1. Waggener Edstrom

Starting with a remarkable response rate—more than 400 of Waggener Edstrom’s 457 U.S. employees took the time to complete the survey—it’s clear that there is a level of enthusiasm at this agency that’s different than any of the other giant, multi-office firms. Somehow, Wagg Ed has managed to hold on to its values—collaboration, curiosity, integrity, innovation, passion, respect—even as it has expanded beyond its roots in the Pacific Northwest and its focus on the technology industry, and has a relationship with its employees that somehow retains the personal touch of a boutique firm in what is now a multinational operation.

Flexibility is one key. In 2005, the firm elevated its commitment to enabling people to work an alternative work schedule—virtual work, job sharing, part-time or flex-time) by asking each manager to ensure that he or she understood the work schedule needs and desires of their team. That spurred a 21 percent increase of participation in this program compared with 2004. Wagg Ed also offers one of the most generous vacation policies in the industry: four weeks for new employees and up to six weeks for people with 10 or more years of service. Just as important is the personal involvement of CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin in an employee outreach effort that includes “Java ‘N Jam” sessions (casual, interactive discussions with small groups of employees in each office, typically over coffee, to stimulate creative ideas); and Notes from the Road (an ongoing communiqué to employees, distributed via email and intranet, about agency news, industry trends and observations.

The firm scored the highest marks of any large agency on quality of management questions, on questions related to internal communications, and on questions related to professional development, The firm also scored the highest marks of any large agency when employees were asked whether they could use their skills in a volunteer basis for causes that mattered to them.

“Being the best place to work and building a strong culture is our number one priority,” says one respondent. “This is front and center to everything we do. People count in a very big way here.” Says another: “I wake up every day excited to go to work; excited to be around my co-workers and clients; excited to see what challenges the day will present. My agency respects me as a person—I’m not a gear in a giant PR machine.” And: “Our agency leaders truly listen to what we all have to say and every voice counts here.” Not only that but “they act on what they here. They even let us vote on what kind of coffee they buy for us at the office!”

2. Weber Shandwick Worldwide

Over the past five years, since the merger of Weber Shandwick and BSMG Worldwide under the leadership of Harris Diamond and his team, Weber Shandwick has been steadily improving its ranking on our Best Agencies to Work For study, and this year it finally slipped past Fleishman-Hillard to score the highest marks of any of the giant publicly-traded full-service PR firms.

The firm has placed a strong emphasis on recruiting and retaining the right people, building a culture that emphasizes collaboration at multiple levels: within teams, across geographies and practice areas and with sister agencies. For that reason, it seeks people who are team players, client-focused, and from diverse backgrounds who can work across different cultures. It has also put in place a world-class professional development program to ensure it gets the best out of those people, with more than 70 courses available to all staff worldwide, supporting the company’s competency-based performance management system and five leadership areas: performance leadership, workplace leadership, market leadership, operational leadership and strategic leadership. Finally, the agency’s Body, Mind and Soul program is designed to promote experiences that enhance employees’ health and wellness (body); their contribution to the community (soul); and creativity and cultural awareness (mind), with a monthly stipend for expenses related to fitness and cultural events through the arts and an annual contribution to a charity to which an employee donates time.

Weber Shandwick employees were most likely among large agencies to say that they had confidence in the quality of management at their agency. “It’s taken time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but the reality of a global agency that can deliver quality counsel, service, execution pretty consistently anywhere in the world is increasingly apparent in our work, results and the kinds of assignments we’re asked to take on,” says one respondent. Another praises the “top-notch” management and loves “the open door policy and the fact that management truly enjoys it when employees take advantage of that policy.” The consensus: “I truly believe our office and agency is committed to helping its employees do the best work possible for our clients. That mindset creates a culture where everyone feels pride in their work and valued for their contribution.” The few complaints focus on compensation—an issue common to all the large agencies.

3. Ruder Finn

There’s an advantage to being independent, particularly when the industry is going through tough times. While the giant publicly-traded holding companies are leaning on their PR subsidiaries to continue delivering high margins, independent firms have the freedom to focus—if they choose—on growth rather than profits, and that’s what Ruder Finn has done over the past couple of years, investing more heavily in its people than many of its competitors.

