Episode 405

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The idea of agency culture has been on my mind a lot lately, especially now that we’re all settling into new post-covid workplace structures. Without as much face time in an office, many of you are starting to wonder how to continue cultivating a healthy workplace environment for your employees over video calls and Slack channels.

For this week’s solocast, I’m sharing what research shows are the four core pillars of a healthy agency culture that will ensure your employees feel seen, heard, safe, and valued. It’s not just about proximity and having office parties or team outings anymore. And as agency leaders, it’s essential that we lead by example in creating the right environment for our teams to thrive.

If you can weave these four concepts into how you run your agency and build up your teams, your agency will be set up for success, no matter if you’re in the office, fully remote, or somewhere in between.

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops and more.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

agency culture

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Thinking about agency culture differently
  • Why agency owners must lead the charge in creating a healthy agency culture
  • Creating an environment of inclusivity for all team members
  • Leading with love and being curious about your people
  • Creating learning opportunities for yourself and the team
  • Encouraging quarterly growth goals for employees
  • Celebrating contributions and identifying employee strengths
  • Leaving space for employees to challenge the status quo
  • Making it ok for people to disagree respectfully

“It's really important that you model the importance of learning by talking about it with your employees.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“Sharing things that were valuable to you and encouraging your team to share what they are finding of interest or value is a great way to create that culture of shared learning.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“When something goes wrong, do we see it as a learning opportunity? What happened? And how do we avoid that happening again?” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“You can really help somebody understand themselves better and their contributions by identifying where their strengths are and using those strengths to the benefit of the team, our clients, and the agency.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“So as you think about culture, it can't just be about fun team activities. It really is about how we work together, how we see each other, how we celebrate each other, and how we help each other get better.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew:


Client Satisfaction Surveys: https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/advertising-agency-consulting/client-satisfaction-surveys/
Money Matters Workshop: https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/advertising-agency-training/owner-workshops/financial-firepower/
BaBA Summit: https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/babasummit/

Speaker 1 (00:01):

Running an agency can be a lonely proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We can learn how to be better faster if we learn together. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast presented by White Label iq. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market with 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, drew McClellan.

Speaker 2 (00:36):

Hey everybody. Drew McClellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thank you for coming back. As you know, every fifth episode, well, maybe you don’t know this, uh, but many of you know that every fifth episode, uh, is what we call a solo cast. So no guest, uh, just you and me hanging out, uh, talking about something that I’ve been thinking about or I’ve been talking to a lot of you about. And that is what this episode is today. So, uh, we’re gonna talk about that in a couple minutes. But first, uh, just a few reminders. Uh, I am recording this in early July, so if you’re listening real time, it’s probably right after the 4th of July holiday here in the us. So I wanna remind you of a couple things. Number one, there is never gonna be a less expensive ticket to the Build a Better Agency Summit 2024.

Speaker 2 (01:26):

So May 24 seems far away, but honestly, it’ll be here in a blink. Uh, for the first time, the conference is in Denver, and so it’s May 20th is Family Day or Member Day, and May 21st and 22nd is the actual conference. Amazing speakers. We’re gonna talk about pricing strategy. We’re gonna talk about ai, we’re gonna talk about leadership. We are gonna talk about agency processes, we’re gonna talk about financial modeling. We’re gonna talk about new leadership models in a virtual environment. We have all kinds of amazing speakers on all kinds of different topics. We’re gonna talk about your own mental health, uh, and how you keep the sauce sharp in terms of taking good care of yourself, mentally, physically, emotionally. We’re still lining up speakers, but the speakers we already have are spectacular. Uh, we’re gonna have round tables on how agencies are using ai. We’re gonna talk about tax strategies.

