6 Layers of Shaping an Agency Culture That Wins More Clients

By Jason Swenk on December 26, 2021

Want to build an amazing agency culture and brand? After running his own agency, Historic, for eight years and leading teams of creatives, Ted Vaughn took on the task of co-writing the book on all aspects of building your agency’s brand and how leadership shapes its culture. Ted is on the show talking about how you can use culture to help further grow your agency. He covers the six parts of marquee culture established in his book, Culture Built My Brand, the biggest gap he’s noticed in company culture, and how to align your principles and values to attract the right people.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Shaping culture to grow your agency. If you’re an agency owner looking to create a brand and culture that can help grow your business, remember your leadership, the decisions that you make, the ways in which you operate all become more critical than technical expertise or unique ability. Your role as a leader determines how the culture works or if it becomes toxic. Ted explains one of the biggest gaps he’s seen in company culture is leaders who fail to understand the reality of their power and do not build bridges over to the people they lead so that they can actually be given feedback on how to reshape their HR systems or their values.
  2. The six layers of marquee culture. In their book, Ted and his partner identify six layers of marquee culture. Your marquee culture is at your forefront. It is the thing that galvanizes and draws attention to your agency, attracts great people, and keeps great people. Each of these layers translates into behavior-shaping principles for the people who are a part of our organizations. These 6 are: principles, architecture, rituals, lore, vocabulary, and artifacts. The single most important layer is the first one. Ted and his team have found many times the values or ideas that hold an organization together are too vague or abstract. He talks about the way to transform them into behavior-shaping principles for the people who are a part of your team
  3. How the 6 layers interact. A lot of agencies might already have some of these layers in places but not in a way that actually transforms them into core values. This is because they haven’t actually integrated them into their decision-making. For example, in the case of architecture, Ted believes HR systems and structures should not simply be healthy or unhealthy. They really need to be built in a way that furthers aspects of your brand value. For rituals, it needs to be organic experiences that energize your people, not just staff meetings. Remember these layers are permeable, they’re not just independent ideas that operate independently from the others. Your principles should inform your vocabulary and rituals and so on.

Sponsors and Resources

Sharpspring: Today’s episode is sponsored by Sharpspring, an all-in-one revenue growth platform that provides all of the marketing automation, CRM, & sales features you need to support your entire customer lifecycle. Partner with an affordable marketing automation provider that you can trust. Head over to sharpspring.com/smartagency to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.


Apple | Spotify | iHeart Radio | Stitcher | Radio FM

Shaping Agency Culture With the Six Layers that Build an Effective Brand

{These transcripts have been auto-generated. While largely accurate, they may contain some errors.}

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, agency owners? Jason Swenk here and I have another amazing episode for you where we’re going to talk about culture and how you can get the right people. Who do you need to bring in? How do you evaluate them? All that kind of good stuff, so you can grow your agency faster. And so let’s go ahead and get into the episode.

Hey, Ted. Welcome to the show. Gotcha with the water.

Ted: [00:00:28] You did. That was so fast. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. Huge fan, uh, really have been inspired by your work and your network. And, uh, just a real honor to be on the show.

Jason: [00:00:40] Awesome. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what your agency actually does.

Ted: [00:00:45] So I’ve spent most of my life leading in non-profit circles, leading teams of creatives. Um, started an agency with my business partner, Mark Miller about eight years ago, called Historic.

We thought it would be just a cool idea to serve some of our niche clients. Bootstrapped it, and, uh, you know, eight years later, we’re, uh, we’re doing over a million dollars in business and have a staff and a brick and mortar. And we’ve learned a lot in the journey, both about who we are and about what makes us tick.

And I think that’s why we wrote a book and it’s why I’m talking to you today.

Jason: [00:01:19] Great. Let’s talk about building a culture within your organization. You know, I look at it as everyone’s building a culture… Matters of, are you building the culture that you actually want?

Ted: [00:01:30] Yeah, I mean we… believe senior leaders are shaping culture as the most significant contribution to their organization.

I mean, if you are leading an agency, the how of your leadership matters more than the unique skill that you bring to the table. Unless, it’s a boutique lifestyle brand and literally you are an employee of one, but if you want to scale, if you want to grow, the single greatest question you have to wrestle with is the how of my leadership more than the what of my technical skill or talent.

Jason: [00:02:05] So give us a little bit more about what’s the difference between those.

Ted: [00:02:09] Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of times, you know, even for Mark and me, we each have really unique skill and technical ability that offers value that our agency still really needs. But as we’ve taken on staff and as we’ve grown and as we’ve had to empower our staff, the company culture that we shape and that we lead becomes our brand in ways our skill and talent alone could never fully embrace.

Our brand, the touchpoints of our brand, our growth, and this will certainly be true if we go beyond, you know, our current, you know, one point, whatever million-dollar mark to 5 million… exponentially becomes the case. Then you go even further and it gets even more important.

