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There's no question that the talent market continues to be tight, and that culture is critical to recruitment and retention of staff. Agencies and companies that invest in developing and maintaining a strong work culture and proactively seek to develop talent are staying ahead of the curve. 

Four years ago, Bruce Epstein, managing partner of New Jersey-based Revolution Health, decided to put his experience to work growing talent by designing and teaching a pharmaceutical advertising course at his alma mater, Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy. 

“I blazed my career path with little vision or mentorship,” Epstein explains. “Hard work and a lot of luck led me here. I teach to show students who were in my situation that there are options besides retail or hospital pharmacy. These students are generally highly intelligent people whose potential skills are underutilized dispensing medications.”

Epstein is a registered pharmacist in New Jersey, and he earned an MBA in marketing from NYU's Stern School of Business while working as a sales rep for Roche Laboratories. Since founding Revolution Health in 2006, he's hired six PharmDs (Revolution Health's total current headcount stands at more than 40). Epstein finds PharmDs make great account supervisors because they have a deep understanding of client needs and can effectively guide creative teams. 

“Our clients truly enjoy their strong clinical knowledge and youthful energy,” he explains. “At the beginning, they sometimes have trouble talking to creatives because they were taught to be scientific. They adjust to being team players. It's working so well—no one has quit yet.” 

The agency offers summer internships and is a clinical rotation site for the pharmacy school. Students know if a career in healthcare is right for them after taking Epstein's class and spending time in the agency. 

“I didn't like what the industry had become—hires never understood the medicine,” he says. “It didn't seem like the right path. [With a medical background] it's easy to understand therapeutic areas. The work atmosphere is better because there isn't push and pull with clients saying we didn't deliver. Positive feedback from clients affects the culture dramatically.” 

Austin, Texas isn't a hotbed of industry talent, but that hasn't stopped Kerry Hilton, president/CEO of HC&B Healthcare Communications, from building a fantastic team. He says location is both an asset and a challenge—thought it's less of a challenge than it was seven years ago when the agency was founded. 

“It's an asset because people want quality of life,” Hilton notes. “We get a lot of resumes from ex-Texans who want to come home. Austin really fosters creativity and the entrepreneur. Once we get people here, they love the city, company and environment.” 

Hilton recruits a “fair amount” within Texas, and he will look to other markets when he needs talent with specialty skills he can't find at home. The agency has successfully trained people from outside the healthcare sector. Because HC&B is the only healthcare agency in the southwest, recruitment and retention are critical, thus a healthy agency culture is extremely critical. “We provide a culture where people can enjoy work and doing something relevant and important to them, clients, and patients,” Hilton says. “One of our core values is ‘Go on, get outta here.' If people don't have a life outside of work, they don't have a life inside of work.” 

Hilton notes that HC&B's culture reflects the Austin culture in many ways, adding that the atmosphere isn't quite “California laid back,” but it's more laid back than many northeastern agencies.

“We operate on the philosophy of invisible walls,” he says. “We balance freedom and responsibility and empower people to do their best the best way they know how.”

Twice yearly bonuses and what Hilton calls “random acts of culture” help foster a close-knit environment in which people feel rewarded and invested in. Every couple of months, Hilton takes the entire agency to the movies, and last Christmas he hired actors and created a 30-minute film that spoofed the agency.

HC&B 360 is a program that trains employees about the entire healthcare continuum—products, the payer system, reimbursement issues and legal challenges for clients. 

“Because we're such a unique agency, employees feel like they're building something that's not been done before,” Hilton says. “People here are pioneers.”  

Hilton feels like “a lot people have their resumes out,” and his gut tells him that's because people want to know their options in a market in which some agencies are growing while others are shrinking due to budget fluctuation. 

“We've seen an increase of talent seeking us, so it's been easier for us,” Hilton says. 

Southern California powerhouse Ignite Health has a very unique culture, which co-founder and chief innovation officer Fabio Gratton says has been “a central attraction” in drawing talent. The Irvine office decor includes a fire pole and fire equipment, creating what Gratton calls “an ambience that we're always on fire.” 

