When agencies focus on ‘culture,’ they can get exclusion instead

When a copywriter applied to a big agency on the West Coast, he was surprised to hear a pretty unusual question asked in an interview: What’s your favorite television show?

He answered: “’Scandal.’ Or any Shonda Rhimes show.” The creative director balked because he liked “Breaking Bad.” The copywriter didn’t get the job. In another instance, a strategist was asked where she liked to shop. If the answer wasn’t a big, expensive department store, she was out.

On the face of it, questions like these seem perfectly innocuous: After all, if you’re hiring someone for a high-pressure and team-oriented role at an agency, you want to make sure they have something in common with the other people in the company. Agencies’ only asset is their people, so it makes sense to put a premium on the the multitude of intangibles that make up “culture.” After all, it’s hard to get through an issue of Harvard Business Review without coming across an article related to corporate culture.

But for some, the focus on culture is often a way to keep out people not like those hiring. After all, underlying the notion of culture is the notion that there’s an organizational ethos that by definition excludes some people. At a time when agencies are wondering how they can become more diverse, it might make sense to turn attention to the culture fetish — and whether it can be a convenient cover for having a mono-culture. As Digiday previously reported, agencies can often punish those who deviate from the norm, which is why in a liberal-heavy industry, Republicans often hide. 

A black agency copywriter, who said he did not want to be named for this story, said that for many agencies with loose or badly defined ideas of culture fit, it’s a way of doing two things: one, letting HR teams off the hook from recruiting, since people can just refer people they already know or have worked with in the past.

Second, it’s a “compliance envelope.” Ultimately, hiring for cultural fit, said this copywriter, ensures that agencies don’t have to contour to fit themselves around people who aren’t of the “dominant mode,” whether that’s race or gender or something else.

“Cultural fit is hugely important,” said Lynn Power, president of J. Walter Thompson New York. “There is a vulnerability attached with being creative. That requires trust. And you have to respect the people you work with,” she said. “But cultural fit, it’s not about agreeing with everything.”

Power said cultural fit came down to a set of values: People on the same page with the same mission tend to work better together.

And agencies are really into “culture,” this amorphous, shape-shifting idea of who they are and what they do. Agencies spend months deciding what their culture is and display it in manifestos. For many of them, it’s a competitive advantage, a way to stand out among peers in order to win business. It’s why so many agencies have taken cues from Silicon Valley despite not having that kind of money to have happy hours, ping-pong tables and other trappings of “culture.” Culture isn’t just those things, but those things certainly help in creating an atmosphere you want to exude.

And atmosphere is especially important when you consider how agencies work: long hours in team-based structures. A common set of norms around habits, humor and even taste isn’t that out of bounds when you spend so much time in the office. “Work can be stressful. You want people who are able to take work challenges and recognize it won’t always be easy,” said Power. “If cultural fit is used as an exclusionary rationalization, it’s wrong. At the end of it, it’s not about what school you went to; it’s about values.”

Patti Clarke, chief talent officer at Havas, said as much: “Underneath culture fit are the norms, values and language of an organization.”

That’s true, but often, leadership determines how particular “values” manifest themselves. At Havas, even within the company, there can be different “cultures.” For example, Clarke describes the Chicago office as having an “edge,” while Boston is a slightly more traditional office. A lot of Chicago’s culture comes from chief creative officer Jason Peterson, said Clarke, who has, for example, an expertise in Instagram and a large following on that platform.

“We all have the same set of values, but leadership evolves it into its own identity,” said Clarke.

The problem comes when cultural fit, hard enough to establish as it is, is used as codeword for “people we like,” leading to simplistic questions about hobbies, neighborhoods, schools and the like.

When asked how to ensure that leadership then doesn’t just go for the person they “like” best, Clarke said that can be tough. “You can have two people who are culture fits but leaders lean into one they are more comfortable with.” Clarke said she makes an effort to make sure people are cognizant of their unconscious biases. 

It’s not just in hiring, said agency veterans. Cultural fit often plays into what account you’re assigned, what is known in industry parlance as “casting.” Those with accents may find themselves not getting onto pitches or accounts that are considered “American.” Women find themselves on tampon accounts. Perhaps even more so than hiring, “casting” for a broken version of cultural fit leads to work that’s boring and, ultimately, not good.

It’s not just in advertising. According to the New York Times, a researcher who studied hiring practices of investment banks and law firms saw that hiring managers emphasized the importance of cultural fit while hiring, but cultural fit tended to skew heavily toward “personal fit,” so if interviewers found common hobbies or hometowns or sporting allegiances, they were likelier to hire that person. 

Kristen Metzger, head of people and culture at MEC, which is putting in place unconscious bias training to guard against problematic hiring practices, said that she hasn’t thought about cultural fit with regard to casting at agencies. “We know clients buy people, but when we pitch business, we think about chemistry,” she said. “So for a car account, we’d want someone with a passion for cars.”

At J. Walter Thompson, Power now asks anyone that hires to create a list of who their “go-to” people are, then check the list for biases. Are they all the same gender? Race? It’s an effort to ensure at least some diversity with those two facets, although other aspects of cultural fit can be harder to discern.

“It’s an amorphous term that can be employed when you don’t want to hire someone,” said the unnamed black copywriter. “Cultural fit has no borders, so it can keep out whoever you want.”



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