When the competition poaches your staff

Well-trained talent is an issue among Australian agencies; but is poaching the right answer?


Earlier this year, Australian agency Cummins & Partners made headlines for hitting out at larger networks including The Monkeys and TBWA for poaching a number of its staff. Cummins & Partners claimed that it has developed a culture of nurturing and mentoring talent, a quality that has become well-known in the industry that has led to larger networks poaching creative talent from them.

“Last year was traumatic,” Sean Cummins, Cummins & Partners CEO and chief creative officer, told PRWeek Asia. “We were in a brutal shutdown, revenues plummeted, and we asked staff to take salary cuts. We communicated often and with varying degrees of success. Tough love was rejected. Many of my personal attempts to do ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ speeches came off tone-deaf and it was palpable that people were not coping uniformly.”

As the market began to slowly heal, staff went back to full salaries and were refunded of the amount they had previously sacrificed. Cummins said that staff retention rate last year remained at 90 per cent.

“I think we have a special culture. People working alongside the owners of a business is a rare dynamic. A lot of people don’t realise at the time that this is such a unique thing. I call it ‘momentorship’,” said Cummins.

However, he slammed the industry culture of poaching as “lazy”, especially when larger networks sniff out talent from smaller set-ups such as his.

“A lot of our people that were recently poached by other agencies were tempted by huge salaries and huge promises. And it is wrong to inflate the salary of people just to attract them to your agency,” he said. “Right now in Australia, due to the lack of international talent, there is a scramble for well-trained accomplished people. We have always had our share of them and they stay with us almost twice as long as most other staff at other agencies. I think we just create good growth journeys.”

Cummins said that agencies who poach talent from his agency know they are getting “elite talent” and would bypass recruiter's fees and do little in the way of understanding one’s career needs. 

“But one amazing phenomenon we seem to have is many of them return to us. So that's a bit of deferred gratification,” he added.

On the ‘proper’ way of hiring, Cummins said that agencies should use recruiters. “If the recruiters do their job right, they are the best people to let you know where the talent is on their journey. And to be honest, I would love it if another agency had the balls to ring me out of courtesy and say 'look, we've made an approach to one of your staff’,” he said.

“Because I often don’t have a problem with people leaving. It's healthy for the air to circulate. And many times when [staff] have come to me telling me they wish to leave, they are surprised when I am happy for them. By caring about their careers you show ultimately that staff are not your property. They're your responsibility.”

On the contrary, some situations have arisen where former staff have left to start their own agencies and pulled former colleagues to band with them. Cummins called this move “cheap” and “unclassy”.

Vuki Vujasinovic, CEO at Sling & Stone, told PRWeek Asia that he has no problem trying to poach staff as, after all, it’s a free and open market. “Agency leaders should be paranoid, and assume every single day that people are trying to recruit their best talent. If you treat your teammates like someone is approaching them every day, and work hard to create the best environment for everyone to do the best work of their careers, you will keep great teams together,” he said.

Caroline Addy, managing director at Milk & Honey PR, told PRWeek Asia that it’s always going to be preferable to believe the only reason an employee goes to another agency is because they were taken or coerced.

“The reality is that people have the ability to make conscious decisions based on what they want, what’s important to them and a plan for the future. It’s never a nice feeling when people you’ve nurtured leave and go to another agency, but it’s going to happen. So, use it as an opportunity to look through their eyes. You might learn something crucial about your agency’s culture, values or client portfolio that could stop another person from making the same decision to leave,” she said. 

So what are the biggest motivators for staff to jump ship? Cummins said that the “toughness” of the industry may lead to demotivated talent. “We have to deal with constant rejection, immense stress and an ever-devaluing of our importance as an industry,” he said.

Addy, meanwhile, said that for some people, money could be a key driver and that there’s nothing wrong with that. But she echoed Cummins’ sentiment of it being an exceptional time for staff overall: “Over the last 15 months, reasons for movement in the industry have evolved across the board. Many employees were reduced to four days or less, working from home has tested agencies’ cultures and leadership teams shifted their focus from thriving to surviving, which takes a toll on everyone.

“The search for quality people has become fierce and salary bands are creeping upwards to entice candidates through the door. Yet, at the same time, Covid has impacted a lot of people in a very personal way and some things have just become more important than money.” 

Undoubtedly, this has led to a wave of burnout, perhaps at a level that the industry has never before seen. One silver lining is that there’s been a heightened sense of awareness about the repercussions of burnout and its impact on mental health, and agencies are increasingly being held accountable for poor work culture.

“The next generation of PR professionals doesn’t want to accept that ‘this is just the way it’s done in our industry’,” said Addy. “Some will quickly seek an alternative environment and others will turn their back on the industry altogether if they can’t find a balance that suits them. I’ve seen a number of incredibly talented full-time employees turn to freelance roles because they wanted to regain control over their work-life balance. I’ve never seen them so happy.”

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