What Is Culture? Hint: It’s Not Work-Life Balance|What Is Culture? Hint: It’s Not Work-Life Balance

What Is Culture? Hint: It's Not Work-Life Balance

“The pursuit of balance in the workplace too often feels like a win-lose proposition, either way you look at it.”

Quick. Define culture.

It’s hard, I know. It’s kind of like describing love. There are no perfect words to express completely how we feel about our kids or significant other. But, we know love when we feel it. And this seems to be the case with “culture” when describing the indescribable about agency life.

Far too often, we resort to the term “work-life balance” as the support point for a good culture, and this has never felt right to me. To me, balance is 50/50, an equal distribution of weight. And to be frank, the distribution between my work life and my home life is sometimes 90/10 or 10/90. With a demanding travel schedule and two children under the age of five, my life looks a lot more like controlled chaos than balance.

Don’t misunderstand—I don’t see exhaustion as a trophy. But nevertheless, I go hard. And not just at work. I try to be as generous as I can with my heart, even when my time for any one of those things is limited. I credit this ability, in part, to working at an agency with amazing “culture.”

[Related: Employers, learn how to create a company culture that will set you apart from your competitors]

The reality is advertising is deadline-based. Ideas aren’t made on an assembly line or ushered through a process that guarantees brilliance every time. You can’t pencil in “award-winning concept-ing session” on the calendar. Creative ideas need to incubate. Sometimes that means pitch stories get put together in the final 72 hours and critical production days turn into nights to ensure the shot list is captured. It’s what you signed up for. And life does get out of balance. You sometimes make sacrifices in the name of good work.

This is why I’m not buying into work-life balance. This is why when a prospective employee mentions they’re looking for it—I run away. And why when an agency culture claims it, they risk pigeonholing themselves into the “lifestyle” agency zone, aka, the resignation to do mediocre work. 

Work-life balance doesn’t really exist in advertising.

What exists is a place where the culture is so good it makes the work good. Where the culture doesn’t just allow you to be a better creative—it allows you to be a better person. I know this to be true because I live it every day.

Here, we often call it our special sauce. It’s a differentiator. It’s a weapon with clients—we know if we can just get them in the building, they’ll feel it. In “The Way You Think about Business Needs a Revolution,” Josh Allan Dykstra wrote, “A company’s culture is actually made of a huge melting pot of mostly invisible things — things like shared values, accepted practices, and common language.” Invisible often means mystery. But I’ve found it’s not really a mystery at all.

Culture doesn’t mean you don’t work weekends—as work-life balance insinuates—it means that when you unplug, you really do it and your team expects you to. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the homeroom Dad, but it does mean when it’s your turn to take the troop to the Brownie Camp, your team doesn’t resent you for it and, in fact, they cover for you. Hell, they even like your s'mores pics on Instagram.

Culture is present when the CEO walks through the halls at night and encounters people who are busting ass and says thank you, and sincerely means it. Because there’s an understanding that we’re in this together.

Happy people make better work. We all say it—but few of us create a culture where it’s possible.

I work at a place that doesn’t just welcome back parents fresh off maternity leave with a card, we institute a “come-back program” that makes it clear – bringing a new human into this world is a far greater miracle than any ad ever made. It’s a place that offers counseling to local nonprofit organizations that suffer from a dearth of digital prowess. It’s a place that values diversity and purchases an all-agency pass to Cindy Gallop’s 4A’s webinar. It’s a place where I actually enjoy the people I work with.

My friend and colleague Brandon Geary likes to say, “Most agencies run on fear or greed. This place runs on love.” The dogs wandering around the office even feel it.

But most importantly, the work feels it.

That’s culture.

Call it “the right fit” or “work-life blur” or work-life effectiveness. Whatever you call it, it’s not balance. It’s not 50/50. It never will be. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be absolutely awesome.