After working nearly 20 years in the PR agency business in leadership positions, it’s clear that the business is not what it used to be—and it’s getting harder to convince young people about the positive benefits of an agency career. Talk to any hiring lead or HR recruiter in any agency, regardless of size, and you’ll hear the same groans—talent is leaving in droves to pursue in-house positions or staff are demanding premature titles and excessive salary raises. The desperate solution? Poach from other agencies. While expedient, this solution is short-lived because you’ll still end up trying to keep that candidate from leaving to yet another agency. More importantly, talent is not being developed , leaving a critical mid-level hole in your operations and contributing to the detriment to the long-term health of the overall industry.
You could easily argue that hiring and retaining great talent in competitive markets like San Francisco or New York has always been challenging. But young PR professionals today have a different mindset when it comes to managing their careers—and the majority of PR agencies have not kept up or made the necessary improvements to attract and keep the best talent.
Here are three workplace trends that are changing the agency talent game and tips on how you might address your agency’s own approach to hiring and nurturing talent:
Think rent, not buy
Young PR professionals today are less interested in staying with one company their entire careers and moving up the food chain. It’s not that they’re less loyal or lazy. They are eager to quickly see progress in terms of what they want and need to achieve for their own personal career goals and actively seek out opportunities that will allow them greater independence to own their own future. The traditional agency structure that puts client needs before agency staff creates a sense of lack of control and many young professionals desire to be masters of their own destiny vs. “paying their dues” and working their way up the ladder. The harsh reality is that while we used to see employees stay with one agency for an average of 3-5 years, it’s not surprising today to see an employee leave in one year or less.
Workplace flexibility and mobility are the new 9 to 5
Technology and smart devices now allow employees to be constantly connected online, expanding the workplace beyond the confines of a traditional office. Yet for many agencies, there seems to be a discomfort in allowing employees to work remotely or in having flexible schedules with the belief that a valid work day needs to be conducted in a minimum of eight hours in the same office—and more likely closer to 10-12 hours. Mothers are especially affected, resulting in many talented PR professionals abandoning their careers due to the lack of more flexible workplace options. When you consider how many years it took to develop a young professional through management and she leaves the company after motherhood, it’s a tremendous waste of talent and money.
Not everybody wants to be an account vice president
Thanks to the diversification of communications services that agencies are now providing, it opens up new avenues to reconsider traditional job titles. The upward mobility path in agency life has typically been through account management but not every employee can be successful in this role nor is every employee interested in being locked in to a purely client service-focused role. If you’ve ever heard the client joke, “everyone’s a vice president in a PR agency” then you understand that inflated agency titles only mean something to agency people and not much to everyone else. More importantly, young professionals today seek meaningful job descriptors that highlight what they love to do vs. who the agency thinks they should be.
Rethinking agency talent for the millennial generation
With these trends in mind, changing the traditional hiring mindset is critical with agencies needing to rethink their overall approach to attracting and retaining talent:
- Understand and plan from the get-go that staff are likely to have shorter tenures and manage client expectations accordingly. When you take on a new hire, you are making an investment over time but you need to look at what you can accomplish on a shorter time frame and help guide clients in understanding that staff account rotations can be a good thing in keeping new ideas and creativity alive.
- Create clear and accountable professional development goals for young staff that leverage their strengths and show them an attainable career path forward. Emphasize that what they learn now is important not only for their current job, but the next one, whether it’s with the same agency or a different employer.
- If you can’t keep someone happy in their current role, look to offer a different type of position within the agency, within the agency’s extended network or even with a client or prospect. A young staff member today could be a new client tomorrow.
- Longer hours don’t equate to better work. By allowing employees to manage their eight hour workday in a flexible schedule that works best for them, you enable that employee to practice self-accountability and the ability to more effectively balance their work life with other life demands.
- Actively encourage the adoption and active use of collaboration technologies to facilitate improved team communication and contact such as real-time messaging application Slack, video communication via Skype or Google+ and remote server access provider Egnyte.
- Designate a set number of “core days” or “core hours” that bring all employees together in the office to create and maintain a sense of belonging.
- Rethink agency titles to more closely align to the individual’s actual role in the agency.
- Create multiple advancement paths across all areas of the agency’s services and competencies.
- Make it possible for someone who’s great at analytical thinking excel as well as someone who’s the creative idea generator.
- Mandate a flatter organization with less hierarchy—the media relations lead, content lead, creative lead and account lead should all have the same level of say and authority in developing a campaign that’s best for the client.
With millennials soon to be become the largest generation and majority of the workforce, agencies will need to radically rethink the business if they want to attract and maintain the best and the brightest and make agencies once again a great place to build a career.
How have you changed your agency operations to meet the needs of today’s changing workplace? What’s working, what isn’t? Share your ideas in the comments below.
Caroline Kawashima is executive vice president and head of U.S. operations for Babel PR in San Francisco. She is a PR industry veteran with more than 20 years experience counseling CXOs, founders and entrepreneurs on corporate branding, executive visibility and thought leadership and integrated communications strategy for U.S. and international markets.