The Agency Business: Agency growth can sway employees to stay for the long haul

Though it's normal for PR pros to jump from firm to firm, that can have a negative effect on client retention. Hamilton Nolan asks some who have stayed loyal to one agency what drives their dedication

Though it's normal for PR pros to jump from firm to firm, that can have a negative effect on client retention. Hamilton Nolan asks some who have stayed loyal to one agency what drives their dedication

In the competitive and sometimes cutthroat world of PR, the notion of building a career at a single agency can seem antiquated. Many practitioners, particularly those slaving away at the entry level, prefer to keep one eye on the job listings at all times, ever alert for the open position that pays a few thousand dollars more or inches them one step closer to their imagined "dream job."

But there are those who have stuck it out and climbed the ladder within a single agency, rising from a lowly account executive to an upper-tier management post. And most who have chosen that path say they would not have wanted it any other way.

Carreen Winters, an SVP at MWW, joined the agency in 1990 as an account coordinator, the lowest position on the totem pole. In those days, her job was to be a "jack of all trades" at the small agency - answering phones, scheduling appointments, and lining up caterers. Over the next 15 years, she watched the agency expand along with her own role. Today she co-manages the national corporate communications practice.

Winters says that MWW has always appealed to her personal ambition. "I recognized very early on that this was a company that was growing very quickly," she says. "I didn't really have the patience to spend two years pasting up clips before anyone would consider letting me do anything else."

Many PR pros who have spent all, or at least most, of their careers committed to a single agency say that their perception of their employer's potential for growth was a key factor in their loyalty. Sean Cassidy came to Dan Klores Communications in 1992 as an AE and now serves as its president. He says that DKC's eponymous founder offered his charges enough leeway to ensure that the job remained interesting. "Dan set up a very creative and entrepreneurial company, and I was always sort of a fiend for action," Cassidy says. "The business was constantly growing, so it was evolving. The business that I am now in charge of is arguably different than the one I started at."

Although Cassidy admits that many other agencies have tried to recruit him over the course of his career, he says he has never been tempted to leave DKC. Now that he is in charge, he has made long-term retention of employees one of his priorities. "We have a relatively low attrition rate in terms of staff and a relatively low attrition rate in terms of clients," he notes. "There tends to be somewhat of a relationship."

Maribeth Schmidt, president of Pennsylvania-based FCF Schmidt PR, is an extreme example of dedication - she originally joined as the sole PR employee at an ad agency, before FCF PR was spun off as its own firm. In 2000, she bought out a retiring partner and put her own name on the door.

Schmidt says that the firm's culture of "integrity, autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship" was the greatest attraction for her. She has continued to do her best to instill those values in her own staff, and calls long-term retention "the backbone" of her agency. "That trust that we develop with our clients comes from account teams who have been in place for a long time," she says.

Patty Tucker, an SVP at Edelman Atlanta (originally the Headline Group; it was acquired by Edelman in 2002), spent 14 years working her way up from AE. "We've been growing so steadily that I was never restless," she says. "There was always new challenges, new work, new things to work on, so I didn't need to jump."

That environment of growth and change is the key to keeping any employee interested, explains Tucker. "If it weren't growing, it would be deathly," she says.

If agency leadership is committed to growth, and the employees themselves are motivated by dynamic change, retention will be the natural result. Jennifer Prosek, who got in on the ground floor of Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek in 1991 and is now MD of the agency's New York office, knows from experience that "staff volatility plus client volatility is death." Her advice to young PR pros? Keep in mind that no matter where you go in your career, "there's no substitute for hard work."

Ascending in one agency

  • Agency leadership should focus on growth to keep employees engaged

  • Employees should consider more than just salary when thinking of switching jobs

  • Mentoring young AEs can increase retention

  • Remember that employee turnover can equal client loss

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