Best Agencies to Work For 2006
Logout | My Account | Premium Content
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Best Agencies to Work For 2006

It’s been a while since Fleishman-Hillard topped our annual ranking of the Best Large Agencies to Work For, but some will see its number one ranking in 2006 as restoring the firm to its proper place.

Paul Holmes

Best Large Agencies to Work For

1. Fleishman-Hillard

It’s been a while since Fleishman-Hillard topped our annual ranking of the Best Large Agencies to Work For, but some will see its number one ranking in 2006 as restoring the firm to its proper place. Fleishman has always been known for its collegial culture—“teamwork is everything,” is one of the firm’s guiding principles—and for its commitment to professional development, and while the over-billing controversy in L.A. clearly had an impact on perceptions externally and internally, the FH culture is authentic and resilient enough to withstand an isolated anomaly.

One of Dave Senay’s early innovations, after taking over as chief executive in the first half of 2006, is a commitment to what he calls the “double bottom line.” That means that in addition to its focus on growth and profitability targets (inescapable as part of a public company), Fleishman is placing even greater emphasis on collaboration. Always a priority under longtime CEO (now chairman) John Graham, the collaborative culture is now reinforced by a performance review system that evaluates managers not only on the performance of their unit but also how their unit has contributed to the growth of others, through shared business.

Another big initiative, tied to improved market conditions as much as to new leadership, saw FH increase its talent development budget by 40 percent in 2006. That means the training program at Fleishman, long one of the industry’s most comprehensive, just got better. The firm has also unveiled a new internal communications tool, The Source: an employee portal that includes 80 internal and external online communities. And Senay has started his own internal blog, Performance and Perception, designed to reinforce the firm’s vision and values on a regular basis.

What do people like best about working at Fleishman-Hillard? “The culture,” says one. “I just love how we are one team regardless of the office we work in.” Another raves about the “great people, great culture, great clients and opportunities to do interesting, intellectually and creatively challenging work.” And another likes “the long-term management view, which allows for fresh thinking that may take time to be fruitful; the support and investment in employees.” What do they like the least? A heavy workload, a time-consuming accounting process, and—as with every agency—the pay could be better.

2. APCO Worldwide

APCO has grown dramatically over the past three years, but it is still small enough to retain a distinctive culture and to operate as a single company with a single bottom line rather than as a confederation of overly-territorial P&Ls. The fact that the firm is owned by its employees helps, of course, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of collegiality. But the biggest attraction of APCO for a lot of people is the intellectually stimulating work environment. Given the nature of its assignments and the quality of its C-suite relationships, it’s the public relations firm destination for people who don’t want to work for “a public relations firm.” Perhaps that’s why employee retention is around 80 percent, among the best of any of the larger agencies.

The firm’s training program, APCO ART (Achieve your goals, Realize your potential, Take charge of your future) was developed to help employees achieve their personal and professional goals and to increase their effectiveness in managing the business and takes a three-dimensional approach to employee training and development. There’s traditional training (employees earn stipend points per session, to be used for conferences, seminars and other external job-related courses); a newly-created Boot Camp, which involves a two-day training program for all new employees; a work/life program of courses to help employees live more enriched lives (first aid, personal safety, time management, financial planning, real estate buying and nutrition); and a mentoring program providing one-to-one guidance from seasoned professionals.

“APCO’s unique culture creates a productive and interesting work environment,” says one staff member, summing up what APCO people like best. “Working closely with former members of Congress, ambassadors and CEOs is thrilling,” says another. Long hours are the biggest drawback, and the fact that “you are rewarded for good work—by getting more work put in your plate.” Oh, and there’s “no good lunch food in the area.”

3. GolinHarris

GolinHarris is the biggest gainer among the large agencies in this year’s survey, up from eighth place last year to third in 2006. Perhaps it’s the euphoria of the firm’s 50th anniversary celebration last year; perhaps it’s that employees sense the momentum, as reflected in new business wins and intellectual leadership; or perhaps it’s just that Golin does pretty much all the little things right: strong professional development programming; one of the best benefits packages in the business; cutting-edge employee communications; and an impressive commitment to community service.

