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VOL. 7 | NO. 36 | Saturday, August 30, 2014

Archer-Malmo CEO Shares Insight Into Company Culture

By Andy Meek

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The Memphis-based marketing communications agency archer-malmo has won awards for its company culture, and it draws a steady stream of creatives attracted to everything from the hip workspace to the way creativity is given room to flourish.

That kind of environment permeating the agency doesn’t happen by accident. Archer-malmo CEO Russ Williams, a Memphis native who started his professional life as a chemical engineer, now works to help engineer a different kind of thing – the kind of agency culture where digital natives don’t feel cramped, where young talent can blossom and where everyone always has plenty of runway to present the best version of themselves.

Russ Williams is CEO of archer-malmo.

(Andrew J. Breig)

And while it might seem unusual for someone trained as an engineer to head up a marketing agency, it actually makes all the sense in the world, as Williams tells it. Engineering, he says, is all about creative problem solving – just like marketing.

He’s occupied a number of perches in his career, including stints at Fortune 500 companies like DuPont. And no matter where he’s been, he’s always paid attention to the culture in the workplaces where he’s hung his hat.

“I might even argue,” he explains, “that it’s the most important thing to me.”

That’s because for a professional services firm to thrive in the knowledge economy of today, its people are just as strategically important as its financial strategy and the like. But cultivating a strong company culture doesn’t have to be regarded as an esoteric thing.

Indeed, Williams says that in his opinion the components of it are the result of common sense.

“There’s no silver bullet and no magic to it, but I think having a better corporate culture is probably more easily available to people than they might realize,” he said. “One of the basic principles is to treat people like adults. I think management sometimes maybe thinks employees are something we’re supposed to have command and control over. They have to have policies and rules and you have to make sure they understand and follow the rules.

“But employees are intelligent adults. You tell them what it’s about. Give them room to do their job, and they tend to take care of their own business.”

At archer-malmo, there are 11 core values the agency operates by. Williams calls them “observed values.”

Give them room to do their job, and they tend to take care of their own business.”

–Russ Williams, CEO, archer-malmo

In other words, the idea at his firm is that archer-malmo has taken a hard look at itself when it’s at its best. And it’s tried to codify the different elements of that, so that it’s a North Star that can always be looked to.

Examples of those values are curiosity, fun, aspiration and dependability.

“When we created these, we thought, well, we’d been a successful company for a long time and we asked what makes us successful,” Williams said. “So we sat down and came up with these 11 that we felt were alive and present organically in the company. It’s not instructions about how to behave – it’s observations about when we’re at our best. So we incorporated them into our performance management system.”

Among the other insights William has picked up along the way about managing an organization like archer-malmo is that people are a little like balance sheets, in that they come with collections of assets and liabilities.

“And what we’ve learned is it’s the liabilities side that actually matters more than the asset side,” Williams said. “It might sound counterintuitive. You’d think we have to hire the smartest and best and most hard-working, amazing people we could ever find. Yes – but those people aren’t necessarily all that rare.

“What’s also fairly common is those people a lot of times come with baggage. Maybe they get too emotional under stress. They aren’t dependable or they aren’t collaborative.”

So, the firm looks into areas of prospective employees’ personalities that other firms might not get that deep into. Among the other insights he relies on: give employees the tools and training to do their jobs well.

Also, even though he occupies the corner office, that doesn’t mean he needs to be in every meeting by virtue of his authority. He says a leader learns that when you’re the CEO of a company, the tendency is for the CEO to take some of the wind out of the room, so that employees defer to the CEO and assume he knows best.

When asked his vision for archer-malmo, Williams offers two words.

“Be ourselves,” he answered. “What I mean is, I think all the things to make us great are in our DNA. They’re somewhat steered by these core values. We’re a private, independent company, so we don’t have to deliver certain numbers to Wall Street every quarter or every year. We don’t have to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We can do whatever we want. And I think what we really care about is we want to be ourselves. And part of being ourselves is having a lot of ambition. Both individually and collectively.”

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