It's not enough just to strategise for change in your organisation — a dramatic shift in culture can yield the best results, says Grey London CEO Chris Hirst
In business, change is an abused word. It's abused through over-use and under-application. Examples of real and lasting business change are outnumbered many times over by the legions of paper theories about how to make it happen.
Four years ago, my company Grey London needed to change. We were safe but dull in an industry whose lifeblood was innovation, creativity and energy. We had failed to heed management consultant and writer Peter Drucker: "ultimately all strategy devolves into work".
We were collectively dissatisfied with how most agencies chose to work; dependent cultures led in a top-down manner. Agencies sell creativity, but many are the opposite of this in how they run their own business — the most conservative department is often the creative department. We wanted to change that, to rip it up, but recognised that, fundamentally, culture is the behaviour of management — it would be what we did, rather than what we said, that would count.
Our strategy for change was to change our culture. We call this Open. Open is both an expression of our culture and how we believe people-based businesses today should work in order to survive, evolve and thrive.
So we focused on action: no offices (for anybody), nobody sitting in departments, the removal of walls, a reshaping of the executive team to include two non-exec employees ('Open Chairs'), full disclosure of employee and client satisfaction surveys, internal focus groups, the removal of formal agency processes.
The most totemic was the removal of 'sign-offs'. For us, 'sign-offs' became a short hand for everything that we believed was wrong about traditional agency ways of working. Sign-offs are about control, but unfortunately, they also disempower and imply that only the creative director's point of view matters. This leads to a slow, dependent culture, frustrated clients and, most importantly of all, less good work.
Open turned the traditional organisational hierarchy upside down and recast management as mentors. No other agency in London has changed as much and as fast as Grey London over the past three years. The continued re-enforcement and evolution of our new culture will, we believe, be the engine that drives our success over the next three years. To quote Drucker again, "culture eats strategy for breakfast".
Since the implementation, we have doubled in size, growing faster and more consistently than any of our peers — our client base has grown and diversified, the breadth of our skill-sets are wider and, most significantly, the quality of our creative product has changed out of all recognition.
Ultimately, the success of Open is its emphasis on the power of the individual and their teams to do the right thing, their way — and it allows our ambitious entrepreneurs to thrive and be the best they can be.
Chris Hirst is CEO of advertising agency Grey London. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisHirst.
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