Manufacturing culture

How Canada's network agencies are building and maintaining their creative cultures in a time of global change.


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy. Part two – an online exclusive covering the role of recruitment, employee satisfaction and truly recognizing the work of creatives in maintaining a healthy creative culture – can be read here.

bulb1SMIf your agency is part of a larger global network, it exists at a time when cost-cutting is an everyday consideration. Immense pressures in an era of disruption have led holding companies to change how their agencies are structured and managed – all in an effort to improve their bottom line, compete in the Digital Age and produce high-calibre work that will retain clients. Creativity demands a culture that nurtures and attracts talent who will develop account-winning ideas, but is that possible when your holding company is focused on cost-cutting? How do you maintain culture in Canada when global pressures are addressed with mergers, downsizing and restructuring?

Meshing with new bedfellows
It’s no easy feat maintaining culture after a merger – especially when your agency is being combined with one that already has an established culture. The realities of any merger means there are kinks to be worked out along the way, as well as concerns about redundancies. So when Juniper Park\TBWA was created following the 2015 merger of Juniper Park and TBWA\Toronto, the leadership team created a website where staff could anonymously submit questions about the merger and the future of the new agency, says CEO Jill Nykoliation.

“Ambiguity is always perceived negatively,” Nykoliation says, referring to a principle from Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong. “If you don’t know what’s happening your brain goes to the darkest place, so you need to let staff ask anything. The quicker you get ahead of it, the more [staff] can carry on calm and confidently during a process where there’s a lot of change.”

Juniper Park\TBWA’s leadership ended up answering questions every day for three months, and while the anonymous system let staff ask the “big questions,” it also brought to light many smaller issues staff might have felt silly asking in person or ones the leadership didn’t predict would be concerns or assumed people would know already (such as if there would be enough bathrooms for the combined staff). It’s something the agency has maintained to this day, sending its staff a weekly prompt, asking them “How was your week?” so staff will bring up issues and the execs will get the pulse of the office.


Forsman & Bodenfors Canada was created last year when holding company MDC Partners merged KBS with the much-awarded shop, known for work like “The Epic Split” for Volvo Trucks.

The Swedish agency – which has eight offices across Europe and North America – is also known for its democratic creative approach that eschews a hierarchy when developing ideas. But Matt Hassell, the agency’s Canadian CCO, says that fit well with the approach he was trying to adopt for KBS prior to the merger, making the process much smoother.

“There was never anyone who wasn’t allowed to weigh in on something,” Hassell says. “It’s not like a hierarchy meant I had to have the final word on everything. But the merger formalized the approach, and we started seeing it as something powerful that benefits us and our clients, instead of a byproduct of the way we were already working. So now we are showing it to clients and talking about it more as one of our strengths.”

Forsman previously didn’t have a Canadian office, which Hassell says helped avoid culture clash. But the leadership team in Sweden also took the 11 guiding principles the agency had developed over 30 years – like how it works “openly in an interdisciplinary way” and “having no layers of bosses to please” – and asked the Canadian leadership to figure out how to adapt them, maintaining a unique identity in the process of ingraining itself within the new network.

“We worked on adapting the best of both worlds, because even though one had existed for decades, that doesn’t mean there was a light switch that could just be flipped on,” Hassell says. “Change in culture has to come from the people sitting at the desks doing the work, not from a slogan their boss tells them to put on a T-shirt.”

bulb2SMCulture and retention
Holding companies have been upfront about their financial challenges, but those pressures don’t need to be a detriment to agencies. Brent Choi, CEO and CCO at DDB Canada says that while there are always going to be financial considerations in every business decision, an agency can still prioritize and support the things that are core to its identity. Hassell adds that holding companies are trying to improve their bottom line by utilizing new tech and being more nimble – things that are in line with creatives’ own goals.

But not everyone is as bullish. Karen Howe, the founder of creative consultancy The Township in Toronto, who has done agency search consulting in recent years, points to “a rebirth” of creative directors leaving large agencies to start their own independent shops as a sign that “they don’t want to play this game anymore, where they don’t get recognition on an individual level and New York is telling them to slash expenses and salary costs by 10%.”

Ryan Spelliscy is one of those CDs, having left his post as CCO at WPP’s J. Walter Thompson Canada to start Juliet in late 2017. Spelliscy says it might be easier for creatives to get on board with budget pressures if it weren’t for the identity crisis that he believes is being created by network agencies. Things like WPP’s plan to move all of its Toronto agencies into a single building in 2021 and the rush to transform and compete with consultancies leave creatives struggling to know their place, he says.

