Employee engagement aka are your people happy?

Do your employees love coming into work? Do they feel supported and happy in your agency? Or are they dragging themselves in because they’ve got bills to pay? Everyone has the odd off day, but you do need to look to your employee engagement to see what’s really going on under the surface.

After all, keeping your people happy keeps them productive. And that’ll keep you happy, so everyone’s a winner.

On average, agency shelf life can be two to four years, so this is a good benchmark to use for your turnover. If you track this, how much is what you’d call ‘regretted loss’ of people you really wish had stayed. And, crucially, what more could you have done to keep them?

Salary is often a reason, especially if it’s not on a par with industry standards. Or it could be they were seeking promotion or development opportunities. Could you have offered these?

Looking after your staff

You do have a duty of care as an employer to offer your staff a safe, healthy working environment. When did you last review your policies? Places that are considered supportive employers include policies on flexible working, sickness and absence, and mental health, among others. What is your wellbeing offering? This could be an extra attraction to candidates, so it’s worth getting it right.

I often say that people choose to work for you, as well as you choosing to hire them. But would they recommend you as a great place to work? Here staff surveys and Employee Net Promoter Scores (eNPS) can act as great measurement tools to really dig deep.

Manage the managers

Good management is often the difference between happy and unhappy teams. Make sure you carry out regular reviews and offer the right support. How effective are your managers? And does this impact on engagement and retention within their teams?

Developing managers is sometimes overlooked, but these are key figures in your agency. A leadership programme can help them to engage better with their teams and drive performance.

Listen and learn

Gathering feedback is great. But letting it gather dust isn’t. Agency life is a constant learning curve. If you’re given some informal feedback, listen and action. After all, if someone tells you something and it’s ignored, why would they then offer formal feedback?

Similarly, exit interviews can be full of rich information. But there’s no point doing them then doing nothing. Listen to the feedback, why has the person decided to leave? Could you have enticed them to stay, could you have done anything better? People do move on and it might be out of your hands. But surely it’s worth knowing for future reference?

Rewards and recognition

Agency work can be exhilarating. But it can also be hard going and demanding. Keep up the thanks, the recognition, the positive feedback - it will pay dividends. Look at things like team building and company socials, employee of the month, ad hoc thank yous, incentives like an extra day off. The key is to making your people feel a real part of the agency as a whole, not just a cog in a wheel.

Agencies ignore employee engagement at their peril. After all, these are the people who make the agency. It’s not a production line, but it can be a hive of productivity, a fun, friendly place to work. And that’s how reputations are built...

Powering performance: how people development can grow your business

How do you manage employee performance within your agency? Lots of agencies fall into the trap of conducting competency or behaviour monitoring halfheartedly, as something they ‘should’ do. But done well, it can help to drive your business forward, making sure you’re getting the best out of every single one of your people. And they’re getting the best from working in your agency.

Putting some simple systems in place can help you understand what makes your people tick… and not just by ticking a box.

A behaviour framework might not sound like the most exciting thing, but it can really help you move from arbitrary performance reviews to much more illuminating conversations. This is for all your teams - operational as well as client focused. Define the competencies which tie in with your company’s overall ethos, which you would expect from all your staff. It provides clear standards of behaviour to guide how you work together, how you work with clients, and how you perform in your roles.

Then ask them to rate themselves 1-5, with 5 being the highest score. Here, you need to go into some detail about what you mean. What do the scores mean for the different levels within your business? For example, a junior might say they’re a 5 for resilience, but a more cautious senior manager might say they’re a 3. Ask for managers’ feedback on the scores, analyse where you might need to do some more training or development. And on the flip side, if someone’s coming out with 5s for everything, look at how you can promote them and start working with them on a promotion plan. A flatlining supertalent in an agency won’t stick around for long.

Reconsider the annual review

Traditional annual reviews are not something anyone enjoys, and they don’t bring much except lots of admin. You need regular performance reviews, to give regular feedback and in turn ask for feedback from your teams. Here, you can discuss goals and career development, and suggest or listen to any ideas for training.

I’d always suggest managers speak to their team on a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. Daily can be a ‘hello, how are you?’. Rather than just walking in and ignoring people! Weekly catch ups can be more formal in terms of what’s been achieved, or any obstacles they’ve hit.