The training program offers more than 70 courses around 10 tracks (leadership and management, creativity, client counseling, business development and more), attracting 550 participants from around the world last year. Employee communications efforts include the GH intranet Alvin (restructured and re-launched in 2006), a quarterly newsletter from CEO Fred Cook, and Living theGH Brand, a monthly e-newsletter. Benefits include adoption assistance, pet care insurance, back-up child care and mortgage assistance, in addition to the kind of comprehensive health plan you would expect from a big agency. And on the community front, Golin celebrated its 50th anniversary with a global volunteer initiative, with every office will taking business day off to volunteer to a local charity or cause of their choosing, from Dubai’s pro-bono work for All As One, an organization benefiting orphaned children in Sierra Leone, to the clean-up of Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles, to the painting of a Chicago YMCA facility.

Or maybe the reason people give GH such high marks is simpler than that. “There is possibly no friendlier agency than GolinHarris,” says one respondent. “This is a place that attracts just plain nice people.” Says another: “GolinHarris just feels right. We focus on the right things, treat our people well and seek out clients and programs that match our culture and values.” Almost all of the complaints center around pay, although some respondents worry about slower than average promotion, “perhaps because no one ever seems to leave.”

4. Weber Shandwick

A global management meeting in Miami last year brought together 170 of the firm’s senior leaders from around the world to discuss the firm’s direction. Presumably, they were all pretty happy, because Weber Shandwick continues to score high marks from employees and rank among the best large agencies to work for in our survey. In addition, the firm’s Twin Cities and Seattle offices have both recognized by local business publications as among the best places to work in their respective markets. But Weber Shandwick is not inclined to rest on its laurels. Last year saw the launch of a new vlog, VAL (Video Audio Log) to provide employees, clients and prospects with a view of the Weber Shandwick culture in different markets. There was also continued expansion of the firm’s professional development program, with the expansion of the learning navigator and talent performance management programs and a new School of WROK (Web Relations Online Knowledge).

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the firm, given its size, is that employees continue to hail “the entrepreneurial culture. If you have an idea, you’re encouraged to share it, to pursue it, to engage others to debate and/or promote it.” Others are impressed with the “long-term view, never cutting a corner and walking away from large pieces of business when corners are being cut by the client.” There are some complaints about internal communications, particularly between offices, and—of course—the pay.

5. Edelman

Edelman, once know for a culture that teetered on the brink between freewheeling and chaotic, has in recent years emerged as the employer of choice among larger agencies, the number one choice when employees of other firms are asked where they would most like to work. Some of this is due to widespread disillusionment with the big holding companies that own almost all of Edelman’s competitors, but much of it is due to the firm’s own efforts to balance the entrepreneurial side of its culture with stronger support, including a significant investment in professional development, first focusing on practice skills and more recently on management and leadership ability through a new “Manager’s Boot Camp.” The firm also encourages work-life balance and giving back to the community through its “Living in Color” initiative, the centerpiece of which is now a global commitment to girls’ education—including a visit by eight employees to Africa to study education issues in developing nations.

Like people at almost every other agency, employees at Edelman cite the people they work with as their favorite thing about the agency. “From admin to CEO, everyone is great to work with,” says one respondent. “The people are smart, funny and passionate,” says another. The word “passion” comes up a lot, as does the word “independent.” In addition to concerns about compensation and work-life balance, some employees worry that “we’re all sequestered in cubes,” which means “not a lot of interaction among employees.” Another respondent fears “that we’ve become a place where people over-rely on e-mail and don’t value face-to-face.”

6. Waggener Edstrom

Waggener Edstrom, number one on our Large Agencies to Work For list for the past couple of years, saw its ratings slip a little in 2006. With 690 employees, a 50 percent increase over the past five years, it wouldn’t be surprising if Waggener Edstrom’s legendary workplace environment was showing signs of strain, but the fact is that employee retention held steady at around 78 percent in 2006, significantly higher than most agencies of that size, and the firm continues to introduce new initiatives: WE Connect, a stipend for people to invest in their own technology needs; WE Life, a stipend that can be used for personal improvement, from health club membership to cooking classes; and WE Flex, which offers the opportunity to purchase—or sell—time off.

