Agency culture. Talk about a buzzword (or a buzzkill). As the founder of an agency, the topic overwhelms the conversations I have, the newsletters I subscribe to, and the conferences I attend.

I sound like I’m complaining. The thing is, I’m actually a huge proponent of “agency culture.” But the reason I find myself rolling my eyes when the topic comes up is because I often feel like we’re having the conversation in the wrong direction.

Culture is an output; not an input. I wish it was as easy as saying, “Here is what our company culture will be…” But when the sum of your parts is an amalgamation of many individuals with different worldviews, it’s unrealistic to think that culture is as simple as a proclamation. You don’t create culture. Culture is the outward manifestation of your organization’s values. So, if you’re trying to solve a culture problem, you might be treating the symptom – not the root problem.

The key is recognizing that our daily choices, actions, words, and attitudes are a direct reflection of the values we hold. We just need to be conscious of them. Whether they are written down on a website, touted in a flashy reel, or in a deck – an agency’s values are always on full display in one way, shape, or form.

As an agency that has wrestled with this topic since launching over 16 years ago, a vital piece of advice I can share for anyone on the journey of formalizing values is to look backward, not forward.

Bazadona's agency, Situation Interactive

The simple truth is that values are not created, they are identified. The people in your organization and the actions they take every day have already started to frame the standards of your company. 

In the day-to-day, in the late nights, in the conference rooms, over email, and at the corner coffee shop – your company’s values are evolving through the people you employ and trust. It’s through these intertwining relationships that a network of values is built and, ultimately, that culture is formed.

Our agency identified and follows a pretty standard list of values – passion, innovation, collaboration, and commitment. And while at face value they may seem mundane, they are a key component in the formula for our agency success. And they’re each a reflection of our agency at its very best.

“Commitment” always takes me back to a moment when one team member offered to give all their PTO to another who was dealing with an illness in the family. “Passion” takes me to our agency’s 501(c)3 that’s aimed at helping NYC school students have access to amazing experiences and is completely run by agency volunteers.

NYC schoolchildren who were part of Situation Project

“Innovation” is always leading us towards finding the next revolution, but we’re also revolutionizing expectations of ourselves. We proudly have over 60% of women sitting on our leadership team, but diversity is a topic that we continue to struggle with and is a big agenda item for us this year.

To bring it home, we’re leveraging “collaboration” as the cornerstone to collectively frame what’s important to us all. These are just a few examples that speak to the everyday actions that informed the identification of our values – and go on to drive our culture.

You can’t fake values – they either have true meaning with real examples or they are just words in a deck. They must be a leadership-modeled priority that should be inclusive, honest and a fair reflection of the actions of the people that make up the organization. And great values, lead to great work.

So, while culture can mean benefits, happy hours, and overall atmosphere, I encourage you to think about the substance of where these perks come from – the underlying foundation of values. Because if you’re able to look backward, you can make the journey forward inclusive of a culture everyone can be proud to work in and clients will be proud to work with. 

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