I once beamed with pride about our marketing agency’s miniscule turnover rate. Then came the pandemic’s Great Resignation: 14 of our 30 full-time staffers at our Virginia-based agency left in eight months. Ouch. Almost a year later, fully staffed again, I still twitch a bit when an employee asks if we can talk.
Losing staff is hard. But with the global labor market still tight, the question the world’s communications agencies must confront is: How far should we go to retain them?
To find out how others are facing this challenge, I turned to my peers in IPREX, the global network of independent marketing, public relations and communication agencies we joined in 2017. What I heard were different approaches to the same new reality. While it’s not clear how long it will last, employees from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the Americas, seem to be looking for more from an agency job these days.
“I think people are trying to figure out something new,” notes Caroline Heywood, the managing director at Walsh:PR, an IPREX firm in Dublin, Ireland. The question today is “how can my work now fit into my life instead of just coming to work every day.”
What should independent agencies do in this environment? That all depends on what you are trying to build. Below are some approaches agency managers are trying around the world.
Be ready to pay more for talent.
Front and center is the issue of money. “The competition is tougher than it has ever been and carrots are constantly being dangled in front of our strongest performers,” says Marjorie Freer, the director of human resources at the Mower Agency, an IPREX firm based in Syracuse, New York.
Not surprisingly, many firms say they are budgeting more for salaries in the coming year. Managers simply see it as an unavoidable reality.
“We are currently experiencing upwards of a 12% increase in salary expectations across the board in Ireland in order to secure the talent we need,” says Maeve Governey, deputy managing director at Walsh:PR. “In terms of retaining existing staff we are talking about a 5% increase to mitigate inflation.”
Nevertheless, frame the work as about more than money
At the same time, many independent agencies worry they cannot compete with other sectors on money alone. So they are leaning into benefits independent firms are better positioned to offer.
“We have seen during COVID a rise in salaries; it makes people more likely to move for more money,” says Kathy Lindsay, the managing partner at Wells Haslem Mayhew, an IPREX public affairs firm in Sydney, Australia. But workers also “want meaningful places to work, one that cares about employees, cares about the world. Also, flexibility to work from home, work life balance, good culture with training and development opportunities.”
Andrei Mylroie, a partner at DH, an IPREX communication firm in Spokane, Washington, says his firm “really doubled down on mission,” which for DH is increasingly focused on social change. “A lot of companies talk about vision,” he says. “It usually begins and ends with vinyl letters on a wall. But we’re trying to connect it to the work we do, the work we go after.”
DH leaned heavily into its public health and equity work, being more intentional about the bids it sought and the relationships firm partners developed. The strategy has worked, not only as a way to retain employees but for growth. In one year, the firm grew from 29 to 38 employees and experienced no unwanted turnover.
Be flexible about where people can work.
When the pandemic closed offices, many employees moved at least temporarily to new cities. Now, firms must decide whether to embrace remote work longer term. Manifesto, an IPREX communications firm in Helsinki, is going all in.
Not only have they allowed senior staff to continue working outside Finland’s capital, “we pay their train or plane tickets and hotel stay when they have to meet in person with clients in Helsinki,” says Harri Kammonen, the firm’s CEO. “We wanted to set an example that the hybrid working model is okay to everyone even after the pandemic goes away. We have always been a champion for remote work so this just takes it a bit further.”
This flexibility can feel almost non-negotiable in the current environment.
“Personally, I also have two friends that are looking for new jobs specifically because their employer is saying they should be in the office,” says Paula Wright, the vice president of client Services at Minneapolis-based Tunheim, another IPREX member. “Guaranteeing the opportunity to work remotely is critical. We recently had someone accept a role, but they wanted to be sure working remotely was specified in the offer letter.”
Freer has seen workplace flexibility help Mower retain employees in bigger markets, such as Boston and New York, when competitors try to lure away employees with fatter salaries. “We have been able to counter and have succeeded because we have met the [compensation needs] and have offered continued opportunity for flexibility and work-from-home,” she says. “It used to be much more about salary and health benefits but employees’ priorities have changed, especially in the last year.”
Keep investing in culture
Some agency leaders also talked about being careful to strike a balance between flexibility and losing the company’s connection to employees. “I believe that some people work more effectively from home than in an office environment and vice versa,” says Governey of Walsh:PR in Dublin. “But having said that, when you are running a business you have to consider the entire team and how that all works together. Junior members of staff are going to learn much more from senior colleagues when they are sharing an office space and learning by listening rather than sitting at home in silos.”
Kammonen from Manifesto agrees office time will not go away, and in fact may rebound to be closer to what existed pre-pandemic. “We are herd animals,” he says.
Governey also believes it is more important than ever to invest in off-site gatherings, even meeting for drinks or meals. That “can really add value as we become more disparate in the way we work,” she says. “It also helps our team to feel more valued and motivated.”
Recruit workers willing to stay with your firm longer term.
Mania Xenou, the founder of Reliant Communications in Athens, Greece, has begun recruiting differently. She looks not just for great talent, but the talent most likely to stay.
Xenou tells the tale of two young women, hired about the same time out of a Greek University. One initially attracted more attention and repeatedly asked for more money; the other was quiet and content. Eventually, Xenou figured the more demanding employee took too much effort. “I realized this is a dead end and that I have spent effort, emotions and money on a very talented girl who will always ask for more. So, I told her that I can’t do what she wants, and she finally left.” Meanwhile, clients loved the other employee. “She was perfect and she was happy within the company.”
“I think that recruiting is the key to retaining,” Xenou says. “You can find many young professionals with the same talents, same skills, same intelligence. Try to find among them the ones that are near to you and near to the company’s culture, personally and emotionally.”
Be ready for more change
Here at our firm, Marketing for Change Co, we are also looking at how we work. How do we continue to demand excellence and speed without driving stress? It’s an age-old agency challenge. But more than ever, we’re committed to addressing this challenge. We think it will make us stronger for clients and help us retain employees.
Our turnover actually helped us as an agency, given how little new blood we had welcomed at more senior levels for so many years. But it’s nice to have more employee stability again. Even if nothing feels as stable as it once did.
Peter Mitchell is the Chairman ad Chief Creative Officer at Marketing For Change Co, an integrated marketing, research and product development firm focused on making what’s good fun, easy and popular.
This article has been published as part of the IPREX Marketing Committee’s Thought Leadership program