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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 at some point in the future) — Agency of the Year recognition. That's because building a great workplace culture—diverse and inclusive, flexible enough to accommodate a continuum of home-office preferences, respectful of employees’ mental health—has never been more critical than it is today.
In 2022, the aftershocks of the pandemic continued to rumble through the industry as firms wrestled to balance the demand for flexible work schedules with the cultural cohesion that is perhaps easier to realize in a shared office space. While the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” were perhaps overstated, there was a “great renegotiation” around what employers can reasonably expect from employees.
At the same time, diversity, equity and inclusion remained a critical issue. For the PR industry in particular, this is an existential challenge: to create communications campaigns that reach all citizens, agencies need to look more like all citizens; the same is true whether the audience is a diverse employee population, communities of color, or specific marginalized populations too long neglected.
Mental health compounded these challenges. There is a newfound understanding that mental health issues need to be accorded the same degree of respect and understanding that has long been expected in physical health terms. And there was perhaps the beginning of a new understanding the long hours and demanding clients that have long defined consultancy life might not be compatible with caring for employees’ well being.
If all of this sounds like managing a people-centric business like PR is getting increasingly complicated and challenging (and make no mistake, the value chain of communications consulting is clear: attract, develop and retain good people and they will bring in good clients, who will in turn deliver long-term growth and profitability) it is.
But the good news was there too: a mounting body of evidence that suggests a strong link between employee happiness and job performance. (As a result of this research, we tweaked out Best Consultancies to Work For survey questions to place greater emphasis on employee happiness rather than just satisfaction).
These five Best Consultancies to Work For will be presented with their trophies at the 2023 EMEA SABRE Awards dinner, which takes place in Frankfurt on March 23. Full details of the awards ceremony and our EMEA Summit which accompanies it can be found here.
Five years after its mega-merger, BCW has evolved into a formidable player in EMEA, with the synergies between Burson-Marsteller’s corporate and public affairs heritage and Cohn & Wolfe’s consumer and healthcare expertise paying off in ways both predictable and unexpected. In the latter category, BCW has demonstrated an agility and propensity for innovation that you might not expect from an agency of its size. Its ‘integrated earned plus’ proposition took much of its work past PR into digital, film, creative, research and influencer marketing. The EMEA region has also been an intellectual pioneer for the global business.
Fee income for Europe and Africa (the Middle East is its own region for BCW) increased by very high single digits in 2022—the best performing region in the BCW network—with markets such as Brussels, the DACH area and Turkey among the top performers and practice areas as diverse as consumer, digital and public affairs showing impressive strength. There was organic growth from a number of key clients, including Vinci, Polestar, Amazon, Clearpay, Centrica, Henkel, Boehringer Ingelheim, and IKEA, as well as new business from the likes of Swissport, Grundfos, Unilever, FIFA, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Bacardi, JDE, Ipsen and Klarna.
BCW’s employee value proposition is: "We are designed to cultivate your growth and momentum." The firm believes performance management helps team members grow when it is continuous and year-round. The BCW E&A Growth Academy provides every employee with easy-to-access and on-demand training opportunities, and learning and development programs (both internally and externally led) are designed to underpin both the ongoing strategic goals of the agency and the personal growth and development of staff. BCW MovE is the firm’s approach to post-pandemic work pattens and is designed to allow individuals to adopt a work rhythm that suits them while also creating the in-office collaboration necessary for collective success. Rather than focusing on hours, location, and mandated days in the office, people intentionally decide where, when and how they want to work based on what they need to achieve. Finally BCW provides unlimited access to its Employee Assistance Programme and has invested in a mental health champion program with many staff across the region trained in mental health first aid.
Three years ago, BCW introduced “Destination Inclusion,” a topic-driven global framework to encourage an inclusive, open, and collaborative culture. In the EMEA region, there have been weekly live discussions on topics such as “Being an equity accomplice” and “Inspiring equity in client work.” Destnation Inclusion has been the most successful employee activation in BCW's history, resulting in a 90% “recommend” response, as well as a self-reported shift in opinions among 85% of participants. In Brussels and London, the firm has been a supporter of the Pride movement.
Collaborative, inclusive and open are the most common adjectives used by the employees responding to our survey, along with supportive and caring. “Great leadership, great integrity, and cares about the employees' career growth,” says one respondent. “An immediate second family,” says another, who adds: “ I've been at BCW just over a year, and have never felt so welcomed, embraced, and valued by a team.” When asked their favorite thing about working at BCW, by far the most frequent response is either “the people” or “the team.” Says one respondent: “They put in the effort to do better. Once they are aware something is an issue or could be improved, they try.” Asked what they don’t like, “long hours” and “money” are mentioned most frequently.
