What I’ve Learned About Building An Agency (Part 3): People & Culture

Alex Minchin
Alex Minchin

At the heart of any successful agency is its culture. An agency is only as strong as its people. These mantras have helped me to understand the basis for growth, a happy workplace, and great work. They shape many of my decisions, and the decisions we take as an agency.

In 2011, 11 months in to my life as an agency founder, I took on my first team member. It was a daunting prospect, knowing that I was responsible for another person and their livelihood. Having said this, it was hugely exciting. It was the next step.

Someone once said to me that I had to hire at the right time – an important rule in any business. But when is the right time? Is it in anticipation of forecasted sales, or was I to first get the sales in before taking someone on? I think the answer changes dependent on where you are in your journey. I’ve hired for both situations and in my experience it comes down, somewhat, to gut feel. If you find the right person who can improve your business, I believe that you should always invest in them. My team is made up of people I believe in, and who I’ve invested in to help take our agency to the next level.

Employment should never feel like a cost. It must feel like an investment. If it feels like a cost, then you’re not ready to hire.

Those were wise words from a mentor of mine a long time ago, and I’ll never forget them. Of course, numbers matter and you have to be sure that you’re taking a calculated risk and not a gamble. But this post is not around the topic of numbers.

When you start building a team, there is a widely accepted ‘rule’ that says the first 6-12 people that you take on will shape the culture of the business forever. Whilst the founder(s) will always have the ability to enforce total control, I do believe this to be quite true. It’s what makes agency life so exciting, organic, and fun to be in.

Aside from the fascia of team lunches, fancy dress, and boozy nights out, agency people work really, really hard. The constant need to innovate, the expenditure of mental energy to remain creative all the time. And then of course, the output has to yield results. It’s tough. Yet, we crack on through thick and thin, helping each other up when we’re down, and remaining positively focused on our goals and committed to our vision as a team. That’s culture.

So if that’s culture, how do you create one? How do you begin to start building an agency? Here are 6 things that I believe contribute to a great team, helped in part by a little known African predator:

animal on the ground

1. Goals & Purpose

 I once heard a brilliant talk by a lady called Lindsay McKenna, which touched on the effectiveness of African wild dogs as a team. It really resonated with me. Lindsey helps leaders to convert a collection of individuals into a team that is both capable and committed to achieving their goals.

When African wild dogs attack their prey, they operate as a cohesive team, never ever stepping out of line or attacking early. Each member of the pack knows that doing so could mean death, since their prey is often much larger than any individual. Even when starving, they never lose sight of the goal.

2. Teamwork & Roles

The pack attacks together, as a team, when the time and conditions are just right and in their favour. Every member of the pack knows their role and what part they play in the attack. Some dogs will flank the prey to cause panic and fear, whilst other members of the pack make chase, eyes fixed on their soon-to-be meal. When the front-runners tire, the dogs behind them will take lead allowing the early chasers to fall back and regain some energy. Each member of the team is clear about the part they play.

3. Recognition & Reward 

After the kill has been made, African wild dogs have a hierarchy that is opposite to most other predators. Young pups that are able to eat solid food are the first to eat, followed by the weak and wounded. As Simon Sinek puts it, leaders eat last.

Every dog in the pack shares the spoils and, unlike other predators, there is little to no intimidation from stronger members of the pack. They know that reward is the result of team effort, no matter how big or small the part they play as individuals is.

4. Shared Responsibility

Every dog in the pack has a shared responsibility in caring for the young. Both males and females take turns to babysit pups, no matter whose litter it might be. The weak and the wounded are given priority and are helped back to full health by the strong and fit. They know that they are stronger in numbers.

5. Happiness

Happiness is defined by modern science as the positive range of emotions that we feel when we are content or full of joy. It’s the byproduct of core needs (that we all share) being satisfied.

Whilst I can’t say that I think African wild dogs are ‘happy’ animals, I do know that, as humans, happiness plays a huge part in our performance. I’ve talked about the science of happiness in the past, and it’s an area that continues to fascinate me.

We measure happiness on a weekly basis, and have done for almost two years. It’s a simple question to ask: “how happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?

It’s a really simple and obvious question to ask, but many businesses seem to ignore it. It pays to know and in two years of measuring, I’ve learned when we’re stressed, and when we’re happy. This allows me to push my foot on the gas, or pull off accordingly. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect and we do make mistakes, but I have little doubt that knowing this information gives us a distinct advantage over our competitors when it comes to making decisions.

How happy is your team? If you’ve had to think about the answer, then you don’t really know. I encourage you to make a conscious decision to ask them today.

Our team? We’re 8.4/10 happy:

Team Happiness

6. Feedback 

Feedback is key. We ask for feedback from our team all the time, and it’s transformed my ability as a leader to understand what is really going on in the agency. I’ll be the first to admit that, sometimes, I lose sight of things. I don’t always see what the underlying issues are. But, I’m not afraid to admit it, and sharing my own vulnerabilities with my team allows them to pick me up too, just like the pack of African wild dogs that inspire this post.

Being open and transparent with my team has enabled them to confidently ask me anything, knowing that they can. Listening to, and acting on, feedback helps me develop constantly, and means that everyone is involved in developing the culture. Feedback can include anything, from asking how to improve an area of the business, to asking what’s not working. The first priority must be to ask for feedback. The other first priority must be, to the best of your ability, acting on it.

Everyone has the ability to contribute great ideas, so give him or her the platform to do so – it will transform the way you think and act as a business.


This series of posts are a summary of my experiences and learning over five years of building up Zest Digital, a fast-growth digital marketing agency based in Oxford. If you know somebody who might benefit from this post, please feel free to share it.

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