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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 North American SABRE Awards dinner, which takes place at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 4. Tables and tickets are available now.
Zeno was founded (as PR21) in 1999 as a classic conflict brand. The firm changed its name to Zeno in 2004, but the modern Zeno was not really born until 2009 when Barby Siegel took over as CEO and reshaped the firm as an independent agency with its own identity and culture.
After a successful 2020, during which Zeno far outperformed its peers and earned our Midsize Agency of the Year honors, 2021 was even better: fee income up by close to 40% to more than $118 million, of which around $99 million of which is North American. Headcount increased accordingly, with 498 people in the U.S. and Canada.
Zeno’s promise to be the agency where "careers are built and lives are lived" pre-dates the pandemic but has taken on new resonance as employees began to return to the office. Likewise, its mission statement—”champion the courageous to achieve something better for humankind"—gives the firm a purpose that is critical in these times. After making salary reductions at the start of the pandemic, all the money that employees sacrificed in 2020 was repaid in full in February 2021. The firm increased its Zeno Fit wellness allowance by 25% and maintains its “Be Kind To Your Mind” mental health initiative. In 2021, Forrester reported that while data literacy is the skill companies claim they need most, few offer any formal training. In response, Zeno developed and introduced a proprietary global analytics certification program, with 16 vdeos available on demand. The firm also launched a pilot program for select high-performing junior staff to learn new skills outside their core practice area, spending 50% of their time "cross training" with other teams over three months.
The “Zeno for Everyone” initiative began to bear fruit in 2021, with six ERGs providing a community for various ethnic and gender-based employees groups, and ongoing unconscious bias training (completed by 86% of staff in the US). The firm’s DEI Council consists of 55 volunteers from all levels of the agency working together to promote learning, safety and allyship. There was a 3% increase in racial and ethnic diversity, to 27%, with 22% of the leadership diverse. And as of 2021, Zeno observes Juneteenth as a paid holiday, honoring this important date in American history.
Asked the describe the Zeno culture in three words, respondents most commonly used “collaborative,” “friendly,” and “supportive,” although there were plenty of nods to the agency’s “fearless” tagline. Asked what they liked best about Zeno, one respondent said: “The culture at our company is great. Our CEO really looks out for us and makes sure we are mentally rested.” Another added: “The culture at Zeno is rare, one that fosters professional relationships and friendships that last a lifetime. Not to mention, this all happens while managing an outstanding workload and producing the highest-quality work.”
The former Manning Selvage & Lee is the flagship full-service public relations operation of French communications holding company Publicis Groupe, on the comeback trail after a difficult decade in the 2010s. The firm has its primary strength in the consumer and healthcare spaces.
If MSL is not quite in the leadership position most global agencies expect of their US operations, it is now performing strongly and contributing innovative ideas and quality work. The turnaround that began with the arrival of Diana Littman in 2018 resumed in 2021 (after a flat 2020) with 9% growth so that the North American operation now represents about $66 million of Publicis Groupe’s $385 million global revenue. Both the consumer and healthcare practices enjoyed double-digit growth.
Littman has been working hard to ensure that despite the firm’s flexibility when it comes to work from home/back to the office (unlimited time off, 20 weeks parental or family leave, pet adoption or “pawternity” leave, health and wellness reiumbursements), everyone stays connected. The firm is also part of Publicis Groupe’s “Work Your World” initiative, which will allow every employee to work from any accessible country where the Groupe is present for up to six weeks a year.
Like most legacy agencies, MSL is wrestling with the challenge of increasing BIPOC representation, and is making progress, from 24.5% in 202o to 27.6% last year and launching a host of new employee resource groups designed to ensure community-building and inclusivity. The executive team is 33% diverse, and more than 30% of new hires were diverse last year. The firm also serves diverse causes through its global Pausing for Action event; responsible marketing, via its Once & For All Coalition and commitment to more inclusive creative, as well as the roll out of a new A.L.I.C.E. capability that helps clients assess the environmental impact of their campaigns.
The culture, employees say, is “supportive,” “compassionate,” and “creative,” and there are plenty of votes for “inclusive” too, with one employee adding: “We are the only agency that has 'love' as a value, and I think that speaks to who we are as a firm. We are free to be ourselves and proud to do that.” Asked what they like best about the agency, there are plenty of comments on the “opportunity to learn” but also on the ability to “work your way, work to get your job done not to put the hours in. It's liberating to know that I'm supported in curating the kind of workday I want to have.”
Highwire has established a solid reputation as a Silicon Valley PR firm known for consistently good work and strong leadership. Over its 13-year history, its three co-founders have been committed to constantly transforming its offerings around digital and content innovation.
Solid growth in 2020 was followed by a 20% increase in 2021, and Highwire ended the year with fee income in excess of $29 million. Headcount increased from 87 to 116.