What started as a one-man-show founded by Christoph Schwartz in his home office in 1994 has become a regular on our agencies of the year DACH list. Schwartz’s familial culture has been the foundation of the agency since its inception and continues to be at the core even as the firm grows. After 28 years in the German market today Schwartz PR is one of the top tech-focused PR agencies in the DACH region, supporting more than 70 international clients.
Schwartz has come a long way since its launch 28 years ago, with 40 employees and €6.7 million in fees—up 31% from the previous year, making 2022 the firm’s best year ever. Schwartz’s team focuses on the large technology and digitalization market in Germany with international clients like Alibaba, ABB, Fujitsu, Ruko and Sharp. Schwartz’s prowess in serving the tech industry is well-known in the region, fueling new business from more than 20 new clients including Nemetschek, Malwarebytes, Sourcemap, ChargeOne, Infineon and Solarize. The agency also launched a new content management & marketing division in response to substantial demand for services.
Christoph Schwartz runs a shop around values like fairness, responsibility and reliability while driving excellence. The industry has taken notice. Schwartz has been a fixture on our Best Continental Consultancy to Work For list (it won this category in 2020 and 2021 and finished second last year) and was the only PR agency included in The German Industry Association for Office and Work (IBA) list of best small business workplaces. There is a strong commitment to transparency: employees at all levels have full insight into all ongoing business, ongoing pitches, revenues, fees and invoices. There is also a robust training and development program that includes employees learning from other team members based on best and worst cases, as well as a focus on new developments in IT, social media, video and other emerging areas.
It’s probably fair to say that agencies in continental Europe have not felt the same pressure to introduce specific diversity, equity and inclusion policies and programs as those in the US and the UK, and Schwartz is a firm that believes its down-to-earth attitude and commitment to respect and fairness stand it in good stead when it comes to opportunities for diverse groups. The firm has little hierarchy and cites “trust each other” as its most important value.
Asked what distinguishes the workplace culture at Schwartz, the most common adjectives are professional, transparent, and inspiring, while others cite an open, collegial and respectful environment. Says one respondent: “A strong work ethic but in a relaxed working atmosphere.” Asked for their favorite thing about Schwartz, many respondents cite their colleagues, but comments include “I love the authenticity, being safe to express myself exactly as I am - as a unique human being,” and cite a commitment to core values: “cooperation on eye level (not only internally, but also with our clients), treat everyone with respect, which also means to encourage everyone to make best use of the own talents, and have fun at work.” Asked about things they would change, the issues that come up are eclectic, from the long commute into work to an apparent policy against plants in the office.
Hope&Glory celebrated its 10th birthday in 2022 and continues to defy convention: its much-admired founding duo of Jo Carr (chief client officer) and James Gordon-MacIntosh (chief creative officer) have proved that it’s possible to run a large pure-play brand agency that balances standout, multi-award-winning creative ideas with long-standing client relationships, and makes good margins without compromising on being a great place to work. Hope&Glory’s stated purpose is “to create work that earns attention” and it shows no sign of losing its creative edge.
In 2022 Hope&Glory’s fee income was up 10% to £12.1 million. The agency won 35 new clients, including YouTube, Google, Depop, Bumble, Mars Wrigley, Nestlé, Netflix, Amazon and The Body Coach, and declined more than 100 invitations to pitch. Critical to Hope&Glory’s success has been its ability to maintain long-term relationships, including working with Virgin Media O2 for 10 years, including with O2 pre-merger; with Barclays, IKEA and Airbnb for seven years; and Uber, Uber Eats and spirits firm Edrington UK for six years. The roster also includes Gregg’s, Meta, Sainsbury’s, Adidas and Pokemon.
Last year was a difficult one for many managers in the UK, in the PR sector and beyond, as firms wrestled with the return of workers to the office, a renewed emphasis on mental health issues, and the difficulties imposed on employees by the cost-of-living crisis. The agency introduced flexible hours, continued its intern programme—nearly half the team started as interns—and, as every year since it started, allocated 25% of profits as bonuses for the whole team. Mental health is treated with the same urgency as physical well-being: there’s a ban on communication from 7pm to 7am from team members or clients, and the firm turns away new business it doesn’t have the capacity to serve (44% of opportunities last year).
