It can be easy to focus on your services, structure, and pricing when preparing for a pitch or an initial meeting. These are the things listed on the client’s checklist. Your capabilities and pricing will be examined and weighed in relation to your competition.
But does focusing on what you do rather than how and why you do it really highlight your differentiating factors? Will these details do anything besides prevent you from being eliminated from the group?
Your culture is the only truly unique point of differentiation most agencies can boast. It is the one thing that a competitor can’t replicate -- by either building or buying.
“An agency has no product other than the output of a group of people,” said Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of Big Spaceship. “There's no assembly line. There's no supply chain. The ‘assets’ of the company all leave at the end of the day. All we have left is a big dusty room full of computers.”
For service-based businesses whose output is based on the ability of their people to be creative and the productiveness of their interactions with other team members and clients, culture is everything.
Culture is what Lebowitz and his team lead with during client meet-and-greets and pitches. Discussions on capabilities are obviously part of the discussion, but most likely, the client already knows the agency can do the work they are requesting if things have gotten this far. So instead, he emphasizes his agency’s culture to prompt discussions about values and to build a connection with a potential client.
What Culture Is and Is Not
Brooklyn-based Big Spaceship was founded 15 years ago and has since grown to become a 100-person shop that boasts clients such as Google Play, Néstle Purina, and Organic Valley. The independent firm was listed on Advertising Age’s agencies to watch list in 2015 due to its 20% growth in revenue and its work for Samsung Mobile, which led to it putting down international roots in Seoul, South Korea, in the past year.
This growth and ability to attract both reputable clients and top talent is in part due to the firm’s consistent focus on culture, but Lebowitz doesn’t want people to confuse the increasingly popular term culture with amenities.
“If you get free beer and you hate your job, you still hate your job,” he said. “Now, it's just a bad job with free beer. “
So what exactly is culture? Lebowitz defines it as how people connect and relate to one another -- it’s about behavior and interactions.
“Culture is the ability for an individual within the organization to both feel connected to the organization and to the other people in it, and in my opinion, their ability to act -- they have a sense of belonging and use the company as a canvas,” Lebowitz said.
Culture can be created around free beer and ping-pong tables, but these things do not define a culture. And these nice-to-haves are not what clients care about.
Why Culture Can Win Over Clients
Culture matters for three main reasons during the pitch process.
The first is that culture aligns with chemistry -- the main determinant for winning and retaining a client. Agencies are hired for how they interact with one another and the client, rather than how well they can perform in a pitch. Understanding someone's values and realizing how those align with your own builds trust and confidence from the beginning.
The second is that it helps the agency decide whether the client is worth their time and energy, especially if they are being invited to pitch in a competitive situation.
Discussing values, approaches to communication and collaboration, and company structure opens up the dialogue so the agency can see if working styles and attitudes align.
“It's similar to modern conventional wisdom about a job interview,” Lebowitz said. “You shouldn't consider yourself the interviewee. You should consider yourself both the interviewee and the interviewer, right? You're assessing whether it's a good job for you. It's not just an employer-controlled marketplace.”
This creates a filter and a viewpoint through which to view clients, rather than focusing on the budget or how exciting working with the client would be. This approach is about finding relationships that last and clients you can produce great work with.
The third is that culture provides a scaffolding around which your agency can build a story -- who your agency is, what it does, its values, its people, purpose, and positioning. It gives you with the ability to craft a narrative that is much more meaningful and memorable.
Approaching Culture as a Business Asset
Using culture as a sales tool requires more than touting your “fun and creative” environment. Again, it’s not about the amenities. While the ways you describe your culture might be intangible -- and even fluffy to some -- how you define your culture and measure it should be rigorous.
Lebowitz and his team wrote a manual to define the team’s values, how they work together, and how they make decisions. This serves as a guidebook for indoctrinating new hires into the culture -- if you can’t define your culture, you can’t pass it on, and you can’t scale it.
The manual details Big Spaceship’s four principles: 1) Take care of each other. 2) Collaborate. 3) Produce amazing work. 4) Speak up.
Your values should be simple and easy to remember.
It also outlines how to employees should talk to one another, emphasizing that human language is necessary when building relationships. It states: "Instead of saying 'leverage,' say 'use.' Instead of saying 'action item,' say 'to do.' Instead of saying 'empowering consumers,' just go home and try again in the morning."
The manual also outlines who is not and who is a creative (hint: everybody -- whether they like it or not), what autonomy looks like, and how people view peer feedback. It clarifies and emphasizes what matters and what doesn’t, highlights the attitude of the agency, and gives everyone ownership over their work and culture because they understand what the culture is and is not.
This doesn’t mean you need to define more rules and more processes -- this only causes people to rebel. But it does mean you need to find a way to describe and measure the health of your culture -- just like you would any other business or financial metric. Lebowitz bases his plans for growth and other operational decisions on the strength of the current culture.
“My job is to give employees the canvas. Their job is to use it,” he said. “That's how I assess our culture’s health. Are people asking questions in our AMAs [ask me anything] that are genuinely penetrating questions that would be hard to ask if they weren't feeling confident? Everything becomes a data point if you start looking at it.”
Like any successful firm with its roots in digital, Big Spaceship takes data collection and action from the findings seriously. In the closing months of 2014, it launched its first client satisfaction survey to find out what its clients really think, resulting in a NPS score of nine (out of 10) across more than 70 clients. The team is actively working to better understand what makes clients happy, what types of clients are the best fit for the agency, and how the agency can be a better, more impactful partner. Plus, there’s no better way to build loyalty than to have a client witness changes in a partner as the result of their feedback.
Culture isn't an easy thing to manage or measure, and a lot of it has to do with being intentional, transparent, and most importantly, consistent. But if you can implement and scale a culture that is uniquely yours, it can be a determining factor for clients who want a partner, rather than a vendor.
Originally published Sep 8, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017