I think it would be very difficult for any agency to grow or maintain a high success level unless it has both a good culture and a good strategy in place. But if I had to choose one, it would be culture, without question. There are two key reasons for this:
A bad culture takes a long, long time to fix
If you have just made a couple of bad hires then at a cost, you can reverse out of that. But if these bad choices or issues stem from your board or your senior level team then the steps to address this will not be taken lightly and in truth, the inclination for this journey probably won’t exist. There is a reason it is there in the first place.
An agency strategy needs to be regularly reviewed
It would be much easier if the same approach worked indefinitely but companies' needs, attitudes, appetites, procurement practices and internal skill balance are constantly evolving beasts. They have to be.
So how do you instil or protect a great culture? Well unfortunately, it needs to be something ‘good’ to begin with. Then I think the task is the following:
Choose good over great
When faced with the choice, you should recruit good people over talented, experienced people. If they can do the job brilliantly but you are not sure about their personality, don't do it. Look again. You can increase peoples' skills and ability through training and a nurturing environment but you can't change people and attitudes easily. Nice people with good ethics are what you want.
Invest time in the recruitment process
This is the painful bit if you’re not big enough to have a ‘dedicated’ HR person. The point above means that sadly, you need to work harder and longer than your competition to ensure you can attract and win great people and talented people. From my experience, going the extra mile to build an all-star team means I need to do my job and then spend my evenings recruiting. But it’s time well spent.
Have a vision and keep growing
These things may not seem intrinsically linked to culture but they can be. Grow and have new, interesting projects to work on and you will move forwards. If you don't paint a vision or work to grow, you risk losing the people that are the key contributors to your culture. Points one and two can be painful to repeat.
Commit to good internal communications
Most companies are pretty awful at internal comms, but agencies are particularly bad. It’s rarely one single reason but can be due to the fast pace of business, the perceived lack of importance of it or just trying to repeat the same process that worked when you were smaller. Whatever the reason, it can really harm your culture. People aren’t mind readers, knowledge is power and bad comms can lead to unhappy clients, inconsistency, wasted time and people generally feeling they are not important enough to know key things.
Define or fix your key job processes
Again this wouldn't necessarily seem intrinsically related but even good, nice people can get frustrated. It's fast paced, we are always working against the clock and economic pressures and a bit of 'us and them' can creep in without a whisper. Take your three most repeating types of jobs and have a thorough review of how they move through the business. Spend time on it, iron out all the pain points, admit where you aren't sure and ask staff to try a new approach. If there are good comms it is amazing how flexible good, nice people will be.
If the right review skill level and process visibility does not exist at board, then appoint and empower someone from the wider team to do this.
Salad has the best working culture I have experienced in 18 years of working (on both client and agency side). It has come from the top down and through following the above five points. It doesn't mean we are without challenges, we are about to review one key, complicated job-process this month and a few people will disagree along the way. But with a positive culture, good communications and a nice, can-do culture, we will get there.
Good luck in your culture journey.