How to be a great employer

As Campaign launches its Best Places to Work survey, Suzy Bashford reveals what it takes - besides a pile of cash, juicy job title and merciful boss, of course - to attract and retain talented people in marcoms today.

How to be a great employer

Once upon a time, an in-house bar, ping-pong table and lunchtime yoga classes were enough to make a marcoms company seem like a desirable place to work. Those days are long gone and, if these are still the linchpins of your people strategy, then you will inevitably lose the war for talent currently engulfing the industry. 

As Helen Wright, head of marcoms at research consultancy Great Place to Work, says, the major shift has been from a focus on "tangibles", such as pay and benefits, to "intangibles", such as culture and leadership. "Creating a great workplace for employees is no longer seen as a ‘nice to have’," she adds. "It is increasingly recognised that it is the only ethical and honest way to do business and a way that will drive productivity, performance and profit. More and more organisations are recognising that it makes sound business sense to invest in the workforce and workplace."

Sean Barry, HR leader at Johnson & Johnson Consumer UK, hits the nail on the head when he says that top marketing talent today is looking for "so much more than a job". As Campaign launches its Best Places to Work survey (see box), we consider the top ten factors that make for a great place to work today.

They care about employee wellbeing

Employees are increasingly expecting their employers to help them look after their mental and physical health. Companies that do this see higher levels of productivity, creativity and engagement. Working life is so fast-paced, unrelenting and uncertain, workers want to feel their employer has their back. 

Manning Gottlieb OMD set up "The Gym" to help people ensure they stay "fit" for work, now and in the future, and to attract and retain the best talent. According to Amy Robbins, executive director, head of people, at MG OMD, the "spa area", concerned with staff wellbeing, underpins and ensures the success of the entire programme: "The only way we can get our people to truly transform [and embrace change] is by ensuring they are mentally and physically fit. The spa offers treatments to support them, be it classes in stress and resilience, yoga, pilates, massages, counselling or alternative therapies such as hypnotherapy." 

Brighton-based digital marketing agency Propellernet, which is often cited in rankings as a great place to work, pours 5% of all profits into a ring-fenced "health and wellbeing fund" to pay for perks such as free breakfasts, team lunches and massages. Managing director Nikki Gatenby believes "upping the fun" and "triggering endorphins" directly benefits the bottom line: "We have a staff turnover rate lower than a quarter of our industry average (7% versus 30%) and sick rates five times less than the national average (1.1 days versus 5.7 days). Hard-nosed proof that being human pays off." 

They focus on personal development

Talent is hungry to progress, so the best employees want to work for a company that is committed to developing them; not one that cuts its training budget at the first sign of economic difficulty. Employees don’t want generic, off-the-shelf solutions, either. They want tailored opportunities that grow them personally as well as professionally. Many employers have responded by facilitating workers to develop new skills and hobbies, even if unrelated to their day job. 

"Employees expect to be nurtured and supported in their career – a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach just doesn’t work when looking to future-proof and retain talent," Helen Tucker, HR global diversity and inclusion director at Procter & Gamble, says. "It’s not just a case of talent retention, though – by emphasising professional and personal development, we know that employees will be more personally fulfilled and produce better results."

P&G designs individualised development programmes, through a mix of classroom-based and digital training options and a bespoke work plan with one-to-one coaching from direct managers. "This, coupled with the vast range of assignments across categories and geographies that are on offer, means we can offer employees a wealth of experience both personally and professionally," Tucker adds.

Companies serious about developing their people are also moving away from annual reviews to more regular, as-you-go progress reports. Debbie Klein, chief executive of Engine Europe and Asia-Pacific, calls this "fast feedback" and says "it’s what millennials want" because it supports "an open and collaborative workplace".

They have a clear purpose and values

In a world of political instability and economic uncertainty, working for a company with a clear purpose and values that serve the greater good in society has become more of a priority for today’s employees, particularly those from younger generations. Pharmaceutical company Roche often tops polls of great places to work and, according to head of recruitment Andrew Armes, the company has always put purpose before profits but is now "articulating" this philosophy more to attract and retain the best marketers: "We’ve always believed in doing great work in the service of wider society. And believing that if Roche does great work, then the commercial element will follow. People were always interested in it [a sense of purpose] but, in the literature of employee engagement and careers, it wasn’t articulated as clearly or succinctly as now. Younger generations, particularly, want to make sure that, if they’re applying their brilliance and bringing their whole selves to work, they are in the service of something bigger than themselves."

Barry agrees that "today’s marketers are purpose-driven and looking for qualities in an employer that have more to do with core values than with perks". He speculates that the reason J&J featured in the top ten companies that millennials most want to work for, in a survey by YouGov last year, is largely because of its "clear purpose which resonates with employees’ own values" and the fact that it’s "a corporate brand they can take pride in being part of". 

They value diversity

"Workers expect an engaging and diverse culture at work," Clare Kemsley, managing director of Hays, says. According to her research among marketers, 39% of Generation Z (defined here as those born from the mid-1990s onwards) "always consider diversity" when choosing a job – the highest percentage of any age group.

Liz Nottingham, executive HR director, EMEA, at R/GA, agrees that for companies in the advertising and marketing sector to stay competitive, they must develop a "clear strategy on how to source talent from outside the traditional places and spaces". 

Roche was ranked number one in Thomson Reuters’ first Diversity and Inclusion index last year, with 34 different nationalities represented in its London office. Armes’ advice for employers who want diversity to become part of the DNA is to tackle unconscious bias by prioritising raising self-awareness among the workforce. "We are rigorous about it," he says. "We are very aware of biases."

 They have good leadership 

What does "good leadership" in marcoms mean today? Of course, there is no "one size fits all" and part of good leadership is developing a personal style. However, there are some characteristics that crop up repeatedly in discussions about modern leadership. "Authentic" is one. "Collaborative" is another. "Good listener" is a third. "Human" a fourth.

"Leadership is a critical point," Nottingham says. "People now rightly expect stronger leaders who do more listening than telling. A key driver of a strong culture and engaged staff is leadership, especially now as a new generation is bringing new values into work."

But listening on its own is not enough. Leaders must take action in response to what they’ve heard so employees feel their voice is valued. The best employers are creating digital platforms for employees to express their views. J&J is one such company. "Employees at all levels can voice and vote on high-impact ideas, regardless of their business function, hierarchy or geography," Barry says.

P&G encourages a similar culture of contribution, which Tucker believes is essential for ensuring that younger workers in particular feel fulfilled: "The attitude of young people coming into the workplace has changed. No longer do they think they need to ‘pay their dues’ before being listened to."

They trust their employees

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2017 shows that global trust levels are at an all-time low. That means employers have to work harder than ever to gain employee trust and overcome cynicism to gain loyalty. But, as Gatenby says, if they don’t, they will not secure the best talent: "Quality people have choices. They can decide where they place their talent and loyalty. In the main, it will be in an environment where there is a deep level of trust."

Employees today want more freedom, to work more flexibly in ways that suit them. This requires huge levels of genuine trust on the part of employers, as well as a culture shift. Rick Hirst, chief executive of Carat and chairman of the IPA Talent Board, admits he has struggled with this change in the past but, when he embraced a more agile, trusting way of working with colleagues, it paid dividends: "This cultural shift challenges you and your conventions. For example, you have to get over presenteeism. You have to trust people to find their way to be more productive." 

Initially, Hirst found this way of working uncomfortable but, through the process, he has realised that it helps everyone, including leaders, work better and that it is the future. "As employers, we’ve got to find ways to bring an understanding of how people work best and facilitate it," Hirst says.

They nurture creativity

As well as giving people more freedom to work in a way that enhances their creativity, there is also a growing expectation that workplaces will inspire and facilitate creativity by their design too. Breakout spaces, open areas, social hubs and quiet spots are all commonplace in the best workplaces today. 

As Hirst says: "Advertising is about ideas and strategies and thinking and frictions – we need to create environments that make that feel easier, or likelier to happen, or which fuel that to happen." And thinking around best-practice design is constantly progressing, as businesses and technology evolve, which is why brands such as P&G are "always looking at how we can optimise the workplace", Tucker says.

They facilitate collaboration

A surefire way to boost innovation is to encourage collaboration between colleagues and partners, which is why spaces that facilitate interaction are also increasingly the norm. Again, while the shift to lockers from your own desk may be uncomfortable for some, ultimately small changes like where you sit, and who you sit next to, are good for collaboration by breaking down hierarchies and reducing silos. 

A growing number of agencies are inviting clients to use these type of spaces as their bases too. Oliver, for example, has launched the "colab" in Prague – a "hybrid" workspace, library and cafe. "Great ideas are often blocked by a traditional workplace and it is vital that agencies create spaces that are barrier-free and ideas-oriented if they are to achieve meaningful results," Milan Semelak, chief disruption officer at Oliver, says. "Sharing this space with clients means we reach decisions quicker and co-create ideas, killing the time needed to write briefs or debriefs."

They have a positive culture

Marketers place a higher emphasis than other professionals on culture when thinking about staying in a role or accepting a new job,  Hays research claims. For instance, 71% of marketers would take a pay cut for a better workplace culture, compared with 62% of the workforce overall. For this reason, Kemsley says it’s essential that employers take time at interview stage explaining the "DNA of their business". 

"However, it’s important to remember that the culture conversation doesn’t end at the recruitment stage," she adds. "Developing an engaging culture, workspace and atmosphere will not only attract the right talent, it will also go a long way towards retaining talent too." 

Nottingham agrees. Culture, she argues, needs to be "consciously managed" and can, in part, be fostered by encouraging everyone to bring their "whole selves" to work. "Embracing our passions and bringing our values into work connects us all to our daily roles and the sense of a higher purpose to our working lives," Nottingham says.

They have an eye on the future 

Marketers today are faced with tighter budgets, shorter deadlines, an always-on culture, greater complexity and relentless technological innovation, to name but a few challenges. The best employers will be those that recognise these challenges and help their employees to overcome them. 

For instance, a key threat going forward, as the world continues to speed up and automate, is burnout and exhaustion. Savvy employers are already putting policies in place to compensate for the huge pressures that marketers are under. 

Digital agency ThoughtShift is moving from small project teams with two to three people per client to larger client teams of three to six people to ensure its staff can achieve a healthier work/life balance and maintain productivity levels despite the pressure. ThoughtShift is also looking at the possibility of introducing a four-day – or 28-hour – week. 

"It’s not enough to say we promote a work/life balance or innovation and collaboration – we need to encourage and demonstrate to the team continuously these values and, by repetition, it has become an intrinsic part of our culture, making it a great place to work," managing director Helen Trendell says. "Downtime cannot and should not be undervalued."