Last year I was hired at an agency.
It was an agency I had followed for years — I admired their work, their social media presence, and their strong perspective. They were self-aware, transparent and honest, and had a fresh portfolio of work.
So when I was offered a short contract with them (with an opportunity to extend into full-time work), I was ecstatic. I had met almost everyone on the team during the interview process and found each person as interesting as the last. The people who worked at the agency had been there for years, and as far as I could tell at the time, the turnover was quite low. That was always a good sign for me — it meant people were happy to be there.
But my excitement and optimism for the agency started to crumble as I started my job. Once I hit the two month mark I knew I wasn’t staying there for any longer. And I wasn’t the only one that was unhappy. Over the following weeks, I found out every person on the team was just as unhappy as me. Even the co-founders.
So how did the agency get so toxic? So much so, that one of the co-founders who started the agency wanted to leave?
Based on my experience there, the core factors I could pinpoint for this toxic culture were: insecurity, lack of clarity and poor management.
So let’s start with insecurity. Insecurity is a big one. It can manifest itself in many ways; from self-pity and isolation, to something more outward like physical or emotional abuse.
Most of the emotional abuse I encountered was from one of the co-founders. He was brilliant designer, but a really poor creative director. He was insecure and it showed in his behaviour. It felt like he needed to assert his domainance over everyone and control them.
He would micromanage me, dismiss my ideas without any feedback, and make unproductive comments about my character (I’m an introvert), making me feel like having a quiet(er) personality made me a bad designer. He told me he had favourites (and would give his favourites good projects) then describe the type of employee he didn’t like (“closed off”, “shy”) which was a characteristic he had pointed out about me earlier.
Something about me made him uncomfortable, so rather than trusting me to do my job, he kept trying to control my behaviour and make me more extroverted like him.
But he would do it in a way that was subtle, like feign concern every time he pointed out I was quiet, as if he was worried I’d struggle with the job if I couldn’t “speak up”. At the time, I figured that I should be thankful since he was looking out for me, but every day I would come home feeling upset and depressed, always thinking I was not good enough for the job because of my personality.
He behaved in the same way towards the rest of the team, particularly to the interns and other introverted team members. I can’t exactly pinpoint why he treated everyone like that… maybe it was a result of the stress he was experiencing from running a business… or perhaps he just wanted to put everyone down to make himself feel better.
Regardless of the reason, the team was suffering under his leadership long before I arrived. They were burnt out, anxious and defeated. Despite being the design lead of a design agency, he refused to take any responsibility for his actions and blamed the burnout and toxic culture on the other co-founder, making it known that he was ready to leave the company because of it.
My creative director’s insecurity made everyone who worked with him just as insecure. People in the team were constantly questioning themselves and feeling frustrated with their work. I was definitely affected by it — I questioned my place in the company, and felt I had to fit the “extrovert mould” he favoured, or I was no longer a valuable team member. I questioned the skills I had learnt over the past few years because the way he micromanaged me. He gave me the impression my input and perspective was valuable (“I want to know how YOU would approach this brief”), but also did it in a way that was rude and patronising (“I shouldn’t tell you how to do your job”).
Despite encouraging me to “explore” my own concepts, my creative director would always dominate the project with his idea, which made me feel bad for wasting his time and the company’s money (deadlines were frequent, the agency was struggling financially and he made a comment to me saying the company was paying me too much). He would always tell the team how excited he was to see everyone’s personal take on the brief, only to bring something in on the Monday (after working on the weekend alone), dismissing all the hard work the team had put in it the week before. After a while, I realised that putting any energy into a project was wasted effort.
After two weeks of starting my job, one of my co-workers had decided to leave (after 2 years of being there), and then a week later, another put through his resignation (after 6 months). I started to get more insight into how unhappy everyone was. It was something that came with a mixture of sadness and relief — I was relieved to know I wasn’t the only one that felt depressed, but also sad for the people who had been there for almost 2 years dealing with this abuse.
Of course, the co-founders were responsible for this. As managers of their own company, it was their job to create a safe work environment for the people working in it. But they made it difficult for us.
This leads me to the second core failure of the business: lack of clarity. I’m a big believer in clarity. I think it’s one of the most important things a human can strive for. It removes confusion, sets clear boundaries and stops resentment from brewing. The agency didn’t have that.
