Agency Culture: What Really Makes A Company Work.
It was building for a decade and was inevitable: that moment when we had to talk with our 10-year-old about the Tooth Fairy. He was just weeks into fifth grade and it was time. We feared his childhood magic was coming to an end. We explained our motivations and revealed it all as a desire to make his life feel magical. His response: “I understand, I still feel magic”. He’s fascinated.
The purity of his spirit and perspective will always inspire me. Why wasn’t he crushed when his beliefs were transferred from a magical idea to the reality of his parents? I’m confident it’s a combination of both nature and nurture. Keeping a spirit alive in a company, young or old, is very much like sustaining it in your children. Over time, you begin to understand that the foundation of a company is its culture. A purposeful set of behaviors that defines your purpose, who you are, and if believing in the Tooth Fairy is encouraged.
But like with your kids, it’s not always a clear and easy path. And it certainly wasn’t for us at the beginning, either. Like with your kids, you have to work at it as your company grows.
Origins And Evolution.
The Basement began as a studio delivering immersive websites, motion graphics and 3D animation for consumers. Our creative roots were firmly planted in the color, chaos and culture of street art with the storytelling disciplines of Pixar. Over the years, this has evolved into an integrated agency founded in a deep understanding of the consumer journey and measurable results for our clients. There are challenges behind doing innovative work – along with managing the personalities and talent that generate it. That’s where culture comes in.
In 2007, we took a good, hard look at who and what we wanted to be and established ourselves as The Basement— wanting to build a creative company whose name helped define us beyond the limits of Jacob Leffler, Brian Phillips or our combined last names. I worked at a number of companies whose names were derived from the founder’s last name. I found it hard to see myself in these “brands” and so wanted ours to be different. We wanted our identity to be a framework for craftsmanship, talent and growth. Our maker-space. Our basement. Where innovation and hard work go to roll up their sleeves.
Making It Work: A Culture Of Ideas.
We began to intentionally focus on and nurture a company culture designed to facilitate ideas in all things, from operations to the work itself. It wasn’t good enough that we just identify ourselves as idea people. Anyone could do that. Specifically, we’ve worked to build our culture around good ideas.
I never say “I have a great idea”. In fact, I only have an idea. It only proves itself great over time. At the end of the day, we take ideas to our clients that have been validated – proven themselves good or even great – by data and vetting through our strategic methodologies.
Todd Bolster, our Vice President of Account Services sums it up well. “We are working to the quality of the idea and the quality of the work right from the beginning, “ he always says. “Process, our agency model and the way we are structured to provide accountability. But ultimately it’s not meeting deadlines or managing budgets that define us, it’s our work and whether or not it was successful.”
Influences On Culture.
A company’s culture should be influenced by many factors. In our case, they range from the discipline and processes developed by such companies as the McDonald’s Corporation to the subcultures of street art and skateboarding. I learned our culture could not be manufactured, instead, it had to be uncovered.
We discovered ourselves after years of evolution. We learned we were fascinated— absorbed by ideas and solving problems. At that point, the challenge became maintaining it versus becoming it.
Simply stating we are fascinated was not enough. The key was authenticity and creating directional guidelines that remained constant, but are continually tested and improved upon. Most importantly, structure and intentionality that reflected our collective values held us personally and professionally responsible for our leadership decisions. We were then, and still are today, curious, ambitious, competitive and genuine.
A friend of mine is a co-founder of the consulting group Culture of Good and he shares the following: “Culture is how people feel, believe, and behave most of the time. Feeling something special is key. We long for meaning, belonging, and fulfillment. Nothing can give us that feeling more than culture.” – Ryan McCarty
I vividly remember writing these five statements in my sketchbook while sitting in a car: stay curious, stay ambitious, stay competitive, stay genuine and stay fascinated. This was a milestone for me. Everything became more clear. We captured what makes us special, who we want to hire, and how to grow. We call these our “stay statements.” and these qualities exist in all of us—just look at our children. It’s our attempt at maintaining a sense of wonder in all we do. It’s our culture. Our manifesto. And not so much about how we want to be as how we want to stay.