Sitting under your nose is a sure-fire method to win more of the right kinds of clients.

Sell them on your agency’s culture and values. Sounds deceptively easy, doesn’t it?

But most agencies have difficulty articulating what’s special about their culture and values. You have to translate something abstract into concrete and persuasive language, which is hard to do. 

Michael Lebowitz, CEO, Big Spaceship

Michael Lebowitz, CEO, Big Spaceship

A few weeks ago, I was at Advertising Age’s Small Agency conference. One of the many good ideas and insights that came out of it was from Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Brooklyn-based creative agency, Big Spaceship . On a panel on agency growth and culture, he said that his agency spends a significant amount of time during a pitch meeting on cultures and values – and he credits this for not only helping to win new business but to win the right kind of business.

In a lot of pitch decks I see, culture and values are relegated to a couple of slides: one touting the number and variety of dogs at the agency, the other a list of things they believe in that most decent human beings should probably believe in.

This may not be unique to Big Spaceship, but it’s in stark contrast to a lot of pitch decks I see in which culture and values are relegated to a couple of slides: one touting the number and variety of dogs you’ll find in the office, the other a bulleted list of things they believe in that most decent human beings should probably believe in. 

So I called him up and we had a chance to talk more about the role Big Spaceship’s values and culture play in winning new business. 

Culture & values – more than just a heartfelt discussion at your last offsite

Lebowitz says that he spends a solid 50% of his time thinking about Big Spaceship’s culture and values. 

That’s right, people – five-0 percent. 

And, as hard as it might be to clearly define those things, the harder part is staying accountable to it. Big Spaceship has become known for its organizational philosophy – Harvard Business Review even wrote a case study about it – and Lebowitz is often asked to lecture on the topic at schools and events. As he says, once he exposed his approach to the outside world, he had to be accountable to it. And I surmise that doing this also forces him to practice how he articulates it. As a consequence, he’s continually polishing, tweaking and perfecting it.

It’s efficient

If you’re still reeling over the idea that your competitor is spending 50% of his time thinking about his agency’s culture and values when you can barely fit the daily demands of the office into an average 16-hour day, shift your mindset and think about how this approach is a more efficient use of your time.

First, being clear about your culture and values self-selects your best prospects. 

Lebowitz says that his agency has never done any outbound prospecting. It’s mostly word-of-mouth. And when his team does decide to pitch a prospect, many times they take a different approach. In lieu of engaging in time consuming RFP responses and credentials presentations for every prospective client, an initial brainstorm meeting is often the best litmus test. Both parties get to test whether they think they can work together. If the answer is “no”, then the client walks away with some new ideas for a minimum investment of time.

A clear articulation of culture and values also attracts the right employees. As he puts it, “No one is goaded into being here.” This creates a virtuous cycle – attract the right people and you build an instant salesforce of believers. Invest well in your culture and values and that salesforce will always be able to articulate why the agency is special. When you apply this to a pitch situation, it means that there is no bait and switch of “A” team for “B” team. In fact, Lebowitz proudly said that his team is confident enough to let him know when it’s not appropriate for him to be present at a pitch – because the revenue opportunity doesn’t merit it, or, even better, because that clients are sold on the team they’ve already met.

Nice and ambitious

Nice and ambitious – those are the values that Lebowitz and his team look for when considering whether to pursue a new client. But it has to be both; never one or the other.
That got me thinking about the number of agencies out there that proclaim that from this day forward they’ll only work with “great” clients. That’s a meaningless statement without the ability to define what great means through their culture and values. 

Too often what happens is that agencies will stake that wobbly claim, but then cave the moment any kind of revenue opportunity comes across the transom, no matter how un-great the client. With a strong sense of culture and values, there’s too much at stake to do that. When you start betraying culture and values to chase short-term revenue, you may find you also start losing employees and clients (usually the good ones). This time, you’re in a vicious cycle of filling in the gaps with clients that no one wants to work for.

This all assumes one crucial thing...

There are a lot of agencies out there that manage to exist without a strong foundation of culture and values. 

Sure, they might be places where good work gets done and everybody gets along (pretty much). But, whether from avoidance, neglect or naiveté, the agency leadership has never codified their values – or what they mean to employees and clients. 

If you’re reading this with the sinking feeling that you’re one of those agencies, then you’ve got bigger issues to tackle. But think about the upside – imagine being able to say, as Michael Lebowitz does, that you have no need for outbound prospecting. 

Might just be worth the investment.