PRWeek's Best Places to Work winners share views on employment issues

The winners of PRWeek's Best Places To Work got together at the inaugural Employers' Forum to discuss the issues around the profession's biggest asset: people.

  • Ruth Barnett vice-president global communications, SwiftKey

    Ruth Barnett vice-president global communications, SwiftKey

  • Matt Neale  president, GolinHarris

    Matt Neale president, GolinHarris

  • Vanessa Robinson head of HR practice development team, CIPD

    Vanessa Robinson head of HR practice development team, CIPD

  • Tony Langham co-founder and chief executive, Lansons

    Tony Langham co-founder and chief executive, Lansons

  • Claire Mason founder and managing director, Man Bites Dog

    Claire Mason founder and managing director, Man Bites Dog

  • Richard Houghton associate partner, Agency People

    Richard Houghton associate partner, Agency People

  • Justyne Whyke director, PR Futures

    Justyne Whyke director, PR Futures


The wide-ranging debate, sponsored by PR Futures, covered subjects from attracting top-notch candidates and career development to in-house pubs and the importance of company culture.

The panel consisted of the following, in the order (l-r) they appear in picture 1 above:

  • Ruth Wyatt, brand editor, PRWeek
  • Ruth Barnett, vice-president global communications at SwiftKey, the winner of In-house Best Place to Work
  • Matt Neale, international president, GolinHarris, the winner of the Large agency category
  • Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
  • Claire Mason, founder and MD, Man Bites Dog, the winner of the Small agency category
  • Tony Langham, co-founder and CEO, Lansons, the winner of the Mid-sized agency category
  • Justyne Whyke, director of recruitment consultancy PR Futures
  • Richard Houghton, associate partner, Agency People and also PRWeek's Agency Doctor

Claire Mason: At account manager level there seems to be a real dearth of outstanding people in a very competitive marketplace. Our location [in Brighton] and the kind of work we do helps to differentiate us, but we still struggle to recruit people at the rate we would like.

Tony Langham: In the 2008/2009 crash people cut their graduate intakes and now there is a shortage of people with three to five years’ experience. We’re all finding account manager and account director level difficult to recruit because we are all growing and there is a shortage. We all have our different offers as employers. Ours is that you don’t work in teams, you work across the agency, you don’t have to work on clients you don’t want to work on and you can work with senior people.

Matt Neale: Our strategy is basically to win awards and after winning Consultancy of the Year, it was much easier to recruit people. The calibre of people changed and we’ve made some really strong hires since last October. And a huge part of that was that they were at the [PRWeek Awards at the] Grosvenor, they remember us going on stage and thought to themselves "I wonder what that agency’s like".

Ruth Barnett: Reputation is a major thing. It is a lot easier to attract people now that SwiftKey has been named Wired’s number one hottest tech start-up in London. Accolades such as this have made it so much easier for people to risk their careers to join a start-up. There’s no guarantee – you’re getting that lottery ticket where we might be the big start-up that really transforms the industry. And the more momentum we’ve had behind the business, the easier it’s been to get great people to come knocking on our door.

Richard Houghton: As someone who got his first MD job on the back of an award, I totally agree. From the candidate’s point of view, it comes down to the pub test. Am I proud to say I work there or I’m going there for a job? A lot rests on your profile. What does your brand actually stand for? That’s made up of your culture and is that communicable? Your proposition – do I buy into it? You all have distinctive propositions – they’re not for everybody, but you know the people applying to join you want to be part of it.

Justyne Whyke: Good candidates at that [account manager and account director] level will have five or six offers on the table, so it is about your profile, what you can offer them and the way you interview. In the first two interview rounds you are the face of your company, but some can get the interview process completely wrong. From that simple mistake you can lose good candidates to rivals. People buy people, so getting the right people in the first place who then represent your company to candidates is really important.

Vanessa Robinson: Being very clear what culture you have and making sure you get that across to candidates is important – openness and honesty is a two-way thing. With people coming straight out of university, we increasingly find that they want to get that right cultural fit, the right behaviours, the right can-do attitude, and thinking you can teach the skills and the technical stuff. 

TL: Culture comes down to just being yourself and being authentic. I don’t believe you set out to have a company culture, you just have values – you live those values and you hope other people buy into them. For us, people have to be good, but they need to be nice and we’re very keen on that because you need to have an office that you walk into and feel good about every day. It is massively important that you are ethical because people, particularly graduates, want to know about your contribution to society. Then it is fairness. Also, we let the ownership of the company out – we’ve sold 60 per cent of the company to 30 other people – so ownership is on offer and [employees] can see that people who joined as second jobbers are on the board, we have people who started as front of house who are partners in the firm. And we are entrepreneurial – last year, we helped fund Hope&Glory setting up because we could and if some amazing opportunity comes up we are able to respond to it.

CM: When you go from a start-up growth is very dramatic, another ten people can mean doubling the size of the company. The amount of change in involved in that is huge, so we put in place the ability to really listen to the team to give everyone a key part in decision-making. We’ve gone from nought to 30 people in nine years and the change involved in each step has been huge. We really wanted to hang on to that sense of entrepreneurialism – being able to take decisions quickly and grab opportunities when they arise. A key part of that for me has been letting go and letting the team decide what their values are – we spend a lot of time considering these things and the team chose bright, authentic, caring and fun. I thought those were fantastic values for an agency to have and by letting them determine the values the culture then determines the strategy. It affects who we recruit and what clients we will and will not work for. The number one motivator for a Man Bites Dog person is interesting and challenging work. 

