Whether it's bath-shaped, saucer-shaped or pear-shaped, the recession is continuing to weigh down business. Tougher working conditions are taking their toll on the nation's employees, with threats of a stress epidemic, and a recent Mintel lifestyle survey discovering British people are working the longest hours in Europe.
And with corporate social responsibility making headlines, coupled with the recent publication of the first Business in the Community Corporate Responsibility Index, a company's workplace and staff environment is increasingly coming under the microscope.
All this comes in a prevailing climate of cuts and wage freezes. However, four agencies have been officially recognised in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies To Work For 2003 as having weathered the storm well.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Carat, MediaCom and TBWA/London have proved alongside COI Communications and Redwood Publishing that making staff feel motivated and valued in the workplace is the key to a happy ship.
It's the third year of the Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored project, and competition has increased, with more than 9,000 companies showing interest. For the four agencies to win places in the biggest, most comprehensive survey of the British workplace ever undertaken is no mean feat, and shows profits don't have to come before people.
Agencies were sent one questionnaire, and only on the back of successfully meeting the criteria were they then considered for entry.
A second, exhaustive, questionnaire involved more than 30 pages of questions.
It was designed to lay bare every part of an employer's offering - from pension schemes to share options and nursery vouchers. The participating companies were then sent 250 forms for staff to fill in.
Employees answered 65 questions in eight areas relating to their leadership, managers, colleagues, personal growth, well being, the company and what it gives back to society. The employees' opinions contributed 80 per cent towards the final list rankings, with the remaining 20 per cent based on an evaluation of the companies' policies and services contributing to employees' environment.
The survey is effectively the best independent benchmark for research into employee satisfaction in the UK. And being a successful entrant in such a massive human resources exercise is a major advantage over competitors in such economically straitened times.
Indeed, the tougher the times, the more important it is to show people they are valued. Despite AMV not having had a sterling year in terms of financial performance, the survey results show, crucially, that staff morale is still high.
MediaCom, particularly, proves it has good employee relations, coupled with a successful business record, which has seen it storm up Campaign's new-business league and push Zenith into third place in this year's Top 300.
Carat moved up from 37th to 26th place in the new survey. The existence of MediaCom and Carat should help dispel external perceptions of media companies as places characterised by long hours and lecherous men.
Still, there remains a wider culture of pressurised, long hours, making perks even more essential to employees, who deserve payback for their commitment.
The position of the four agencies in this list sets a challenge to the rest of the industry, and doubtless the positive coverage they've already received will spur others into action. Will you be in it next year?
MediaCom has an industry-wide reputation for looking after its employees, and observers point to its long-serving, stable management team as a likely explanation for the security felt by its 324 staff.
The comfort of its staff is reflected in the agency's success. Last year saw it put in the best new-business performance in the country, netting the £120 million Masterfoods planning account, as well as the Shell and Wrigley's buying businesses.
Alongside health perks, such as free fruit and subsidised gym memberships, the agency has a recreational area (including a 48-inch television, table tennis and a jukebox), on-site massages and a timeshare apartment in Tenerife for when staff need a break.
Steve Allan, MediaCom's chief executive, says the agency's informal, friendly atmosphere is designed to enable staff to express themselves freely. Allan introduced an "If I ran the company" programme to encourage staff to speak out. The exercise led to life coaching and on-site massage.
The agency also attempts to convey itself as democratic with an employee council. Under this scheme, a staff-appointed representative takes any subjects that need airing to the managing directors.
Allan also points out the need for constant stimulation. "We need to be mindful of occasionally changing people's routines and doing things on a spontaneous basis," he says. This might see a driver being sent to pick up staff from home and bring them into work.
Allan says the agency also tries to encourage employees' hobbies, to offset the amount of time they spend in the agency. Those wanting to do something for the "bigger picture", such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity, are sponsored by the company and do it in work time.
Importantly, Allan also believes such perks help to attract top talent: "The Sunday Times survey was a test for us to see how we did on employee measures. We had nothing to compare ourselves with before," he says. "It's reassuring to have an external recognition outside the usual industry observers - we can be a bit inward-looking in this industry."
Improving the working environment is something that has been close to the heart of Mark Craze, Carat's chief executive, for some years. And a Harvard management course four years ago only crystallised in his mind the simple view that "happy talented people make happy customers".
