In August 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted his now-famous “culture deck” to SlideShare. It’s been viewed 18.2 million times since then; among its many accolades, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said it “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.”
The reason for the attention and accolades is that the values underpinning Netflix’s sustained high-performance culture pay serious dividends. Netflix revenue rose 25.5% per year, on average, over the past 11 years, from $305.3 million in the quarter ended March 31, 2007, to more than $3.7 billion in the quarter ended March 31, 2018. Since 2013, when House of Cards became its first original series and won its first Emmy, Netflix has won hundreds of awards for original creative programming – including 64 Emmys. In true Post-Modern fashion, Netflix famously achieves its creative success on a foundation of data analytics and creativity. But best of all for clever investors: Netflix shares have risen from $6.28 the day before Hastings’ post to $374.61 as of this writing. That’s up 58% per year for nine years or, cumulatively, 5,865%!
But hold on. Why are we telling you this? What has Netflix’s culture got to do with solving the ‘Age of Wow’ Post-Modern Marketing paradox that advancing marketing technology (martech) will drive a re-emphasis of intuitive creativity that touches human souls? Or with the transition from storytelling to storyliving, brand community built around shared purpose, and marketing as experience?
The common denominator is that all these really, really hard Post-Modern Marketing challenges demand creative inspiration combined with technological prowess, combined with deep data-driven insight, combined with speedy, easy adaptability. The demands these challenges place on people and organizations is extreme. Hence, Post-Modern Marketing’s fundamental prerequisite: the right values-based culture to activate and realize Post-Modern Marketing’s brilliant possibilities.
Netflix’s Hastings is even more on point for Post-Modern marketers: “In procedural work, the best are 2x better than the average. In creative/inventive work, the best are 10x better than the average, so [there’s a] huge premium on creating effective teams of the best.”
For all these reasons, Stein IAS CEO Rob Morrice likes to point out that, “Only collaborative, high-performance cultures imbued with freedom and responsibility will succeed in the Post-Modern era.
“The Post-Modern Marketing world will be so competitive that you’ll have to be the absolute best or be resigned to mediocrity, in which case you’ll probably be replaced by artificial intelligence,” Morrice says. “To be the best you have to extract every ounce of juice out of every person in your team – and not only that but all your people have got to want to give you that ounce because they know you’re all in it together.”
When U.S.-based Stein + Partners and U.K.-based IAS b2b Marketing came together in 2013 to form Stein IAS, Morrice and Chairman/Chief Client Officer Tom Stein were convinced that the Netflix-style values-based culture that Morrice and his team at IAS had been pursuing for several years would be key to their audacious goal of becoming the most important B2B marketing agency in the world. They decided to apply that high-performance cultural thinking to the benefit of their newly expanded and rapidly growing business. So, working together with Global HR Director Cal Jackson and Reuben Webb, Stein IAS’ Chief Values Officer and Chief Creative Officer, Morrice set out to drive the development of a truly values-led Post-Modern Marketing agency workplace.
It’s working: since 2013, Stein IAS’ revenue has soared, and its client roster has grown dramatically. Revenue per client has more than doubled. And, like Netflix, Stein IAS has won hundreds of awards in its own B2B marketing domain, most notably being named Agency of the Year by ANA Business Marketing an unprecedented four years in a row and equally unprecedented seven out of the last nine years.
Before the culture took root, the U.S. operation would win about 25% of its new business pitches; today, it’s over 50%. It’s worth mentioning that Stein IAS uses a model based on 18 discrete data points to decide whether or not to pitch a prospective client – with values alignment between client and agency a heavily weighted determinant.
“In the Post-Modern world, it’s not just values at the core, but values at the fore,” notes Morrice. “Values have to be imbued in how everyone interacts, every day.”
Morrice further notes that organizational culture is one of the toughest Post-Modern paradoxes to crack. But it is worth the effort. In his and the agency’s view, if you get a values-based culture right, everything else ultimately will take care of itself. Your industrious teams, collaboratively tapping into the stores of knowledge and experience throughout your entire employee base, will courageously discover solutions to your most daunting challenges – and have fun in the process.
The rest of this chapter is a “how to” guide for establishing and nurturing a high-performance Post-Modern Marketing culture. It draws mostly from Stein IAS’ approach, but also fuses this with other experts and exemplars.