People like the fact that they “have the freedom to chart [their] own professional path,” “the collaborative nature of Waggener Edstrom,” and “the opportunity to pursue the things that I am passionate about.” Says one respondent: “Waggener Edstrom remains true to its commitment to innovation in communication. When the company consistently encourages new ideas and outside of the box thinking, people from top to bottom begin contributing.” There are many of the usual complaints about compensation and the difficulty of balancing work and life demands, and a concern that “the focus of client delight is so external facing that the employees often feel that they don’t matter.”

Rounding out the top 10: Porter Novelli, Ketchum, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, Cohn & Wolfe

Best Midsize Agencies to Work For

1. Coyne Public Relations

“Our mission is not to be the best agency in America but the best one for work for,” says the mission statement at Coyne Public Relations, which as a result of accomplishing the latter—it was named the Best Small Agency to Work For last year—can make a plausible case for consideration for the former. “If we are the best place to work, we will attract the best employees,” the firm’s mission statement explains. “If we have the best employees, we will attract the best clients. If we have the best employees and the best clients, how can we not be the best agency in America?”

That’s a philosophy that has propelled Coyne from relative obscurity just five years ago to a place in the front rank of America’s midsize public relations firms. The work environment at Coyne is distinguished by informality: the firm still holds ad hoc company-wide meetings to discuss current new business and other successes and to relay company news, and founder Tom Coyne is in touch with employees at all levels, as exponent of the “management by wandering about” philosophy propounded by Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence. But the professional development program continues to expand and the firm has initiated policies that encourage work-life balance, including flex-time, a telecommuting option, and generous parenting time policies.

“There’s an extremely strong sense of teamwork, from junior level employees up to vice presidents,” says one respondent. “There’s always a shoulder to lean on or an extra hand to help stuff those media mailings. It’s evident that employees who come to Coyne PR are in it for the long haul.” Another attributes the culture to founder Tom Coyne, and adds: “Tom knows every staff member by name, and genuinely cares about who you are, where you want to go, and how he can get you there. Coyne, as an agency, is amazingly relaxed and creative, which is entirely fostered by Tom’s laid back personality and drive for what we do.” Any concerns are driven by the firm’s rapid growth. “It’s getting bigger fast, and it’s hard to know everyone,” says one respondent. “It’s not quite the intimate place it used to be,” says another.

2. Chandler Chicco Agency

Since its inception, Chandler Chicco Agency has been distinguished by a unique culture, one in which all employees—from the principals to the most junior account executives—are both students and teachers. The flat structure encourages everyone to have a voice and to make meaningful contributions, regardless of experience, and it’s not unusual for an account team on which one of the agency’s senior executives serves to be led by a mid-level employee. The firm approaches problem solving in an unorthodox way too, through creative conflict, a confluence of ideas and arguing different points of view in an attempt to generate fresh perspectives. It’s an approach that depends on a distinct culture of respect, collaboration and continuous learning.

The firm has a comprehensive professional development program, and its Phase IV Training and Development program, launched in June 2004, featured 41 training sessions in 2006, attended by 372 participants. Training courses included topics such as writing style, media pitching skills, team building, FDA and EU regulatory process, creativity and brainstorming skills. In addition, all employees participate in Team Styles, a workshop designed to help teams better understand their work and communication styles and learn strategies to best work together. And a programming Boot Camp provides an annual, two-day, off-site training workshop to immerse employees in the CCA method of new business programming.

“CCA has always encouraged me to reach for the next step on the ladder,” says one respondent. “It constantly provides employees with the chance to grow professionally, whether it be opportunities at a U.S. office, the chance to work abroad or the ability to work on accounts that provide new experiences.” Another enthuses about “smart, passionate, caring people who… strive everyday to deliver high-quality work for our clients.” If there’s a complaint, it’s that the culture is “too open.” Says one respondent: “I like the open environment… but sometimes it can be distracting and disruptive.”