Hope&Glory maintained its Blueprint status for its commitment to diversity and inclusion, after a comprehensive overhaul of practices and policies, and 17% of the team and 10% of the board now come from BAME backgrounds. The board is 50% female, and the agency’s team is 14% neurodiverse. The agency mentors through schemes including D&AD Shift, Women in PR, BME PR Pros and People Like Us. The agency also increased its focus on inclusion to ensure these team members stay and are nurtured to senior roles, measuring the rate at which people progress and the opportunities they are offered. It also put in place policies to keep women in the business, including a menopause package, returnship coaching, fertility loans and a grief package for miscarriage, as well as generous parental leave policies, including for adoption. So far, 100% of new parents have returned to the agency
Asked to describe the agency in three words, Hope & Glory employees were most likely to come up with kind, caring and fun—with more emphasis on the latter than pretty much any other firm in the survey this year. Fast-paced and supportive were also frequently cited, and “silly” got a mention or two, presumably intended as a compliment. Many respondents cite the people as the best thing about the agency (“I just adore them, and the reason I've stayed for 9/10 years”) while others cite an approach to the work that is “no drama: great people, great ideas.” Adds another respondent: “The whole leadership team is constantly looking for ways to improve the experience of everyone who works here, and are open to suggestions from anyone, at any level.” Asked about drawbacks, complaints range from “the money” and over-servicing of clients to “the biscuits.”
Blurred was set up in 2018 by former Unity co-founder Nik Govier, the firm’s CEO, along with founding partners Stuart Lambert, Katy Stolliday and Emma Weisgard, with a vision of building a strategic and creative advisory firm in a world designed for a world where the lines between audience, sector, and discipline are less clear than ever. The fast-growing B Corp—whose values are daring, democratic, driven, difference and diverse—has evolved its offer to focus on what it calls ESGP (environmental, societal, governance plus purpose), recognising the blurring of lines where corporate action, consumer concern and investor expectations meet. At the start of 2022, the agency rebranded from Blurred.london to Blurred.global to reflect the international nature of its client base – 65% of which are now non-UK based – mandates and team.
Blurred grew by 37.5% last year to fee income of more than £3.8 million, with the permanent team growing to 25 people. Blurred has two distinct client groups: multinationals – including some of the biggest companies in the world – which the agency is helping to advance in terms of ESGP and telling the strongest possible story, and new climate impact-focused businesses that have the potential to become the giants of the future. New clients included Capri Holdings (Jimmy Choo and Versace) and used car marketplace Motorway, joining a bench that includes The Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, Associated British Foods (owner of Primark), BT Group, British chemicals and sustainable technologies multinational Johnson Mathey and Arcelik, the Turkish owner of Beko and Grundig.
Blurred’s culture – like its work – focuses on ‘betterment’ and helping people be their true, best selves. Blurred’s first hire was head of people and purpose Nick Porter, who chairs the board and coaches everyone fortnights. The team also receives monthly line manager check-in, access to four mental health first aiders and a Samaritan, formally trained, and other mental health benefits. Every management/board meeting ends with asking, “do we believe we’ve made the right decisions in relation to people, planet and profit?” and allowing all employees to address potential resourcing and staffing issues before they arise. The firm asks every team member and new joiner for their five personal needs, which it measures itself against meeting.
Blurred was one of the first agencies to achieve Blueprint status and is committed to DE&I in all its facets; the team is diverse in terms of ethnicity, neurodiversity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, national origin and socio-economic background. Of the core team, 36% is of ethnic minority origin, with 18% of senior roles held by colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds. The core team is 76% female, with women holding 71% of senior roles. Blurred has also started measuring against socio-economic diversity to ensure it seeks out and develops talent from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Progressive, inclusive and empowering are the three words that come up most often when respondents are asked about the defining attributes of the culture, though honest, purposeful, and nurturing come up pretty frequently too. Asked to identify the best things about working at Blurred, respondents cite both “the integrity that drives every decision and the genuine desire for everyone in it be the best they can be,” and the fact that the firm “genuinely sits somewhere between comms consultancy, sustainability consultancy and management consultancy—makes it a challenging and exciting place to learn.” As for the negatives, a surprising number of respondents said “nothing.” One did conceded that “this kind of game changing work can be challenging and sometimes the exposure to all that's wrong and needs fixing in the world can feel a little overwhelming.”
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