The last year has been anything but business as usual for nearly all industries, and healthcare has experienced even more change than most. Though it has certainly been a challenging year with the volatile environment precipitating spending freezes and cuts in both budgets and staff, it hasn't been all doom and gloom. Many agencies report record years, and they've benefited from perhaps the deepest and widest talent pool the industry has ever seen. Most agency leaders agree that talent is their most valuable asset and they've continued to invest in internal programs to attract, develop and retain the best and the brightest.
“A bad economy is the worst time to cut internal programs, especially those that invest back into your employee base,” says George Glatcz, president and chief branding officer at Vox Medica. “Ninety-five percent of our programs are investments in our employees, and that's a retention tool. If you're investing to help employees get through a bad year you have a much more loyal employee.”
Not that Vox Medica is having a bad year. Business has been strong, and last year the agency rebranded and reinvented its business model, which has been well received both internally and externally. Glatcz explains that the agency was re-engineered to address changing needs in the marketplace and he stresses the importance of innovation during a recession. An entirely new and highly collaborative culture has been created, and a slew of employee programs have been phased in over the last 12 months.
WeissComm Group is also having a great year. President and COO Diane Weiser reports revenue is up 56% compared with the first half of 2008.
“Maintaining internal programs is important to our people, and it's important to us because we want to ensure people are at their very best and delivering for clients,” says Sue Rockoff, global HR director of WeissComm Group. “There's so much knowledge sharing here, and people are hungry for it.”
Rockoff adds that training is especially critical now as the agency has broadened client offerings through this year's acquisition of creative services firm ODA and Common Sense Media, which specializes in social media.
Steven Michaelson, founder/CEO of Wishbone ITP, says morale is “phenomenal” because the agency is “incredibly busy” and has landed big wins over the last year, including Novartis' Divan. The agency is staffed both day and night, and he says his team is happy to be so busy. He wouldn't consider cutting internal programs.
“People have to feel good about where they are and what they're doing,” adds Michaelson. “The work is hard enough—you have to make it as fun, engaging and efficient as possible.”
Bill Young, EVP, chief administrative officer, at Draftfcb Healthcare says 2008 was a record year in terms of both revenue and talent acquisition. More than 100 people were hired last year, and more than 55 have joined this year.
“People are happy they're in a successful environment,” says Young. “We have a very low attrition rate. We foster the idea that employees don't have to leave to find new opportunities. It's really worked. Employees are our best and chief asset…and we want them to know it. You don't want talent to walk out the door.”
Glatcz emphasizes the importance of communicating and living by brand vision and goals, noting that “living the brand is a great retention and recruiting tool and it shows on business results.” The agency launched its new business model with an all-staff “Un-Training Day” that helped employees let go of old practices and focus on the new, more collaborative “PEER” model (Personalize, Engage, Economize and Recognize, the agency's philosophy).
The Vox Hatchery is one new program designed to facilitate inspiration and collaboration at all levels. It's both a physical space in the agency and an intranet resource where ideas are shared, incubated and “hatched.” Employees meet and discuss or brainstorm everything from client challenges to internal activities. All staff get literal “Creative Licenses” that represent their freedom to generate ideas regardless of department or title. Agency leaders follow up on every idea submitted.
Vox has also implemented a new training and support system called “The Ivory Cube,” which covers individual and company competencies. It includes PEER process training, mentoring, a buddy system for new hires and “Vox Rox!,” a platform for sharing solutions, best practices and celebrating successes.
WeissComm has stepped up training and development, with the launch of WeissComm Academy in March. The program offers tracks in leadership development, practice expertise and management development. All employees are required to complete 12 hours of learning in the first year, though Rockoff expects most will exceed that.
Course subjects include various aspects of PR, the drug development process, public and private company funding, new media, biotech and product marketing. An external leadership development consultant is working with WeissComm's leadership team and will also train the larger company going forward. The entire company attends an annual two-day meeting in Las Vegas, and select leadership team members attend courses at Harvard Business School and Center for Creative Leadership.
