Corporate Culture: Harmonize, Don't Homogenize

Like most entrepreneurs, I was driven by the idea that a significant unmet need existed in the market. I had a notion as to how to fill it. In my case, it was to create a new model for a marketing agency—one that integrates the functions necessary for brand marketing in an evolving digital world.

More often than not, clients get marketing and advertising support from different partners that seldom interact. They simply hand things off to each other and something always gets lost in translation.

I realized this in one of my brand manager assignments, at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), where I led the marketing of the Band-Aid brand. The market-research people sat at one end of the hall and the brand-management people at the other. We didn't talk to each other, let alone co-create system-wide solutions. A telling example: J&J used to sell Band-Aids in metal boxes that cost more than the Band-Aids. Research showed that people cared more about getting more product for their money and less about whether the strips came in a paper box or a tin one. We capitalized on this consumer insight by restructuring and repositioning the brand from the factory floor all the way to the product itself, introducing medicated Band-Aids and Band-Aids decorated with cartoon characters. This restructuring of the Band-Aid brand took it from losing $15 million a year to earning $25 million in annual profit.

The experience convinced me that groups engaged in solving a common problem shouldn't work in a linear fashion, with one group's responsibility ending where another's begins. Instead they should form an infinity loop, wherein a constant exchange of ideas and information takes place. Only when groups work like interconnected gears can you achieve transformational change. Our firm's three main capabilities—strategic insights, ideas and programs, and technology—function as gears.

Needed: A Culture for Everyone

The challenge arises from the fact that different crafts drive different cultures. Who people are—in terms of what motivates them, what worries them, what they think about, and where they derive their satisfaction and frustration—differs according to what they do. To maximize individual and company performance, you need to create a culture in which everyone feels part of and connected to it. This is not a problem unique to marketing companies. The issue becomes more important and more difficult in an interconnected world with ever-greater roles for technology and social media.

Too often, companies take the easy way out by embracing a homogenized culture, a monochromatic world of sameness that neuters the individuality of team members. More difficult—but more rewarding—is to create a harmonized culture with the emphasis on being complementary, rather than striving for conformity.

I'd like to share some lessons we've learned in creating harmony while developing our "infinity loop" approach.

Skill drives the culture: Don't expect technologists and creative directors to approach their jobs the same way. Why would you even want them to? When we are building a website or e-commerce site for a client, we need the expertise of multiple teams: strategy and analytics, creative, user experience, and technology. The harmonization of these groups from a functionality standpoint is critical to success. From a human standpoint it is equally important, though harder to achieve.

Values must be shared: If team members don't have the same values, you can't build bridges across the functional and cultural divides. Do they care about clients? Do they care about solving problems? Are they motivated to drive business impact? You can teach people new skills; you can't teach them to care or be responsive.

Engage all your gears: If we are working with a client in only one capacity, such as technology, we still have a representative from both our strategic-insights group and our ideas-and-programs group as part of the client team. This provides us with a holistic view of our client's needs, even if the client isn't looking to us to fill all those needs. This approach also creates a sense of internal cohesiveness, reinforcing the idea that all parts of the business have equal importance.

Create a common corporate identity: All workers have to believe and feel that they are working for the same cause, the same company. When conglomerates cobble together a bunch of entities that lack unifying structure or identity, the battle is already half-lost. A newly merged corporation needs a rewards system that's consistent across the organization. If you can work out the right relationship between rewarding individual performance and company performance, both will improve.

Relationships matter: A large part of my job is to hire the best people and inspire them to do their best work, enabling them to realize their professional dreams right inside our firm. I could spend all my time on this side. Still, as much as I love that part of my job, it isn't practical and would be an abdication of my other responsibilities as a leader. Instead I have endeavored to restructure the leadership team to make certain that other people in the organization are responsible for, and equally passionate about, coaching and developing the rest of the people in the company.

The approach I advocate is a little like taking the captain of the football team, the president of the student council, and the head of the chess club and asking them to work together. You are seeking to create harmony among entities that don't naturally fit together—a formidable challenge but one that's necessary to achieve.

Today every company is a technology company. Succeeding in the connected world requires an integrated view that engages all your gears, focusing your team on the concept of shared goals, vision, and mission.

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