3. Access Communications

Even as it has grown to almost 70 people, Access has maintained the intimate culture that has distinguished it since its early days. So the firm’s “coffee with Susan” sessions continue, providing employees from the administrative level to senior vice presidents to sit down and cha with CEO Susan Butenhoff and obtain real-time reaction on agency issues. Similarly, the firm continues to offer unusual levels of flexibility for employees, including telecommuting for employees at senior account executive level and above, generous sabbaticals for long-term employees, a generous employee recognition program, and time off for volunteer work and other community involvement.

What employees like back is “the people and the fun we have together whether it is work related—like completing a mailing at midnight—or just plain having fun together at a ball game.” Others hail the “energetic team-building spirit,” and the willingness of management “to be teachers and foster a work environment that helps employees learn and develop important skills.” The bottom line: “People truly enjoy working here; working with our clients and working with each other.” The biggest complaint is that there’s too much work, and one employee gripes about “My Treo: 24/7 access to emails.”

4. CarryOn Communications

The ideal CarryOn employee embodies the firm’s core values—employee respect, client service, integrity, teamwork, and responsible citizenship—and the firm works hard to make sure new recruits are a good cultural fit in addition to having the right skills. Diversity is another priority: the firm seeks to bring together practitioners with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. Once employees are hired, CarryOn works with them to accommodate individual lifestyles, outside commitments, or commutes. Multiple employees
take advantage of a flex-time arrangement or telecommute part-time. And the firm offers a flat organization in which open communication and collaboration are encouraged and all members of senior management operate an open door policy.

CarryOn “truly allows its employees to express themselves,” says one respondent. “Team members have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of business, no matter what level they are.” The firm has “a unique culture I’ve never experienced at another job. We respect each other and the work we do, and it shows.” And finally: “All employees are encouraged to speak up, to disagree with senior management without fear of repercussions. The environment is collaborative and supportive.” If there’s a downside, it’s that as the firm has grown and opened new offices beyond its southern California headquarters, “I find it challenging keeping the same culture across all offices. I wish the offices had more opportunities to interact.”

5. Text 100

Text 100 management believes that four main factors differentiate the firm from its competitors: a focus on technology, its truly global nature, the diversity of its people (more than 40 percent of its people have worked and lived in more than one market), and the authenticity of its teams, which means that camaraderie extends beyond individual offices. The firm’s values emphasize the importance of employees: We respect the individual; we are all on the same side; we take responsibility; we liberate potential. Perhaps the most notable new development in 2006, however, was the launch of a presence in the online game Second Life, which the firm has used that as a forum for employee communications. In September, for example, Text 100 celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting all employees from across the world at its first Second Life company meeting. More than 100 staff have now created avatars and the firm will continue to use Second Life as a virtual workplace, delivering training sessions and other internal meetings in the virtual world.

“Working here is stimulating, challenging and rewarding,” says one respondent. “I interact with people at all levels without feeling like there is a hierarchy.” Another loves “our casual atmosphere, from casual dress code to open work environment.” “People are empowered,” says another. “If you believe in something and want to take initiative, Text 100 gives you the freedom to go and get it done.” And people love the vacation package: four weeks in the first year, five thereafter. There are some complaints about internal politics, though. “There is not a lot of cross socialization amongst teams,” says one respondent. “If you don’t work on an account with someone, you don’t ever get to know them.”

6.  Capstrat

One of the problems the public relations industry encounters as growth rates improve is that firms find themselves hiring behind the new business curve, and existing employees find themselves over-extended in the interim. That’s a problem Capstrat strives to avoid, by encouraging every manager to identify his or her next three hires. That means proactive recruit on an ongoing basis, but a stronger candidate pipeline. And once that pipeline has produced suitable candidates, Capstrat does everything in its power to keep them. CEO Ken Eudy believes more good employees leave their jobs because they’re no longer learning than for any other reason, so ongoing learning is one of Capstrat’s 10 shared values: “We are voracious students of our clients’ business and insatiably curious about the world in which we operate.”

The result, according to one respondent, is “a great work culture and high morale. Capstrat places a premium on smarts and humor, which makes for a great working environment. I’m challenged to be better, smarter and more creative every day.” The agency is peopled by “highly talented, motivated and enthusiastic people. We attract clients who provide interesting, meaningful and challenging projects.” Says another, “My bosses don’t micro-manage and productivity is increased because of it.” On the downside, the workload “can sometimes be overwhelming” and isn’t helped by “the hours that can be required to complete paperwork.”