The firm has greatly enhanced its executive training program, which is designed for junior level staff and including lessons about PR fundamentals as well as coaching and mentoring. Its Strategic Training and Enrichment Program (STEP) has been shaped to provide something for staff at all levels. The firm has also enhanced its employee communications, with an intranet to supplement regular staff meetings and e-mail alerts.

The firm scored the highest marks of any large agency on questions related to client service and when employees were asked whether they were encouraged to use their own initiative, whether their firm had eliminated unnecessary bureaucracy, whether they liked the people they worked most closely with. The firm also scored high marks on questions related to ethics—a reflection of the emphasis placed on ethics and social responsibility by chairman David Finn.

Ruder Finn is “a family company where, as an employee, you are really made to feel like you’re part of the family” and “a warm, supportive place to work.” Respondents appreciate “the freedom to design a career that is appropriate for my personal and my professional goals, and execute it in a warm, intelligent structure” and the fact that “RF makes every effort to support its staff and will side with staff rather than client.” Says one enthusiast: “I have been at Ruder Finn for nine years and would not leave if offered twice my present salary.”

4. Fleishman-Hillard

Fleishman-Hillard has been a fixture on our Best Agencies to Work For lists since we began the study six years ago, and the firm has lost none of its cachet: it still ranks number one among the big, publicly-owned PR firms when employees around the industry are asked where they would most like to work. And it still scores high marks from its own employees—especially on questions related to quality of management, professional development, ethics, and internal communications.

Major internal efforts in the past 12 months have been focused on interoffice collaboration, with an average of nine different offices now working on each of the firm’s top 100 offices. That means inter-office communication has been a focus of improvement, particularly critical at a time when acquisitions are still being integrated into the overall operation.

“People are trusted, respected and valued here,” says one respondent, while another raves about the “great agency, great people, great clients, great opportunities, great future.” A common theme is that “FH is an agency that truly puts the client first and brings together the expertise of its practitioners from across the network to serve the best interests of the client. It’s about helping the client win and that’s how FH wins in the end.” Says another respondent: “Unlike other global communications firms I’ve worked with, FH has figured out how to share business between offices and work cross agency teams effectively.” But a minority worries the firm is “too busy playing to [parent company] Omnicom needs to focus on morale and corporate culture.”

5. Cohn & Wolfe

Cohn & Wolfe stands out among the large, publicly-owned full-service public relations firms for a culture that really encourages creativity and individuality. The emphasis on creative thinking starts with the hiring and team-building process—C&W uses sophisticated personality tests to measure creative intelligence—and continues through the firm’s unique professional development programs. So Cohn & Wolfe has always scored high marks in our employee survey as a fun place to work. A People Committee organizes regular happy hours, a book club, summer outings and holiday parties and other activities designed to create a collegial atmosphere.

Employees at Cohn & Wolfe were most among large agencies to agree that morale at their agency was high and to describe their agency as a fun place to work.

Cohn & Wolfe “is the most fun, collaborative, honest and high-energy agency that I’ve ever worked for,” says one respondent. “It’s like a big family, without the fighting…. We play hard, we word hard and every day it’s a pleasure to come to work.” Says another, “”As the industry’s only ‘big-tique,’ Cohn & Wolfe has been able to communicate to staff and clients how the firm stands apart in the agency world. It is an exciting time to be at the company.”

6. APCO Worldwide

When APCO bought itself back from Grey Advertising in September of 2004 it was motivated in large part by the desire to create greater opportunities for its people. The buyout allowed CEO Margery Kraus and her team to broaden ownership opportunities for management and employees. Said Kraus at the time: “Providing this incentive for senior professionals is a reinforcement of our strategy to attract and retain key talent as the single most important element in delivering the highest quality and most strategic service to our clients. We will also have ample financial resources to achieve our growth objectives.”

