The Best Boutique Agencies to Work For 2005
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

The Best Boutique Agencies to Work For 2005

Tech Image has the most senior staff of any agency in our survey: only one employee has less than 10 years experience, and 50 percent of employees are 40 or over. That means a flat hierarchy.

Paul Holmes

1. Tech Image

Tech Image has the most senior staff of any agency in our survey: only one employee 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 and the director of media relations. It also means a focus on the results obtained rather than the number of hours required to make it happen—an emphasis that helps to create an environment in which work-family balance is not dictated by the need to maximize hours. In fact, budgeting is based on a 32 billable-hour work week, a reflection of a “work smarter, not harder” philosophy.

When it comes to new recruits, the firm uses the Predictive Index profile system to assess candidates’ personalities, learning preferences and other attributes, with an emphasis on journalism experience for media relations personnel, as well as entrepreneurial drive, self-motivation and a sense of humor are critical elements. An outside consultant developed an annual review process, which starts with an annual offsite meeting with everyone where the goals and vision are explained and includes personal coaching and career mapping.

The firm scored a perfect 10 when employees were asked whether their agency did a good job of retaining top caliber employees and Tech Image employees were most likely to agree that morale at their agency was high. They were also most likely to feel that they were capable of balancing work and life demands effectively.

The management approach encourages “authority with responsibility,” says one respondent, “so that everyone is empowered to act on their initiative for clients and the agency.” The emphasis on experience means “a calm, collegial workplace, a high degree of family-work balance, and exceptionally satisfied clients.” And how about this for a tribute: “I have a three hour round-trip commute and everyday I show up at work with a smile on my face and I always leave happy.”
2. Warschawski Public Relations

Warschawski has been, since its foundation, a vision-oriented organization. Management works regularly with a top management consultant to ensure that the firm is always in-line with our company vision. Each team member takes a three-day seminar to learn how a vision-oriented organization functions and the role vision plays in Warschawski’s day-to-day operations. According to CEO David Warschawski, “Everything we do, whether it is our organizational structure, how we service clients, our vendor relationships, or how we interact with one another, is a direct reflection of this vision.”

Employees at Warschawski gave management at the firm a perfect 10 on all questions related to ethics. Warschawski employees were most likely among boutique agencies to say that they planned to build their career with this agency, and to agree that they were fairly compensated for their contributions to the firm.

“As much as it sounds like a basic thing, the more time I spend in the business world—not just in a PR agency—I find that one of the things that I am most proud of at our agency is that we do what we say we’re going to do,” says one respondent. “We never over-promise and we always over-deliver.” Another fan of the management style raves: “My agency goes above and beyond to thrill the client and additionally, thrill me at the same time. I truly am excited for every single day of work—and every day is so different and rewarding.”

3. rbb Public Relations

Every rbb employee receives on their first day with the firm a silver bucket containing five items designed to help bring the firm’s values to life. Those values are see (have a vision for yourself and your career); smell (make sure everything you do passes the ethical smell test); taste (get a taste of your clients’ business by immersing yourself in their industry); touch (be personable, strive to be trusted and indispensable to your clients); and listen (talk less, listen more, to each other and your clients). The gifts include a picture frame, a scented candle, a tin of mints, a neck massager, and a CD with rbb’s own music mix. The firm also presents new recruits with its “total rewards package,” which includes not only financial compensation but also a commitment a great work environment, personal recognition, and learning and development. Those who appreciate that package will fit right in to the rbb culture.

“Aside from challenging client work, the supportive atmosphere at rbb can’t be beat,” says one respondent to our survey. “Everyone cares about helping each other learn and grow.” Others say rbb provides “tremendous opportunities” and “a unique culture” where “high caliber work and work-life balance go hand in hand,” and is “grooming for the next generation of PR people to run the company.”

4. John Bailey & Associates

At most boutique firms, formal programs and human resource policies are less important to the creation of a culture than the personality and character of the agency’s principal. That certainly seems to be the case at John Bailey & Associates, where employees say “John Bailey is one of the greatest people you could ever want to work for. He is passionate about clients, driven to succeed and highly competitive. Yet, he still understands the need for work-life balance, particularly as it relates to raising a family.” There’s lots of enthusiasm for a “fair and balanced” approach that “provides everyone an opportunity to succeed,” and the “mutually supportive” culture.

