THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Small firms can't be shortsighted when it comes to training.

The down economy has forced budget cuts at firms of all sizes. Paul Cordasco uncovers some strategies small agencies are using to ensure that staff training is maintained for employees at all levels.

The down economy has forced budget cuts at firms of all sizes. Paul Cordasco uncovers some strategies small agencies are using to ensure that staff training is maintained for employees at all levels.

Okay, here's a secret: the giant global PR firms do not have a monopoly on training despite the fact that it was the exclusive focus of last week's "The Agency Business."

While smaller firms obviously do not have the extensive resources that many of the multinationals can boast, a quick peek uncovers ample evidence that smaller agencies do indeed realize that not reinvesting in their people in 2003 is practically inexcusable.

"We don't have any budget for [training] and it's a small team, so we try and get the best out of things that are offered for free," says Kris Wilen Brown, director of a six-person PR department at Scottsdale, AZ-based ad agency Lavidge & Baumayr.

Brown has developed a program focused on inviting local media and marketing pros to guest-lecture at the firm's "brown bag" luncheon. These instant seminars have a twofold benefit: junior staffers (Brown's staff has two interns and one junior account professional) receive much needed advice on basic skills like media relations, and junior and senior staffers can make good local media contacts.

"These reporters, editors, and producers love to talk about themselves," says Brown. "And I don't have to pay them anything. One broadcast journalist brought in a three-page tip sheet with nearly every single person's [at his news outlets] name, phone number, and tips on the best way to pitch them."

Other smaller firms say they seriously consider how much training has already been invested in potential new hires before adding them to staff. For instance, Hanser & Associates Public Relations, a firm with 10 employees, $1 million in revenue, and offices in Des Moines, IA and Omaha, NE, says it only hires experienced agency executives after assessing the candidate's previous training.

"We look for people with about three years of previous agency experience, so they can hit the ground running," says the firm's co-CEO Ron Hanser. "People we're hiring are, for the most part, very experienced at media relations. We try to structure our training around adding skills that they might need to complement their experience [like software or general presentation]. We just handle the hiring process, so we're not in a position where we are training people on the basics - like writing skills, for instance."

Yet as committed as many smaller firms are to training, some say that they have had to cut costs in lean times. Even for those smaller and midsize firms with enough resources to allocate money for a training budget, the last few years have meant some drop-off in that budget due to a rocky economy.

"When we have to cut, which is never easy, we cut the budgets that were given to individuals to attend seminars or attend other professional-development events," explains Kathy Burnham, VP at Padilla Speer Beardsley (PSB) a midsized Minneapolis-based firm that posted $8.2 million in revenue in 2002. "And when we were cutting expenses, that was the easiest type to put on hold for a while."

Much of PSB's training is run in-house and costs more in "time than money." The firm taps senior staff for a combination of staff-written and instructed courses and seminars. The firm has devised a so-called "Post Grad" program that includes a series of professional-development courses. The program's "flagship" course is given to each new staff member, regardless of his or her seniority or function. The seven-week lunchtime course is run about twice a year. It is designed to focus on how to work most effectively within a PR firm and, more specifically, at PSB.

Some say that training isn't only important from the business viewpoint, but for boosting staff morale as well.

"I think they see it as a benefit and also as a symbolic investment in them," says Lavidge & Baumayr's Brown. "So, they're not just here to do the work and go home. It shows that I'm interested in their professional development and in their future, whether it be here or at another agency."

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Training trends at smaller firms

  • Small firms often have limited training budgets, and thus try to stretch their training spending. Many construct sessions that are run by senior in-house staffers or outside experts. These programs cost more in time than money.

  • Some small firms limit their hiring to pros with some agency experience. Therefore, the firm spends less time working on nuts-and-bolts training.

  • The first area of the training budget cut by small firms is related to professional development seminars and conferences that call for the agency to pick up travel-related expenses.

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