The importance of agency culture for creativity 

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Dean Oelschig, managing director of Halo

What role does agency culture play on creativity and the quality of work for clients? This is the question that Halo agency has interrogated over the past two years in its goal to build the best agency in South Africa to work at.

Dean Oelschig, managing director of Halo, this past month unveiled the agency’s new brand vision and brand design with a video showcasing the new agency branding and new website design. Oelschig believes it takes about seven years for an agency to “find itself” and the clients it wants to work with and to attract the right talent in building the right culture to do great work.

Trust and creativity are at the heart of building the right agency culture. They have even written a book on the Halo employee culture. “We did a lot of research and got feedback from everyone in trying to define what our culture is,” says Oelschig, a founder of Halo, who took over as MD in 2015. “Since then, everything I’ve tried to do is around people. I changed the hiring policy to something quite simple: ‘don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to have a beer with’.”

That was a start in defining the culture to creating “the best agency to work at” in South Africa, explains Oelschig. “The job is not complete yet, we are in the process of trying to define an employee experience manager to appoint.”

They have got rid of the human resources position as a result and seeded the administrative tasks that usually fall in the domain of HR, to the finance department. “We are now trying to find the right person to create a great working environment for employees and clients and drive culture on a daily basis.”

Oelschig is adamant that getting agency culture right is the key in creating the kind of agency that does great work, for great clients and attracts the best talent in the industry – that stays.

“We have turned down three pieces of business in the past six months because they didn’t fit our culture and we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do great creative work for those clients.”

The Halo current client portfolio consists of Elliots International, Jacaranda FM, Viva Gym and the largest independent bank in Kenya, CBA (the Commercial Bank of Africa).

There are tangible benefits for the agency, Oelschig explains, by getting the culture fit right:

  1. People don’t leave, they stay. “You get to keep great people. Creativity is a team sport. It very seldom happens in isolation that one person traps an amazing idea and executes it on its own. Collaboration is from within the agency and outside. If you have that cool group of people that get it, perform, get on, and understand the roles in the organisation, they are working for each other, buying into it. Culture is most important within an agency.”
  2. People are more open to say what they think. “I want people to be honest. Too often we worry about people’s feelings. We tiptoe around the stronger personalities in the room and the weaker shut up and get on with it. A fully-formed adult culture is about candour: we are hard on the work, but not the person. That has allowed people who don’t normally speak up, to feel that they can. We’ve seen that ideas can come from anywhere. We ultimately end up with better work.”
  3. Millennials thrive. “Culture is moving target, the job is on going, benefit is long term. People enjoy spending time with each other outside of normal office hours here at Halo. They spend time with each other, instead of being siloed in different departments. Only one staff member has left us in 18 months (for a sabbatical overseas).”
  4. Value of culture. “The reason I started Halo in 2010, was out of hate. And my hate was this (and I fight it every day): I didn’t like the dismissal of the value of creativity. I saw creativity being downgraded – and the value of how it can change things – into something you can buy off the shelf. Nothing breaks through clutter like great ideas. In previous agencies I worked in, creatives were stuck in a room the same as the finance department and the heroes were sales people. I hated that. I wanted to create an agency where I loved going to work and growing the organisation with a whole bunch of people who really like each other and wanted to work with one another. If people like each other and want to do great work, it benefits client experience too. Our view is that if we create amazing culture with a great group of people, showcase all our personalities and ensure our clients know who we are, we will hopefully attract the right kind of clients.”

Halo’s culture journey wasn’t a shotgun approach. They were methodical and worked with culture-led consultant, Strive CBA (Companies Behaving Awesomely) to map “the temperature” of the agency at all levels.

“Everyone bought into it. I think people are really happy to be at the agency. We do culture days where we run a cooking class and so on. I think it’s working. There’s still a lot to be done. We want to become a lot more about knowledge sharing, about training and development, where people do well,” Oelschig says.

“We are a cool agency with great people with amazing talent. I think the work we’ve done in the last 12 months is better than anything we’ve done previously.”

To this end, they have set medium term goals – something they term “three knocks on the door”:

  1. Halo wants amazing talent to be knocking on the door to come work there.
  2. Halo wants to get the right clients who love what they do and want to work with them, knocking on the door of the agency. “We’re not aiming to grow for growth’s sake. We want to get better with the right client base.”
  3. Halo wants to be sellable. “We’re not for sale, but I like the idea that people may want to buy us, because it means we are doing things right,” adds Oelschig.

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