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Winning Together: Creating a winning culture

by Rory Leader

June 3, 2021

It is often said that in business, your culture is defined by what people do when no-one is looking. But after a year working from home, where the only people ‘looking’ are the colleagues trapped in tiny squares on a Zoom call, how can business leaders create an effective, empowering, winning culture?

Three industry luminaries shared their perspectives at the recent Winning Together conference for agency new business, sponsored by Propeller Group. The panel included

Sherilyn Shackell, Founder & CEO of The Marketing Academy, Magnus Djaba, Global President of Saatchi & Saatchi and Sara Tate, CEO of TBWA London.

Sherilyn stressed the importance of culture: “ Culture is hard to quantify and pin down to a science - but it is undoubtedly the ingredient which can supercharge a business, its atmosphere - and its results.”

Culture starts where the employee handbook ends

But what does culture actually mean? Sara Tate offered her perspective. “As long as you have people, you have culture. It’s a systemic product of people working and interacting together. Whether you acknowledge it, or try to manage it, it will always be there. Culture really starts where the employee handbook ends. It’s something you observe - like in how a business treats a new hire for instance - or how people react when something goes wrong.”

Magnus Djaba added. “For me, culture is the force which guides every single interaction in an organisation. I do take a slight umbridge with some of the definitions I have seen floating around!

“The culture at Saatchi & Saatchi doesn’t belong to me. It’s not owned by my boss, or by Publicis Groupe. The culture is defined by the people who walk in the door. All leadership can do is work to understand it - and empower our people to take charge of it.”

Tackling ‘bad’ culture

A challenge for business leaders, in particular those finding their feet in new roles, is identifying the right way to tackle a ‘bad’ culture.

Sara Tate identified one of the key challenges is ensuring the ‘claimed culture’ is actually reflected in your interactions. Many times it is not, such as when junior staff or female colleagues are spoken over at meetings.

“An inefficient culture is often the byproduct of senior teams turning a blind eye to these elements of behaviour. We see this a lot in new business. You can claim an entrepreneurial culture, but how do you celebrate those people who do win things? How do you treat failed projects?”

Magnus picked up on this point. “Sometimes, senior teams will choose not to address culture because it is intangible. But this is a people business. And there are five tenets to running a people business: culture, talent, structure, process and tools. And your business should work in that order.”

“People will invest huge amounts of time and resources into tools, because these are the most tangible, you can feel them in your hands. But this is the wrong way to look at it. Culture is more important. The culture has to be a right fit for the staff. We all have good days and bad. The role of culture is to bring out the best of your team and your clients on more days than it does not.”

Sherilyn built on this idea and said: “ At the Marketing Academy, we teach that there are two things in place: the organisation, which includes the systems, processes and tools, all the hierarchy and red tape. The other side is the people, the individuals. The hopes and dreams, the behaviours and attitudes. This is the lifeblood of the business.” She added that companies mess up when they put too much investment into the organisation and not enough into the people.

Finding the right fit

Culture is as much about being able to connect with clients as it is colleagues - but often the most productive relationships come from clashes rather than complete fits.

Magnus said: “It’s easy to think, I need to find people who think like me and work like me. You don’t want someone to mirror you. Growing up, I used to date people who were just like me. Then you realise, I already have me! Me and my wife are totally different - but the partnership together is strong. We challenge and bring out the best in each other.

“Much is the same for agencies and clients. We had an incredible pitch meeting with Mark Evans and the team at Direct Line. We were trying to be too formal, too perfect. Mark asked us to take the gloves off and tell us what we really felt. From there, we built a relationship that turned twenty quarters of decline into twenty quarters of growth”.

Shared values are crucial

Sherilyn Shackell pointed out that leaders sometimes have to make decisions which prioritise culture over revenue. “We have cut key accounts because of how they treated our staff. The cultural gap between business was causing serious harm - and no amount of money is worth that”.

Sara supported this and said: . “You and your clients don’t always need to share the same culture - but you do need to hold the same values. Parting ways with a client who doesn’t share these values takes courage, as it can be financially costly, but it is crucial.

“If you build values and communicate them, but ignore them as soon as money is on the line, it has a seriously negative impact on the culture of your team and how much they believe in the organisation. Values aren’t values until they cost you something.”

Rituals and celebration

Culture is the story that defines a group. And like any good story, it needs to be rehearsed, recited - and ideally written down.

“It’s the same reason religions have parables.” explained Magnus. “These stories help define you and your values, and empower you to convey the meaning to others. Simply put: when your agency creates a story, or experiences a defining moment, you should absolutely write it down and share it. Commit it to history and embed it in your organisation.”.

“I’d add rituals to this list” said Sara. “Create these rituals, these habitual moments where you come together and share your stories and celebrate each other's effort. These can be big or small. If you want people to take more responsibility for new business, then perhaps begin every meeting with praise for those who have done well and allow them to share their success.”


Leaders must work to understand culture before they can positively shape it

Culture eats tools for breakfast: prioritising people and creating an environment which brings the best out of them is more impactful than any practical tool

Look for shared values - not just shared cultures. The best and most productive relationships can be borne from conflict and challenge. You don’t need to mirror clients to be successful. But you need to share key values to build a long term relationship.

Cement your culture through rituals.

Click here to watch the video of this panel discussion


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