Build Culture Like You Build Brands

By Alicia Case, Global Communications Manager, Publicis Health

What’s culture got to do with business, profitability and growth? For anyone tasked with elevating employee engagement, the answer is a resounding “everything.” At the recent Culture Summit in San Francisco that I attended, more than 300 culture champions convened to learn and share best practices as well as connect with likeminded professionals who are passionate about advancing the practice and conversation surrounding the business value of strong and vibrant corporate cultures.

Although the perception persists that corporate culture is under human resources’ remit, Culture Summit quickly dispatched that stereotype, offering up speakers from beyond HR (although there were plenty of excellent speakers from that arena) to include UX designers, strategists, engineers, and psychologists — all of whom made the case that culture isn’t any one department or person’s responsibility, but is the responsibility of leaders and staff at every level, function, and discipline to contribute. It was an invigorating gathering of diverse people, all dedicated to unlocking better ways for organizations to build and maintain great company cultures.

While Culture Summit attendees came from a variety of disciplines, we were united in a common goal — ensuring that our work colleagues come to a work each day at a company that they love and shares the same values and vision. This may sound easy, but it’s actually quite complex.

After two days of being saturated in all things culture-related, it’s clear that the model of great corporate cultures has become synonymous with the startup cultures of Silicon Valley-based companies. There was a decided bias against older, larger, established companies as being laggards when it comes to fostering excellent company cultures. Hospitality, automotive, finance, and advertising businesses were conspicuously left out of the conversation, and the absence of these industries speaks volumes about the work required to legitimately join the conversation.

From the outside looking in, startups may appear to be the exemplars of corporate culture successes, but working for one of the largest advertising companies in the world, I know that we can’t be discounted because we come to the table with years of people and business experience. Non-startups (in general) and advertising companies (specifically) may not have always had the kinds of public-facing reputations as innovators in culture, but speaking for Publicis Health, I’ve been fortunate to be empowered as a culture architect, having had the opportunity to lead a group of Culture Ambassador across 15 of our offices and partner with leadership on Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and large-scale cultural programming. All of which aim to make sure we are putting time, money, and resources around building amazing cultures.

If there’s one thing that ad businesses get, it is people. After all, we are in the business of serving clients. And we can apply that excellence in client service to how we serve our own people. It’s important that organizations refer to their business playbooks and apply the people-oriented rules internally, as well.

Here are just a few ways that folks who are looking to improve or build a great agency culture can apply some external people-focused business strategies to internal people strategies.

1. Brands have clear, distinct voices and messages, and an agency should, too.

Advertising professionals are tasked with upholding our clients’ brand identities, from clear messages to iconic, recognizable photography and visuals — and even the voiceover that brings to life a brand’s story. These elements define how people relate to brands.

We need to do the same for our own agency brands.

Establishing who we are and what we stand for — i.e., a clear vision, mission, and values — and then communicating consistently and clearly across our organizations are natural first steps. The more that we can harken back to our brand’s mission and values, and infuse these ideas into all of our messaging when we talk to our employees, the better. Employees will feel a stronger affinity to the organization if they know what we stand for and can see how the agency fosters and supports behaviors that validate the belief system.

2. Products have spokespeople, companies and agencies need them, too.

There’s a reason why marketers often use a spokesperson to represent the brand: they are models of behavior for the brand.

Agency leaders need to be company spokespeople. They need to model what the agency brand stands for. Just like sports commercials illustrate high performance when wearing a particular sneaker, senior leaders do the same when they exemplify company values as they engage with employees.

Let’s make sure our leaders are ambassadors of the brand and encourage more folks from across the agency to get on board and live the brand.

3. Brands use messaging across multiple touchpoints, companies and agencies need to practice that approach, too.

There’s a reason why brands tell stories across multiple channels, whether it’s a commercial, website, or Facebook page. It’s because messages need reinforcement (the old but effective notion of reach and frequency) to garner buy-in. The notion that stakeholders will see their company’s mission and values in an email or on a wall poster and think the message will penetrate and set in is quite naïve. Leaders in culture need to take the messages across all touchpoints within an organization.

How do our mission and values come alive when our CEO talks to the organization? Are we integrating those messages into our rewards and recognition programs? Are events being funded by culture budgets acting as a reflection of organization? These are just some of the places that our cultural mission and vision need to weave into daily practice, so the combination of consistency and repetition are how employees begin to live and breathe a company’s brand messaging.

4. Brands make decisions based on research and data, companies and agencies should be no different.

Listen. It’s what great, engaged brands do before they come out with a product or service, and that active listening could mean the difference between brand success or brand failure.

Do agencies do the same when we have an idea we want to sell? Not always. As much effort we put into product R&D, we need to do that with our people, too.

First, we must ask, then second we must listen. Act with ideas that are relevant to people’s needs, not just what someone “thinks” is a good idea. Great ideas come from understanding. Look to understand people like we understand customers of our products and services.

Culture and engagement can’t be focused on or paid attention to only annually. You wouldn’t do that with your brand, would you? Successful brands that take an “always on” approach to messaging have a much easier time with maintaining culture since they don’t have to spend as much time “ramping up” each time they want to do something. Engaged brands are consistently talking and doing business so that their mission, vision, and values are top of mind.

As you look to approach culture in your organization or even improve it, keep the focus on cultural alignment. There are no right or wrong cultures, but the ones that do the best are the ones who stay closest to the mission, vision, and values. That’s through clear messaging, having leaders consistently and clearly sticking to that messaging, saying it often, and listening to your employees to understand if things are coming in clear and how they want to hear them.

Alicia Case is Global Communications Manager at Publicis Health. Aside from leading employee communications across Publicis Groupe’s solution hub dedicated to Health and Wellness, Alicia also serves as Culture Architect, which marries two of her passions — people and working to make sure they love where they come to work every day.

Alicia leads the Culture Ambassador program across Publicis Health, overseeing ambassadors who are dedicated to elevating culture at their agencies across 15 different offices and 2 countries. Formerly a copywriter on numerous pharmaceutical and health brands, ranging from P&G and Pfizer, Alicia has been with Publicis Health for more than six years.

She took years of experience working on client-focused business and pivoted to a more people-centered path about three years ago when she spearheaded a culture-centric role of Agency Experience Manager. This role was dedicated to bettering the employee experience and was what propelled her into the corporate HQ where she focuses on both culture but how it’s communicated and delivered through the organization. Her work in culture was recognized by the The Creative Floor in 2015, where she was awarded “Best Young Talent.” She looks to continue to be a champion of culture and helping employees have even more purpose in their careers and love where they work.