Dome Tops List of Best Agencies to Work For
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Holmes Report

Dome Tops List of Best Agencies to Work For

Looking for a reason why Chicago-based Dome Communications was able to knock Carter Ryley Thomas off its two-year perch as our Best Agency to Work For, it’s tempting to look no further than the firm’s growth last year.

Paul Holmes

1. (2) Dome Communications

Looking for a reason why Chicago-based Dome Communications was able to knock Carter Ryley Thomas off its two-year perch as our Best Agency to Work For, it’s tempting to look no further than the firm’s growth last year—from 31 employees to 59 at a time when many others were contracting—but there’s much more to it than that. The firm’s mission is to be “the nation’s premiere creative boutique by 2004,” and founder Doug Dome clearly understands that building a strong, collaborative culture will be a key to accomplishing that mission. So Dome has emphasized great benefits, work-life balance (a creative learning center for personal development) and professional development through Dome U.

It’s clear that even before this recognition, the word was out about Dome: the agency ranked tenth among all agencies when respondents were asked which firm other than their own they would most like to work for, ahead of well-established agencies such as Manning Selvage & Lee, GCI Group, and Ruder Finn. That’s a remarkable achievement for a firm that’s less than a decade old and operates in only one market.

The firm ranked number one on several key criteria: my agency takes a long-term view; our people are prepared to do whatever it takes; and we do a good job of delegating work to the appropriate level. And it ranked second in several other areas: encouraging its people to use their own initiative, providing intellectually stimulating work; listening to what employees have to say; and having a clear sense of its mission.

Employees rave, “If I ever leave Dome, I would change industries because I could never work for another PR firm after working here,” and “If I had to design, manage and own my own company—this is exactly how I would do it.” Says another, “Hands down, Dome is the most employee-centric agency in the industry. I feel fortunate to go to work every morning.”

2. (-) RBB Public Relations

When the leadership team at RBB Public Relations bought their firm back from Weber Shandwick late in 2001, it set out to create a different kind of public relations firm, committing to employee ownership, a business model that would “instill a cooperative spirit into the ownership and management of the firm,” and open book management. The approach appears to be paying off, since RBB is making its debut in the Best Agencies to Work For list at the number two position. One key is its flexible approach: people are allowed to set their own hours and determine where the work is performed. There’s a strong professional development program too, including visits from local reporters, in-house workshops, and generous tuition stipends.

Employees ranked RBB first when they were asked about their confidence in the quality of management; whether they were committed to building their career at the agency; and whether their manager was more of a coach than a boss. The firm also scored the highest marks for keeping clients informed, for the dedication of its people, for explaining its financial goals and employees’ role in achieving them; for training; and for encouraging people to develop new skills.

Employee loyalty is one of the factors that helps RBB stand out from the crowd. Says one employees, “rbb has remained a place of constant growth—if not, I would not have stayed for 9 years. The work we do continues to be challenging and new.” Adds another, “I have been with this agency for more than eight years now and appreciate the opportunities that have come my way over the years. I have been fairly rewarded for my hard work and dedication and look forward to spending my career here. I especially like the family atmosphere that has developed here over time.”

3. (6) Waggener Edstrom

In the middle of a technology recession, you might expect morale at Waggener Edstrom to have slipped. But the largest technology-only firm in the nation actually leapfrogged perennial leader Fleishman-Hillard to become the best of big agencies in our survey. The fact that the firm somehow managed to grow last year—up from 438 to 450 employees—helps, but there’s a lot more to it than that, including generous vacation policy (four weeks in year one), more than 20 internal training courses, tuition reimbursement up to 2.5 percent of base salary, profit sharing, and a 401k that starts on day one and includes matching contributions.

The firm scored the highest marks among big agencies when employees were asked whether they had confidence in the quality of management; a clear sense of their firm’s mission; and intellectually stimulating work. It was also number one among big agencies for taking a long-term view and for emphasizing client satisfaction.