Rounding out the top 10: Outcast Communications, Padilla Speer Beardsley, Peppercom, M Booth Associates

Best Small Agencies to Work For

1. Davies Public Affairs

There’s a fine line between a high-performance, entrepreneurial culture and a culture of rampant individualism. It’s a line California public affairs firm Davies has managed to stay on the right side of as it has grown its business in recent years, more than doubling in size over the past five years without ever sacrificing the things that made it special. It attracts motivated, driven professionals by offering them intellectually challenging assignments (and above average compensation) and it keeps them by providing a first-rate work environment, proving its commitment by releasing some very talented and productive people because they weren’t right for the culture.

One of the reasons the Davies approach has been so scalable is that its rooted in robust processes. For example, new recruits are identified by something called The Talent Readiness Generator, which includes a formal approach to talent sourcing (The Talent Locator); a filtering process (The Talent Identifier) that includes face-to-face interviews but also psychometric testing and even handwriting analysis; and even an Alumni Cultivator, which helps the firm stay in touch with former employees, some of whom later return, others of whom may refer new employees.

Similarly, the firm’s approach to professional development is centered on something the firm calls The Performance Builder, a learning program segmented into three areas of focus: company, client, and craft. Content is delivered through focused staff retreats, presentations, on-the-job training as well as companywide reading and discussion, formal coursework from outside vendors, in-house workshops, and industry conferences related to our practice areas. Each employee has a Career Path, which defines his or her progression in proficiency, client focus, and responsibility for each practice level.

“As a member of the Davies team, I feel that the company regards me as an asset as much as an employee,” says one respondent. “I find the type of work we do for clients both interesting and engaging, and I’m compensated equitably for what I’m able to bring to the table. I’ve worked for other agencies in the past, but none can be compared with Davies when it comes to being intellectually and financially rewarding to staff.” Another praises the “fast paced environment working alongside some very smart and innovative individuals,” while another likes the fact that “we are encouraged to use our brains 100 percent of the time instead of operating in ‘robot mode.’” As for complaints, there are some questions about the workload, but the typical gripe is more like this one: “I have a feeling that Davies is giving me an unrealistic expectation of how a firm is supposed to treat its employees. If I ever leave, I doubt I can be satisfied with the management style at other firms.”

2. Jackson Spalding

Jackson Spalding founders Glen Jackson and Bo Spalding have developed a distinctive work environment, consistently among the leaders in our Best Agencies to Work For research over the past several years. When Jackson Spalding is recruiting it looks for candidates who have all of the five Cs—class, confidence, chemistry, character and competency—and the first four are just as important as the last one. A major initiative in 2006 was the creation of employee committees focused on key areas such as work/life balance, new employee orientation, mentoring, and career and leadership development.

The firm offers an active, structured mentoring program that replaces traditional hierarchy and assigns a primary mentor to each employee; regular third-party training, self-selected by employees with mentor input; and frequent in-house training through Jackson Spalding University. There are telecommuting opportunities for all employees if needed and two employees regularly telecommute as part of their weekly work schedule. The result is remarkably low turnover—the firm scored particularly high marks when employees were asked whether their agency did a good job of attracting and retaining high caliber employees—and an agency where even the most junior account staff feel as though they can make a difference.

The principals of the firm “care deeply about their employees and their clients,” says one respondent, while another says: “I have complete trust in the management of the agency. Our principals set very high ethical standards and live them day in and day out. They are also committed to making Jackson Spalding a fun and rewarding workplace, and are just as interested in me personally as they are professionally.” There’s a feeling that the firm’s cautious approach to growth means “we have had to turn away business that could potentially be interesting and profitable,” and some of the usual concerns about pay and workload. Oh, and one employee bemoans the fact that he or she “can’t wear flip-flops.”

