Close-Up: Live Issue - Being one of the best to work for has financial rewards too

Emma Barns looks at The Sunday Times' report into British working conditions.

At a ceremony at the Hilton earlier this month, expectant management and employees gathered for the unveiling of The Sunday Times' annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The survey, now in its fourth year, measures employees' satisfaction by canvassing their opinion across eight areas, including: leadership, personal growth and fair deal. A detailed company questionnaire, which assesses its policies, services and facilities, are added to these results to produce an overall ranking.

Entry is encouraged by ads in The Times, urging employees to nominate their company. Those eligible, which must be at least five years old and have 250-plus staff, receive a brief qualification questionnaire and, for those who succeed at this stage, a three-month process is set in motion.

Richard Caseby, the managing editor of The Sunday Times, admits that for the companies that entered this year, the process was an "onerous task", but says that the way the survey is compiled means that companies really see it as having value. "Company ratings usually come from some anonymous panel but this is the feeling from their own staff," he explains.

With 228 companies in the running, 27 more than last year, a place in the Top 100 is no mean feat. This year, six agencies made the grade, with two, MediaCom and TBWA\London, in the top 50.

Despite a ten-place slide to number 40 this year, Stephen Allan, the chief executive at MediaCom, was chuffed with its performance. "Anyone in the top 100 is doing well overall, whatever number they are and the fact they even bother to enter is a good indicator that they hold an interest in their staff and a good work environment," he says.

MediaCom was commended by staff for its "approachable management style" and 81 per cent said they had a great deal of faith in their chief executive. "This means that there must be 66 people in the agency who don't though," Allan quips.

TBWA\London moved to 49th position, a nine-place jump from last year, attracting top scores in areas such as "providing a stimulating career" and "furnishing employees with their dream job".

"The objective we set 18 months ago was to make TBWA the most pre-eminent employee brand, to make it the place people most want to work for and that employees like working at, so to shoot into the top 50 is a great achievement for us," Jonathan Mildenhall, the agency's managing director, says.

Other agencies to measure up were Carat, which slipped from number 26 to 61 this year, and three new entries: DDB London (54), MindShare (76) and J. Walter Thompson (95).

As well as boasting perks that would be expected in a survey such as this, such as family health insurance, an on-site gym and share options, the agencies were all deemed by staff to go that extra mile.

Staff at DDB applauded the family feel of their company, with gestures such as their UK group chairman, James Best, sending each employee a personal birthday greeting boosting its score in the caring management section. Carat's social committee, which organises subsidised foreign holidays, played a part in showing its commitment to being a good employer and both MindShare and JWT were praised for their good management communication.

But can a primarily quantitative assessment really provide a genuine picture of employee happiness? Both MediaCom and TBWA are convinced that the methodology used provides accurate results.

"There is an argument for having a more quantitative/qualitative balance but this is as good and robust as it can be given the time frame," Mildenhall says.

"It is an excellent means for us to benchmark our work environment not only against our competitors, but against companies from all sectors of business. Ad industry assessments are rather inward and incestuous and you are only compared with the same ten or 20 companies. This is a much wider mark," Allan argues.

However, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is not so sure of the survey's validity and, despite its appearances in previous years, declined to enter this year.

Alison Chadwick, the development director at AMV, explains: "We have seen the survey's methodology change slightly over the years, meaning that the questions are not comparable year on year and this is what we thought was most useful. It is a good thing to show to the outside world and it has been good for us but there are other ways of seeing how our staff feel."

Whatever agencies' reasoning for not participating, Allan is unimpressed by the poor showing from adland in the survey. He says: "We all talk about advertising being a people business but it doesn't look that great for us, does it?"

This will in part be down to the downturn, which has focused most agencies' attention elsewhere. Mildenhall agrees that the current climate is not ripe for putting staff interests first, saying: "There are a lot of unhappy agencies out there."

However, all of the agencies, bar Carat, appearing in the Top 100 saw billings growth this year. MediaCom and TBWA fared particularly well relative to their markets. Even in a downturn then, it seems that investment in staff is worthwhile, with the figures themselves showing that a happy staff does indeed make a productive staff.

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