Agency Business Agency Culture

Agencies have ignored staff retention for too long. Here’s how they can change

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 14, 2022 | 11 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

Agencies won’t get very far if staff don’t stick around. While some turnover is expected, teams with long-term members can provide consistency, reliability and chemistry that can’t be bought. Over the last year, though, the market has favored those looking elsewhere. In one recent Twitter debate, ad veteran Derek Walker suggested agencies have ignored these issues, relying on a surfeit of applicants to the detriment of their businesses’ long-term viability. The flaws in that strategy were exposed during the pandemic when agency professionals fled some companies and rushed to others.

Does your company monitor retention? And how do you create an environment that fosters staff loyalty? Espirit des corps? Really nice company perks? Or do you just make sure you pay better than the other guys? We asked expert agency leaders for their take.

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What policies should agencies put in place to persuade staff to stay? / The Drum

How do you solve a problem like... retaining staff?

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Carly Avener, managing director, Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett has a low churn rate: we’ve recently celebrated several anniversaries that demonstrate the strength of our culture and ability to retain staff, including our incredible office manager, who has been with us for 50 years.

This is down to the momentum we have as an agency: the great work we make and the effort we put into ensuring our people are clear on Leo’s purpose and their role within that.

We invest in things that matter to our people (training, D&I, mental health, sustainability), we communicate openly with the agency and ensure people are rewarded fairly for their brilliant work.

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Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour Collective

I don’t think the ‘Great Resignation,’ the ‘Great Reset’ or the pandemic have really changed the fundamentals.

Keeping staff turnover down is still about showing people that you value them as people first and employees second.

It’s about giving people the flexibility to work the way they work best, paying them fairly and providing them with a clear path to progress.

Also, don’t try to keep people who don’t want to stay. Over half of people who accept a counteroffer are not in the same job twelve months later. As with all relationships, sometimes it’s better just to part amicably.

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Anne Stagg, UK chief executive officer, Merkle

We’ve ensured our leadership team is as visible and accessible as possible to all employees. We believe it’s essential to build infrastructure from the ground up and embed an inclusive culture where employees can speak openly without judgement and feel supported, and where feedback is valued and actioned.

We have done this through regular drop-in sessions with senior leaders and pro-active mental health and meditation initiatives to provide staff with the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue across the entire workforce. Competing on salary alone cannot be the only option, but building a truly collaborative workforce, engaging people and using positive influence will go a long way in keeping staff turnover to a minimum.

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Ewen MacPherson, group chief people officer, Havas UK

I agree that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave managers,’ which Derek’s tweet alludes to, but the current talent crisis is much more complex than that. It’s a confluence of different dynamics, many of which are positively motivated. Also, the majority of people moving right now (across all industries) weren’t actually looking in the first place – scarcity in the market is creating opportunity (and disproportionately inflating salaries), and these factors are diverting attention away from positive employment experiences.

Our people voted us a great place to work three years in a row, and through the hardest of times. Sometimes you have to accept that all you can do is your best – treat your people well, create an outstanding employee experience and let the rest take care of itself.

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Tilly Morgan, operations and people director, Wilderness

At Wilderness, staff retention is tracked monthly against our forecast of recruiting new hires to ensure overall growth for the year. We conduct monthly employee engagement and leadership and management surveys to gain direct feedback from our team on where we can improve. From these surveys we have been able to identify employees who were considering new opportunities at other companies, speak with them directly and generate a future roadmap of their progression. This has helped us extend the average lifecycle of team members by six to 12 months.

People like to know where they’re going and how to get there. At Wilderness we invest time into identifying opportunities, mapping out routes to get there and investing financially in staff training to support their journey.

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Aubree Cross, vice-president of marketing, Booyah Advertising

We’ve always known that talented, fulfilled people are the key to our agency’s success. The stability that high retention lends to both the client experience and our general operations is invaluable. We trust our teams and make it a business priority to invest in them and their careers.

Through benefits such as professional management training, robust 401k matching and an unlimited PTO program that’s over a decade old, we help our team members feel fulfilled and excited to work at Booyah for the long haul. One of the biggest mistakes an agency can make is taking its people for granted.

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James Maxwell, executive creative director, Teamspirit

If you want people to stick around, you need to make it about them and about how you treat them every day, not about the perks. Life happens: their dogs die; nans get sick; boilers break; ambitions change. We believe in genuinely showing our concern and care for people, and that means trusting them, not micro-managing them, flexibility where needed and so much more everyday, vital – but often not flashy – support. That’s why we don’t dictate what compassionate leave can be taken for: it’s not for us to know who matters the most. That’s why our parental leave is inclusive and covers any type of family structure and make-up.

If you treat people like the things that matter to them matter to you as a business, then the long-terms plans that matter to you, the business, are more likely to matter to them.

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Chris Jefford, chief executive officer, Truant London

The key to staff retention doesn’t lie in pay and perks. People stick around – in our experience – when they buy into the vision and values, and when they see those played out in the workplace culture. And when the team is given trust, freedom and autonomy to make decisions that enable them to leave their own indelible mark on the business.

No amount of free drinks, table tennis competitions, or summer Fridays can paper over a shit culture, and pay rises only paper over the cracks for so long. So create a vision people want to play a part in, and let them.

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Jason Cobbold, chief executive officer, BMB

Agency preoccupation with shiny new hires is a little like an addiction to new business – and just as misplaced. Neither matters if you’re losing the things you value most.

In a world where the ability to have a flexible workforce that can expand up and down really matters, so too does the presence of a stable, passionate and motivated core. Having the same group of people who grow together and understand one another is often the differentiator for an agency. We need to shift from celebrating the magic of the new to the real magic that comes from consistency.

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James Callahan, co-founder and chief executive officer, FutureDeluxe

Companies need to work extra hard these days to make sure their teams are happy, motivated, inspired, valued, well-paid and part of a vibrant community. Otherwise they’ll leave. Or, at the least, not give it their very best.

Historically we’ve had pretty impressive staff retention. Empathy is key. Understand how staff feel, then do something about it. Don’t underestimate the power of a good chat over a coffee.

We offer unlimited holidays, flexible and remote working and a great atmosphere. Even so, keeping staff happy and motivated to stay for the long haul is a work in progress and something that we’re always looking to improve.

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Mark McDonagh, client services director, EBY

From experience, lots of agencies talk a good game, only to have members of staff sobbing in the toilets because of the toxic environment that exists, and then they leave.

Actions speak louder than words; genuine support and flexibility have been key to our staff retention at EBY. Over 50% of our 14-strong team have been part of the agency for more than 10 years. From helping team members move house to flexible working hours and not losing a single person through the pandemic, these are the things that are (almost) as important as pay raises and promotions.

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Patti McConnell, co-founder and managing partner, Something Different

We expect there to be more to life than work. We tell our talent: go see your sister in London. Go coach soccer. Work abroad. Bring that juju back. We trust, and that makes people want to stay. Before Covid, we worked from anywhere – it was part of our founding model. Taking an appointment mid-day isn’t an issue, just get your work done. With trust comes individual ownership and responsibility, which is empowering.

In the office, we treat staff to lunches and coffees, we eat together. That is in addition to giving raises and continuing to pay 100% of health benefits and match 401Ks.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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