3. rbb Public Relations

Florida’s rbb Public Relations, another more or less permanent fixture on our Best Agencies to Work For list, has been growing at an impressive pace, and responded to that growth in 2006 with the creation of five groups designed to allow existing employees to take ownership of the firm’s culture and ensure that new employees are inducted into that culture. The rbb Activities Group began with a simple idea—to foster social networking within the firm—and conducted a firm-wide survey to involve employees in the planning process and ensure the resulting activities were diverse and valuable. With a formal year-long plan and a budget, the group was such a success that rbb created additional activity groups to drive other areas: rbb Think Tank to focus on professional development and learning; rbb News to build the firm’s brand and recognizes staff achievements; rbb Works to make sure operational issues are managed and contribute new ideas to improve work tools; and rbb Flex to address work/life balance issues.

One of the constant themes among firms that score high marks in our survey is the belief among employees that management really cares about them as individuals, and that’s certainly the case at rbb. The firm’s leaders “really care about everyone and constantly invest in new ways to challenge and reward us,” says one respondent, while another likes the fact that management “takes employee morale very seriously. As someone who came from journalism, I wasn’t sure PR was for me, but rbb made me feel like they were in my corner.” There are concerns about pay and work-life balance—most of them accompanied by the recognition that these are industry problems—but otherwise the big complaints are “messy people” and “my commute.”

4. Citigate Cunningham

Citigate Cunningham saw revenues and headcount decline in the wake of the dot-com bust, as did almost every other technology firm, and those problems were exacerbated by the departure of founder and chief rainmaker Andy Cunningham. But under the leadership of CEO Paul Bergevin and with stability restored following its acquisition by Huntsworth, the firm is one of the great comeback stories in this survey, restored to a high standing it hasn’t enjoyed since the start of the decade. Credit an enduring commitment to the firm’s original values—among them: be open and honest, make tough decisions and stick to them, have the courage to say no, maintain personal integrity, be a team player—a solid professional development program, work-life balance initiatives (80 percent of employees take advantage of a flexible work option) and a commitment to challenging even junior employees with interesting work.

And employees notice. “I like that my agency challenges me and the work I do is not constricted to my job title,” says one respondent. Another likes that “we can clearly take on more responsibility and see opportunities for advancement.” Even lower-level employees have the opportunity “to offer new ideas toward long-existing accounts, as well as develop new ones.” And they have “the opportunity to really make a difference when it comes to delivering award-winning client work, or pursuing a new client or helping figure out the best way to position the agency in today’s changing technology PR climate.” What concerns there are involve “the craziness of meeting client deadlines that comes with meeting the very high standards we keep.”

5. JohnstonWells

Almost a decade ago, JohnstonWells unveiled to its employees a new career path and performance evaluation program: “EPIC Journey.”  It was developed to answer questions the company heard from all levels of staff revolving around their career path at the company: what was expected of individuals to receive promotions, and how promotions as well as salary levels were determined. Derived from JohnstonWells’ four corporate values—excellence, partnership, integrity and commitment—the program is a competency-based approach to personal and professional development, built around more than 70 competencies, that has become an industry standard. At the same time, the firm has made a genuine commitment to work-life balance.

Respondents enjoy a “culture where the firm’s owners talk openly with all staff members about our business goals, take input from everyone on how we can reach them, and create programs for employees to share in the success of the firm.” Others like the “unwavering commitment to the community. One hundred percent of the staff are involved with at least one organization outside of work and we’re given time each month to volunteer for our nonprofit of choice.” There are some concerns that the firm is “too top heavy” and that its largest clients get the lion’s share of attention.

6. CooperKatz & Company

“We ask a lot of our employees,” says CooperKatz in its statement of values. “We want their best creative thinking; their commitment to achieving exceptional results for our clients; their loyalty to our company; and their dedication to our Company’s business success. We understand that these are high expectations that will require our people to work hard, spend extra hours in the office or on the road, and endure challenging deadline and results-driven pressures. Being sensitive to these demands, we are committed to creating a collegial, team-oriented workplace in which everyone helps each other. We are respectful of individual needs to balance personal and business priorities. We recognize, value and reward individuals at all levels of the organization. We prize the individual and the team.”

