Eight Ways to Lower Agency Employee Turnover

It Isn't About Money; Challenges, Recognition Go Long Way Toward Holding Onto Valuable Employees

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Paul S. Gumbinner
Paul S. Gumbinner
There is an unwritten contract between every employer and every employee. It goes like this: "You take care of me, and I will take care of you." For the worker, it means that he or she will work hard, meet or exceed expectations and get along well with supervisors, subordinates and others. For employers, it means providing an atmosphere that fosters growth and learning, and provides opportunities for advancement and a nice work environment. When this equation gets out of balance, people look for a new job.

Given the tough economic environment, many companies, not just advertising agencies, have forgotten their end of the bargain. The following observations and comments are based on countless interviews conducted with agency people at all levels. One thing is clear: Money is not the real issue.

1. Recognition is essential.
People thrive on recognition. One of the principal reasons people change jobs, rarely expressed on an interview but nonetheless evident, is that employees feel anonymous, lack visibility and feel under-appreciated as a result.

Few companies thank their employees for their contributions, either big or small. Employees need to be recognized. The old "staff memo" doesn't exist anymore. And staff e-mails are generally reserved for momentous announcements. But a staff or group e-mail can make all the difference in making people feel appreciated.

2. Boredom chases people away.
People need new challenges to stimulate and incentivize them. Agencies commonly rotate creative people to keep them "fresh." Account people, on the other hand, because they are the keepers of the relationship, remain in place too long because the client likes them or the agency wants to maintain the status quo (ironically, the client doesn't hesitate to rotate its own marketing and advertising people).

Many agencies have forgone their excellent rotation policies. Setting up rotations is complicated and time consuming, but the time spent on this is more than compensated for by lowering turnover.

3. Overwork is an issue.
Advertising people often work 60- and 80-hour weeks. Salary increases cannot resolve the issue of burnout. One reason so many of the best and brightest have left the advertising business is because people can make more elsewhere and work less. Ad agencies need to be aware of and manage overwork.

4. Untrained supervisors.
Many supervisors are totally untrained and lack management skills. Wonderful employees frequently butt heads with mediocre supervisors who are threatened and whose vested interest is in maintaining the status quo. Few ad agencies have the mechanisms to deal with this situation, often because the supervisor is liked by his or her clients.

Employee evaluations should be used as a management tool to help valued employees improve performance. This should include training programs designed to address the interpersonal issues that may be at the core of negative evaluations. Leadership and management skills need to be taught and continually upgraded.

Employees are motivated when they feel that their companies are investing in them.

5. Lack of loyalty.
Today, when an agency loses an account or a client cuts its budget, even the best and longest-tenured employees are fearful that they will be laid off (and often are). Many agencies simply eliminate an entire account group because "cherry picking" requires a significant investment of time on the part of management and human resources. This policy breeds contempt, communicates lack of loyalty and results in poor morale and a feeling of futility. It makes people want to leave.

6. No sense of community.
A candidate recently told me she that she worked only for her group, not her agency. She was unfamiliar with the agency's accounts and she had no sense or knowledge of the agency's mission. This is all too common. Every employee needs to feel a sense of community. An annual party is insufficient.

7. Retention programs are critical.
Companies need to find ways to give employees incentives to stay. In this poor economy, training programs, raises and bonuses are among the casualties. Eliminating these tools for an extended period of time is a false economy. But money and training are only two of the many elements that help lower employee turnover. Keeping highly regarded employees should be priority one and is neither difficult nor expensive. It merely requires a management committed to act in the belief that their employees are their best asset. Employees need to be motivated to stay.

8. Agencies must resolve salary freezes.
Poll after poll shows that pay is actually one of the least important reasons people seek new employment. A high percentage of people looking for new work are willing to move laterally for a better opportunity. The issue of salary freezes must be addressed. Too many ad agencies have had sustained wage freezes, some approaching or exceeding three years. Once the economy begins improving and agencies start hiring again, this backlog of underpaid employees will start a stampede of job changing. All too often, the edict of a salary freeze merely serves as a convenient management excuse to keep employees from asking for more money. It is a poor management technique and breeds discontent.

Agencies need to resolve this issue now before employees have committed themselves to leaving as soon as is practical.

Paul S. Gumbinner is president of the Gumbinner Co., New York. Before starting his executive-search firm in 1985, he spent 20 years in advertising, as an account person in categories including package goods, cosmetics, broadcasting, financial services, publishing, retail and fast food.
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