Hanns Johst, the 20th century German playwright, famously wrote the line: "Whenever I hear of culture… I unlock my Browning." The quote has been adapted somewhat over the years and has been misattributed to other deeply unpleasant Nazis, including Hermann Goring and Joseph Goebbels, to describe how their vile regime was more concerned with "being free" than attaining an education.
"Culture" and "cultural relevance" are two buzzwords that are doing the rounds of agencies currently, and while they don’t provoke the same extreme reaction in me as they did on Johst, they still can engender at least an eye-twitch of mild irritation.
It seems that every agency is obsessing over its own internal culture – see quotes on the hiring of Katie Lee at Sunshine or the (laudable) work of Henry Daglish at Bountiful Cow in this very publication for evidence. Others are constantly trying to convince themselves – and by default their clients and prospects – that they somehow can "own" popular culture.
In fairness, it’s understandable in a super-served sector, where any point of differentiation, however ephemeral, is worth shouting about. But much like all those countless advertising buzzwords that went before them – storytelling, media-neutral, disruptive, engagement – they don’t really count for that much when everyone else is pretty much saying the same thing.
Establishing a distinctive culture within an agency is, of course, a good thing – it’s what makes the best agencies stand out from the rest and able to acquire and retain the best talent. But this is surely nothing other than introspective good husbandry – creating an environment where people want to work and with whom people want to do business is essential for any agency to survive or grow. The recent geographical relocations and internal reconfiguring of shops such as MEC, Mullen Lowe and Havas have allowed tinkering to help this – but I’d argue that these are more about establishing internal values and working practices, rather than culture.
Achieving – or influencing – pop culture is rather more of an empty vessel. The very best advertising can of course break through into the popular consciousness (yes, we’re looking at you John Lewis) – or, as in the most famous example of the Super Bowl, successfully attach itself to it. Other examples, such as Skittles and Channel 4, with their championing of those who have not traditionally been given voices, can help modify cultural mores.
But culture in its purest sense can’t be artificially constructed or commodified, and those agencies that are constantly debating and stressing over their role within it might as well, to quote a rather less famous philosopher, be playing hoopaloo with the wind.