CooperKatz “expects a great deal from its employees [but] it also provides a wonderful network of support and encouragement to succeed at every level.” The culture is “extremely supportive and focused on mentoring,” says one respondent, while another says she has “more autonomy than I’ve had at other agencies where there is a tendency by higher-ups to micro-manage.” The only complaints are the challenge of balancing work and life demands, and the physical office space. “We are split between floors and sometimes that makes it difficult to connect with people.”

Rounding out the top 10: Bliss Gouverneur & Associates, Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek, Horn Group, Makovsky & Company

Best Boutique Agencies to Work For

1. Tech Image

Tech Image principals Mike Nikolich and Dennis Collins knew they did not want to sell their firm to one of the giant communications conglomerates, but they also knew they needed to start thinking about a succession plan, so when their second largest client, association management company Smith Bucklin, put together an employee stock ownership plan to make the company 100 percent employee owned, they thought they might get some useful advice. Instead, Smith Bucklin made an unexpected suggestion: it offered to buy the public relations firm. The deal was announced in the fall of 2006 and consummated in January of 2007.

A closer working relationship with Smith Bucklin would appear to have a number of benefits for the 17-person technology public relations specialist, but just as important are the things that won’t change, particularly the firm’s distinctive culture. Tech Image will continue to distinguish itself from most of its competitors by its ability to deliver senior-level technology public relations counsel in a boutique environment: only one of the firm’s 16 professionals has less than 10 years experience, and 50 percent of employees are 40 or over. That means a flat hierarchy—everyone reports to either the chief operating officer or the director of media relations—and it means a focus on the results obtained rather than the number of hours required to make them happen, an emphasis that helps to create an environment in which work-family balance is not dictated by the need to maximize hours.

That’s because Tech Image focuses on the the results obtained rather than the number of hours required to make it happen. Financial budgeting is based on a 32 billable-hour work week, so that staff has ample time to think through a project, an approach that allows employees to “work smarter, not harder.” The newly expanded office, post-merger, features a mix of personal offices and oversized Herman Miller cubes, and the décor is professional and contemporary without being trendy.

Tech Image “really stands out in terms of balance, ethics, innovation, leadership, empowerment, people and culture,” says one respondent. The leaders “guide by suggestion, coaching and idea development instead of by an iron fist or a template type of mindset.”  The management “approach lets everyone have responsibility and authority with their clients, so it’s like running my own portfolio of business without the back-office headaches,” says another. If there is a concern, it’s that the flat hierarchy offers little chance of promotion, and the Chicago location, both because “it’s clod in the winter months” and because “if we were in the Silicon Valley we’d be twice as big.”

2. Gagen McDonald

Few firms are fortunate enough to have a single counselor who has earned the much-discussed “seat at the table.” Gagen MacDonald has several senior communications professionals with experience in some pretty intense internally-focused communications issues. If you’re looking for strategic thinkers to guide a corporate turnaround, align organizational behavior with strategic objectives, and help save the company millions of dollars, there’s no one better. With a focus on employee engagement, the firm delves deep into its clients’ DNA, examining the history of the company and at the experiences that shape employee perceptions, as well as the emotional triggers likely to drive them to action. It’s an approach that provides a uniquely stimulating and challenging environment for employees.

Not surprisingly, the firm’s own employee practices are impressive. There’s a full disclosure policy, which means management discusses firm revenues with the broader team, setting firm-wide revenue goals using input from all employees. A weekly “staffing call” covers resource allocation for different projects. And a bi-weekly E-Brief email that goes to all employees to update them on client issues, people and progress against goals. The firm also offers flexibility for individuals to pursue their passion—even to the extent of helping people find jobs elsewhere because Gagen MacDonald couldn’t provide the support the employee needed.

“We practice what we preach,” says one respondent. “The firm encourages every employee to unleash his or her potential and take on new challenges, professionally and personally.” Another enjoys the fact that “we have the opportunity to work on some of the most exciting and challenging problems in business today. I learn every day from my colleagues. I have deep respect and admiration for the significant experience, expertise and unique perspectives in the firm.” If there’s a concern it’s that “Being a small firm, it’s a constant balancing act to keeping the administrative side of the business going while meeting client and new business needs.”

