The 30 Best Agencies to Work For: Part I
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

The 30 Best Agencies to Work For: Part I

We could have filled this entire issue with comments from Waggener Edstrom people who wanted to tell us how great the firm, its culture, it management, its benefits, and its work are. Almost 400 of Wagg Ed’s 463 employees responded to this survey.

Paul Holmes

1. (3) Waggener Edstrom

We could have filled this entire issue with comments from Waggener Edstrom people who wanted to tell us how great the firm, its culture, it management, its benefits, and its work are. Almost 400 of Wagg Ed’s 463 employees responded to this survey—a staggering response rate for a larger firm—and gave the firm the highest marks of any large agency on key questions including whether they found their job rewarding; their commitment to building their careers at the firm; and whether they found the work stimulating.

“Before joining WaggEd, I wanted to work a few years in the industry and then open my own PR shop,” raves a typical respondent. “After joining WaggEd, I don’t ever want to leave.” Waggener Edstrom is “the best company I have ever worked for,” says another. “Hands down. No question about it. WaggEd is a model agency for others to follow.” Says another: “Great management. Some of the smartest, most driven and good—I mean respectful, honest, upstanding—people I have ever encountered in business. People come to WE and stay a long time because of this.”

The firm has won over skeptics: “I heavily researched the firm and took my time listening to their vision. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue working for a mid- to large-size agency. But I believed what I heard, got the offer, took the job and feel very lucky to have landed at this agency.” And even relatively recent additions to the staff are impressed: “I am fairly new at Waggener Edstrom and am overwhelmed by the employee recognition given to each team member,” says one respondent. “This is a very fun, energetic and motivated place to work.” Another newcomer chimes in: “The people and projects are so incredible! I feel very lucky to be a part of such a great company.”

The fact that Waggener Edstrom has continued to hire additional staff at a time when the rest of the industry—and the technology sector in particular—has been struggling may have had a positive influence on the firm’s score, but principals Melissa Waggener and Pam Edstrom would no doubt argue that the strikingly healthy culture is a cause, not an effect, of the firm’s extraordinary performance during the downturn.

Everything about Waggener Edstrom’s commitment to its people is impressive, but two things stand out. The first is the firm’s professional development program, which includes 50 courses that range from classes designed to focus on the firm’s key values, including discovery, innovation, and collaboration to professional training in areas such as media relations, analyst relations and branding. The second is a series of work-life initiatives including telecommuting and compressed work weeks, using the latest technology to provide staff with maximum flexibility. Currently, about 12 percent of Wagg Ed’s employees are taking advantage of these options.

2. (-) M Booth Associates

The folks at M Booth & Associates are having fun. The vast majority (88 percent) of respondents agreed very strongly that the firm was “a fun place to work” and morale is high (4.63 out of a possible 5, compared to the industry average of 3.68). M Booth appears to be a perfect example of an agency that takes its work seriously—the firm scores high marks for client service—but itself less so. Examples include the “chat and chew” luncheons every month, to discuss best practices in new business development; “beer Fridays,” hosted by the practice groups on a rotating basis; and “schmooze and booze” (yes, the firm has a strong food and beverage practice) sessions featuring outside speakers whose topics range from finding the perfect truffle to a sneak peak backstage at the Oscars.

The word that comes up most often to describe this distinctive culture is “humanistic.” Says one respondent: “M Booth & Associates is the ultimate in a humanistic and professional environment in which one can be both productive and creative while maintaining superb relationships with colleagues and clients.” Another describes the firm as “a humanistic, creative, intellectually stimulating environment where colleagues are friends.” Yet another hails the opportunity to work alongside a wonderful group of creative, intelligent humanists.”

That humanism manifests itself in several ways, including extensive community involvement—the firm sponsors an annual clothing drive for needy New Yorkers and participates in a Secret Santa program organized by New York Cares—and in work-life benefits including flextime, telecommuting, sabbaticals (on a case-by-case basis). It’s not all fun and games, though. The firm offers an in-house training schedule of 15 customized courses with a faculty that includes M Booth’s senior staffers and outside experts.

3. (4) Matha MacDonald

Matha MacDonald has the most inspiring mission statement of any major agency, “To make the world a better place for working people by changing one company, one department, or one manager at a time.” To deliver on that promise, the firm’s values include a focus on making its own workplace as healthy as can be: “We are committed to nurturing and developing each person. We appreciate the power of diversity. We reward and recognize achievements. Each of us takes responsibility for teaching and learning. Everyone has the opportunity and encouragement to do great work.”

With its focus on internal communications and change management, Matha MacDonald employees rate their firm number one for providing intellectually stimulating work, and the firm finishes second when it comes to financial rewards, and third overall for professional development. The firm offers 40 hours of in-house training a year, including a two-day retreat at which employees help plot the agency’s future. Just as important, Matha MacDonald treats its people like adults, with a “be where you need to be, do what you need to do” philosophy that provides plenty of flexibility.

Respondents like working with “a group of extremely smart people who are encouraged to follow their dreams and abilities.” Says one, “The people are sharp, driven, caring and family oriented. The work is challenging and rewarding.” Adds another, “The work is challenging, stimulating and fun. We partner with and learn from great clients. My colleagues are smart and collaborative. There are no hidden agendas, only a genuine desire to get the best results for our clients.”

4.  (10) A&R Partners

At the height of the dot-com boom, technology PR firms were offering all kinds of extravagant perks—free massages, valet service at the office and the like—to attract and retain candidates. Most of those programs evaporated when the tech sector turned down and the competition for employees dwindled. But A&R Partners had always been focused on substance rather than style, and its commitment to building a strong, professional work environment didn’t waver, even when times got tough.

