An agency's culture is the values and beliefs that drive everything it does. It's what makes the agency more than the sum of the work it creates or the awards it wins. Intuitively, we want to find agencies with strong cultures, but it's not always clear what to look for.
Two things that are commonly mentioned are agency parties/social traditions, and its office amenities. While a legendary holiday party, on-site laundry service, and dog-friendly meetings are all (awesome) aspects of culture, they're only part of the picture.
So what other things define an agency's culture? Here are five key measures, expressed as questions you can ask in interviews to get a sense of an agency's culture. (Or questions you can ask yourself if you're at an agency and need a gut check.)
1) How are performance reviews handled?
Having a clear sense of what's expected and how you're doing is critical, especially in the first few years of your career. How often reviews happen, who will be providing feedback, and the delivery format (sit down meeting with your boss? printed results of a survey?) are all important indicators of culture and how it approaches growth.
2) What are the opportunities for continued learning?
We are most fulfilled when we're learning and growing, both in our role within the agency and as whole people. Whether bringing in speakers, setting aside budget for classes, or creating an internal structure for mentorship, how much an agency invests in continued learning for its employees speaks volumes.
3) What type of people do well here? What are the shared traits of people who thrive?
An agency's culture will have influence over what type of people become MVPs. They won't just be killer at their jobs—something about their personalities will be especially valued. For example—an agency with a culture of disruption might place higher value on contrarians who always disagree with the status quo. This isn't the only type of person who'll be successful there. But it's helpful to know what traits the agency holds up highest as they grow their team.
4) What do you look for in client partners?
Just as telling as the people you'll work with internally is who you'll work with/for on the client side. Understanding the criteria with which the agency vets its client partners will determine the type of brands and teams you'll collaborate with and answer to.
5) What time do you send your last email for the day?
Many just starting their career avoid asking about work-life balance for fear of coming off lazy. While there's something to be said about putting in the work, you should feel out an agency's expectations for work-life boundaries. If its culture deems it standard for everyone to be responsive on email until 9PM and that's not something you want, you should know sooner than later. (Or if 9PM is when you do your best work, bonus!)
Remember—there are no definitively right or wrong answers to these questions. What's important is knowing these signals and finding an agency whose answers are right for you. That's what leads to great culture fits.
Go get 'em,