Keeping agency staff happy in their work and loyal to the company
has never been more important. As agencies struggle to recruit
high-calibre PR people with good professional skills and in-depth
industry sector knowledge, home-grown talent is becoming increasingly
According to many in the industry, the last 12 months have seen efforts
to poach agency staff reach levels last seen at the end of the
’You can almost watch a headhunter work their way around an office,
telephone by telephone,’ says Argyll Consultancies chief executive
Staff expect employers to provide certain levels of financial
remuneration and career opportunities in return for their services. But
it is the organisations that go the extra mile to commit to their people
that boast the best staff retention record, and here is PR Week’s guide
to keeping staff on-side.
When it comes to rewarding long service or outstanding work, there can
be little doubt that money is people’s number one preference, whatever
shape it comes in.
Last November, the Argyll Consultancies joined OFEX, the off-exchange
share trading facility. Manners says one of the reasons for this was to
encourage all full-time Argyll employees to take equity participation in
’It will allow us to access capital when we need it for expansion, but
it also gives staff a tangible link between hard effort and their
reward,’ he says.
At Consolidated Communications, staff automatically become shareholders
after six months’ service, with the condition that on leaving the
agency, shares must be sold back. The consultancy also ensures that
employees are kept informed of share price and market predictions, with
managing director Alastair Gornall making a financial presentation to
employees every quarter.
Other agencies are also rewarding performance with enticing financial
packages. Rachel Bell, joint founder of Shine Communications, says
’Shiney people’ receive 20 per cent of the agency’s net profits as
bonuses, in the shape of quarterly company and personal performance
payouts, related to length of service.
At Newcastle-based Northern Profile, staff are rewarded with a ’win
bonus’ of ten per cent of the first year’s fees from any new business
they bring in. And account directors and managers are paid a monthly
’portfolio bonus’, of three per cent of fees they work on. Managing
director Nick Brown says this largesse is highly unpopular with his
accountant, but adds: ’It’s how we’ve grown our business.’
Training and personal development
The belief that an employer is investing in your future career can be a
real boost. For several years Ketchum has been running its Ketchum
College scheme, offering a raft of in-house training courses through its
worldwide network, including ’How to run a multi-country account’.
However, to ensure that people on all rungs of the organisation’s ladder
get the right input into their personal development, every year, the UK
office sends a batch of account directors to Camp Ketchum in Florida for
three days of intensive training and appraisal. In addition, Ketchum
Life managing director Jane Boardman is currently doing an MBA, and UK
chief executive James Maxwell, is planning to attend an Omnicom-run
course at Harvard University.
Among other agencies offering excellent training benefits is the Red
Consultancy, which allocates an annual budget of pounds 36,000 for
external training through its Red Brick University. It also gives staff
pounds 600 per year to spend on ’fun’ courses, and invites what joint
founder David Fuller describes as ’industry big hitters’, who are known
specialists in their field to conduct training seminars.
Media specialist Lawson Dodd aims to prevent its working culture from
becoming stale by shaking up its staff benefits every year, and training
is no exception. One year the agency gave individuals their personal
training budget to spend how they thought best.
’It made people think about training and development in a different
way,’ says director Joanna Dodd. And the tactic seemed to pay off, with
staff spending their investment creatively, but wisely.
Being able to satisfy wanderlust, without leaving the security of a
well-paid job is proving more popular with employees. Sabbaticals are
one of the most common solutions to this problem, giving staff a chance
to travel, while the agency gets back an employee who, in theory, has a
renewed appetite for hard work.
Staff at Consolidated Communications are offered three months’ unpaid
leave after two years’ service, while Northern Profile is currently
paying half-salary to one of its employees who is on a three-month
environmental project in Australia.
However, agencies with an international network are also able to
accommodate people’s requests to experience different working cultures.
Countrywide Porter Novelli, for instance, has a scheme where staff can
request office transfers, and Ketchum recently met the ambitions of Mike
Hatfield, former UK head of its corporate and technology practice, by
allowing him to relocate to Chicago.
’We do have a business to run, but we’ll always look to accommodate life
ambitions,’ says Maxwell.
Ketchum also runs a ’Roads Scholarship’ scheme, which enables its
employees to spend two weeks developing specific skills in a Ketchum
office of their choice worldwide. Recent requests have included a
fortnight’s stint in Milan working with the fashion industry.
Health and lifestyle
Increasingly, consultancies are recognising the long and often stressful
hours that go with the job and taking responsibility for the health of
their employees. Many agencies are now offering stress management
training and private gym memberships.
Firefly offers a well-being programme which features a non-contributory
alternative health scheme. This gives staff a wide range of cash
benefits to cope with everyday health care including homeopathy and
’If we don’t take some responsibility for the health of our employees,
we run the risk that their damaged health becomes our damaged business,’
says Firefly managing director Claire Walker. In the past year, the
agency has also introduced measures such as headsets for staff who
regularly conduct business by mobile phone.
One of the most effective - and probably one of the cheapest - ways to
keep staff happy, is to publicly acknowledge their effort and hard
Countrywide Porter Novelli has a ’Four I’s’ award initiative to
encourage imagination, initiative, improvement and irreverence, where
worthy staff are rewarded monthly with CD tokens or bottles of
Similarly, to recognise best client service practice, this year the
agency established the Vredestein Award - sponsored and judged by its
client of 14 years, tyre manufacturer Vredestein - which gives staff the
chance to win a weekend break in Europe.