For one, the agency decided to adopt the “flat hierarchy” model (i.e. everyone is equal and this model eliminates management between staff and executives). They adopted this model because it had certain “benefits”:
- Everyone had equal input into how the business was run and how projects were led
- No one had an assigned role so you had flexibility to try new things and not put yourself in a box
- No producers or managers meant you could speak directly to the client and control how the project was run, and save time in the process
But I learnt very quickly that just because there was no explicit hierarchy, it didn’t mean there wasn’t an implicit one. We are all equal, but some were just more equal than others. It was an incredibly strange dynamic; on one end, I was told my input was just as valuable as someone much more senior than me (I was a mid-weight), and if *I* wanted to, I could be responsible for running a project and be the team leader (because there was no hierarchy, duh). But in reality, everyone naturally fell into the role of their past experiences (creative director, art director, senior etc.) and I found myself still answering and checking in with the people “above me”.
For what it’s worth: In my whole design career I’ve been checking in with a creative director and/or producer, and I have absolutely no problem with it. Especially with great team leads, I’ve always found their input and direction valuable and productive. But being told that I had “power” to lead seniors and art directors, when in fact my place was definitely somewhere at the bottom (and I couldn’t do anything about it)… was just misleading and confusing.
Having no clear hierarchy or roles for the employees put pressure on everyone to spend their energy establishing their place in the agency, rather than creating good work in the role they had experience in. Strategists in the company were concerned with being studio managers and fixing the agency’s structure, rather than developing strategies for their clients. Designers were concerned with checking schedules and managing teams, rather than producing design work and concepts.
I spent a lot of my time wondering what was the best way to assert myself, so maybe one day I could run a project to prove to that I was valuable and versatile. (To be honest, I didn’t really care to be a team leader at that point, but I felt like I would be considered a bad team member if I wasn’t aiming for that).
It was clear that the co-founders adopted this flat hierarchy model to alleviate the responsibility of running their own business. They masked it as an opportunity for employees to “try new things” and “have more power” in the company, when in fact they wanted to pass off the decision making (and the consequences) to someone else. (Before I joined, they royally fucked up on a client and threw one of the employees under the bus.)
Any time someone asked about taking leave, time in lieu, or even setting work hours aside to build new skills (which the agency encouraged), the co-founders would respond with, “We have never stopped you before.” This made it seem like the co-founders were flexible with anything, but it actually meant that employees would have to decide themselves if they were allowed to have those basic rights. Of course, because there were no clear policies in place to ensure those rights for leave or time in lieu, in the end most employees felt guilty asking for them and decided to prioritise the pressing work deadlines (and there were many) over the time they earned to take a break.
Which brings me to poor management.
One of the co-founders was 100% against hiring any type of producer or studio manager to help run the agency (I have no idea why), and told everyone in the team to coordinate schedules with each other in a weekly “stand-up” (a stand-up is a meeting were everyone talks about what they are doing for the day/week). But there was a huge problem: planning for only the week ahead was not efficient. Important deadlines a few weeks or months down the road were rarely considered in the weekly standup, which meant that employees weren’t prepared for these deadlines when they eventually came up.
It meant unexpected (but important) deadlines were popping up week after week, and all the work had to be produced as fast as possible to accomodate them. As a result, employees were working overtime and getting burnt out.
All the employees were being stretched thin. Each employee felt like they had to help run the business, improve the structure of the agency, manage themselves and other people on the team, manage clients, AND do the job they were hired for. It meant people were doing five jobs poorly, instead of doing their one job well (the job that brings in money to the company).
I heard stories of past employees having panic attacks from working at the agency, current employees crying over the stress and people feeling isolated and ignored. It wasn’t a place I wanted to be in.
After 2 months, I decided to leave. It wasn’t an easy decision for me. I chose this particularly agency because I liked them and respected their work, and I thought that it would be a good place for me to settle into a routine (instead of freelancing) and do work outside of my comfort zone.
The money was good, and the people were great (and still are). But after a while, the anxiety crept up on me. Every week I would come home crying because I hated being an introvert and felt like I couldn’t design. Even when I was an inexperienced intern (and actually couldn’t design), I never felt that way about myself. After I took a step back, I realised being an introvert had never been a problem for me, and producing good work had nothing to do with how well I could talk about it.
If I was an intern or a new grad, I probably would’ve stayed at the company for a year or more, thinking this was how I was meant to be treated. Even with over 5 years experience (working with some of the most talented creative directors and producers), I still questioned my self-worth every day at the agency, thinking I was never good enough. No environment should ever make a person feel that way, and no one should put up with it.