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Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Agency Wellbeing Census

Agency Wellbeing Census: Average staff retention at UK agencies just 42%, our survey finds

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

September 27, 2022 | 8 min read

The Drum’s Agency Wellbeing Census has revealed how big the struggle to retain talent during the pandemic has been – and the lack of key training and systems at many British agencies.

The Drum Wellbeing Census graphic

The Drum released the findings of the Agency Wellbeing Census this week / The Drum

Staff losses at British advertising and marketing agencies were so high over the pandemic that companies only managed to retain 42.4% of their employees, a survey from The Drum has found.

The Agency Wellbeing Census, a survey of over 200 companies in the UK, asked agency businesses whether they measure staff turnover or retention.

Of the 61% that do, the average rate of employee retention was 42.4%. Though our survey found a large degree of variation (rates ranged from 100% to less than 10%), the finding is a stark illustration of the movement of workers within and without the sector since the onset of the pandemic.

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Since 2020, agencies have struggled to find adequate numbers of staff. Even if they avoided making job cuts in the first months of the pandemic, the sharp rise in demand most agency businesses experienced over the following 18 months stretched teams thin.

Why have staff left agency roles?

There are many reasons why so many agency staff found new positions (or left the sector entirely). 95% of the agencies we surveyed recorded the reasons why their workers had left and 86.9% of our sample told us they conducted exit interviews.

Thom Walters, chief executive officer of agency Billion Dollar Boy, told The Drum that his business uses exit interviews to improve its workplace.

“By the time we carry out exit interviews, we have already spoken to that individual to understand the reason why that person is leaving the company so there shouldn’t be any surprises. However, they are useful because people are often more honest and forthcoming at this stage and so often share information that they perhaps wouldn't share if they were staying,“ he said.

Walters' agency was one of the businesses in the Census with the highest retention rates. He said that the team holds “a number of conversations, surveys and meetings throughout the year to identify improvements we can make for the betterment of the people and the business.

“Whichever way you’re listening to the team, it’s about creating an environment where they feel like they can openly share and give feedback with management, and then listening and making those changes. It’s the action you take that makes the difference and how you communicate the story – you said this, so we did this.“

The most common reasons were staff leaving for positions that offered higher pay, more responsibility or a change in location – reflecting the pull of better opportunities elsewhere or the push of a poor experience with their previous berth. A minority of agencies – just over 15% – said that staff leaving to go in-house or client-side, or some other major career change was their biggest loss factor.

What have agencies been doing to persuade staff to stick around?

To start with, 83.6% of the agencies we surveyed told us they pay out regular bonuses to staff. And 93.6% pay for some form of formal training and development of staff, ranging from higher or further education to specialist qualifications (63.8% offer this).

However, a large minority of agencies (33.9%) don't offer employees with direct reports specific training for management. Though this finding was more common among agencies with fewer than 25 staff in our sample, that's a surprising figure in a business where interpersonal relationships are key.

When it comes to policies around bullying and harassment of staff, just over half have trained their line managers on how to handle complaints of staff mistreatment. Almost 46% told us they didn't have any line managers trained to deal with such complaints – and 12.1% of the agencies surveyed said they didn't even have a formal policy to prevent bullying or harassment in their workplace.

Lorraine Jennings-Creed, director of wellbeing services and culture change, NABS, told The Drum: “Managers not being trained on how to manage people, or in essential employee relation matters like dealing with harassment or bullying issues, can leave employers exposed and staff at their most vulnerable, resulting in an unproductive, unsafe and potentially toxic working environment.

“Conflict in the workplace is now in the top three reasons for people contacting the NABS Advice Line, accounting for more than one in ten calls. This issue includes bullying and harassment. That so many adlanders are reaching out to NABS for help indicates that there is a need for companies to address these themes.

Jennings-Creed said that “policies are an essential start“ for agencies hoping to combat such issues, but “managers must be trained in how to really listen to their teams and to act with empathy, clarity and within the legal frameworks.“

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“This is particularly true if they are alerted to any bullying and harassment issues. But why wait until you have a problem when you can instead focus on creating healthier and productive workforces? For example, timeTo’s training in awareness of sexual harassment gives managers the knowledge to understand what constitutes harassment, and how to eradicate it. What’s more, NABS’ new training program in inclusive leadership is designed to bring out empathy and awareness in managers so that they can engender a feeling of belonging among their staff.“

Explore more of the findings from our Agency Wellbeing Census here.

Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Agency Wellbeing Census

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