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

The Best Small Agencies to Work For 2005

“Our mission is not to be the best agency in America but the best one for work for,” says the mission statement at Coyne Public Relations, which is well on its way to accomplishing that objective.

Paul Holmes

1. Coyne Public Relations

“Our mission is not to be the best agency in America but the best one for work for,” says the mission statement at Coyne Public Relations, which is well on its way to accomplishing that objective. “If we are the best place to work, we will attract the best employees. If we have the best employees, we will attract the best clients. If we have the best employees and the best clients, how can we not be the best agency in America?”

Coyne employees were most likely among small agencies to say that they planned to build their career with this agency, and the most likely among all agencies to feel their management took a long view, to agree that their agency did a good job of retaining top caliber employees, and to describe their agency as a fun place to work.

The work environment at Coyne is distinguished by informality: the firm still holds ad hoc company-wide meetings to discuss current new business and other successes and to relay company news, and founder Tom Coyne is in touch with employees at all levels, as exponent of the “management by wandering about” philosophy propounded by Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence. But over the past two years, as the firm has grown, the informality has been supplemented by a more formal professional development program—the agency’s Learning Lunch Series launched in 2005—and policies that include work-life balance, including flex-time, a telecommuting option, and generous parenting time policies.

The culture “is one that fosters new ideas, approaches, and great teamwork,” says one respondent. “We set high goals and regularly surpass them, which empowers people to reach for more lofty goals.” Another, a veteran of larger agencies, says Coyne “is off the charts when it comes to employee morale and overall quality of work.” It’s all down to the tone set by the CEO. “Our president, Tom Coyne, really cares about every individual at our agency,” says one employee. “Whether it’s creating numerous employee days throughout the year or stopping by to chat with each of his employees, Tom constantly demonstrates his appreciation of our hard work.”

2. Davies

“Davies is a fun, demanding, results-oriented culture where performance is rewarded and all staff members have opportunities to grow,” the firm says in its mission statement. “Company growth will provide for staff opportunities—compensation growth, growth in responsibilities, management growth, new skills, and industry knowledge.” The firm’s vision, meanwhile, is that as it grows “Davies will always have a family atmosphere, infused with kindness and humor, and rewarding hard work and dedication. The best of the Santa Barbara office culture will be present in every Davies office and in every team, and will be put into practice to any companies acquired.”

Davies offers a progressive workplace, with flexible options available to middle level and senior level employees as long as client programs are being executed and value created. There’s no formal flex-time policy; the firm prefers to rely on the judgment of its people to determine what needs to be done and how they can avoid burn-out. The Davies culture is also notable for its management transparency, honesty, and open communication, with monthly staff meetings that reviews and highlights the firm’s performance in terms of billing, new clients, business development, and financial goals. Professional development will be a key area of management focus for 2006 as it expands its current program beyond skills training to offer more formal training in strategy and leadership development.

Davies scored the highest marks among small agencies when employees were asked whether they were encouraged to use their own initiative, whether morale at their agency was high, whether the work they did was intellectually stimulating, whether they could use their skills in a volunteer basis for causes that mattered to them, and whether they were fairly compensated for their contributions to the firm.

“Davies is a remarkable place to work,” says one respondent. “The agency’s record for successful PA & PR programs has taken it from a small regional powerhouse to a statewide player in California in a little over three years. The firm’s management, strategic communication programs, and new business development efforts have combined to generate significant growth and numerous career opportunities in three offices. It’s great to work for one of the hottest and smartest firms in the U.S.” Says another: “Davies is a challenging and intense environment, but the leadership is also nurturing and supportive. We’re all in it together.”

3. CapStrat

“Our employees are more important than any single client,” is the first of CapStrat’s values, a wise philosophy in a market where good talent is a scarce commodity.

The firm has a proactive approach to identifying and capturing talent: “Our goal is to to always know the next three people we want to hire,” says Dalena Bobmanuel, the firm’s human resources manager. And itlooks for “individuals who are intensely engaged in the world around them: intellectually, civically and through a desire to do work that’s important to our society. We look for over-achievers committed both to success and a strong ethical code. We want thinkers who read voraciously and debate vigorously.”

The firm also invests in professional development and continuous growth, with a budget of $1,500 per employee each year and a formal mentoring and coaching system. Transparency is another key part of the process: the firm discusses its financial goals with every employee and practices open-book management.

The result is that “our agency is full of top notch over achievers,” says one respondent. Employees praise the “good benefits, excellent management, fair pay, good work, nice people, and opportunities for advancement” while “newcomers seem to be struck with how nice employees are, especially for an agency that has the reputation of being so intense and competitive.”

4. CarryOn Communication

“CarryOn Communication is an employee-focused agency that provides a safe environment for employees to be, express and expand themselves, professionally and personally,” says the firm’s mission statement—one of a growing number to acknowledge the fact that employee loyalty and enthusiasm are the foundation of a professional service firm’s strength. “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.”

