SSSSSH… we’re growing a culture here

Written on March 4, 2014

Ten or fifteen years ago, we could say “we’re an advertising and design firm” and people pretty much knew what we meant by that. They might have had Mad Men dancing around in their heads, but they would still have some sense about what we did. But the reality is our business nowadays is about so much more than television spots, and billboards, and media planning and buying, and, for damn sure 3-martini lunches. So, when people ask what we do, we tell them at we’re strategic storytellers. We’re business bards.

So what does that mean?

To tell a company or product’s story strategically, you simply have to know its culture. The old adage, “people don’t do business with companies, they do business with people” is mostly true. Today’s consumer / business client wants to be able to connect with the values and sensibilities of the companies with whom they spend their money. They expect a personalized – better yet customized experience. They want to feel the humanness of the company. And, yes, they expect results on top of all that. In other words, what constitutes the theatre of commerce nowadays, is an expectation on the parts of clients and customers to experience the culture of the companies or products with which they spend their money intimately. And that’s all about strategic storytelling. That’s all about their brand. Companies that don’t figure that out are becoming marginalized in a marketplace that values authenticity, bravery, candor, and dialogue, that seeks a strong emotional and intellectual connection with the brands with which they spend their money.

So, we work with our clients to understand their cultures, and to help them understand and grow them. But how does culture grow? We’ve noticed six mediums in which corporate cultures grow. You could call them corporate culture agar agar:

Corporate Agar Agar

Size. Different companies (and in larger companies different work divisions) have an optimal size, beyond which they cease to be able to cultivate culture effectively. This is the natural order of things. Think about the abnormally large tomato grown for the state fair. Ever eat one of those better bad boys? They really don’t taste like tomatoes anymore. The tomato flavor has been bred out – a sacrifice to size. At some point a tomato outgrows its tomato-ness. It becomes only a facsimile of a tomato.

Even growing to your optimal size will test your culture. Culture doesn’t simply grow along with you. Left to its own devices, culture devolves; it doesn’t evolve. So, as you grow, you have to have systems in place that transmit the culture, virally, and in a manner that human beings enjoy.

Systems. Systems for transmitting culture must be strategically based, but crafted with soul. If you happen to have one, take a look at your corporate handbook. Is it interesting? Would your spouse read it? Does it have any personality? If you answered NO-cubed, then why the heck do you think an employee wants to read it? Because it’s required reading? Even worse. Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) are not cultural tools, they are procedural tools. Same is true of handbooks, manuals, policies, and guidelines. So what does work? Here’s a partial list:

A Manifesto. Think of a manifesto as a poetic expression of what really gets your company jazzed. It should express WHY you do what you do. Have it written by somebody who (A) knows your company, and (B) can write, and then have that sucker framed and hung where your employees will read it.

A Brand Book. For an explanation of brand book, go here.

Regularly scheduled programming. Consider regular events where the whole point is the sharing of your culture. When I first started out in this business, I worked at Leo Burnett in Chicago. Our group (think large division of a massive ad agency) stopped all work every Friday afternoon at 2:30, and the martini cart rolled around. Mad Men on wheels. It was part of our culture. So was hall golf.

Lore. Share the lore of your company. Have an oral tradition that shares your stories with each new employee. Tell your success stories to yourself first. Then you’ll be able to tell them to your prospects.

Synergy. Your company is a complex organism. When you start out small, people are like stem cells. They handle parts of the business. But, as you grow larger, you become a more complex organism. Parts of your company begin to resemble organs in a biological system. And the organs have to work together. What can the heart do without the lungs? What can the brain accomplish without heart? The more you create strategies for the organs to work together the better. Case in point: UAB Medicine. UAB, like most large academic medical centers, evolved into siloed clinics. The clinics each had their own set of corporate values, their own means of compensation, even their own computer systems. UAB has rightly figured out that there can be huge synergy in collaborating across those boundaries. They employed us to help them define a common core set of values for the entire health system. At the same time, we helped them consolidate their brand graphic language. Along with that, they are doing the hard work of breaking down the operational walls between their clinics. UAB Medicine understands that intelligent collaboration is part and parcel what their brand is about.

Secret Sauce. Visit any great company and they’ll have secret sauce. You know what I’m talking about because you see it in families all the time. Companies are like families. They share deep bonds. They have a shared history of experience. Language evolves out of it – code that only the employees know. In our shop, if somebody talks about a pineapple it means that a conversation has drifted us away from the point of a meeting. Pineapple is a polite way of saying “maybe you should have a separate meeting to cover that. Sometimes, secret sauce is a thing that happens every Friday afternoon at 4:00. It’s Leo Burnett’s martinis. At Wieden & Kennedy, an advertising agency in Portland, Oregon, the old offices had a gymnasium. The entire agency met in there. Dan Wieden and Jim Riswold would sit out on the floor and talk to the agency. They played basketball in there during breaks. It was cultural. It was familial. Sometimes, secret sauce is events, or some sort of team activity, or … you fill in the blank. We can’t tell you what your secret sauce is because then it wouldn’t be so secret, would it? But if you don’t have some secret sauce, you need to figure out a way to mix it up.

Safety. People have to feel safe for culture to grow. There’s physical safety… you know, feeling safe about walking to your car. But there’s also emotional and intellectual safety. People have to feel safe about taking chances, about trying new things. At Wieden & Kennedy, there’s a sign that says “Fuck up harder.” Direct, but real. They don’t want yes-people. They want people who innovate, creative thinkers. And they are making a bold statement that confirms the intellectual safety of the shop.

Humanness. Your business is made up of people. Real beating hearts. Keep it real. Be human. Create balance between work and play and home.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but if will give you a place to start. Think SSSSSH. Let your culture flourish and pass it like a flu.