In September, Middle East Communications Network (MCN) announced the “Transformers” leadership development program for its employees, while Omnicom Media Group MENA (OMG), which ranks number three on the Great Place to Work 2014 survey, showed off its achievement by wrapping up its building in a celebratory banner and making its own version of Pharell Williams’ Happy song. Agencies are increasingly focusing on rewarding their employees with more than just salaries and creating a dynamic culture. And why shouldn’t they? According to the 2013 Culture and Change Management Survey by the Katzenbach Center at Strategy& (formerly known as Booz &Co.), 82 percent of respondents from the MEA region feels that culture is critical in driving the success of a business and 55 percent says culture is important in relation to a company’s strategy and operating model.
However, Yusuf Pingar, managing director at creative agency Spark*, feels that regional agencies are not placing enough emphasis on company culture. “I have been in the industry in Dubai for the past 12 years and, in all that time, agency culture has not been considered an important issue by senior management,” he says. Globally, Zappos, Google – and pretty much all creative agencies, from tech startups to the big networks – are known for their vibrant cultures. The same does not seem to hold true for the region. In fact, Pingar doesn’t think that the Middle East is a region that’s invested in “creating positive workplace cultures conducive to staff performance and happiness. Employees based at the headquarters of multinational organizations that transfer to regional offices here often receive a rude awakening”.
However, not everyone agrees with Pingar. Sasan Saeidi, managing director at FP7/UAE, believes that culture is one of the success formulas for an agency’s growth, but that the influx of businesses in Dubai has led to big budgets and tight deadlines, making work-life balance more difficult in the emirate than in Europe or North America, “which does not mean culture is dead. It just [means] that agencies are expected to deliver more. So that may take a toll on people,” he says, adding that the maturity of Western ad markets accommodates new businesses more calmly and smoothly.
Cut-throat competition, poaching practices and employees’ preference for higher salaries over better jobs is making the role of a good culture more important than ever, says Mounir Harfouche, CEO of Lowe MENA. “Often, they [previous employees] come back and say it was definitely a mistake because they go to a place [a new job] and get shocked with a culture that is not healthy, an environment that is not positive, people that they are not necessarily learning from, and systems that suffocate and kill them, along with their skills and talent.”
Moreover, monetary remuneration might not be enough when employees are spending more time at work than at home. “The agency needs to make sure that the environment and culture are such that they [employees] actually enjoy themselves. And the company itself has a responsibility to give back,” adds Saeidi.
But, it isn’t just about keeping employees happy. Naturally, employees contribute better in a healthy cultural environment and this leads to better company performance – not to mention happier clients. “Companies today are using their culture as a competitive advantage. The ones that are considered better workplaces fare three to four times higher in the market than other companies,” says Ron Thomas, CEO of Great Place to Work Gulf. Indeed, a 2011 analysis by academics John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, entitled: Corporate Culture and Performance, shows that companies that focus on a healthy culture experienced four times the revenue growth and 15 times the return on investment than their original businesses.
The Middle East – particularly the UAE – is a multicultural region. This has led to some ambiguity when it comes to decisions regarding globalizing agency culture in regional offices; a company would obviously want to maintain its global roots, values and best practices across its network of offices, but what works elsewhere won’t necessarily work in the region.
For instance, when Spark* introduced the work-from-home concept for its creative team, it turned out to be a disaster; the concept wasn’t taken nearly as seriously as it’s in the West, resulting in discipline issues and concerns over meeting deadlines – even though Khaled Abounader, director of talent and learning and development management at VivaKi, claims that this exact concept, supported by monitoring processes and tracking sheets, has proven successful for the network, particularly for women and new mothers. But, when it initiated more transparency in internal communications, it worked very well. “If your team knows exactly what’s going on in your company from strategic and tactical perspectives, it can relate to all of your decisions and contribute more positively,” explains Pingar.
While their adaptation of global working models has received mixed results, agencies are increasingly sensing the need to initiate programs that are specifically designed for the region. “Any global initiative that does not conflict with the local culture, heritage and values is always implemented. However, should a conflict exist, we tend to localize and tweak the initiative to match the local offices. And in some instances, we initiate a totally new program,” says Abounader.
Korea wasn’t even on the economical map in the 1960s, but has, today, emerged as one of the top ten global economies. This was only possible through hard work, which often meant equally long working hours. Imagine a culture where it is normal, even expected, to work 18 to 20 hours a day. That’s why Cheil MENA tries to regionalize its culture, while staying true to its Korean roots. “We have a very strict culture in Korea, whereas in the region, it is very liberal. The main [values] that we try to retain from our Korean culture are punctuality, hard work and discipline,” says Mahesh Rajasekaran, HR manager at Cheil MENA.
Agencies may need to custom-create their culture due to regional differences, but Fadi Chamat, regional executive director of talent and organizational development at Omnicom Media Group MENA, feels that every office should develop its own, regardless of the region. “The office that we have here in Dubai is the envy of the network,” he quips.
It’s hard to define what company culture really entails but, if agencies’ recent investments are any indication, it’s a combination of education, entertainment and environment — with an increasing emphasis on education. Most agencies in the region conduct regular trainings and programs, but only few have special academic programs and even less offer certification upon completion of such programs. These academic initiatives show not only that agencies are honing their employees’ professional skills, but also that they care about their personal growth. “That’s the only way employees feel appreciated because they are learning something,” says Saeidi.