“Only collaborative, high-performance cultures imbued with freedom and responsibility will succeed in the Post-Modern era. The Post-Modern Marketing world will be so competitive that you’ll have to be the absolute best or be resigned to mediocrity, in which case you’ll probably be replaces by artificial intelligence.”
Effective organizational culture capable of driving true ‘Age of Wow’ marketing experiences is a multilayered affair. For Post-Modern Marketing organizations, the best cultures will be based on structural frameworks that drive collaborative, interdisciplinary activities that aren’t held back by hierarchical pecking orders.
Such cultures also are likely to be rife with Post-Modern paradox. Listen to the folks at Stein IAS and you will hear about leading by putting others first; building creative freedom on a foundation of discipline and structure; slowing down to go fast.
Here’s another paradox with an ironic twist: high-performance, values-based cultures don’t start with values. Instead, the top-most level of the cultural architecture is a clear and precise business purpose. That’s why, in the best cultures, no matter how “kumbayah” the values statements may get, individuals who are paying attention can relate every value, and every behavior the values induce, back to the top-level purpose.
For Netflix, that purpose is about “becoming the best global entertainment distribution service.” For Stein IAS, it’s “to be the most important B2B agency in the world” – plus Morrice’s personal addendum, “to achieve the previously unheard-of status of being able to select our clients as opposed to vice versa.”
With purpose established, values can be defined. More specifically, values can be defined in terms of the behaviors that lead to a high-performance organization capable of achieving the business purpose. Here are Stein IAS’ five values and Netflix’s nine, side by side:
Studying the Netflix culture deck and interviewing Stein IAS people (at all levels) shows even greater alignment between these two sets of values than is immediately apparent. For example, when Stein IAS talks about industriousness, they incorporate elements of how Netflix describes judgment, communication, innovation, impact and passion. Considered courage also touches on communication and honesty; and generosity of spirit largely overlaps with selflessness.
There is at least one notable difference, however: the word “fun” does not appear in the Netflix deck.
Once values are established, the next level consists of defining business behaviors reflecting each value. Netflix defines each value in behavioral terms. Stein IAS uses a workshop process in which each department of the agency spends a half-day discussing the values, the behaviors they imply, and how those behaviors drive business performance.
The next “level” is actually orthogonal – it cuts across everything. Or better said, it underlies everything. Whatever non-linear metaphor you use to help think about it, it’s an enabling structural framework of documents, processes and procedures which, by creating unambiguous clarity, frees people to act confidently and decisively within its parameters. For Stein IAS, this consists largely of the following:
Finally, one more “level” cuts across the entire construct: persistent action and continuous communication. As Hastings points out, “The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.”
To facilitate that action and communication, in 2018 Global HR Director Jackson brought in the “Iris” platform from technology start-up Cultivate Me. “The Iris is a tool that grows your business by growing your people,” says Jackson.
Every employee has his or her own Iris, comprising differently colored rays radiating out from a central point. The rays represent competencies or goals, and their length and colors tell an employee’s story of professional development and growth. By leveraging the work done to develop the agency’s job descriptions, competency frameworks and PDPs, Irises provide employees with insightful visual representations of how they measure up against agency values and their own personal goals.
Because certain aspects of the Irises are shared within the company, they also help identify the specialists in a particular competency, which encourages collaboration. It also enables junior workers to seek advice in a moment of need, or to find long-term mentors.
Most importantly, the platform supports ongoing communication cycles. “Continuous communication about someone’s job performance is something that most businesses, including ours, haven’t done well historically,” notes Jackson. Ongoing communication is important to building a highly collaborative Post-Modern Marketing creative culture. It’s also key to Jackson’s goal of transforming Stein IAS into a “deliberately developmental organization,” as outlined in An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan. A former professor of adult education and development, Kegan taught for forty years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Without such persistent action and continuous communication, and the ongoing career development they foster for everyone, “Your values end up as a list of words plastered on walls, but fail to actually become part of the day-to-day operating culture,” says Chief Values Officer Webb.
"Sustained performance requires that, at base, you're feeling safe and secure."
Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a global consultancy focused on the invisible human factors that stand in the way of sustainable high performance, cites reams of science demonstrating the crucial role of a positive mindset in sustaining high performance over the long run. His work illuminates why Post-Modern Marketing organizations must strive to build values-based cultures that drive positive business behaviors.