The culture is very So Cal—people can come to work in flip-flops and shorts—Gratton calls it “kicked back, intense and different.” There's a strong focus on work/life balance and egalitarianism. For example, “firestarter forums” allow everyone to participate in the ideation and innovation processes. 
Early this year, Ignite opened a second office in New Jersey, which currently has about 20 employees. While Gratton is pleased with the progress, it hasn't been easy. 

“We got moving really fast, and our number one concern was taking care of client's business,” Gratton says. “The culture was built out of the West Coast, and it was a big challenge to capture that on the East Coast. We're not near the beach, and we don't have the luxury of surrounding new employees with others who have been there. It's been tough selling the culture, which people [on the East Coast] aren't familiar with, when the environment doesn't reflect it yet. There are only so many times we can show a firepole 3,000 miles away. It's important for new hires to interact with key leaders—to see our work and hear our philosophy.”

An extranet, internal newsletter and employee exchanges between the two offices have helped welcome and acclimate people from the New Jersey office. Gratton says the exchanges have been “eye openers” for employees on both coasts. 

Being part of inVentiv Health has also helped in recruiting and talent development. Its talent management program identifies needs and desires of all key employees and maps possibilities across Ignite and all of inVentiv Health. 

“It's phenomenal,” Gratton says. “We didn't have anything formal like that before,” Gratton says. “It's not just about logistics—it's a new value proposition that we wouldn't otherwise have.” 

Ignite uses both external and internal recruiters (an HR director was recently hired), and Gratton is working hard to ensure all recruitment arms understand what Ignite stands for. 

“A lot is trial and error, frankly,” he says. “We get some candidates in and then have to call the recruiter and explain why that person doesn't fit Ignite. It takes time to get people up to speed on that. It's an evolutionary process. We're bringing thinking across the span of the country. We're committed to doing it right. If we can figure it out here, we can figure it out anywhere. We don't want to accept something that's just ‘good enough.' Hypothetically, if we want to open anywhere else—and we don't plan to right now—we've done it right and can roll it out.”  

Gratton looks for talent “anywhere.” He wants smart people with dreams and vision. “Even though unemployment is high, it's increasingly difficult to get good people, particularly if you're focused on tech,” he says. “Tech is still a growth industry, and the very good people who have been doing it five-10 years are quickly snapped up at premium prices. Talent is still the hardest thing.”  

East Coast heavyweight Cline Davis & Mann put a formal recruiting division in place in 2006 that is staffed by recruitment experts whose sole focus is finding great talent. The agency has also invested heavily in training and advancement programs. 

“[The recruitment division] partners more effectively with internal clients and is therefore better able to both assess candidates and to represent positions accurately,” says chairman and CEO Ed Wise. “We participate in job fairs, diversity recruiting events and have better outreach to colleges than in years past.  Our referral program has also been formalized and expanded. Over 35% of all new hires come from employee referrals.” 

New recruiting technology provides metrics that help ensure CDM invests in sources most likely to produce results. Wise says getting the right fit is always a priority, and CDM won't rush the process. 
“The goal of our recruiting team is to constantly build a pipeline of the best people who would also be great contributors to our culture,” he adds. “Last year, a few people left CDM only to return a few months later.  When questioned about what they experienced, they told us about what we do right:  significant personal contact; sense of team; shared ownership of client work; the opportunity for input and innovation; our value of people; and our commitment to learning.” 

Digitas Health has grown significantly, and CEO and co-founder David Kramer, notes that while it's been difficult to find talent, the agency has been successful drawing from employee referrals (53% of this year's new hires were referrals) and seeking off the beaten path.  

“We live at the confluence of marketing, technology and healthcare,” Kramer says. “People need one or two of those skills. We're not above teaching people healthcare. We go to college campuses, watch media carefully and look for markets. The internet has made posting resumes and jobs a global concept. We've hired employees from England, Peru, South Africa, Puerto Rico. You have to be prepared that these people don't necessarily live here in Philadelphia or New York.”  
 
Kramer has found good people to work on delivery from a variety of other industries. 

“It's rare to find people who have experience as deliverers of healthcare marketing,” he says. “Delivery is about looking at and driving all components of client engagement. We've found people in the construction and filmmaking business often have tremendous skills in that area. We just have to teach them to adapt to agency services. It's the same with creative—they don't necessarily need healthcare background.” 

