CEO Insight: How do Independent PR Agencies Attract the Top Talent?

ImageBy Teneil Lawrence

The Global PR Summit is a yearly conference where the best and the biggest in the PR industry gather to share tips and insights to further their field and network with other noteworthy professionals.  The Holmes Group hosted the Independent PR Firms Forum on Oct. 29 to kick off the inaugural three-day event.  Paul Holmes, founder of the Holmes Group, moderated a panel on “Attracting and Retaining Top Talent,” which featured three speakers from top independent PR agencies around the world  that were chosen as “Better Places to Work” over the past year. These panelists included rbb’s Christine Barney, Hering Schuppener’s Ralf Hering and Blue Rubicon’s Fraser Hardie.

Holmes pointed out that a lineal relationship seems to exist between agency size and performance as small companies tend to outperform the bigger holding companies.   This success could be partially attributed to the ability of small agencies to attract and retain top industry talent.  Each panelist weighed in on this concept.

ImageWhile larger companies seem to offer meaningless benefits, “an employee driven workplace” is essential to attracting and retaining talent, said Barney.  She mentioned that an employee driven workplace is not a function of size but rather, depends on culture.  Barney hypothesized that the large holding companies sometimes have an environment and a legacy that hinders this culture.  Barney also touted the importance of valuing the team over the individual, and so as a secondary step in her hiring practice she uses the Rembrandt profile – an assessment which Holmes insisted is amazingly accurate at identifying personality types; an essential tool when trying to create a team environment.

Hardie emphasized that retaining top talent must be a part of the initial stages of a business plan.  As the founder and a senior partner of Blue Rubicon, a top U.K. agency, he is certain there also needs to be a degree of stability within the agency which is desirable to the clients as well as the talent. Hardie proposed that developing talent is an integral part of an agency’s research and development.  It is this investment in talent that gives small agencies a competitive advantage.

Hering, the CEO of one of Germany’s top PR agencies, feels that a clear set of values is essential to attracting and retaining top talent.  He emphasized the importance of mentoring agency newcomers, offering the opportunity for depth with clients, and providing attractive assignments in order to entice new talent.  He also stressed the importance of morality in the hiring practices of these independent agencies; he never hires from the competition, moral principle all the panelists shared or uses head hunters.

To retain top talent, Barney maintained that it is essential for each employee to have a “sense of ownership.”  She encourages respect and flexibility in the work atmosphere in order to cultivate this sense of ownership.  Hardie reasoned that high risk suppresses creativity and so it is important to remove the politics from the operation of the agency.   

The question of “what constitutes value” was posed by Barney when one audience member asked about the payment process utilized by the top independent agencies. Compensation can be an important factor of consideration for prospective PR hires.  Hardie proposed that it was important to avoid selling by measuring time, while Hering cleverly summed up his position on the issue by saying, “if you pay in peanuts, you’re gonna be serviced by monkeys.”  They all favored a more liberal way of measuring value beyond the traditional billable hours.

Overall, the discussion managed to highlight the criteria these successful independent agencies utilize to attract and retain the top talent in the industry.  As PR students, it is important that we become familiar with the criteria these agencies use to evaluate prospective hires so that we might be able to develop our skills along these lines and market ourselves effectively when the time comes.  Furthermore, the discussion highlighted how important an element the talent is to the formula of success for elite, flourishing PR agencies. 

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