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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.