of our revenue will come from things we didn’t do five years ago. This forces our hand in innovation, adaptability, and teamwork. While we’ve hired experts in CX, business strategy, data science, digital analytics, and brand consulting, we’ve also sought out specialty companies who we want to work with. We’ll continue to invest where it makes sense, divest as appropriate, and share the revenue wherever it makes ideas better. 

25 – At least a quarter of our new talent will come from outside our industry. The right talent has never been more crucial for our business. And sometimes that talent isn’t someone you hire, but a company or individual with whom you partner. We need to be looking at disruptors and thinkers from a variety of disciplines — including finance, research, and startups — to fuel the talent pipeline as advertising becomes less about selling and more about relevance, transparency, and engagement. 

Perhaps most importantly for agency teams, a highly collaborative culture attracts and retains great talent. In my experience, the best performers naturally thrive in cultures where ideas are more valuable than territory; and where every day is a chance to work with smart people. 

In 2018 and beyond, you don’t have a chance in hell if you don’t collaborate with enthusiasm and intelligence. That’s what’ll get you off the hamster wheel and into the playoffs — whether in youth baseball or in your client’s marketing ROI.

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