John Griffiths writes: I marked a rather special occasion this last month. Having talked about the book to the planning departments of both J Walter Thompson at the start of February. And having talked about the book to the planning department at Adam & Eve DDB (the agency which Boase Massimi Pollitt turned into). At the start of December. Rather like the Just so stories of Rudyard Kipling which told how various things came to be. It was a privilege to be able to talk to them and it would be most indiscreet of me to report the discussions we had after each meeting. It was interesting to see what a contemporary department does with what you might perceive to be the weight of such an inheritance behind them. Actually, there's no particular reason why they would get out their Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt papers and polish them. Or roll their eyes and say not again we've heard quite enough already. The burden of expectation is probably more with others who wish they worked in those agencies and wonder what it would be like.
The really interesting part of what I had to say was to take a chance that what had not changed in either agency radically was the culture from which these 2 agencies came. That was likely to be far more long lasting than any slavish attention to theories or schemes about planning or how advertising works. Waiting to have my impudence thrown back in my face. but it wasn't. Culture matters but unless you are an anthropologist you are not trained in how to detect it. The reason why we do things the way we do in the workplace is because of unwritten, unarticulated ways of operating which help newcomers fit in quickly (if they fit in at all) and enable them to flourish. Challenge these longstanding habits at your peril. You will swiftly discover that you have incurred disapproval and even anger from colleagues who become even angrier because they don't know why it is that they are angry but that some fundamental principle has been transgressed. It follows that culture change within a company is not a trivial matter and that it mostly fails. Though planners I would suggest, are better placed than many to help with it because they are more curious and interested in social dynamics not just rationalised ones.
I was having a coffee with a young planner Steven Son last week when he asked me about culture in ad agencies and what drivers are peculiar to the way ad agencies work. This isn't rocket science to most of you but these are some of the observations I made.
1/ Advertising is a young person's business so the corridors are full of people including agency managers who are influenced by culture but don't have the time or inclination to study their own history because unless they do so there is almost no chance of escaping or changing its impact on what they do. It doesn't matter whether you are working on cutting-edge digital tech. If you are in an office of people who have been collaborating for decades then it will affect how you work.
2/ People move freely between agencies so there is a category (ad agency-ish) way of behaving. There have been brave attempts to be different: Rainey Kelly, Howell Henry, St Lukes, WCRS, Karmarama but these prove almost impossible to sustain if the firms continue to hire industry insiders from other agencies. Category wins every time.
3/ The business model of the agency is often not clearly understood. But followed to the letter. If the agency is on low margins and passes its profits back to fund managers and shareholders, (rather than founders and entrepreneurs) there is very little room for experimentation with alternative and radical ways to do business. Account Planning is arguably the last significant innovation in ad agencies. That was nearly 50 years ago.
4/ Advertising is no longer a thriving part of popular culture as it once was - a good reason working to make your agency a household name. Saatchis in the 1980s, CDP in the 1970s and DDB (or should we say Bill Bernbach) and Ogilvy in the 1960s got into public consciousness but because advertising was seen to be culturally relevant. It frankly isn't any longer. The public isn't even debating ad blocking. They're just trying to avoid the stuff and mostly succeeding. If your daily work IS culture defining then you work a lot harder at staying on that cutting edge.
5/ Agencies are appalling at taking their own medicine vis a vis branding. We are adept at taking microscopic differences in products and the cultures of our clients and turning these into huge wealth creation engines. But these doctors can't heal themselves. Our work is our showreels covered with our clients' identity and values - we are very incurious about the processes which produce this work. Other than how to make it more efficient.
Where am I going with this? Well if you've read 98% Pure Potato you'll know it is full of stories. It offers you a rare opportunity to understand the cultures behind the agencies from which account planning came. So useful in helping you think about the culture in your own company if you care about that. And if you have the book and haven't taken it off you shelves yet then it is high time you did so. I dare you...
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