Getting Them Is Tough; Keeping Them Is Tougher

Salaries, Benefits and Room to Advance Are Important, but It's the Little Things That Can Add up to a Lot

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As soon as new employees accept their jobs, they think about leaving. It's human nature. Once you get people in the door, you need to give them a reason to keep coming back. Otherwise your agency could end up being just another line on their résumés.

People need to feel as though they are making a contribution or they will go somewhere else. They need to feel valued. They need to be passionate about what they do. So they must be in positions to make an impact. If you really want people to feel like they matter, you must find ways to make them matter.

If a person's strengths and job description don't align, be creative and make adjustments. We had a very good account executive named Laura Scobie, whose true passion turned out to be account planning. So we paid for her to go to account-planning school, and we got a great planner in return. Adjust as people grow, and they will grow with you.

All employees want to feel as though somebody is looking out for them and caring about their careers. Every employee needs a mentor. Show them the path to go to the next level. Take the time to give employees feedback. Do it on a daily basis, not just in their six-month reviews. And be generous with compliments. It only takes a few seconds to say something that can make someone's day.

We invest a lot in our people so they can be better at what they do. Many agencies provide training within job functions, and that's important. We also try to hold companywide training programs. For example, this year, everyone who works at Barkley must successfully complete the interactive training program we call "Digital Ninja." It's a fun way for people from different departments to bond behind a common goal.

We also do off-site retreats where five groups of five people have 24 hours to come up with creative ideas to solve a business problem. These sessions are called "Blurring the Lines," and we invite people from every department to participate.

It's important to connect with your employees. Otherwise, they will feel isolated and they will leave. We not only have annual meetings, but we also have quarterly meetings so we can share how we're doing. And we have monthly staff meetings where we get together to share success stories and show work. We even created an internal online community for employees to converse.

As CEO, I figure that I work with about 50 people at Barkley on a regular basis. That leaves about 250 people I need to find a way to connect with. So I created an internal blog called Lint Tray. I also send out handwritten thank-you notes every month. I know who deserves a pat on the back because I ask senior management to identify those people who have gone above and beyond.

Competitive salary, benefits and advancement opportunities are always important in employee retention. But I've found it's the little things that can add up to a lot. If employees find that you foster a fun environment, then they will want to stick around.

Culture is key. We keep our space fun with a pool table, ping-pong, shuffleboard, Asteroids and beer taps. On sunny days, we cook burgers and brats on our rooftop deck and invite our partners to lunch. We even designate one day a year as a "kidnap": On those days, we shut down the office and send employees to an undisclosed location (such as a bowling alley or the horse races) for a day of fun.

There are 13,000 ad agencies in the U.S. With so many choices, it's no surprise that retention is a challenge. The truth is that you can do everything right, and sometimes people will still leave. Of course, turnover isn't always a bad thing. Every time somebody walks out the door, another door opens. This business depends on fresh thinking, and turnover has a way of keeping things fresh.
Brian Brooker is CEO-chief creative officer of Barkley, Kansas City, Mo. Clients include Coca-Cola and Build-A-Bear Workshop.
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