The PRWeek Best Places to Work Survey

Which agencies deliver the best training, perks and flexibility? Cathy Wallace reveals the outstanding employers in 2010.

After a successful launch of the survey last year, PRWeek has embarked on another mission to find the best PR agencies to work for in the UK. We invited UK agencies to fill in our survey, and used the responses to cut the 118 entries to a shortlist of just 20.

These agencies were asked to supply more details, including how they approach issues such as training, staff development, family-friendly working and benefits.

The final 20 were then discussed by the judging panel, which comprised: Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA; Jay O'Connor, president of the CIPR; Cathy Wallace, features editor, PRWeek; and Kate Magee, deputy features editor, PRWeek.

Once again, judges were very impressed with the quality of the entries. 'The quality keeps on getting better and better,' says Ingham, who also judged last year's survey: 'What stands out for me is just how highly consultancy heads value their teams - even during the tough times, they continue to invest in staff. It is remarkable how much fun many consultancies are. They do not just do the dry stuff, they also work hard to make the office an enjoyable, friendly environment.'

As well as great benefits, a low staff turnover, a generous training budget and evidence of commitment to staff welfare, judges were looking for agencies that could demonstrate a supportive and creative working environment.

'Professional development remains a priority, with a wide range of training, coupled in some cases with support for qualifications and professional association membership, and well-developed performance assessment programmes,' says O'Connor.

Despite the quality of the shortlist, judges awarded just ten agencies gold, silver and bronze status in the survey. Read on to find out which agencies made the list.

CIRKLE COMMUNICATIONS

Staff: 27

Based: Beaconsfield and Marylebone, London

Judges felt Cirkle's entry reflected an organisation that cares for and nurtures staff at all levels. The mantra 'healthy body, healthy mind' is so important to the agency that a new division - body and soul - was set up to look after beauty, fitness and wellbeing clients. But the notion of wellbeing is just as important when it comes to staff development.

All staff at Cirkle are encouraged to take care of themselves physically with an office Powerplate, use of a gym and subsidised circuit classes. Instead of the traditional 'duvet day', Cirkle offers employees an extra day's holiday to devote to wellbeing activities, which are subsidised by the agency.

This nurturing approach is underpinned by a robust and structured training programme that incorporates internal and external training, and is based on clear objectives. The judges felt the training on offer at Cirkle was thorough and comprehensive. This is backed up by a biannual appraisal process that sees staff set key objectives linked to bonus-led rewards.

Cirkle also helps employees manage work-life balance, with family-friendly working policies including extended maternity and paternity policies, which increase with length of service. Staff are also supported to work from home and between the Beaconsfield and Marylebone offices.

The judges were impressed also by Cirkle's policy of 'banning' holidays for senior staff, allowing them to manage their own diaries and take time off as and when they see fit. Rikki Weir, board director, says: 'To me, Cirkle represents big agency mentality with small agency flexibility. Staff are treated like mini entrepreneurs, with permission for a life outside work, and we've proven this to be conducive to a highly engaged workforce.'

Cirkle takes social events and networking as seriously as staff training, with a series of company away-days, all with fitness themes, and a CSR strategy that gets staff involved with the local community. Champagne is regularly cracked open on an ad hoc basis to celebrate promotions, client wins and awards.

LONDON COMMUNICATIONS AGENCY

Staff: 21

Based: London

During her first month with the firm, Jenna Goldberg, account manager at London Communications Agency, was whisked off with the rest of the team for a weekend in Barcelona. 'This sunny, if hectic, welcome set the pace for me for the time ahead,' she says.

Judges were impressed with all aspects of the agency's entry. Training and staff development was a particular strength.

Each member of staff has a bespoke programme and a budget of up to £1,500 per person for training needs. On top of external training, often through the PRCA or CIPR, all staff attend regular masterclasses internally, along with interactive workshops, weekly team meetings and regular talks, plus Q and A sessions with industry experts.

Staff are also encouraged to job-shadow and mentor as part of the development programme, and secondments are offered to staff to help them broaden their experiences. These have ranged from working in a Whitehall press office and accompanying a minister, to working in NHS London.

The agency runs regular briefings, such as a recent programme of briefings on the outcomes of the local elections in London for clients and associates. Every year, private dinners are held at The Ivy with a senior guest speaker who is of interest to clients - who speaks in return for a donation to charity.

It is not all serious, however.

The agency runs its own social club alongside a running club, a film club and a football team. Every other year, the entire agency ups sticks for a weekend, with recent destinations including Venice and Barcelona.

