Episode 314:

“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.

Culture and Brand

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
“Organizational culture, the internal culture, has more to do with brands being successful than the actual work itself.” @historicagency Click To Tweet “How can you have principles that actually help people further your brand and your brand value in ways that are unique to you?” @historicagency Click To Tweet “Fire the broken system before you fire the broken person.” @historicagency Click To Tweet “Senior leaders in any organization are some of the most self-diluted leaders in the organization because no one wants to tell them the truth.” @historicagency Click To Tweet “No matter where you start, you’re opening the door to something that never stops requiring more of you, because culture is a gift that keeps on giving but it also demands a lot.” @historicagency Click To Tweet “Make your principles sticky and actionable and then have bullet points underneath about how people behave.” @historicagency Click To Tweet “Everybody thinks about organization and company and culture as healthy or not healthy. Go beyond health. Make it about brand.” @historicagency Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

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.

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.

Mark Miller:

Yeah. Thanks for having us.

Ted Vaughn:

Really happy to be here. Yeah. Thank you.

Drew McLellan:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Mark Miller:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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.

Mark Miller:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.”

Drew McLellan:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Mark Miller:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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.

Mark Miller:

Yeah. The labor market is crazy.

Drew McLellan:

Brutal, right?

Mark Miller:

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?”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Mark Miller:

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.

Drew McLellan:

I would not want to compete in that competition.

Mark Miller:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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?

Mark Miller:

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-

Drew McLellan:

What does it look like?

Mark Miller:

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?

Drew McLellan:

I call those table stakes.

Mark Miller:

Yeah, table stakes, right.

Drew McLellan:

It’s like, well, maybe honesty should be on the wall. Maybe that should be a given, right?

Mark Miller:

Right.

Ted Vaughn:

Patrick Lencioni calls it permission to play. It’s like these are the minimums, right? These are the fundamentals.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. Yeah.

Mark Miller:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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.

Ted Vaughn:

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.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So how do you recommend somebody figure? How do you evaluate a system to see if it is the system or the person?

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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.

Mark Miller:

Yes, that’s true.

Drew McLellan:

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.”

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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.”

Ted Vaughn:

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.

Drew McLellan:

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 to come tell you the truth. So how do I get the truth? How do I find the truth?

Mark Miller:

We do it at Historic. It’s in our onboarding. So I run the day-to-day operations, and I walk through everyone through a culture onboarding part of that. Onboarding is actually walking through all my failures and the good things about the way I communicate and the bad things about me and the way I communicate and the expectation for them to hold me accountable. Then in our one-on-ones, I set an expectation that day, submit questions that they want to talk about and things that they want to address, as well as submit my questions ahead of time, and then I probe the employees to make sure that they have what they need, “What are your roadblocks?”

So, as Ted mentioned earlier, as leaders we have to be willing to build that bridge to the person under our authority because like you said, they’re not going to by default feel comfortable doing that no matter what we put on the wall or how many times we say it. We actually have to be really vulnerable with them and talk about our failures and talk about what we don’t know, what we want getting there, and the expectation on them to lead to some extent in those areas.

Ted Vaughn:

I think that’s the challenge in culture. We want a drive thru mentality. We think, “I bought the book. I read the book. I downloaded the whitepaper. It should be better in six days.” Culture is soil work, right? We talk a lot about them. As a matter of fact, the reason I’m in this crazy background is because I’m in Arizona getting ready to do this for a client that’s a healthcare brand, right? They’re realizing, “We need to do a little bit of rototilling or our soil to get prepared for the new cultural growth qualitatively that we want, but it’s soils work that takes time.”

You can look for Miracle Grow, but I guarantee you if you try and Miracle Grow, it will actually deplete the soil of the nutrients it needs over time. So in some ways, the challenge with our book, we actually were thinking about for a while having a marketing thing like, “Read this if you dare,” because it is scary. No matter where you start, you’re opening the door to something that never stops requiring more of you because culture, it’s a gift that keeps on giving but it also demands a lot.

You don’t just flip a switch and think, “Oh, we told a better story,” “Oh, we’re doing a pumpkin carving contest.” There’s no cut and paste, right? You have to do the work of your soil your way with your people, and you’re going to fail, but it’s unbelievably rewarding, and it will translate, I believe, into more money, into more efficiency, and to better results, and it could even open the door for how to serve your customers in new ways that you didn’t even realize.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think, again, this is such a timely conversation, but I think about how much agencies can save both from just internal dollars but also client relationships with the consistency of staff. If you can keep a core team together for three, five, eight years, and they work well together in a healthy culture, the value proposition of that both internally and your clients, clients freak out when we have change, especially in key roles.

