“Culture” and “Brand” are two concepts that are often thought about and discussed as completely different topics. We don’t often consider how one might not only affect but define the other. But the truth is, they are very much the opposite sides of the same coin, if that coin represents the calling card for your agency or your client’s company.
Agency owners and authors Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn have literally written the book on the connection between culture and brand. In examining the challenges and successes of both their own clients and research into other companies, they defined six patterns that define culture and the traits that make these patterns successful.
In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Mark, Ted, and I take a deep dive into these six patterns – or “layers” – and how come to define an agency’s success. We explore everything from different kinds of trust to the need to sometimes fire a rockstar employee. We look at ways to inspire an invitation to difficult conversations and why it’s so important for creatives to advocate for themselves. We even define the first step an agency can take on the quest to improve, fix, or define a company’s culture in a way that leads to a winning brand.
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.
What You Will Learn in This Episode:
- The links between a winning culture and brand
- Why culture is so important in a conversation about brand
- Functional vs. relational trust
- 6 layers of marque culture
- How to tell if a problem is caused by a system or a person
- Why creatives need to advocate for themselves
- How agency owners can inspire a truth-telling environment
- Where to begin on the journey to fix culture
Ways to contact Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn:
- Book: https://www.culturebuiltmybrand.com
- Website: https://historicagency.com
- Mark’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/markmichaelmiller/
- Ted’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tedvaughn/ and
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/historicagency/
- Twitter: @historicagency
- Sell with Authority (buy Drew’s book)
- Facebook Group for the Build a Better Agency Podcast
- My Future Self Mini-Course
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? 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-sized agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable and, if you want down the road, sellable. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. I am here to tell you about my grandma’s spaghetti recipe. That’s actually not true. I’m not. I’m here to actually bring you another episode of Build a Better Agency. I’m happy to tell you about my grandma’s spaghetti sauce some time. It was a classic that I have learned to make. It takes me three days to make it, but it’s so worth it.
Anyway, I’m already digressing with 30 seconds in and I’m blathering out about something that is unimportant, but, actually, it is important to me. So a big part of my brand is my Italian heritage. As you know, McLellan is not Italian, last name. I’m Italian on my mom’s side and Scottish on my dad’s side, and I embrace both of those cultures. Honestly, they’re a big part of who I am and my brand. Some of the core elements of my personality and what I hold near and dear are all part of that heritage that I got from both of my parents.
Actually, I’m not just blathering out about that. It’s actually tied to what we’re going to talk about today with our guests. So I am really excited to introduce you to our guests and to tell you a little bit about them, but, first, what I want to tell you is that I think that brand and culture and weaving that into the way we talk about our agency and the way we hold ourselves up when it comes to prospects and also employees is critical. That’s going to be one of the things that we talk about in the Build and Nurture Your Agency’s Sales Funnel Workshop, which is in January in Orlando, Florida. I’m pretty sure it’s the 20th and 21st of January. You can go to the agencymanagementinstitute.com website under How We Help. You’re going to see a Workshop dropdown and you can find it, Build and Nurture Your Agency’s Sales Funnel.
We’re going to talk about how do you authentically put yourself out there into the world so that your right fit prospects can see that they are a great fit and are just drawn to come to you and to ask for your help. A lot of that is really about understanding who you are and what makes you unique, and how do you position yourself in front of the world. That is in direct correlation to today’s topic. So we would love to see you come down to that workshop.
What’s great about that workshop is not only are we going to talk about your brand and culture, but we’re also going to make you actually build out a sales and marketing plan. So unlike some of our workshops where we spend a lot of time teaching best practices but you don’t actually put them into practice, this workshop is designed basically as a hands-on workshop. You’re going to leave with a baked out marketing and sales plan. So we would love to have you join us. We would love to have you leave after day two knowing exactly, and it’s January, you’re thinking about, “What are we going to do in 2022? How are we going to fire up biz dev? How are we going to attract great clients to us?” Well, after that workshop, you’re going to have the answer. I promise.
Many of our past attendees, well, have told us through the pandemic and post-pandemic how having that plan and then executing against that plan really got them through what could have been a very bumpy and rocky time for them. Instead, many of them came out of 2020 with one of their best years ever. So I would love to have you join us at that workshop in January.