Your leadership, the decisions that you make, the ways in which you operate become more critical than your technical expertise or unique ability as a designer or as a strategist or as a PR person.

Jason: [00:03:06] Now I’ve had people on to talk about culture from Zappos, who so many people modeled, you know, Tony Shay and all those guys did.

So what are ways where agencies listening right now… How can you start shaping the culture in order to scale your agency faster?

Ted: [00:03:26] Well, we’ve the book that we wrote, “Culture Built My Brand”. It was really written on the back of our learning. We have sweat a lot of blood made a ton of mistakes. And I think the idea for us in the book is, is a marquee culture and a marquee culture is like that marquee sign. It’s that well-lit banner. That is the forefront. It is the thing that galvanizes and draws attention, attracts great people, keeps great people.

So in the book, we talk about a marquee culture, having six layers or six dimensions. And the single most important is the first, which we call principles. What we find often in our, in our own agency it was true and the clients that we serve it’s true. And I would assume for many of you listening it’s true.

We have these values or these ideas that hold us together that become our riverbanks or our guiding ideas. But they’re so vague or abstract or unclear they don’t actually translate into behavior shaping principles for the people who are a part of our organizations.

And I would say probably one of the first places to start the first layer in our book on culture and brand is principles. Taking your values or recreating your values so that they’re actionable, applicable culture-shaping principles that really give those who are a part of your team, clear behavioral guidelines, so that they know how to be on-brand, how to operate, how to make decisions in ways that will really further your brand in unique ways and not just have abstract ideas.

Jason: [00:05:01] So one of our principles in our culture is really being resourceful. So give us an example of… all right, that’s kind of the, the layer here. How do we take it further.

Ted: [00:05:14] Yeah. I mean, we often will work with brands that have some version of innovation as their value, right? Maybe it’s stated that way, or it’s stated with a really sticky phrase. But then when you look at how people behave or you begin to ask questions around decision-making, or you look at how money is spent, you quickly realize that the organization’s not structured in a way that actually takes the value of innovation seriously.

It’s because they haven’t actually taken that value and then integrated it and baked it into decision-making in all sorts of different ways, which really is the second layer of our book and culture, which was architecture.

We don’t believe that HR systems and structures should simply be healthy or unhealthy. They really need to be built in a way that furthers aspects of your brand value. So if you articulate innovation, that should absolutely show up and shape how HR functions and how decision-making and power and governance take place in your organization.

Jason: [00:06:16] So like with, you know, our organization being resourceful. Like how would you bake that in even more and kind of take it up a notch?

Ted: [00:06:25] Well, I’m assuming that when you say resourceful, you’re talking about resourcing others, right? Being a part of something larger than yourself?

Jason: [00:06:32] No, I’m talking about being resourceful is like figuring out like, all right. You know, we normally do it this way, but we could do it another way. Or, oh man, I don’t feel like we have enough resources, you know, just figuring out a better way to do things more efficiently.

Ted: [00:06:51] Yeah. I mean, again, I think what’s interesting is even, you know, I, from the outside of hearing that word immediately took it in a different direction. So I think one of the questions that I would have would be when you say resourceful, what are the specific behaviors or ways in which that value translates to how your people lead, behave, are asked to budget how they solve problems.

You know, I think there’d be fantastic ways for you to approach problem-solving in more bootstrapped, organic lean ways where you create heroes or you reward people who approach problem-solving through resourcefully challenged opportunities versus just throwing money at problems or thinking everybody needs to have support staff or, um, but I mean, there could be so many different ways that that value shapes the brass tax of your agency.

I think it’d be a fun conversation to figure out how you’re doing it today.

Jason: [00:07:45] Gotcha. And so what are the other layers now that we have the principal. And then I think the second was architecture, if I…?

Ted: [00:07:50] Architecture. Yeah. So principles being the idea that you want your values to be actionable and really shape all sorts of practical aspects of your people’s behavior.

Architecture being the structures that support your people. We talk a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright and the architecture that he did intentionally around the environment he was in. Third layer would be rituals. We talk about the experiences that energize your people and the best rituals and organizations are those that are organic. Not just top-down staff retreats or all staff meetings, but those rituals, like we talk a lot about the pumpkin carving contest in the jet propulsion lab and NASA.

The next layer would be lore, the sticky stories that shape us. There are some really fantastic ways you can shape story, do storytelling in ways that further your brand value that help provide differentiation to your brand.

Next layer is vocabulary, having phrases, words, ideas. We talk a lot about Netflix and some of the great language that they have from “Sunshining” to, um, different terms that they use to shape their culture. And then the last layer would be artifacts, which are everything from clothes to your physical space, to brands that we’ve worked with that set up unique opportunities for people that have private space in a shared workspace.