The judges were also impressed with the agency's maternity and paternity packages, which are significantly more generous than the statutory minimum. Staff can have up to eight weeks maternity leave on full pay, with a further eight on half pay - depending on how long they have been with the firm. The agency also pays full basic salary during paternity leave, as opposed to statutory paternity pay, and paternity leave can be extended up to three months or longer if needed.

Benefits on offer include working from home, flexible hours, sabbaticals, performance-related pay, a pension plan, season ticket loan and a networking fund of up to £1,000 per person, per year. And at Christmas, staff are rewarded with a bonus of up to 20 per cent of their basic salary, on top of a Christmas bonus.

It is not just PRWeek that has spotted LCA's great attitude towards its staff - the agency has been a finalist for the CIPR Outstanding Consultancy of the Year award for the past three years and won the gong outright in 2007.

JUST HEALTH PR

Staff: 25

Location: London

Just Health PR was an award-winner in last year's PRWeek Best Places to Work survey, and judges felt standards at the healthcare shop had remained very high. The agency has expanded rapidly, taking on eight new staff members in 2009, but it seems to have managed that growth effectively.

Judges were impressed by Just Health's training programme, which has been developed in partnership with a theatre company.

The programme covers induction, involvement in the agency, news and social media training, and team synergy. Staff are also encouraged to carry out CIPR and HCA-accredited training.

The agency offers staff benefits including: job share; flexible hours; working from home; bonuses; secondments; sabbaticals; and a company iPhone. Staff work from offices in Putney, which feature an open-plan workspace, heaven and hell-themed bathrooms and a bean bag zone breakout area.

Senior consultant Laura Dobell says: 'Just feels like a safe place to practise new skills, helping me feel energised, prepared and confident in my client work and resulting in my recent promotion.'

As further testimony to Just Health's status as a great place to work, only one person left the agency in 2009, to pursue a career as a physiotherapist.

COMMUNICATIONS MANAGEMENT

Staff: 24

Based: St Albans, Herts

Communications Management really embraces learning, leading to more than 25 per cent of the team being promoted during 2009.

As well as a formal development programme, staff are given time and funding to study for qualifications such as CIPR and CIM diplomas.

Team-building events play a key part in the agency's ethos, and have included away days to EuroDisney, sailing on the Solent, treasure hunts on the Isle of Wight, wine-sampling and horse racing, as well as charity work and fundraising.

The judges also felt Communications Management embraced family friendly-working, with options including flexible hours, school term-time working only, working from home and career breaks.

Consultant Margaret Kubicek says: 'The culture of openness to discussion and new ideas at Communications Management means we can talk about revised working arrangements to benefit not just me, as a working mother of three, but the company too.'

The agency welcomes high-profile speakers to its office, as well as running off-site networking events.

And to show that it leads from the front, its founder, Communications Management MD Pam Calvert, won Best Boss in the national Enterprising Women Awards 2009.

EULOGY

Staff: 35

Based: London

Judges felt Eulogy's entry reflected a fun, inclusive approach. The agency says the team is at the heart of everything it does, and this was clearly demonstrated by the fact that just four people left the agency in 2009 - and eight joined.

Eulogy has worked with trainer Richard Baines for eight years on its internal and external training programme, which covers one-to-one and group training.

The agency also brings in industry experts, including clients and senior journalists, to present on hot industry topics such as pitching to the nationals, digital developments and the shape of the newspaper and magazine industry. Staff can also access a personal development fund, to help them increase their skills outside PR.

Eulogy hosts networking events at its London offices including client seminars, breakfast briefings and before-parties to industry events.

The agency is also famed for its Christmas parties, which incorporate a Pogues concert in keeping with founder Adrian Brady's Irish heritage.

Account manager Elaine Birch says: 'Everyone supports each other and celebrates every great piece of coverage, client win and milestone.

'It's a mixture of dedication and reward that really makes Eulogy stand out.'

And the agency must be doing something right, as it won PRCA Agency of the Year in 2009.

MANDATE COMMUNICATIONS

Staff: 71

Based: London

According to CEO Sacha Deshmukh, 'Mandate must deliver the best experience and workplace. Nothing less.'

As befits a sizeable PR agency, Mandate has an enviable office space in central London, a comprehensive training and development programme, and hosts networking events with significant clout. But judges felt Mandate retained the personal touch.

Training is tailored to the individual's personal development plan and the agency asks for feedback after sessions.

Judges were also impressed by the focus on growing talent within the agency, demonstrated by the fact that onethird of the team started in the company as graduate trainees or interns.

The agency also provides a good range of benefits to staff, from lunchtime yoga sessions, a bike-to-work scheme and a weekly social club, to a pension plan, bonuses, private healthcare and share ownership.

Deborah Hitchcock, account manager, adds: 'A bar, roof terrace and free breakfast can't hurt either.'