But positive mindset is rare in the workplace. Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, notes that only 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers consider themselves engaged at work. It’s better in the U.S., at about 30%. But that leaves 70% of American employees who are not engaged in their work. And 21% who say their performance is NOT managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
Schwartz has addressed this challenge with such notable companies as Apple, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Google, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, and has written two New York Times bestsellers on the topic. Schwartz asserts that individuals and teams achieve high performance when their energy is high and positive, and calls that the “performance zone”; that modern work life generates distractions and threats many times a day that push people into “survival mode,’’ where energy is high and negative; and that the trick to building sustainable high performance is not so much to avoid those distractions but rather to minimize their impact in ways that foster more rapid return to the performance zone. His consultancy has developed multiple methodologies – tips and tricks – for how to do so.
Post-Modern Marketers have better incentive than most for pursuing cultures that engender positive mindset, given the “10x” better-than-the-average expectation for high-performance creative/inventive work that Hastings stipulated. That’s why one of the first tasks undertaken by Stein IAS management after the two agencies decided to come together was to define their purpose and a set of cultural values that could inspire the positive business behaviors needed to achieve it. And that, Morrice says, is the secret sauce behind the creative-martech collaborations that drive the agency’s award-winning solutions.
To “become the most important agency in B2B marketing,” Morrice and company zeroed in on five values: industriousness, relentless curiosity, considered courage, generosity of spirit, and fun. Lived well, the five interweave and lead to positive behaviors that demonstrate respect and courtesy for one another (after all, agency workers must collaborate across disciplines, departments and continents) yet demand accountability. The five are defined by exemplar behaviors, but come alive in the periodic department-level values workshops led either by Webb, the Chief Creative Officer who doubles as Chief Values Officer, or Jackson, the CHRO. An Appendix at the end of the chapter contains full behavioral definitions of all five values.
What’s most challenging to convey about these values is the gestalt they generate when operating together as an integrated, dynamic system.
Webb offers an illustrative example: “Nature abhors a vacuum – but an agency abhors ambiguity. It’s the thing that defeats us. The value of industriousness needs to hunt down ambiguity wherever it lives, and turn it into certainty. But industriousness cannot do it alone. Say you’re a junior account planner at a client meeting. You’re not quite clear about an assignment being discussed with a client, but you’re pretty sure you have the gist. The easy thing to do is to crack on despite your uncertainty. It’s much harder to stop and say, ‘Look, I feel a bit foolish here but I’m still not clear, Mr. Client, on exactly what I need to do. Can we just really nail this down?’ You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen. This is where people start to realize, ‘Oh, considered courage is required for a good industrious meeting with my client, because I have to press them – even though it might slightly annoy them. It’s more important for everybody’s money that I get the answer clear.’”
Importantly, that values-driven behavior can be unambiguously judged when performance is reviewed. “It will be judged on the fact that when you ignite a process, you are always going back to the client with the answer they are hoping for,” notes Webb.
“By having people elect the right behaviors amongst their peers and their managers, they are not only agreeing on what a behavior means – they are personally investing in, and owning, it.”
Nowadays, most companies mention their values as part of new-employee orientation. Often, that’s where values discussion also ends. Few companies focus on values as the most important fuel driving business performance.
Just as marketing “campaigns” are giving way to ongoing Brand Communities built on shared purposes between brands and their customers, so must Post-Modern Marketers instill values in everything they do, every day. For Post-Modern Marketing organizations, it’s critically important that values are thoroughly embedded, globally integrated, and strategically aligned, so every individual understands what the organization is doing and how they are personally contributing. So it’s equally critical that Post-Modern Marketers think through the process by which they instill values-based behavior in their teams. But taking Stein IAS as an example, it’s a long, long way down from “most important B2B agency in the world” to a junior account planner mustering up the courage and industriousness to risk a potentially foolish-sounding clarifying question during a client meeting in which a half dozen other people are simply nodding and smiling.
The approach Stein IAS takes to imbue its staff with the five values has been department-level half-day workshops, led by Jackson or Webb. The workshops start out at a high level (“What’s the point? Why should a company have values, anyway?”) but ultimately drill deeply into key behaviors for each role in the department. It’s easy to see the point at the top level (“If we all share the same values, and we’re all pulling in the same direction, we get farther faster,” says Webb), so that puts workshop participants at ease early in the discussion.