Mark Miller:

Account management?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right, account management or our creative director or things like that. If we can provide that consistency and that sense of calm for our clients and we can create a work environment … At my agency, so my agency, I own my own agency and I own Agency Management Institute. At my agency, we’re 26 years old. My average staff tenures 18 years. Our clients love that, love that because we are so efficient and effective and working together, and we just have a rhythm about us that just reassures them that things are going to stay calm and clients want calm. Agency owners want calm, too.

So as you guys said, you’ve had four positions turnover recently, that’s anxiety creating for an agency owner. So this is a way to reduce anxiety all across the board.

Ted Vaughn:

I also think it’s a way to, as you said, Drew, increase efficiency because you don’t have to keep retraining and onboarding. It’s funny because we talk a lot about process over magic that I think sometimes in the agency world we think, “Well, if I just find that one person who does this one thing amazingly well, I’ve got this linchpin to success,” but we’ve seen process trump unicorns or magic creatives time and time and time again, and process takes time to build internally to see the external result, right?

I think that’s why as an agency we would say we’re more of the brand strategy and culture consultancy before we’re a design. We do design. We love design. We love logos and postcards and websites, but those deliverables have just become so commoditized and the efficiency of giving those deliverables to a client who trust you with their culture and their brand strategy at a deeper level, it’s a totally different experience.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, and quite honestly, you’d get it right faster when you have that depth of understanding and connecting with the client and their brand, right?

Ted Vaughn:

Yeah, hopefully.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. I want to take a quick break and then I want to come back because I have a million more questions about the patterns. So let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back with Mark and Ted.

I’m sorry, but not really sorry to interrupt you because you are going to be as excited about this as I am. The workshop Selling with Strategic Insights with Mercer Island Group is back. So we have taught this workshop twice. I’d say about 70 agencies have gone through it, and the whole purpose of this workshop is to teach you a framework to build your new business pitches for either prospects or even to upsell clients in a way that provides such great vision into your insights that you will knock the socks off of all the competitors.

I will tell you that I have four agencies that have attended this workshop that since they applied this methodology, they have landed the largest client in their history. Those 70 agencies have already landed more than $50 million of new AGI using this methodology. I can tell you because I don’t teach much. I’m in the back of the room offering color commentary. This workshop is spectacular.

So if you want to start the new year growing your business, if you are tired of coming in second, if you are frustrated that you can’t win that big account that would change the game for you, you need to be at the Selling With Strategics Workshop on January 25th and 26th in beautiful Orlando, Florida on Disney Property, and I promise you this can change everything for you, right? I knew you’d be excited about it. All right. Let’s get back to the show.

All right. We’re back and we are talking about the book, Culture Built My Brand and the whole idea of this idea of how culture and insight both your agency and also understanding it from your clients’ perspective, how the value that it brings, but what are the key indicators that you have a healthy culture.

So of the patterns, I don’t think we’ve gotten through all of them. Did we stop? Did we get through all six?

Ted Vaughn:

Yes. So there are six layers. We talked about principles, which are taking your values and turning them into behaviors. We talked about architectures, which is your organizational structure not just being healthy, but being intentionally built like you would architect a home in a Frank Lloyd Wright style, how should your brand architect its structure from supervision to management, to leadership.

Third layer is lore, the stories that are told. Then we get into rituals, which would be those activities, whether you’re programming them or they’re bubbling up organically, which are frankly the best kinds of rituals, but you can also do rituals. Mark, the last couple?

Mark Miller:

Then we have vocabulary. We noticed the top-performing brands had some keywords that they used in their daily processes that reminded their employees of the brand, right? So we talked a little bit about Netflix’s, the keeper test. They also have something called Sun shining, where you fail at something spectacularly, you have to share it with the team so that the team learns from your mistake and they can keep going. So developing that language, that vocabulary.

At Historic, we have something called Think Outside the To-Do since everyone gets a schedule of to-dos. A lot of times, a designer or somebody can just be narrow focused on that activity and not think about their broader scope or the brief. So we want to make sure they remember that.

Then the last one is artifacts. A lot of people will think, “Oh, that’s just swag. Here’s a T-shirt.” We found that there’s some meaningful expression of the brand in the physical way. So whether it was InfusionSoft, which is now Keap, their astroturf in their offices where they have staff meetings and it looks like football field and they say your job is to leave everything on the field, and that’s a reminder of that or if it’s, again, Nico’s Barbershop in Arizona that has “Look Good Do Good” on the wall, which is a reminder that it’s a one-for-one model. For every haircut they feed someone without food. So it can look different in different ways, but it’s a reminder of what the brand is about.

