In Conversation With Six Cinquième About Disrupting Toxic Agency Culture

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Agency life doesn’t always get the best rap. There’s a grind culture rampant in the field that can often lead to unhealthy relationships to work and one’s general wellbeing. These pitfalls aren’t specific to agencies either; many jobs have unreasonable expectations for workers that are accepted because “that’s just how it is.”

A boutique agency in Montréal says otherwise.

Business and life partners Ash Phillips and Miro LaFlaga are on a mission to disrupt dominant notions of how a thriving agency operates. Their company Six Cinquième is blazing a new trail for creative professionals by prioritizing a healthy working life and diverse perspectives.

The three of us recently had an enlightening discussion about their philosophy and journeys so far. I was captivated by their charm, wisdom, and motivation to always question themselves and others in the pursuit of happiness.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Can you describe the overall mission of Six Cinquième? What sets you apart from other agencies?  

Phillips: Our main mission is to help people have an influence and an impact in the world, whether it be on a small or large scale. We’re very drawn to clients and collaborators who are trying to disrupt their industries, trying to bring some kind of change to their industry, and who actually really mean it. They really want to be the next AirBnB, or the next Apple, or whatever the case may be. I’m really drawn to people who want to create change and design the future. Who want to be part of building what this future world will look like, so what we do is help people get there.

LaFlaga: In order for us to do that, we have to have different ideas. We have to have people from different backgrounds at our table as much as possible; not only on a racial level. Like the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about how someone who is blind, or lacks mobility, experiences branding. We want to [include those perspectives in] our agency because having those ideas is going to help us push future projects so much further. 

Phillips: We’re only two people. We only have our own experiences. We want to make sure that we’re including as many different perspectives and experiences as possible.

That’s the power of diversity, in all of its forms. You’re better equipped to handle various clients who hopefully are also diverse, and have diverse needs. How do you go about ensuring you have a diverse team of creatives that you work with?

Phillips: It’s not easy. Diversity and inclusion is such a big topic right now. Everyone wants to make their teams more diverse; that’s one of the reasons why we started our agency. We wanted an agency that reflected the material that we knew, and the creatives that we were familiar with. But at the same time, not a lot of us are pushed to enter into creative fields in general.  

A lot of times our parents will encourage us to go into more “secure” kinds of jobs, and usually the creative industry is seen as something that’s less secure. So it’s difficult, I’m not going to lie. It’s an extra hurdle that we are putting ourselves through. But that’s something that we’re fully aware of, and are accepting. We could hire anyone– there’s so many creative, talented people in the world, but we do want to prioritize diverse creatives. It’s a little bit tough; we have to take more time to build up our team. 

LaFlaga: The good news about that is that recently, I’ve been noticing that since Ash and I have been putting ourselves out there, people are slowly understanding what we stand for, and what we’re about. It’s attracting the people that we actually want to work with. They’re like, “Oh, an agency that’s different from the others—I want to be part of it.” So different people are contacting us because of that. It’s pretty cool.

You’ve created a new, healthier agency model at Six Cinquième with tenants that include a 9am to 3pm work day, saying no to projects that don’t spark joy, focusing on your strengths, not chasing clients, and taking time for yourselves. How did you develop this model? 

LaFlaga: We experienced a severe burnout. We had this big dream of having our own agency, but once we did, we started to slowly hate what we were doing because we didn’t really set any boundaries when it came to our clients and how we were working. We started this thing out of love, but then we came to hate it. It came to a point where we were just like, “Why aren’t we having fun? Where is this coming from?” And a lot of it came from the fact that we were looking at how other agency owners were doing it: this idea of securing all the clients, and the client is always right. It’s that rat race, and we were following it because we thought we needed to in order to be successful. 

So we took time to peel back the layers. “Okay, that works for them, but what if we do it our own way and see if it works? If it doesn’t work, we can try something else. But let’s not just follow what other people before us have established. Let’s do it our own way.”

Phillips: We’re at an advantage because we are still a young agency. We’re still pretty new in the game, so we’re still building out that foundation for ourselves. It’s really important to me to make sure that we’re building on a foundation that’s sustainable. Being new, we have that privilege of avoiding the building blocks that a lot of these other agencies have built themselves on. It’s so hard for them to come back and correct, because everything that they’ve done is built on that. So if diversity is not in your foundations, for example, and you’ve gotten so far without it, you don’t really have an incentive to come back and correct that. 

I want to avoid getting to a point where we’re building on something that isn’t really true to our values. We’re still figuring it out because it’s a new way of doing things. But I just want to make sure that whatever we’re building on is aligned with what I want for the long term.

