CEOs must insist on making agency culture their business

Over the past few weeks, PRWeek's staff has been reminded of the importance of an often overlooked element that distinguishes agencies from one another - culture.

Over the past few weeks, PRWeek's staff has been reminded of the importance of an often overlooked element that distinguishes agencies from one another - culture.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary offers one definition of "culture" as: "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization."

So how can you identify a particular agency's culture? You have to see it in action. And understand: this is not a matter of being better or worse. It's more about how a firm's culture signifies how it works and where it likely excels.

PRWeek recently visited a number of firms. Everyone was smart. They all could rattle off the facts, figures, and examples at a moment's notice. However, the identity of the speaker(s) told the culture story. At one particular firm, the most senior-level executives were the only ones present, and thus the sole speakers. It was a more controlled environment. At another agency, we met a broader segment of the team and everyone had the chance to talk. The dialogue was more ebullient. If such a presentation carried over to a client pitch or editorial board meeting, you could easily surmise the sectors of PR at which each firm could dominate.

Culture was also a hot topic at the PRWeek Awards on March 10, with many CEOs underscoring its importance to them.

Numerous chief executives emphasized how the establishment of the firm's culture, no matter what it is, was a responsibility they took very seriously upon themselves. And in some cases, their staffs, within earshot of those comments, nodded approvingly. With that simple act, they offered testament to their agency's culture.

When clients are selecting their next AOR and are presented pitches that are equally brilliant, culture is often a differentiator. When an especially talented VP-level executive has his or her pick of agencies to join - a growing reality in this improving economy - culture certainly could dictate the best fit.

Most, if not all, PR agencies do excellent work - so much so that it can be hard to separate them. As such, culture and how it's presented in various forums takes on greater significance.

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