Ballou PR 11 Feb 2019 // 6:23AM GMT
London is home to hundreds of public relations agencies, from one-person shops to big international firms serving blue-chip corporations. Even with Brexit looming, the economy is still growing and the unemployment rate is at its lowest since the 1970s.
All this adds up to a very competitive labour market for PR professionals, so it’s common for people to move jobs often. So how can smaller agencies attract and retain talent?
The experience of Ballou, which works on behalf of high-growth technology companies, is instructive. Founded in Paris in 2002 by Colette Ballou, the agency has since grown to employ 45 staffers with offices in London, Paris, and Berlin and annual turnover of close to £4 million. In London, it employs 12 specialists, most of them under 30, and has seen revenue double in the past four years, serving clients such as Pipedrive, Cloudflare and Trivago.
Despite that strong growth in the UK, Ballou was seeing higher levels of churn among its London staff than in the French and German offices. Cordy Griffiths, the chief executive, found herself devoting much of her time to hiring people.
To improve retention, Colette, now the company’s chairman, decided to go back to basics by channeling one of her main motivations when founding her own agency: namely to build a PR firm without the culture of fear and mistrust that often arose when working for clients. Instead Colette said she wanted an “employee first” culture where “happy employees made for happy clients.”
The first step was to beef up training and learning opportunities for staff. With the help of outside trainers, they created “BalloUniversity,” a series of day-long workshops aimed at teaching staff specific skills that would be immediately useful to their work.
The aim was not to teach PR 101 since much of that would be learned on the job. Rather it was to impart behavioral and communication techniques, which would help people become better consultants and colleagues.
External trainers were brought in to teach courses entitled “Courageous Conversations” and “Advanced Personal Impact and Conflict Management.” After the sessions, participants were asked to evaluate their usefulness; one of the most popular ones last year was on managing difficult conversations.
Ballou also hosts “Lunch and Learn” events where experts in a field like artificial intelligence or blockchain come into talk to the staff over sandwiches. Other sessions have included venture capital investors and journalists talking about how they do their jobs.
“We want to be one of the best places to work in Europe,” said Colette Ballou. “To do that you need to help your people improve with tailored training.”
In 2018, Ballou spent more than £1300 per head on staff training whereas the average spend for agencies contributing to the PR Week Best Places to Work report was only £800.
A second step consisted of making sure that staffers were given leeway to work independently, instead of being micromanaged. This began as early as the hiring process when managers would ask candidates whether they enjoyed figuring things out on their own or preferred more guidance. Given the agency’s relatively small size staff also got to work on clients alone from early on in their tenure.
Then there was transparency about the business. Not only did managers brief the whole staff on the annual growth targets and the company’s plans to achieve them, they also explained to new recruits how the economics of an agency work and urged them to keep hourly rates and billing in mind.
For Nick Taylor, who joined Ballou in London in 2016 and was recently promoted to UK general manager, this approach was totally different to that of his prior employers. In fact, it is part of why he joined and has stayed at Ballou. “I was looking for an agency where I would have more autonomy and could really contribute to building the business,” Taylor said.
Beyond training and teaching though, Ballou has sought to cultivate an open, supportive corporate culture where staffers do not compete with each other but rather help one and other. Ballou works for high-growth technology start-ups, and shares with them many positive traits: a flat structure and informal, at times even playful, vibe.
So far the approach appears to be working, although there were still a few departures last year. Some churn is to be expected: as a boutique agency, Ballou is not going to be able to prevent some staffers from leaving to try out larger agencies or new types of clients.
It remains to be seen what will happen to London’s tight labor market, especially if Brexit kicks off a recession this year. But Ballou’s efforts to make itself an attractive employer can only help it navigate a downturn.
For now, Colette Ballou said she has been encouraged by progress in the talent retention efforts. Another positive sign came recently when a former employee who Ballou had been sad to lose got back in touch.
After some discussion, the person ended up rejoining the UK team.