All right. The reason I’m telling you that is because the society of culture and brand and how we present ourselves to the world is, A, what we teach our clients and how we talk to our clients, but, B, we should be living that ourselves. So my guests today actually wrote a great book. So Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn who own the agency Historic wrote a book called How Culture Built My Brand.
First of all, it’s a great book. I love the format of it. I love the message of it. It’s super simple. It’s so smart, and it gives you a sense of exactly how or why you should be thinking about the culture of your agency and, by the way, helping your clients think about their culture and how that actually builds out a brand.
So we’re going to talk about what are the elements. So they identified some key, what they call layers or principles around what that looks like and how that manifests itself in a healthy organization to really build the brand. So I’m going to ask them to unpack that for us and tell us exactly how we can do it for shops and how we can leverage it for our clients. So let me introduce you to Mark and Ted and let’s jump in to the conversation.
Ted, Mark, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us. It’s very rare that I get two guests on one episode. So this si great.
Yeah. Thanks for having us.
Really happy to be here. Yeah. Thank you.
So give everybody a little bit of background on the two of you, on the book, how you came together, and then I have a million questions for you around culture. This is one of my all-time favorite topics.
Well, I had been doing executive strategy and coaching and leadership for about two or three years on my own, and every time I work with clients, the followup question was, “Hey, now that we’re clear strategically, how do we do our brand, our logo?” I wasn’t as gifted in that as Mark, and knew Mark and knew people that Mark knew and had a huge respect for Mark. So I just started calling Mark and that led to a relationship where we were serving clients together. So we decided one day.
Mark, I remember it being on a Southwest flight, and you were about two or three rows ahead of me. You came back or texted or something and said, “I think Historic Agency is the right …” Anyways, so bootstrapped Historic about eight years ago and have been working together ever since, and I’d say in the last two years had gotten very niched on our differentiation and our focus.
Yeah, and like Ted, my experience has been helping senior leaders, really, or executive leaders with rebrand and restructuring marketing and creative teams. That’s been my background. So did a lot of work in nonprofit and tech companies. We just connected. Then this past year, we wrote this book and that came out of our experience of noticing a really great process that in some organizations resulted in an amazing rebrand, repositioning, and high growth and return. That same process and great creative ended up not doing as well and in most cases not even seeing the light of day. We realized that organizational culture, the internal culture had more to do with brands being successful than the actual work itself in some cases, the brief for the most part. So that’s how we ended up where we are.
I think the irony about where we are today is that Mark and I have always been about culture. We just didn’t know how to actually serve our clients or if we even could as an agency because sometimes I think in this world of brand and agency, culture is left for other consultants, for other people, for other stuff. Yet, it is the glass ceiling. It is the barrier. We’ve never worked with a brand who hit a failure point that was because of a logo. It’s always been about culture.
So how do you go from having this philosophy that the two of you shared to writing the book and as an author I know and I’m curious if you feel this way, too, I always start out thinking I’m writing a book for a certain reason. Then as I write the book I’m like, “Oh, I either didn’t know that or I didn’t know that I knew that,” and now all of a sudden the act of writing the book begins to knit things together in a different way. So what prompted the book? When you started the book, what was your original purpose or goal with writing the book? Then what surprised you as you wrote the book? So that is packed 12 questions in one.
Yeah, right. I first started out as always serving a lot of large nonprofit international clients and just saw some leadership challenges that really made it harder for us to deliver creative work. So I was like, “I’m going to solve this by writing a book that they all read and then we’ll be able to do better creative work,” and brought Ted into the conversation and as we were venting back and forth to each other found six patterns among our clients, but also as we started doing more research around this idea of culture and brand and the top-performing consumer brands or B2B brands what does that look like, we found these six patterns, which we call layers to culture, and that’s where Culture Built My Brand came from.
I think, again, there’s an irony here because if you think about the stuff in the book, for me, it goes back to 12 years ago and things that I was doing, and I know it’s the same for Mark. It’s like we finally have this quiver of arrows and we were like, “We probably could write about this and do some damage.” We did.
I think, Drew, you mentioned the journey you go on as an author, I think we started off thinking, “This would just be a great calling card for our agency.” The further we went and the more we’ve talked about it, the more it turned into, “This is actually really, really important and we need to take this super seriously.” Then it became, “This isn’t just important for the clients we serve, it’s important for agencies to begin to realize that culture is an aspect of brand that they can’t ignore. I don’t care how niched your creativity. Culture is a reality that you have to tend to whether it’s on the sales process, it’s in the delivery, it’s in the review. It is something that will make everybody better whether they touch it in a proactive service-oriented way or it’s just factored into how they approach the niche work that they do.”