From there – and almost as quickly and easily – participants move on to define industriousness as working smart without necessarily having to work hard; and then (given the agency world) define smart work, in part, as working collaboratively – to find ways to support your teammates and let their work support you. “This begins hitting the bigger themes of the values,” says Webb. “When you are in a people-based business, where in effect you are each other’s supply chains, working smart means that you will empower others sooner. In a time-based business, that is absolutely fundamental to winning or losing – to living or dying.”
The “real work,” as Webb says, begins when the workshop proceeds role-by-role through a department, identifying and discussing specific behaviors that support each value and exploring the way some behaviors touch multiple values simultaneously. “When we’re done, the department staff themselves have defined a set of behaviors for each role that supports the values, and everyone knows how to judge each job within this department going forward. And that fuels the competency definitions for each role, which fuels the reward system,” explains Webb.
Fueling the reward system emerges as key for the agency, which tends toward junior-level hires and promoting from within. The agency’s universally shared, values-driven behavior forms a well-understood basis for career progression.
“Organizations develop culture. You can either let it just happen, or you can take control of your own culture.”
Businesses that grow past 50 or 100 employees typically have job descriptions and regular performance reviews, and many have the equivalent of competency frameworks. Most treat them as boxes to tick off; even where HR teams take it quite seriously, line-of-business managers still see it all as “administrivia” to be managed as quickly as possible and then forgotten about until next year.
To be competitive in the Post-Modern world, marketing organizations must leverage this otherwise mundane infrastructure to take control of their culture and drive the behaviors that build business value. To empower each department to be collaboratively creative, and to support each other across hallways, continents and oceans.
At Stein IAS, this starts at the beginning – new employees are screened to assure that their personalities align with the five values as much as possible. They’re “inducted” to every department, regardless of where they intend to work, so that everyone sees how all the business machinery works together toward individual, departmental and overall business goals. All of which may sound like perfunctory HR box-ticking – but it drives almost instantaneous business value. “The process we use now for induction dramatically accelerates relationship development and knowledge about how the business works. That pays dividends very quickly,” explains Susan Guerrero, the agency’s Chief Operations Officer.
Job descriptions, for example, are written in terms of the five values. Relentless curiosity is near the top of every description; and all employees are directed to “quest for knowledge about marketing, people, culture, technology and all the forces that shape our work.” It’s Morrice’s belief that the creative innovation demanded by Post-Modern Marketing requires deep wells of broad knowledge, interacting with in-depth client-specific knowledge, and across-the-board cross-functional collaboration.
Anyone can have access to any job description. And competency frameworks, in fact, consist of one large matrix for each department, defining every qualification for every staff level, and what level of competency is required at each level. For example, in Account Services, “Mentoring of team members” is “not required” for account executives; account managers must be able to “assist colleagues” in mentoring; account directors must be competent to mentor on their own; and senior account management must be expert mentors capable of training others to do so. The Account Services framework has 99 such competencies across 11 categories.
Personal development plans (PDPs) are most directly tied to values-driven behavior. The written portion of PDPs doesn’t document past performance with a series of (literal) tick boxes, as with most performance review documentation. Instead, it consists of a series of goals for personal growth; the “supporting value” (or values) to develop to help get there; the specific competencies or activities that must be reached to achieve the goal; and how achievement will be measured.
PDPs for those in, or seeking, C-level positions are divided into four functional areas with – no surprise – culture in the top slot. The other three are financial management, business strategy development, and client/new business management.
Quoting all the Stein IAS “chiefs” is one thing – but how does it all feel to the team on the ground? “I don’t feel constrained by the job descriptions,” says Cynthia Scheid. “At least for myself, it gives me a sense of where I can go next. Right now, I’m at ‘senior copywriter.’ The next position that I’m looking toward would be associate creative director. So, I know there are these steps that I can take to keep moving forward, and I know what types of things I should be doing to get myself to the next step. It’s a clear way to prepare yourself to get to the next level – instead of just wondering how.”
Despite the obvious thought and care that went into the construction of Stein IAS’ business infrastructure, if the work ended there the organization’s culture still would have remained outside management’s control. Achieving cultural vision demands that you live by it every day.
You don’t have to fire very many award-winning artists or copywriters who are nasty to co-workers before staff get the idea that you’re serious about the “fun” directive, to wit: “Enjoy what we do and make life more enjoyable for everyone with whom we work.” But despite its extremity, firing misaligned workers is actually the easy part of maintaining values-based cultural behavior; whenever any conscionable manager gets to the point of firing someone “for cause” it’s almost always the best thing for the organization, as well as the departing employee.
