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UK Digital Agency Census: what makes an agency a good place to work in 2021?

The Drum’s inaugural UK Digital Agency Census included a slew of findings on staff satisfaction at digital agencies across the country. As we reveal the Census results this week, we look at how some of the best-rated agencies in the country for staff satisfaction set out to make their workplaces career destinations.

The Drum has been taking measure of the UK’s digital agency landscape this past year, polling clients, peers and staff of the country’s top digital shops, as well as toting up the number of awards they’ve been winning. We are now in a position to paint a pretty comprehensive picture of this fertile field, with our survey providing insights into how successful as well as how respected each of these agencies are.

Continuing to be successful and maintaining the respect of your peers is impressive enough in a year that saw the world turned upside-down, but perhaps even more impressive is that many of these agencies still score highly for staff satisfaction, despite stretched bottom lines and strained team dynamics – and all without the office dogs, massages and happy hours their sleek city center shopfronts once offered.

So, how have they done this?

The employee journey

At Somo Global – the digital product and experience agency that has its headquarters in London’s leafy St James’s as well as offices in Bristol, Washington, DC, Charleston, SC and, most recently, Medellín, Colombia – responsibility for staff satisfaction falls to James Turner.

Since 2018, Turner has been the agency’s chief people officer (CPO) – an increasingly common role at agencies and one that he explains is all about engaging and investing in people, “understanding what they expect from an agency and aiming always to exceed their expectations”. Whereas an agency’s outward focus should be on the customer journey and experience, he explains that with a CPO there is someone focused purely on the employee journey and experience.

For him, the number one thing that makes an agency a great place to work is culture. “It’s a nefarious word, but the feeling of working with people who believe in you and will challenge and support you, and a leadership team who back you and want to see you succeed, is paramount.”

Working at Somo, he says you can expect standard benefits such as pension, life insurance and healthcare, as well as some not so standard benefits, such as becoming a shareholder in the business, a revenue bonus scheme and a bonus for finding new people and new clients. Then there’s “a device of your choice, a nice welcome pack of gadgets and clothing that we top up every once in a while”.

There are employee assistance programs, training programs including the Somo management academy, company sports teams. “Free drinks and snacks and massages in the offices, regular social events including at least four company parties a year... it’s a fair old list!“

Not all of this has been possible while staff have been working from home, of course, so how did the agency go about ensuring its 170-odd remote staff still felt supported?

“Anything that people needed from the office was sent to them, and any devices or peripherals couriered to their door. People did their own at-home setup assessment to make sure they could work comfortably, with a budget per person to expense anything they needed.

“After that, our focus turned to mental health and wellbeing, with regular checking and updates, so we have physical and virtual gatherings, games with treats and things sent to homes. And we upped the use of surveys too to find out how people are and what they need, with frequent company-wide updates and reassurances.”

Powered by people

With around 40 full-time staff, the team at Kyan is quite a bit smaller, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have someone whose sole focus is on its staff.

Piers Palmer helped found the platform, app and digital product builder back in 2003. As the agency’s head of people and culture, he says that getting these two things right and having a role dedicated to them is critical. “We’ve said from day one that we are a technology company powered by our people. Culture is our USP and we are built around a collaborative and supportive mindset.”

And so his job focuses on supporting the people in the business, so that they “feel valued, that they are always learning and that they know where they are headed”. Having a head of people and culture also ensures that the team lives and promotes the agency’s values – which, Palmer tells us, are “know your stuff, be excellent to each other, and get shit done”.

“It’s all about remaining human and empathetic, constantly innovating and trying out new ideas, and, above all else, making work enjoyable.”

He says that a great agency relies on having great people around you. And that if those people have a shared vision, great quality work naturally follows. “We must all trust each other and the wider teams in the business, which in-turn gives everyone freedom to deliver. So building team spirit is important to us and can be accomplished by creating memorable moments.” Palmer calls this “the serious business of having fun together”.

At the agency’s once-bustling offices in central Guildford, 30 minutes outside London, social events were a regular occurrence. Now, those physical activities or meetups have become online adventures, such as “Beer Club, drawing contents, competitions, quizzes and ‘The Zoom Arms’ – our virtual Friday afternoon bar”.

“We have changed our approach on how we communicate. We already held company-wide team meetings, but we’ve introduced just a few more touch points. We’ve formalized team get-togethers and have started to share additional information about running the agency for even more transparency. We also asked the department heads to take a more active role in looking after their teams.

“We’ve also completely revised our onboarding process to suit remote working, taken our flexible working approach up a notch, and introduced a more comprehensive healthcare plan for all of our full-time staff.” He has also introduced a dedicated Slack channel for mental health and the agency has an in-house mental health champion.

“Our wonderful team have recognized that we have been in a hard place. They’ve all been supportive, worked especially hard and risen to the challenges.” And while Palmer admits there have been stress points – “furlough, changing working arrangements, home-schooling” – he thinks the past year has brought everyone closer together as a team.

