Cultivating the right culture is an essential requirement for any business that wants to grow and flourish in the long term, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

In 2007, when we opened the doors to Ashgrove, I wanted to generate a dynamic, professional and fun culture for the agency.

Now I am the first to recognise that a culture is not something one person can enforce upon others or simulate. You can only create the environment for a specific culture to take shape and it must be allowed to remain fluid and change over time as the dynamics and its people evolve. Good examples of this may perhaps be the very creative Google, Apple and Facebook office environments.

But I’ve always had a definitive view of what the culture and work ethic within an ad agency should be, so shaping the Ashgrove vibe I wanted to see came fairly naturally. To help others understand, I would often use our eponymous ash tree as a symbol to articulate our ethos. Strong and robust yet thought to have magical properties, the ash characterises the mix of science, art and creativity a good agency needs to have.

(It was strangely by chance that I discovered that the ash is indigenous to the Island and that the Vikings used it to shape oars and arrows many moons ago. In fact the Vikings have a whole mythology built around the ash tree but we’ll save that story for another time!)

Taking the analogy further, I began to think of how the act of planting a tree could be used to illustrate the way I wanted everyone at Ashgrove to think of the business and also the way I wanted them to treat our clients. Then I discovered these very cool instructions on how to plant a tree by Victoria Woodhouse which captured perfectly what we needed to do:

  1. Identify the species of tree.
  2. Learn about the ideal environment for the tree to flourish.
  3. Tree-planting is a long-term investment and, for it to be successful, careful planning is required.
  4. Long-term care of newly planted trees is important. Water trees immediately after planting and then ideally weekly during the first growing season.
  5. Regularly weed around them and check the stakes and guards.

These instructions dovetailed quite nicely with my personal philosophy on how we should tend to our clients’ needs.

Firstly, you need to get to know your client and the service or product they provide. You then need to develop a deep understanding of the market environment in which the client operates and the needs of their customers or clients.

Furthermore, in order to establish and maintain long term relationships, you need to grow along with the client and react to any shifts in behaviour so you can add value by being proactive in finding solutions before they ask for them.

No matter the industry you’re in be it financial services, IT, eGaming, accountancy, third sector, legal or retail, the principle remains the same.

Creating a good business culture is about how well you care for the saplings and how regularly you weed, water or treat the soil to give them the best chance to grow into a strong tree.

If you get the basics right and there is mutual care and trust internally, the chances are good that it will survive no matter what the weather conditions. Every year will bring different threats and you will need to be prepared to adjust and adapt depending on whether there are droughts, floods or fire.

Of course, there will be times when that culture is tested, particularly when we see major market disruption and challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic that we have experienced quite recently. During these trying times, things can go pear-shaped quite quickly and I have seen seemingly strong company cultures fall to pieces the moment when the business faces significant challenges.

Typically things start to go wrong at the top and spiral downwards with the blame game cascading to the lower levels very quickly, leaving everyone fighting for their own survival. But a business with a fundamentally strong internal culture would turn a challenge on its head and work from the bottom up to find a solution because there is inherent trust amongst the team. Finding a solution together is one way to identify you have that strong culture.

I first noticed this phenomenon in a business I worked in many years ago and it was truly amazing to see how people across departments and disciplines reached out to help and support troubled team members. The problem was quickly identified and everyone rolled up their sleeves to help resolve it. In this instance everyone was aware of the bigger picture and the company’s reputation was at stake – and was saved because of the culture it had in place.

It’s up to us all to ensure that we plant and nurture the conditions for the kind of culture we want to see and the types of businesses we want to be. This is not just for the good of our own companies but to ensure we have a resilient business eco-system on the Island for the future. Time to get the gardening gloves on!



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