That’s not to say the firm does not also have solid programs in place. It maintains close ties to Michigan’s major universities to tap the best local recruits; maintains a strong presence in professional associations such as the Public Relations Society of America and International Association of Business Communicators; offers monthly professional development sessions for the entire agency; retains one of the area’s leading executive coaches to work with the management team; and has a family friendly policy that allows professionals to reduce their work schedule while still maintaining eligibility for benefits.

5. Bliss Gouverneur Associates

Flexibility is a hallmark of the management approach at Bliss Gouverneur & Associates. One of the principals has two young children and works from home in New York on Thursdays. Two group managers have young children, and work from Connecticut two days a week each. A senior account director has two young children and works three days a week from Long Island. And when one of the firm’s senior people moved back to her native St. Louis to raise a family, BG arranged for her to set up an office within a Worldcom partner firm, where she continues to direct three large accounts.

The firm scored particularly high marks on questions related to ethics, and—no surprise—when employees were asked about their ability to balance work and life demands. “This place is just like a big family and the atmosphere is friendly and fun and encourages people to be the best they can be,” says one respondent. A relatively new recruit captures the enthusiasm: “I have incredible respect for the people who work here, and the work that we do. I’ve learned so much in my short time here, and am being offered the resources to continue to grow. More importantly, I really enjoy my time here, and feel proud to be a part of the team.”

6. Gagen McDonald

With its focus on employee communications, Chicago-based Gagen MacDonald seems to be following its own advice, creating an environment where smart people can work on challenging assignments and use their own initiative. The firm scored a perfect 10 when employees were asked whether their agency did a good job of attracting high caliber employees. The firm also scored particularly high marks on questions related to client service, and was ranked number one among boutique agencies when employees were asked whether they were encouraged to use their own initiative. “Each year it gets better,” says one respondent. “The work, the people, our clients, the opportunities for growth and development— it is an incredible ride!” Says another: “The people here couldn’t be any smarter, or work any harder.” And another: “We trust each other to do the right thing for our clients, our business and each other.”

7. JohnstonWells Group

In late 1998, 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. JW scored the highest marks of any agency when employees were asked whether they could use their skills in a volunteer basis for causes that mattered to them. It’s a “wonderful and generous company,” says one survey respondent, while another raves: “The people I work with are like my second family.”

8. MGH Public Relations

Probably the smallest PR operation on our list, the public relations division of Maryland-based advertising agency MGH has just 11 employees, but a strong commitment to workplace excellence, based in a belief that “the best place to work produces the best work.” Employees at MGH were most likely to agree that their agency was a fun place to work. A typical respondent says: “From the top management down, it is communicated that what we do is a job, it’s shouldn’t be our  whole life. It’s not meant to make us unhappy, it’s not meant to take up all our time, it’s not meant to be a consideration at the weekend. The work atmosphere is very relaxed, as the management understands and respects everyone as a professional and lets us accomplish our work in the timeframe in our own way.”

9. Standing Partnership

When Cathy Dunkin gave up the big agency world to launch her own firm in 1991, she knew exactly what kind of workplace environment she wanted to create: one built on strong, meaningful values (excellent client service, honesty, integrity, respect) that would help its employees balance the work and personal lives. Says one respondent: “I think Standing has figured out what a lot of other agencies haven’t: in the long run, happy employees equal happy clients.” Says another: “We have sabbaticals, paternity leave, educational and mentoring budgets, profit sharing based on goals determined by the employee and mentor—as well as the company’s performance—and we’re not afraid to decline business if our clients do not meet our core values.”

10. DomeHK

Having been named our Best Agency to Work for the year before its sale to Hill & Knowlton, Dome has been able to maintain its own distinctive culture as Dome HK, operating almost like a creative boutique—but with the ability to draw on the global resources of one of the world’s largest public relations firms. Standout features include one of the most attractive PR offices in the country, a flexible approach to work-life balance, and a plethora of company outings and other team-building activities. Says one respondent: “Since Hill & Knowlton acquired Dome Communications in 2004, we have kept our boutique agency culture intact. We utilize H&K’s resources on a daily basis and collaborate on projects when appropriate, but as a whole have maintained our independence—quite a feat! At Dome, we have an office dog, a Tiki lounge and a transparency I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.”

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