Do agencies stand a chance against the overwhelming attraction of in-house?

Blog final
Posted: Sep 2020

2020 has been like no other year, and the pause in ‘normal life’ has enabled Corporate Comms professionals to take stock – of how they feel about their career, their happiness and overall levels of job satisfaction. While some people are keen to stay where they are and retain the stability of their current employment, there are many who have decided that they want to move.  Pandemic or not, it turns out that what Corporate Comms professionals want when it comes to career trajectories doesn’t change that much.  Our Annual Salary Guide findings for 2020 show that the desire for working in an agency has decreased again, now standing at a very poor 10% of professionals wanting to move there (compared to a still weak 15% in the previous year).  The big attraction is an in-house role, with a staggering 69% of Comms professionals now saying they want to move in-house (up by 4% on the previous year).

Just what is it about in-house that is so appealing to Comms professionals?  And why can’t agencies tempt more people into the fold?

Where are the agencies falling short?

Findings from our Annual Salary Guide show that agencies are trying hard to up their game:

  •   More agency professionals received a bonus (67% compared to 64% in-house)
  •   The average agency bonus was a percentage point higher than the average in-house bonus (17% versus 16%)
  •   This is the first year we have seen agency bonuses overtaking in-house bonuses – the agencies are clearly making an effort
  •    Agencies also have similar benefits when it comes to pensions, private health insurance and holiday allowances

There are, however, still areas where they lag behind in-house comms teams:

  • In-house offer more higher value company benefits, eg car allowance, death in service insurance, life insurance, annual season ticket loans, maternity pay contributions, options to buy more holidays
  •   Flexible working options are better in-house. While there has been a 10% increase in the number of agencies offering flexible working (41%), they still have a lot of catching up to match the number of in-house comms teams receiving this benefit (63%)

Why is there so little desire to move to an agency?
The last ten years have seen an increasing desire for corporate communications professionals to move in-house at some point in their career, making things increasingly tougher for agencies to hire high performers.

While agencies can still attract graduates, a few years in, these people want to move in-house.  We have had more and more junior people contacting us for in-house roles.  The reasons for their desire to move can be one or many of the following:  

  •   to work for just one brand
  •   to be at the heart of the business
  •   to have more of a say over the comms strategy
  •   to be in control of their diary and benefit from more flexibility
  •   they also think they will receive a better salary and a bigger bonus. However, as our survey revealed, this isn’t always the case
  •   better company benefits
  •   a new challenge, new experiences and the chance to develop skills
  •   a broader discipline remit
  •   more focus – working with one company, not several different clients

What do agencies need to do to retain and attract more talent?

Agencies haven’t necessarily done anything different to push people away, it’s just that many haven’t really moved in line with the change in attitude towards flexible working, which is now something that will be at the top of every professional’s wish list when looking for a new role.

Flexible working isn’t going to go away – ever. As businesses around the world were forced into work-from-home environments due to COVID-19, what was once vehemently opposed by some organisations became their only mode of operation. Those that said, ‘It will never work’ found that, when forced, it did work. Now that we know more, remote working will play a much more prominent role in a post-COVID world.  This is a reality that cannot and must not be ignored.

With big corporations like PwC and HSBC already refreshing their business and operating models so that the lion’s share of work is done remotely, agencies need to be blazing similar trails, setting benchmarks of their own.

We have never before encountered a time like the past six months; one side effect of the global pandemic is that employees have had time and headspace to work out which aspects of their job they’d like to change.  Many comms professionals now say they don’t want to go back to work in an office full-time, but rather would like the chance to work from home a couple of days a week. Before the global pandemic, it was easier for employers to deny this request, but moving forward, it’s likely to be at the very top of new employee demands. And there really is no reason to deny this request – we know that flexible working practices work.

If agencies haven’t already reviewed their working from home policies, they need to be doing so today!   From some of the conversations we have had, we can’t help feel that there are some agencies that think it will be ‘business as usual’ when they return to the office, with a few social distancing and new safety measures in place. This is too narrow.  However well thought of a flexible working policy was pre-COVID, that policy will still require reviewing and updating.  With so many more people on the market now, the competition for attracting the top talent has never looked so challenging.  It really is time for agencies to take some serious action – and fast – or they may well forever be considered second best.

The Works Search a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications. We have unrivalled matching abilities and known for finding the top 5% performers in the industry - the ones who deliver and make your reputation great. For more advice or market insights, do get in touch with us on 0207 903 9291 or email

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