“That lack of clear direction makes it hard for people to totally believe in the mission and purpose of what you’re doing,” Spelliscy says. “There’s no reason an agency couldn’t crystalize its mission around creating really good TV spots, double down on something that’s still valuable to clients. But if a creative agency is running around still trying to figure out who it is, and if all these places are moving into one place, what does that look like for a junior staffer and what does this new place they are working at believe in?”

These are also long-term strategic decisions that creative staff feel disconnected from, despite that fact that they will fundamentally change the way they work. Spelliscy admits he doesn’t know if this is something a Canadian executive could get approved (pointing out how Canadian CEOs can sometimes be just as powerless as junior staff when it comes to decisions made in New York), but he suggests they could take budget items they do have control over and give them to staff. They could decide whether to use funds for something like awards, as an example, and decide whether it would be better off invested into a program or offering that will help make its identity and mission more clear – or used to give everyone a raise to let them know their place in whatever the agency is becoming is secure.

Budget pressures make it difficult for network agencies to offer salaries that lure top talent, Howe says. Many agencies promote a positive culture to compensate for that; however, Howe says they still define it by things that “cool offices” in Silicon Valley popularized, like foosball tables or a well-stocked beer fridge. This “superficial” perspective on creating a unique culture has, ironically, created homogeneity that makes it difficult for agencies to stand out, she says.

Ari Elkouby, ECD at the recently merged Wunderman Thompson, has been working at large agencies his entire career. He says these superficial things were an acknowledgement that “you’re going to be living at this agency, so we’ll bring a life to you.” But today, he says those kinds of things don’t have the same pull, since creatives are more empowered by options like joining a client in-house team or jumping to a consultancy. He says culture needs to be reframed in a way that acknowledges that freedom and the ability to control one’s circumstances is more attractive these days than job security.

“If you reframe [culture] as something that builds a healthy relationship between colleagues in the face of challenges, it nurtures an environment of curiosity in solving them,” he says. “Some of the best organizations are ones that don’t have it all figured out and aren’t afraid to ask how something new works or how a different company does something. It fosters a safe space where people can ask how and why, which allows room for growth.”


bulb1SMChanging of the guard
In January 2019, DDB Canada hired Choi in his new role, responsible for the business direction of the agency, as well as its creative output.

Choi joined DDB after a tumultuous 2018 that saw the departure of some leaders due to restructuring – such as previous CCO Cosmo Campbell, Vancouver co-managing director Michelle Kitchen and president of digital division Tribal Andrew McCartney – as well as to new opportunities – such as Toronto president Melanie Johnston, who left to lead the new Forsman & Bodenfors Canada.

Choi, the former president and CCO of J. Walter Thompson also joined just before the retirement of chairman Frank Palmer, who had been directly associated with the agency’s identity in the Canadian market. DDB is infused with the leader’s philosophy of holding all of its staff in the highest regard, says Choi, whose priority has been to understand and build upon the culture left in Palmer and the former leaders’ wake.

“I was surprised when I found out all the things we do for people here,” Choi says, referring to things like funding for professional development, greater flexibility to work outside the office and cultural get-togethers. “[We’re trying to keep] the best of what Frank represented, but also thinking about the intent and finding ways to make it relevant for what is best for our culture today.”


Just two months after Choi’s arrival, the agency debuted new branding, including an art-deco style logo that harkens back to its earliest days – when it was one of the first agencies to embrace the idea of putting creativity, led by Bill Bernbach, at the centre of its business – emphasizing that it would double down on “humanity and creativity” when many agencies are focused on technology and efficiency.

“I have a lot to prove to the team,” Choi says. “They’ve seen a whirlwind of change… It was great to see our new global branding live up to that decades-old promise and legacy that people want to be a part of, but if we are going to retain talent, we have to live up to it.”

DDB’s multiple, cross-country divisions are also now under one metaphorical roof, with their output falling under Choi’s purview. Between Tribal, CRM division TrackDDB, shopper marketing agency TracyLocke, design arm Twice and DDB PR, Choi says his goal is to better integrate those skillsets and motivate collaboration to beget creative thinking.

“You need a culture where the walls are down and the financial models don’t reward siloed thinking,” Choi says, adding that he is currently working on ways to make “a shorter hallway” between DDB staffers across the country. “You can have a more traditional structure in Chicago and New York, but in Canada, we’re going to collaborate in a more seamless way. Knowing you have all these different skills that can be incorporated into your idea’s execution is naturally going to create a different kind of working culture.”