What do you say to those who might be skeptical about whether this new model is realistic or achievable? 

Phillips: I think that’s a normal reaction. It’s important to let it be known that this isn’t a transition that happens overnight. It’s something that needs to be implemented gradually as you are building your career and growing. 

When you’re starting out, you need to gain that experience. You need to take on certain jobs. You need to figure out what it is that you like and don’t like. You need to figure out what it’s like to interact with clients. You need to put yourself out there and be in it so that you can understand what the boundaries are that you want to set for yourself. It’s part of the process of getting to a design that’s specific to you, and that works specifically for you. You need to build yourself up to a point where you can have that freedom to be more flexible with yourself. 

That’s what we had to do. We weren’t able to operate like that right off the bat. That’s important for people to understand. If you want to create your own model, you’re going to have to live through different models that maybe don’t fit first before you get there.

LaFlaga: It’s a work in progress. Even for us– we’re not perfect at it. We’re a lot better than we were two years ago, but there are some days when we’re not able to finish at 3:00, or we have to have a meeting on a Saturday. But at least we always have that thought in our mind of what we’re trying to achieve and [how to] align ourselves toward it. It works on a subconscious level.

Phillips: We definitely have to make exceptions at times, but because our regular routine is very flexible, and prioritizes our own well-being and mental health, it balances out. It compensates for the times that we do have to put in a little extra work. It’s not a hassle to do that, because we’re not burnt out.

Do you think the ideals you’ve implemented at Six Cinquième apply to folks outside of the agency world, like freelancers, or in different industries altogether?

LaFlaga: I think this could apply to anyone. Overall, the message that we’re trying to really push out is the importance of setting boundaries. As a freelancer, it’s really hard to set boundaries. It’s understandable. You get a client, it’s going to pay your bills, so you’re willing to do what you need to do to get the job done. But you start to slowly create bad habits for yourself. We meet a lot of designers who have fallen out of love with designing because of their experience as a freelancer. It’s this idea of giving back the power to them. 

Do you think more people are resonating with what you’re doing at Six Cinquième because COVID has accelerated the conversation about restructuring work culture?

LaFlaga: Yes!

Phillips: 100%. 

LaFlaga: Other people are adopting this mode of not just following something that’s been there for years, this traditional way of working. [They’re] thinking about what it means to be productive. Everyone has taken the time to re-evaluate their definition of being productive and being successful. 

I like where we’re at right now. We’re taking the time to really think about this, and question [it]. We’ve never had time to question these things before, because we’re so deep in it all the time.

You two seem to have found clarity and understanding about all of this at such a young age. Where does this sensibility come from? 

LaFlaga: The fact that we’re from Montréal is a huge factor. Generally speaking, Montréal is a very laid-back, chill type of city, so that comes off in our demeanor a bit. Beyond that, I think it’s a lot of failures that we went through in our lives. In my personal life, I went through a lot of ups and downs, and I’m someone who was always questioning things. When I met Ash, I started questioning things even more. And we started questioning each other, [and] questioning life. It put us in this mindset where we’re constantly questioning our intention of why we’re doing what we’re doing. What kind of fulfillment is this adding to our life? 

Phillips: For me, it’s just how I’ve always been. We’re both artists at heart, and I think artists in general are very introspective, and even philosophical. I’ve always been someone who just goes with the flow and does things that feel good to me. That’s what brought us to question that and incorporate that into our business. We want to continue doing things that feel good. I think my purpose in life is just to enjoy life, and feel good at all times. Just because I’m working doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be enjoying my life. I think that’s where a lot of these thoughts and these questions come from. We just want to have fun! We’re just big kids, and I don’t want that to end. I want my whole life to feel like that. 

LaFlaga: The basis of what we do is psychology. Branding, design– it all taps into people’s psychology. We’re always fascinated by how the human mind works, because it does impact our work. What makes someone want to purchase something? What makes a good design a good design? Us even just questioning that plays a factor. 

What we’re talking about has me interrogating the term “work-life balance” altogether. Your work is a huge part of your life, so these entities overlap. Especially when you’re a professional creative, those lines are blurred. We shouldn’t have to look at “work” as this terrible, soul-sucking thing we endure to survive, and then “life” as this completely separate thing.

LaFlaga: That’s something we’re still figuring out how to do. We’re business partners, we’re in an intimate relationship, and we live together, so there are so many layers to that. It’s a challenge. It’s an ongoing project that Ash and I are decoding. But little by little, through creating boundaries, it’s given us more room to think about these problems from a different light.