Agency culture is job No. 1

I've been in the PR business for 20 years now. I thought I was beyond epiphanies. I thought I'd finally crossed the line into "graybeard" status. Can graybeards have epiphanies? And yet, in the last couple of years I've had no less than three epiphanies, which I'll be sharing this week across three blog posts.

I've been in the PR business for 20 years now. I thought I was beyond epiphanies. I thought I'd finally crossed the line into “graybeard” status. Can graybeards have epiphanies? And yet, in the last couple of years I've had no less than three epiphanies, which I'll be sharing this week across three blog posts.

Epiphany No. 1 was my most recent (and least surprising). I was in one of our internal “ask me anything” meetings with junior staff; a session modeled after the Reddit paradigm: a guest of honor sits in front of the staff and braces for all sorts of inquiries. Towards the end of a rollicking session, a colleague asked me, “What are you most proud of?”

This was dangling bait for a guy PRWeek once claimed was a “bit of a self-promoter” (hey, try competing with behemoths like Edelman, et al. with 1/100th the resources; see what you're willing to do)! And yet I demurred from rattling off growth stats, big client wins, and great campaigns. Instead, my instantaneous answer was, “I am most proud of our agency's culture.” I know: obvious. It's not like I've never heard nor said expressions like, “Our best assets walk out the door each day.” I've always known this was a people business. Duh. But as I blurted my answer, I owned it like never before…

The past few years have been stressful. The economy tanked; business suffered. Meanwhile I was pushing us hard to explore new realms of service such as creative design, SEO, etc. Through those stressors, we also worked hard on our culture; we did deep dives on “why people leave” and “why people stay.” We fixed stuff that was broken in employee relations.

It was when I unthinkingly said, “I am most proud of our agency's culture” that it hit me that the reason we'd successfully emerged from the recession, with more services on-offer than ever, and with churn at historic lows, was only because of the employee relations stuff. Any and all successes we'd enjoyed flowed directly from that singular aspect of our work in the 2010-2013 time period.

I'd been patting myself on the back for “innovation” before this epiphany, and smacking my forehead afterward as I realized that its role in our success was even smaller than I'd imagined. What if you ran the most innovative agency in the world, but suffered 70% staff churn? You'd have no one around to execute on your inventiveness.

The fact that we'd fixed, nurtured, and innovated in terms of employee relations led to attracting and retaining smart, fun people who embraced our agency's mission, believed me when I made wacky proclamations about the future of the mediascape, and advocated all of it to clients and media.

If your employees love their jobs, everything else fixes itself. That was Epiphany  No. 1.

Todd Defren is CEO of Shift Communications.

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.

News by email...