Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – Agency culture change

One of the biggest challenges to senior executives in advertising and communications management today is creating change to ensure we continue to add strategic and creative value to clients before media, technology or management consultants take over our space altogether.

In many cases it’s, as the French say, plus ça change – just more of the same thing. More than 50% of agencies make changes to teams that have no impact (53%), 10% have a negative impact and only 37% have a total positive impact on the agency’s success. Considering the resources that go into making these changes, that is a poor result.

So the question is why does change in agencies often fail? The big stumbling block is often culture and the natural human resistance to change. We like the familiarity, habit and certainty of our existing culture. Culture here meaning the values, beliefs and behaviour patterns of the team. Leaders in agencies rarely have senior management qualifications, skills or experience, they are more likely to be self-made entrepreneurs. Only 5% of senior management in agencies have an MBA for instance, let alone change facilitation skills. So they often lack the attitudes and skills to learn from, and go with the change, demonstrating this to their team. Some leaders do not know how to make the change happen or try to force it on unwilling employees. Or there is insufficient involvement of employees in the process to build readiness for change or to sustain it with some short-term wins like winning a small pitch, or consolidating improvements in creative output or efficiencies in production.

If change is difficult, and agency culture hinders change further, how can we create effective cultural change?

Ask yourself these questions about making changes inside your agency:

  • Are we considering the cultural aspect of making changes, even if the reason for it is something else, like losing an account, technology or relocating?
  • Are we involving our employees right from the start in diagnosing the problems and in discovering the solution? We will get buy in for difficult decisions such as redundancies if people have had involvement.
  • Do we want a new culture to increase performance, or have we properly defined the type of culture we want first? What do want to keep from the old culture and discard? Often we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  • How do we measure the progress of cultural change?
  • Do we want to build a long-term culture that is desirable for both employees and clients alike? Or is it a quick fix financially driven that might have long term consequences?

Evolution not change

I often use the word “evolution” instead of “change” because change is rarely rapid and, if it is, there is usually a drop in engagement or retention levels. When evolving a culture, you don’t want to lose the aspects of your agency that are successful, so any new ideas and behaviors you introduce need to blend with what already works well.

Culture changes and grows from the inside out. If you use a holistic strategy where systems, structures, rewards and opportunities all support the cultural changes then changing behaviors and evolving culture is more likely to be successful.

Tony Mansfield tonymans@me.com

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