Talent Wars: How Silicon Valley and the Start-up Allure Is Draining Talent from PR Agencies

As the founder of a tech PR agency based in New York, I am constantly being asked when we are going to open an office on the West Coast.
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As the founder of a tech PR agency based in New York, I am constantly being asked when we are going to open an office on the West Coast. It's been a question that I've grappled with for the last few years but each time I speak with other agency executives, potential clients and VCs, it gives me pause. Operating an agency in New York, arguably one of the most expensive and competitive markets in the U.S., seems hard enough.

The war on talent is something we've dealt with since our inception back in 2002. Agencies are a dime a dozen in this city. We're keenly aware that our employees field numerous recruiter calls each week and could find another job by literally crossing the street. It's one of the reasons why we put so much emphasis on creating a strong corporate culture and offering impressive benefits.

But all of that is nothing compared to what I hear from my colleagues who have tried to open offices in San Francisco. One agency leader from a prominent midwestern firm told me about the ongoing nightmare of building an office in the Valley. In the eight years that they've been operating in the market, they've had five general managers and staff members are considered long-term if they stay more than six months. That revolving door of talent and competition in the market has meant that their California operations have yet to turn a profit but, as a tech agency, it seems a necessary evil to have an office in Silicon Valley.

Earlier this year we were hired by a Palo Alto-based start-up to help launch their company. I had the opportunity to meet with a senior portfolio manager from their VC firm to talk about potential collaboration on other companies they've invested in. Since she was an agency veteran herself, I thought that she would have plenty of local connections to tap to service the companies she works with. She thought so too but quickly ran into some frustrating issues. Agencies that she wanted to work with would tell her that they had a six-month waiting list before they could take on a new account - and they'd have to hire to service it. Other agencies would happily take the assignment but between the time they'd sign a contract and start the program, they'd lose key team members to another opportunity. If Millennials in New York were only staying at jobs for 12-18 months, the ones in Silicon Valley seemed to have a six-month expiration date.

I have also seen it happen with so many colleagues who seemed like agency lifers. Although initially it may have been the California sunshine that drew them West, once they arrive, the allure of working at a tech industry giant like Google or Facebook is just as appealing as taking a risk on a hot new start-up to be part of Silicon Valley's primary narrative. All the while, some companies still insist on having a local agency with team members on the ground to service their accounts.

So how are agencies going to compete? A foosball table and a beer keg aren't going to be enough to make working at an agency 'cool' again. Firms are going to need to reinvent themselves to hold on to great talent as well as draw in new graduates. Even if agencies were to try to emulate the start-up compensation model that promises equity or stock options to employees, with the current culture focused on instant-gratification, that won't be enough to keep folks interested in a long-term commitment to the field of PR or a single agency. We haven't had a revolution in communications, or even an evolution, since the start of the mass adoption of social media by corporations in 2008-9, when PR and advertising agencies were sought after to lead the strategy and implementation for corporate marketers who were not yet sure how to tackle this new medium. In addition, we were all still feeling the burn of the economic downturn and the safety of agency life seemed more appealing than the risk of working at a less stable start-up. However, it didn't take long for corporations to adjust and bring social media expertise in-house.

Public relations agencies don't just need to adapt - we need to innovate. We need to figure out how to invigorate our industry and the profession to attract and retain talent and to draw back some of the great minds that have left for the start-up world or established tech giants. We'll also have to bring in new disciplines to spark that spirit of entrepreneurship that our industry is sorely lacking. As the start-up community grows in New York, we'll have to accelerate our process to ensure we stay competitive on both coasts.

This post is a part of a series exploring communications and media trends in honor of the second annual Communications Week, a week-long series of events celebrating the communications industry, held from October 19-23, 2015. Follow @CommsWeekNY.

Post by Sandra Fathi, founder and president of Affect, a public relations and social media agency, based in New York. Prior to founding the agency in 2002, Fathi worked in-house at a number of technology start-ups and even started her career as a reporter covering the high tech market. She has provided communications strategy for companies such as EDS, Ericsson, Microsoft and Nokia. Sandra can be reached at sfathi@affect.com or @sandrafathi.

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