In addition to having access to a global e-learning tool, MCN had been conducting internal trainings for each of the agencies under it. But, Ricarda Ruecker, consultant for leadership and organizational development at MCN, felt there was a gap when it came to developing managerial leadership skills. Keeping this in mind, the network’s “Transformers” program was launched and devised in partnership with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. The program is accredited and certified, which comes in useful when employees choose to do an executive MBA in the future.
Omnicom Media Group, too, thinks of itself as a house of learning. In 2004, it created the Omnicom Academy, which conducts comprehensive training programs on a weekly basis. It also has special programs, such as “Digital Transformation”, a nine-week module after which the attendees receive certification. Two years back, FP7 set up the FP7 University, which, under a new theme every quarter, offers a curriculum divided into credits. “Right now, we are planning for Q4, where we are [putting together] a more junior level course for account managers and account executives. We also plan to partner with outside academia partners in 2015,” says Saeidi. Interpublic Group of Companies’ BPN, a full-service media agency, has its own brand of education, Media Brands, an online learning tool with a list of topics spread across the year. At VivaKi, simply conducting trainings is considered too simplistic a view on talent development. “We assess, do a gap analysis for every employee, create [tailored] development plans and run trainings that are [specific] to individuals or groups of individuals with similar gaps. The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer applicable nowadays,” explains Abounader.
That is not to say that it’s all work and no play. OMG makes sure things are always fun at work, with monthly town hall debates, day outs, even paintball sessions and the hard-to-ignore OMG Games Center – an online weekly game where winners get $300 and a yearly prize of $7,500 – which should serve for enough motivation to come in to work. The group has partnered with Ignite Fitness & Wellness, which provides employees with pedometers, and conducts daily workout classes and annual fitness tests. The agency also gets 30 kilograms of apples every single day “so that employees can snack healthy,” says Chamat.
Earlier this year, VivaKi set up a culture committee to develop a yearly calendar of events for employees, in addition to daily initiatives, such as breakfasts and e-games. FP7 has a branded version of a cultural committee, called FP7 Connect, a program that creates activities to connect employees beyond work routines every month.
Companies don’t always need special committees or initiatives to keep employees happy. Sometimes, it is inherent in the nature of the company, as is the case of Lowe MENA, claims Harfouche. “We don’t have one big typical initiative, but we have a lot of day-to-day things, such as trainings, seminars and gatherings. Due to the non-bureaucratic structure, we are already closely knit,” he explains, nonetheless adding that the company holds strict policies toward negativity, politics and racism. What’s more, the agency structure is built on the “Collective Genius” model that allows people “to complete, rather than compete with, each other,” says Harfouche, the idea being to rely on the collective skills and assets of employees and make them feel significant.
Since employees spend more time at work than at home, the office environment plays a significant role in making employees happy and comfortable. And this includes aesthetics. While most advertising agency spaces are designed to look creative – often pretentiously so – Harfouche says the Lowe MENA office “has a story and it reflects who we are: spontaneous and playful, yet serious, ambitious, hungry and committed to the work and our brands”. Whether it’s the bull emerging from a brick wall (Red Bull), cinema chairs at the reception (Grand Cinemas) or the slide that sits at the center of the office, this is clearly reflected in the agency’s interiors. Spark* recently shifted to a new 6,000-square-foot workspace, with the aim of creating a more collaborative and open environment, while social media agency Socialize recently revamped a boutique villa into its new office.
Indeed, it isn’t just multinational agencies that are focused on culture; independent and boutique agencies are, by default, perceived as having fun and cohesive office cultures. This is mainly due to flat structures, small teams and more flexible structures and processes that, naturally, bind everyone together. “People that are starting these boutique and independent agencies come from [bigger networks and ad giants] looking for something different. They’re narrowing that culture down and creating their own,” explains Thomas. However, most times, it’s a matter of the grass being greener on the other side. “The culture of independent agencies is perceived as being better, but it could be just as worse, because these startups are under a lot of pressure to grow the business, [which results in] heavier workloads and financial pressures,” cautions Thomas.
While there is much talk about “investing” in culture, in a lot of cases, this investment doesn’t have to be monetary. “Most HR policies that would make employees happy don’t cost anything. For example, Mercedes-Benz had a policy that if you were on vacation, you could set an auto-responder saying: ‘I’m on vacation and this email will be deleted’,” says Thomas. While this is a policy that most would take for granted, in today’s age of ubiquitous connectivity, it is a big deal for it to be made official on a board level.
In 2010, consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton created an internal recruiting system, called Inside First, which has approximately 25,000 employees, and now fills 30 percent of open positions with internal hires, up from 10 percent in the past two years, explains Thomas. Such internal systems automatically foster positivity, as employees feel that the company is looking out for their personal growth.
The benefits of having a culture are obvious, but the formula, not so much. “If culture isn’t discussed in the conference room, you’re missing out. It’s not about the HR team. It has come to from the CEO. Every situation is different,” says Thomas. Usually, companies have blanket policies, which might not be the best idea. “Companies have to figure out this conundrum themselves, because every workplace is different, the demographics are different, the industry is different or your situations are different,” adds Thomas.
There is, of course, still a long way to go until company culture appears on the agenda of a board meeting, but the road is being paved. Cultural activities are already a part of the KPIs of senior management employees at FP7. Clearly, culture isn’t just a cult. Agencies can’t put a value on creativity and neither can or should they put an ROI figure on their employees. But, one thing they can do, and “need to do, is to make sure their people at least have an area where they can go and say: ‘I’m working hard, but the company is taking care of me’,” concludes Saeidi.