As agencies scale-up, leaders need to take a thoughtful approach to evolving company culture, writes Mike Mathieson, Executive Chairman at Buttermilk.

In many ways, at the beginning of a business’ life, establishing the culture you want is easy, and comes very naturally based upon the founding individuals, their characters and experiences. It sets the tone and culture of the organisation and acts as a living embodiment of those individuals. Their attitudes to business and working practices permeate the hiring of staff and operations.

This naturally extends with the first wave of hires and clients. The focus is on living your values through words and actions. So, when the inevitable challenges come as the business grows, maintaining and managing that start-up culture is about living and abiding by those values – referring to them and scrutinising them – as you expand. To ensure values don’t get lost they need to be part of the company’s mission.

This means that each new starter needs a dedicated meeting and time spent on them, where these values are laid out and explained and there’s a discussion on how they are implemented in all areas of the business. Around 50 people it becomes a tipping point for most businesses. It’s the moment when knowing everyone in the company relatively well, changes. It’s also the tipping point for micro-politics and a more hierarchical company structure.

At Cake, onboarding became a hugely important part of laying down not just the process and mechanics, but the culture. We’d take a day with a small group of new starters to go through how we got here, our backgrounds, our thinking at each stage and – as well as where we got it right – where we got it wrong. We’d then ask each person to tell us more about them, what makes them tick and their individual journeys to our company.

As well as having values-driven business actions, keep the quirky things you started with when there were only 10 of you. Whether that’s away days, summer drinks or even the Christmas karaoke at Lucky Voice, look to keep these traditions and adapt to your enlarged teams while retaining the joyful personality. For Robert and his management team at Mother, it was cooking lunch for their staff. At Cake it was the Friday drinks trolley, at Lucky Generals every week starts with a Monday morning joke.

One of the best aspects of small business culture is that everyone knows just how hard each other works – there is no room for hiding and there is also the ability for immediate recognition and celebration of individual achievement. So, finding time and building in methods to appreciate staff as you grow is paramount. For leaders, keeping up to date and speaking face-to-face with everyone in a small team is automatic. When Cake reached 60 people and my life was entirely run by my diary, that became harder but one of those diary entries a few times a week would say ‘WALK THE FLOOR’.

Reward not just great work but also additional effort – when people go that extra mile, it seems obvious but celebrate them. Sometimes simple things – small acts of kindness – like a ‘thank you’ or “take your partner for dinner at the weekend and send us the bill” or booking a cab home for someone working late can be as much appreciated as the big stuff.

Indeed, clear and open communication is often the hardest part. How do you keep the comms as open and transparent with 50 people as it was when you worked around one table? Essentially through more formalised means: company updates, Friday office drinks, thanking people for pitches, presentations, and collaboration. Culture is about people, so making it feel personal is key – mention everyone by name

As time since lockdowns extends and new working practices are put into place, building company-wide culture is increasingly important but often harder to achieve. Doing stuff together as a company is critical in maintaining the thread of culture – all sorts of stuff. Find the time as a company to share experiences from learning, best practices, winning pitches replayed to exhibitions, immersive theatre, festivals to celebratory pints in the pub. Keep reminding people that they are a team and the best work is done when it’s done together. Rotating cultural leads in the business allows people to have all kinds of different experiences and learn more about their colleagues and the company.

And if company culture is people, it also means hiring smart is fundamental. For the first 10 existing employees, new hires can be daunting and a challenge to integrate. There is an art to hiring people who are going to fit into your business and culture. The better the fit and the adoption of culture the more radiators and cultural acceleration you create. Never stop seeing people, even when you are fully staffed. Things can change quickly so know who your next ideal hire is. At Buttermilk we focus on seeing as many people as possible for roles that we have yet to identify. We measure candidates not just to the suitability of the role but their suitability to the company and its culture.

HR surveys tell us that money isn’t everything to employees, often ranking second to learning and challenge. We come to work to learn, to be challenged, to succeed and to gain new skills. So, make training a focus, no matter what your size and make it broad and diverse – not just the usual business skills. At Cake, we gave employees a small budget to learn a new skill that wasn’t necessarily business-related such as sign language, Spanish, Photoshop, cooking, writing, DJing – whatever! Our only condition, when you have finished, come and tell the agency all about it and demonstrate your new skill.

In the world of marketing services, who your clients are will heavily impact your culture. How clients treat staff, what they expect of the relationship and what work you create is central to what your agency stands for. So, thinking about the clients you take on is key. Are they enriching your work, your fame or paying the bills? If your employees are working for Exxon or Philip Morris, as opposed to Nike or Apple, then the culture is going to be tough to manage and needs to be thought through.

And finally, let’s not pretend that we’re not all after fame and success. Build a reputation as an award-winning company – there is no better feeling than walking across a crowded room to receive the gold award at a ceremony in front of your competitors and peers. It rubs off on employees, elevates the credibility and generates collective pride.