Judges also liked the fact that all staff receive an individual letter from the CEO every Christmas, reflecting on their own personal contribution and looking ahead to the company's plans for the coming year.

PRETTY GREEN

Staff: 24

Based: London

Pretty Green is an agency on the up, as demonstrated by its performance in 2009 and status as a PRWeek 'One to Watch' in the annual Top 150 league tables.

In 2009, just one staff member left, to go travelling, while ten joined, showing the agency is expanding swiftly.

Judges were pleased to note that, despite its youth, Pretty Green has a sound training structure in place, incorporating internal and external training and mentoring, and one-to-one coaching from an outside professional training company.

New staff are reviewed informally for the first two months, then formally after three months, when they are set six-month objectives. All staff are appraised annually, with informal and formal reviews every three months.

Nick Stocker, junior account executive, says: 'We don't chase the quick buck, instead choosing only to work with clients that truly excite us. Because of this approach, we are all eager to get stuck into our projects before the briefs arrive and when they do, this philosophy fuels creativity and drives personal development.'

The judges felt Pretty Green seemed a lively and fun place to work. Its Clerkenwell offices feature a well-stocked beer and wine fridge, a punchbag and table tennis table, free breakfasts and chocolate, and an allowance towards gym membership. The firm plays host to visitors such as new companies or key media contacts, including Chappers and Dave from Radio One and entertainment specialists Sternberg Clarke.

PEGASUS PR

Staff: 30

Based: Worthing, West Sussex

Staff at healthcare shop Pegasus PR have every incentive to keep themselves healthy - the agency provides free fruit and a Wii Fit for people to use during breaks. Less healthily, the agency also gives employees impromptu ice creams in the summer and pizza in the winter.

Aside from treats, staff all follow a formal training schedule tailored to their own needs. New staff get an induction and a 'buddy' to help and guide them for their first month, and introduce them to everyone else in the team. Training covers on-the-job skills, but also extends to lifestyle courses paid for by the firm, such as nutrition and massage. Judges felt the agency seemed inclusive and supportive of staff. Chris Webb, senior account director, says: 'Perhaps the best bit about working at Pegasus is that everyone's voice is heard when it comes to how the agency is run, which makes us feel like an important part of a team that is going places.'

Pegasus operates a busy social schedule, which, in 2009, included a day at Goodwood races, visits to Sky TV, an evening at Thorpe Park, a Chinese buffet evening, a skittles evening and a Christmas party.

Staff benefits include childcare vouchers, flexible hours with the option to consider part-time working following maternity leave and performance-related bonuses, as well as a budget for team-building exercises and outings.

MAN BITES DOG

Staff: 12

Based: Brighton

The judges were struck by Man Bites Dog's solid entry and the fact the agency seems to inspire real loyalty in colleagues and ex-colleagues. The team calls itself 'the Dogs' and while two staff members left in 2009, one returned within the year and the second still joins the agency on social evenings.

Training covers induction training, personal development, core competency, external training and team building, and team workshops. Several staff members are also given life coaching and mentoring. The agency takes a creative approach to away days, and in 2009 staff learned magic, attended wine-tasting classes and went carol singing.

The management carries out staff surveys asking employees about their motivations. This has led to the agency establishing flexible and home-working for staff, as feedback showed these were two of the most important benefits to employees. Judges were impressed by the agency's personalised approach to offering staff a say in their benefits packages.

Vic Crook, account director, says: 'The best aspect for me by far is the infectious achievement culture. Even in its infancy, the agency has always had a culture that enables challenging tasks to be enjoyed rather than feared.

I approach complex projects with gusto, because I have the support of a team with a "can do" attitude.'

RMS PR

Staff: 15

Based: Cheshire

Judges were impressed by RMS PR's approach to flexibility and work-life balance. Staff can request as much holiday as they like - although the average number of holidays taken by staff in 2009 was 25 days per person - and the agency contributes towards nursery fees. RMS also exceeds statutory maternity pay entitlements.

All staff members have a mentor within the company and a generous training budget to help them develop their skills. Staff also undergo a Belbin assessment, which helps management ensure a well-balanced workplace.

The agency is active in the community, forming the Altrincham Business Club, a major networking organisation in Cheshire pulling together the local business community.

Account executive Nicola Watson says: 'A strong yet fair work ethic filters down from director level, instilling loyalty among employees. The management's open door policy is comforting and you are actively encouraged to discuss anything from professional to personal issues.'

RMS also encourages its staff to pursue interests outside of work and counts a Football League assistant referee and a Brown Owl among its employees. It also sponsors a local junior football club. Judges did not know what to make of the stuffed sheep in the RMS office, but staff did not seem to be complaining.

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