Speaker 2 (02:24):

We’re gonna talk about how to identify your ideal client and go after just those folks. Lots of biz dev topics. What’s opening doors today? How do you get past the gatekeeper? Those kind of things. So anyway, May, 2024 gonna be an epic three days. Uh, as always, we’d love to have you join us. Tickets do not get less expensive as we get closer. So if you know you’re gonna join us, grab yourself or your team tickets today, you can do that at the agency management institute.com website. The upper left corner of the navigation, it says B a b A summit, and you can register there. Also, one of our more popular workshops is coming up this fall called Money Matters. We spend two days talking about all things money. So financial metrics. What are the gold standards in terms of running your agency? Well, how can you, at a glance look at your p and l or your balance sheet and understand if your agency’s healthy or not?

Speaker 2 (03:22):

What are the actual objective ways that you can tell if you can afford another employee, if you should hire another employee, if your team is deployed appropriately, how can you make sure you make at least 20% profit no matter how big or small you are, no matter how tough a year you’re having? We’re gonna talk about pricing strategy. We’re gonna talk about tax strategy. Two days of nothing but Money Talk. It is built for agency owners and C f O types bookkeepers. Uh, that’s October 16th and 17th in Denver. You can register for that by going to the agency management institute.com website under how we help. You can, uh, find the workshop list and register for that. That workshop usually sells out. So if you want to attend, uh, don’t wait too long. Also, if you’re interested in joining a live peer group, that is one of the prerequisites to joining a live peer group.

Speaker 2 (04:18):

So, uh, you can learn for two days and tee yourself up to be ready for that. All right? As you know, or maybe you don’t know, as you know, uh, every solo cast, we try and give away a free workshop seat. And the way this works is this. So when you, if you go and you leave a rating and review for the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google or iHeartRadio, wherever, wherever you download the podcast, go and leave a rating and review and then take a screenshot of that rating, uh, and email it to me. So a lot of you use usernames that I don’t recognize and I can’t identify. So I, while we read all the reviews, I don’t always know who it is that’s writing those things. So I need you to take a screenshot, send it to me at [email protected], and then you’re, that review goes into a drawing and basically we just keep it in the drawing until you win.

Speaker 2 (05:14):

So sooner or later, uh, you will win. Uh, so every five weeks we do a drawing and someone who left us a rating and review wins a free seat at one of our workshops. So the winner, this, uh, solo cast is Jacob Ho. So Jacob, I will, I will email you and let you know that you won. So, congratulations. We’ve got AE bootcamps, we have Money Matters coming up. We have some Mercer Island Group workshops, which are spectacular. So, uh, you have a free seat. Uh, so that’s worth two grand. So seriously, why wouldn’t you leave a rating and review and take a screenshot, and sooner or later you’re gonna win. So Jacob sent the, his email in in 2021. So it took him two years to win, but his name stayed in there the whole time. So be patient sooner or later, you will, you too will win a workshop seat, uh, if you send us a rating or review.

Speaker 2 (06:06):

So, all right, Jacob, congratulations. Uh, and I will be in touch. So here’s what I wanna talk about today. I wanna talk about culture, and I wanna talk about it from a different perspective. The reality is that culture, how we build culture and agencies has changed. You know, pre covid, most of us were in an office, and yes, you might have had, uh, an, a remote employer too. Some of you have been virtual from the very beginning, so you’ve already figured out some of this stuff. But for many agencies, we created culture by proximity, by hanging out with people, by having excuses for, uh, food and drink in the office, right? By doing volunteer activities together. And all of that worked great, but it’s really hard now that we are scattered all over the country or all over the world. And so I wanna talk about a different way to think about culture and, and I wanna talk about it from sort of a needs of the employees.

Speaker 2 (07:03):

And there are four core needs that we need to provide for our team members, for them to feel safe, for them to feel included, for them to feel like they can contribute. And, and here’s what those needs are. And then I’m gonna talk about some things you can do to bring about these needs to make sure you meet these needs. But before I do that, I wanna tell you that, so there’s been a lot of research done about team building and about how to create a culture of connectivity and contribution. And this is all around the idea of how do I attract great employees? How do I keep great employees? How does my team innovate and work better together? So this is not woowoo stuff, this is really about, this is baba business outcomes. This is about saving you money by not having to replace employees all the time.

