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January’s a common time for a job change. How can ad agencies coax staff into staying?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

January 17, 2023 | 14 min read

With the January job blues setting in, we ask agency experts from iProspect, Wunderman Thompson, OMD, Leo Burnett and more how they plan to motivate their teams – and boost retention rates.

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How can agencies keep staff minds away from lining up their next gig? / The Drum

The January transfer window isn’t just for football. Bleak weather for commuting, the memory of the long break and nagging New Year’s resolutions mean the beginning of the year is also a prime time to think about the future of your career – and whether that future might lie somewhere else.

Agencies have a fight on their hands to make sure the competition doesn’t look too tempting. So, what are agencies in the US and UK doing right now to give their staff reasons to stick around?

How do you solve a problem like... January retention blues?

A woman poses in a black outfit.

Rebecca Bezzina, managing director, R/GA London

With our industry experiencing a high churn rate, it would be naïve to not accept that people in agencies move. I have always believed we only have people for a moment in time and so it’s about trying to stretch that out for as long as possible. At R/GA, we try to live by the idea of being ‘radically transparent’ – so rather than focusing too much on trying to prevent churn, we accept it happens and instead look at how we can bring out the best in our staff whilst we have them – ensuring they feel valued, inspired, and equipped to do the best work of their careers when they’re with us.

Work needs to also be a safe place so building a culture where people are happy and can be themselves is critical. This has worked for us as we have seen higher engagement across the team and leadership – and now, more commonly, we experience those who leave returning again, which is always a good sign of a positive, motivating culture.

Dan Friel, global client president and head, iProspect Global

Leaders need to demonstrate that they care – genuinely care. There needs to be a strong focus to want both teams and individuals to be happy, to get the chance to grow, to develop and to win. One avenue to achieve content staff is focusing on three areas: one, well-being – setting wellness objectives and taking part in well-being training; two, personal development – ensuring a training development programme that is curated at an individual level is in place; and three, new business pitches – one of the reasons behind our successes in 2022 was making sure all of our talent had the opportunity to pitch.

Charlie Rudd, chief executive officer, Leo Burnett UK

At Leo Burnett, we’re proud to have a low churn rate, and our recent staff survey showed that our people are the happiest they’ve ever been here. We can never be complacent about this but we believe we learned how to be better employers during the pandemic.

As a management team, we put in the effort to ensure our people are very clear on Leo’s purpose, and how everyone’s role fits within that. And we have significantly improved the frequency of our communication with everyone in the agency.

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We are sure this has contributed to our business success, the improving quality of the work we make and the culture we’ve built over the past few years.

We do recognize though that, especially in January, the attraction of change can be appealing. So we’ll continue to invest in training, DE&I, sustainability and mental health, and ensure people are rewarded fairly for their brilliant work. It’s also vital that in January, along with the regular career conversations, appraisals are conducted and motivating objectives are set for all our people.

Andrew Godley, manging director, True

New year, new you. It’s time for a change. Good behaviors. Positive energy. New challenges. But I rather liked the widely shared Equinox gym ad: We don’t speak January: “It [January] wants you to start something when you should be in the middle of it.”

January isn’t the devil. It’s a great opportunity to re-assess. But it’s also time to see what’s right in front of you. To freshen things up, but also to make the things happen that you meant to as 2022 slipped to slush. We’ve redefined our culture, set development goals, sorted some of the boring stuff and revamped our social plans. 2023 is all about belief and we’ve got lots of believers.

Sue Hagstrom, senior vice-president, human resources and talent, Colle McVoy

We know that to keep people from looking over the fence at other grass, we have to keep them motivated and engaged, which has become more difficult in our hybrid world. The most important way to do this is by fostering connectedness. People are more likely to stay if they get to know each other and feel supported by colleagues and friends. We encourage people to collaborate in person when possible and carve out time to have fun and build relationships.

We also know that showing gratitude and recognition goes a long way. Besides giving feedback and praise during regular interactions, we ramped up more formal recognition opportunities and rewards. Finally, providing flexibility to help manage everything life throws at us, extensive paid holidays and a generous PTO package definitely set us apart. You can’t compete with providing more time for self, life and family these days.

Paula Joannou, chief people officer, Wunderman Thompson

This year, with the cost-of-living crisis high on the agenda, it’s even more important for us to be aware of how people are feeling and how we can help. At a base level, we’re constantly reviewing our benefits package and setting out our vision to the agency in our January town hall meeting. We also kicked off the year with Thrive, our biannual performance review process, so our people are given the space to be open with their managers, discuss their roles and ensure they’re clear on goals and how they can realize their ambitions for the year ahead.

Jessica Roberts, chief of staff, OMD

At OMD EMEA HQ we launched a new career progression program late in 2022, helping our talent to return in the new year feeling motivated and excited about their future at OMD EMEA in 2023. Across January, we have packed our Flourish Fridays (two hours dedicated to personal growth every week) with content to support the whole self from mindful drinking to making productivity your superpower at work and home. And winning a shiny new piece of business at the end of last year helps create a feeling of optimism and provides ongoing progression opportunities for our talent.