One brand that has a football field mini version of a football field in their environment because they have a value of leaving it all on the field, all sorts of ways that you can physically shape your brand value in your space.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Jason: [00:09:34] Is your agency struggling to deliver real revenue growth results to your clients? You know, agency marketers can consolidate data and align marketing and sales teams goals to achieve real results for your agency and clients using revenue growth platforms. Sharp spring is an all-in-one platform built for agencies like yours to optimize digital marketing strategies with simple, powerful automation.

Manage your entire funnel all in Sharpspring. Now for a limited time, my smart agency listeners will receive your first month free and half off onboarding with SharpSpring. Just visit sharpspring.com/smartagency to schedule your demo and grab this offer. That’s sharpspring.com/smartagency.

Very cool. So give us some more examples of each of the layers, just so people can start going oh, okay, cool. This is what we can actually do. Like once we form the principles, how can we build a better architecture and so on?

Ted: [00:10:41] For sure. So these layers are somewhat, uh, permeable, right? They’re not just independent ideas that operate independently from the others, right? Your, your principles should absolutely shape vocabulary. As a matter of fact, a lot of times in brands, we see those, those values, those principles show up in their vocabulary because they get phrased in ways that become really sticky and interesting and helpful.

Uh, architecture is absolutely informed by your principles. The way that you conduct HR hiring, onboarding. Rituals, uh, those again, in the book, we talk a lot about rituals being organic. When you have people that love your brand, they will often create their own experiences of the brand. One practical example for us at our agency, we do staff camp, we do Christmas gatherings. We constantly ask our staff how they want to participate and engage and be a part of those experiences.

And in the process we’ve gotten all sorts of rituals in our agency that have been organic from our people, but mark and I would have never dreamed of. From cool patches and stickers and badges that have been developed in previous years that continue on to this day to other activities and games and things that operate within our agency.

And another great example is we had a member of our staff want to do a music club, right? That’s a great example of a ritual. We were like a music club! Awesome. Why not? That’s becomes such a significant part of our agency that any new staff person is given a Sonos speaker so that no matter where they are in the US they can be a part of music club, be on Spotify, be a part of this experience.

It’s a way that we want to honor that because it’s become such an important ritual within our organization. And we have no formal authority over music club. It’s just an organic thing that our people develop that’s become a key part of their… I think they would say a key part of their positive, satisfactory experience of working with us.

Jason: [00:12:45] So are rituals more kind of like experiences and then like architecture is more like systems and…?

Ted: [00:12:51] A hundred percent. Yeah. I mean, you think about architecture, right? Like no architect designs a home and simply says, well, it’s safe, it’s stable, the plumbing works. You’re good. That’s not an architect, right? An architect is very, very interested in the design and shape of that structure, matching its external and internal audience and environment needs.

It’s not just safe or not safe. There are so many other dimensions to architecture. We think HR, the systems that support your people. should be the same way. You know, a lot of agencies, when we were a young agency and even today we cannot comp like 52 or 72 and sunny, not 52, 72andSunny, or, you know, name the agency, right? That has fantastic compensation plans.

But there are so many different ways that you can do comp. One for us, one of our architecture branded ideas at, at historic is travel pizza. What is travel pizza? Anytime somebody on our staff has to be gone overnight, we provide a $50 stipend for meals for their family. It can be Ubereats. It can be pizza, it can be whatever you want it to be.

Travel pizzas become an unbelievable way that our people feel valued and their families feel valued because they get a cool night out whether it’s out or it’s brought in on us because their person that they care about is gone. Lots of other ways to do compensation, to structure, to architect compensation that deliver unique value through your agency. That go way beyond annual salary.

Jason: [00:14:32] Yeah, I like that. Remind me, what’s after ritual and let’s talk about examples.

Ted: [00:14:38] There’s a lot. It can be complex. So the, the layers of culture, somewhat in a linear order would be principles, architecture, rituals, and then lore. Lore being those sticky stories, right? Every brand that we’ve a part of I’ve been on staff that has had those stories that echo through the hallways and often they’re incredibly toxic.

Jason: [00:15:01] So would that be like, like what a story…? This happened at our agency where we were sent these lounge chairs that were double-sided and they sent it like 10 of them from China in these boxes with all these packing popcorn.

But when we opened the boxes up, we had so much packing popcorn. It literally went down a hallway. And so we were like, let’s keep it. We’d literally kept it until we sold the office. There was a whole hallway of packing popcorn that you could run and jump and do flips in and lose articles of clothing. So is that like a lore?

Ted: [00:15:39] Well, that sounds like an amazing ritual, but I would say the minute, the minute you cleaned up that popcorn, I believe that was probably an incredible story. A lore that is a positive example of how your agency describes its culture through story. And if I’m you, you know, Jason, I want that story to continue echoing through the halls.