Ted Vaughn:

Even our agency, we’ve got a conference room that’s a beautiful conference room and we took one entire wall and we gave an artist that we trust, he’s not perfect, and he took Sharpies and he Sharpie art the entire wall.

Drew McLellan:

Wow!

Ted Vaughn:

It’s beautiful. Is it perfect? No, but it is a living testimony to what we value, which is integrity, art, the tension of … So every time we see this, we’re in this room, and it’s just become an anchor to our brand is this wall, which now shows up in a lot of our collateral and a lot of our-

Drew McLellan:

Of course, right, right.

Mark Miller:

Clients love seeing it because it has our monitors, which also have motion graphics. Basically, the wall behind it animated, so it looks like one piece of wallpaper. Part of it moves and the other. So it just become a piece but in a lot of different ways.

Drew McLellan:

As you’re talking about that, I’m thinking about how some of these are internal, but a lot of them end up being external as well, that it’s how you talk about your brand and your culture. So, for example, if you go to Keap and you see the astroturf, some client of theirs is going to go, “What’s up with that?” Then they get to tell that story, and your wall is the great example of that of, “Okay. This is what this means to us,” and so talk about a little bit about how these six patterns of these layers aren’t just about internal communication, but it’s also … because to me culture and brand is about attracting not only the right fit talent, but attracting the clients or customers that align with you and that you’re going to be able to delight because you have shared principles or values, right?

Ted Vaughn:

It goes back for me to soil work. You don’t always know the one-to-one relationship between adding iron to soil and the output it will do above the ground, but you know the soil needs it and you know what you’re growing requires it. So you do it and you hope for the best. In many ways, these are the same idea.

We know our culture if it’s healthy, we’ll do unbelievably better things that will be more life-giving, and fun, and efficient, and better. So we’re going to add these things as we can intentionally with our eyes wide open. We’re going to do our best to tend to our soil, believing we’ll get healthier growth, and in every case we’ve lived through and we’ve helped our clients navigate, that has been the case because you get advocacy.

A lot of this is subtle. A lot of this is psychological. A lot of this is emotional. So when you have a physical brand, it begins to shape you in ways because of that space, that astroturf, that wall, the phone booth that you put to allow people to have phone calls on privacy when they work in a shared workspace. So you bring in a cool London red phone.

Any number of different things communicate value, and the person doesn’t psychologically begin to connect the dots, but they do become more invested. They do begin showing up to work more excited. They do feel more value. It’s why you, Drew, have 18 years. I don’t know if it’s because of a physical environment, but I’m sure it’s because you’ve been intentional about the culture in ways that have resulted in tenure, which is hard to get unless they’re just all 75 years old and that’s all they know. Most of today’s workforce don’t really know gold watch tenure. These are not concepts that they’re familiar with.

Drew McLellan:

Especially in our business, right? Yeah. You get three years out of somebody and that’s pretty good.

Ted Vaughn:

They’re like, “Where’s my Rolex?”

Drew McLellan:

That’s right. That’s right.

Mark Miller:

I think it goes to why we called these six layers Marquee Culture because when you start doing these things and, again, it’s more about aligning the brand with the culture, you could have healthy culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s aligned with your brand that you’re trying to communicate to your customers, but the Marquee will start to draw, the Marquee Culture will start to draw customers and there’s a lot of examples we give in the book from Costco to QuikTrip.

There’s a great story about Costco and how the former CEO, when poised with the question, “Hey, we need to raise the price of the hotdog combo,” which is $1.50, which has been the same price ever since it was introduced, he said, “No effin’ way,” and made it very, very clear that there’s a perceived value in that, that, “We’re supposed to be about value. We can’t lose money everywhere, but there’s one thing that we can offer that communicates value to our customers, and it’s that combo deal, and that brings people back.”

You can argue whether that’s healthy or whatever.

Drew McLellan:

People go to Costco just to eat the hotdog, which I don’t really get, but they do because, again, it’s a part of their lore and their culture. Yeah.

Mark Miller:

Right. Yeah, and so once you start implementing these things and, again, it may seem disconnected, but when you think about it, the way you budget, the way you hire, the way you fire, how you equip your employees, the way they behave, that all impacts ultimately what your website is going to look like or what your products are going to be or how you interact with your customers.

