Best Places to Work 2012

Roberts Communications Is No. 20 on Ad Age's Best Places to Work List

When You're Not Based in a Glamour Capital, It Helps to Have a Commitment to Merit-Based Culture and Compensation

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Roberts Communications' home base of Rochester, N.Y., isn't the sexiest city. The agency also doesn't have the kind of lifestyle-client roster that would tend to excite young ad execs. But the small, multipurpose shop does have a number of financial and cultural programs that incentivize employees to stay creative.

"There's the misconception that it's frozen tundra here," said CEO Bill Murtha. "I worked in New York for 17 years and had the same misconception. Making sure we hold onto [employees] is the hardest thing."

Roberts has managed to keep turnover in the single digits. Its bonus program, in place for over 12 years, is the secret. Every full-time employee, from receptionist to CEO, gets a quarterly "carrot bonus" Sixty percent of the award is merit- and 40% is salary-based, so it can add more than 20% to the annual compensation of exceptional performers, Mr. Murtha said.

"This is an incentive to reward profitability and good work," he said. "It's not "here's the turkey at the end of the year' -- although we do give out turkeys at Thanksgiving. It pulls that spirit that we're all in this together and we do the work collectively."

Times haven't always been good at Roberts, but the firm's reaction to tough ones is a testament to its culture. Last year, headcount was 65 to 70, and income for fiscal 2011 was $9.8 million, down 14%. To avoid layoffs, Mr. Murtha and a few other executives on the management team took pay cuts and chose not to replace a few voluntary departures throughout the year. Roberts is now looking to hire four more people, in digital, social, account planning and creative services.

The firm works with the BlueCross BlueShield Association, MasterCard and Xerox, and contributes to wellness and prevention programs for clients such as Prevention Minnesota and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.

Although the appeal of a b-to-b or health-care client (categories that make up a fair chunk of Roberts' portfolio) might not be immediately obvious, "b-to-b can be intriguing," Mr. Murtha said. "It's harder to figure out that audience. It makes it interesting and challenging for new, young people."

It's also often work with a mission. Referring to the objectives of health clients, he said: "We're trying to get people to quit smoking and eat right -- this is life-changing stuff."

And when it's not life-altering, it's work with a river view, a grand piano in the lobby and an office with a rich history. Roberts bought the 120-year old, six-story brick building in the High Falls section of downtown Rochester in 1996.

Some of the space is used to display work by its artists and writers. To inspire this kind of creativity, the firm holds a "FedEx Day," a 24-hour period when all employees are free to work on whatever and with whomever they choose. Each team then presents its idea at an agency party.

The firm also encourages junior staffers to work closely with senior members via mentor programs and to have a voice, said one respondent to the Ad Age survey. "We are treated like peers and not looked down on by management," the employee said. "It gives us the comfort and strength to be able to speak up and voice our thoughts and learn new, great things."

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