Draftfcb provides extensive leadership and management training, including a seven-week leadership immersion program called “MyLead.” The program allows “high-potential” employees who are “managers of managers” and have at least a seven-year tenure to develop leadership skills in detailed business simulations. Other “high-potential” mid-management Draftfcb employees in Europe benefit from an international mentoring program, wherein senior leaders in the New York, Chicago and San Francisco offices share their perspectives on working in larger markets and offer guidance on global accounts and new business development.
Leadership symposiums engage leaders from across the Draftfcb network in strategic dialogue. Young says they're designed to strengthen connections within the company, promote business growth and increase alignment with the agency's vision.
All managers are extensively trained at Draftfcb in best practices, in identifying and attracting the best talent, conducting interviews and numerous aspects of performance management. They work closely with HR, sharing feedback and developing job competencies.
New-hire training and orientation is also extensive, covering agency history, processes and all offerings. Everyone who joins is assigned a buddy and introduced to the entire agency via a photo and an announcement. They also have breakfast meetings with the chairman and the president.
The Wishbone N.E.X.T Generation (“new executives of tomorrow”) is a program wherein agency partners mentor one or two employees. A continuing marketing education program, called Wishbone CME, is a series of lunch and learns on topics ranging from the clinical trial process to presentation skills to graphic design. Subjects are taught by both senior management and outside experts.
Reward and recognition programs are key retention tools. Vox initiatives include awards for inventive solutions, growth and team accomplishments. Employees also recognize each other with “Tingly! Awards,” which include a telegram, $25 American Express gift cards, and nameplates reflecting the recognition.
Last year, Michaelson gave his partners wishbone necklaces (for the women) and wishbone cufflinks (for the men). They were so well received that he wanted to offer the gifts to more people, so this year he instituted an annual “Partners Award” and presents one employee with the gift for outstanding contributions. Other awards include the Wishbone Star Awards, Most Valuable Player Award, and the Iron Man Award. Michaelson also insists on buying lunch for all employees every day.
“Being independent, I don't answer to big brother holding companies,” says Michaelson. “When we grew…my CFO said buying lunch for everyone was ridiculous. It's not. People appreciate it so much and it builds efficiency—they get their jobs done quicker and don't have to stay as late. I see doing that forever. It's part of our culture.”
The Draftfcb Face Award is given to one employee who embodies the agency's values and continually contributes above and beyond their job description. The award is given at a larger annual event at Webster Hall in New York City that includes all kinds of recognition and entertainment, such as employee skits and friendly competitions.
WeissComm recognizes employees in various ways, including Culture Awards. Employees recognize one another each month, and community service and pro bono efforts are also recognized monthly. The agency offers a five-week sabbatical program, flexible work arrangements and numerous incentive compensation programs.
Agencies offer a number of innovative activities and perks, such as yoga and chair massages at WeissComm and free shoeshines at Wishbone. Vox recently threw a luau and redid its office space to reflect its new brand identity. Conference rooms have been named after board games—Twister, Operation, Chutes & Ladders and Monopoly—and are being decorated accordingly. Vox has also allocated money for employees to decorate their own workspaces.
Volunteer work is an important cultural element for many agencies. This year Wishbone increased involvement with the Make a Wish Foundation by becoming a gold sponsor and assembling a team of 15 to 20 employee volunteers, including Michaelson who is a liaison for children granted wishes in New York City. Michaelson is also making additional donations on behalf of each employee volunteer.
Draftfcb supports many causes, including Camp Birch for families afflicted by HIV/AIDS, City Harvest and a Coalition for the Homeless program called First Step, which helps women enter the workforce. The agency holds an annual women's clothing drive for the program and has provided internships for its members.
Open and regular internal communication about good news as well as changes is critical, especially during tough economic times. Glatcz says in-person communication is key, and Vox holds 13 company-wide quarterly meetings, as well as impromptu gatherings about once every six weeks to talk about the state of the business or celebrate successes. The intranet is updated regularly with status reports on the agency, the healthcare industry and the economy. It also includes tips and advice on a number of topics, including financial matters and healthcare insurance.
