04.25.2022

Prioritizing Our Team is COHN’s “Secret Sauce”

A Brand Agency CEO’S Perspective

By Jeff Cohn, President & CEO, COHN Inc.

Judy Collins, the great folk singer once sang, “Where have all the flowers gone…?” My question is, “Where have all the people gone?” And what, as company leaders, can we do about it?

For as long as I can remember, people would do anything to break into the advertising/marketing agency business. Jobs posted publicly led to dozens if not hundreds of applicants. People at one agency were always seeking new and better challenges. But those days appear to be over. Finding great talent is harder and harder. This has led me to one concrete realization. If you have a great team, KEEP THEM.

From my perspective, we are in a business that is fueled 100% by our team of professionals. Our clients, our internal partners and our leadership rely on our team to deliver. As a company, we are nothing more than a collection of talented, motivated and experienced people that know how to work together to help our customers achieve their objectives.

It becomes incumbent upon us as business leaders to take care of our best and brightest. The cost of recruitment, salaries, signing bonuses, client knowledge, training and cultural/internal brand understanding are just too high.

At COHN, we have taken an entirely different approach in this new environment. We have implemented an ongoing commitment to retention. At the leadership level, we have decided that our “Job One” is to maintain our current team of outstanding employees. It’s our job to nurture, develop and reward. We know without question that this investment in our people will pay dividends beyond profitability. It will lead to longer stronger relationships with our clients and partners.

So while we definitely keep a close eye on finances and accounting, we make it our first priority to ensure that our people are qualitatively and quantitatively taken care of. We firmly believe our retention strategy will hold our team together in the most challenging of times.

To illustrate, just in the last 8 months, we have:

  • Instituted a consistent bonus structure built around agency performance that we have successfully issued twice to every employee.
  • Had straightforward discussions about the pressures of job demands combined with challenging work environments such as virtual disconnectivity.
  • Addressed and put a plan in place to solve systematic and problematic internal procedures to reduce stress and increase productivity.
  • Listened to our team as it related to bandwidth concerns and quickly built a hiring and support strategy to address work/life balance issues.
  • Created a new “use-at-your-pace” office space with work stations, huddle rooms, and conference rooms to get our team reconnected in a more hybrid work environment.
  • Heightened focus on team culture and positive messaging through internal communications, leadership one-on-ones with every team member and casual events.
  • And most recently, looked hard at our market and economic conditions resulting in a 10% pay increase across the board for every member of our team unrelated to performance metrics.

I am grateful that these actions appear to be working and making a real difference. Our team of 20 employees, with an average of 10 years of service, remains intact.

Like everywhere, of course, we always run the risk of losing our talented people. There have been several moments throughout our 22 years when I said goodbye to someone I still believe we could have retained with the right solution. This is part of being an agency owner, and it happens to all of us. Where I am especially proud of our agency, however, is that when those moments happen, we work to fix the issues that led to that loss. We don’t simply carry on with business as usual, because if it affected one person, it will affect others, as well. I believe this is why roughly 20% of our employees are “boomerangs,” meaning they left our agency and later returned.

Our people stay with us or end up coming back because they know they will be heard, recognized and rewarded. Equally important, they also know we will treat them at every step of the way with transparency and fairness.

Is it the right business decision to put people over profitability goals? In the long run, I say emphatically YES.

We are growing at a rate of 25% year over year, new and sophisticated clients are finding COHN on an ongoing basis and the work we are producing is stellar, among the best we have ever executed. And as we strive to find new members of our team, we have the existing people helping to tell our brand story and encourage talented new folks to join our ranks.

We are a small business faced with new opportunities every day. Without our core team firmly in place, those opportunities will come and go. So for me, I’ll invest every dollar I can into our people first and the benefits will come in the form of loyalty, commitment, intellectual growth and most importantly, client satisfaction with our work. And with all of those in place, business success.

That’s what we’re up to at COHN. It’s our “secret sauce” and I’m happy to share it. What are you doing to keep your team motivated and committed? I’d love to learn from your experiences.

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