Monthly could be reviewing objectives and performance, while quarterly catch ups could be looking again at behaviour scores using the framework. You can use the framework to guide all conversations on recruitment, performance management and internal promotions.

Even better if…

I love the ‘even better if’ concept. This uses a 3:1 feedback ratio. So if you give one area of weakness as feedback, offer up three positive areas. These reviews are about frank and honest conversations, which can impact performance, motivation and engagement. Feedback shouldn’t be all negative.

Remember, self-development is important too

Yes as an employer you need to give your people goals and challenges. But they need to take an interest in self-learning, too. In fact, it’s essential. This is where, in your regular reviews, you can look at how they can pursue new performance opportunities. The industry is constantly changing, and those working in it must learn and grow with it.

However, career progression is optional. While some people are fiercely ambitious, others will be happy where they are for a while. You can review career paths and look at upskilling, but it’s up to the individual if they choose this route.

What to review?

So many reviews, so little time! But really, setting yourself a list of areas to regularly review makes absolute commercial sense. My recommendations are to review data from:

  • Individual performance, looking at behaviour scores
  • Department performance, calculating year-on-year growth
  • Learning and development - how long from receiving training does this impact and filter into your agency? Was the training purposeful? If not, how do we adjust this in the future? You can also look at how many hours you’ve invested in training, and whether this has impacted wider department objectives.
  • Organisational performance. Is there any correlation between individual and organisational performance?

It can feel like there’s a lot to review, monitor and analyse. But moving away from the annual norm can actually help here. You’re not cramming all your reviews in at once, getting old news and feedback from six months ago. Instead you’re working with real-time performance data, which can help to drive your business forward. And give you rave reviews…

Salaries, bonuses and pay reviews: how to get your figures right

Attracting - and keeping - good people means offering competitive salaries and bonuses, with regular pay reviews. You may be tempted to cut costs with lower salaries, but there are plenty of other agencies out there who won’t… and you get what you pay for.

Don’t just come up with an arbitrary figure though. A little research will go a long way to make sure you’re offering attractive and competitive terms.

First of all, I always recommend you gather as much data as you can to see how you compare with the industry in general and local competitors. You can also look at recruitment agency reports for specific salary roles. But beware! Agencies and client-side are very different in salary, so a head of SEO in one won’t be the same as in another. You need to compare like for like roles within agencies.

You can also benchmark on comparable responsibilities, such as managing staff or budgets, along with level of experience.

If your competitors are offering more, what do you do? Remember, people work at agencies for many reasons other than salary, so you could look at more creative ways to retain them. Perhaps increase the budget for socials or offer a good range of training and development packages. Create an open, enjoyable culture where people want to work. But be realistic and make sure salaries and benefits are fair and appealing. All the socials in the world won’t pay the bills.

It’s also a good idea to create bandings for salary, linked to experience, responsibilities and performance. No one wants to hit a ceiling. If you want your business to grow, the next role for each person should always be visible. Share this with your teams, so they know exactly what they need to do to progress, and what they can expect from the next step in their career within your company.

Keep pay reviews and performance separate

Alongside salary bandings, look at annual pay reviews in line with inflation, costs to the business and company profitability. Tempting as it is to link pay rises to performance, this can be too subjective. Who does what and when is very difficult to quantify. Instead, offer monthly and quarterly performance reviews where you look at possibilities for career progression and personal development.

Financial reward isn’t just in the shape of a salary. Some agencies offer a percentage annual bonus based on company profits. You can also link bonuses to role objectives and KPIs - but remember, performance isn’t always motivated by finance. You can offer other incentives, like a day off for their birthday, holiday vouchers, that kind of thing.

You can also offer rewards for new business brought in, or a successful referral for a job role. Think of other incentives which would work well within your company culture - employee of the month, annual awards - anything which can make people feel valued and appreciated.

Make sure the numbers add up

While it’s tempting to keep salary costs low, on the flip side it can also be tempting to offer large pay packets to keep your workforce with you. But you need to look carefully at the figures. How much will pay increases actually cost you, and how does this compare to previous years. If pay increases are offered outside pay reviews, why is this?

Creative agencies attract hugely talented people within all departments, and who all deserve to be well compensated for their hard work. But remember you’re running a commercial business. It’s all about balance. Offer too little and people take their talents elsewhere. Offer too much and you’ll start to flounder. But get it just right and you’ll have a harmonious, happy and productive workforce, as well as healthy figures each year.

DISCovering your client and colleague personality types

It’s not unusual to identify someone as a certain ‘type’ of person. You know that client who sends, what feel like, annoying replies when you’re trying to better understand the brief… well, maybe they aren’t being challenging and abrupt after all?

We all have some awareness of the type of person we are, just as we like to identify personalities in others. It helps us understand them (and ourselves) better; uncovering such similarities or differences play a significant part in the success of our interactions.

DISC profiling can help you figure out the best way to incite more productive thinking, actions and conversations for more positive, efficient outcomes. It can be utilised to enhance day-to-day communications with clients, boost teamwork in the studio and even to get to know yourself better (why do you like lengthy out-of-office replies that detail holiday plans and the many glasses of wine you plan to drink?!).

What is DISC profiling?

DISC is a well-established tool that assesses the behavioural patterns of individuals through the assignment of one of four personality types: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. Each of these dimensions are further categorised into sixteen subtypes that offer more in-depth insights about people: their motivations, strengths and weaknesses. These results can benefit your recognition and appreciation of different personality types you encounter not only in your personal life, but across your agency too. It supports relationship-building between the team and clients alike, as it details characteristics of who you are talking to, their preferred interaction style and way of working.

D-personalities are likely to be direct, assertive, independent, and decisive.

I-personalities tend to be confident, engaging and extremely approachable.

S-personalities are likely to be naturally reserved people who look for supportive, consistent relationships.

C-personalities are extremely analytical, and gravitate towards process, structure, and rules.

In practice...

It actually makes sense that you’ll find ‘Influential’ Account Directors and Designers energetic and inspiring the team, just as you’ll find ‘Conscientious’ Ops Directors and Coders who are precise in their work and logical in their approach. The results often reflect natural traits that, unsurprisingly, coincide with the ‘type’ of person outlined in job descriptions, for example a ‘Dominant’ candidate’s success in their application for the Project Manager position as a role that required an outgoing and task-oriented individual.

You should detach any connotations or prescriptive dictionary definitions you associate with the profiling categories as they all have their own value – there is not one better than another. For instance, if you profile a client as Dominant, this doesn’t mean they are an aggressive individual who you should want to avoid working with, they are direct and decisive characters - especially when it comes to tackling projects. Equally, the steady-relator isn’t slow and indecisive, they are consistent and loyal team players – the perfect data analysts or quality controllers. The DISC assessment appreciates the diversity of human behaviour and our flexibility to accommodate and collaborate with others motivated by shared goals, be it in the workplace or debating what to have for dinner with your other half.

There are several easily accessible DISC profiling sites that you and your team can explore to DISCover yourselves, without the cost of a backpacking trip. Crystal Knows is one popular online resource where you can take a free personality test, connect to your LinkedIn account to profile your network and uncover elements of the personality styles in more detail. You can optimise your productivity, leadership, sales process and relationship-building across your agency with a simple, self-assessment. You can even make a connection between the contents of your fridge and your personality type; are you a sensible shopper? Or an imaginative one? But we’re going off topic, it’s almost like this was written by a talkative influencer.

Onboarding: why bringing in a new hire is about much more than induction

You’ve found your perfect hire. And you’ve got a good induction system in place. But what many agencies overlook is how important a comprehensive onboarding process is. Even the best of candidates won’t step into a role and fly. You need to help them feel part of the business, an integral part of the team. Making them feel valued from day one can be the difference between them staying… or walking.

Essentially, you need to turn your ‘good hire’ into a ‘good employee’.

This does take some time and effort, but the right recruitment processes will take account of this investment. And it can pay off in droves if you get it right.

Develop an induction pack for new starters, which you could give to them before their first day. Include things like behaviours, role and responsibilities and potential career paths. Offer an organogram, so they can see who’s who in the team and the business, and where they fit. Give them some details about your company culture and sell the business to them. They might have agreed to work there, but now you want them to stay.

Explain your expectations for their onboarding period, such as where they need to be at week one, month one… up to three months (or whenever their probation finishes).

Remember, you were there once…

Being a new starter is daunting even for the most experienced person. You can give them a good helping hand by making sure everything is ready for their first day. Systems set up with passwords, employee handbook ready, training booked into their diary so they always have something to do. Make sure you’ve shared their information with the relevant people, such as HR and finance.

Not knowing anyone can be a big part of the new starter nerves. Introduce them internally before they start - in your company meeting or on your intranet - so everyone knows a little about them beforehand and can welcome them aboard.

Assign someone to give them a half hour intro, to show them their desk and how to log in, use the systems etc. Don’t just leave them to ‘read stuff’ - this is guaranteed to switch them off. Bring the company to life with videos showing your people talking about the company culture and why it’s a great place to work. This is far more engaging.

Introduce them to key people and suggest they plan in time for a chat and a coffee. If you have profiles on your website, this can support your organogram and really help them put faces to names and job titles.

Everyone at an agency is busy. But part of your expectations is an investment of time to onboard a new starter and integrate them into the team. Perhaps set up a team lunch, or do a few Q&A games to get to know each other.

This isn’t just for the first day or two, either. Offer regular check ins to see how they’re finding the role and how they feel, getting feedback from other team members. The first three months should allow a focus on training and onboarding, then they can start taking up more responsibility after three / six months. Expectations may vary depending on the seniority of the role, but even the most senior of hires needs time to integrate into their role, team and wider business and be trained on the company processes.

Listen to feedback

If they leave within 12 months, you need to have a look at what happened. People don’t generally leave in the first year, as it doesn’t look great for them. So it could be a problem with the role, team or your onboarding process.

It’s always a good idea to get feedback from new starters. How did they find the process? Any room for improvement or other suggestions?

It might sound like hard work. But remember when you first started out. We’ve all been the ‘newbie’ at some point and the more support and encouragement you give, the more productivity you’ll get back. You hired them for a reason. Now you need to keep them.

Recruitment and succession planning: how to get the right people (and keep them)

Lifespan in an agency is usually two to four years. So you could be facing a very high turnover. But the reality is, unless you’re giving people the chance to move up, their only opportunity for promotion is to move on. Four years is also a long time to work on the same projects with the same clients, and people sometimes change agency for the sake of variety.

This is all very standard and it’s nothing personal. But you do need to be prepared to lose some of your good staff… and have a plan for seamless succession.

 The natural temptation when someone leaves is to recruit. But before you put on your hiring hat, take a look around you. Is there someone who could transition into the vacant role? Look at the skillset of your current staff alongside what’s needed for the job, using a 1-5 score system for suitability. This will highlight any training needs or identify what skills are present or missing.

Promoting from within

You don’t need to wait until someone leaves, however, to start upskilling your staff. Develop a growth/needs chart for the agency and for each department, so you’re continually improving your current workforce. It’s always better to develop from within, so look at what training you can offer to meet the identified needs.

When it’s time to recruit

There will naturally be times that you can’t promote or transition from within, and you’ll need to look at recruiting. Track what works, and what doesn’t. Sometimes word of mouth can be more productive than a recruitment agency. LinkedIn can also give you a wealth of insight into who’s out there. You can see if anyone is ‘actively looking’ and it’s also a great source of indirect recruitment. Approach LinkedIn with a recruitment hat on, connecting with people who could be potential future employees.

Your people are your biggest asset here. They know the business inside out and can often recommend the right people for the role. Much like using tried-and-tested freelancers, bringing people in on recommendation can often work much better than cold recruitment. You could even offer some kind of incentive scheme, such as a post-probation referral fee or bonus to a staff member who recommends someone you choose to hire.

Getting everyone involved is great for employee engagement, too. Ask your managers and teams to build connections through networking channels and events, so you end up with a huge pool of talent to tap into when the times comes.

When you’re writing your job specs, you want them to be clear but not too detailed, so you can be flexible. A combined document works best - include the job specification (role and responsibilities) and person specification (essential and desirable skills, qualifications and behaviours). When it comes to recruiting for replacements, specs can then be signed off quickly.

Being a great place to work

People who work at agencies are often enticed by more than just salary and benefits. While these things are important, they also want to work for a company they’re proud to represent. Is your agency a great place to work? Spend time building your employee brand - think charity work, progression, environment, personality. Remember, your candidates are interviewing you, too.

Sending out an introduction pack and inviting them to look at your YouTube or social channels can tell them what kind of company you are. You’re telling them ‘this is what we’re all about, this is what you’ll experience when you work for us’. You know the kind of people you want working for you. Is your company culture one that’s likely to attract these candidates?

Interviewing: moving beyond the CV

Strong candidates are not just those that look on paper. You need to assess them on behaviour and personality, as well as skillset. Will they fit into your wider team? HR isn’t just a job for the HR department - department heads and managers need to feed into the recruitment process, too.

Interviews work best in stages:

  • Telephone/video interviewing can highlight skillset and personality, giving you a good idea of how well they know their stuff and whether they’d fit into your business.
  • Face-to-face interviews have been less possible due to Covid, but they are a great way of assessing suitability, and you can show the candidate around, introduce them to managers etc. You can also see how well they come across when not in interview - for example, front-of-house staff will see them when they arrive and leave. What are their first impressions?
  • On-topic assessment. This could be a presentation, for example, or asking them how they’d fulfil a pitch or a brief, depending on the position.

Post-hire postmortem

Doing some post-hire analysis can help you see how well your systems and processes are working and give you some ideas for how to polish your recruitment process. Did you hire the right person? Look at their performance and how they’ve impacted on their team. Could you reduce your recruitment times, or improve your processes in any way?

Some agencies use Applicant Tracking Systems to assist with their recruitment processes and manage data - always remember these need to be GDPR compliant if you do use them.

Graduate recruitment

Graduate recruitment is also key to business growth. This fresh new talent pool can be mentored, and hopefully stay and grow with you. However, lack of experience does mean you’ll need to give current staff the time to train graduates, and you need to track if this is cost effective. Really, you’re looking at the total cost of attraction, onboarding, employing and training against performance and longevity.

The reality of agency life is that people do move on. But with some upfront planning and refined recruitment processes, you can make sure you’re bringing the right people on board, in terms of skills, experience and personality.

How to avoid the overservicing/underperformance trap

Most agencies do a month-end report, looking at whether they met revenue targets, exceeded them, or underperformed. Did they meet capacity target, what that meant in terms of hours. Great, now you’ve got the figures. But what are you going to do with them? The moment’s passed, and all you can do now is say ‘this is what we lost out on.’

The secret to success is spotting underperformance early on so you can take action.

You’re probably already doing many of the right things, but likely just not often enough. Instead of a monthly view of your business, do a weekly review. This immediately helps you spot issues and be more proactive. If there’s not enough capacity, how can you help manage workloads? If there’s not enough work, are there any opportunities you can pursue and push through?

 A week is a long time at an agency

You’ve heard this said about politics. But agency life moves fast, and things change by the day. A monthly review is like reading the news from four weeks ago and expecting some illumination. But if operations or finance teams meet with department heads every week, they can review performance data, see where it’s heading, and plan actions to get on (or stay on) track.

This is where the expertise of department heads comes in. They know their clients, tasks and teams, and know what needs to by delivered by each person each week. They can get their teams on board, helping them understand why they’re being asked to deliver a certain number of hours for a specific project, or work on a pitch to get an opportunity off the ground.

You can then carry out more detailed monthly reviews to really get an accurate picture of your figures and help with your planning.

The reports I’d recommend you look at each week and month are:

  • Estimated vs actual hours: Are you under or overservicing (spending more or less time than estimated).
  • Job progress: If a job or retainer is a month long, at week one they should be at roughly 25%, week 2 at 50% etc. Are you on track each week, ready to invoice at the end of the month? If the work isn’t delivered in the month, the time will trickle over into the next month, which then has a knock-on effect into how much can be delivered that month. The reports help people keep a handle on their timings and monitors for any overservicing.
  • Billable capacity / target chargeable: Is your capacity for the following week in line with target, and scheduled work. Or could you sell any additional hours?
  • Lost hours: Missing time: is there unaccounted-for time that hasn't been tracked or posted?
  • Invoicing: Make sure all job due dates and invoice dates are accurate for precise financial reporting. Check if there are any phases or jobs that are finished or closed off that haven’t yet been invoiced. And ask why.
  • Forecast vs actual revenue and costs: Are you in line with where you should be? Calculate revenue, salary and outsourcing costs versus your target.
  • Opportunity pipeline for week/month: How many opportunities are paying off, and how many are you losing out on?

You’ll soon notice any red flags, such as inaccurate estimating, overservicing, human error, shifting goal posts. Now look at how to tackle these. You want to support your staff to hit their targets and be as productive as possible. This does mean holding them accountable, but could also mean you see opportunities for extra training, for example. Make sure you have a good hierarchy in place, so people-management issues can be escalated.

High performance at an agency is crucial to stay profitable. Getting down to the granular details can really help you see where you’re at… and where you could be at.

Recruit, restructure or freelance?

New opportunities are a cause for celebration.

At first.

Then the panic often sets in.

Can we cope? Have we got enough people? No, we need another person. But not full time, we could get a freelancer. Oh actually, we could just rejig things a bit to free up time.

Working out whether you need to hire, bring in a freelancer or already have the team capacity to deliver the work can be a headache.

But it also can be done, with a bit of organisation and a few simple equations. First of all, stop panicking. You’ve done this before and will do it again. Then look at what you are actually trying to forecast. Look at what guaranteed business you have, generating income for the pot. What opportunities are likely to be coming in? And what staff do you currently have?

Remember, recruitment, restructuring and retraining all take time. The sooner you get planning, the better.

A few simple equations can help here. Looking at your guaranteed work, what does this mean in terms of hours per team for the duration of the project? This will give you a mini department profit and loss forecast for these projects.

What current resource capacity do you currently have? Look at the billable hours per person and/or team and calculate what this means in terms of revenue (hourly rate x billable hours per head / per department).

Then look at forecasted workload by department. How many people are available and can they realistically deliver what’s coming in?

To hire or not to hire?

It’s tempting to simply think throwing more people at the problem is the answer. And sometimes it is. But first, you need to look at your current teams. If there is a lack of capacity because of overservicing or underperformance, it’s time to look at how to get everyone working more efficiently and at optimum performance before deciding to hire.

A good place to start is meeting with department heads on a weekly basis to review work and make sure it’s completed in line with where it should be. If it’s not, why not? How can you improve process, are there any third-party tools which can drive efficiencies?

Restructure restructure restructure

If one team has no capacity, it could be that another has plenty. Depending on the skillsets the project needs, could you restructure your teams to complete the work? Even on an interim basis?

While this is often a good, if temporary, solution, you do need to give it some careful thought. If it’s a case of effortlessly moving a few people from one team to another, where they can seamlessly pick up new work, then it’s a no-brainer. If you need to start training and reskilling then there will be an investment of time and cost. Is this worth it? Or is it simply going to hinder you?

The freelance answer

Looking at your forecasted opportunities, could these be managed with freelancers without the need to add to your overheads? If you don’t have a lot in your pipeline, then a freelancer can be a good idea for the odd ad-hoc project.

But although hiring a freelancer is often relatively quick, you still need to do some planning upfront. Who to use? Often freelancers will be people you’ve already worked with. You need to know they have the right skills and will be a good fit for the project. You don’t want to spend a lot of time training or explaining to them. This is a good back-up solution, rather than a long-term overhead cost.

Thinking hire…

If you have an underutilised or unprofitable department, it’s time to start making some difficult decisions. Set a cut-off date to see if things start to pick up. Then get talking to the team. Would they be interested in reskilling or supporting elsewhere in the business? Remember, these are people, probably worried people, and you need to be respectful of this. Offer them an opportunity to take a slightly different direction and you’ll find the vast majority will be happy with this.

Resourcing an agency efficiently is always going to be hard. The feast-and-famine nature of agency work means you can have some teams twiddling their thumbs while others are rushed off their feet. While an agency is all about creative thinking, running one is about doing the maths, and making sure the numbers add up.

Every time.