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

The 30 Best Agencies to Work For: Part II

Paul Holmes

8. (6) Fleishman-Hillard

With so many of the large, full-service, multinational public relations firms now owned by a handful of enormous holding companies, it is perhaps inevitable that they will begin to look more and more alike. More and more policies—from health benefits to how much to invest in professional development—are made based on the profitability targets of the publicly traded parent. And indeed, this year’s survey shows the gap between the best of the big agencies and the rest beginning to narrow. But perennial leader Fleishman-Hillard continues to earn higher praise from its employees than its competitors, an indication that its values are resilient even in tough economic times.

The firm ranks in the top 10 overall when people are asked whether they have confidence in management, whether they find the work intellectually stimulating, and whether they are satisfied with their professional development. The latter offering has been expanded with PD at Your Desk, an interactive, online learning system, and with a growing curriculum of regional training options, and employees who want to graduate to become partners or senior partners are expected to design new training sessions. FH also has a number of innovative work-life policies—enough to get it recognized as one of the 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers by Working Mother magazine for the second consecutive year.

Employees cite the firm’s Midwestern values as a continuing source of differentiation. “Treats people fairly. Good ethics. Strong sense of right and wrong,” says one. Adds another, clearly not based in the firm’s St. Louis headquarters, “Although sometimes it is amusing to behold, FH’s solid, Midwestern, conservative value core is a great strength.” And another says, “FH has been steadfast about maintaining its culture and commitment to employees throughout the economic downturn of the last couple of years.” One fan rates it “the least political of the big agencies.” But detractors say “public company ownership has been devastating.” Says one, “We’ve laid off employees to achieve short-term financial goals, and our employees are required to work 50-plus hours a week.” Representing a growing strain of opinion, one respondent says, “I liked it better before we were acquired by a publicly-traded company. Pressures for profitability have eroded our culture and impacted client service.” On balance: “In a tough economic environment, our management has kept a level head and kept the agency’s eyes focused on the keys to success—our clients.”

9. (-) Trainer Communications

Can you build a strong, distinctive agency culture at a virtual public relations firm? If the responses of Trainer Communications employees are any guide, you can. The people at Susan Trainer’s firm all work from home, but they share a high opinion of the way the business is run. Says Trainer, “Our employees are all senior level executives fully experienced in what is required to manage sophisticated and complex accounts. We recognize that ability and our organization consistently benefits through higher levels of productivity and client satisfaction.”

It’s not surprising, given its model, that Trainer scores high marks (third overall) when people are asked whether they are encouraged to use their own initiative. A little more surprising are the high marks the firm gets in other areas: it’s in the top 10 when people are asked whether they like the people they work with, whether they are satisfied with their professional development programming, and whether client satisfaction is a top priority.

“Our agency has a terrific model,” says one respondent, while another likes the fact that “our ideas and input are expected and valued.” Says another, “Trainer Communications strives for excellence for both clients and the agency’s employees. This credo filters through all of our efforts, resulting in high client satisfaction and employee satisfaction as well…. All individuals are respected for their unique strengths and abilities. Finally, we all work from our home offices, which allows for an extremely productive work environment, and allows personal flexibility.”

10. (1) Dome Communications

It’s easy to create a strong, healthy culture when times are good. Okay, maybe it’s not that easy, or everyone would have been tied with Dome Communications as the Best Agency to Work For last year. But it’s a lot easier when times are good, and until 2003 Dome had experienced only good times, building a distinctive, fun-based work environment on the back of consistent double-digit growth as it grew to become one of the Midwest’s largest independent PR firms. But last year, the firm faced adversity for the first time, losing a significant chunk of ConAgra business as the company consolidated its PR accounts. Could Dome’s reputation as an excellent place to work survive that setback? If the responses of its employees are any indication, it can and will.

Despite layoffs toward the end of last year—headcount was down from 69 at the end of 2002 to 54 at the end of 2003—employees continued to rate Dome in the top 10 among fun places to work. The firm was number one when employees were asked whether they were encouraged to use their own initiative, and scored well on professional development and intellectual stimulation questions. The firm remains committed to both work-life balance—its Creative Learning Center offers courses in feng-shui, rooftop gardening, ceramics and more—and to professional development, with Dome U providing 30 classes on everything from interviewing candidates to presentation skills to professional etiquette.