Speaker 2 (07:57):

It’s about not going through that sort of agonizing loss when a great team member doesn’t feel like they’re valued and you thought everything was great, and all of a sudden they’re giving notice. It’s about how do you get your team members to work better together, to create different and better and be more innovative? And there are four basic needs, and, and there’s a bunch of research. So in the show notes, I’m gonna link to some research, uh, about these needs. Uh, Google has identified these four needs when they did their own research as the most important thing they could do to build and grow and nurture their team. Harvard did a huge report, a big, uh, research report, and came up with the exact same four. So this is not me just making this up, this is research based. I’ve been doing a, I’ve been a done ton of deep diving.

Speaker 2 (08:52):

I’ve just read a couple books on this topic, and I just think it’s really important for us to think about, and here are the four basic needs. I need to feel included. So I need the, I need inclus inclusivity. I need to be, feel like I’m a part of the team. I’m a, I’m a welcome part of the team, that you see me, that you understand who I am beyond my job function, but as a human being, I need to feel like it’s, I’m encouraged and it’s safe for me to keep learning that I don’t have to have all the answers all of the time. And that in fact, that you as my boss, want me to keep growing and learning. And I think we all want that for our employees. I think in our business, we have to keep growing and learning. I have to feel safe and comfortable contributing that I’m actually making a difference, and that I, that my ideas are valued, that I am competent at my job, that the work that I do matters.

Speaker 2 (09:50):

And then the fourth one is I have to feel like it’s okay for me to challenge the status quo, that I can raise my hand and say, I’m not sure that’s the right answer, or have we thought about this a different way? And when we create an environment that allows people to be seen and feel like they’re a part of the team, they’re included, that we are encouraging them to keep learning and sharing what they learn, that their contributions matter, and that our environment is a safe place for them to raise their hand and say, I have a concern about this, or, I don’t think that’s right. Or maybe there’s another way when we can create an environment where all four of those experiences are shared by all of our employees. And this is critical because, you know, in many agencies, there is a perception, whether it’s accurate or not, that there is somebody on the team that is sort of the teacher’s pet and that they get preferential treatment and that they are given all of these things, but everybody isn’t.

Speaker 2 (10:53):

So the key to this is that you have to create an environment. And this, by the way, has to be intentional. This is not something that’s just gonna happen. This is something I want, I think you should be talking about with your leadership teams. How do we actually make this come to life? So how do we create an environment and rules and values that say these four things? We promise you these four things that it is. You, you, you as a human being are valued and welcome here. Number two, that we want you to keep learning. We know you don’t know everything. No, I don’t know everything. We want you to keep learning and we want you to bring it int we want you to bring it to us and share it with us. Uh, your contributions matter, and absolutely, if you see something wrong, you need to raise your hand.

Speaker 2 (11:42):

So how do we create that? Uh, so let’s talk about the first one. So inclusivity. So this is really about understanding that we have to have an environment inside our agency where everyone on the team recognizes that it is there. It’s a just a human need and a human right to be included. It’s something that we owe each other. It’s, it’s not something you earn that it is just because you are a human being and you are in this space with us. You have a right to be seen and understood. And so how do we, how do we do that? So number one, for us as leaders in particular, this is about getting to know our people. And this can be done in a lot of ways. It’s about spending time with people, uh, in their physical space. So is how can I, how can I come to you?

Speaker 2 (12:35):

Now, in the old days, it was literally the boss could actually go to the employee’s office. And even that was a big deal because I mean, think about what people put in their office. You’re gonna learn a lot about a person by being in their office. So being in their physical space today, it might be observing what’s behind someone in a zoom window and saying, Hey, tell me about that figurine, or tell me about that picture. I would love to know more about that. So it’s about being curious about people and sort of figuring out how you can sort of engage them in their space and feel like you’re invi, you’re being invited in. Another big thing for leaders is we have to stop talking so much. We have to ask a lot of questions. And by the way, one of the things that a lot of people do in our spaces, we’re so eager to share that we cut people off.

