In Adland, the Best Culture Lures the Best Talent

As Hiring Freezes Thaw, Expect Fun, Contemporary Agencies to Have an Easy Time Attracting and Retaining Quality Staffers

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- As hiring freezes are lifted and the market for ad jobs returns, where will the talent go?

In 2010, many will be lured to burgeoning digital shops. Others will head to creative technologist and connection-planning roles at big agencies, and still others to a spate of soon-to-open-their-doors upstarts. But one thing is certain: The very best talent is always attracted to places with the best culture.

BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE: Redscout staffers unwind in Tokyo.
BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE: Redscout staffers unwind in Tokyo.
"A lot of agencies don't understand how important it is from a student perspective," said Rick Boyko, director and professor at the VCU Brandcenter, noting that those entering the industry shape their perceptions of agencies based on two things: the quality of the work, and the culture. "There's a vibe that you get from a place that feels contemporary and fun, and another you get from a place that feels like a sweatshop."

"If you look at the most successful agencies out there, no question, they all have a defined culture," said Sally Jones, founder of recruitment firm Tangerine, which has made placements both on the agency and marketer sides at the likes of Anomaly, Taxi, MTV and Kenneth Cole. "Wieden has a very strong culture, Goodby, Ogilvy also have a very strong culture, and BBH would be another. Those are some of the names that come up time and again in conversation with talent," Ms. Jones said.

One common trait at such places, she notes, is that those at the top stay tight to the founding principles of the agency. Wieden & Kennedy Executive Creative Director John Jay puts it this way: "I equate it to raising children. To attract and retain creative people [fostering the culture] is something you have to do every day. It never ends, and for management, you have to keep your eye on it."


Around midnight every Thursday for the past three years, at Cleveland-based Brokaw, Tim Brokaw and hand-picked writers put together an e-newsletter that contains funny observations from the ad business and beyond. Contributions can be suggested by anyone on staff. Why did they start it? "To stay top-of-mind with clients, prospects, media and my Aunt Faith in Canton, Ohio," joked Mr. Brokaw.

From the first time Redscout CEO Jonah Disend visited Japan, he knew he wanted to return with a group of some of his most-talented staffers. Any interested parties presented a case for why they should go, and seven were selected to go on a weeklong journey that will now be an annual pilgrimage. The group kept a blog of their pursuits, dubbed "Scouting Tokyo."

At Dallas-based Richards Group, there's no need to compete for a trip: If you've worked at the agency for 20 years, you automatically are granted a $10,000 check toward a vacation anywhere in the world. Several longtime staffers have used it as an opportunity to travel to countries in Asia and island destinations. Before the person embarks, the whole agency is gathered to hear about the itinerary and bid their colleague bon voyage.

California-based David & Goliath rallies its troops for the greater good with its "Brave Alliance," the name they've given for grass-roots projects staffers work on to promote awareness of pressing issues, big and small. So far, they have mounted projects for a homeless shelter and a get-out-the-vote initiative, and staffers have adopted a school in South Los Angeles, collecting gifts for students during the holidays.

AT PLAY AT WORK: Redscout employees enjoy the sights on a trip to Japan.
AT PLAY AT WORK: Redscout employees enjoy the sights on a trip to Japan.
While the rest of Madison Avenue takes half-days on Fridays, New York-based digital agency Big Spaceship is offering an alternative: summer hours in the office, during which staffers can set aside client business to participate in a series of workshops about technology and innovation to help them bone up on the latest technologies and boost their portfolios.

Also at Redscout, each staffer is granted a $500 stipend toward taking a class that's not linked to advertising or marketing. Instead, staffers are encouraged to acquire a skill they don't already have, and are taking everything from acting to driving classes. Explains CEO Disend: "We want to encourage people to develop personally and not just professionally."

Digitas recently started a program that gives any of its 3,000 people working worldwide the chance to go to one of its 33 offices (this year it's London) to get inspired by the local ad market and the staff there. The only requirement? You have to record your experiences so the whole agency can learn from it. All video gets committed to an electronic time capsule to document the agency's progress and cultural evolution.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Partners & Napier kicks off each year with Agency Day, a full-day annual-meeting-cum-pep-rally that brings together staffers from the Rochester and Atlanta offices to briefly celebrate successes from the previous year but, more important, to leave everyone with a clear sense of the agency's outlook for the new year and their roles in making it a success. Management openly discusses financials, new-business prospects, training plans and presentations of outstanding creative from across the industry the previous year.

Now in its 10th year, Deutsch, New York, each fall invites all staff to show off their unique talents and compete for cash prizes as big as $1,000. Everyone from art directors to receptionists participate, and acts through the years have included DJs, dance routines with elaborate costumes and routines, and poetry and short films by agency producers.

Meanwhile, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, has outside talent -- but no mimes allowed -- come into the agency during work hours to inspire staff. Previous guests have included the head of New York's forsenics unit, who came in and lectured on "branding the dead," and two Juilliard professors who taught staff how to turn game consoles into DIY musical instruments.

Most Popular
In this article: