Building Blocks for Your A-Team

Ken Makovsky
Ken Makovsky

I was chatting with the CEO of a Fortune 100 company recently and he asked what I thought about a certain public relations agency. He probably knew that I would never comment on my competition, but he persisted nonetheless. My response was simple: “I can’t answer your question because I don’t know who specifically at the agency you’d be working with.” My answer was partly a deflection, but only partly. In our business, people are power. Yes, agency brands matter. But, ultimately, people forge brands. Take an agency with a mediocre reputation, infuse it with the best talent on the planet, and in short order they’ll be tops. Create an organization of world-class professionals, put them in a fifth-floor walk-up with typewriters and rotary telephones, and I guarantee that it won’t be long before they vault to leadership.

There is an irony in all this. If people are the X factor in agency excellence, why do managers at so many PR departments and agencies consider human-resource issues—turnover and recruitment, hiring, compensation—as “distractions” from the “real job” of client service?

And why do these “headaches” regularly top the list of management frustrations at PR agencies everywhere?

When we say that employees must be the center of the agency universe, we are not talking about abdicating management authority, avoiding conflict or refusing to ever say “no.” Rather, we are talking about establishing something that few agencies do well: creating strong systems that can attract and retain the best in the business.

I’ve observed two things that prevent agencies from doing this.

One is resignation in the face of employee turnover. The line of reasoning goes something like this: why invest time and money on employees who in two years will probably be taking their talents to the competition? Second is an aversion to systems planning.

Public relations agencies are right-brain destinations. For many, “systems” and “process” are necessary evils that threaten what really matters in an agency: creative freedom and the untrammeled pursuit of client delight.

Both these stances are wrong. We may not have employees for life (although that’s possible), but we must inspire and develop them while they’re our colleagues. And guess what: by doing that, we can retain them far longer than industry averages. And whether we like it or not, public relations agencies are businesses—and an unplanned business is not a business.

What kinds of systems are needed to build an A-Team agency? Let’s look separately at the three key areas that drive employee and agency excellence: recruitment/hiring, retention and compensation.


A valued client once told me that if you want motivated employees, hire motivated people.

Identifying those individuals must be an ongoing, core competency of any agency. It is as important to growth and profitability as a stellar sales presentation or a dynamite client deliverable.

For the past decade, we have employed a full-time, senior level executive whose main job is to identify and establish relationships with the best and brightest in our business—from senior account executives to regional directors.

During the past few years, we committed on average $300,000 a year to agency marketing and visibility, including seminars, studies, white papers, media activities and blogging.

We view all these actions not strictly as new business activities but essential investments in recruitment and hiring. The reason is simple: smart people want to associate with smart agencies.


I have always refused to accept high turnover as inevitable, and I’m gratified that at our agency we’ve reduced it to well below industry averages.

I’ve also thought long and hard about why turnover plagues our industry. I’ve concluded it has a lot to do with how we deal—or fail to deal—institutionally with stress and conflict.

We can all feel like a dartboard in our work, which is why it’s important to instill a sense of trust, transparency and teamwork at every level of the workplace.

What specifically does this mean? It may be accommodating flexible work schedules, seeking employee input on important firm policies, or disclosing selected financial information about the agency. It also means zero-tolerance for disrespectful behavior, a cancer in the workplace.

Early in my career I sometimes cottoned too long to disruptions from so-called “big-producers.” Not anymore. Agencies sometimes can accommodate eccentrics, but never prima donnas.

We pride ourselves on our “community culture,” where leadership is given the freedom to flourish, and collaboration and give-and-take are the norm.


When it comes to pay, the agency world is often viewed as a free-agency marketplace. But I’ve observed a counter-trend. For A-Team employees, money is not always the sole motivator.

While fair-market compensation is essential, what often matters equally and sometimes even more, is providing challenging work and instilling a sense of personal pride (and external recognition) for their own and their team’s accomplishments.

We’ve institutionalized this realization through a bonus system that’s triggered when employees meet individual, group and agency-wide goals that they set at the start of each year. We also provide cash prizes for employees whose work during the past quarter, in the eyes of their peers, best exemplifies our agency values.

Henry Ford once said that obstacles are what we see when we lose sight of our goals. It’s part of my personal DNA to work with clear, measurable goals in every aspect of agency life, including all our employees.

For example, we set agency-wide turnover targets and track progress. We conduct upward reviews of supervisors. And we encourage all employees to participate in third-party workplace surveys.

Building an A-Team means recognizing that everything in public relations that we seek and value—client satisfaction, agency reputation, peer recognition, agency growth and profitability—begin with our most important asset, our people. PRN

Social Anthropologists & Creators Apply Here

When building a great social team, it’s important to look for a skillset that goes beyond the traditional PR scope. Below are a few qualities we look for in candidates.

Wanted: “Creators.” First and foremost, your social team should be filled with “creators.” By “creators,” I mean people with a mix of graphic design, video editing and copywriting skills. To be successful in social media you need the ability to quickly create content in a cost effective manner. Hiring multi-faceted “creators” is the best way to accomplish that.

Wanted: “Social Anthropologists.” Your social leader (and all members of the team if possible) should observe/study all things social and pop culture. They should be able to empathize with any digital community regardless of the focus or demographic. Social anthropologists should have a deep understanding of how digital behavior intersects with current events or trends and how that translates into opportunities for clients. You can find these people by asking questions like: What brands do you follow in social? What do they do to get your attention? Tell me about a campaign you found engaging.

Wanted: Analytical Brains. Clients are looking for better metrics to track the impact of their social media investment and analytics that turn social activity into actionable business insights. Find people who know how to use social listening platforms. If they’re familiar with tools like Brandwatch, move that person to the top of your consideration list. —K.M


Ken Makovsky is president of Makovsky. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.