Agency perks versus culture

There is a lot of talk today about corporate culture, but often the focus is actually on perks. At Google, things like free lunches and the very generous spousal or child death benefit are definitely perks, but at what point does a benefit of working for someone become a culture?

When I was interviewing for my current position, the CEO uttered a phrase during the conversation about compensation and benefits that made me turn my head.

“Unlimited paid time off,” she said. I was stunned, as this is a mid-size agency, not Google.

There is a lot of talk today about corporate culture, but often the focus is actually on perks. At Google, things like free lunches and the very generous spousal or child death benefit are definitely perks, but at what point does a benefit of working for someone become a culture?

A combination of things have to be in play. The vision the leadership has for the agency must go beyond a statement. Leadership has to believe it and the perks should align with the company vision.

Several years ago, when my ascent through the ranks of editor began, I was working as a city editor at a daily newspaper. The managing editor counseled me one day to pick a reporter and find a reason to chew them out. Between that and the executive editor banging her fists on a desk because she didn't like a front page, it was easy to see where the oppressed culture of the reporters was developing.

The company paid well. The benefits were exceptionally good, and there were little perks that were fun, but it did not make for a culture in which a person would want to work.

Google's much vaunted “20% Time,” in which employees were allowed to spend 20% of their work time developing their own projects, was ingrained in the culture. The co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, conceded that many innovations, including Adsense and Gmail, came out of the 20% Time program, which was limited last year.

What is culture? I view it a little differently than some. I define culture as the ability to create and innovate, and the ability to respond to disruptions and changing goals and strategies, all while providing the highest level of service to the client in an agency environment that is challenging, stimulating, and enjoyable.

Did the limits placed on Google's 20% Time end that company's culture? Not necessarily.

And that is the stye question you have to ask yourself. How do changes in perks align with the core values set forth by the agency's leadership? If your agency eliminates the free health club membership or adds flex time, what really changes in terms of innovation, creativity, and client service? That is how cultural impact should be measured.

In the second part, we will explore how culture affects employee performance. In part three, we look at the impact of culture on client service.

Clay Morgan is VP of operations at Arment Dietrich.

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