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CSO Fight: Agency Culture

Fun, generous, kind, open, safe cultures are seen as a bit soft. Hardcore, uncomfortable cultures are seen as macho. So how do you balance these in the creative industries, ask BBH CSOs

By Will Lion And Simon Gregory

BBH joint CSOs Will Lion and Simon Gregory debate over what culture produces the most innovation, in a world going more “hardcore”.


Will: It feels like there’s been a shift in work culture again. And not just because you’ve finally stopped wearing full lycra into the office.

Gregor: It’s aerodynamic… But how do you mean, on the work culture bit?

Will: Musk ushered in a “hardcore” culture at X, slashed 85 per cent of staff and the platform is innovating faster than ever. Silicon Valley seems to have followed this lead. Meta cut 11,000 jobs and its stock is up 175 per cent this year. Even Zoom is getting people back to the office. Zoom!

Gregor: Nothing like an impending recession to kill the adult daycare vibe with an enormous global belt-tightening exercise.

Will: So my red meat for us this month is when it comes to creative cultures, what's best? Hardcore or nurturing? Iron fists or velvet ones?

Gregor: You’re going to make me argue the iron fist aren’t you.

Will: You are from the North, so it feels right.

Gregor: And you get a nosebleed outside the M25 so it’s velvet for you. Off we go then. What’s your New Age point of view then soy boy?

Will: Remember Google’s Project Artemis? They found the highest performance teams were places where people feel confident that no one will embarrass or punish anyone for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea. They had “psychological safety”.

Gregor: Ah. The old beanbags and table football approach. Will we give everyone a voucher at Christmas to say thank you, too? Hope your place doesn’t have shareholders or bills to pay.

Will: Well, I think I’m talking about something deeper than bean bags.

Gregor: Ball pits?

Will: Ha. Go take a look in The Best Place To Work for a bunch of evidence that high performing teams give and receive appreciation more often, chat about outside work stuff more, spend more time together socially, joke with each other more, tease each other more, swear, bitch and complain more. The soft stuff converts to the hard stuff.

Gregor: Yeah but remember that clip from last year of Meta product manager Riley Rojas showing off her day where she just appeared to drink coffee and do yoga while doing zero work? That’s your velvety position at worst.

Will: Ok, sure, distort my position into its most extreme version and then argue against that…

Gregor: Alright then. To get the extreme version of mine out the way, I think we can all agree that macho, individualist, tense, zero sum cultures, where ‘for me to win, you have to lose’ are horrible too. The ones that Hollywood likes to portray.

Will: I’ll allow it. Continue.

Gregor: But at the same time I’d like to hear it for high standards, resourcefulness, directness, accountability, responsibility, putting your team ahead of yourself and ‘psychological resilience’.

Will: I love it when you’re all tough.

Gregor: Culture doesn’t happen on its own. You need to get people to commit to it, to add to it and to be part of it. This means you need to be clear on what you expect from people. How you expect them to behave. The responsibility they’re required to take. The values they should follow to make the agency work as one unit. And you need to enforce it.

Will: Sounds a bit militant. Doesn't Gregg Hoffman have a quote about when people need to ask permission to use their imagination it cripples innovation and the culture.

Gregor: He also says to “create a culture where ideas are in charge.” (And thank you for keeping quotes from people called Greg alive.)

Will: Here to help.

Gregor: For me, an agency or company is a living organism. To thrive it needs to be fed, watered, cared for and looked after. I can see that people turning up and having a lovely time can create a nice vibe to work in and feel positive, but without focus and structure it’s all a bit floppy. I want a culture that purposely creates an identity that can become a competitive advantage. A culture that knows how to get the most out of its greater good. That needs structure and standards to lead the way. It needs a spine.

Will: I don’t disagree.

Gregor: See, your velvety position without this spine is adult daycare. The iron fist position without the velvety bits is an effective business that may just not be so nice to work at. In other words, yours is a ‘nice to have’. Mine is necessary to create impact.

Will: Hard disagree. My position is that a business needs the iron, needs the spine, needs all the things you talk about but also needs some modern velvet mixed in to get even greater results. It’s not iron vs velvet, it’s both for maximum effect.

Gregor: A progressive nurturing culture but with a spine.

Will: Yup. Freedom but responsibility, safety but standards, community but accountability, velvet but iron.

Gregor: Have we awkwardly met in the middle?

Will: looks around

Gregor: I think the point is both ends of the spectrum are bad for creativity. You want a work culture that is safe enough to do something great, but not so safe you do nothing great.

Will: Well said. Cup of tea?

Gregor: Go fuck yourself.


Greg and Will, once they’ve had their cuppa and made up, will return next month for a fight about ‘woke creativity’.


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