Agencies and brands must avoid drifting into an 'accidental culture'

Agencies and brands must avoid drifting into an 'accidental culture'

Unintended hypocrisy (saying one thing as a leadership team and doing another) is a symptom of an accidental culture. Learn how to manage it out.

It’s accepted fact that successful business cultures drive positive business performance. We’ve all been in organisations and teams, and witnessed the power of positive and productive of cultures first hand – and the results are magical. 

As someone who has worked in the business culture space for 20 years, I feel we have a duty to understand our employees’ motivations and engage with them in ways that unleash their discretionary energy towards a shared goal – to actively create a positive culture.

In my experience, we capture the intentional culture when the discretionary efforts of all are aligned to the purpose of the organisation, rather than merely business outputs.

However, the reality is that there are many businesses I see operating accidental cultures. What I mean by this is, through the sheer force of activities that happen, the day-to-day rhythm this creates becomes the de facto way in which we do things, ie "the way things are done around here".

As a result, organisations with accidental cultures end up drifting away from their stated values seen in the vision and mission statements for both logical and understandable reasons. This creates drift between what we would like it to be – the intentional culture – to the actual culture that manifests itself in the organisation. 

I believe there are four main reasons for this.

1 Measuring the wrong things 

I have seen time and time again the tendency for leadership to look at proxy measures such as attrition and retention alongside other measures such as client/customer satisfaction and harder measures such as revenue to determine culture health and to make assumptions on what the culture is doing.

2 Managing engagement scores like a tactical campaign 

A very common red herring that means, rather than getting to grips with some of the deeper drivers of employee satisfaction and how they impact perceptions of their places of work, we end up looking at the policies, processes and programmes of leadership, ie outputs.

3 Failure to capture the hearts and minds of employees 

Given the focus of employee engagement surveys on scoring what employees think of various policies, procedures and programmes, and not their own drivers of satisfaction, it makes it very difficult to understand how to drive change that is both meaningful and sustainable using these methods. In turn, this can become a real burden for middle management tasked with the role of improving engagement scores of their teams.

4 The disconnect between the stated vision and values versus actual values practised  

What I see regularly is a failure to manage the gap between how leaders present the reputation of the organisation externally and the actual verbal and non-verbal behaviours making up the internal culture. They are two sides of the same coin and when they are disconnected, a myriad of micro-cultures and siloed organisations often emerge. 

The challenges of an accidental culture are further compounded by the following events.

Mergers and acquisitions 

This is an area where leaders can often find themselves on the backfoot, having completed all of the financial and legal due diligence before the merger, only to find major issues around culture clash post-transaction deep into the integration phase. While there is often a shared consensus around extracting the value out of the deal, the lack of due diligence in people and culture means that employee motivations are not understood between the constituent parts of the new organisation. This lack of understanding begins to manifest in the deterioration of commercial performance.

"Mergers: 83% of M&As fail to deliver sharholder return citing 'culture clash' as the biggest factor"

Digital transformation  

What we are seeing post-investment in digital transformation is that KPIs are not being met because companies are unable to transform the mindset of their people in order to leverage such new capabilities in service delivery to customers and wider stakeholders. It is far less about replacing hardware but increasingly about helping transform employee mindsets. 

"The biggest part of our digital transformation is changing the way we think"
— Monique Shivanandan, group chief information officer, Aviva

Inclusion and diversity  

Despite all the talk and work that has been done on promoting inclusion and diversity, until genuine cultural change happens it won’t embed. What’s required is to change a culture of exclusion to inclusion – something that to my mind is only achievable by focusing on what connects us and not what divides us.  

What connects us is the fact that we are humans with shared values – values that transcend race, social class and orientation. Therefore, being able to decode what values we see (and share) in each other in the way we communicate and behave will have the biggest impact on driving the inclusion agenda in the future. Get inclusion right and diversity will follow.

"If you want to survive and thrive in the modern era, you need to place ‘winning the war for talent’ at the heart of culture and values. Inclusive culture fuelled by people of diverse background, mindset and experience form the authentic heartbeat of every truly successful brand, agency and campaign"
— Richard Robinson, managing director, Oystercatchers

Mental health and well-being

Similarly, building resilience and improved well-being for all is primarily about culture change, if such initiatives are to be effective for all. At its heart, it is about understanding what drives anxiety among employees and creating environments where management teams are looking beyond offering returns to shareholders to include wider stakeholders – such as employees, customers and the communities they serve.

"Successful businesses are fundamentally shifting from a time when process, tech and growth/EBIT at any cost were king to a culture with purpose, resilience and well-being at its heart, where people have become the drivers of sustainable growth and commercial outcomes"
— Suki Thompson, founder, Oystercatchers and Let’s Reset

So, all things considered, while some may be successful, the existence of accidental cultures ends up putting everything at stake when it comes to the commercial gains of creating and managing a thriving organisation.

When I think about the pillars (see below) under which companies generally measure success (known as the balanced score card, according to Dr Robert Kaplan of Harvard University), if they were able to create an intentional culture, the ability to excel across all of these measures would increase.

In fact, organisations excelling on the first four would see the fifth one – financial metrics – go far beyond expectations. These are: customer metrics, colleague metrics, management metrics, quality and compliance metrics, and financial metrics.

The main threat I have seen that can undermine an established intentional culture is unintended hypocrisy – saying one thing as a leadership team and doing another.

Of course, we do need to make tough decisions such as control costs, fix issues and encourage greater performance, but when it’s done without context it can be incredibly damaging to the culture.

How to create an intentional culture

Key to transitioning from an accidental culture to an intentional culture is having a clear understanding of the values of your employees, the values they see being practised in the workplace and those that are desired. 

To do so sustainably and meaningfully, organisations need to embrace the following building blocks:

  1. Define the spectrum of values that encompass the full range of human behaviours

  1. Use a systematic way to capture the values across the entire business that allows leaders to understand the personal values of every single employee, the practised/observed values in the organisation and the desired values of all

  1. Segment the culture, eg seniority, geography, tenure, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity

  1. Extrapolate various permutations allowing you to identify with precision how to create your intentional culture and where the blockers are

  1. Track the culture through values to see how well the gap between personal, organisational and desired values of all are being met

This is the crux of our culture decoder. It was designed to probe work cultures in a transformative way by deciphering the values that underpin organisations. It has been used to shine a light on the most pertinent issues that affect culture in tangible and accessible ways, while offering clarity as to how individuals and organisations can take robust action to drive happier, more inclusive and more productive workplaces. 

Why your industry needs you

Our aim is to now use the principles of culture decoder to create the first-ever benchmark for the creative industry. As a result, we are pleased to have partnered Oystercatchers and Campaign to establish the inaugural "Creative Industries Culture Index".

This is the first comprehensive cultural index of its kind that will provide the industry with game-changing findings based on you and the motivations of all employees, including the desires and observations of all around the current culture.

To drive the index, we want to hear from agency and brand people of all kinds – whether you’ve just graduated and landed your first job or you’re an agency owner or brand leader with 20-plus years’ experience, we want to give you a voice. 

The survey comprises only three questions and everyone who participates will receive a complimentary copy of this groundbreaking creative industries benchmark. 

We will also be offering a number of winners a free "culture audit" on their own organisation, together with information on how they benchmark.

Click here to complete the survey.

The results will be revealed by Campaign at the start of 2020 and discussed in more detail at the Oystercatchers Club event on 28 January. 

For more information, contact or visit

Adrian Walcott is managing director of Brands with Values

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