In Preserving a Creative Culture, It’s Important to Consider the Client and Agency Perspectives

It needs to have a soul that attracts and retains employees

Preserving creative culture falls to both the agencies and the clients. Getty Images
Headshot of Chris Lowery

Anyone who has lived through the growth and success of a creative agency has felt the pain. As things get bigger, you find yourself needing project managers, account people, finance managers and a bevy of support functions that are helping manage the client but not directly involved in the work. Then your big client calls saying they feel underserved, overcharged and are looking for another agency. What happened? Like any relationship, there are two sides.

Sometimes it’s you

You started with a beautiful creative dream and big aspirations. You were smart, strategic and had great creative chops. When it was time to grow, you looked to traditional agency models, hiring account leads, project managers and traffic coordinators. Your agency was organized and responsive; your profits and losses were immaculate.

But without enough strategic and creative minds to do the work, it didn’t get the time and love it needed, and quality dropped without you noticing. You built an effective machine without a soul, and the clients who fell in love with you and your work suddenly aren’t getting your best. In the worst-case scenario, you’re not even aware they’re unhappy until it’s too late.

No client ever hired an advertising or design agency because of their superior administrative skills.

Sometimes it’s them

The client-side philosophy over the last decade was to dictate that agencies mirror their own internal structures with a similar agency structure. An internal team matched to an agency team one to one: a huge vertical client organization matched with a huge vertical (and expensive) agency.

This lumbering hulk of a partnership creates massive meeting bloat, endless email chains and fractured communication. You have three-hour meetings with six account functionaries and two creatives and spend more time on the budget and timeline than the work. Revenue is up, work is mediocre, complacency sets in and the countdown to agency review has started. You’ve let the client change your culture and ultimately led both parties into an unsustainable relationship.

How to make it better

No client ever hired an advertising or design agency because of their superior administrative skills. They want smart strategy, great creative and a strong passionate partner. If you find yourself losing sight of your creative path, there are some things you can do to get things back on track.

Talk to your clients about the value of creative-focused teams. When clients ask for additional agency management support, they often don’t realize they are dictating a change that will alter the agency team culture. Weighing down the team with purely administrative minds is detrimental to creative synergy.

One way to help balance this is to hire and develop polymathic people. When account team members can plan and manage while actively contributing to the strategic and creative conversation, the team is stronger. Likewise, ensuring that creative team members can clearly understand the business challenge and client constraints will make the work stronger and the entire team more in sync.

Remember: The bold creative that won you the business was the first creative spark between you and your client. Keep that passion. Ensure that if there is turnover on the team, you reignite passion for the brand/product, onboarding new team members on the deeper thinking behind the work and larger creative idea.

At the core of this conversation is culture. As large clients are trying to reduce bureaucracy and champion entrepreneurial thinking, design and advertising agencies need to protect the creative spark that is their foundational value. Protect your creative culture by maintaining an organizational focus on the work, not the process, and a balance that favors creative over management. The creative results will be stronger, and your clients will stick with you.

Chris Lowery is president and CEO of Chase Design Group.