Winning work: How Essence built a meaningful agency culture

Essence won the Mumbrella Award for Culture not based on fancy presentations or designations, but due to the actions and vocabulary of its workforce – says the agency's Veli Aghdiran

Conversations about culture can quickly become mired in meaningless cliché, paying lip service to something we instinctively know is important, but falling short of turning words into action.

And yet you will be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe in the value and impact of culture.

Candidates are increasingly placing culture higher up their list of criteria when considering prospective employers.

What differentiates the companies that deliver on their promises from those who don’t?

Culture starts at the top

“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” – Gruenter and Whitaker

It is incumbent upon leaders to hold themselves and others to account for their behaviour.

It is not enough to have the intention to create a strong culture; it has to manifest in actions and words.

And that includes acknowledging mistakes and missteps when they inevitably happen.

Authentic, vulnerable leaders automatically create a space where it is safe for their teams to ask for help, to communicate and to grow.

If you are in a position of leadership and see unwanted behaviours in your organisation, challenge yourself to understand what it that you could change to create conditions for a more positive working environment.

Culture is versatile and malleable

Having a defined and articulated culture is not about creating a behavioural straitjacket.

Rather, it’s about having some guiding principles that resonate with people’s actual or ideal experience of coming to work. With the flexibility to manifest these principles in a way that is coherent to them as individuals.

It’s important to create a common vocabulary around your organisational culture and to onboard your new joiners into that, in a meaningful, elegant way.

That likely means moving away from lists of values and behaviours printed in swanky notebooks, and towards interventions and experiences that bring culture — how we treat each other — to life.

Culture thrives and propagates with connection

Leaders can talk about culture until they are blue in the face.

But the real acid test is whether or not your corporate values and behaviours exist in the vocabulary and actions of your workforce.

Ultimately, it’s the everyday touchpoints with co-workers that will shape your experience at work.

To sustain and grow, we must find ways to talk about culture, to celebrate and reward behaviour, and to welcome and onboard new employees into the working environment that we create together.

We are grateful to have voluntary groups of cultural ambassadors — we call them Pirates — in every office.

Representing a cross-section of teams and experience, they make the discretionary effort to keep our culture thriving and front-of-mind in their local markets.

They play a crucial role in welcoming people to our organisation and culture, and in collaboration with our people teams. And set the intention of creating a workplace where people feel invested in, engaged with and cared for.

We believe that if we can create such a workplace, our people can focus on doing the best work of their lives, and enjoy themselves in the process.

In that spirit, when we were presenting to the judges of the Mumbrella Award for Culture, I don’t believe that it was the presence of someone like me, with “culture” in my job description that made the difference.

I have no doubt that it was the stories of our two Essentials — what we call our employees — and their authentic experiences of working at Essence that truly brought our message to life.

Veli Aghdiran is global VP of professional development at Essence, a global data and measurement-driven media agency which is part of GroupM.



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing