Media: All about ... Media agency staff retention

What are agencies doing to keep hold of their valued staff?

It's been a depressing time for many at media agencies. Pressures on margins seem to have been matched by pressures on agency staff time commitments and work/life balance.

Within all this, there is a perception that new-business pressures and other factors are working to make life in media agencies less tolerable and more process driven. Especially with hiring freezes in place and redundancies at some large agencies. Consequently, the doom-mongers warn, the industry may struggle to attract the top graduate talent and then retain it.

However, on a basic level, the figures don't bear out these fears. Staff churn rate, according to IPA figures for the year to 1 September 2008 (and therefore predating any one-off impacts of the downturn) is 15.7 per cent in the average media agency. This compares with 17.9 per cent at full-service and non-media agencies.

That said, there remains a perception that media agencies could do more to train and retain their young people. Something that, in recent months, the recession notwithstanding, many agencies seem to have recognised.

Even with hiring freezes in place, most media agencies still seem to have made an exception and kept their graduate recruitment programmes in place and some have taken steps to make their business a more interesting place to work. For instance, OMD restructured its buying teams in a bid to "make buying better", training its young buyers to have experience across all media and consequently hoping that the average "shelf life" of the junior buyer will increase.

And, reassuringly, the majority of top agencies now have human resources or "talent" directors in place as they attempt to move recruitment and staff issues up the agenda.

1. Media agencies now take their reputations as employers seriously, as can be evidenced by the scramble to merit inclusion in The Sunday Times' Best 100 Companies list. In 2009, two media agencies were successful: MediaCom (a long-standing entrant) at number 53 in the main list, and the Aegis-owned Feather Brooksbank in the Best Small Companies rankings. MediaCom is described as a company where people are "cared about and ideas are listened to". Staff turnover at the agency is 19 per cent. Feather Brooksbank is said to be "open and honest". Its staff churn is put at 17 per cent.

2 Large agencies still seem keen to recruit graduates, even though numbers being recruited might be down. However, some agencies have stepped up their recruitment and training at this level. Starcom MediaVest Group, for instance, has introduced a "development and rotation" training scheme for graduates that sees them learn a variety of skills. It has also introduced its "academy", a four-day personal development course aimed at staff who have been with the business for two years. Aimed at retaining staff, the most recent academy was held in Grenada. On a broader level, 450 Starcom staff received some kind of "training experience" in August.

3. Staff involvement in the running of the business seems to be a current favourite in increasing retention rates. For example, MediaCom's "if I ran the company" initiative allows staff to give presentations to senior management about what they would do if they were at the top of the business. Ideas implemented on the back of the initiative include a company bar and free breakfast and fruit. At Starcom, its own staff have developed ideas for new cafe and reception areas after putting the case for "working creative space".

4. Perhaps the work/life balance issue has become one of the most central. With staff facing long hours, some agencies are introducing flexible working initiatives. For instance, Mediaedge:cia introduced a "flexible committee" of 20 staff to look into ideas such as home working and flexi-time. In the end, the agency introduced a system of "accrued hours" (giving staff back the hours they have worked late on pitches etc).

5. And agencies still seem happy to invest in team-bonding exercises, especially when they tick a corporate social responsibility-shaped box. For instance, "MEC in action" saw all of the WPP agency's staff help with community projects in Southwark. And Starcom has created links with Haverstock Business and Enterprise School to provide mentoring and careers support for students.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR...

AGENCIES

- Staff turnover rates have historically been high at media agencies but there are signs that this is under control. It also seems less of an issue when many agencies have introduced hiring freezes and are not replacing staff who leave their business.

- However, agencies are under greater pressure to retain good staff who have several years' experience and contribute to the business.

- As hours increase amid pressure from clients and greater levels of new-business pitches, good agencies seem intent on introducing more flexibility for their staff and helping employees manage their work/life balance appears to be top of the agenda. As Clare Agar, the people and culture director of Mediaedge:cia, says: "The biggest challenge is increasing flexible working and respecting what people put in. We needed to do more to show respect for the sacrifices people were making."

STAFF

- There seems no denying that media agencies can be tough places to work, not least in terms of the hours young staff are asked to put in. This seems exaggerated during the downturn when many of the compensating benefits (industry parties, media owner trips etc) are cut back.

- The biggest satisfaction for staff may come in the work itself and seeing their campaigns run, but initiatives such as asking staff to become more involved in running the company and supplying benefits such as free breakfast and a staff bar are obvious incentives.

- More fundamentally, the job of the junior planner/buyer is becoming more interesting as staff are asked to work across different media channels.

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