Dutch agency Dept is determined to keep its soul, even as it expands globally
How do you hold on to your culture as your company expands? Dept has kept up its culture through purpose, camaraderie and an equity scheme. Chief executive Dimi Albers tells us more.
Dept CEO Dimi Albers talks us through the company’s recent achievements
Agency businesses with an eye on a future empire often struggle to keep the culture, or atmosphere, of their early years alive as they grow. That’s a concern that Dimi Albers of Dutch agency network Dept has been grappling with throughout the pandemic, as this rapidly-growing agency known for boat parties on the canals of Amsterdam adapts to a decentralized working reality.
Dept, which Albers has led as chief executive for the last four years, has recently gone through a fresh period of expansion. It’s made its first global leadership hires in the United States, recruiting Amanda Schmidt from GroupM and Missy Foristall from IBM as chief people officer and chief operating officer respectively.
The hires mark a new chapter for the agency, previously led by the triumvirate of Albers, chief financial officer Celestine Fransen and chief operating officer Frank Schmid. The roles now occupied by Foristall and Schmidt were handled by Albers and Schmid in an ad hoc arrangement; their crystallization into distinct positions show how the five year-old business has matured.
”We’ve gone from 100 people to 2,000, one country to 15, one continent to four. As we’ve grown, we’ve always been about the entrepreneurial journey and the strength of those entrepreneurs within the different countries ... so let’s keep our global team as small as possible,” says Albers.
”We’re getting to a place where there’s two things happening. One is that, by strengthening the global leadership, we can make sure our business performs better, that we do better work for our people, for our clients. Second, our growth path toward the future is quite aggressive. We wanted to put in place a model that gives us the basis to grow over coming years.”
Furthermore, it’s called up Byte co-founders Jamie Kenny and Alex Miller to serve as global senior vice-presidents of creative and content, and Building Blocks’ Jonathan Whiteside to take on the global senior vice-president slot for technology and engineering. The moves mark the integration of those businesses into the wider Dept whole, Albers tells The Drum.
”The process of bringing in new teams is something that needs a lot of attention,” and depends on both aligning agency strategy on clients, and on finances.
”You get that [single P&L] principle in place, and focus on your clients and the rest of the integration comes hand in hand. What we’ve seen with Jamie and Alex, across a few of the clients we have, they’ve been involved in the mix between creative, media and data ... since they came in. So it was very logical for them to grow into these leading roles.”
Across the rest of the business, Dept has experienced both the rise in demand from clients, and the hiring frenzy that has occupied much of this summer and autumn. ”We benefited a lot during Covid from the fact that we’re not jut in one place, but in many. Instead of being focused on location, we’ll hire anywhere. If you’re saying that people need to come into the office two or three days a week, you’re not actually embracing the true nature of distributed people.”
While plenty of staff in its European bases are back in the office, Albers notes that its UK and US bases are still far from full – a situation likely to persist. ”That’s driven by a lot of the commute, right? In the Netherlands, nobody commutes for more than 30 or 40 minutes. In the UK a lot of folks did 90 minutes and are saying, ’Screw that, I’m never doing that again.’”
Albers says the agency has fully embraced remote staffing, hiring around 200 new hands far from its urban bases, in spite of fierce competition for industry talent.
”You can see there are some pockets where pressure is very high ... London, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin ... it’s been challenging. But in other markets where there’s less pressure, we’ve been able to hire very aggressively. The cool thing is there’s good people, from a cultural or a capability perspective, anywhere. You have to look for them, but they are anywhere.
”It’s obvious at the moment that demand is not a problem in our industry – it’s all about finding enough people to do the work. I don’t think that dynamic will continue very long,” he says.
Luckily, he says, the agency has dodged the major downside of this sector-wide game of musical chairs. Staff turnover since the beginning of the pandemic rose just 2%, he claims.
”There have been a few spikes, but since Covid hit, then in both 2020 and 2021, we’re only 2% up on our normal churn, which is way lower than a lot of the numbers I’ve been hearing across the industry.”
Prior to the pandemic, Dept was known for a collegiate atmosphere, which included a boat rides and an annual all-agency party in Amsterdam. This year, it’s tried to keep the party going by taking its ’Dept Weekender’ online and 3D. As well as helping to ingratiate new crew members into its culture and persuade current staff to stick around, it’s gained it some critical attention, winning a Lovie award for the event.
Dept’s efforts to hold on to its culture extend beyond open bars and virtual experiences. On the day of our interview, the company is celebrating its B Corp status with champagne, after an effort driven by about 40 of its staff. ”Even if you’re not in a room together, you can find something that everybody wants to rally around. Instead of having three people on a global level ... we actually used a team of people from a grassroots perspective. That’s what leads to a moment like today.”
Approximately 150 of its staff are also shareholders in the company, an echo of its startup days. ”It means that 7% or 8% of our people are true owners ... for our clients everybody has a personal relationship with the owners of our business, which is very different from our competitors. From a cultural perspective, it means they actually give a shit what the culture is like and are actually driving it each day.”
Albers concludes this combination of social purpose, entertainment and the financial muscle of the equity scheme gives the agency a strong foundation for the future. He says: ”We believe that model is something we can continue to use as we grow.”