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Culture. I hear that word all the time and, quite frankly, I’m getting really tired of it. But the reason I’m getting tired of it is because when people talk about “agency culture,” they seem to leave out the very thing that defines it most: the work.

“Move to an open-plan office space, and the cross-pollination of ideas will help the culture.”

“Have a graffiti artist come in and paint the walls, and it will help the culture.”

“Build a conference room that looks like an old shed, and it will help the culture.”

“Print a cool-looking handbook, and it will help the culture.”

“Have a band come in once a month, and it will help the culture.”

“Come up with a pithy phrase that tells people what you stand for, and it will help the culture.”

I have even heard someone say we should start a committee called the “Culture Club” to think about ways of improving the agency’s culture. There is so much wrong with that statement, I don’t even know where to start.

These ideas may all be fine (well, all except for the Culture Club idea), but unless you are proud of the work you are doing, the list is all just bullshit. The work defines the culture. It’s really that simple. Do work you are proud of and you will have a culture you are proud to be a part of.

Try this. Make a list of the greatest advertising agencies of the past twenty years. Wieden+Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Mother, BBH, Droga5, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. All of them are probably on your list. The common thread? They are all known, first and foremost, for their work, not for the office spaces they occupy, not for the commissioned artwork on their walls. Not the game rooms or the recreation areas or the band rooms or the free beer. Not even for the unique ways they inspire creativity within their organizations. No, they are known for the excellence of their creative product.

Here’s what happens in an agency with a great creative culture: People talk about their work. The office has energy. It’s noisy. There is clutter. Everywhere there are notes and scribbles and thoughts. There are piles of books and magazines. Whiteboard markers are dried out. Chalkboards are always dusty. People discuss projects they are in the midst of. You feel something in the air: creative energy.

The Ping-Pong table has last night’s pizza and comps on it. Your work gets killed, but you get over it. And you try again. When people ask you for help, you help. When something great gets made by someone else, you are inspired by it.

And you make work that you can’t stop talking about.

Here’s what happens in an agency with a lousy creative culture: People set up meetings to discuss the culture. The office is quiet. Clutter just looks like garbage. The piles of books and magazines look like garbage. Whiteboards are just white. Chalkboards are never erased. People talk about “the good old days.” You feel something in the air, but it’s malaise.

The Ping-Pong table has a broken net, and no one plays anyway. When people ask for help, you say you’re busy. Your work gets killed and you talk about how stupid everyone is for not getting it. When something great gets made by someone else, you resent it.

And you make work that you never talk about.

I am six months into my new role at Arnold, Boston, where I have worked for fourteen years. I am one-half of an ECD team faced with the biggest challenge either of us has ever faced: making Arnold great again.

I have seen many changes in our culture over the years. It has been strong, and it has been weak. And the strength of our culture has always been directly linked to the quality of the work we were producing.

It is no secret that we haven’t exactly had the best couple of years, for multiple reasons: Economics. The changing nature of the business. Creative atrophy due to a lack of production.

But my partner and I are intent on building the greatest culture our agency has ever had.

How will we do it? One piece of work at a time. ca

Wade Devers (deversinkandlead.com) is an executive creative director and managing partner with Arnold Worldwide in Boston. His work, part of which is creative direction for the Jack Daniel’s brand campaigns, inclu­ding the iconic ads for Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, has been recognized in several of the industry’s most prestigious showcases.

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