One way agency owners can really differentiate themselves, especially if you’re a boutique agency against a larger agency is in customer service, and I know you have a great show pod episode about that, but when you add these layers together, you can start creating a differentiated customer experience on the agency side that really makes you stand out against the competition.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I have a bazillion more questions, but I know we need to get wrapping up here. So you’re right. One of the things about the book that we’re not probably paying proper homage to is it’s a guidebook. It teaches you the stuff, but then it gives you a homework to actually do this stuff. If somebody reads the book and they’re like, “Okay. We’re deficient in most of these,” where would you recommend they start?

Ted Vaughn:

Whoa, wow, but you know what? It’s the first time anybody has asked us that question. Is there an obvious place to start? There’s a lot of relationship, right? Principles shape vocabulary should shape architecture, and that ultimately could translate or reflect story and lore. So like a Venn diagram, these all work together, but I would say if the culture is deficient, the best place to start, Mark, feel free to push back-

Mark Miller:

I was just going to say principles is the first place.

Ted Vaughn:

Oh, yeah. Okay. We’re on the same page. Yeah. I mean, because it’s where it gets real. It’s like if you don’t have values, then ditch values and make principles. Make your principles sticky and actionable and then have bullet points underneath about how people behave. Don’t just say authenticity or integrity. Say it in a way that relates to what you want your people to do or not do. Make it as specific as possible because, ultimately, how those people behave is your brand more than anything else you put on the website. I think you have to start there. That becomes the foundation for everything.

Drew McLellan:

So what I’m hearing you say is even if you have them, odds are they need to be beefed up. They need to be articulated differently. They need to be translated to action. So I can in essence grade myself of, “Am I showing up against this principle in a way that I am honoring it regardless of my role in the organization?” but I should be able to tell you as an employee, “Yup.”

So like for example, at my agency, one of our core values or principles is the guys in the white hats win. So my people know what that means is we always are completely transparent. We are always the white hat, riding into whatever we’re riding into whether it’s to save the day, but we certainly are holding ourselves to a standard that is above and beyond what our clients might ask of us and what we would ask of each other that we show up as good people doing good work in an ethical way, but we have articulated what that looks like. So I think that’s what I’m hearing you say.

Ted Vaughn:

Yeah. I mean, a good example is this healthcare brand that I’m here to serve today. One of their values, both core value meaning it’s external to their customers, but it’s also an internal value they want to make more principled is exceed expectations. So one of their principles is going to be 100% of customer questions must be responded to within 24 hours with meaningful and helpful information.

Now, that’s just a nice idea for any customer service group, but that tethers straight back to a value. So if you ask somebody on staff, “What does it mean for you to exceed expectations?” they’re going to have at least three bullet points that are tethered to that, that are measurable. There’s other ways-

Drew McLellan:

So it really is about actionable, right? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s not that it can’t just be lip service.

Ted Vaughn:

Mark, tell the example of the VC firm and the if you talk smack you’d get fired.

Mark Miller:

Oh, yeah. I think it’s Andreessen Horowitz, which, hopefully, most of your listeners will know, founded by one of the inventors of Netscape back in the day. They’ve invested in probably 50% of the top tech companies on the Fortune 500 today. They wanted to start a firm that was founder-focused, right? Before then, there was no VC firm that now there’s a bunch, but that were founder-focused.

So, basically, one of their things was if you talk trash about someone who came in and pitched or a founder, you would get fired. That was a zero tolerance. Every someone pitch they would provide feedback and they would followup. It wouldn’t be a black hole because that would be showing that they actually value the founders, right? So even though most of them didn’t get funding, they would still give them why and what they need to work on and all that. So it was a really huge first step in respecting those who are coming in and pitching for funds and seeing them differently and that obviously made them super successful.

So, again, going back to that McKinsey research, I think it was 27% of employees, only 27% of employees knew how values could be applied to their day-to-day work and that’s the gap that we want to fix, right? It should be 80% of employees know.

Then the next step of that is actually holding people accountable to it is the other hard thing. As you mentioned, Drew, and we know this firsthand, what it’s like to go from family to business, running your agency as a family to business and what it means to have to deal with creative talent or other talent on your team that doesn’t necessarily fit the culture or is making these different behaviors. So we had to make it really, really clear, and so we learned the hard way, which is probably why we wrote the book on how to adjust that.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, this is all about knowing how you want to be, who you want to be, how and who you want to be, and then putting action behind it in all of these things, the rituals, the artifacts, the vocabulary. It really is about how do you manifest this abstract idea into real tangible proof, everyday proof that this is actually who you are.

Ted Vaughn:

It’s going beyond health. Everybody thinks about organization and company and culture as healthy or not healthy. Go beyond health, make it about brand. Health is the permission to play. If you’re not healthy, you’re going to die. So be healthy. Yes, of course. Now, let’s be healthy and beyond brand.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah, and be truly who we are.

