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

The 30 Best Agencies to Work For: Part III

Paul Holmes

15. (-) Jericho Communications

Jericho is another public relations firm that believes employees can work hard and have fun at the same time. That philosophy manifests itself in ways large and small, from flexible scheduling to a holiday party that transformed the office into a Spa for a Day, offering employees back massages, henna tattoos and fortune readings; from telecommuting to a new program called Jerichoose that encourages employee suggestions and offers rewards such as free movie tickets and restaurant gift certificates. The firm scores high marks from employees as a fun place to work and people have high confidence in a management team that ranks among the most accessible in the industry.

“Management empowers employees to make decisions, learn from their mistakes, and take on new challenges,” says one respondent. Says another, “The partners at Jericho truly care about their employees. As a result, the culture, work environment and opportunity at Jericho are like no other in this industry.” The environment is “professional but comfortable.”

16. (-) Schwartz Communications

When Schwartz Communications people are asked why they like their agency so much, they focus on two aspects. First, the people. “Management hires bright, creative people and encourages an environment where employees help and learn from each other,” says one respondent. Says another, “Everyone is a team player. It’s one of the most creative, intelligent, and self-motivated group of people I’ve ever been around.” And second, the opportunity. “Schwartz continues to give me maximum responsibility at the earliest possibility, rewards me for taking risks, and helps me learn from my mistakes,” says one. Adds another, “Employees are given full autonomy to initiate and execute projects for to better the agency.”

One of a handful of technology public relations firms to survive the downturn with its business (more or less) and its culture intact, Schwartz ranks in the top five when people are asked whether they find their jobs financially satisfying—perhaps it’s the bonus pool that rewards people for renewing client relationships—and in the top 10 for work-life balance, empowerment, and professional development: the firm’s Schwartz College training program focuses heavily on media relations and other PR topics, and there are frequent visits from outside speakers.

17. (9) Ketchum

Ketchum continues to rank number one among employees of other firms, when they are asked where they would most like to work, and it’s not hard to figure out where. The firm has a reputation for a collaborative, creative culture, and has long been regarded as the leader in professional development. And if there are signs in this year’s survey that other big agencies are closing the gap, it’s clear that Ketchum is still among the employers of choice for those who prefer the depth and breadth of experience only a truly global firm can offer. Among the things that keep the firm in the lead: Ketchum College, with its 50 classroom and online training sessions; leadership development training; a new parent leave program; sabbaticals for long tenured employees; and Road Scholarships that allow inter-office transfers.

Some feel they “no longer work for Ketchum. I believe that I am working for Omnicom,” and others “would like to have the Agency we had 10 years ago” and worry that the firm is “so focused on billable hours, it forgot about the people working to make them billable.” But others insist that Ketchum is “still the best, even after hard times.” The consensus: “While the industry faced years of financial turmoil, Ketchum tried its best to hold on to talent as long as it could and seek out more creative ways to reduce overhead in order to avoid too much turn over…. Ketchum has finally made its way out of the economic tunnel and found light again, and its employees are starting feel rejuvenated and happier about the projected positive turnaround for the industry as a whole.”

18. (-) Paine PR

It’s surprising (or maybe not) how many of the Best Agencies to Work For are run by refugees from larger, global PR firms who wanted to create a more humanistic, collegial, or fun work environment for themselves and other like-minded individuals. That’s how David Paine got started, launching a PR firm with a clear mission: “We seeks to create an intellectually stimulating, honest and fair work environment where the interests and contributions of everyone involved in our success are recognized and valued, where people can genuinely enjoy their jobs and where each of us has opportunities to achieve high levels of professional and personal growth.”

That vision manifests itself in a culture that eliminates hierarchy, awards automatic pay raises, profit sharing, and promises equal pay for equal work in an unusually transparent environment. A sophisticated work balance software system allocates work away from people who are too busy to those who have time. “PainePR preaches shared values and backs them up in its day-to-day business,” says one respondent. Management “lives and allow employees to live the values they preach—cooperation, fairness, openness and excellence,” says another.

19. (17) Jackson Spalding

The more distinctive an agency culture, the more difficult it is to hire against that culture. And that difficulty is only compounded when an agency is growing at breakneck speed, and requires a constant supply of new blood to prevent existing staff from burning out. So Jackson Spalding had deliberately grown at a controlled pace, investing a significant amount of time and energy into the hiring process to make sure it brings on board the right people, and creating an internship program that’s a great source of new talent as well as a mentoring program that shows people the ropes. The firm eschews titles, respects the need for work-life balance, and expects employees to get involved in the community in which they operate.

“We have an absence of politics that I think makes us stand apart among our peers,” says one fan of the culture. “Delivering great client work is much easier without the distraction of corporate posturing.” Another insists, “Politics are close to non-existent. Each individual is valued. And, as a result, we are productive, respected and very successful. It’s how an agency should be managed.”

20. (30) Vollmer

“Vollmer Public Relations is in the sweet spot between large and small agencies,” says one respondent, describing the firm’s allure. “As an independent firm, Vollmer is small enough to value individual contributions and adhere to its core values. As the largest independent PR agency in Texas, Vollmer is large enough to have top talent in many areas of expertise and the kind of infrastructure to enable practitioners to focus on winning results for clients.” The firm has turned its mid-market status into an advantage, offering people the chance to pursue a number of careers within the same agency: any employee can choose to be a generalist, or a specialist in either an industry sector or a tactical discipline.

The firm draws particularly high praise from employees (ranked third overall) for its commitment to client satisfaction. Respondents, meanwhile, praise the “extremely bright people,” “encouraging and supportive co-workers,” and “incredible training ground,” although at least one wishes the “inspiring” founder, Helen Vollmer, was more than “just a blur rushing through.”

21. (-) Sterling Communications

Employee churn is a problem for most technology PR shops, but Sterling Communications does everything it can to make sure that when people are hired they stick around for the long haul. The firm celebrates fifth and tenth anniversaries extravagantly, flying one employee to Carlsbad to see the annual flight of the bats; arranging a surprise snowboarding weekend for another. Employees praise the “excellent stock program, flexible spending accounts and profit sharing” and the “client communication, work ethic and talent.” But they reserve their highest praise for the firm’s no-layoffs policy, which it maintained throughout the past few difficult years. “The fact that no person has ever been laid off is a sign of conscientious management in respect to employees,” says one respondent. “No one employer can be perfect but Sterling comes quite close.”

22. (-) Edelman

Edelman has always had a distinctive culture, which is one reason many of those who leave the firm come back sooner or later. But increasingly, thanks to a series of initiatives that include a firm-wide vision and values process and an expanded commitment to professional development, the culture is both distinctive and functional—which hopefully means people won’t be quite so inclined to go searching for greener pastures elsewhere. There are still complaints that compensation isn’t competitive with other large firms, and that pay raises are “insulting,” though many say “it gets better every year; they really make goals and achieve them.” Increasingly, Edelman’s independence is a recruitment and retention advantage: “I could not be hapier that I work at a private firm,” says one respondent. “I have seen others hire and fire at will, and I feel that I have more job security, more input into day to day operations and that we have a more respectful environment than at other firms.

Part IV

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