Neil Cunningham, co-owner and chief executive, Cream

We are continually working out how team satisfaction can align with business performance. But, what we have found most rewarding for employees is our support of their non-work passion projects. Our team now consists of a fashion brand owner, a musician, an artist, a map drawer, a seamstress and a semi-professional rugby player. Reduced working hours across the company have made this central to Cream culture.

Deliberately encouraging more ‘life’ in an individual’s work/life balance does lead employees to properly scrutinize their current role. But our view is that, as sad as it is losing brilliant people, the net benefit is significant for our culture and our client output.

Aaron Hutchinson, managing director, Across the Pond

I think the biggest thing companies can do is to connect their employees to the mission of the business. Everyone wants to feel like their work is contributing to something meaningful and that it has an impact. If this is missing, I have no doubt that the Linkedin Jobs search board becomes tempting. At Across the Pond, our leadership team is putting a big focus now on working on that mission and communicating it to the team. For our team to get out of bed and excited about going to work for Across the Pond, they have to care about why they’re doing it.

Sheri Brissenden, HR partner, The Frameworks

Any agency that focuses on keeping staff retention high in January has a problem. Being pre-emptive misses the point. Staff retention should be a year-round passion for every agency, woven into the fabric of their day-to-day.

“It’s as much about each new hire as the established team. When hiring, you look for an intuition of opposites: imaginative and grounded, like-minded and novel. Once hired, it’s a given that holding onto staff requires fair compensation, celebrating performance and a good work-life balance. Staff retention is prioritized by creating a team where everyone is different but we all feel at home.

A woman sitting on a stool next to a table wearing a suit.

Elizabeth Eidshaug, executive director, brand and business growth, Pearlfisher

Transparent and frequent two-way communication on the state of the business and quality of life is critical to retaining employees and maintaining their satisfaction. At Pearlfisher, we start the year with a comprehensive view of the agency’s goals for the year and are clear about how people and culture are being prioritized along with business results and creative excellence.

Our people are what make us who we are and no matter their role and understanding of business needs, everyone should be aware of how the business needs to perform. Being clear about drives success, the anticipated challenges, the plan set, and everyone's unique contributions makes success a shared responsibility and unifies everyone in a shared vision.

Jaye Cowle, managing director, Launch

We avoid that start-of-year slump with year-round strategies. Our biweekly Good Vibes and Weekly Wins calls show gratitude by praising colleagues, celebrating positive actions and shouting out great wins. OfficeVibe helps us run weekly temperature checks to see how people are doing, giving them a chance to anonymously raise issues or give feedback, which is bolstered by our in-depth biannual surveys. Perks and benefits are great, but making sure our team feels heard, empowered and valued has been vital to ensuring a happy, contented agency.

Giorgio Cassella, managing director, Evoluted

“It’s important to remind staff of both company and personal progression at the start of the year. We’re holding our biannual review period in January and during the first week back we reshared our 2022 company performance rundown and plan for 2023, ensuring everyone’s bought in and can visualize their career development with us. We’re also running an (optional) whole-team social this month to help our team reconnect.

In times like these, our year-round benefits like cost-of-living payments and profit-share bear fruit, too – we’ve proven our commitment to looking after staff and built trust.

Sam Budd, chief executive officer, Buddy Media

It’s understandable that employees may feel unmotivated after a long break. As a manager, show empathy towards your employees by creating a positive and supportive work environment. This can include improving communication, providing professional development opportunities, addressing concerns and keeping an open-door policy. Show your employees that their contributions are valued and acknowledged, and remind them of the benefits of staying with the company. Incentives like team building activities, away days or trips abroad can also be implemented to remind them of happier times ahead and boost morale.

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

Our agency’s ‘strategy’ has remained consistent and on-point since day one. It could be because we’re a smaller group. Each team member wears different hats, and sometimes those hats change but the team shares in the mission of being human first.

Of course, everyone is committed to the work, how we communicate internally and externally, how we evolve the agency, and how we ensure everything from our materials to our office space to our gatherings feels ‘on brand’ to SD. We've always been human-centric, that's part of the foundation, and that has been tested these last few years. If anything, the ‘in it together’ mentality has gained momentum and is second nature. Every SD-er is empowered, counted on, recognized, and celebrated for their efforts and feels ownership in all their contributions.

Nathan Lomax, co-founder of Quickfire Digital

Continuous investment – through time and budget – is non-negotiable at the board level, so on our second day back to the office this year we hosted a full day’s training in order to support individual personal development plans; resulting in a sound understanding of what each team member wants to accomplish in 2023 and a breakdown on how to achieve it, with quarterly reviews along the way.

Staff morale is of utmost importance so we regularly host team get-togethers, diarise half-yearly bonuses and support charities which are close to our teams’ hearts too.

Thanks for reading this week’s debate. If you feel like joining in the conversation in 2023, let me know: sam.bradley@thedrum.com

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