A year on, it is clear that APCO is beginning to deliver on that promise. The change in attitude and atmosphere is palpable, and Kraus and her team have taken several concrete steps to enhance the firm’s personnel policies. The APCO ART (Achieve your goals, Realize your potential, Take charge of your future) training program has expanded and offers courses in core business areas such as research, writing, financial management, presentation skills and crisis communication. A new global employee exchange program allows employees to serve as ambassadors for their home office by sharing information about service offerings and best practices, while learning about the host office’s client work and best practices. There’s also greater transparency about agency decision-making.

“Everything about the company makes it special, from interesting work to great colleagues, to a strong culture, to good benefits, and much more,” says one respondent. Another concedes that APCO is “not a warm and cuddly place, but it keeps internal politics to a minimum,” while another like the fact that “APCO’s model offers strategic thinkers and self-starters the opportunity to learn and thrive in a unique communications environment.” The difference between APCO and many of its large agency peers is that “while still focused on the numbers, APCO hasn’t lost its sense of commitment to its people.” Support staff are generally less enthusiastic, however.

7. Manning Selvage & Lee

In 2004, Manning Selvage & Lee launched its Change Minds Academy, a week-long training program for 85 senior professionals around the global network that offers courses in creativity, negotiation, massaging, measurement and more. In 2005, those training models were rolled out for all employees, enhancing a professional development offering that was already among the industry’s best. New CEO Mark Hass, meanwhile, has been emphasizing the firm’s four core values—committed to clients; competitive and energized by new business; innovative and creative; working together the right way—and talking about “nurturing a culture of risk-taking winners.” The result is a largely optimistic view of the future.

Employees like “the team-oriented atmosphere and lack of internal cut-throat politics” as well as the fact that “MS&L empowers people to do their jobs without a lot of second-guessing,” and there’s a feeling that “the agency’s management truly encourages its staff—most especially its junior staff—to ‘show their stuff.’” There’s a feeling that MS&L “is on the rise... great place, great people, great intelligence, great creativity.” Says one respondent: “We are starting to gain momentum and get recognized in the industry. We are a big agency that still acts like a small agency,” which can be a benefit and a hindrance.

8. GolinHarris

GolinHarris has always enjoyed a reputation for its collegial, collaborative environment, but over the past three or four years there has been an additional emphasis on winning, an edge that wasn’t there before and appears to have energized the staff. “There’s been a major shift at GH over the past three years,” says one respondent. “The energy and excitement are at an all-time high, we’re winning major assignments at a record clip and we’re doing outstanding work for our clients. It’s a great time to be at GolinHarris.” Of course, all the traditional initiatives are in place: a professional development program built around nine learning tracks; a strong tradition of community involvement; a genuine effort to help employees achieve work-life balance; and extras like an adoption assistance program and generous awards. “Maybe it’s the midwest heritage and/or the influence of Al Golin,” says one enthusiast, “but this is a global team of professionals I love working with.”

9. Edelman

Edelman has made dramatic improvements in its workplace culture over the past three or four years, starting with an agency-wide process to produce a vision and values and continuing with an expansion of its formal professional development program, Edelman University. In 2005, the firm introduced its first mentoring program, and a position statement on work-life balance that included an Edelman Escapes sabbatical program for employees with more than two years employment. While Edelman still has “a unique corporate culture that you either love or you don’t” the firm “has really grown up over the past five years,” says one respondent. Outsiders have noticed the change too, or perhaps are just attracted to the fact that Edelman is the largest independent PR firm in the world, but it is now the first choice when people are asked where they would most like to work.

10. Porter Novelli

Porter Novelli’s new brand, launched last year, was the result of a uniquely inclusive agency-wide process that consulted with employees at all level about the direction, strategy and values of the agency and thus resulted in a definition of the firm’s mission that achieved buy-in at all levels. That was typical of the firm’s collaborative approach, which is evident in everything from its professional development program—which operates on an “apprenticeship” model to its new results-based performance management process to its multi-channel approach to employee communications. The firm gets high marks for the visioning process: “It would have been easy for the organization to abandon its strategy and focus on revenue and profits, but instead taking a long-term approach will deliver better quality for current accounts, more challenging career opportunities for employees and ultimately more growth for the company overall.” And another respondent says: “We’re in a great place now. Very strong junior staff. Great management. Everyone works very hard and the results are apparent.”