Can You Change Your Agency Without Changing Your Culture?

I’m living through a critical time in our agency’s nearly 50-year history. Brownstein Group is doing well, we have a strong culture and for the most part clients seem happy. So what’s the critical part? We need to change. If we want to grow, we cannot do things the way we’ve always done them. On the other hand, some of what we have always done is well worth preserving. What to do?

Back when my dad ran the agency, change came about when he said it did. One time Dad decided that the agency needed to expand to land larger clients, so he engineered an acquisition that surprised the staff, including some senior members of the agency’s team. Following that, by force of will, he shifted the kind of work they did, moving some creative talent off the bus, and new talent on it, and the scope of work they did moved as well — from mostly print/outdoor/radio to mostly TV.

That was a big deal for a small shop in the ’60s and ’70s. There was no internal communications plan. No articulated vision. No measurement or reporting to the staff on the results of the sudden moves.

You can’t do things that way today. People would stream for the exits. We’ve learned to go about transformation with discipline, inclusion, planning and thoughtful execution. Even Dad cringes at the way he brought about change in the early days!

Today, with my management team, I am determined to implement new processes, create new positions to enhance quality of the execution, add staff in key areas to free up bandwidth and allow more time to think, and build a technology infrastructure for expansion.

One of the hurdles we face is adjusting to the pace of change itself. In the days of hand-pressed typesetting and human messengers, companies were slower to change. Technology powers faster shifts. Now, for example, we can hire the right people regardless of where they happen to live; being connected online, and able to share large files, those people don’t have to work in our offices. Little things like that enable a management team to make change happen sooner.

We’re a 75-person shop. Getting to the next level, 125 to 150 people, will take a new structure. If we land a whale (read: very big client), my fear is that, with our current setup, executing 25% more work will feel like giving birth to triplets. But, ideally, we shouldn’t feel a thing.

Skeptics on my team fear that we won’t fully realize this transformation. Not because they feel we aren’t capable of doing so, or lack the desire to change, but because change is so tough to pull off. Especially In a family-run shop whose culture is so omnipresent, no one wants to mess with it.

As president and CEO, it’s my challenge — and my priority. I’ve done a fair amount of research, reading about best practices in corporate change, and have discussed this in depth with CEOs of companies in other industries. My approach begins by inviting candor. I have a smart team that is my ears and eyes to the front lines of the agency, and they are never shy about identifying and bringing tough issues to me. They’ll close my office door and tell it like it is. In turn, they need to know that I am going to do something about the issues. My task then is to enlist the the go-to managers I know will get things done.

I’ve also learned that internal buy-in is key. The only way to get it is to share the plan with your whole staff early on. This is basically practicing what we preach as a communications company. What are our strategic priorities? What are we going to do to address them? How are we going to execute the plan? How will we measure results and when will we report them? This process will rally the troops, and send a signal that the boss gets it; committing to a plan also holds me accountable for results. The best way to tank morale is to not deliver.

I also believe I need to change my management style during this time. Usually I hire the best talent and let them lead. In this change initiative, however, I must become much more hands-on. There aren’t any two week-vacations in my near future.

Finally, measurement will be a key component. Imagine creating a campaign for your clients and after executing it, wiping your hands of how well it worked. We don’t do that at our shop, and we won’t do that with our change effort. I will ensure that we track the improvements and report to the staff. Measuring the results also gives me a window into seeing where the stubborn fixes are, so I can focus on them.

Having said all of this, I cannot let myself forget that our family business has a culture of compassion and accountability. Our team is like extended family, and they are treated accordingly. But the expectation is that they will execute at the highest level. No one mails it in, and if you do, it will be evident very quickly. The risk in growth and change is that we lose our family feel, and our agency becomes “corporate” or bureaucratic as we get bigger. Values drive our culture, and I feel that I must maintain consistency in applying our values when hiring. In my experience, the rest should take care of itself.

Growth companies have life cycles and well-defined stages in their forward-moving development. This family-run business is going to change in several areas. But as for our unique culture, it’s my job to make sure it endures.


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