How to cultivate a cultural climate

Leon Jacobs
Apr 10, 2015 · 6 min read

Your company is a hothouse and your culture is what keeps it alive.

When you think about it, hothouses are pretty amazing things.

Inside a tiny enclosed space you can create a replication of the perfect growing conditions found somewhere else on Earth. You could make a desert in Switzerland or grow fresh vegetables and fruits all year round no matter where you live. You could even recreate the tropics in Cairo for your orchid collection if the mood so takes you.

Hothouses are like three dimensional climatic postcards — just step through that door and shut it tightly on your way in.

Creative companies as hothouses

But what does a hothouse, or gardening in general have to do with anything?

I’ve worked in advertising agencies for 20 years, spending the majority of those two decades as a creative director. While the title might give the impression that I direct creative products, really it means I direct people — ensuring that I get the best work out of them. So naturally it’s been in my best interest to consider how to create environments in which human creativity can really flourish.

In my experience, creative companies of all sorts function exactly like hothouses. In the same way that a climate develops within the enclosed space of the hothouse so does culture develop within the framework and attitudes of the company.

Culture is the way people relate to each other. It’s how they act, talk, deal with problems, and approach tasks. In other words, culture is the fuel that gets turned into whatever your creative company innovates. In the case of an ad agency this might mean creative campaigns, but for your creative company the end result could be something completely different. Still, no matter what you create the principle stays exactly the same.

Different companies operate on different styles of culture in the same way that different hothouses create varying climates.

How to be the same but different

In the mid-nineties, two great ad agencies emerged out of South Africa. The one, Hunt Lascaris (later known as TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris) was a creative juggernaut and became world-renowned for its brave and cutting-edge campaigns.

Then there was The Jupiter Drawing Room. At that time it was smaller and a little bit of an upstart but it generated very impressive work.

While both agencies produced world-class work, they had very different company cultures.

Hunt Lascaris was colorful, playful, and edgy. A large life-size wireframe giraffe stood watch over the reception alongside a bowl of multi-coloured jellybeans. You always knew the work that came out of the agency because it was smart, charming, and minimalist.

A commercial for the BMW 318i by TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris and Velocity Films.

The Jupiter Drawing Room, on the other hand, was started by Graham Warsop — a barrister turned copywriter. He exemplified the perfect English gentleman and would wear coat tails and drive a Rolls-Royce. Instead of a wire-frame member of the African savanna in their reception they had a large, indulgent Chesterfield couch on which the agency’s bullterrier, Polly, lounged to meet visitors.

The work that made Jupiter famous was sexy, but also cerebral, smart, and verbose.

The culture of each of these two agencies couldn’t be more different, yet they both produced great work. They were both hothouses, but each with a very different climate.

The trouble with transplanting

The hothouse metaphor relates to more than just the culture you create at your company, however. You don’t have to be a botanist to know that plants, trees, and shrubs thrive differently in different climates. In the same way that an orchid loves hot and humid conditions, fynbos only survives on the ridges and mountains of the Cape Peninsula.

It’s exactly the same with creative people.

Hiring great people is not just about taking a talented person from one hothouse, transplanting them into your own and expecting the same result. You have to be absolutely sure that they will not only cope in your environment, but (very importantly) contribute to and thrive in the culture you’ve worked so hard to create.

During the nineties, it became apparent to most agencies that producing great creative work attracted new business. And so it happened that some of the superstar creative people from the great (albeit smaller) agencies of the time were lured with large paycheques by the not-so-great larger agencies to replicate their successes.

As you can imagine, this tactic hardly ever worked. If you bring in a person whose style is not a natural fit, they might not only shrivel away and die in your climate, but they could even have a negative impact on the whole ecosystem. An unhappy creative person can drag down the flow of the entire team and poison the culture (just like how a foreign tree will use up more water and become a burden on every organism around it).

Authenticity in culture

Creating a cultural hothouses takes hard work and a clear vision by the people in charge. Just like you would carefully plan what climate you wanted to create and what plants you wanted to grow, when you’re looking at building a company culture you need to be very sure of what direction you’re going in.

Culture has to be authentic for it to deliver anything of real value. Creative people are by nature cynical beings. They see through bullshit, so you really can’t fake it. You have to perpetuate culture that is true to what you, your founders, and your management stands for.

The verb perpetuate is very important here: You can’t just create culture — it has to be rooted in what is already there. You just make it better.

If your company and its founders are by nature conservative and cerebral, then be the best version of conservative and cerebral that you could possibly be. Hire people who will enjoy that vibe and who will contribute to it and make it better. Alternatively, if your company is intuitive and colorful, then by all means, go crazy with it!

How to keep your company culture alive and well

The people you hire will not just contribute to the output but also to the culture. Don’t just try to bring superstars from elsewhere. Consider the context of where they were and the type of culture in which they thrived. Think about their personalities. If they are different, consider how adaptable they would be to fit into your culture. Plant a tomato plant in the desert and watch how quickly it shrivels up, but give it regular water and a couple of inches of mulch and it will produce some amazing fruit.

As with anything, context is everything. And in this case, context is culture.

Shut the door of your own hothouse. Lovingly fine-tune the climate within and watch your flowers bloom.

Image credit: Jan Erik Waider, The Jupiter Drawing Room

This post originally appeared on the Crew blog.

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Crew Dispatch

Thoughts by the founders and members of

Leon Jacobs

Written by

ECD at Boondoggle, Leuven|

Crew Dispatch

Thoughts by the founders and members of

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