So let’s talk a little bit about these patterns that you discovered and what you think they mean for brands and for agencies because this conversation to me is twofold. One, you’re talking to agency owners who need to understand this about the brands they serve, but, two, they are a brand unto themselves and probably fallen to these patterns as well. So I want the listeners to hear this from both perspectives.
Yeah. 100%. I mean, we were even more equipped to write this book because of our own culture challenges as an agency, right? Like so many young organizations early in their life cycle, we brought people we know into the conversation. We doubled down on people who were available and who we trusted because we knew them and there is relational trust. We talk about this in the book, the two-dimensions, functional and relational.
There are times where relational trust is not enough and you need people with a skill and a functional ability and when you have those hard conversations, it can really feel like you’re betraying relationship because you’re saying, “Listen. We’ve come to our ceiling. We’re at a limit and either you grow with us and we believe that that’s something worth investing in or we have to move on. It doesn’t mean we don’t love you. It doesn’t mean you’re not the same amazing person you were in the very beginning, but there’s a functional lit.” That trust gets so misunderstood and betrayed because we fail to talk about it in those two dimensions. We went through that as an agency about two different times.
Yeah. So the book cover is six areas, what we call marquee culture, the idea that the best-performing brands have this internal culture that becomes a beacon, a light to consumers and to, frankly, to attract talents.
Absolutely. Right. I don’t know about you guys now, but every agency on the planet is struggling to find bodies. So all of a sudden, the culture attracting right fit talent that’s going to stick around for a while I think is always critical for agencies, but right now, it is the topic of conversation I’m having with everybody.
Yeah. The labor market is crazy.
Everyone is looking for talents, and so we’ve had I think three or four positions turnover in the past 90 days, but, yeah. So back to the six what we call layers of marquee culture. The first one being principles. What we found in high-performing brands was the organizational values were translated into behaviors. So we call those principles. So if you remember Enron had all these values like integrity, but most of them went to jail and were not too well, right?
So we found that and McKinsey has research on this that most people inside an organization understand the values but don’t really know what that means, and so they just ignore them, but the ones that perform really well are the ones that articulate that into behavior. So as an employee, “How am I supposed to behave because every decision I make at some point impacts the brand, impacts the customer?”
That really is the core idea behind marquee culture. It’s brand from the inside out. Yes, there’s a lot external-facing aspects of brand that matter, but your people and how they behave is probably the single greatest, and that starts with how they’re led and with the environment they’re in with the stories that they tell and hear. Those are all the layers, right? Principles, lore, which are stories. We talk about your physical environment, but, Mark, keep going.
Yeah. So the other one is architecture, and that’s really the systems. We call it architecture, but it’s the systems inside your organization. So we found in a lot of these larger brands there’s so much red tape that they hire us because they want to be more innovative, but at the end of the day, the culture doesn’t actually allow them to be innovative, and it becomes really difficult for them to accept change or to see movement in any new area. So thinking through that whether it’s the way you do your expense report. Does that match up with your organizational values or principles or not or your brand?
Ted mentioned lore. That’s the stories. Every organization has these … Think about Apple, all the stories about Steve Jobs or Patagonia and Yvon Chouinard, hand-making the first reusable piton, and that story gets actually told over and over again on their onboarding.
Like Ted said, one of the layers is artifacts. So those are the physical representations of the brand. So a lot of high-performing brands have ways that people can tangibly touch the brand. Rituals is another expression. Those are event-oriented, usually grassroots-formed experiences of the brand so that the employees can actually share and be a good reminder.
So an example of that, one of my favorites is NASA has a pumpkin-carving contest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So these are literally rocket engineers carving pumpkins that don’t look my pumpkins. Some of them are rockets and some of them are animatronic, all that kind of stuff.
I would not want to compete in that competition.
Yeah, right, but that’s a good example of how employees, that was employee-started. It’s not funded by the federal government. So if any watchdogs are listening, it’s all employee-funded, but that shows the ingenuity that is needed because if you launch a person into space and something breaks, you have them on good resources, right?
