Colin Christiansen

Welp, someone in our industry has potentially said something outrageous, and we at FKA are very here for it.

Last week, the CEO and CCO of Havas Creative North America, Paul Marobella and Jason Peterson, adorned their finest streetwear and perched in front of a large green-screen for the first of a series of agency-wide video updates. In it, they implore their creative teams to shift their paradigm from that of creative to creator. As Peterson, a man who almost definitely owns a Supreme Brick, brusquely puts it: Havas’ competition is “…kids with iPhones and millions of YouTube followers.” He also happens to call the agencies of Leo Burnett, BBDO and FCB “shitty.” Poop emojis and a farting effect are added for good measure, obviously.

Check out their video here.

As you can imagine, this hot take has stirred the proverbial pot, springing forward a range of thoughts and opinions. Do they have a point, Tim and Eric-esque production aside? Did they cross the line? Is the video just really…lame?

For FKA’s erudite musings on the video, listen to the first snippet from our upcoming podcast below! (No, that’s not a joke. We’re making a podcast.)

 

Colin Christiansen

Get Cultured

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Get Cultured

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Finding just what, exactly, makes an agency culture great

When tapping into the vast depths of the collected experiences of Jeff McLean, Creative Director at FKA, you can’t help but hope that he’s written all of it down somewhere. Like the dying language of some remote Amazonian tribe or your grandmother’s chili recipe, it seems much too valuable, in some vague cosmic sense, to not be documented and shared with humanity at large. Or, if that all seems a little too heady, his tales and pieces of advice are often — at the very least — outrageously funny, profound and maybe a little dirty. Plus, he’s never afraid to share (bless him).

One particular gripping anecdote is how, as a young precocious graphic designer, his employer brought in an individual to teach the office how to juggle. Intended to serve as a brief yet welcome distraction from the mountain of work the agency was facing, Jeff remembers feeling cynical towards the gesture (despite the fact that he did, indeed, learn to juggle). In hindsight, though, he remarks that he didn’t fully appreciate the attempted reprieve until much later. He’s failed to divulge if this was due to him learning to respect the value of nurturing workplace culture and camaraderie, or if it’s because he’s managed to impress innumerable people through circus tricks.

Culture from the ground up

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff and speak at length about what it takes to develop and maintain a successful agency culture, juggling and all. With over 25 years of industry experience across Canada, he’s intimately familiar with what’s required to create a culture that fosters positivity, collaboration and, ultimately, great work. Conversely, he’s well aware of what happens when it doesn’t. He begins by explaining that above all, culture does not originate directly from leadership.

“I think the first classic misnomer is that it’s the responsibility of the company or the leader of the company to set the culture,” he notes. “I think there are ways that the leaders at the top can guide it, but I think it’s more about giving the employees the freedom to explore how they want to have fun and how they bring culture to the company. I think FKA strikes a great balance with that because I think what happens with Culture Committees is fantastic, and I like the fact that the employees drive what’s going to happen.”

A long distance relationship

FKA’s Culture Committees, the bi-monthly event wherein one of FKA’s departments organizes an outing or activity for the whole agency, have been designed with this sensitive balance between top-down directive and community guidance in mind. Though there is a framework — for example, the activity must accommodate both the Edmonton and Toronto offices and must fall within a set budget — the selected department has creative carte blanche to work within these boundaries. Past examples include axe throwing and an in-office rendition of Shark Tank. The opening of a Toronto office in 2017 has posed its own challenges in fostering culture. With the remote team members, every effort is made to ensure a sense of inclusion, whether that be during Culture Committee events or in daily operations, while still respecting the unique culture developing in the nascent office.

Laugh it off

Though discrete moments of culture are important in an agency environment, Jeff explains they shouldn’t be the only aperture through which it’s expressed. It’s the daily life at the agency on which Jeff places a premium. Simply put, if your work day is pleasant, then the social side will follow. Laughter, he says, is a valuable barometer to measure how an agency is really handling the day-to-day — laughter in the halls and in the depths of meetings can provide immediate, if not informal, feedback on an office’s true sentiment. But if the necessary time isn’t taken to ensure that people’s work experiences are positive? Then you run the risk of having your attempts to foster culture through other means ring hollow. “I think if you don’t have those things in place to make people’s workday better, then when you do the free lunches or the gift card on the desk or whatever to say ‘thank you’, it sounds disingenuous,” notes Jeff.  