RB: SwiftKey is a start-up between two friends and everything pegs off that. We’ve had very rapid growth – from 30 to 130 in two years – and we have an obsession in keeping the culture the same, but letting the new people coming in help redefine it. It sounds contradictory; it’s a tightrope – how do we stay SwiftKey, but let new people make an authentic contribution? Everyone is treated on the presumption that you’re not going to try to cheat anyone or screw anyone over; there’s no start or end times, everyone has flexible working and we work very hard to hire people who honour that and have a strong desire internally of wanting to do a good job for themselves. Then you find that you can stand back and allow people to self-manage. I’ve never seen anywhere else pull it off. Investment in recruitment has been really significant. The thirty-first hire was a recruitment person, which at the time I thought was a weird priority, but it turned out to be the best decision and a remarkably successful strategy. 

CM: We all work flexibly – people are self-determined and use the technology or whatever is the best way of getting the work done and everyone has that flexibility. But there are some fundamentals that don’t change. How do you get a team together and get that team culture built? We are a social industry and teams need that time together to build that culture. When you are working in a collaborative and creative industry that cross-fertilisation of having lots of experts together in one place is really important.

MN: We spend a lot of time considering the little magic dust we can sprinkle over the agency that will make people remember us during the recruitment process. One thing we did was to start our own pub – we did try to buy a pub but our parents said no, so we borrow one. We do final-round interviews in the pub because we want really creative people to join us and as we get bigger it is harder to keep that mentality of a 27-strong start- up. So we want people to walk into our offices and say "wow you’re really big, I didn’t expect that, expected you to be a small start-up". Everyone seems to be saying the same thing and we have three different sized, differently paced businesses and in-house departments and everyone is trying to create a similar culture. We are all talking about the importance of having an entrepreneurial feel.

RB: It’s fascinating to hear the same sort of ideas because we are the smallest team in SwiftKey and it is difficult for me to know what’s PR culture, what’s SwiftKey culture or what’s just us culture. We definitely have an element of the coder culture, where they don’t wear shoes in the offices, there’s ping-pong at any time of the day, there’s a lot of remote work. I only realised just now that our team comes in Monday to Friday and we sit together – we don’t have to, it’s a collaborative thing and we are ‘people’ people.

RH: You have to get people together to be creative; you can do everything else remotely, but if you want to develop good, creative, insightful solutions for clients you have to have people in the same room.

CM: If you want people to be creative, they have to be bonded in the first place because that is what makes you different. If all our teams were somewhere remote, how would they feel that magic factor when they walk in to any of our agencies – that feeling you get when you walk in, when you feel the culture and the buzz and those relationships? 

VR: The more thoughtful organisations, those that realise it’s stupid to narrow their talent pool, are looking at ways to keep people engaged in the business who are not currently working – ways of saying "we do still value you and we will keep you engaged with what we’re doing, though we understand that you have other priorities at the moment". Mothers with young children tend to be the focus when flexible working is discussed, but there are other people for lots of different reasons, perhaps people having to care for sick parents, which means they cannot commit to long hours and the culture of presenteeism. Organisations are looking at ways to reassure them that’s all right, that they may not go zooming up the ranks but their contribution is valid and valuable. They are thinking more broadly and respect where they are in terms of their career trajectory – somebody might want to work, but they are not really interested in the next promotion, they might be quite happy to chug along at the same level for three or four years as their priority is to get back home to their kids.

JW: We get lots and lots of strong, really good candidates, but firms are not flexible with their flexible working and there’s nothing you can do with these brilliant women.

TL: I don’t know who these companies are. I’ve got eight people on the management board, seven have children; six are women; five of them do not work a five-day week; 80 per cent of the staff are women and 65 per cent of the equity is owned by women. You just have to balance it – certain clients demand a certain kind of work. If the client is a group of investment bankers involved in the restructuring of companies, they expect Q&As written at 1am and people in at 5am on announcements because that’s the work. Now we have parents of young children who want to do that kind of work but you have to balance it by allowing flexibility elsewhere.

CM: There is a dangerous assumption that if you return to work for three days a week, your career gets parked, but there’s no reason why someone working very hard on just three days cannot get promoted and continue their career development. You can keep that level of engagement and ambition; it’s about giving them a smaller proportion of work. It doesn’t mean they can’t take on more senior roles.

MN: It is almost the industry that makes women feel guilty for having children. I had a conversation two weeks ago with someone who recently had a baby and I said to her "you’ve worked with us so long and you have so much equity in the bank and we want you to work with us for the next five to seven years, you don’t have to get a promotion right now". And she doesn’t want to be promoted right now; she doesn’t want the extra pressure, she wants to enjoy being a mum and that’s brilliant. But I believe there is a self-imposed – or rather industry-imposed – pressure that you have to be a director by 30 and if you’re not, you’ve failed. She is quite wisely saying: "I’m going to be that at 33 and I’m going to get the balance right." We hope she will be working with us in five years’ time, which is brilliant because trying to find someone with the skill set is really, really hard. There are some shocking employers who seem to discriminate against you just because you have ovaries.

VR: Career development plays a key role in staff retention, but where it is used badly it costs a lot of money and doesn’t serve its purpose. Employers need to be very clear about what the development is for, that it’s not just a ‘sheep dip’ approach. People want it but it needs to be tailored to what their aspirations are; it doesn’t need to be courses, the idea of working for different people, having opportunities to go on secondment or stretch projects is all legitimate development.

RH: Sheep dip used to be a major management tool. They’d say "you have to get to this point now" and it didn’t matter how much you said "I can’t do that", they’d insist you had to. Career progression by concentrating on your weaknesses is also known as sheep dip. 

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