How To Build An Agency Culture That Values Ideas, Boredom and Listening — And Still Stay In Business
Lessons from Adobe’s 99U annual conference
We used to operate on a healthy investment fund called grit and sheer determination. They called us “small” and “scrappy” — and so did we. The concept of culture was a pipe dream, and one we only tempted to revisit over crumpled tissues and wine.
We had a vision — a happy agency! with appropriately worked human beings who love coming to work! — but how to bring it to life? Interviewees and clients alike would sometimes giggle and say “how do you even consider not overworking your team when building an agency?”
That led us to ask: how does one begin to build a culture at an agency? And are we crazy for thinking we can do this?
This past May found us back in New York City at Adobe’s annual 99U conference. From the reality of AI to how to build for inclusion — we found that if we peered over the side of process and innovation there is a sandbox full of the magic required to craft a culture that nurtures, inspires, motivates, and encourages.
It turns out, in order to build for the future — you have to first stop what you are doing to see where you are going. Here’s what we learned.
1. We need to give permission to our team to be honest above all else.
The opening speaker of 99U was a neuroscientist who came to talk about the future of AI: Vivienne Ming, Founder and Executive Chair of Socos Labs. And rather than telling us what was possible with or without AI, she reminded us of the power of our humanness and a world that will always be human first — the originator of ideas, art, and technology.
To be human is to say what we believe, she said.
Few of us, have the courage to share our vision, she said.
To say what you believe — to create a safe space for creativity — is to first value honesty more than money and to care more about results than the job.
To be honest with ourselves — and our clients — first, meant to value the gifts we were giving (and being paid for). To value our own intuition, expertise, worth, and integrity
2. Time, space, and boredom are essential to creativity.
Ah, the joy of multi-tasking. Of endless Chrome tabs. Of starting one thought, and finishing off an unrelated email and forgetting said thought altogether. If I don’t have a pile of simultaneous deadlines, hundreds of emails, and a calendar with no break in it — I have a nasty little habit of worrying about not having too much on my plate.
Marie Kondo of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up once wrote that if you need to buy storage boxes to store your stuff, you have too much stuff. I’m starting to feel the same way about the abundance of digital tools designed to keep up with mess, instead of getting out of it.
Kyle T. Webster, Illustrator & Adobe Design Team member, shared a startling data point at 99U: we spend 11 hours a day staring at a screen. We “avoid boredom like the plague,” he said. Remember boredom? That space tucked between everything — full of nothing and endless possibility at once? That is when our imagination wakes up.
Boredom is disappearing from our lives. We can’t even wait in line anymore without checking Instagram, updating Twitter, or reading the news. Yet, when you’re patient and move past checking off your mental to-do list, your brain begins to tell stories, says Kyle. “Original ideas live inside of us all the time, we just have to give them the space to surface.”
How does one create a space for boredom? Duncan Wardle, former Head of Innovation & Creativity at Disney suggests picking a day where emails and meetings are not allowed. In order for our team, and our culture, to feel like a place of relentless creativity — we have to clear off our desktops and be intentional about not doing anything.
3. Foster openness by creating conditions for deep listening and shared purpose.
Humans are chiseled masterpieces designed by the hand of evolution, conditioned by ancient processes. We were built to listen up to 100x faster than we see — and yet have built an incredibly visual world to operate within. M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist, once said “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
If we think about the differences between listening [absorbing information] and speaking [outputting information] compared to the digital tools we navigate on a daily basis — they are designed for visual output. We multitask conversations — from Slack to Facebook to our mobile devices. And we are no longer hearing them — we are reading them.
Jessica Orkin, President of SYPartners, and Rie Nørregaard, Managing Creative Director of SYPartners, spoke about this as “inhaling” and “exhaling”. We spend most of the time paying attention to the exhale, Jessica noted, that while we are designed to listen really well — we are not creating the right conditions to inhale deeply.
When we hear, we can tune out as easily as we can tune in. With listening, however, we have to be open to seeking a new perspective, be curious of what is being said, and quiet the ego. We need to think about how we are eliminating or drowning out silence, when silence is a critical component of listening.
Jessica’s advice? “Don’t start with a solution. Begin with a question, a discussion, a curiosity.” To create better solutions — and better work — we have to ask ourselves a series of queries that can guide us through listening.
— — SET THE TONE — -
Ask: How are we going to be?
— — TEAM CASTING — -
What are the mindsets?
Who are the listener types?
— — LEAD WITH QUESTIONS vs. ANSWERS — -
Who are we listening to?
What are the dominant narratives?
Who are the dominant voices?
What am I listening for?
What am I listening to?
4. Celebrate people, projects, wins, and losses.
Christina Amini, Executive Publishing Director, of Chronicle Books, spent an hour talking about collaboration at 99U in a special workshop. And collaboration, mind you, does not look, smell, sound, or taste like compromise.
Compromise, or as Christina explained it, the “beige compromise”, is when someone wants orange, and another wants purple, and they settle somewhere in the middle — a place no one really wants to be.
Collaboration, on the other hand, is when the orange and purple figure out how to work together.
The objective of collaboration is not one or the other — it’s how ideas come together and birth another wild and new thing. When we feel like new is no longer possible — when we begin to feel as if everything has been done — we are only looking within our own insecure, innate beliefs. But when we look without — when we turn to others for inspiration — something magical can happen.
As a creative agency — collaboration is key. Christina suggests that we ensure that our whole selves are aligned on purpose; that we are trusted to do the things we say we will do; and that we give ideas the time it takes to properly grow.
We must share a single fate, she says, and be in it 100/100, not just 50/50.
But above all that: we must celebrate together. We must find joy in the work and each other. And when we lose? We must celebrate that together, too. Losses are opportunities for more space, more time, more thought. When she asked what was the last thing we celebrated, I had to take pause. What was the last time we celebrated anything that wasn’t a new hire? When it came to celebrating our work — it was hard to pinpoint an actual moment.
Culture isn’t just a dream, or benefits, or work/life integration.
It’s setting and activating an intention to create space for art, new ideas, mistakes; to honor each other’s gifts; to create purposeful breaks; to celebrate.
We’re ready to make this unicorn a Brllnt reality.