In Chapter 9, Ruth Allchurch, Managing Director of Cirkle, gives her views on how to maintain best practice and profitability in a constantly evolving business landscape.
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THE PRINCIPLES BEHIND MANAGING A SUCCESSFUL COMMS DEPARTMENT Ruth Allchurch
• The structures comms teams need in place to be fit for purpose
• How to create a healthy organisational culture and engaged workforce
• How best practice leads to happy clients and a higher profit margin
In a world where communications continue to evolve at breakneck speed, agencies need to remain agile in adapting to change, as well as invest intelligently to ensure the business is set up for success – today, tomorrow and beyond.
As one of the country’s leading independent PR consultancies, achieving double digit growth for 17 years has not been all plain sailing. Our strategic imperatives have always been based on creating a structure that is ‘fit for purpose’ coupled with a fanatical focus on best practice when it comes to managing over-servicing, relevant and regular training and working in partnership with our clients.
A key challenge facing many PR and integrated agencies as they grow is maintaining a robust structure and framework - one that is able to adapt to the ever-changing industry landscape and client demands.
With a headcount of 40, we are led by a by a 6-strong Board and a Management Team of 9 supporting the Board. A key focus for the Board is to scrutinise the staff costs to fee income ratio and hold it at max 57% including all bonuses and profit share. Within this, we also review the balance between senior and junior staff, consumer versus trade mix and billable versus non-billable people.
It is essential that teams and resources are structured in response to the business need.
At Cirkle we have a clear line management structure, which is showcased through organisation charts and robust job specs, each containing clearly defined responsibilities and SMART objectives. KPIs are set for individual team members and we place maximum importance on our responsibility as an employer to develop our staff by investing against individual training needs.
Clarity for career progression is vital to optimise team effectiveness and we monitor performance through an integrated mix of monthly line manager check-ins and bi-annual 360° appraisals. Our teams participate in external initiatives such as the PR Week/WPR Mentor scheme and they are also encouraged to network regularly within the industry.
As a business continues to grow, it inevitably goes through periods of step-change and it is critical to continue to invest in, and act upon, staff satisfaction. We gauge this through external bi-annual Pulse Checks and quarterly HR clinics, sharing and addressing issues immediately in the spirit of active listening and nipping any issues in the bud.
A motivated and galvanised workforce will always be fundamental to business success. Get it right and you have an army of influential advocates at your fingertips - witnessed by Cirkle winning the SABRE for ‘Best Agencies to Work For’ as voted by our team.
Our substantial benefits programme includes a calendar of Random Acts of Kindness and we invest in putting all team members through ‘Insights Discovery’ training. This determines individual management ‘colour profiles’ to optimise team dynamics and has become one of the agency’s most talked about team initiatives.
A culture that lives and breathes
Having a clearly defined culture is an essential part of any agency’s strategy and ideally it should be consistent against every touch point. We badge our culture ‘good mojo’ and are obsessed with fostering a fun, hardworking sense of community in a motivating environment that has flexibility, trust and reward at its epicentre.
Open plan offices have proved highly effective alongside our staff hot desking programme which encourages collaboration across teams.
Many agencies claim to support flexible working, but often that’s not the reality if you scratch below the surface. All staff are offered flexi-hours, 30% of our team are part time and 90% work from home on Fridays from account manager and above – unheard of in our industry.
Transparency is always welcomed by staff across all organisations as it breeds trust and respect and our quarterly team Breakfast Clubs see us share financial tracking and forecasts to all levels across the agency.
All agencies should have a clear and simple set of values and authenticity is key in creating, shaping and embedding values across a business. We do this right from the beginning – showcasing our values at the interview process; integrating them into job specs and appraisals; referencing them in marketing collateral, writing them on the walls and bringing them to life through monthly employee recognition awards and biannual team away days.
No chapter on standards would be complete without a large nod to over-servicing as getting remunerated for the work we do is our lifeblood.
Identifying and controlling over-servicing has always been critical for profitability as we distinguish between billable time, client investment and over-servicing. Part of our ongoing education with our teams is to demonstrate the commercial relevance of timesheets in the context of fees and this has paid off in terms of 100% daily timesheet completion.
We have proved that if teams understand WHY they are completing timesheets, then the inputs are ACCURATE which is fundamental in creating data that is useful. This has resulted in just 2% over-servicing versus the 20%+ industry average.
A slick, professionally run business with watertight systems that are effective at capturing business-critical data and insight will win. At Cirkle we have always placed the utmost importance on being ‘proud and confident’ in everything we do.
Right from our beginnings, we laid the foundations for best-in-class systems - from agendas and meetings beginning and ending on time, through to the highest level of financial and management reporting.
Teams also share insight and best practice through weekly team meetings and our rigid approval systems ensure work is delivered to the highest standards before it is presented to stakeholders.
Systems should continually be monitored for effectiveness and tightened up in line with a company’s ongoing evolution, new technologies, new client needs and increased headcount.
As members of the PRCA, we undergo its Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) audit every two years. This shines a best practice spotlight on 9 key business areas including Leadership & Communication, Business Planning & Improvement, Financial Systems, Campaign Management, Client Satisfaction and People Management. We have actively promoted our 96% score amongst clients, stakeholders and new business prospects as the ultimate endorsement for best practice.
Failure to embrace, capture, monitor and learn from one of your most important assets - your clients - will leave you vulnerable.
Client satisfaction is another key area of investment for Cirkle which sees us use external auditors to run bi-annual Client Pulse Checks across all of our clients.
A simple online questionnaire, it delivers quantitative metrics and qualitative feedback and focuses on Strategic Thinking, Creativity, Quality, Team and Advocacy. We forensically analyse results and share as relevant with teams and clients - addressing issues and celebrating successes. We don’t stop at clients, as we also run an annual media audit.
Continually monitoring business performance against the industry and competitor set creates insight for continued development. At Cirkle we do this in a number of ways including participating in PR Week’s Top 150 as well as the PRCA’s annual benchmarking, whilst keeping abreast of the latest industry developments through the media, webinars and event attendance and networking.
Beyond focusing on best-in-class standards within Cirkle, we are passionate about elevating standards across the PR industry, be it through our roles on the PR Council; Chairing PRCA sectoral groups or our grassroots talent support (University alliances, ‘Experience in the Round’ Internship programme, PRCA Apprenticeship Scheme).
We’ve proved time and again how best practice and impressive margins do not need to be mutually exclusive, by hitting the sweet spot between client delight and profit delivery through a skilled and galvanised workforce.
Winning seven awards for employee engagement, beating every industry metric for profitability, staff retention, client satisfaction and best practice are further proof points that never resting on our laurels and continual investment continue to pay off - now and into the future.
This type of success is something every comms team can achieve, if they try.
Ruth Allchurch is Managing Director of Cirkle. Ruth has over 15 years global consumer, corporate and trade PR experience, both agency-side and in-house where she was Head of Brand PR for Diageo Western Europe, managing an agency roster across 7 countries. Ruth’s inspirational leadership sees her head up Cirkle’s award-winning team of 40 across clients including Premier Foods, GSK, LR Suntory, PepsiCo, Pernod Ricard UK, Energizer, Ferrero, Hovis and Slendertone. Ruth sits on the PR Council as well as PR Week and PRCA awards judging panels and is Chairman of the PRCA’s Consumer Group. She has just been shortlisted for ‘Consultancy Head of the Year’ for the PRCA Awards 2015.