I want new staff to be told that story when they’re onboard, because that says something about who we are, what we value, how we behave, that goes way beyond any HR manual or onboarding. That is a great example of lore. A great example of toxic lore would be when I got hired as a C-suite leader in a non-profit and the second day in I was told by one of my colleagues, you know, you’re just a plane flight away from losing your job.

And I was like, huh, tell me more. He’s like, well, the person that you’re replacing was hired when the CEO sat next to them on a plane and before the plane landed, they were hired on staff and a negotiated salary. So just remember if he sits next to somebody who does your job better than you, well…

Now that story had existed for years in the hallways of this organization. I, dumb enough thought I’m going to ask the CEO about that. So I brought it to the CEO and said, hey, I heard this crazy story. Is that true? He’s like, well, it’s kind of true. Not really true. Who told you that story? I was like, well, this is where I heard it in multiple places, but, um…

He’s like, you heard it in multiple places? Like a lot of people told me the same story. Point being, that negative story, toxic story shaping this leader’s culture had been told for years and he had never heard it. The idea here is the more senior you are in the brand that you lead, the more self diluted you probably are as well. The more people are saying things about you or about the brand that you don’t know about just by nature of your power and position.

It’s incredible how often senior leaders and brands we serve are clueless about stuff multiple people on the ground talk about and say on the routine.

Jason: [00:17:55] Oh, yeah, yeah. And one of the things just going back to that story that I’m thinking about now, is the only time we cleaned up that popcorn was to put all of that in my VP of operations sunroof in his car. And we filled up his whole car. So when he came out to his car and just literally went…

Ted: [00:18:16] I mean, to me, that’s the epilogue, that’s the, like the story, the story lives on there’s layers to the story, right? I mean, you know, I would say like, Jason, that’s a great example of how a story could very well create a sticky idea, vocabulary, which is the next layer, and that sticky phrase becomes a principle that now… This is how these layers work together.

Sometimes principles create stories that create rituals. Sometimes the way in which we have the principle or value shapes our architecture, which creates it, these layers work together. But the point is there’s a reason why Southwest and Netflix and Zappos, and many of the brands we know and love and talk about in this book are as successful as they are.

It’s not a happenstance coincidence they hit the market at the right time. They were aligned intentionally from the inside out, right? We have a philosophy of brand that your brand is your culture, your story, your product, your experience, and your identity.

Don’t start with identity. Start with culture. Defining that from the inside out is always far more sustainable and effective and long lasting, and has far less drama than starting with identity.

Jason: [00:19:36] I love that. Well, this has all been amazing, Ted, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

Ted: [00:19:42] Well, you can’t talk about company culture and brand and agency life without addressing power. I think maybe one of the tangential elements to this conversation today has been the dynamic of power. And I think anybody listening who’s a leader or being led, understands that power is a thing.

I would say that one of the biggest gaps that we experience in company culture are leaders, is leaders who fail to understand the reality of their power and build bridges over that power to the people they lead so that they can actually get the truth. They can actually be told that toxic lore, they can actually be given feedback on how to reshape their HR systems or their values.

It’s amazing how, again, self diluted senior leaders are because of the power gap and their failure to build a bridge over that power. I would just challenge all of your listeners, if you have power of any form, be aware of it and build a bridge over it for the purpose of shaping a healthy company culture.

Jason: [00:20:49] I love it. What’s the name of the book and where can they get that?

Ted: [00:20:53] Yeah, the book is Culture Built my Brand. Originally we wanted to call it Culture Ate my Brand, but the publisher thought that was a little too, little too negative. So they scratched it out and we have built, you can get it at any bookseller near you from Amazon to Barnes and Noble to…

They just started shipping. We had some shipping-related challenges as I’m sure everybody’s experienced. Um, but, uh, you could also visit culturebuiltmybrand.com to get access to a whole suite of tools that I actually think as agency owners… You may or may not ever want to take culture seriously as a part of your service group as a brand, but I guarantee you, if you apply some of the thoughts and ideas we have either to your agency or to how you serve clients, it’ll make you a better agency.

So take advantage of these tools, CultureBuiltMyBrand.com and then our agency is just Historic Agency.

Jason: [00:21:47] Awesome. Well, Ted, thanks so much for coming on the show. And if you guys enjoyed this episode, make sure you guys subscribe, make sure you like it, comment and share it with a friend. And, uh, if you guys want to be around other amazing agency owners, sharing what’s working and being able to see the things that you might not be able to see.

I’d love to invite all of you to go to digitalagencyelite.com. This is our exclusive mastermind, just for experience agency owners that are trying to just grow faster, have a lot of fun and just build an amazing culture. So thanks so much.

And until next time, have a Swenk day.

Would You Like To Get Access To A Proven Agency Framework For Growing Your Agency?