So we go through all these different patterns that we saw that weren’t really like, they’re more around culture and behaviors of the organization internally that just seem to be repeated no matter the size of the organization. So even if you’re a small agency or you work with small businesses, in our book, we interview a barbershop and how they live out a lot of the same layers. Obviously, they don’t call them that, but they’re doing them and that’s what’s making them successful and driving their growth.
The intersection with brand is as much as possible being differentiated. So somebody could say, “Oh, well, we have a ritual. It’s called the all-staff meeting, and it happens once a month.” Well, that isn’t the same kind of ritual as something that happens organically because people are so passionate about the brand that they launch something that is totally on brand but you had no control over it. That is powerful.
Same thing with principles. You can have a core value of authenticity and then the principle could be we want our people to be true to themselves and transparent. Well, everybody wants that. How can you have principles that actually help people further your brand and your brand value in ways that are unique to you? That’s why we had Southwest Airlines write the foreword to our book. Graciously, they said they would. The CMO wrote the foreword because they get that. There is a very intentional value-driven hiring, supervision, and support process for staff that get them aligned from the inside out.
So I’m curious. We keep going back to the principles, and I know we haven’t gotten through all six yet, but every agency I know, every brand I know has defined values in some way, right? They’ve gone through the exercise and they put them all in the wall and they voted on them or whatever. What do you see is true about the brands or the organizations that go from having it on the wall to actually having it be real and having it turn into action and having it turn into expectation of action?
Yeah. I mean, first, it comes down to clearly articulating what does that actually mean as a behavior and not just a belief, right? So integrity, that’s great, but-
What does it look like?
Right, what does that look like? Also, they’re not paid to play values either. So integrity would be a pay-to-play value or we would call it pay-to-play value. People are going to assume that you’re not going to steal from them, right?
I call those table stakes.
Yeah, table stakes, right.
It’s like, well, maybe honesty should be on the wall. Maybe that should be a given, right?
Patrick Lencioni calls it permission to play. It’s like these are the minimums, right? These are the fundamentals.
Right, right. Yeah.
Then the next layer is actually hiring, doing your reviews and one-on-ones based off of these values and principles, and firing based off of them as well. So there’s actual hardcore accountability built in to the organization, right? So if you’ve read Reid Hastings’ new book, Rules Rules I think it’s called, they have a term that all managers know, which is the keeper test. If someone comes on your team and says they’re going to quit and you won’t fight to keep them, your job is to fire that person right now and leave that spot open for the right player. That’s one of their values is to have all-star players and no one else on the team. So they actually live that out ruthlessly in some cases. The organizations actually really hold that really tightly, and that’s what we saw in the best-performing brands.
Again, using a barbershop in addition to QuikTrip or Costco, a local barbershop here in town outperforming everybody else because they hired based on their values and principles and fired based on their values and principles.
Yeah. I think agencies do a pretty good job at the hiring part. I don’t think they do a super great job at the firing part. I think we’ve all seen why I have this amazing backend developer or this amazing unicorn creative director or whatever and, yes, they’re a pain, and yes they violate our rules, but they’re so valuable to us in terms of their output that we tolerate their behavior. The conversation I have every day with agency owners is understand that everyone is watching, and what they clearly are understanding is this is just talk, and that when the rubber meets the road and when you have to make hard decisions, you aren’t actually willing to honor the principles or values that you say you hold dear.
Yeah, and this is where principles and architecture overlap. If you have principles and they’re just wonderful, rhetorical ideas that we spend a lot of time drilling down into but we don’t actually integrate them into our supervisory structures, into how we manage and develop, most of the time I would say agencies are guilty of this, nonprofits are guilty of this. I think everybody is guilty. We take a lot of time to hire great people and then we do nothing proactive to develop them.
We all talk development because, well, they’re passionate. They love what they do. We buy them Starbucks. That’s not development. Development is something very intentional and proactive and relational that takes time, and it’s really hard to find time to do that in tyranny of the urgent.
That ends up resulting in us wanting to fire people when they finally get to be enough of the problem. Our counsel has been, “Listen, fire the broken system before you fire the broken person because odds are that person is not even close to their potential capacity or contribution because of the system that you’ve put around them.”
Yeah. So how do you recommend somebody figure? How do you evaluate a system to see if it is the system or the person?