Speaker 2 (13:24):

We don’t let them finish their sentences. We don’t take pauses. So one of the ways you can make a person feel very seen and included is simply by asking more questions and by listening to their answers, and then following up with that. Another thing that I love is when agencies figure out ways to learn more about each other, right? So it is, uh, it could be everybody shares their favorite vacation story. A lot of agencies started to do this during Covid, but then they sort of stopped doing it. So how can you kick off a team meeting by having everyone share something they did over the weekend, or, uh, a favorite childhood memory or worst haircut ever, but get your people to start telling stories about themselves. Another great way to make someone feel included is to know about their family. So are they married?

Speaker 2 (14:17):

Uh, do they have children? Do they have pets? Knowing their spouses or their partner’s name, knowing their kids’ names, knowing the names of their pets, and if they’re old or if they’re sick, asking about those things, seeing them beyond their job function. This all sounds incredibly simple, but the reality is we often don’t take the time to do this. A lot of what we’re talking about today is how do I make the time and take the time to make sure that I really see someone? Another thing that we do often as, is that we sometimes make people feel like they’re in competition with each other inside a department, a department against department, team against team, but making people feel like they’re competing against each other or comparing them to other people, whether it’s a former employee that you miss, or anything that you do that creates like a, a barrier or a distrust amongst your team members by making them feel like they can’t be close to each other because they’re actually competitors is a problem.

Speaker 2 (15:25):

One of the other ways that I love that we can make people feel included is to talk about the values of the agency and how those, how those feel to each of your employees. A lot of agencies will sit down with a brand new employee and say, Hey, let me walk you through our origin story or our values, but we don’t really talk about it a lot moving forward, after that first couple weeks of them hiring, this is a great opportunity for you to talk to your employees and say, Hey, one of the things that we value, I’m using one of our company values, which is, we lead with love. Tell me what that means for you. What does that look like for you? Like, how, how do you lead for love in your life, not just work, but in your life? And how, how can I, if that’s a core value of mine, how can I show up that way with you?

Speaker 2 (16:14):

What would be a good way for me to lead with love based on your personality and what matters to you? I think another thing to think about is, you know, for many of us, we have a lot of employees who are in different life cycles, who have different preferences, who have different hobbies, who might have made different life choices. Learning about those folks and making them feel like it’s safe for them to talk about it. And again, this gets to sort of diversity and inclusion on our team is working hard to create diversity and to celebrate the diversity. And it’s not just racial diversity or sexual preference diversity. It could be ethnic origin, it could be passions and hobbies. It could be all kinds of different things that make everybody on your team different, learning about them, celebrating them. One agency, uh, has each employee, they have probably, I don’t know, 20 employees.

Speaker 2 (17:13):

So everybody probably does this, you know, once a year, once or twice a year, they give a 15 minute presentation at a kickoff meeting, a kickoff of the team meeting of a hobby of theirs, something that they love that they think nobody else knows about. So, you know, whether it’s photography or, uh, going to comic-con in cosplay or fostering puppies or whatever it may be, they get to talk about themselves and the team gets to learn about them and ask questions. So I think that’s a great thing. Another thing that you can do is creating team rituals. So finding ways to celebrate your team. Uh, a lot of times people will do that around core values, celebrating other folks, but honestly, this is this first sort of core tenet of having this really powerful culture is about slowing down, getting to know your people, appreciating who they are as human beings, and celebrating that, making sure that you show up in a way that makes them feel important.

Speaker 2 (18:20):

And that’s everything from if you make a promise or a commitment, you keep it. It is not interrupting each other. It is all kinds of big and little things, creating opportunities to socialize outside of work. One of the things that we preach is now that you are separated by distance, you’ve got to bring people together at least once a year physically. They need that FaceTime together. It’s really important that you bring folks together and let them socialize outside of work and connect with each other as human beings. All right, so lots of great ideas about inclusivity. Super important for us to do. Uh, and honestly, it’s not gonna cost you a dime. It’s really about your intention. So let’s talk about the idea that we want our employees to keep learning. What does that look like? I think a great way to really emphasize the fact that you are a learning organization.

