I remember the day well: It was two days before Christmas in the mid-1990’s. I was a junior account executive at a major worldwide ad agency. I was just a few years out of school. I was pulled aside by my boss, who was clearly preoccupied.
He wasn’t stressing about the gifts that he had yet to buy. Nor was he worried about the endless list of things he had to do for the family get-together in the coming days. My boss was given some news of a merger with another creative agency.
It was the first time I’d heard of it.
We all had inklings of this in the previous months but at this very moment it was confirmed. He smiled at me and looked hopeful: “Great things will happen. We’ll be better than we were before! Imagine… we’ll be a force to be reckoned with!”
He tried to look positive. I was less convinced it was a good thing.
The reality was the market was getting more saturated with agencies. Technology was creating a new breed of digital agencies, encroaching on our beloved space. While we witnessed some fruitful years with top tier clients and burgeoning budgets, management quickly realized that there was no time to rest on our laurels.
We needed to figure out this new competition of “agency” and determine its impact on our immediate business.
This technology evolution was going to impose itself whether we liked it or not. For my boss, and for most of senior management, technology brought with it fear.
They were uncertain what this would imply for their jobs, their security. Surely there would be duplication of roles. What would it do the core offering of the business?
This, by the way, was the bread and butter of the agency for years! What would the new structure look like? Who would be at the helm to steer the new ship?
Too many questions; too many unknowns.
When Change is Imposed is When a Company is Most Compassionate
Not long after, word spread and many of the account team decided to take a longer-than-usual coffee break to discuss the potential fallout. For many of us we were only a few years into our careers, and inevitably first on the chopping block if this was to happen.
We immediately started talking about contingency plans; other potential agencies hiring. We imagined the worse possible scenarios. This led to more rumour and innuendo as other groups were embroiled in the same issues.
The fact is none of us wanted this. Management never asked for our buy-in. When we were finally brought together for the official announcement, it was clear that the enthusiastic facade that accompanied the excitement of the venture was less than convincing.
Management spoke of the need to innovate, to become more creative, to move ahead with the times. It seemed more like an imposing death sentence on a business that thrived without the need for technology or grand creative schemes.
Management promised to put programs into place to clearly articulate the roadmap and to allow employees to voice their concerns.
Don’t worry, you’ll be included in helping us shape this endeavour.
Timing is Everything
Unfortunately, Christmas came. Usually it’s what we all look forward to but, in this case, it left us all to contemplate, to overthink and perhaps, to make mountains out of molehills.
The reality is the timing of the announcement was lousy.
The rumours and inuendos persisted as most of us were left to only imagine the implications of this change. When we returned from holiday, I was not surprised to find out that several key senior managers had given their resignations.
It was a pre-emptive move, but already I was sensing the slow dismantling of this amazing company I had dreamed of working for years.
In the weeks ahead, HR and management promised transparency. They clearly laid out the framework for the new structure and allowed us to ask anything and everything, without repercussions.
Job security was the main concern and management was clear that “rationalization” (I still loathe that word) would take place within 6 months to determine resource requirements for the new entity. Training would be available to upgrade skills required but this would not leave any of us immune to the rationalization.
Accountability Breeds Ownership
Once the new structure was in place, representatives from each group were called to participate in cross-functional teams, whose purpose was to define requirements and develop new processes to enable the new structure.
It was clear that the representatives chosen needed to be keenly aware of the intricacies of their department functions and process. It was mandated these members were not to hold “management” titles. I suspect, this was a way of getting us “doers” to somehow buy-in.
As a core database agency, the integration of a pure creative agency required some negotiation and mediation. As one of the representing members, I realized that the fear I felt was nothing compared to how the “creative agency” members felt. One noted that the merger was more of a buy-out to save the creative agency, which was struggling for the last 7 months.
This feat was the last ditch effort to preserve its place in the market.
Once we realized each other’s challenges, concerns and motivations then we were able to speak openly about current process and how we adapt to include each other’s functions.
Over the course of the next few weeks we not only came to know each other, we also became friends. We were able to find common ground to deliver a structure and process that would allow us to deliver integrated programs maximizing each of the disciplines, while also minimizing time-to-market delivery.
This had to be refined over time but the process itself created an environment that started to change before my very eyes.
Cultural Change is Earned, Not Mandated
Integration took time.
Yes, the change was forced but the new company took time to heal and find its way. Its players, the employees, were at first defensive. We had conceded the change – we had no choice. But when we were given the reigns to help define it, suddenly the change was one of choice.
In the months that followed, all our roles evolved. We took more courses to hone our skills. We were asked to re-look at the processes and measure and evaluate them. There was always room for improvement.
We discovered unique abilities from current staff (in coding, creative and analytics) that drove to the development of new functions and offerings. We became a different company. Suddenly, those same people who, almost a year earlier were adamant against this merger, decided not to waste precious time or energy living in fear. Instead, they “chose” to innovate and find better ways to put out a better product.
And we did.
And this attitude was pervasive across the new company. It took time for the “us” and “them” situation to evolve into “just us”. It took time to trust. But once we found new meaning in what we were doing, that trust quickly changed our attitudes.
And that was visible in our culture and in our product.
Please note, the above is based on true events. Some of the situations have been modified to fit the principle view.
Founder at ArCompany, and Co-founder of Salsa AI, Hessie is a seasoned digital strategist, and intelligence analyst having held senior positions for top ad agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience in social tech, online publishing and artificial intelligence like Yahoo! Answers, Overlay.TV, Jugnoo and Cerebri AI. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Cognitive World, Towards Data Science and Marketing Insider Group.