This week I spent a day being bussed around London with six other media old timers. It was rather like the promotion tour for a decrepit pop band on a desperate comeback. We found ourselves stumbling through the doors of 6 agencies in an intensely caffeinated eight hours. Our task was to offer a sober assessment of who was the best agency of the year. It was a dazzling and dizzying experience.
Hearteningly one of the universal themes was that each of the businesses had placed great emphasis on their workplace culture. This thrilled me - I've worked in businesses with outstanding cultures - and I strongly believe the power it has to add some zing to people's lives - and their careers.
A long while ago two guys called Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahl did the definitive investigation into the substance of this. They found that the amount of work needed to do to avoid being fired was about a third of what people were really capable of. In essence two thirds of people's productivity was discretionary. So this stuff matters - get culture right and you can effectively hypercharge your team.
On our trip one of the agency bosses told us as much - "our agency wouldn't work at profit unless people worked really hard here". It makes total sense.
But the challenge was that every culture seemed to be broadly the same. "At Agency Media we are lovely to our people". Yoga, sports days, parties, charity work. They all seemed to do about the same. What struck me was this wasn't a differentiator between companies. No one would think of any reason why someone wouldn't want to work there. It wasn't so much as culture as just the reality of what companies needed to do now to be desirable.
When my fellow judges asked the agencies what their point of difference was they all trilled an identical answer: "our people!"
But it's pretty blatant truth your culture can't be the differentiator unless you disagree with other companies on things. Either you recruit different people or you do something different with them. If your culture is 'work hard, play hard' then you can count pretty certainly that that's also what your rival has too.
Netflix is a business that this year is making great strides in the UK but had caught some attention previously because their culture truly is different. Netflix is unashamedly elitist - it says it just wants its workers to deliver A-grade performance. If you're trying your best but delivering average results then in their own words "adequate performance gets a generous severage package.
You can see that Netflix could declare that their culture is different. People know that underperformance isn't an option. If you're the sort of person who stresses on a Sunday night about the week ahead - I'm guessing this isn't the place for you. Zappos is an impressive online shopping business who is obsessive about service. They are one of the few companies that won online despite selling items at a higher price than Amazon. Why? Because they go out of their way to make sure you love the service from them. They presented such a challenge to Amazon that Jeff Bezos decided to buy them.
But their cult-like culture isn't for everyone. After an intensive week's induction with the Zappos team each new team member is given a cheque at the end of the day on Friday. "If Zappos isn't for you, bank this $5000 cheque and don't come back on Monday". Extraordinarily they pay people to leave. Some people take the cheque. They decide they don't like what Zappos represents, they don't like the fanaticism of the workers.
Netflix, Zappos - these are cultures that aren't for everyone. They represent businesses that know that their people aren't like everyone else's people. It's a fair challenge to agencies - and to any business - if you're saying your people are the difference then you need to articulate why they are different and how they behave differently.
The agencies' presentations this week were incredible. It was impossible not to be impressed with the intellect and articulacy of our hosts. But they might want to think again about why they are different. Working hard just isn't enough. Time to start disagreeing.
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