So in the book, we actually I think do a really good job of making it super practical and every chapter closes with, “Do this, do this, start here,” because these can be very abstract like lore. What the hell do I do with stories? Do I just tell a new story or do I … Well, no, no. If you’re a senior leader, take time to ask questions. “What are the stories that come to mind when you think about our agency? Hey, what are the stories that your first 90 days here that you’ve already heard from our staff?” and just take an inventory. Are those good stories or bad stories? If they are bad stories, like for instance, when I first came on staff as a young executive leader, the story I told was, “Hey, Ted, you’re just a plane right away from losing your job.”
I was like, “What does that mean?”
“Well, the CEO sat next to somebody on an airplane that did your job. They thought better, and they hired them, and that was how your last person was hired.”
I was thinking about my hiring going, “Well, that was similar as to how I got out here.”
So now, I’m walking around going, “Oh, crap! This isn’t a healthy thing.” This is a story multiple people are telling. I would say maybe six months into my employment I got to share that story with the CEO. He had no clue unless he was lying to me. I don’t think he was. He had never heard it, right?
So seeing your leaders in any organization are some of the most self-diluted leaders in the organization because nobody wants to tell them the truth. Even if they feel safe, they don’t want to, especially in an agency where it’s creative, it feels personal, there’s a lot of soul and hue on the line. You have to build a bridge across that power gap and actually mind for reality and truth or you’re not going to get it.
Just saying we don’t tolerate yes men or yes women, well, I mean, okay, but back that up with action, like actually build a bridge over your power and allow people to tell you the truth. I think that’s probably a theme in all of our layers of culture.
Well, and I also think and I’m curious, I think employees think their bosses know a bunch of stuff they don’t actually know.
Yes, that’s true.
So like when you told the story, you probably expected that CEO to go, “Oh, yeah, right.” When he was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” you were like, “You’re kidding me.” So I’m always saying, so we do some workshops for agency employees, as well as for agency owners, and when I’m with the employees I’m like, “Your boss has no idea what happens every day because they’ve got their own to-do list, and they’re on a million phone calls or a plane or with clients or they’re running from meeting to meeting. They don’t actually know what you to do all day. They don’t know the barriers that you run in to. They don’t really understand the culture because there’s a subculture that happens when they’re around, which is everyone’s on their first day behavior culture. They don’t see all of the strife, the conflict, the whatever unless somebody shares it with them.”
Just because they might have done your job 20 years ago or 10 years ago or even two weeks ago doesn’t mean they know what you need. I have led creatives my entire career and I’m 49 at this point, so it’s been a while. I think the reoccurring mantra in my supervision and leadership in agencies and in creative spaces has been you have to advocate for yourself because even I am super talented and you’re a unique niche, I have no effin’ clue what you need in this moment, and you may think I know. You may think I don’t. If you don’t know how to advocate for yourself, have a sense of agency, agency in the personal identity word not the agency in your agency, then you’re going to be a martyr.
I see martyrs in so many creative circles, right? It’s people who just find it easier to complain, not advocate, murmur, triangulate, and now all of a sudden they become a toxic member of a team because, really, the bottom line is they fail to actually know how to advocate for what it is they need.
Yeah. Again, I think the assumption is, “I’m not getting what I need because they don’t care enough or want me to have it,” or whatever as opposed to, “They have no freaking clue.”
Maybe you should just ask. I mean, one of my mentors, amazing man, I was complaining to him. I think I was in my mid 20s and I was like, “I’m in this meeting and the senior leader comes in 20 minutes late every time, and the minute he walks in all the attention goes to that senior leader and it’s like the first 20 minutes had been a total waste and I am pissed.”
He’s like, “Well, have you asked him to come on time?”
I was like, “Oh. No. That would be a really good idea.”
So I asked him to come on time, but he was like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I had no idea,” right?
So all of this angst and sideway energy and conversations with my wife, I just had to ask him to come on time and it was all better.
Right. Yeah. So how do you, because I think what we’re talking about is probably true for all of the patterns, but how does an agency owner or leader or a brand owner and leader in the broader scheme of the book, if we know the employees aren’t going to come and tell us, most employees aren’t going to feel safe doing that no matter how open door, no matter if you hug everyone when you walk in the door every day, no matter how much love there is, they’re not going