How Things Get Done at … AppNexus

If you go to AppNexus’s Glassdoor page, it is full of green stars. These ratings are particularly impressive for a company that has grown from 30 to 1000 in the past seven years.
The AppNexus culture first got put on my radar after hearing Lorraine Buhannic, the Senior Director of Talent Acquisition at AppNexus, speak on a panel about company culture. I left feeling incredibly inspired, and I wanted to learn more.

Thus, I synced up with Brandon Atkinson, the Chief People Officer at AppNexus.

Brandon is a strong advocate against what he calls “cotton candy culture,” or rather, the sweet stuff that tastes good for five minutes but is really just full of air. Instead, he focuses on an authentic culture, or “the stuff that matters if you want to build an amazing company.” So let’s take a look at what that looks like at AppNexus:

The AppNexus Culture

The culture at a fast-growing startup can be hard to pin down, so AppNexus hosted a set of internal focus groups to better understand what is most important to the team. They approached this topic by asking themselves: What is it about our culture that has to stay true as we scale and grow?Three core concepts came out of this exercise:

  • A culture of amazing people: “We’ve always had a culture where we maintain a really high bar of who can join. And we maintain a high bar for what we expect from each other.” To perpetuate this, AppNexus uses “DNA hiring,” which is hiring for the core qualities of an individual rather than what’s on their resume.
  • An above and beyond culture: “It’s a culture where good is never good enough. We’re always pushing to be great at whatever we do. As a company, our ambitions are large.” These ambitions are reflected in their core value: “make greatness happen.”
  • A learn and teach culture: “If they aren’t learning they are leaving — the best retention strategy any company can have is developing a learn and teach culture, and this is done every day at AppNexus.”


Maintaining This Culture Throughout the Employee Lifecycle


Brandon’s approach to culture is that it “can’t be a standalone thing, it has to be embedded in everything that you do.” To champion this process, AppNexus has a team called the People Experience (PX) that is dedicated to the overall cultural experience at the company. Their responsibilities range from “cultivating vibrancy” around the company values to exploring employee recognition programs.

In addition to this team, Brandon identified four examples of how their culture is authentically incorporated into the employee journey:


AppNexus places their core values at the center of their competency-based interviewing process, and they test for value alignment as a competency during the hiring process. For example, when interviewing for the value “learn and teach” they may ask for an example of a time the candidate taught themselves something they didn’t have to.


The AppNexus team also embeds their culture into the onboarding process for new employees through a company-wide program called “AppNexus University.” To help AppNexians activate the “see and improve the whole system” value, they are taught about the whole system – including the industry ecosystem, how the company makes money, how ad technology works, as well as company cultural norms.Additionally, in line with their “learn and teach” value, at the end of the program each new hire teaches the other new hires something they dug deeper into that week. The goal is to demonstrate the values from the beginning and create a set of first impressions that employees mirror going forward.

Ongoing Employee Recognition

To hold these expectations throughout the employee lifecycle, groups have their own quarterly employee recognition programs, and there is a companywide program called Awesome@ which celebrates everyone who has been recognized. Teams have also built “bots” into Slack for ongoing peer-to-peer recognition.

Annual Employee Recognition

In addition to the quarterly rewards described above, AppNexus sets aside a substantial amount of stock options each year to recognize employees. One program, called the Founders Award, recognizes a few employees who were selected by a committee led by the CEO who have made a “founders level” impact on the company. Another program, called “Values in Action,” recognizes about 20 employees selected by their peers for putting AppNexus values in action every day. A goal of this program is to recognize those culture creators who frequently don’t have the opportunity to be recognized.

Talent Show Group Photo


Tapping Into Latent Capacity to Bring About Change


If culture is “how things get done” at a company, then how decisions get made about culture is a strong example of how employees experience the culture.

At AppNexus, Brandon focuses on decentralizing the decision-making process as much as possible. Coming from a background in community organizing, his philosophy is about tapping into latent capacity to bring about change, and he views one of his key roles as “creating space for individual employees to activate their values.” Or in other words, “if you hire amazing people, all you have to do is find ways to tap into that and inspire them to drive change.”

Brandon uses steering committees to tap into employee opinions and skills when making decisions about programs that impact culture. Each steering committee consists of cross-functional and cross-level employees with an executive sponsor. This structure is beneficial, because it draws on a diversity of opinions while engaging leaders in the process, which is necessary to turn ideas into meaningful action.

Here are some examples of AppNexus steering committees that make decisions about people and culture:

The Diversity and Inclusiveness steering committee explores programs to help make AppNexus a diverse community and inclusive culture.

The Talent Management steering committee focuses on processes and strategies to develop their employees.

The Town Hall steering committee designs and hosts events where employees ask senior execs probing questions.

The Work Sponsorship steering committee decides on policy and works towards making this a process that really works for employees.

The AppNexus Impact steering committee supports volunteerism and other social responsibility programs run by AppNexians.

Programs like this are great not only because they leverage different employee viewpoints, but also because they help individuals feel ownership over the culture. As Brandon explains, “We want employees to feel a sense of ownership over the company — that they can go and make things better.”


Speaking in a Voice Hearable by Multiple Tribes


We write this series so that you (yes, you!) can learn from other leaders and companies, so I asked Brandon about a challenge or lesson encountered while working on company culture at AppNexus.

Brandon’s biggest challenge in this role has been “speaking in a voice that is hearable by multiple tribes.”

Tribes are groups of employees with a similar functional background, way of behaving at work, and way of communicating. Different tribes need to be spoken to from a different and distinct voice. As Brandon explains, “engineers hate it when you are ‘ra-ra’ on stage and employees in service roles are more purpose-driven, and as a Chief People Officer, you have to learn to speak to everyone.”

Therefore, in this role, Brandon has learned to adapt his voice, his word choice, and his delivery to authentically inspire everyone: “You can try too hard, and there is a continuum between authenticity and perfection. If you hyper-optimize to authenticity, 20% is bound to be said in the wrong way. If you hyper-optimize to perfection, you’ll be thinking too hard, and it can come across as inauthentic.”

Those in the People business are often put in the position of “translating messages” from one tribe to another — from employees to the executive team, from location A to location B, etc. At CultureIQ, we call this process “telling your culture story,” which, when paired with a deep understanding of your tribes, is a crucial component of developing, maintaining, or strengthening your culture. While particularly pertinent to those in HR, Brandon’s lesson is an important message for all leaders, or really anyone working cross-functionally to drive change.

If you’re interested in learning more from Brandon and diving deeper into some of these topics, you should check out his series “the Alchemy of Org Building” on the AppNexus blog.

And if you enjoy learning about culture at other companies, read our first post in this series: How Things Get Done at CommonBond.