2017 Best PR Agencies to Work For, North America | Holmes Report


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The Holmes Report’s Best Agencies to Work For are determined by a comprehensive survey of agency employees at more than 50 agencies throughout North America. The process solicits employee views on a wide range of issues ranging from the integrity of senior management to the quality of professional development, from empowerment and risk-taking to compensation. For more information on the methodology — and how you can order your own agency's results — visit this section's About/FAQ page. The top winner in each category was recognized at the 2017 North American SABRE Awards, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 2.

1. Davies (Independent)
For the third consecutive year, the Southern California public affairs shop Davies makes a showing on our Best Agencies to Work For (the firm won 2015, shortlisted in 2016). The firm’s 32 employees are spread across offices Santa Barbara, Washington D.C., Los Angeles — with each office adopting Davies distinctive culture that’s best described as empowered. “All team members are rewarded for the firm's achievements and their individual contribution in a manner usually reserved for senior staff only,” says CEO John Davies,who sits in the open in the middle of the office and is fully accessible. “At Davies, there is no hierarchy - there are only common goals.”

When it comes to tangible benefits, Davies covers 100% employee premiums for medical, dental and vision insurance — and partially funds employee Health Savings Accounts. The firm also has policy of Real Profit Sharing, which means staff can earn up to a 100% performance bonus (based on profitability, client satisfaction and individual contributions), on top of an already competitive salary. Company financials are also “open book” — this means that every quarter, financials are presented to and reviewed by all staff, including all expenses, all profits and all challenges and strengths.

Davies also has an open policy of sponsoring staff educational ambitions as long as their focus intersects with work-based tasks. Several senior staff members have risen through the ranks in very short periods of time, and promotions are frequent at Davies.

Autonomy is highly-valued with employees setting their own hours — with performance being measured by results, not time in the office. “All schedules are considered flexible and optimizable to an individual’s own needs – as long as there is clear and open communication,” Davies said.

Training is individualized for each employee’s strengths and interests. Davies invests a great deal of time teaching each person not only "what" they do and "how" they do it uniquely, but also "why" they do the things we do, along with the science and research behind our efforts. The firm makes a concerted effort to recruit diverse management (women represent 50% of the agency leaders) and equal pay is a priority for women and ethnic minorities.

2. Group Gordon (Independent)
The firm that has built its niche working with organizations doing good — philanthropies, nonprofits and responsible businesses — has also adopted doing good to its own culture. This is Group Gordon’s third consecutive showing on the list (the boutique won in 2015, was shortlisted in 2016) for its open culture designed to emulate Google to attract and retain critical thinking and emotionally intelligent employees.

The 24-person firm ensures that employees feel ownership over their work so they enjoy coming into the office every day. Group Gordon also eschews bureaucracy by cutting out unnecessary meetings, extraneous rules, or organizational hierarchies. In hiring, the firm passes on candidates with egos — even when they otherwise have the right skills. Benefits packages include  generous compensation, health and transit benefits, and retirement and profit-sharing contributions — plus parental leave policy that goes far beyond what is required by law.

Each entry-level employee at the firm is paired with a mentor (a senior member of the team), to guide and support them in achieving success at the firm. In addition, account leads gather monthly to share advice, discuss best practices, and brainstorm solutions to challenges. In addition, the whole firm gathers each month for peer-led professional development sessions, in which a pair of employees present on experiences, expertise, and insights gained through their client work. The firm retains 80-85% of its employees year over year.

3. Zapwater (Independent)
Like the two firms listed above, this is Zapwater’s third showing on Best Agencies to Work For for the culture it has built for its 22 employees (18 in Chicago and 4 in Los Angeles).

Approximately 2.5% of gross revenues are spent on staff training and professional development programs that include professional “lunch and learns,” membership in professional organizations and conferences and seminars. Zapwater launched ZapU, an ongoing professional development and team building program. Built around off-site staff retreats, ZapU is an educational experience launched as a forum for employees to interact and form relationships with industry leaders, be immersed in business education, and nurture their strong leadership skills to increase their professional development. In 2017, Zapwater also launched ZapYOU — designed for staff by staff, the program provides bi-monthly professional development seminars on topics ranging from ways to spark creative thinking, effective pitch strategies and how to manage a team.

All employees are given four weeks vacation/PTO per year, plus can build their work week around a flexible schedule. After five years employment, employees earn a fifth week of vacation. Zapwater also encourages employees to be involved in their communities and provides an additional paid week off for anyone using it toward volunteering. The firm also does summer hours (closing at 1 p.m. from mid-May through Labor Day) and allows dogs in the office.

4. Groundfloor Media (Independent)
Groundfloor Media took top honors in this category in 2016 for the agency’s commitment to community and, frankly, treating its employees like adults. The Colorado-based firm says its 36 employees (19 full-time, 17 contractors) are treated more “like friends than people on the payroll.” That’s achieved in a few ways — among them, a purpose-focused business in which 15% of annual revenues are given back to the community.

Perhaps more strongly, the firm’s culture of empowerment provides far more benefits and perks than can be named here. Among them, employees  can work at anytime, from anywhere, provided they get their work done. This means employees can do anything from  attend children’s school activities to getting a haircut without having to use personal time. The firm provides a $50/month wellness stipend, workload and bandwidth is monitored closely, and billability is 69% (far below the industry average of 85%).

In late 2015, GFM instituted a concept known as Zero Entry Mondays in an attempt to keep the weekend free for personal endeavors and ease entry into the work week. Specifically, the GFM office does not physically open until 11 a.m. on Mondays. Instead, team members are encouraged to use that time to get prepared for the week by catching up on personal to- dos or work – or both.  

And in 2016, GFM implemented a Trusted Time Off policy to full-time and part-time exempt employees (following one year of continuous service with the agency). This means that employees no longer have a defined number of vacation or personal days to spend during the year. GFM also has a primary charitable giving arm called The Get Grounded Foundation that provides one-year community grants for new or expanded, innovative or entrepreneurial programs or projects within an existing, qualified nonprofit that directly support the healthy development of at-risk or neglected youth between the ages of 3 and 13 in the Denver Metro area.

Also, in 2016, GFM was named a Certified B Corporation by the global nonprofit B Lab, which recognizes companies meeting the highest global standards for corporate transparency, accountability and social and environmental performance. The agency has also been named a Best Place to Work by Outside magazine the past four years in a row (ranked #1 two of those years).

5. Double Forte (Independent)
Making its debut on the list is Double Forte, the 31-person shop based in San Francisco with a growing presence in New York. The firm’s mantra is that it’s a place for “doers not delegators” designed to create a culture of support instead of ego. The team conducts four team building days through the year that includes training and team bonding activities.

Interestingly, employees earn “points” for networking, learning, business development, professional development activities. Points are exchanged for cash (each point is worth $1) or for specific experiences (dinner for 4, spa day, etc.) Employees are assigned a

career manager/mentor who they meet with once per week to discuss achievements from the previous week and objectives for the current week. Employees also get an annual stipend of $1,000 for professional development courses.

With good performance and demonstrated ability, employees are allowed to work from home a certain number of days (this varies on level, ranging from a few times a month to several times per week). Vacation days range from 15 per year to 30 days based on level and tenure.  

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