Speaker 2 (19:17):

And honest to God, I don’t know how you can be an agency and not be a learning organization, is your own humility around the fact that you don’t have all the answers that you need to go and learn more things, that you are still reading books and listening to podcasts, and sharing the fact that you have no desire to be complacent or arrogant about what you know, or that you know it all. So talking a lot about your own learning and having that student mindset, that constant, that lifelong learner mindset, very important. You can also create learning opportunities that you do as a team. So, you know, some of you do book clubs or some of you will share before a team meeting, a podcast or a book or a tool that you’re using. A lot of, you’re experimenting with AI now and having team members share what they learned.

Speaker 2 (20:09):

But I think it’s really important that you model the importance of learning by talking about it with your employees. As you know, we are huge proponents of one-on-one meetings with our employees. And if you use the a m i form for one-on-one meetings, the very first thing on the top of that form is quarterly growth goal. I think every employee should have a quarterly growth goal every single quarter. And their supervisor, whoever their director, whoever, whoever is dealing with them as a direct report, should know what that employee’s growth goal is and be helping that employee figure out how to accomplish that growth goal. So whether that’s, uh, paying for a course or a workshop or a certification, or it’s just checking in with them to see how they’re doing on something. But our job as leaders in the organization is to encourage our people to keep learning and to help them figure out what to learn, how to contribute in new ways and supporting how to learn.

Speaker 2 (21:08):

So again, if an employee wants to be better at ppc, talking to them about different resources, you as an agency make available to your team members where they could learn more about that. Or, you know, having everybody have a, a learning budget where they could spend, I’m just making this up, but up, up to $250 a year on books or courses, and you’ll support that financially. I think it’s also important that we understand how our employees learn. So some people are visual learners, some people love to read, some people have to hear it, some people have to do it with their own hands. Some people are self-directed, like they just are naturally eager learners, lifelong learners. Other folks really need encouragement. They need to understand why they need to learn something, or they need to be taught how to love to learn. You know, a lot of us who are lifelong learners, who are good readers or podcast listeners or love to take courses or whatever it is, you know, masterclass, whatever your thing is, we forget that not everybody was raised in an environment where learning was celebrated.

Speaker 2 (22:14):

Where, where academic accomplishments, where important. And so we may have to help our employees learn how to love to learn or learn how to figure out how they like to learn. So don’t assume that everybody knows how to learn or that they automatically love it. You may have to encourage them, you may have to support them in figuring that out and learn about that. You know, for some people, school and learning was anxious. They right that maybe they had a learning disability or maybe they were struggled with reading, or maybe they got made fun of when they were in the first grade because they got an answer on whatever it is. A lot of us have things in our past that make us feel a certain way about learning and school and academics and growing, and maybe we don’t understand that about every employee. So here’s, here’s sort of a two for, this can be about inclusivity, but it’s also can be about learning, talking to people about how they like to learn and what kind of things they love to learn, and what was the, what’s the most unusual thing that they’ve ever learned, or the most unusual way they ever learned.

Speaker 2 (23:20):

And then figuring out how to fashion a learning environment for them, whether it’s a classroom setting or a one-on-one version. However, you can help them craft a, uh, the best learning environment for them, absolutely do that and make that part of their job that they have to keep learning. And again, one of the great ways to do that is for you to model what you learning, share what you’re reading, share what you are listening to. Uh, now, you know, agency owners are known for sort of the book of the month, and all of a sudden we’re gonna change everything in the agency because we read a book. I’m not suggesting that, but talking about what you learned or even what you watched on television, whether you watched a documentary or something on, you watched a great Ted talk. Sharing things that were valuable to you and encouraging your team to share what they are finding of interest or value is a great way to create that culture of shared learning.

Speaker 2 (24:18):

I think the other thing to do is we can learn a lot about how, what other people do in their jobs. One of the things that we find a lot is that sometimes in agencies, people don’t really appreciate how hard other people’s jobs are. They don’t understand exactly the process that it takes. You know, I think this happens a lot with creative folks. You know, the account person or whoever will go back and say, Hey, I need an ad and I’ve given you two hours. And the writer or the art director’s like, well, I need to think about it for an hour before I even sit down and start doing something. But the, the account person doesn’t really understand the process of the creative person. So one of the great ways you can encourage learning, and again, inclusivity, is to have your folks teach each other how they do their work, and understand how that, how those roles sort of intertwine with each other, and how they can learn more from each other by understanding the way that they each have to process and approach their job.

