Retention, please: Agencies are pulling out the stops to keep employees around

They’re trying to figure out which perks and benefits stop people from browsing other jobs.
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Francis Scialabba

5 min read

The Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, whatever you want to call it…People are leaving their jobs. And it makes sense: We’re nearing year three of the pandemic, cost of living is going up, hours are long for many, and some simply can’t imagine going back to the office again.

As a result, many ad agencies are introducing new perks and policies in hopes of retaining talent and keeping employees from walking out the door.

In a recent meeting with his leadership team, John Barker, CEO of New York agency Barker, said that “the rules have certainly changed and we need to change faster than the rules.”

Money, money, money

According to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank’s wage growth tracker, as of December, people who left a job saw an average of 4.6% wage gains, while those who stayed saw 3.4% gains. Even before the pandemic, experts suggested that leaving a job can often be the quickest way to advance a worker’s title or salary.

With the stakes higher than ever, many people are taking that risk, putting agencies on defense. Barker decided to give employees a 4.3% year-forward bonus in December to proactively respond to growing inflation in 2022. Mary Beth Weil, EVP and managing director at Barker, told Marketing Brew that feedback has been positive.

“To be able to respond in a way that is literally, tactically, meaningful brings joy to [employees],” she said.

According to Weil, the agency also gave holiday bonuses, which were meant to feel like a gift, while year-forward bonuses were more functional. It plans to continue watching inflation rates and consider quarterly adjustments.

Barker said it also plans to give out $1,000 anniversary bonuses this year, as well as retroactive $1,000 bonuses for every year an employee has worked with the agency. “It’s another important way to show appreciation and say, ‘You matter,’” Weil explained.

According to a recent survey by the Conference Board, companies are expecting to raise salaries by about 3.9% this year, the highest rate since 2008.

The joy of learning

Some agencies are taking a different approach, feeling money might not be the key to retention after all. Mya Kelly, VP of people and culture at mid-size agency R&R Partners, told us the agency is putting “a lot of emphasis on training and development” this year.

“Money doesn’t really keep people,” Kelly said. “It’s good to keep people for the moment, but nowadays, I just kind of feel like we’ve decided throwing money at our employees doesn’t mean they’ll stay.”

She said R&R purchased LinkedIn Learning for the company to help employees develop technical skills. Long-term, the plan is to align courses taken with its performance management tool, which will track progress and be used in evaluations for things like bonuses. According to Kelly, employees will “be rewarded for taking the courses that have been identified as a goal for them for the year.”

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Because of daily workloads, Kelly noted that employees can choose when to do their courses. When asked about fears around burnout, she said it comes down to “working close to your HR team, working closely with your manager to figure out a schedule of what’s going to benefit you, and then what’s going to be best for the business.”

According to the LinkedIn Learning 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 51% of learning and development professionals agree that internal mobility is more of a priority now than before the pandemic. Kelly said employees who take courses aren’t guaranteed advancement within the agency.

She added that she hopes to change certain aspects of the agency’s compensation structure by the end of this year, including adding merit-based increases, which R&R did not do in 2021. She also hopes to incorporate retention bonuses, which would pay out over a number of years, in cases where employees may not have immediate successors.

Perk up

More and more, agencies offer benefits that give workers more freedom and flexibility outside the office. Some have instituted four-day work weeks, others have offered the option to be fully or partially remote for the indefinite future.

Matt Powell, CEO of Moroch, said his agency held a virtual event before the holidays where employees picked a present below the tree, each one holding an update to the company HR benefits package. Changes included more vacation time, faster 401(k) vesting, and longer paid maternity and paternity leave.

Powell said Moroch is investing in learning and development as well, ranging from management trainings that are focused on collaboration to individual growth initiatives. Last year, the company set aside three days where no meetings were allowed, allowing employees to explore whatever they wanted from an L&D perspective.

“There was a moment in my career where I realized people aren’t necessarily climbing the ladder similar to how we had done,” Powell said, referencing today’s 20-something workers. “We’re making it clearer how to grow and how to move up.”

For now or forever? Powell said he doesn’t anticipate the recent changes and benefits added to be temporary. He likens this period in history to 2009–2012, when millennials first started working and changed norms by expecting greater work-life balance and transparency in the workplace.

“I feel a lot of the same similarities with this [era],” Powell said. “And frankly, I do think the changes we made back in 2009 and 2010 made us better moving forward. And I think this will be part of that too.”

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