Beyoncé’s former digital director thinks your culture is meaningless

Dr. Marcus Collins will headline Inventures 2024 from May 29-31.

Do ping pong tables, office dogs, and a casual dress code add up to a genuine “culture”?

Dr. Marcus Collins says no. The man who will deliver the keynote address at Inventures 2024 in Calgary this May lives at the intersection of marketing and culture. His career has seen him direct digital strategy for Beyoncé and award-winning campaigns for industry giants like Apple and Nike. Collins believes tech companies regularly tout “culture,” yet often fail to practice what they preach.

“We think about innovation as the things that we create, and that’s just not true.”

Dr. Marcus Collins

“There is no external force more influential to human behaviour than culture, full stop,” Collins said. “The better we understand it, the more likely we are to harness its power.”

Collins believes the tech sector uses the term ‘culture’ flippantly, referring to perks and idiosyncratic quirks when it should relate to something deeper.

Company culture should be grounded in a fundamental belief system that embodies a shared recognition of truth, he said. And operationalizing these beliefs, Collins notes, is crucial for embodying culture in everyday actions—from how employees approach their work to the products they create. 

“We ask ourselves, how is this piece of code, or this product or this feature or this new thing I’m adding, how is that a reflection of our belief system?” Collins said. 

For a culture to truly work, these beliefs need to be something a company stands by, “even if it means losing everybody in the company, even if it means losing your last customer, if it means losing tons of money.”

While this might sound risky, the bigger risk is losing sight of your company’s core identity.

Marcus Collins
Dr. Marcus Collins will deliver the keynote address at Inventures 2024.

Tech companies, in particular, are susceptible to mission drift, he said, which occurs when they become sidetracked by changing market trends, the allure of rapid growth, or the temptation to add features and services that deviate from the company’s original purpose.

“We get influenced by marketplace dynamics and where we think there is a market opportunity,” said Collins. “There’s distraction all the time. Discipline is our ability to stay on task, despite the things that are grabbing our attention.”

In other cases, culture tends to fall by the wayside when times get tough. Over the past year, tech companies across Canada and worldwide have grappled with a daunting economic landscape. With fundraising becoming increasingly difficult, investors turning cautious, and layoffs becoming more common, Collins said this is where the rubber truly meets the road. 

“Everyone feels like they’re a part of a greater cause in the good times, but in the bad times, all that stuff goes out the window,” he said.

Despite the business realities that might justify tough decisions like layoffs, Collins advocates for letting employees go with a more compassionate approach. He points out that layoffs affecting employees in the tens of thousands often lack a necessary sense of humanity.

The repercussions of mass layoffs also extend beyond those who leave. Recent data from Angus Reid Institute finds half of Canadians under 55 worry they will be affected by job loss in the event the economy turns.

Collins argued that mass layoffs often generate a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety among the remaining staff, concerned about their own job security. “I don’t know if there’s anything more destructive to a culture than fear and anxiety,” Collins said.

On the flip side, many senior leaders have adopted pay cuts to avoid having to lay off staff. Collins cited the example of Columbia Sportswear’s CEO who cut his own salary to $10,000 in order to maintain employee pay during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“For that company to live up to its beliefs, I think that it says a lot about who that company is,” he added.

Just as our grasp of culture is far from complete, Collins argues the common perception of innovation is equally anemic. “We think about innovation as the things that we create, and that’s just not true. Those are inventions,” he added. “Innovation is a different calculus.”

To discover how companies can create a culture of innovation that inspires people to take action, tune into Collins’ upcoming keynote at Inventures 2024, powered by Alberta Innovates.


Register for Inventures Canada today!

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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