What’s far more challenging is values-based behavior in day-to-day communications and decision-making.
Derek Stewart, the agency’s Chief Strategy Officer, takes fun very, very seriously. Reflecting Schwartz’ idea that sustained high performance requires that people feel safe, Stewart says: “It’s just the old adage, isn’t it, that happy people are productive people!”
To that end, Stewart considers it part of his job to “adopt a very positive, and inspiring, demeanor,” and to “make sure no one’s isolated. No one is working completely on their own on any piece of work, because it’s better to have collaboration.” That attitude toward collaboration permeates Stein IAS, whether brainstorming new ideas for a client or sharing specific workloads across multiple continents.
Operationally, COO Guerrero describes how the agency uses collaboration to exploit its far-flung offices. “We’ve learned to look at the company as one giant set of resources, and being able to work collaboratively across many different time zones is a big thing. Bollington (near Manchester in the U.K.] is five hours ahead of New York; San Francisco is three hours later. Teams are speaking to each other constantly. If I have work done in Bollington, and the team leaders are here in New York, it doesn’t really matter. Right now, the U.K. will have a holiday on Monday, and they’re working on five videos due for a client that day – but we’re picking it up in New York and San Francisco. We keep people working together and learning together. We made a time-zone handoff, in this case, so we make the client deadline without our U.K. teams having to work the holiday weekend.”
But creating award-winning ‘storyliving’ experiences in the Post-Modern Marketing ‘Age of Wow’ requires more than time-zone hand-offs. It demands inspired collaboration among all marketing’s disciplines, from creative, to media, to martech, to data-led customer insights, and much more. It turns out that inviting people from every department to collaborate on initial brainstorming sessions is a brilliant way to tap into the powerful below-the-surface portion of an organization’s “iceberg” of intuitive knowledge – something that much larger enterprises strive for but rarely achieve. That insight jumps out when listening to senior copywriter Cynthia Shied describe the agency’s collaborative creative process:
“At the beginning of a project, right after we’re briefed in by the client on our ultimate goal, we’ll get in a room and we’ll kind of just brainstorm. Instead of the creative department being handed a deliverable to execute, we’re actually part of coming up with these great, wonderful ideas. And because these sessions also include both the media side and the account side, we end up with all these different points of view. Everybody throws their ideas into the mix about what we could do to achieve a certain goal. What kind of experiences we could put out there, what types of technology we can use in different ways. You get a bunch of new ideas coming out of the different walks of life of all these people that you wouldn’t have gotten if it was just one or two people coming up with the ideas. It brings together everything everyone has stumbled across in our own personal interests, and our personal research, and brings it together with everybody else’s. So we’re able to produce a wider range of ideas for a given topic, which in the end has enabled us to produce some pretty cool work.”
Interdisciplinary brainstorming is in no way unique to Stein IAS. But the context of values-based behavior may well be. And so the brainstorming works so well thanks to the agency’s sincere application of its five values. Creative collaboration of the order Shied describes requires, above all, that participants feel safe and secure to say anything at all, no matter how brilliant or idiotic others may perceive their ideas to be. It requires the whole values system to work together: relentless curiosity brings the right knowledge pool; industriousness ensures participants prepare well; considered courage encourages everyone’s participation; generosity of spirit provides the safety net; and the excitement of creative invention is so much fun that everyone looks forward to doing it again.
No More Lip Service: Post-Modern Marketing DEMANDS Purpose-Led, Values-Based Culture. It was lip service or, at best, a “nice-to-have” for most of the mainstream corporations that rushed to create value statements after Built to Last, published in 1994 (by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras), made the case that the best companies adhered to a set of principles called “core values." But today, the bar is far higher. “The best customer experience anywhere sets the bar for customer experience everywhere,” as Cisco’s Joseph Puthussery, VP, Digital Marketing, said at the ANA’s June 2018 Masters of B2B Marketing conference in Chicago. And the ‘Wows’ that Post-Modern Marketing makes possible are high bars, indeed. At the same time, the transparency of digital technologies and always-on communications exposes the good, bad and ugly of who we are – all of us, each man, women, child, small business and megalithic multinational corporation. Consequently, success in the Post-Modern Marketing era demands our best: our deepest customer insights, our most inspired creative, our most astonishing technology.
And achieving our best demands a new kind of authentic, collaborative, values-based agency culture that has rarely, if ever, been seen before.