“Companies that don't communicate internally likely don't have a vision,” notes Glatcz. “A lot of people fear transparency. I embrace transparency. I want everyone to know where we're going and that we're all in it together. If for whatever reason we went the wrong way, we can stop, fix it and go the right way. If I'm not being transparent no one is following me.”
Rockoff and Weiser note the importance of dialogue, and WeissComm is committed to regular communication—both one on one and in groups. Both Vox and WeissComm recently conducted employee surveys. Glatcz says results revealed satisfaction “increased dramatically” (to 94%) compared with results from a survey prior to the restructuring. Rockoff says WeissComm surveys have shown 97% of employees are “solidly onboard.” Results also showed that employees value WeissComm's commitment to high standards for work and talent and the agency's independence.
Glatcz says turnover at Vox has been “basically zero” and there have been no layoffs. The agency has openings in creative and at the VP and executive levels. He's seeing “a lot more” senior level talent than in the past, as well as good junior level candidates, but mid-level talent is harder to find. All seven of Vox's companies are now integrated into one company. The new business model is far less hierarchical and it's dramatically changed selection criteria.
“We look for talent now that has a specific diverse perspective against a problem we're trying to solve rather than filling a vertical chain of command,” says Glatcz. “Selectivity is more important to me now.” Vox actively looks outside the industry for talent that can bring fresh perspectives. Bridget Lombard, who previously worked as a management consultant in many different industries, recently joined as GM. The agency connected with Lombard through LinkedIn, and it also uses Facebook and Twitter as recruiting tools in addition to traditional methods.
“It's like six degrees of separation,” adds Glatcz. “Once you're out there on social media who knows how you find people—the point is that you find them and the medium is helping us identify people. Plus, all the ad bulletins are now online so there are social media aspects to them as well.”
Draftfcb currently has 25 to 30 openings, about 30% of which Young says are in digital. There are also account management, creative and managed care openings. Internal recruiters use LinkedIn quite a bit, as well as Facebook, to identify, research and attract talent. Young says agency leaders are currently discussing the best way to use Twitter to source talent.
“The candidate pool is wider, but talent is always tougher to come by because companies keep the talent,” Young says.
Rockoff says a lot of good talent has approached WeissComm, and she notes there's more senior staff available now. An internal recruiter joined this year to help manage increased hiring. Weiser adds that the agency's independence has been a key driver in attracting talent. “There's been so many significant reductions that there really are more good people out than in the past,” explains Rockoff. “Some others who are employed are ready to make a change for a variety of reasons. Many people are attracted to the success we've had. I don't want to say it's easy to get people, but it's working out well for us because we're bringing in great talent; great talent is attracting great talent.”
LinkedIn is also the primary social media outlet used by Weiscomm recruiters, but they use Facebook too. Still, Rockoff says employees are the best source for finding great talent.
“We build the agency through past relationships, and it's continued,” adds Weiser. “That happened in and of itself, but we have a referral bonus program that provides even greater incentive.”
Wishbone's headcount increased from 55 to 70 this year, and much of the 10-year-old agency's senior staff is long tenured. Michaelson is currently looking for a digital strategic planner. He doesn't anticipate other hiring until the middle of the fourth quarter. Wishbone doesn't use social media to recruit—Michaelson says there's no need.
“The talent pool is bigger and wider and deeper across all levels than I've ever seen it,” he adds. “People are knocking on the door constantly. There are lot of good people and many who aren't happy where they are.”
Overall, agency leaders are positive about the future. Michaelson is “cautiously optimistic” about the industry improving and people relaxing a little more about spending. WeissComm expects to end 2009 up about 40%, and Young says Draftfcb will continue to grow as he sees definite opportunities on the client end and the talent end.
Glatcz expects continued growth for Vox Medica as well. He notes: “Our growth will not only be measured by dollars and cents, but by the sense of accomplishment of each and every employee and their pivotal role in the success of our brand.”