Mark Miller:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

Because then we attract the right employees and the right clients.

Ted Vaughn:

Not be afraid to say, “Hey, at Southwest Airlines we love gregarious extroverts. So if you’re a curmudgeon introvert, you’re probably an amazing developer or whatever, but we’re not going to hire you. I don’t care what position …”

Mark Miller:

You could maybe be a coder, but you’re not going to be a flight attendant, right?

Ted Vaughn:

Yeah, and there’s no shame in that because it’s like, “We have a brand and the brand has value prop and the value prop is dependent on people. Therefore …” Right? You’re not going to get in trouble legally for that. There are other things that will get you in trouble, but ensuring you hire people who further your brand is not going to do that.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and if anybody should get this, the importance of brand and really understanding who you are and owning it, good, bad or ugly, but this is who and what we are.

Ted Vaughn:

Yeah, but we do.

Drew McLellan:

Agencies should get this, right? We should have this down path, but I think it goes back to what you said at the beginning, and I know I need to let you go, it’s about carving out the time and the intention to create it because it doesn’t happen by accident.

Mark Miller:

Yeah, and to give an example of that just at Historic, one of our principles is you have to own the fun or be the fun, meaning there’s no cruise ship director, we’re not going to make this environment fun. You actually have to, on a personal level, contribute to the culture to making it fun. Someone came up with the idea of, “Hey, half of our team is remote, half of them are in Phoenix. We don’t really get to spend a ton of time together with remote people. What if we did an album? Someone submit an album every week and we all listen to it and we can get to learn about somebody by their music taste and we can review it the following week.”

So we elevated that ritual. That was a grassroots ritual to be part of our staff meeting every week. Someone pitches an album and we review the previous week. It took Ted a while to get involved in that because he started submitting title links and no one listens to title so he got blocked by all of us.

Ted Vaughn:

Title sounds better. Title sounds better.

Mark Miller:

Then Spotify, right? Apple Music, but, no, it’s been great to hear what other people listen to, and we get to know each other that way. So you have to make the time for it, though.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You have to carve out the time. Yeah. This has been fascinating. Other than, obviously, picking up the book, which I highly recommend. How else can folks reach out and learn more about the work you guys do and keep track of you because I know you’re talking about this stuff all the time?

Mark Miller:

Our agency website is historicagency.com. You can get more information of the book and the tools that we actually use as an agency to walk clients through this process at culturebuiltmybrand.com, and then I am Mark Michael Miller on LinkedIn, and Ted, where can they find you?

Ted Vaughn:

I’m pretty I’m T-E-D-V-A-U-G-H-N across all the platforms except I haven’t ventured into TikTok yet. My daughter is pushing me there, but I’m not ready. I’m trying to get-

Drew McLellan:

Ted, I can’t wait to see your first video on that.

Ted Vaughn:

Ted’s pretty excited to see that, too.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This has been great, guys. Thank you for your time, but this is such an important topic. Again, like I said, if anybody should get this, we should, but we’re often moving at such a pace. This is crock pot work, not microwave work. So we got to sit down to do it.

Ted Vaughn:

Yeah, 100%.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. This has been great. So thank you for being on the show.

Mark Miller:

Thanks, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet.

Ted Vaughn:

Thank you, Drew. It’s been a pleasure.

Drew McLellan:

All right, guys. This wraps up another episode. So Mark and Ted gave you some homework. I will also tell you the book is, if I was going to structure the way a book should be written because you know I’m all about action, it would be teach me something and then tell me what to do with what you taught me, and the book is actually structured that way. So wherever you buy your books, go and grab this book because it’s dual fold. It’s going to teach you about your own culture, but you’re also going to be able to steal from it with clients. So I know they wrote it with both of those intentions in mind. So have at it with that book, but you’ve got a lot of things to chew on from this episode, and I hope you don’t just chew on them. I hope you actually start to think about how you can put some of this into play because I don’t think this is ancillary to the work we do. I don’t think this is the frosting. I think this is at the core of who we are and what we do.

If you want to build a culture, I know all of you care about attracting great talent and keeping the talent that you attract, it starts right here. So I think you’ve got a great recipe to up your game a little bit.

So before I let you go, huge thanks to our friends at White Label IQ for being the presenting sponsor. As always, please know how grateful I am that you hang out with me every week and I will be back next week with more guests to get you thinking differently about the agency and helping you level up to where you want the agency to be. So thanks for listening. You know how to track me down. In the meantime, and I’ll see you next week.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.