Employee retention: How to compete with big companies

Written by: Karl Sakas

How can your agency compete with big companies on hiring, when they pay big salaries? An agency leader asked me for advice on employee retention:

“We’re struggling to retain our team. We have a great culture, recently won a ‘Best Places to Work’ award, and have relatively low billable expectations compared to most agencies. But we have trouble competing with big agencies on salaries. They know our people are good and often try to poach them. What should we do?”

My answer? Don’t try to compete with the big agencies (or any big company) on salary; you’ll never win. For instance, a client hired someone from a FAANG company, who said he hated the dysfunctional environment of his department. He accepted the small agency’s job offer at a small raise… and then backed out after his current employer offered him an extra $100K a year.

Oof. In retrospect, he wasn’t serious about leaving—or about joining the agency. What can you do to prevent that from happening?

Sell your agency’s Quality of Life… to people who are buying

Instead of leading with salary, consider selling your quality of life—to people who want to buy what you’re selling. But that means you’ll need to dig to confirm candidates want what you have on offer.

You don’t need a “Best Places to Work” award to leverage this recruiting angle. Being a smaller agency is an inherent recruiting strength; leverage what you’ve got!

Focus on hiring poaching-resistant employees

Poaching is a fact of life in businesses. There are things you can do to reduce poaching. But it helps if you hire employees who are [relatively] less prone to be poached. (If you poached them yourself… you already know they’re open to being poached.)

Some people don’t care about the grinding terribleness of working at a large company, or working for a company with excessively high expectations. But others do—and they’re your ideal hire.

They think about the ROI of the salary. They recognize that “moderate salary, moderate workload” isn’t inherently worse than “big salary, big workload.” Your ideal match wants to make an impact as one of several dozen people, rather than tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people. And they haven’t structured their lifestyle to require a $300,000 salary.

See this AdWeak satirical post, about working on holidays. And this article from Ask a Manager, about bureaucracy and drama over office supplies. There’s a reason the movie Office Space is a cult classic.

Sometimes this means hiring people who have strong priorities outside of work—like family responsibilities, or hobbies, or volunteering. Ideally, you don’t expect 60-hour weeks, or for people to be on-call 24/7. Your employees have time for life outside of work—and the emotional energy to actually enjoy that time.

My reality-check at age 25

Other times, it means hiring people who learned the hard way—earlier in their career—that they don’t want a high-burnout job, no matter the pay. For instance, I enjoyed most parts of my post-college job in New York. But the commute from New Jersey—70 minutes each way, if no delays—wasn’t ideal. Yet I didn’t want to live in the city with roommates.

One day on the crowded commuter train, I realized I was probably the youngest person there—sometimes by 30 or 40 years. At 25, it occurred to me that my fellow passengers had likely been doing this same commute for years. It was “normal” to them—but it seemed like a miserable way to live. I decided to make a change—and I did.

Just because it’s “normal” to others doesn’t mean it’s right for you. And odds are good that some of your job candidates—and your current “New Rope” employees—appreciate this, too. Not everyone wants to move up the ladder ASAP. I was ambitious, but not at any cost. (Today, I’d think of it as being an optimizer, rather than a maximizer.)

Applying my Employee Retention advice at your agency

Everyone has a price. But if people on your team get poached solely because of the big salary, I’m not sure they were employees who’d stick around long-term. Instead, pay reasonable salaries—and then think about what you can do to make your agency appealing beyond pay alone. And then use my three “magic” recruiting questions to help you confirm people are a fit.

Question: What do you ask job candidates to screen for people who want what your agency offers?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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