Conduct unbecoming an owner of a PR firm

A few years back we were about to fill an account executive spot. Having been left out of the interview process, I asked where the candidate currently worked. When I was told, I put an immediate hold on things. The prospect worked at a firm run by a good friend. I picked up the phone, called the friend and, without naming names (so as to not damage the candidate's standing within the incumbent agency) told the CEO what was going on. I said that our friendship was more important than an individual hire and offered to call off the negotiations. The CEO asked for a few hours to think things over. He called back, thanked me profusely for the courtesy, but said, 'If this employee has one foot out the door, he'll either go to Peppercom or somewhere else. I'd feel better knowing he was going to work with you and Ed.'

I share the anecdote because two 'friends' have recently poached talent from my firm without saying word one to me before, during or after the incidents. I expect this sort of behavior from the large, more impersonal agencies. But these two firms are quite a bit smaller than ours. And, frankly, the agency CEO network is a rather tight one. While there are a few rogues, most of us like each other and are often willing to share advice, best practices, etc. There's an unwritten rule that we won't steal talent from one another. It's just not done.

I expect to run into the two CEOs of these firms at some point soon and, when I do, I want to ask them each the same question: 'Why did you steal my people? Why would you want to hurt my firm? I'm honestly disappointed in your behavior.'

Needless to say, our management team is angry and anxious to exact revenge. That's unfortunate and, I hope we can fill our needs elsewhere. Two wrongs never make a right. Especially in such a small world as public relations.

It's best to move on. But not before authoring a blog calling attention to conduct unbecoming an owner of a PR firm. This is boorish behavior that, in the final analysis, will adversely impact the image and reputation of the other agencies. And, that, is the only revenge necessary.

14 thoughts on “Conduct unbecoming an owner of a PR firm

  1. Interesting POV, Lynne. Thanks for sharing. We routinely have human resources directors of large firms literally go up and down the lanes in our office trying to cherry pick talent. And, I’ve called more than one friend at a large agency to ask for an immediate cease and desist. Your market may be different, but the colleagues I know call one another if the CEO of one firm is unknowingly trying to poach an employee from another and suddenly finds out. I see that as good manners and indicative of real friendship.

  2. Steve.
    I’ve long held the belief that agencies can’t “steal” your people or your clients — they leave when they want to leave. My job is to make sure I’m giving our team meaningful work that helps them grow. So, even though the PR industry in LA is a tight-knit group, I don’t take offense when someone leaves here to go to work for another agency.
    The one exception happened a couple of years ago when a senior person left and then targeted every single person on her former team for a job at her new agency. That’s the point at which I picked up the phone, called the agency president and asked her to call it off. She did. I was both appreciative and impressed.

  3. Thanks, Roger. A cautionary tale to be sure. We recently had one of our SF staff poached by a client (despite having a Mike Lasky-authored clause in our LOA preventing such abysmal behavior). They ended up paying us an extra fee for the abduction but, to your point, how do you put a price tag on emerging talent? That’s why we’re actively recruiting fresh blood as we speak.

  4. Steve, this happened to us at Epley Associates so many times, we stopped counting. Other firms — as well as clients, of course — sought to lure our mid-level folks away right when they were poised to make that leap from learning the business to commanding the business. We had a stretch over four years where we lost probably two-thirds of our most promising talent. While we were fortunate to bring on fine young professionals to step in, the damage was done. Looking back now, in fact, I think this was the primary reason the firm was somewhat stagnant in the years before Joe retired. The stable of experienced, energized mid-level talent had been gutted. Like Peppercom, Epley had built an enviable reputation as “The Academy” of public relations in the Carolinas. Dozens of some of the best practitioners came through our doors and learned how to do it right. Many graduated and became clients. Some moved on to be parents or live near their families. And some left and became competitors. It may be the way it is in this and every business, but it was hard watching such a stellar firm fade as the seeds of its future success were picked and planted elsewhere.

  5. Excellent questions. Poaching talent has been going on forever. Every agency does it, including ours. That said, there is an inner circle of agency owners who consider one another friends. Friends don’t hurt friends. An unspoken agreement exists in which we try not to steal talent from one another. If we become aware of a prospective hire (or, the loss of a current employee by a friend’s firm), we usually pick up the phone and call. In these cases, the silence was deafening.

  6. We would have given you a month’s worth of surgical gloves if you’d taken Dave off our hands.

  7. As someone at a junior level, this is interesting to me. What exactly constitutes stealing, and what is just an employee moving on to a better opportunity?
    Did the offending agencies reach out to your employees first, or did your employees apply for the positions? If they applied for the position (for whatever reason – salary, promotion, clients), is it still bad form for the agencies to hire your people?
    It seems to me that, with as frequently as people (especially at the lower levels) seem to switch agencies in this industry, it would be hard to avoid hiring people who work at your friends’ firms. Especially if the agency CEO brotherhood is as close knit as you say.
    Is this just because most of the people I know in the industry work at the bigger agencies?

  8. i was gonna steal marya to launch our fairwaycommotions division but we instead launched hyperdermicsforall and never got into other verticals. i did in fact try to steal dave bray..

  9. That’s not true, Med Guy. My sources tell me you tried to steal away Marya Pongrace (and that you offered her free syringes for a full year).

  10. rep- i promise never to steal your people. then again, i am an incessant liar 🙂

  11. Steve: You have something those former “friends” of yours will never have — integrity. And a conscience. I bet you anything that if you run into them and confront them about the poaching, they will hide behind the “it’s just business, nothing personal” excuse for unethical behavior.
    I agree with you regarding revenge. This industry is too small; instant karma will certainly get them, one way or another.

  12. Well said, Rep and shame on them. It sucks when things like this happen…but it makes a case for the grooming that is happening at 470 Park Ave South. You’re churning out talent and others appreciate that, apparently.