Fun in the scrum

It’s for this reason why Jeff has come to appreciate FKA’s daily morning scrums. The 9:30 AM ritual has every team member in the agency run through what they accomplished yesterday, what they have to-do today and any anticipated challenges. From a management perspective, the scrum allows for visibility into capacity and risks on an organizational level. But it serves an emotional purpose as well, providing a period of reflection and a sense of group-wide centreing, particularly when it becomes obvious that certain team members may need a little help.

“When everybody outlines what’s involved with their day, how they’re going to get through their day and then everybody pitches in to offer support when they see people are really busy, I think that leads to a great culture,” says Jeff. I actually wrote down in one of my notebooks, probably after two weeks of being here, ‘Culture of Support,’ and I’ve really found that to be a huge positive at FKA.”

As much as leaders may try, culture can’t be bought nor mandated from above. It’s as complicated, turbulent and nebulous as any system of human relationships. It flows from a sense of natural positivity and is born from a supportive, collaborative work environment and genuine culture building efforts. When these forces work in tandem, people can and will do great work. They might even learn how to juggle, too.

 

 

“There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld



We’ve recently started implementing a weekly anonymous survey to all staff at FKA that we call Pulse. And I find this fitting considering there’s nothing like no-holds-bar feedback from your teammates to get your heart racing.

“Terrifying but gratifying,” says Rob, when I asked his feedback on administering the weekly survey. “As the company has grown, my role has changed. My number one priority is to make sure that the working experience here is a positive part of everyone’s life. But I can’t do that unless I actually know how people are feeling,” he reiterates. “It fits in nicely with our overall strategy: act, analyze and adapt. It doesn’t just apply to our work, it can be applied to the experience of working here.”

The pulse survey asks four questions:

  • How was your week?
  • Is there anything you want to tell us about your week?
  • What is one thing that went really well this week?
  • What is one thing that could make next week better?

The survey is deployed each Friday and the agency leadership team meets every Monday to review the results. “I’m not going to lie. If we had a rough week, I’m scared to read the responses,” says Rob.

It’s a natural reaction. The truth can be daunting and honest feedback has a way of triggering fight or flight mode. We fear the worst and our nervous systems react appropriately. “Of course it’s never as bad as I think. It’s always very constructive and actionable. In the end, I’m really happy to know how our team is doing and what we can do to help them,” he explains.

As a member of the team, I personally find the Pulse survey refreshing. I’ll even go as far to admit that I’m the kind of person who avoids conflict, so Pulse has opened the door to communication for me. I’m now more willing to let leadership know if I’ve had a rough week or, more often than not, a good one. I also feel less like a cog in the machine. Being encouraged to have a voice is empowering but being asked to share that voice to potentially affect change is even more so.

Since its inception, the Pulse survey has effectively opened dialogue in the agency and has created actionable items for the team to move forward with as a whole. Every week feedback is shared on what was learned the previous week, which has given everyone a better sense of how the agency is doing overall.

Of course, anonymity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. As a social media coordinator, I can personally attest to this as I see the license people take online when masked by their social media profiles. If you’ve ever seen “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, you’ll know what I mean. It’s amazing what people will say when you give them an anonymous platform. Luckily, the feedback received from our Pulse surveys has been everything but malicious. Rob tells me that the feedback is always professional, fair and constructive.

While anonymous surveys may give a more honest picture, they’re also difficult to take individualized action on. This is why we have to acknowledge that leadership can’t always pursue each and every suggestion or frustration voiced. In some cases, it’s simply a platform to vent —which is okay, too.

In the end, it’s a two-way street. As members of a team, we have to take ownership of our feelings and share them with leadership if we want to grow and move forward. But we also have to trust that our leaders want to hear our feedback and intend to take action on it. I think Pulse is helping to solidify this trust and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of an organization that is at the forefront of actionable team feedback.