It all starts with a selection process that favors referrals by employees and others who know the CarryOn culture and emphasizes cultural fit as well as experience and ability. It continues with a flexible approach to work-life balance, one that emphasizes individual needs and capabilities, and an open and honest communications approach that’s predicated on the belief that employees who are informed about company financials and operations issues are more likely to buy in to the agency’s strategy and less prone to resent financial decisions. The firm also puts an unusual emphasis on diversity, based on an internal objective that 30 percent of the workforce should be black, Hispanic or Asian-American.

Employees appreciate some the perks: “the fully-stocked employee lounge, Tucker the mascot, and Martini Fridays.” But there’s more too it than that. “CarryOn is a unique agency with a commitment to exceed client expectations while remaining a dynamic and exciting workplace for each employee,” says one respondent, while another enthuses over “an employee-centric environment where effort and contributions are acknowledged and rewarded. Managers have an open door policy, support growth and development of team members, and are committed to maintaining a fun and dynamic culture.”Adds a newcomer: “I’ve only been here for a couple of months, yet I feel more at home here than agencies I worked at for years. CarryOn is family away from home: loving, supportive, encouraging, challenging, honest.”

5. 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. The firm has created a work environment where “employees are encouraged to balance their work and personal lives, to share creative ideas, to learn new skills and to take on new challenges and responsibilities,” says one respondent. “Our company motto is ‘Do Great Work, Have Fun, Make Money,’ and that is how things work around here.” Another says the culture “pushes people to work hard for the sake of doing good work and then sharing the fruits of success with staff, not just in terms of bonuses but by providing opportunities for growth and making investments in professional development, equipment, etc. The partners could be putting a lot more money in their own pockets. It’s truly inspiring to see how they operate the firm and the response of the staff.”

6. Jackson Spalding

When Jackson Spalding is recruiting it looks for candidates who have all of the five Cs—class, confidence, chemistry, character and competency—and the first four are just as important as the first one. Says one respondent: “Bo Spalding and Glen Jackson have created a culture of excellence at our firm. Employees are put first.” Says another: “Jackson Spalding is a special place that cares about its people and its reputation above all else, recognizing that nothing works unless you have the best of both.” The work environment is “rewarding and encouraging” because “everyone is trusted to do their personal best” and the firm has hired “some of the smartest people I have ever worked with.”

The firm offers an active, structured mentoring program that replaces traditional hierarchy and assigns a primary mentor to each employee; regular third-party training, self-selected by employees with mentor input; and frequent in-house training through Jackson Spalding University. There are telecommuting opportunities for all employees if needed and two employees regularly telecommute as part of their weekly work schedule. The result is remarkably low turnover—the firm scored particularly high marks when employees were asked whether their agency did a good job of attracting and retaining high caliber employees—and an agency where even the most junior account staff feel as though they can make a difference.

7. Carmichael Lynch Spong

HeadRush, which Carmichael Lynch Spong describes as a “mind-altering channel for professional growth and development,” is a nine-year-old training program that ranks among the best in the industry for an agency of this size, offering seminars that reflect the interests of staff members as well as the long-term needs of the firm in serving its clients. The firm also offers a variety of team-building events designed to strengthen the culture, from St. Patrick’s Day O’Gong show (at which new employees are called on to entertain their colleagues) to a dog daze parade on the last Friday in August to celebrate all things pet-related. The little touches are appreciated. “I think we have a wonderful creative agency that encourages its employees to work together at all levels,” says one respondent, who spotlights the Going to Extremes program, which “gives coworkers an opportunity to thank each other for going the extra mile. Employees present each other with chips for their efforts that can be cashed in for rewards.”

8. M Booth

From weekly “Beer Friday” staff get-togethers to the more elaborate “Schmooze and Booze” sessions that take place every couple of months, Margi Booth likes to bring her people together in a relaxed, informal atmosphere to make sure they’re having fun. But the agency has its serious side too, with its two-year old Booth Camp professional development program developing into one of the best in the industry, drawing on outside experts to address issues ranging from common grammatical errors to new business pitches. The result is a “closely knit tribe,” says one respondent, where “the various account people know what needs to be done and do it well” and the company’s “emotional health” is a reflection of its leadership.

9. Vollmer

Vollmer has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as a best workplace for employees because of policies that include flex-time and telecommuting. The firm also offers a sophisticated professional development program through Vollmer University (with the curriculum set each year by a committee of employees) and provides a number of perks, the most popular of which are “Vollmerville Days,” three days each year to be taken on a Friday or a Monday to create long weekends. The resulting work environment is non competitive, collegial, and supportive. “I’ve been with the agency for 14 years,” says one respondent. “I’ve turned down offers to go elsewhere many times. I get an environment from Vollmer that’s hard to duplicate.”

10. Makovsky & Co.

Throughout its 25 year history, Makovsky + Company has made a strong commitment to professional development, and its Mak U program is one of the best for an agency of this size, bringing in outside experts—authors, business leaders, and even the former PR director of the New York Yankees—and addressing topics ranging from blogging to branding to understanding the financial dimensions of the PR business. Founder Ken Makovsky is “a consummate and visionary professional” and “a witty, caring, honorable person.” The firm has “a high degree of professionalism” and “a sensitivity to client needs as well as the needs of its employees.” The firm scored particularly high marks when employees were asked whether they liked the people they worked most closely with

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