“Training and education opportunities are first-rate,” say employees. “People here have fun together, which is crucial, given the stress we can face.” Management takes “a long-term approach to success, works hard to learn from missteps and see people as the number one asset,” says one respondent. Adds another, “This is the first place I’ve worked that says they’re going to treat you well and considers you valuable, then goes out and proves it in small and big ways.” The payoff is job security: “Despite a rough economy, I couldn’t feel safer than at Waggener Edstrom. I’m growing and being challenged and don’t remotely feel that my job is in jeopardy.”

4. (16) Matha MacDonald

Specialists in organizational change and employee communications, the principals at Matha MacDonald have clearly applied some of the wisdom they share with clients to their own business. Starting with a values driven culture—“integrity, humility, kindness; courage, passion and a sense of fun; inclusive and collaborative teams”—and a culture that treats employees as adults, eschewing the “billable hour” focus ubiquitous at other firms, Matha MacDonald has built a winning culture

Employees ranked the firm first in providing employees with the freedom to decide for themselves how work gets done; for providing intellectually stimulating work; for clients who treat members of the account team at all levels with respect; and for making every effort to keep employees informed

All in all, Matha MacDonald is the “place to be if you put a premium on making a difference in the world in what you do,” full of “great people who are smart, humble and kind.” Says one respondent, “We do great work for our clients and have fun at the same time.”

5. (1) Carter Ryley Thomas

It’s not that Carter Ryley Thomas—named the Best Agency to Work For in our first two surveys—saw its ratings decline this year; it’s that other firms that have been playing catch-up finally caught up. But CRT’s values—what’s best for the group comes first; always be open and honest; work for and trust each other; deliver more than promised—continue to underpin one of the most distinctive cultures in the industry. With one of the industry’s leading community outreach programs; innovative work-life benefits including the only on-site childcare center; and a commitment to employee ownership and open book management, CRT is still an industry leader.

The firm scored in the top five on a range of criteria, from “Our people are prepared to do whatever it takes” to “I understand my firm’s financial goals and my role in achieving them.”

The word family comes up a lot in employee responses. Says one, “Like any family, we have our differences and issues, but we are truly a family, not a corporation focused on the dollar.” For that reason, “When many firms have laid off their staff, we have stood by our people and they have kept their jobs. This is an accomplishment by itself.” Adds another, “I know so many people who are unhappy with their jobs. When I tell them about our culture, our people and our benefits, they can’t believe that such a place exists.”
One telling sign: “Even the president asks people who are working late, ‘How can I help you get out of here early today?’”

6. (3) Fleishman-Hillard

Among the giant full-service agencies, Fleishman-Hillard continues to hold a unique place, having invested heavily over the years in all those things that make a great culture: shared values; a collegial culture; professional development; and more recently work-life benefits. The firm continues to reap the benefits of that investment even in a difficult environment, ranking second when employees of other firms were asked where they would most like to work and scoring high marks from its own employees, particularly on categories related to client service and integrity.

The firm’s culture task force, led by Nancy Seliger, has done a particularly effective job integrating acquired companies into the FH culture with little of the disruption that has followed M&A activity by other firms.

Most employees continue to rave: “I think FH does a better job than any firm I have ever been connected with in making sure that its employees are happy, supported and given opportunities for growth and advancement,” and “Coming to FH from a small boutique agency, I am incredibly impressed with the company wide communication and the respect for and interest in the well-being of individual employees from the management level.” FH continues to draw high praise for “integrity throughout the firm,” and its culture: “While there is a firm culture, each office given enough latitude to have its individual culture as well.” Still, there are some criticisms: “The industry is going through a rough spell, ourselves included, and this has forced the firm to take actions they would not have had to consider in the past: a freeze on salaries and bonuses, a freeze on hiring, salary roll-backs, increase in the cost of benefits. This profoundly affects morale by placing profits above all else.” But the bottom line: “It’s been a tough year for the agency, but I still feel proud to work for FH.”

7. (5) Text 100

Text 100 began 2001 with the news that it had picked up a huge chunk of IBM business, an announcement that helped the firm weather the worst of the recession that followed. Another tech agency that grew a little last year—up from 116 employees to 118—Text 100 has been steadfast in pursuit of its mission: “to consistently provide PR counsel that creates maximum business value for all our stakeholders; by doing so we become our client’s most indispensable business partner and provide a place where people the opportunity to fulfill their greatest ambitions.”

