Office jerks: why culture can be more rewarding than a higher pay-cheque

When looking to new career opportunities some marketers and creatives head for the highest pay-cheque, but Michael Willcocks reckons resetting your sights on cultural fit rather than immediate pay-offs will keep you happier for longer.

Time and time again I see young hopefuls emerge from university looking for an agency job, and they’re so desperate to get their initial paycheque that they dive at the first offer of employment.

They are promised quick ascension and pay rises, and usually that is enough to lure them in. But these hopefuls never seem to ask the most important question: Will I fit in? What is the culture like?michael willcocks - creative partners communications

The questions they ask in an interview may be heavily influenced by their education career advisor or by what they have read from a ‘professional’ online, but most up-and-comers don’t seriously consider the culture question when looking for jobs early in their career. This is a mistake.

The foundation of a career is built by the agency you first work for. Culture should be one of the most important factors, whether you’re a newcomer or a weathered veteran.

From a company perspective, a strong culture is just good business. I recently read an article that said companies in the US with strong cultural attributes perform around two times better than their competitors in terms of stock returns, while these same companies tend to have staff turnover rates 65% lower than other businesses.

As an employee, these are the types of companies you want to work for.

The shine of the big brand name agency and the paycheque quickly fade away once they enter the front doors and become just another number, working unconscionable hours for slave drivers who don’t know their name.

Not that kind of culture

Not that kind of culture

My intent is not to take a stab at the big, multinational agencies, although it’s no secret that smaller boutique operations generally maintain stronger internal cultures – they have less staff and can manage their brand internally. Of course, I know of several larger agencies that have passionate, driven and loyal staff members because of a top-down approach to culture.

Before applying for a job at an agency, I would warn these newcomers against simply heading to a company that seems ‘cool’ or which has the most recognisable brand name. Dig a little deeper.

If you know anyone in the industry, ask them about the agency. Are there any horror stories? Do they have a reputation for being sweatshops? What type of people do they employ? What does the rumour mill have to say about them? We have a small industry and the walls surely do talk. Take advantage of this.

Do your research. Read the trade press. Who is winning business and who is losing it? Which agencies are winning culture awards? Which businesses talk openly about culture and staff happiness in the press? Look very closely at the agency head – are they someone you think you could work under?

Not this type of culture

Not that kind of culture

The job interview is another great forum to do some digging to find out about the agency from the people who work in it. Of course, you have to ask the right questions, because the interviewers clearly won’t start bad-mouthing their employer.

An article I read on The Muse gives a few tips on the types of questions you should ask – this could be a useful starting point for anyone who is entering the workforce.

Also ask yourself what type of agency will best suit your personality. A question everyone should ask themselves is: “Do I want to wear a suit? Or do I want to wear sneakers and a tee-shirt?” This is a simple question that will narrow your field of prospective employers from the onset.

If you’re a nine-to-fiver that’s fine, but you’re going to have trouble working in many agencies, which demand long hours. If you want a fast-paced, high-octane experience, there are several agencies that come to mind, which will give you great experience and training but might leave you feeling burned out after a year or two.

Culture is a very personal thing. Maybe you are looking for the agency with a Friday pub lunch culture, or with flexible work hours, or a ping-pong table, or even a sports team. Maybe you are looking for strong training programs and a highly structured, process-driven workplace. Or maybe you’d prefer a relaxed, boutique agency with a chilled out ‘creative’ vibe.

These agencies all exist, and suit different personalities.

Magnifying glass over a newspaper classified section with "Job Opportunity" text

In the end, if you do a little research and match with an agency that suits your personality you will end up being much happier in your job, meaning you will be more productive, meaning you will stand out more in your new company. You win and the company wins.

This is all well and good coming from someone who is happily employed at a creative, productive, culture-driven agency … with a ping-pong table.

It’s easy for me to say ‘be selective’, but when you’re looking for a way into the industry it’s not so easy to turn your nose up at offers of employment. Buyer beware! The agency you choose could very well determine the direction of your career, and this will be the place you’ll be spending a mighty chunk of your time for the next couple of years.

Pay-cheques and company prestige are obviously very important when it comes to choosing an employer, and a lifestyle. But a little research into an agency’s culture and internal mechanics could save you plenty of pain and agency-hopping in the coming years.

Michael Willcocks is a creative partner at Men At Work Communications


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