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Comms professionals snub agencies in favour of in-house roles: but how do salaries and benefits compare?

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Agencies are still playing second fiddle to in-house companies when it comes to where communications professionals would consider moving to in their next role, according to a new salary guide.

The Annual Salary Guide 2021 by The Works, a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications, says the figures have not changed since the previous year’s findings. In 2019, a whopping 69% of respondents said they would like an in-house role, and this figure stands true for 2020. Only 11% of comms professionals would consider an agency role.

“This puts agencies in a precarious place – short on talent and at risk of losing the good people they do have,” says The Works.

Source: The Works’ Annual Salary Guide 2021

Freelancers in the communications sector have had a rough year. Many, according to the guide had their contracts terminated at the onset of the March 2020 lockdown. Yet despite the pandemic’s cause for uncertainty, 5% of professionals surveyed said that they were keen to set up their own agency or company and 7% are looking to go freelance. That said, 8% are opting to leave the industry completely.

Of those surveyed, just 2% are employed on a contract basis.

The strong appeal of in-house roles is hardly breaking news, says The Works, who have “heard time and again how candidates want to work for just one brand, to be at the heart of the business, 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 in an in-house role, said the consultancy.

The survey findings confirm that while average in-house salaries are in fact very similar compared to salaries in agencies, the average bonuses in-house are currently larger than agency bonuses. In-house comms teams certainly stand out when it comes to higher-value benefits: bigger pension contributions, death in service schemes, more flexible working policies, more life insurance, ability to buy more holiday…the list is long, says the PR consultancy.

Salaries: how do in-house and agency roles compare?

  • The average salary increases in corporate comms remained flat, with in-house reporting a slight salary increase of £1,500.
  • Agencies reported a salary increase of £4,125 across the board, however, if excluding CEOs, MDs, and Partners, there is a salary decrease of £1,600
  • More senior level professionals have faced pay freezes or taken pay cuts compared to their junior colleagues
  • 11% of senior level professionals were asked to take a pay cut compared to 8% of junior levels in-house; for agencies, the numbers are 31% vs 18%
  • Agency salaries have been more impacted than in-house: 9% of agency professionals reported a drop in salary, compared to 5% of in-house professionals
  • 54% of agency professionals moved as a result of redundancy, compared to 20% of in-house professionals

Women have not fared well during the pandemic

  • 16% of women were asked to take a pay cut, compared to 12% of men

Why aren’t agencies putting up a bigger fight to stay competitive?

Even those that will consider an agency role, are very particular in their requirements and expectations.

“The pool of talent for agency roles is shrinking rapidly, which surely means that agency owners need to carry out a proper shake-up and adapt their businesses to mitigate the hiring crisis and avoid losing their great people. Agencies are competing with major corporates for their talent, not other agencies,” says The Works.

Agencies were certainly harder hit by the pandemic than in-house companies – 24% of agency professionals took a pay cut compared to 10% of in-house respondents; agencies needed to make more cuts to company benefits, as well as pare back and freeze more salaries and make more redundancies.

“No doubt about it – it has been a rough ride in the agencies. However, they have bounced back. We have heard some impressive stories of agencies recovering their revenue and quickly restoring employees’ salaries. But it’s going to take a lot more for the agencies to stand out again,” said the report.

How can agencies stand out to clients and candidates?

  1. Work-life balance: One positive outcome of the pandemic is the opportunity it has presented for agencies, in particular, to take stock and start moving with the times and the evolution in the way that we now work. It’s time for them to align themselves with the new expectations of professionals. The generations growing up in PR careers now want a work-life balance. Women continue to face the challenge of weighing up if the demands of agency life are sustainable with having a family and being present in the office.
  2. Flexibility: The pandemic has changed what comms professionals are looking for when they move jobs, and agencies without any form of flexibility and few ‘high value’ company benefits are less attractive. A good salary and bonus package isn’t enough anymore – perhaps it’s time for agencies to review their company pension policies, flexible working offerings, private healthcare and share option schemes, and life insurance policies.
  3. Gender pay parity: The survey found that men received higher pay rises in both agencies and in-house. On a base salary of £80k, an increase of 3.26% (men) compared to an increase of 2.96% (women) equates to a £240 difference. On a base salary of £120k, the difference is £360 more for men compared to women. Once again, men are seeing larger pay increases – it may be marginal, but we are clearly still not there with equal pay; women are missing out compared to their male counterparts.

Next steps

When agencies are facing a shrinking pool of talent (and they have their work cut out for them if that talent is made up of the 11% of professionals willing to consider a move to an agency), it’s time to think about creating a great employee value proposition. The agencies who figure how to make themselves exciting employers and start competing with the benefits of in-house will shine out in this market and remain attractive to the small pool of talent.

To access the full Salary Guide, click here

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