Culture Is King at TIAA-CREF

The power of a vibrant, thriving in-house agency culture can often be underestimated. Viewed as a “nice-to-have” and tackled only after countless client requests and production deadlines are met. However, culture must be a top priority in order for talent, creativity and collaboration—all essential components of an in-house team’s success—to flourish.

We caught up with Elena French, Vice President, Creative Services for TIAA-CREF, named 2014 In-House Agency of the Year for its outstanding culture. Here’s why culture (and winning an award for it) matters so much to her team.

How effective is your in-house agency at attracting, developing and retaining top talent? What causes people to feel recognized and valued? What enables your team to thrive?

TIAA-CREF has a remote-working corporate culture that enables us to select the best talent nationwide and provide the resources needed to remain up-to-date on industry trends. We offer more than 400 internal trainings and leverage the expertise of best-in-class external associations—attending IHAF’s annual Awards and Huddles, and ANA sessions regularly. Our in-house team is empowered to choose and attend seminars across the nation, sharing their findings through our “Learn it Forward” approach. We also have a wide range of recognition and reward programs. When asked about recognition, one team member responded, “I feel recognized and valued, because I am recognized and valued.”

What makes your workplace creative? Specifically, what makes your environment one that stimulates creative thinking and problem solving?

Creative thinking is not exclusive to the Creative team. From Editorial and Design to Account and Project Management, we stretch our boundaries, learning from best practices as well as creating new ones. Project teams hold brainstorming sessions via phone, video-conference or in person. Maximum workplace creativity requires fun and exploration both in and out of the workplace. All-hands teambuilding and training ensures that we’re regularly face-to-face to share our learnings and flex our creative muscles. Pushing people to think outside of the box takes different forms, for example, we asked the team to come up with an anagram of each their names to reveal something about themselves that the team didn’t know. They also created and illustrated unusual stories, including “A Day in the Life of TIAA-CREF” using nothing but industry and corporate acronyms. We also join in broader, companywide “Culture Action Teams” to find new and better ways to improve the workplace.

Is your team collaborative? What examples do you have of collaboration across in-house agency functions as well as between the in-house agency and its clients and/or partners.

We believe that great minds don’t always think alike, so bringing them together results in more and better ideas. Collaboration across in-house agency teams facilitates the creation of work that exceeds expectations. We hold weekly production calls to discuss work-in-progress and solve problems. Plus, we use an electronic “Idea Storm” as a way to encourage idea generation. Beyond our agency, we have regular weekly calls with Senior Marketing Leaders and partners from each line of business to generate effective strategies for serving our outside clients. Our collaborative “Kaizen meetings” between key internal clients and in-house agency teams help develop enhanced processes for getting work done faster. Last but not least, we regularly schedule meetings and events with our outside agency partners to ensure they’re true extensions of our internal team. An example of this is a panel we created of agency experts on best practices around blogging to support our efforts in creating a blog during its early stage of development.

Congratulations on winning the In-House Agency of the Year Award for outstanding corporate culture! What has the win meant to your team?

We have been on cloud nine since winning the award. Our team mirrors a true agency model of Account Managers, Project Managers, Designers and Writers. Everyone has rallied around this win. Winning an award like this validates that we are on the right track culturally and that fostering a creative, collaborative environment is really one of our leading assets. In the eyes of our colleagues and the company at large, we have solidified a spot as a best-in-class agency culture. And winning at the IHAF Conference really did make us feel as though we’re part of a larger community, which was an incredibly rewarding byproduct of the win.

Since winning, we have promoted the news like nobody’s business. We put a call into management while we were still at the IHAF event. We communicated the win to the executive management team, posted it on our internal site, sent it to various media outlets, and have received literally hundreds of congratulatory notes from our colleagues. Our culture was strong before. Winning In-House Agency of the Year has made it even stronger.

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