How agencies are wooing ex-staffers to return

Danny Cashin began his agency career as an intern at Atlanta-based Brown Bag Marketing in 2009, joining the agency full-time as a project manager the following year. After three years at the agency, he took off for a client-side gig, followed by a role at another agency in 2013. In 2015, Cashin came home.

“You’d think it would have been hard, but it was pretty easy to come back,” he said. “It was like coming home to family.”

Cashin’s experience is hardly unique. His path resembles that of many other agency “boomerangers,” employees who jump from one agency to another or to the client-side, only to make their way back to a former employer. And according to industry experts, recruiters and HR executives, while the trend has been gaining steam for a while, it has never been as common as it is now.

San Francisco agency Venables Bell & Partners sees two or three employees return every year, following stints away from the agency that span anywhere between six to 18 months. Fifteen out of Deutch’s several hundred new hires were boomerangers in 2015. Of Martin Agency’s 507 current employees, COO Beth Rilee-Kelley estimated that 8 percent are boomerangers. At both Brown Bag and Ogilvy, boomerangers comprise close to 10 percent of the workforce.

“It has been accelerating especially over the last three to four months; it’s almost become an accepted practice,” said Jay Haines, founding partner of executive recruiting firm Grace Blue. “Agencies need to start making the most of it and managing the conversation when someone leaves keeping that in mind.”

Now that agencies have identified the trend, they have turned an eye toward actively identifying and recruiting more boomerangers than ever before . While staying in touch with former managers has traditionally been the way back for boomerangers over the years, today agencies are going beyond the occasional check-in to make it easier for recidivists to return.

At Deutsch, there is a dedicated Facebook page where alumni keep up with one another and plan reunions a couple of times a year. That, according to Robin Lander, partner and director of human resources at Deutsch, helps the agency be in “constant awareness” of where former employees are, enabling it to tap them for freelance and even permanent gigs again. The agency also maintains a database of past employees, often encouraging them to consider applying for open positions as opportunities arise.

Cultivating and nurturing the boomerang effect has become an important part of Ogilvy’s talent strategy, said Adam Tucker, President of Ogilvy & Mather. The agency not only makes sure that employees feel supported in their decision if they decide to leave but also tries to maintain an open-door policy for star employees — making it explicitly clear that they are always welcome back. Among others, Venables Bell & Partners and the Starcom Mediavest Group are also fans of the open door policy.

“Because of the talent crunch, roles are often exaggerated, false promises are made, budgets are cut and plans don’t come to fruition,” said Tucker. “That is why we’ve become much more thoughtful and methodical about it in the last couple of years.”

Individual and HR managers at Ogilvy are encouraged to reach out within 30 to 60 days of an employee leaving, and then routinely after that, to get a sense of how the move is going. The agency has also instituted some policies to make sure it has a thriving alumni network across the board. Neo@Ogilvy, for instance, hosts frequent cocktail and happy hour events to maintain contact with its alumni and “keep them advised on everything that’s going on within different pockets,” according to Jean-Rene Zetrenne, chief talent officer North America at Ogilvy. Ogilvy regularly invites former employees back for speaking engagements and the like. Recently, its PR wing also hosted an “Alumni Day” in Denver.

Boomerangers are a testament to the strength of an agency’s culture — executives say those who come back often cite culture as a major draw. But beyond that, they often become an agency’s best mentors and recruiters. “I naturally end up sharing my story with my coworkers, so those considering a shift can get a sense of what it’s like on the other side,” said Dan Bruinsma, who started as a finance intern at Starcom in 1999 and today is senior vice president, activation director at the Starcom MediaVest Group.

“It is absolutely true that people sometimes become even more valuable when they come back,” said Kate Jeffers, partner and managing director at Venables Bell & Partners. “Not only because of the expertise and perspective they have gained elsewhere that they bring to us but also because they come as strong brand ambassadors for us.”

Many agencies, therefore, have started taking pride in their boomerangers, even coming up with quirky ways of celebrating them internally. Venables Bell & Partners has created a tongue-in-cheek award category for its annual holiday party awards that celebrates its boomerangers, called the “glutton for punishment” award. Brown Bag has created a special logo for its boomerangers, which can be found on each of their desks or doors.

Sometimes, however, the most effective way to get the best talent back eventually is to just let them go in the first pace, said Martin Agency’s Rilee-Kelley. As long as they depart gracefully and genuinely like the agency culture, they are likely to return after broadening their skills elsewhere — though they may be more expensive as a result when they come back.

“Sometimes there are things that they want to do that we may not be able to do for them at some point, and it’s best to just acknowledge that,” she said. “If you can let people go when the time is right, think about the message you’re sending to them — you’re showing them that you care and that their growth is important to you. That ought to make them come back.”