At the beginning of the year, Highwire recognized the need to re-envision the way it approached office culture, employee benefits, and client work and committed to "refresh and renew" its culture of remote work while providing opportunities, tools and resources to enhance well-being. The firm expanded coverage of its well-being stipend to include everything from massages to Spotify, to time management and meditation apps as well as gym classes. With “Balance” as one of the firm’s five core values, the firm added new holidays and two "no-meeting Fridays" per month. As part of its ongoing commitment to mental health, the agency enlisted a wellness coach to offer a series of well-being discussions. The firm also made a commitment to “radical candor,” with open AMAs with leadership, and two radical candor trainings.
Highwire is currently at 41% diverse workforce, exceeding its target of 35% by 2022, but it is not resting on its laurels. Growth this year led to the addition of Ayanna Anderson as the firm’s first head of diversity, inclusion and belonging. Initiatives from the DIB Council included accelerating recruiting from HBCUs, forging partnerships with BIPOC vendors, providing structure for inclusive brainstorming, and implementing policies to proactively mitigate bias and create ongoing psychological safety.
The culture, according to survey respondents, is “collaborative,” “entrepreneurial,” and “passionate,” with a good number of employees citing “hard-working” as another distinctive aspect. Asked what they like about working at Highwire, one respondent says: “How much they listen and respond to feedback in the spirit of continuously improving. This leads to training and development, career advancement opportunities, and fun ways to build a community.” Adds another: “We embrace and encourage growth, from supporting individual career paths to pushing ourselves to grow, especially as it relates to mental health, diversity and inclusion.”
A west-coast based public affairs firm best known for handling complex NIMBY problems and helping companies with community outreach, Davies has been a multiple winner of our Best Agency to Work For honors, making an impressive comeback on to this list last year. Many of its people work remotely, undoubtedly a factor in its industry-low turnover rate over the past couple of years.
Davies is a $10 million agency with 30-40 employees.
Even before the pandemic, many Davies employees worked remotely—the firm cites reduced commute time and more flexibility for those with small children—as significant advantages, but also notes that its employees (many of them senior counselors with depth of experience) value the independent that comes from eschewing the clock-in, clock-out routine endemic to agency life. The firm shows how it values entrepreneurialism in other ways, including generous bonuses and funds for continuous learning. If that sounds as though connectivity might be a problem, Davies has worked hard to ensure that is not the case, with team Zooms of course, but longer more personal conversations between leadership and people at all levels.
From day one, diversity and inclusion have been integral to the agency’s community outreach approach, and the culture takes care to celebrate everyone, their heritage and beliefs. Not surprisingly, community involvement is encouraged, and the company support employees with donations to preferred causes, some of which have become pro-bono clients.
The culture is “smart,” “enriching,” and “hard-working,” is the consensus among survey respondents, with several citing the “continuous learning” as a reason for the firm’s outstanding employee retention record. “The work we do is outstanding,” says one respondent, while another explains why that’s so important: “I feel as though I am being paid to get a PhD in persuasion and communications. I have learned more here than in any college.” Just as important: “I work for honest, thoughtful people who care so much about me growing as a professional.”
Founded in 2015 by industry veteran Lisa Pasquin, Craft aims to combine the creative thinking and strategic excellence of a bigger agency but minus the trappings. That may sound familiar to observers of boutique agencies, but Craft’s success in Canada has helped it stand apart — thanks to a client roster that rivals much larger players. Craft plays in the consumer space, with a specific focus on CPG and food/beverage brands. Beyond traditional PR and influencer marketing, it is increasingly involved in brand partnership work.
Last year saw exceptional growth for Craft. The agency’s total 2020 fee revenue was $2.9 million, and there were 16 employees at the start of 2021. Over the past 12 months, revenue grew to $5 million (72%) and headcount grew to 25 (56%).
Since Craft was founded, all employees have been empowered to decide when and where they can work most effectively. Typically, they're free to work from home, from a local coffee shop, or in the office — wherever they feel they can be their most productive selves. A work from home allowance means the team is able to purchase whatever they need to make working from home as successful and productive as possible. Craft offers unlimited vacation, with a minimum of two mandatory weeks, for employees to take some time away from work as they need. And with “curiosity” as one of its core values, Craft offers a "Curiosity Fund" for employees to explore new activities, from learning Japanese to trying a Michelin star restaurant on vacation. Craft has a dedicated Culture Committee that is tasked with organizing team events, activities and celebrations and works to ensure that Craft maintains an "always on" approach to furthering its culture.
Craft’s DE&I plan is built around four pillars: representation, which encompasses hiring (it works with inclusive HR consultancy Bloom to improve its processes), its internship program, and cultural celebrations; the work, which includes working with diverse suppliers and ensuring that media and influencer engagement includes BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals; education, with DE&I focused training and aaccess to resources; and giving, which includes employee donation matching and an annual giving audit that ensures transparency.
The culture is “inclusive,” “fun,” and “collaborative,” survey respondents say, although quite a few mention “curious,” which is one of the firm’s core values. When asked what they like best about their agency, a significant number of respondents simply say “the people,” while among those who go into more detail, this is typical: “Exceptional leadership, not only from management, but from my colleagues. I feel inspired to do better every day because those around me are such excellent, kind, and intelligent people.”
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