The firm offers great benefits, including a dependent care flexible spending account that offers assistance with childcare and elder care, and a work-life solutions program that offers telephone and web-based resources and referrals. Throw in the most generous vacation package in the industry—four weeks in the first year; five weeks in the third—and it’s no surprise that Text 100 employees continue to give their firm high marks.

“Despite its challenges in this difficult economy, Text 100 has done an admirable job at balancing employee satisfaction with a sustained level of business activity,” says one respondent. Says another, “I wouldn’t pretend that it’s been an easy year to be in PR, or perhaps in anything else in the Bay Area, but when you believe in a company’s philosophy, in its direction, in the people all around you... life doesn’t seem too bad!” Text 100 “has an exciting feeling of a company still growing and changing. The management makes you feel as though you can actually make a difference… And the 5 weeks of vacation can’t be beat!”

8. (7) Warschawski Public Relations

When he launched his own firm in 1996, David Warschawski wanted to create a “vision-oriented” organization. Every employee takes a three-day seminar to learn how a vision-oriented organization works and the role vision plays in WPR’s day-to-day operations, and every employee also takes a three-day excellence training seminar led by a management consultant that covers vision in both professional and personal contexts.

The firm scored a perfect five when employees were asked whether client satisfaction was a top priority; whether the firm listened well to clients; whether the firm had a clear sense of its mission; and whether employees understood their firm’s vision and strategy. It also ranked second overall on some key metrics: clients treating members of the account team at all levels with respect, and satisfaction with healthcare benefits.

“I never thought that I would be able to find the kind of passion and fulfillment that I felt when working for cause-related non-profit organizations in a for-profit venture,” says one respondent. “I was wrong.” Says another, “WPR employees really love coming to work each morning, feel empowered to take on new challenges and have the utmost confidence that our co-workers will help us achieve our goals.”

9. (11) Ketchum

Despite a difficult year for all big agencies, Ketchum beat out Omnicom sister agency Fleishman-Hillard as the firm employees of other agencies would most like to work for, and continues to score high marks from its own employees on a wide range of criteria. Among the keys to the firm’s success: a professional development program that is rated among the best in the industry; a partnership model that gives many of the firm’s senior executives a say in management decision-making; and a commitment to best teams that means employees work with each other across practice areas and geographies—ensuring a truly collaborative culture.

Ketchum “has taught me the significance of working for people that you respect and like” says one respondent. Adds another, “It’s a people friendly environment and the management respects and understands how important a work/life balance is.” Others worry that “the environment at Ketchum has changed drastically under the tightening economy…. many of the programs that made Ketchum such an enjoyable place to work have been eliminated.” Still, most respondents are optimistic: “The agency is going through some major changes which, if handled well, can reinvent the firm and take it to greater heights.”

10. (-) A&R Partners

In the middle of a technology recession, it’s surprising to find three technology PR firms among our top 10 Best Agencies to Work For. A&R Partners is the newcomer, and scores high marks despite downsizing a little in 2002, from 79 to 72 employees. That didn’t impact the firm’s foundation, which includes a passion for client service and a commitment to employee development, nor its management tenets, which include clear, candid communication and optimal employee growth and retention. Even in tough times, the firm maintained its bonus program, spot rewards for employees who go “above and beyond,” and a rich and varied professional development program.

Employees rave about “strong ethics, respect for family and life balance, emphasis on training, wise decisions for long-term health and growth,” and say “client delight is top priority but agency aggressively pursued new business to stay strong in bad economy.” The firm “invests heavily in training and developing its talent pool… During the tough economic time, it has pulled together even closer.” One respondent is grateful that “A&R Partners have made every effort to accommodate my personal life changes while keeping the needs of the agency at the forefront.” Brags another, “We have possibly the highest employee retention in the industry. A majority of our customers are referred by current and former clients. We are only getting better and stronger each year.”

Part Two

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