How to Preserve Your Small Agency Culture in a Time of Growth

Matthew Owens
Matthew Owens

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small-agency-cultureOnly six years ago, my partner, Scott Harkey, and I operated out of my dining room. The energy and ambition was tangible; communication was clear and motivating; we had our hands on every project, watching them grow by the second.

Today, we have more than 30 employees, employ a small hoard of freelance talent, and occupy an entire floor in a high-rise in downtown Phoenix. Expanding is something we’ve come to embrace, though we've stumbled and even face-planted along the way. With typical growth of 200-300% year-over-year, there’s no avoiding it. My co-founder and I have had jobs where culture ranged from non-existent to apathy-inducing, so our list of “what not to do” was far longer than our "how to do it right" list, but it’s where we had to start.

It’s been a struggle. It continues to be a struggle. But, we’ve found ways to make every team member feel connected and engaged in what we are doing as an organization.

We despise silos.

While we’re proud to have built fully functional departments, we do not allow any of them to operate exclusively. We’re in the communications business, and if we can’t communicate with ourselves, we cannot be expected to do so professionally. Silos limit creative expression, and everyone in our shop is creative in some way. We do everything in our power not to impede this.

In addition, cross-department complaints are dealt with swiftly and aggressively, as the us-versus-them attitude is one of the most toxic behaviors. Don't tolerate it.

Transparency isn’t just a buzzword here.

We’re not talking dirty politics. We have to be genuine and honest about what’s really going on in our agency. In our weekly staff meetings, we speak freely about our financial standing, including strategies to maintain, grow, and even cut staff. Every team member is held accountable: They are confronted with shortcomings and celebrated when victorious, all in a group environment.

Not everyone appreciates this approach. It’s one thing to be confronted by your boss, but it can be difficult when it’s done in front of your colleagues. We do, however, keep it as light and to-the-point as we can. Having everyone "in the loop" when it comes to strengths and weaknesses will keep you focused on building your team members up instead of tearing them down.

We stay scared.

Our agency is constantly challenged. We don’t want anyone to be comfortable. Back in our dining-room days, no one was comfortable, and no one was complacent. We relied on each other to be innovative, increase our personal capacities, and grow. I’ve learned that as human beings, we grow through challenging ourselves, and today we insist that every team member embrace difficult, awkward, and intimidating situations (with grace, or not). In fact, we even have a name for it: BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal).

Even the partners aren’t able to sit pretty, handing out BHAGs to each employee. Earlier this year, my partner and I were tasked with our own goals after sitting down with staff to discuss the future of Owens Harkey. Just thinking about it has my stomach in knots. I know what it requires and how much, even now, I must learn and improve for us to get there. But if my agency needs me to do it, I’m going to make it happen, no matter what. And that scares the hell out of me.

We care.

And there’s just no pretending. When you work at a small agency, you get to know the leadership well. Working in the same room, you pick up on body language, a person's fondness for microwaving fish for lunch, music tastes, and events in the person's family life. We run a family business. In fact, Scott is my cousin, and we run our shop as if adding extended members. Our employees know how much we value them, and we make time to express that. Too often, employees feel unappreciated, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we see burnout.

The partners' offices are always open and no one is ever turned away when they need to talk. And just as our doors are always open, so are we, emotionally. We come into the office with a smile on our face. Even if we face a stressful day, we set the tone for the entire office. Our job is to support everyone in our family, so it’s essential we have a unique and personal connection with each of them. We teach. We mentor. We stay engaged.

We demand joy.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” We demand (yes, demand) that everyone enjoy his or her work. Great advertising arises from joy — learning to evoke feeling in others. Just to be sure we’re maxed out in the fun department, we actually created one. Our culture club consists of primarily junior members from every agency department who come together to devise team-building activities that engage our entire staff in something fun and frivolous, pairing up those who don’t typically work together often. We recently concluded a foosball tournament (my dreams of playing professionally were promptly ended). Although only one winner, we all bonded over broken egos at beer o’clock.

Growth is hard, and it demands change.

This is something people typically don’t like. But advertising agencies are agents of change by their very nature, and having a culture that not only understands, but embraces this, allows growth without much upset. As one of the agency leaders, I’ve found the more I care about our team members, the more comfortable they are with the crazy, demanding, and confusing world I ask them to enter everyday. The hours may be crushing and the demands overwhelming, but we’re in it together. I can speak for my entire team when I say there is no better place to be than working in a rapidly growing advertising agency.

It’s where we find love, laughter, and limitless possibilities.

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