Earn loyalty

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Loyalty has to be earned. In the ad world, agencies raid one another for talent, and managers follow clients from shop to shop (and vice versa). Normally, not much is made of it; on occasion, as with Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide's loss of managers to Omnicom Group, litigation and expressions of anguish and outrage follow. But loyalty has to be earned.

If senior executives at agencies and agency holding companies are serious about building employee loyalty-the kind that convinces someone to stay put when his or her bread-and-butter client departs-they have their work cut out. It requires a change in a mind-set that tolerates employee churn as a cost of doing business, and it takes an investment in making an agency a unique place to work, with a culture and approach to advertising, client service or media not easily replicated elsewhere.

The sense that, increasingly, agencies are not that different from one another only aggravates the loyalty problem. If agency staffers are convinced they can move down the street and seamlessly pick up where they left off, what's to hold them? More money, certainly. But working for superiors whom they respect and who inspire and challenge them can be worth more than money to employees. So can an approach to the work that staffers find unique and rewarding; and a commitment by the employer to invest in training and other programs that build employee skills and expose them to new challenges.

Few in the agency world will be naive about loyalty. For many in the business, part of the appeal of agency work is the ability to move from agency to agency in search of greater responsibility and rewards. Agency managers will properly try to protect their businesses against actual account piracy (through employee contracts, non-compete agreements and, where necessary, litigation). But there is plenty of room, even in tight times, for agencies to create working environments that make it hard for key employees to walk away. Wondering about whatever happened to "loyalty" is no substitute for doing something about it.

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