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Best Agency to Work For is possibly the only predictive PRovoke Media award. Over the years, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between the agencies on this list and those that take home our biggest honor (often times at some point in the future) — Agency of the Year recognition. That’s, in part, because firms that take culture seriously tend to attract and retain smart and creative talent who, in turn, produce stellar work. It’s a simple formula but one that’s easily overlooked amid the breathless pace and tremendous pressures that are a seemingly inevitable reality of agency life. But this pace is exactly why agencies shouldn’t underestimate the power its culture has on the work its employees produce.
And, of course, the weight of the global pandemic along with racism and election anxiety, in addition to other serious issues that made 2021 another exceptional year for PR firms. Over the next few weeks, we will look more closely at how the Best Agencies to Work For fared on issues like the pandemic response, diversity and overall compensation.
These five Best Agencies to Work For will be presented with their trophies at the 2022 EMEA SABRE Awards dinner, which takes place in London on May 27.
For many years one of WPP’s best kept secrets, 27-year-old tech specialist AxiCom has flourished under the thoughtful, rigorous and very human leadership of longtime staffer and now European president Kate Stevens. AxiCom works with technology firms of all flavours, from industry giants to disruptors, to help them stand out in a world where every business now has a technology story to tell, and its sector experts cover consumer tech, telecoms, enterprise tech, media tech and business services.
AxiCom’s revenue for 2021 grew by just over 10% on 2020, with even healthier margins. For the first time, UK income was less than half of the European business, as it grew substantially across its other offices. The agency won 63 new clients across Europe, 30% of which are multi-market accounts, including milestones such as the agency’s first all-digital win—digital services revenue grew by 27% over the year—and influencer marketing work.
It can be difficult to maintain culture after being acquired, but AxiCom’s commitment to building a world-class work environment has not wavered since it became part of WPP nearly 15 years ago. Nor did the pandemic create any kind of blip—AxiCom was our Best EMEA Network to Work For last year too. Coming out of lockdown, the firm drew on its values (intelligence, initiative and integrity) to stay ahead of the pack, investing extra funds into learning and development and kick-starting the AxiAcademy with courses covering compliance (one thing that has become a priority as part of public ownership), culture and competence. AxiConnect, meanwhile, is a pan-European peering program that brings teams across markets closer together.
Diversity and inclusion training is a core part of the 'AxiAcademy', and the firm also draws on the resources of WPP Group and sister agency BCW, including the Destination Inclusion program developed at BCW, which provides training resources to keep managers challenging their assumptions.The form also draws on the expertise of an external D&I consultant and places an expert-led unconscious bias webinar at the heart of the onboarding process. The firm has also hosted fundraising activities in support of LGBTQ+ Pride month, supporting charities Mermaids and Micro Rainbow.
When asked which three words best describe the culture at AxiCom, the most common responses involve “open,” “supportive” and “fun,” although the employee who said “kooky” deserves a nod too. Asked what they like best about their agency, the most common response is simply: “The people.” A slightly longer answer: “AxiCom genuinely supports you to be your best self. From day one I have been encouraged to speak up, get stuck in and lead on projects, which has massively contributed to my development as a junior.” Another respondent describes a culture of continual improvement and explains: “Being better means being different. We don't accept the standardised way of doing things, we're forever exploring and trialing new methods, systems and approaches to make every touchpoint as efficient, effective and enjoyable as possible.’
As soon as it launched in October 2018, it was clear that Blurred was something a bit special. The agency was led by former Unity co-founder Nik Govier, alongside former Weber Shandwick strategy and creative director Stuart Lambert and ex-Unity and Brands2Life director Katy Stolliday, and recognized the increasingly blurred lines between marketing and consulting disciplines, and is equally as strong on strategic and corporate consultancy—especially in the environmental, social and governance space—as creative work.
In its third full year of operation, Blurred enjoyed its most successful year, with fee income up from £1.6 million to £2.8 million—growth of almost 75%--while headcount increased from 10 to 18 in 2021 (and 22 by the time this survey went in the field). The firm added accounts like Kellogg’s, Associated British Foods, and Fremantle to existing clients including Coca-Cola and BT.
There are not yet as many B Corp public relations agencies as their should be, given that the notion of balancing “people, planet and profit” would seem a natural fit for a profession helping clients achieve success on all three dimensions. Blurred’s commitment to the B Corp ethos has clearly helped it stand out from the crowd, from its first hire—a non-exec director responsible for people and purpose—to employing four Mental Health Firstaiders. Upon joining, each employee identifies five personal needs, and the company is constantly measured against those five dimensions. Flexible even before the pandemic, about a third of Blurred’s people are part-time and the office is closed on Monday and Fridays to encourage a work-from-anywhere approach.
Blurred is proudly diverse in terms of ethnicity, neurodiversity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, national origin and socio-economic background. The motivation is pragmatic: clients have complex problems and require different lived experiences to find creative solutions. The firm’s internship program is designed to attract candidates from lower socio-economic groups, the culture is inclusive, with transparency around compensation and a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination, bullying and micro-aggressions. CEO Nik Govier sits on the advisory board of BME PR Pros and the firm has Blueprint ally status.
“Inclusive,” “supportive” and “democratic” are the three words Blurred employees use to describe the firm’s culture—although “ethical” comes up more often than it does with most firms. Digging a little deeper, “Our values are at the heart of everything we do—both internally and with our client partners,” says one respondent. Another adds: “It's the only agency I know that truly 100% does what it says on the tin and is true to its ambitious ethos.”
Seesame Communication Experts is a 25-year-old Slovakian firm that defies any assumptions or preconceptions people might have about a relatively small market in Central & Eastern Europe. The firm delivers on international standards of public relations, from its strategic counseling capabilities to its focus on purpose to its broad creative solutions. Seesame has expanded beyond traditional PR services, with in-house editorial content teams, staffed by journalists and video editors.
Fee income rose 25% in 2021 to €4.3m, as Seesame defied a sluggish economicenvironment by leveraging its cross-functional skills across such areas as social impact, public affairs, digital and employer branding. There was new business from Coca-Cola, Janssen, Takenaka, SPP, WWF, CloudTalk, and the UN International Organisation for Migration.
Employees are encouraged to work in a way that makes them happiest. For some, that means coming to the office everyday, as they feel most energized while surrounded by coilleagues and sharing ideasl for others, it may mean working primarily from home, coming in for brainstorming and larger client meetings. In 2021 the firm introduced its own award-winning Seesame app , based on input from team members who were missing quality feedback on their work, strengthening the feedback culture. Professional development activities last year focused on improved leadership.
Women make 60% of Seesame’s leadership team and the firm has 100% pay parity, which is not always the case in PR generally and Eastern Europe in particular. The firm is among the signatories of the Diversity Charter and it supports LGBTQI+ initiatives in its home market. It is now actively helping refugees from Ukraine through fundraising and communication support and is prioriti\zing hiring two new team members from Ukraine.
Nearly every Seesame employee responding to our survey used the word “open” to describe the firm’s culture, with other popular choices including “friendly” and “ethical” and—more than most agencies—“family.” Digging a little deeper into what employees like about the culture, one responded: “We see each other as human beings and friends in the first place. We have a very transparent culture and we love to create and collaborate together.” Another, simpler explanation for the firm’s success in this study: “I feel safe and understood here.”
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