The firm ranks second overall when employees are asked whether they can balance work and life issues successfully, thanks in part to a unique policy that accommodates employees who have moved away from Silicon Valley but want to continue working for the firm. As a result, A&R has people in Denver, Portland, L.A. and Durham. The firm covers their set up costs and pays for them to travel to the company headquarters every month, and is rewarded by loyal employees and long-term client relationships. The professional development programs draw praise too, as A&R offers a mix of in-house seminars, group knowledge sharing events, and outside training.

Employees hail “smart managers and strong ethics” and say there’s a “big emphasis on initiative, creativity and client delight.” Says one, “The level of respect and equality is admirable—the most “functional” work environment I’ve seen.” That’s echoed by another respondent, who says, “Everyone here, whether they are an intern or a partner, is treated with the same amount of respect.” Adds another, “We have very high employee retention. I believe it is because we try to hire the best and reward and train them well. They pay us back with their loyalty and commitment to doing the very best job for our clients.” Says another, “I have never been more challenged or learned as much as I have at A&R.”

5. (19) Chandler Chicco Agency

When Bob Chandler and Gianfranco Chicco launched their own healthcare PR firm almost a decade ago, they took a long look at all the things that get in the way of running a great agency—politics, bureaucracy, hierarchy—and simply eliminated them. Walk into the firm’s loft space and you won’t see individual cubicles, because cubicles get in the way of communication between team members. You won’t see any job titles either, because at Chandler Chicco accomplishment is more important than seniority and teams are assembled based not on what each individual brings to the table, not on how long people have been with the firm or what rank they’ve reached.

Employees find the approach inspiring. They rank Chandler Chicco third overall when asked whether they have confidence in management, and they find the work both intellectually stimulating (sixth out of all the agencies surveyed) and financially rewarding (seventh). New in 2004 is an expanded professional development plan called Phase IV that will cover everything from leadership skills to media relations to advanced programming, with employees who complete the courses eligible to receive bonus holiday time.

One thing that excites CCA employees is the opportunity to “work with hip, intelligent and charming people…. We brainstorm together, we workout together (a personal trainer comes into CCA twice a week) and we cultivate friendships over free lunches that CCA provided. Life is good here.” Says another, “The creativity and energy is palatable from the moment you walk in the door.” Others appreciate the way CCA “eliminates all the office politics that make up the stereotypical PR firm,” the fact that “everyone, including senior staff, is involved in day-to-day account work,” and the “great structure: no management layers, no titles.”

6. (14) APCO Worldwide

With its roots in the high-stakes world of public affairs, it’s not surprising that APCO’s people find their work intellectually stimulating (the firm ranked third overall on that question), but chief executive Margery Kraus has put a good deal of effort into workplace initiatives that have improved both the professional development offering and the ability to balance the demands of work and life (the firm ranks in the top 10 on both criteria).

On the work-life front, the firm offers a computer purchase assistance program that allows employees to buy a home computer, giving them the flexibility to work from home when they need to. The firm also conducts an annual health fair, where employees receive screenings and stress tests, and attend seminars on subjects such as personal fitness and breast cancer awareness. On the training front, the APCO ART (Achieve your goals, Realize your potential, Take charge of your future) expands each year, offering courses that improve consulting and management skills and business knowledge. The firm also offers a global exchange program that allows employees to move to other countries—18 employees took advantage last year.

“APCO is full of high-calibre people who are committed to working cooperatively as a team to achieve success for clients and the company,” says one respondent. “The CEO does an excellent job communicating the culture and values of the firm, and her vision works on a practical level because people really believe it and live it in their jobs.” Says another, ““The team is highly motivated, talented and ethical, the work is challenging and we continually work on ‘front page’ issues.” Finally, “The people at APCO the smartest group that I have ever worked with.”

7. (15) CarryOn Communication

Most public relations firms define their mission almost exclusively in terms of the value they intend to bring to clients, but CarryOn Communication focuses first on what it can offer employees. “CarryOn Communication is an employee-focused agency that provides a safe environment for the employees to be, express and expand themselves, professionally and personally. Our agency is founded on the principle that employees who enjoy coming to work every day in an environment that promotes creativity and diversity, will provide better service, ensuring greater results and longer-standing, happier clients.” Now there’s an agency that understands the value chain: attract and retain great people and they’ll do great work, thus attracting and retaining great clients, who in turn will deliver great profits.

That philosophy manifests itself in ways both predictable and surprising. Work-life initiatives include a workout room in the office, with eights and workout videos, and a policy that allows employees to bring their dogs to the office. The firm makes a serious commitment to community involvement, working with non-profits such as LA Youth, regional lupus and multiple sclerosis group, and the Gay Games. And professional development efforts include monthly Lunch-n-Learn sessions with outside speakers, and reimbursement for outside training sessions. There’s also a formal “buddy system” and a bottomless snack closet.

Employees have fun. “There are more toys and scooters in our office than people,” says one respondent. (Razor is a client.) “The employees are very passionate about the work they do yet they find the time to have fun,” says one respondent. “And I’ve never been in so many brainstorms filled with laughter and great ideas.” Says another, “Compensation is good, morale is near perfect and everyone helps everybody. I’ve never had this in a big agency environment.” Finally, “I’ve never in my career seen junior staff more empowered and talented than I have at CarryOn!”

Part II

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