A flexible self-governing framework

About 150 people are employed between the Leeds, London and New York bases of digital marketing agency Twentysix. Ryan Scott has worked at its Leeds headquarters for 13 of the 15 years it has been in business, and since September 2019 has been its chief executive officer.

He says staff satisfaction is a collective effort, spearheaded by its head of HR with the support of the leadership function and a dedicated cross-agency culture and entertainment team. “We are divesting more of the culture and staff management pieces into the business, rather than them being held exclusively by the most senior roles.”

With the acceleration of remote working and the increase pressure on performance in most agencies, he says the role of culture, staff welfare and fostering a connected sense to the business is vitally important, “and will increasingly be a focus for our business in the near future”.

For him, what makes a great agency can’t be pinned to one single thing. “In truth, it’s probably made up of a bit of everything, from output to spirit to clients, salaries and anything in between!” Ultimately, though, he says it is important that people are contained with a flexible self-governing framework.

“As a culture, we like to know where we sit, what our limitations are and how we can therefore operate and express ourselves within the lines of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The workplace is no different to that – we are made up of creatives, engineers, data analysts and relationship experts, and each one of those roles demands a certain set of qualities. To therefore try and prescribe what makes an agency great for each of those roles and personality types is impossible.”

He says that in the past the agency has majored on financial performance, “using this as a proof point of what we do”. While he found that people like to know, it is not what motivates them.

“What makes an agency great is the people knowing that they belong, whoever and whatever they bring to the table, and I believe giving people an honest, open and fair environment within a clear framework will bring out the best in everyone.”

Twentysix executes an annual staff survey that gathers insights it uses to inform and drive its people strategy. In combination to this, Scott says it has always tried to offer employees a package that provides both competitive salary and market leading benefits such a health cover, wider insurances and flexibility.

“Pre-pandemic, we were moving towards WFH trials and embedding this into our standard practices – but, being honest, we were late to the party here and it was something that we had always resisted due to the connected nature of our services.” The pandemic squashed this theory, however. “The toothpaste is out of the tube and we will be integrating this as a formal practice regardless of what the future may hold.”

For the past year the focus has been on being inclusive and making sure no one gets left behind. “This included interviewing over 30 staff when we were planning the office opening to understand what coming back into an office environment really meant for people right across the business, not just those who had the benefit of driving into the city center. We wanted to be able to communicate back to staff on key issues based on their feedback, not simply just on what I may feel – I recognize my privilege in this situation and wanted to ensure we understood a broader a view on the pandemic and what it means to our people.

“Not being in control of your own destiny must be a scary place to be and just being heard has hopefully helped people feel they are contributing to their own future.”

Embracing a more flexible model

Looking forward, with physical location of staff no longer important and people able to work for any company in the world without leaving home, retaining and attracting the best talent is set to become an even bigger challenge. So how can the agencies in our digital census ensure they are still great places to work?

For Kyan, culture tops everything. “It’s one of the biggest things that we’ve become known for and has been how we differentiate from everyone else,” says Palmer.

“By nurturing, supporting and growing our team of design and tech geeks – who help each other to improve and who willingly and openly share their expertise – we are able to attract similar minds.

“We also recognize that flexibility is important, and we have moved to a distributed-first team model but with a central HQ. We can have the best of both worlds and we are going to be bringing the team together for monthly events to build memorable moments. We now think of our studio and HQ as a central hub where we can all congregate, when safe, as a family. Already this year, one of the team has moved to North Wales, another to Cornwall, as we embrace this more flexible model.”

Turner too plans to continue building on the culture of his agency: “By continuing to offer challenging work for brilliant clients. By listening and engaging, developing and nurturing. By being sensible yet creative in our working location thinking.”

Since March 2020, he says the agency not only pivoted to working primarily from home but won new clients and delivered complete projects to those clients without ever having met them face-to-face.

Scott wants to create a safe and secure environment for his staff, “building further on the notion of giving everyone a self-governing framework to operate within right from our Covid protocols through to how we work and interact with each other”. Choice and flexibility will be key, underpinned by an employer that speaks to its staff in a clear and transparent way.

“We must ensure that we give people space and create a new way for managing personal development, as those desk-side conversations with experienced peers are no longer accessible. In the same vein I think we must work hard to ‘de-formalize’ communication. Everything is diarized, with an agenda and for a set purpose – this is a real bane of the virtual world and we must think about how we offer people a space to grow that is not linked to a diary appointment with their line managers. Companies that do this well will, I believe, thrive in the talent market.”

Being pragmatic, Scott thinks salary will play a huge part in the future too. “There is a clear supply and demand issue, and while that persists the basis of employee decision making may just reside on who pays the most. There are so many great agencies and staff in certain areas of practice have very similar looking CVs, therefore where they work may be less important as the work and the people will be similar from agency to agency.

“With this in mind, I can see increased pressure on value and ultimately what a business is willing to pay for the best talent.”

So, we’re all agreed – if you want to be the best agency to work for and to ensure a steady stream of satisfied staff going forward, culture is critical and flexibility fundamental. And salary, as Scott says, is set to become even more significant.

Learn more about The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census 2021, and sign up for future updates, here.