Determine Cultural Fit – 3 Steps for CMOs

August 2, 2017 | Lorraine Stewart

Marketing leaders focused on digital transformation need to find creative agencies and media partners that can anticipate what opportunities exist, and then partner together to get the job done. Cultural fit is key!

The holy grail for CMOs is high performance teams with well-choreographed movements among agencies, brand partners and their own people. Their job tenure is influenced by how well they fit culturally within their own organization, coupled with how well they orchestrate the efforts of others. Executive search firm Russell Reynolds notes CMO success is “an issue of compatibility rather than ability and experience”.

But cultural fit is a bit like a tango: easy to appreciate, harder to achieve.

It’s a leadership topic that has come of age. Credible studies from management consultants McKinsey & Company report on culture leadership and digital transformation.

ROJEK Consulting has built its brand reputation in the advertising industry on the premise that cultural fit between companies and their creative agencies is a critical factor in determining fit and function. The accelerated change within the industry requires us to sharpen our focus on the topic.

Leveraging Cultural IQ

We start with the understanding that hiring creative talent with the goal of cultural fit is not about identifying homogeneous teams marked by sameness (or agency head-nodding, as one our clients calls it). Selecting an agency should be about identifying the best choice based on the shared values, common goals and specific positive behaviors that will move complex organizations forward, and quickly.

The Society for Human Resource Management states that the cost of employee turnover due to a poor cultural fit can be 50% to 60% of the person’s annual salary. Imagine the costly consequence of churning through creative agency partners that simply don’t align with a client company culture.

Follow these three steps to find the rhythm cultural fit provides:

1. Define Cultural Fit Radar

CMOs can benchmark the ideal cultural fit with their company based on assessing current high performing employees, partners and teams. We use appreciative inquiry methods to evaluate when and why things work well and then articulate the mindset and behaviors that influenced great outcomes. Conversely, we prompt clients to think about when awkward meetings take place, barriers to progress pop up or poor results threaten a bonus, and identify the cultural norms at play. What was it that tripped you up?

Start with who you are. It should be easy to start with the company’s fundamental purpose, vision and values to get to a baseline set of cultural attributes you desire in potential agency partners, if only to guard against obvious disconnects.

Build out who you want to become. Go a step further to push that perspective. For example, some CMO’s identify aspirational cultural qualities that will disrupt their organizational status quo and accelerate transformational change. McKinsey advises leaders to focus efforts on “busting silo’s”. Companies can partner with agencies that use the right data to advance the right decisions, or champion the customer-centric point of view. They then function as important allies and cultural change agents for CMOs. Success is contingent upon agencies understanding the client organization’s cultural definition of creativity, innovation and risk-taking, including its appetite for incremental to radical new ideas designed to create value.

Good realtors will “get you to the neighborhood” to find your dream home. For recruiting the marketer’s dream team, our proprietary data and deep experience with agency culture will accelerate the search for the right resources among thousands of industry choices. It’s the ideal starting point.

2. Audition Cultural Fit

There’s Preaching, and there’s Practicing. Nothing beats assessing cultural fit like an in-person session designed to, you guessed it, check how well people who don’t actually know each other can gel and communicate.

Gone are the days of one-sided, pitch-heavy capability sessions that leave clients feeling short of the feel-good factor they need to choose on an agency with confidence. Agendas built around delivering such presentations are limited. The best of them offer prospective clients Insight-driven and Future-oriented content that is on point. But even so, the most awesome agency presentation can fail to indicate fit.

Beyond the niceties we enjoy from a first-time meet and greet, high engagement work sessions between clients and prospective agencies are the most productive. They too require an investment of time and energy to plan in advance.

What to talk about? Ethical choice-based questions and strategic problem solving exercises are proven meeting subjects that produce real time conversation between marketing leaders and agency partners. These types of sessions showcase agency skills, demonstrate processes and reveal cultural values.  Agility, flexibility and fresh directions on client-centric issues elevate the exchange; both parties can test drive team dynamics, including the roles and contributions of individuals. Biases and influences, analytical reasoning and critically thinking skills are revealed, not in ways that are reductive but with expansive thinking. Problem-solving for brands is always an exercise in creativity! We facilitate this type of meeting to preview partnership dynamics.

And sometimes the best engagement happens outside the confines of traditional conference rooms as environments themselves can increase or decrease the cultural connections.

“They get me; they get my brand.”

The CMO debrief that follows an agency meeting, especially when shared across a team, is an important step to an evaluation process. Greater value is realized in the applied learning. For clients buying agency services, it’s worth asking:  how can we be a better agency partner as we adapt to different ways of working with new potential agencies?  

When a CMO considers a prospective creative agency, it’s the emotional response to human engagement that generates that warm and fuzzy feeling and confidence that s/he has found the right people at the agency to hire.

3. Validate Cultural Fit

Double checking those feel good vibes is a pretty responsible thing to do, but it feels a little bit like going home to do homework after winning the big game. Maybe you should but who wants to?

We counsel CMOs to reach out to third parties to a get a read on cultural fit with agencies they are evaluating. Our discovery questions, focused on behaviors, can be asked of current clients, former clients, media and production partners. Good listening skills will complete the picture as to what it will be like to work with one group vs another.

Here are Four Favorites:

  • Tell me about an occasion when you felt like the agency delighted you as a client/ customer.
  • Tell me about the ways you work with the agency to produce these kind of results.
  • What is it about your own company culture that makes working with this agency such a positive experience?
  • How are relationship issues with the agency addressed? Can you provide an example?

Start with Culture. Finish with Fit.™

Cultural focus can inform a smarter advertising agency selection with an artful combination of information and engagement, direct experience and third party endorsement.

Hiring decisions that are made with head and heart, and for the good of the organization, tend to be the ones that deliver on expectations.

For over 25 years ROJEK Consulting has sourced the right agencies for our clients, producing famous partnerships where company and agency move beautifully in lockstep together.

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