3. PerkettPR

Chris Perkett promises that her firm provides “more senior executives, more access, more results.” It’s a promise on which she delivers through a virtual structure—still surprisingly unusual in the public relations business—that minimizes overhead while bringing together a network of senior level public relations counselors united by their commitment to the firm’s vision and philosophy rather than their geographic location. It makes PerkettPR flexible and responsive, and because partners have the confidence that comes with experience, willing to take creative risks.

While many PR firms are slowly moving away from the hierarchical structure that leads to junior executives executing account work, PerkettPR’s team has been working that way for almost a decade. It means the firm needs to find special people. They have to be able to work in an isolated environment and understand that a virtual agency is not a freelance job. It’s an environment that’s high on collaboration, low on hierarchy.

Not surprisingly, respondents rave about the freedom and the flexibility, and the consequent ability to balance work and life demands. More surprisingly, they also hail “the camaraderie…. There is a real sense of teamwork and company-wide pride in exceeding our clients’ goals” and the “enthusiasm and work ethic of fellow employees. I never wonder if anyone is not performing their duties and I am always positive that they are giving all of their effort to their jobs and to servicing clients.” In fact, the biggest negative is that “being a completely virtual environment, sometimes we over-communicate to compensate for not being in the same office.”

4. Trevelino Keller Communications Group

A newcomer to our Best Agencies to Work For list, Trevelino Keller is part of a new generation of technology public relations agencies, values-driven (ego-less, tireless, team-centic, open, transparent and inspired) and focused on the future. One illustration of that philosophy is the launch of the firm’s GreenWorks@Work strategy last year, in conjunction with a new clean tech practice. Employees break out into teams of two every other month and must research, select and present a community-based initiative that meets the firm’s criteria. They are then given $500 with the goal of making an impact in some manner, such as approaching a local elementary school and giving its third, fourth and fifth graders compact fluorescent light bulbs to take home and educating them about the benefits.

Employees, meanwhile, like the flexibility. “I feel I truly am allowed to maintain a work-life balance that is appropriate for me,” says one respondent, while another enjoys the “freedom to work on your own,” and yet another feels that Trevelino Keller “makes an equal commitment to its clients and employees. Client work comes with a consideration of employee satisfaction regarding work load and capabilities.” The downside, if there is one, is related to the firm’s newness, and the consequent lack of systems.

5. Articulate Communications

Articulate Communications is another member of the new generation of technology PR firms, and another newcomer to our Best Agencies to Work For list. Founder Laura Grimmer (who worked at Fitzgerald Communications, a fixture on this list before its acquisition by Omnicom) recognizes that people spend a large slice of their lives at their jobs, and has formulated The Articulate Way to make that time as enriching and supportive as possible. A team approach to client service helps account staff support one another—instead of competing against each other—and provides frequent interaction with senior management. The firm also has an internal team focused on training and professional development.

In fact, “training is a top priority and my agency is always preparing its employees for the next step in their career,” says one respondent. Another likes “the amount of respect, positive treatment and nurturing that the company provides,” while another cites “the office morale, the people I work with, and our CEO’s approachability.” Again, any negatives are related to size: the inability to take on all the new work employees would like, and the difficulties that can arise from taking on too much.

6. Linhart McClain Finlon

Linhart McClain Finlon founder Sharon Linhart is a former Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist and has been incredibly successful in attracting top talent. One reason is that the firm knows how to balance work and play. LMF celebrated its 10th anniversary last year with a number of internal initiatives ranging from indoor sky-diving and a white-water rafting trip on the Colorado River to teaching eighth-grade students at an inner-city Denver school about business and free enterprise, in partnership with Junior Achievement. The firm also continued to build its distinct culture, which is marked by a high degree of transparency concerning business performance and a bonus pool, proceeds from which are paid out to employees on a quarterly basis.

One of the things that attracts high-caliber employees is that “we are a small firm and don’t get caught up in politics, but we have big time clients.” Another employee likes the fact that management “takes concerns, recommendations and praise seriously and strives to ensure every employee, regardless of seniority, finds work both enjoyable and rewarding.”

Rounding out the top 10: Corporate Ink, Barkley, 360 Public Relations, Warschawski

View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus