How you choose your clients is a competitive advantage when it comes to culture

by | May 18, 2021

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The COVID pandemic switched creative work to an entirely virtual distributed workspace. It transformed the container that holds together companies to little more than messages on a screen, a few calls a week, and the culture that connects a team. But even before then, companies that rely on creative talent were faced with growing questions of how to build and retain teams of brilliant minds in a work environment with seemingly endless outlets for their skills. How should organizations distinguish themselves as a place to work, when creatives have more options than ever to express themselves and earn a living doing it, and teams have fewer tools to hold them together?

The organizations that attract the best talent — in particular younger millennial and Gen Z talent — are ones that build a welcoming, growth-oriented internal culture. That requires leadership to take a proactive role in cultivating the kinds of workplaces that allow individuals to thrive.  Whether ideas come through deep generative exploration in partnership with clients and colleagues or unbidden in moments of solitude, your culture has real impacts on creativity. Taking a stand and establishing clear values builds real culture, and that culture is a competitive advantage.


How your client roster contributes to your internal culture:

A particular challenge for creative agencies is the choice of clients. The client-agency relationship means that even the best-managed team cultures can be affected by the behavior of organizations that are fundamentally out of your control — but which your team has to interact with, and support, on a regular basis. When a client is caught engaging in misleading behavior, your staff can end up catching part of the backlash. When a client develops a toxic work environment, your team receives some of the runoff. When a client steers their work towards destructive practices, your creatives may end up having to defend their work to friends or family — or themselves. The time and energy spent questioning their purpose is time and energy lost to providing the best service to your clients.

Drawing a line in the sand about what kinds of clients you won’t work with — and then communicating that line to your team and your industry — provides the kind of clarity of purpose that can help cultivate the best creative environments. Setting policies that rule out clients like Big Oil or tobacco companies opens the door to creatives to offer more of themselves to their work. Instead of answering questions about the purpose or impact of their work, your team can focus on accomplishing it, knowing that there are leadership guardrails to prevent them from veering into questionable territory.  Even a single client can have a corrosive effect on company culture. It’s been the case for many years that agencies rarely go out of their way to publicize relationships with oil or tobacco companies, even internally, leading to segregated teams and offices.

Not every client needs to be a passion project. There will always be a need for partnerships with organizations that primarily pay the bills. But when an agency’s leadership says they are willing to take on clients that are promoting climate destruction, or misleading the public, it tells creatives and strategists that their work is solely for the purpose of profit, and starts to set up the mental walls that are barriers to their best creative work.


Millennials and Gen Z are today’s workers and tomorrow’s leaders:

Millennial and Gen Z employees now make up the largest segment of the US workforce. After millennials, Gen Z is the most diverse, well-educated generation in American history. Their lives have been shaped profoundly by struggles over racial justice, climate change, and economic inequality. A young professional graduating college in the last few years likely first heard of Black Lives Matter in high school, and, like many of their peers, participated in historic marches against climate change and racial injustice.

The clients you work with (and the work you do for them) matter to them. Will they bring their full selves to tobacco clients that are attempting to target both peers and youths? How will they react to working on rebranding campaigns for companies paying lip service to the racial justice movement — or worse, to working on clients who say nothing at all and hope no one notices. Perhaps the biggest ask of all is asking your employees to work on behalf of oil companies profiting from polluting the planet, threatening not only the future well-being of your current employees of all ages but also their children and all the generations to come.

Social networks have played a dynamic role in the lives of millennials and Gen Z — both in personal relationships as well as to learn about and organize to take action around causes. Smart, creative young people may have their own channels and brand that they can build and monetize, without having to make deep compromises with themselves, or their peers. Deloitte found that Gen Z actually values salary needs less highly than any generation prior, weighing it much more lightly against perks, benefits, and their other needs. While an agency role may offer stability that going the freelance route may not, that stability will be weighed against the questions raised by work with certain kinds of clients.


The benefits of being a step ahead:

My organization Clean Creatives is a project bringing together leading agencies and their staff to reject work with fossil fuel companies. We surveyed professionals in the marketing industry under 35 and found that 87% said that they were more interested in working for companies that reflected their values than those that didn’t — 10% higher than Gen Z as a whole. With 70% of those under the age of 35 worrying about global warming, leading the industry in this area can lift up an agency with positive news coverage and the opportunity to present themselves in a new light to potential new employees.

A reckoning for agencies working with fossil fuels and other clients is coming, much as it did with the tobacco industry. The City of New York, the Massachusetts Attorney General, and the District of Columbia have all filed lawsuits against oil companies for misleading consumers about their climate policies in advertisements. A Federal Trade Commission case was recently filed against Chevron for misleading advertisements, and BP was forced to end a misleading campaign by the UK’s Department for International Trade.

On issues like climate change, your current employees and the next generation of talent will soon be demanding you act. As a growing number of companies and governments are pushing for a substantial increase in ambition, a clear stand to commit to not working with the opponents of climate progress shows your agency is ready for the future.

Being able to offer a vision of your team’s purpose that is grounded in real policies about the kind of clients you choose to work with can set your organization apart. Most importantly, setting the tone as leaders in organizations helps to create a culture that allows good, grounded teams to do their best work, as well as aiding in both attracting talent and retention. And that culture will give you an edge over your competition. 

Duncan’s Socials: LinkedIn, Twitter

Editor’s Socials – Joe Cole: LinkedIn, Twitter


Written by Duncan Meisel
Digital Strategist for progressive nonprofits & Campaign Director for Clean Creatives | Austin, Texas

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