It’s refreshing to know that someone still knows how to have fun and be successful at the same time,” says one respondent. Says another, “This truly is the land of opportunity…. This agency teaches you that you can do anything and everything you’ve always wanted to, professionally and personally.” People aren’t blind to the firm’s difficulties, but there’s a universal expectation that Dome will prevail. “During a year when most agencies have struggling in one or more ways, we have encountered our fair share of financial and cultural obstacles,” says one respondent. “However, the majority of the staff at Dome remains optimistic about our agency’s future and personal professional growth because we believe in, trust and support, the majority of the people that walk through the front doors each day to come to work... and I think that’s rare at any company.”

11. (2) rbb Public Relations

A third of rbb’s 23 employees have been with the firm for a decade or more, and almost three-quarters of the firm’s clients have been there five years. Christine Barney, who bought the firm back from Weber Shandwick three years ago, believes there’s a strong correlation between those two numbers. “We define success as having low client and staff turnover,” she says. “That equation equals strong financials.” So the firm takes work-life balance seriously. Every employee has the freedom to decide his or her own schedule, and the location at which work can be done. Those who commute can travel at more convenient times or work from home, and if you’re not a morning person you can come in late, leave late. That’s one reason the firm has only lost two employees since it regained its independence—both left because they were moving out of the area.

Respondents like “the nurturing environment, challenging work and good people.” Says one, “Employees have a voice here. The management cares about employee morale and strives for unity and high employee satisfaction.” Says another, “rbb’s very low turnover rate and long-term client relationships speak for themselves.”

12. (-) Weber Shandwick

When Harris Diamond was charged with bringing together the operations of BSMG Worldwide and Weber Shandwick to create what was, at the time, the world’s largest public relations firm, many predicted disaster. Merging people businesses is notoriously tricky, and this one was compounded by the fact that it brought together not two cultures, but half a dozen: BSMG’s was newly minted, the result of the merger of Bozell PR, Robinson Lake & Lerer, and Sawyer Miller; Weber’s was highly entrepreneurial, with its roots in the fast-moving tech sphere; Shandwick had multiple cultures, in small, acquired agencies around the country. But somehow Diamond brought them all together in a sum that is greater—in workplace terms at least—than the sum of its parts.

Increasingly, Weber Shandwick “is truly a unified international agency that knows how to draw on the strengths of its different offices to achieve big picture goals for its clients,” says one respondent, while another praises “an empowering, collaborative, supportive” culture. “We have an incredible leadership team,” says another. “They’ve gotten us through some really challenging times, and continued to keep us excited about the challenges the business is facing.” But others complain that “morale among rank-and-file employees at various offices around the country has suffered in recent years due to a succession of stealth layoffs, a long-running salary freeze, a dilution of benefits programs and increasing financial pressures.” And some feel “we have tremendous leadership but are dragged down a bit by our holding company.”

13. (-) McNeely Pigott Fox

In its mission statement, McNeely Pigott & Fox pledges to “provide the best possible workplace for our employees and [to] work as a caring team.” It’s delivering on the promise. Employees rate the firm in the top 10 in terms of morale, when asked whether they trust management to do the right thing, and when asked to rate work-life balance. There’s also a first-rate professional development program that includes sessions led by agency management, local journalists, business and community leaders, as well as an allowance for external training programs.

“Our partners are very accessible and willing to listen,” says one respondent. “Our working environment provides a great deal of flexibility, and the emphasis is on getting the job done and done well, not on adhering to strict policies or schedules.” Says another, “The partners stress creativity, hard work and shared rewards. They go way beyond the call of duty in terms of looking for ways to keep employees happy and motivated.” Finally, “one of the things that stands out is the opportunity given to younger staff. I don’t think there’s another PR firm in Nashville or anywhere else whose principals will take an entry-level employee to a meeting with a CEO, let them plan a major event, and encourage them to voice their opinions and to share ideas.”

14. (8) Warschawski PR

David Warschawski describes his Baltimore-based PR firm as a “vision oriented organization,” and that’s a theme that’s echoed throughout any discussion of the firm’s workplace environment. Each new employee takes a three-day seminar to learn how a vision-oriented organization functions and the role vision plays in the firm’s day-to-day operations. There’s also an extensive and formal mentoring program to help newcomers learn the ropes. And people are encouraged to learn how they can apply vision orientation in their personal lives. All that may sound a little intense, but it wins rave reviews from employees.

Says one New York agency refugee, “The atmosphere, the people, the client roster, the spirit, the motivation, the commitment, and the way in which people go about things all made me excited to start a new life in a new city with a new agency.” Adds another veteran of big agencies, “I can say that this is the best agency that I have been associated with to date.” As for the “vision thing,” employees “are required to develop goals—for clients, new business and personal,” says one respondent. “And are held accountable for what we write down. The goal setting is paramount to the success of the agency.”

Part III

View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus