Focus on Small Businesses & Agencies

Smaller Shops Get Creative in Luring Talent From Bigger Agencies

Geography, Compensation Pose Challenges, but Recruits Like Flexibility, Independence

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Big companies offer impressive salaries and attractive benefits, posing a challenge for smaller companies trying to attract the best employees.

But in the agency world, what many small shops can boast is flexibility, transparency and quality of life -- points that talent find increasingly important.

The past decade has seen a sea change in how "startup" is perceived. Once almost synonymous with risk, it's now associated with entrepreneurship and nimble operations. Whereas it was previously unthinkable for large global brands to partner with anything but a large global agency, even the world's biggest marketers, such as Unilever, are increasingly hooking up with small agencies. That matters, because agency execs -- particularly creatives -- are drawn to the opportunity to work for big, exciting brands.

Recently, Unilever added New York-based agencies BFG 9000 and Roth Partners. Though Roth has just five full-time employees and about 25 total, the packaged-goods giant didn't hesitate to make it a roster agency to contribute to a project out of Latin America.

"We've had no issue attracting outstanding talent across nearly every discipline," said founder-CEO Rick Roth. "We can't always offer the highest compensation, but we have the freedom to make attractive and creatively rewarding packages.

"Years ago, if you were at a big agency, you were often concerned that if you slipped, if you failed to nail an idea, there would be a small agency slipping in the door with a speedy, creative solution," said Mr. Roth. "Today, small agencies don't need to slip in the door -- it's wide open. Blue-chip marketers are placing a greater value on senior holistic thinking. ... They are tired of unkept promises and very receptive to the smaller agency that can deliver smart, fast, integrated work."

Another appeal of smaller firms is fewer management layers and leaner staffs, which enhances transparency between employees and managers. And jobs can more easily be tailored to fit candidates' needs.

The geography problem
Geography is one remaining barrier, as many small firms are outside of the ad hubs of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. That's where recruitment and retention tactics have to get inventive.

"There is a true challenge, and it's not one that we have necessarily figured out how to solve," said Nathan Martin, CEO of Deeplocal, a digital and design shop based in Pittsburgh. "Realistically, cities like Pittsburgh have a challenge for younger people because it's not the thriving cultural center that you'll find in D.C. or New York."

But Mr. Martin has noticed in the past few years that far more people are interested in relocating to join Deeplocal and shares some strategies that have worked for him.

Betting on those who have a prior connection to the city. That makes candidates more likely to stay and feel less culture shock, Mr. Martin said.

Deeplocal has made it a priority to create a close culture. The team goes on day-long treks and retreats to enjoy the outdoors. The shop also rented a loft in Venice Beach, Calif., that staffers can use year-round as a satellite office -- a major perk.

The most important advice Mr. Martin offers is to "make sure the company is really respected locally." Getting familiar with other local companies, the city government and nonprofits, and participating in events, such as sponsoring local art exhibits, can raise your agency's profile in a positive way, he said.

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