Digitas will move its Philadelphia headquarters to a much bigger space in the Wanamaker's department store building later this year. Kramer notes that culture is vital in attracting and retaining employees —particularly in a rapidly growing agency. He feels culture accounts for the agency's “extremely low” attrition rate of 7% over the last year. 

“People leave jobs if they don't feel supported or understood by managers; they don't clearly see a road for success; or they're not given meaningful work,” Kramer explains. “People also leave quickly if they don't make friends, so we try to [provide] things that help build friends.”

Managers are tasked to ensure that employees are always aiming toward their next career step. Digitas also provides many group activities, including critiques, learning sessions, contests, and celebrations of employees' outside interests. A lobby cafe is a hub for daily interaction, and it will be “bigger and better” at the new location.  

Kramer explains that dialogue and interaction have helped maintain a small company feel, and that Digitas is a “very self-directed” culture. “We're a question culture, not a dictated culture,” he says. “If you're not comfortable asking questions, you struggle in a culture like ours.”

Ensuring employees at all levels understand the company's vision is a priority. “People are hungry to understand the shared vision and where the agency is headed,” Kramer says. “We're careful to keep Digitas Health's forward momentum public. You feel more a part of the company when you know where it wants to go.”  

Novo Nordisk has a very strong and unique corporate identity. Founded more than 85 years ago by a diabetic woman, her physicist husband and her doctor—the company was literally built by the trinity of patient, caregiver and physician. VP of human resources Jeff Frazier explains that the company has always operated on a “triple bottom line” philosophy: It aims to be financially successful while being environmentally and socially responsible at the same time. “We track and report business by all three methods,” he explains. “We always want to be close to the patient. Environmental awareness is in vogue, [but] it's been a cornerstone of this company since its foundation.”  

Novo Nordisk's values are core to its culture and they also differentiate the company—to both customers and employees. 

“[Marketers] can focus on a brand or device, but in an environment where there's less and less distinction in product class, you have to look for a way to get physician or payer attention,” Frazier says. “We can do that with our unique message and values. It allows marketing and communications professionals to play in a lot of space.”

“The industry isn't held in high regard [right now], so if you can differentiate a company as [having] that a higher aspiration other than only profit, it's a strong attractor,” he continues. “Employees here are able to achieve professional ambitions and do good for people. In the last four years, we've retained 96%-98% of top talent every year. That's phenomenal. We're trying to build long-term relationships, and that kind of continuity adds a lot of value.”  

From first contact through the on-boarding process, Novo Nordisk has built in mechanisms to ensure that new hires are aligned with its values. “Every ad, site and selection tool has a strong component of individual value and alignment with our culture,” Frazier says. “Culture and values are a significant component of management training. It's all through our employee lifecycle.” 

The company's “corporate balance scorecard” includes a people component that reflects success in such areas as retention and talent development. The company also has auditors travel to all operating companies and conduct direct interviews with employees to ensure everyone is living its culture and values. Managers create action plans based on yearly employee surveys. (An astounding 97% of all employees participated last year.) 

Frazier says a higher sense of purpose, individual impact, and business results are all important in retention.  

“HR is categorized as the soft side of business, yet you can translate the direct business impact of so many things we do,” he explains. “Ninety-seven percent of employees saw a correlation between their work and the company's mission. That's incredibly powerful. It translates to sustaining improved business results. If it's a mission that has higher sense of purpose, everyone gets behind that in an even stronger way. Employees need to see impact on people living with disease as well as positive business results.”  

Novo Nordisk hired more than 1,000 people last year, and 60% came from employee referrals. “When your workforce is in line with your mission, they invite friends, competitors, and colleagues to come and work for us,” Frazier says. 

Gratton agrees that, ultimately, mission and vision keep people happy.  “We're trying to improve patients' lives at the core of what we do,” he says. “We want employees to feel part of that and that the company has a vision for it. Ignite's purpose is to do something remarkable. We're innovative for the purpose of accomplishing a greater vision. A mass of energy can be created in a strong vision that far outweighs peaks and valleys of the company. If someone has a bad week, they can say, ‘I still believe in this vision and this leadership.' Inspiration we all need has to be part of the company's vision.” 
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