Retaining culture

Building a culture that not only generates effective ideas, but also ensures talented creatives want to work at your agency.


This is the second feature of a two-part look at creative culture in Canada’s network agencies. Part one – which examined how to maintain the culture at Canadian agencies amid global pressures and which also appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy – can be found here.

bulb1SMIt’s no easy feat maintaining an agency’s culture after being acquired by a foreign multinational, but it can be a much less difficult task when that culture is a selling point.

Such was the case when Japan’s Dentsu purchased Toronto’s Grip Limited and its collaborative structure – which had resulted in long-standing relationships with several blue-chip clients, like Yum Brands, RBC and Honda – back in 2016. Since its launch, the agency has been structured to have multiple creative directors, each with their own dedicated teams and clients. Senior creative leadership is still the main point of contact for the client, but it helps staff at all levels get more face time with their boss and have their ideas heard.

Randy Stein, who has been one of the creative partners at Grip since it opened in 2002, says there are always ways to improve culture – pointing specifically to diversity as something the entire industry could improve, and which Grip has internal groups working on – but having that structural guide post helped it maintain its identity as it grew and was later acquired.

“We have our own defined groups, but there’s no pyramid with one person at the top,” Stein says. “I’m in their office every day, they’re in mine, and we’re working on things together. We’ve been collaborative from the start.”

As much as “collaboration” has been a buzzword thrown around by holding companies looking to cross-pollinate ideas between different shops and markets, being more collaborative within an agency’s walls is becoming an increased priority within Canadian companies, for talent satisfaction reasons as much as creative ones. For example, as much as Forsman & Bodenfors’ democratized and “flat” creative structure is promoted as a way to get to the best creative and strategic thinking, Matt Hassell, the agency’s CCO in Canada, says regularly having younger staff contribute to the work of 30-year creative veterans – and vice versa – goes a long way to helping people feel like their input is valued.

“It’s human nature to want to be heard and recognized,” says Karen Howe, the founder of creative consultancy The Township in Toronto, who has also done agency search consulting in recent years. “The happiest places I see are where a voice is being heard beyond the executive team, and that team isn’t in an ivory tower that disconnects them from the rest of the agency.”

Taking creatives to school

bulb2SMOne of the things Stein says Grip’s management is most proud of is the fact that many staff have left and come back to the agency, something that is only going to happen if they feel it is a place where they can develop from a professional perspective.

And one of the most effective ways agencies can create a workplace where staff will enjoy working, Howe says, is to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a workplace and not a clubhouse full of ping pong tables and other superficial “perks.” Staff in any department needs to feel fulfilled and supported on a professional level, but Howe points out that many creative departments don’t prioritize training and professional development opportunities, at least not to the degree that they are for staff in client service, strategy and digital departments.

For creatives, development could include learning new design skills, improving their presentation abilities or going to places like Cannes Lions to be exposed to world-class work. But it should also include leadership and management skills, something that typically isn’t part of the education creatives receive, unlike colleagues in other departments who went to business school before moving up the ladder and into C-suite positions. Besides making creatives better at the job when they eventually reach a leadership position, it shows them that their company is willing to invest in their long-term success.

“We aren’t clear enough about how to get creatives to the next step in their career and the skills they need to get there,” Howe says. “We throw a lot of titles around to keep people happy, but showing them how to really earn that title and giving them the opportunity to develop those skills can feel really meaningful.”

Aside from training, Howe suggests a Montessori-like method, where junior, intermediate and senior staff all have a chance to mentor the people at the level below them and learn to become leaders, while still being mentored by those above them. That teaches them a valuable lesson for when they become a CD, when their role is not about individual success, but doing what they can to help their team achieve excellence.