Speaker 2 (25:20):

I think one of the other things we can do around learning is that we can share when we got something wrong. So, uh, you know, some of, some of my employees favorite stories are when I screwed up, they, they will sit around over a drink or with a new employee and tell those stories over and over and over again. And you know what, it’s part of the culture, but it is also okay to laugh at our mistakes and to share what we learn from our mistakes. And so you can be a great model around that as a leader inside your organization about sort of, here’s what I learned from, oh, I did that wrong, right? I, i I assume something. I didn’t double check a fact, whatever it is. But sharing that with your team could be super powerful. I think one of the best things we can do is that we can frame our organization as a learning organization and talk about every, when we approach the work as a learning pro, like we need to learn more about this client’s business, or we need to learn more about our client’s competition, or we need to learn like what do we have to learn to actually be able to solve this problem for our client?

Speaker 2 (26:29):

I love that question. What do we need to learn to be able to solve this problem for our client? When you frame things like that, what it immediately says to your employees is, I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I expect us to figure out how do we get smart enough to come up with some great answers? That’s a really great way to support a learning environment inside your shop. And I think another good thing you can do is share your own personal learning goals. Like what are you working on, whether it’s a foreign language or a cooking class, or something that is business related. So again, it doesn’t have to always be tied to the agency. What you wanna do is you wanna just model the hunger to keep learning and growing, and you wanna celebrate that inside your employees. So that’s some of the ways that we can create an environment where it’s really safe to learn questions or, or to learn, keep learning, and ask good questions.

Speaker 2 (27:22):

All right, so I wanna tell you about the last two, but first before we do that, I want to take a quick break and then we’ll come back and we’ll talk about how do we help our employees feel safe in terms of their contributions, that they matter, that they’re valued, and then also talking about how do we encourage people to challenge the status quo? Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to make sure that you are thinking about how to connect with your clients by figuring out what they love and maybe a few things that they’re not so crazy about with your agency. So at a m i, one of the things we offer our client satisfaction surveys, uh, we do both quantitative and qualitative. So an online survey, but also interviews with some of your key clients, and then we come back to you with trends, recommendations, uh, what they love, what they don’t love, uh, lots of insights around how you can create an even tighter relationship with your clients.

Speaker 2 (28:22):

So if you have interest in that, you can go under the How we help tab, uh, on the AAMI website. And very bottom, uh, choice on the How we Help tab is the client satisfaction surveys. You can read more about it, but whether you have us do it or you do it yourself or you hire somebody else, it is really critical that you be talking to your clients about what they love and what they wish was different or better. So do not miss the opportunity to tighten your relationship with your client whether we help you or not. All right. All right, let’s get back to the show. So we’re back and we are talking about sort of the new way of thinking about culture, which is how do we create an organization where people feel seen and valued, where they are encouraged to keep learning?

Speaker 2 (29:08):

And we acknowledge that every, no one has all the answers. And these last two I wanna talk about is how do we make people feel good about their contributions and how do we make them feel safe to challenge the task quo or challenge us the leaders? So let’s talk a little bit about how do we create this idea that your contributions matter? Number one, we can celebrate contributions. We can celebrate when a client writes an email that says somebody knocked it out of the park, or they loved our creative. Uh, we can create pure recognition programs where people are thanking each other and recognizing each other’s contributions. And when they sort of stepped up and they helped, I think how we deal with when something goes wrong is a really important part of this. So when something goes wrong, the the reality is it’s so easy to get angry or to immediately try and assign blame or make fun of someone that has to be absolutely, and we think it’s funny, but it’s not funny when you’re on the receiving end, right?

Speaker 2 (30:13):

And so how do we approach when there is a mistake? And again, this can be part of the learning too. So this can also be a safe to learn thing, is when something goes wrong, do we see it as a learning opportunity? What happened? And how do we a