While at Argyll, in addition to Employee of the Month, voted for by all
agency staff, managers have the flexibility to give on-the-spot
Excellence Awards, rewarding outstanding effort both publicly and
financially. Recently one employee received pounds 50 for selling in a
double-page feature to the Daily Mail within days of joining the
But some say that internal awards risk becoming predictable or even
patronising, and prefer to take a less formal approach. Shine, for
example, holds quarterly Woof Awards, for newshounds who have gone that
extra mile to get media coverage.
One of the most effective ways to reward loyalty is to award
increasingly attractive bonuses with each year of service. At Firefly,
five years’ service brings a Cartier watch, and after ten years Firefly
staff and their partners receive an additional two weeks fully-paid
holiday to the Caribbean or destination of their choice.
Younger companies such as Bite, which has been up and running for less
than five years, prefer a ’pick and mix’ benefits basket. This enables
employees to trade in benefit points they have earned, for bonuses that
appeal the most. One point is worth pounds 100 of shopping vouchers or
pounds 100 paid into a pension scheme; between three and six points
gains a mobile phone; six points earns gym membership and those at
account director level or above can trade in these points for company
Many agencies are looking to extend the business environment beyond a
simple money-making exercise and give staff more meaning to their
Others are looking to be flexible employers, enabling staff to work from
home and those with family responsibilities to work part time.
’One of the most exciting developments over recent years is the way
organisations are looking to get the work and lifestyle balance right,’
says Maxwell at Ketchum UK.
The Red Consultancy gives its people time off to lecture in their
speciality and work for charities of their choice, and Firefly is paying
a substantial portion of the overall sponsorship for four of its
employees to cycle 500 kilometres along the banks of the Nile in aid of
Mencap in February.
The agency is also meeting the costs of medical insurance and
registration fees and is helping to raise money from suppliers. Firefly
hopes that this first exercise in fostering partnership between its
people and charities will lead to other opportunities for employees to
get involved in the future.
Gornall says that Consolidated’s air-conditioned offices was the perk
that finally persuaded at least one member of his team to join the
’It was July, and they told me it was so fantastically cool here, it
made up their mind,’ he says and adds: ’The air-conditioning cost pounds
40,000 last year, but it was worth every penny.’
Many agencies shower staff with cake and champagne on birthdays and even
give people a paid day off work in December to go Christmas
At Bite, staff get a ’Birthday Duvet Day’ - an extra day off if their
birthday falls on a weekday, and the teams at Nelson Bostock and Lawson
Dodd get an office massage every two weeks.
David Fuller at Red says his staff are so keen, the only extras they
need are a lie-in on birthdays and vouchers for buying goodies in the
run-up to Christmas. But Red does recognise that its people are young,
sociable types who need to spend time developing good relationships
outside office hours.
’We have ’hangover amnesties’, where instead of occasionally phoning in
with ’food poisoning’, people come clean and admit they went on a bender
the night before,’ he says. He emphasises that this is not carte blanche
for partying every night of the week, but a way of encouraging
straightforward dialogue within the agency.
The soft benefits that employers offer such as funding social events are
hardly likely to be the deciding factor for whether a disgruntled staff
member stays or goes, but they can go a long way to make the working
week, and a career in PR, seem much more worthwhile.
ADVANCING STAFF SKILLS AND BOOSTING ESTEEM
Agencies which fail to encourage development of professional and
personal skills among employees are the most likely to struggle in the
staff retention stakes.
And while PR is the third most popular career choice for all graduates,
until recently there was a gap in vocational qualifications for those
agencies looking to help staff formalise their skills.
PR people with a post-graduate qualification in a PR-related discipline,
such as a Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma, or those who needed
to combine work with study had limited options.
In autumn 1998, to provide PR practitioners with a solid professional
theory and practice grounding, the IPR launched its PR Diploma
Run at sites in London, Leeds and Edinburgh, the 24-week courses consist
of eight days teaching on a block day release. Students study the
strategic roles and functions of PR and examine the discipline in
practice as a management tool. At the end of the first term, students
sit a three-hour examination on corporate PR, strategic management,
legal framework, ethics and social responsibility. The remaining time is
spent on PR planning and specific PR projects with three assessments of
between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
The course demands a significant commitment from students and their
employers and all 90 places on last year’s courses were snapped up.
’My agency was fantastic,’ says Matt Baily, account manager at Harrison
Cowley in Bristol, who studied in London. ’I had only been working here
for six months when I started the course and the agency paid the course
fees, travel expenses and text books.’ Baily finished second in his year
and received an IPR Education Excellence Award last October.
While Baily is unsure how his employer’s commitment to his future has
affected his loyalty, he adds: ’I am extremely grateful for the time and
money they invested in me and I want to repay them in the quality of my
work.’ Citigate Scotland account manager Lesley Clark took the IPR
Diploma in Edinburgh to gain a professional qualification. She says the
impetus came from her rather than the company, but said it was extremely
’Here, the onus is very much on the individual to take responsibility
for where they feel they want to branch out,’ she says. But, she warns
employers that being flexible in financial support and time off for
study is not enough alone to foster loyalty: ’Loyalty comes through a
number of other things that you experience on a day-to-day basis,’ she