Last year, the first time the agency entered the survey, it came in at 37th place. Craze says the management's faith in its agency benefits made entry an obvious thing to do. "We knew we were setting the agenda in our sector," he says. "The bar is so low. It's not a great industry for people development. Compared with our clients, it's laughable."
And staff benefits must be going down well as, partly thanks to a dedicated "people team" of four (Craze doesn't like the term "human resources"), this year Carat is up to 26th place. Employee benefits include a beauty salon, subsidised on-site reiki, massage, free counselling and a budget of £150 per employee for social events.
Carat also offers state-of-the-art IT equipment for staff, full health insurance, a subsidised gym, and runs a children's play project and a day centre for the homeless. The "Carat in the community" initiative, introduced in the past year, offers staff time off to do work in the local area.
Formal appraisals are designed to give staff the clear signal that management cares about employees' career development. And despite a 7 per cent drop in billings, the agency retains its commitment to training, for which it has a budget of £317,000. "We don't just talk about developing our people, we actually do it," Craze says.
Craze believes Carat has come out on top owing to its unwavering commitment to improving the working environment. However, this requires time and money, something that can put other shops off. "It's much easier to find the reasons not to do it, especially when times are tough," he says.
Still, in Carat's case, having been independently deemed a best company to work for has already reaped its own benefits; the agency has already hired people who contacted the agency off the back of the newspaper article.
Keeping the 305 staff of Britain's biggest agency happy must be a full-time job at the best of times, never mind in the clutches of a recession.
So while by its own high standards Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO didn't have a great year in 2002, it did remarkably well to be one of only 43 companies remaining in the Top 100 from last year's survey.
The only agency to have been in the survey for the full three years, AMV was 22nd last year, but under tougher conditions and more competitive factors of entry, emerged this year at number 80. "We had a tough and challenging year,"Cilla Snowball, the agency's chief executive, admits.
The industry was startled when AMV, proving no agencies are immune to the effects of recession, was forced to make pay freezes and its first ever redundancies last year. It is therefore a glowing indictment of the agency's stability that despite its 14 per cent fall in billings, it continues to rank alongside the cream of Britain's best companies to work for.
AMV demonstrated its commitment to developing management, coaching and mentoring skills with the appointment of Alison Chadwick to its first, board-level position of development director a year ago.
Employee benefits include a competitive pension provision, private healthcare plans, an in-house massage chair, free breakfast and access to an alternative therapist and personal trainer. A month's paid leave is available to staff after ten years, with further sabbaticals at 15 and 20 years' service.
It also offers extra leave and unpaid career breaks.
With both a female chief executive and managing director (Farah Ramzan), no-one could accuse AMV of overlooking women for senior positions. The agency also sends a cheque for £100 to each newborn baby and hosts a Christmas party for employees' children.
The agency, famous for its stance on refusing to work for tobacco clients or those which advertise to children, gives 4 per cent of its pre-tax profits to charity, and is also proud of Big House, the homeless charity for which it has raised £1.2 million.
Snowball recognises treating staff well makes good business sense. "Clients want to work with people who are highly motivated and do the best work they can," she says.
After seeing The Sunday Times survey last year, TBWA/London immediately e-mailed the organisers asking to be considered for inclusion. It was the kind of proactive move adland observers have come to expect of an agency residing in a territory that spans slick operating and wilful tenacity.
The agency's stability was no better illustrated than last autumn when, following the then chief executive Garry Lace's surprise defection to Grey, a new management structure - which saw Andrew McGuinness promoted to chief executive and Jonathan Mildenhall and Matt Shepherd-Smith elevated to joint managing directors - had been put in place by the following day.
And the agency's management team has proved popular with staff, with survey feedback showing TBWA/London rated most highly in the "my team", "my leadership" and "giving something back" categories.
The agency has £1,000 set aside per person for training, and an annual social budget of £300 each. Employee benefits include private healthcare, and the agency gives 3 per cent of pre-tax profits to a number of charitable causes.
Ideas are encouraged from all angles - the agency's chauffeur, Tony Roberts, wrote an award-winning ad for its client, The Sun.
And while TBWA has had its share of creative recognition in awards - recently picking up another seven golds at the BTAA Awards for its John Smith's campaign - Helen Skates, the agency's human resources director, is pleased that The Sunday Times survey brings a broader recognition.
"It reflects on the agency's strong, good, accessible leaders," she adds.
McGuinness concludes that offering such benefits over other agencies is clearly a strong competitive advantage. "Even in a downturn the very best talent can still pick and choose where they want to work," he says.