Talent churn is issue No. 1 at most agencies, which often see turnover rates as high as 40 percent.
But since the 2-year-old Brooklyn design shop Work & Co opened its doors, not a single employee has left the agency, according to co-founder Gene Liebel. The shop has gone from five founding partners to 106 employees in the past two years, with a roster of clients including YouTube, Target, Chase and Virgin America.
“I don’t like saying it out loud, because, first of all, no one believes it. Second, I can’t prove it. And third, they just think I’m a jerk,” he told Digiday. “But it is really special, and it’s probably the thing in my career that I’m proudest of — that we’ve managed to have two years and no one’s left.”
The reason, according to Liebel, is his agency’s focus on hiring people who don’t want to just become salespeople or managers but want to make things. Work & Co is located around the block from the Interpublic Group agency Huge, which is also where most of the Work & Co partners once worked.
“Hands-on talent and practitioners are really the stars, especially when you’re making digital products and services,” said Liebel. “Our model focuses on that, and that’s why we’ve managed to attract a disproportionate share of the best people in the area.”
Liebel co-founded Work & Co with a team of ex-Huge execs, including its former head of design Joe Stewart; former partner and head of product design Felipe Memoria; vp of product design Marcelo Eduardo; and Mohan Ramaswamy, a former product strategy lead at Huge. This past summer, they also hired Casey Sheehan, Huge’s account lead on Apple, and its global creative director Jon Jackson. In total, eight of Work & Co.’s 10 partners came from Huge.
The ability to own a stake in the company and do the hands-on design work that Liebel outlined were big draws for many of them, including Jackson. Stewart has also cited his desire to keep designing as a factor in his move to set up his own shop.
“They must be doing something right,” said David Eastman, managing partner at MCD Partners. “They’ve attracted and retained really good talent, and that’s really difficult to do.”
Work & Co has also cracked the code on what a digital shop needs to look like today, said Liebel. It is heavily focused on digital products and services — such as Virgin America’s rebooted digital booking website — and has a team that’s mostly senior-level designers and is collaborative. And that helps in drawing in clients.
“Clients are realizing that they need products and services; they don’t need to be churning through media buys all the time,” he said, adding that the smartest among them are realizing that the only way to control your destiny is to own the point of engagement with the customer.
Virgin America is one of them. As one of the shop’s first clients, the airline worked with it to redesign its online booking site, with a clean, mobile-first approach — getting an “overwhelmingly positive response” from its flyers about its usability.
“A lot of agencies talk about a collaborative and iterative process, but they truly were,” said Luanne Calvert, CMO at Virgin America. “They embedded themselves here and were a part of our team, and the benefit was not only doing things more quickly and creatively but that they were also able to get a sense of the Virgin America brand.”
The agency has also successfully highlighted its model in its own branding, according to Eastman. Just look at its website, he says.
“The website is more geared to future talent than future clients,” he said. “It conveys that they’re militant about doing one specific thing — which is design — and they’re solution-oriented, which is a viable model.”
It has also taken a page from Google and Facebook in that it hires proactively, according to Liebel — building up a cohort of design experts irrespective of new business wins.
“It’s not about winning a client and then staffing up,” Liebel said. “If you’re competing against Facebook, they just meet and greet a person and hire them. They recruit just because they know there might be some interesting project next year that they need this genius for.”
While this upside-down, top-heavy pyramid model may be working for now, scaling the business can be an uphill challenge. Issues from maintaining quality of work to changing management needs and team culture are bound to crop up. Liebel recognizes that. But if he’s worried about it, he doesn’t say so.
“We’re going to see; we don’t know,” he said. “We’ve shared the company broadly, and we think that that’s the way the company can scale because we can always have a partner on every project.”
But talent, as it has always been, will continue to be at its core.
“You’re trying to create a winning NBA team and trying to pick which players are the best, strategy is secondary,” said Liebel. “The main thing is if you have LeBron James on your team, you generally win.”