The Culture + Strategy Pyramid
Creating a Company Framework
The great management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker said it best: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
As the CEO of Adlucent, a performance marketing agency, I find this quote resonates with me on a deep level. But, while there are many inspiring quotes out there that help leaders set a true north direction for a company, the question is how to make these mantras authentic within the organization. And, more importantly, how do we build processes and structure to reinforce these global messages? My aim at Adlucent is to make our culture feel lived and learned, similar to our core values, rather than forced and propagated.
Having recently celebrated our 20th anniversary, Adlucent has been exploring these types of questions for years, both formally and informally. We’ve been fortunate to have grown tremendously and experienced success as a company over the last two decades. Through partnering with top retail and brand clients who challenge us every day to learn and get better, we’ve been at the heart of innovation in the ever-changing landscape of digital advertising.
As a result of this history, we’ve coalesced our lessons and experiments into our “Culture + Strategy Pyramid,” as shown below. We structured this model to galvanize Adlucites by illustrating how these two essential elements work together and cascade into essential elements of our company and team. Although this process is often effectively done from a top-down approach, we appreciate that the bottom-up perspectives and practices help not only solidify, but also uncover, what our core principles should be.
Putting Culture Into Practice
As one of the largest third-party paid search agencies for Amazon in our early years, we quickly learned the importance of fast feedback loops. In the first decade of our business, we were developing “software by the day” to help us compete and stay ahead of Amazon’s own internal digital marketing team and everyone else in the Amazon Associates marketplace who were competing against us.
We lived and breathed the principles of continuous improvement and agile methodologies, incorporating them into our organization’s daily practices. We hired an external consultant to help us craft and articulate our first cultural pillar and landed on “Better Every Day.” At the time, it profoundly resonated with everyone at Adlucent and took off effortlessly. It felt right. So, we put it on our walls, business cards, and website. But, more importantly, our team lived it in our culture. We all knew the truth and importance of this pillar, and it made us proud because it was authentic and still resonates to this day.
Our second pillar, “Company of Caring,” was equally clear. Since Adlucent’s founding, celebrating our people and community has been a priority. Putting a label on this formalized what we all already experienced. To solidify the pillar, we established a company fund to help employees and their immediate families financially through personally challenging times. We also scaled our philanthropic efforts to give Adlucites more opportunities to volunteer in local communities, in addition to our robust giving program.
The third pillar took some time; we intentionally left this one blank on the pyramid for a while with the confidence it would arise bottom-up. I’m proud to say “Strength in Belonging” clearly emerged from within our company as a nod to where we are now and where we are continuously progressing. With an increased commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at both the corporate and company level, we have been actively working to establish councils, boards, processes, and action plans over the last several years. I cannot be more proud of how our team has embraced this opportunity and seamlessly woven it into our culture, impacting our team and our community.
With a strong foundation of cultural pillars, next we needed to define core values that reflected precisely who we are. We learned from experience that creating these top-down wasn’t going to work for us (we took this route originally, and they were never embraced by the company). So, over seven months, we embarked on a rigorous, bottom-up, company-wide effort to envision core values that we would all know to be true.
The product of this was three terms that have truly anchored us all. They are no longer just words; and while they do live on our website, any Adlucite will tell you they also live in our hearts:
- Make $#%& Happen
- Keep It Real
- Don’t Be a Jerk
My personal favorite is “Keep It Real,” which reflects the diversity in people and thought we have had over our 20 year history. It is embodied in the tagline that follows it: “There is a little weird in all of us. Come as you are and stay that way.”
Defining a Strategy to Match
With the cultural pillars and core values established and lived, we knew we had to evolve our mission and vision statements to accurately reflect what Adlucent had become over the last 20 years. Additionally, our market-facing brand message and visual expression yearned for a refresh. We leveraged both external and internal resources for this in the past with mixed success. So, when our new marketing leader recommended hiring a business-to-business agency that specializes in this exact type of project, we knew it was the right investment to make. She led an eight-month-long engagement to extract what we needed, heavily focused on the importance of our mission, vision, and core differentiators being tied to our people, culture, and impact on our customers.
At the same time, our leadership team engaged with The Table Group, a management consulting firm, to improve our organizational health and effectiveness. Part of this training included reading business management author Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, through which they were prompted to answer five core questions about our business. This helped Adlucent’s leadership define the meaning and importance of both a people-based mission and a market-based vision.
And so, Adlucent’s mission was defined as, “Inspire the problem-solvers of tomorrow to reimagine client outcomes,” which aligned with our cultural pillar of being better every day and focused on the support we strive to provide for both our employees and our customers. We solidified our vision as, “Lead the industry revolution toward always-relevant marketing,” a north star that has kept us on track for our entire 20-year history and one that will continue to serve as our compass.
With this work achieved, the rest of our strategy pyramid fell into place. Our brand promise, “Proving outperformance has no limit,” accurately reflects the strength of our long-term client partnerships. We are tirelessly curious people, and ongoing improvement is necessary to break through the performance plateaus that plague marketers. Our purpose-built technology, Deep Search™, combined with our deep integration to our clients’ business and data, helps us achieve our brand promise. And we prove it: our average tenure is nearly six-and-a-half years across our top clients, which is notable considering our first decade was almost exclusively working with Amazon.
We uncovered our core differentiators by listening – mainly to feedback from our customers.
“Scientific approach” sums up our iterative practice of monitoring, adjusting, questioning, and testing new strategies to prove what works. Sure, we hire data scientists and other tech experts, but we hire for this mindset in all roles, and our rigorous-but-kind interview process ensures we find the ideal culture-adds. We empower Adlucites with Deep Search™ to enable this scientific approach at scale, especially because we need to leverage the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence to handle the complexity of retail data. But, we recognize that technology alone will never get the results we need to fulfill our brand promise. The combination of “human + machine” balances automation with creativity and critical thinking, which leads me to our second core differentiator.
Adlucent’s final core differentiator, “culture of transparency,” spans both our company culture and our relationship with our customers. As the advertising industry grapples with privacy and transparency in data and pricing models, we firmly believe in bi-directional data sharing and price transparency across all ad formats. We also practice transparency with our employees. The most well-received example of this is our leadership report, including financials, which we share with the entire company. We also have a quarterly question-and-answer feedback process with questions focused on any part of the business. This process has led to crucial conversations, allowing us to navigate the entire pandemic, as well as the impact of the “great resignation” that occurred across industries the past few years. Coming full circle, our culture of transparency allows us to be better every day.
I’m hopeful that sharing our journey across our “Culture + Strategy Pyramid” has helped illustrate how leaders can authentically implement these messages, such as the inspirational quote from Peter Drucker, across an organization. As author of The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni often says, you have to cascade a message clearly seven times to make it feel real in your organization. So, my recommendation is to create clarity, over-communicate it, and then reinforce it. When it reflects the heartbeat of your company, your messages will be heard and easily embraced, as they have been at Adlucent.
Ashwani Dhar is an experienced executive, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist serving as CEO of Adlucent, a performance marketing agency for retail. Dhar has led the organization's growth charge over the past 15 years, including client success, customer acquisition, and strategic direction. He's achieved an industry-leading client retention rate, secured Adlucent's standing as Google's largest shopping ads agency in the U.S., and pioneered an innovative performance-based model that aligns the agency's compensation with client outcomes. Dhar also serves as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Board Member for Adlucent's parent company, Advantage Solutions (NASDAQ; ADV), a leading business solutions provider ranked as one of the top marketing companies in the U.S. by AdAge.
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