Are 'Communities' the Future of Agency Culture?

How real moments of connection can lead to truly inclusive work

Every agency worth its double-thickness business cards has searched for, prided themselves on, and talked no end about "agency culture."

As the days got longer and the deadlines got shorter, the "culture wars" really ramped up. It was the answer to all problems—coffee bars, nap rooms, table tennis tables, sheds in the office, didn't one place have a slide? If you were having fun, smashing the free drinks and gorging on the free breakfast, then why wouldn't you want to come to work? 

But then the pandemic hit. 

As everyone was suddenly working from their homes, the "culture" that agencies had coveted was gone forever. They tried to hold onto it, of course; Friday Zoom drinks, tea and talk sessions, walks in the park, mail-out cocktails, VR meeting rooms (probably) and more.

It was a good try, but as we move into the new world of home/office blended working, a lot of people are seeing that "culture" isn't all it was cracked up to be. Being able to walk your dog at lunch, work the hours that work best for you, and every now and then join a meeting in your pyjama trousers is far too appealing to give up.

So as we move back into our shared spaces a few days a week, what are we meant to do to inspire comradery? "Culture" as we know it is dead. So, what's next? 

The answer: COMMUNITY. 

The reason I'm so confident in this is because I was lucky enough to attend the launch of WPP UNITE—"a community of LGBTQ+ folks from agencies across WPP, who are 'uniting' to make our workplaces and work more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people."

As I stood there in a room full of people from across the LGBTQ+ community, I felt excited, and a little nervous; for the first time in nearly two years it felt like the room had a buzz.

OK, the free drinks and astoundingly talented drag queens may have helped that, but then I met David Adamson, the founder and co-chair of UNITE, and I realized why the atmosphere was so electric. 

This upbeat, wide-smiled, beautiful-haired man was ingratiating on a whole other level, welcoming me and my friend to the event, telling us a little more about UNITE, and immediately attempting to introduce us to other people he felt it was important to meet.

As the hours passed and conversation flowed and I met everyone from creatives to PR directors, financial strategists to producers (and everyone in between), I realized something. I was more inspired than I've been in a long time, and more comfortable than I've been since long before the pandemic. It made me proud of where I worked and who I worked with. 

That's when it hit me. All the "culture" that agencies cherished was no match for building a community like this.

By bringing people together, you're not only building truly diverse and inclusive networks, you are binding all kinds of personalities from different worlds together under a common theme. PLUS, you're giving them all a new bunch of friends they can call on, throw an idea around with, and grow alongside—that they may never have met otherwise!

The agencies that are able to establish this, with both smaller niche communities and all-encompassing mega communities, are surely going to win (especially in the worlds of retention, engagement and innovation), and post-Covid it might just be the most incredible work-perk an agency can offer.

However, maybe there's something bigger here … Since that UNITE night, I've been thinking a lot about my role as "creative inclusivity director"—about how education is essential, inspiration is important, but potentially the way to make our work truly inclusive is to help people have authentic, real moments of connection.

It creates energy, electricity and excitement that will lead to understanding each other better, and so, creation of work that understands the world better, too. 

An old boss once told me, "Great creativity is just making connections other people can't." So if we want to see that magic creativity, that spot-on insight or that game-changing execution, it's up to us to make those connections happen. 

As David from Unite put it, "Ideas are, at every level of our industry, our most valuable currency, and when you know your community has your back, you feel more confident when raising your voice, expressing your opinions and sharing your greatest ideas."

At VMLY&R Commerce, we want to create the most diverse creative team possible, to empower their differences and ultimately make what only they could create—which means we need to make them feel at home (when they're not working from home).

It's simple, right? As we move back into the office a few days a week, would the most talented minds in the world prefer to feel supported, confident and part of something exciting—or to have a table football table in the kitchen?

I think again David sums it up perfectly: "If we come together, support one another, we can do more than spark. We can start a wildfire."

Thank you to David Adamson and everyone in the UNITE team for the inspiration, and for contributing to this article.

Profile picture for user Jamie Hill
Jamie Hill
Jamie Hill (they/them) sits as VMLY&R Commerce's first creative inclusivity director, a key part of the agency's growing DEI efforts to establish itself as leader in inclusive thinking. Jamie is responsible for collaborating with the agency's creative and people communities to ensure the commerce agency's creative input and output are truly inclusive, with a specific focus on LGBTQ+, neurodivergent and disabled communities.

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