In an industry where the average 20-something changes jobs every couple of years, media firms have to go that extra distance to prove they are worth working for.
So when one of the biggest newspapers in the land, The Sunday Times , decides that your firm is one of the top 100 in the country, it is something to shout about.
Advertising, media and publishing supplied six of the top 100 medium-sized companies and eight of the best small companies to work for in this year's list – not incredibly high totals, given the graduate appeal of the media sector, but not as low as might be suggested by the media world's general reputation for stinting on staff development.
Clearly, taking part is the first step to securing a ranking. Indeed, it may yet prove to be the case that other media companies could compete with MediaCom (28th best employer in the main survey), Carat (51) and MindShare (79), and with publisher Slimming World (10th in the small companies list), Feather Brooksbank (20), I-Level (39) and William Reed Publishing (93).
But in a media industry that regularly asks itself how it might attract more and better graduates, any companies that are prepared to measure themselves against the wider employment market ought to be commended on their willingness to evolve, at the very least.
Jonathan Austin, managing director of Best Companies, the research organisation that produces the lists, says: "Generally speaking, media is quite a sexy industry and for graduates there is something quite cool about working in that space."
"But what has happened, certainly among advertising agencies, is that they have played on that reputation, rather than actually delivering for their people. The companies in the list are the ones who have recognised that."
Carat's acting managing director, Neil Jones, says: "Every year, we have someone here go through the entire survey and pick out things other companies are doing we think are great to see if we can introduce them any of them here." But if there is one thing the survey shows, it is that there are many ways to build a loyal workforce. MediaCom aims to specialise in a fun, creative workplace, employing Matt Mee as "director of freshness" for just such a purpose among his other roles, and pioneering initiatives such as the annual "If I Ran The Company" brainstorm.
Slimming World derives a good deal of its company-wide glow from the ability of its staff, many of them former slimmers, to help people who are battling their weight.
Feather Brooksbank, which like Carat is owned by Aegis, pools its resources for charity drives and thrives on the absence of an overbearing company hierarchy. "There are all the standard human resources processes, the personal development policies, pensions and rewards which most companies have in place," says Feather Brooksbank head of research Charlotte Bond. "But I think what makes the difference is this sense that Stuart [Feather] and Giles [Brooksbank] are here on the shop floor and you feel they care about you."
Another relatively small, high-achieving company, the digital media agency I-Level, while not shirking its social responsibilities to its staff, identifies the rigorous requirements of the job as one of its key strengths.
Its founder and director, Andrew Walmsley, says: "What I find about this place is it is a very challenging place to work. Now, normally, ‘challenging' is a euphemism for ‘shit'; here it means that everybody is incredibly motivated by the idea of creating business success for our clients and the agency, and doing that in innovative ways."
Judging by the survey, a company that can create a supportive environment and an impression that each member of staff genuinely contributes to the business is already operating along the right lines.
Generous benefits are another winner. But the largest single difference between a good employer and a so-so one, according to Best Companies, is the ability of the company management to lead and inspire.
Most employees completing the questionnaire report that their managers talk more than they listen. Those companies where the opposite applies achieve better marks. Austin says: "If you score well on that question, you will make the list, and it is a tough one to do because you have actually got to listen and then do something about it – otherwise it is not really listening, it is just hearing."
Training is another key ingredient in staff satisfaction. MediaCom's joint managing director, Jane Ratcliffe, says: "You are making a short-term saving if you don't invest in your staff, even if that means things that could be seen as extra-curricular activities. Ultimately, if you don't do it, you lose them."
MediaCom considers every training request, from interior design to self-defence, while Carat – one of only a handful of companies tomake it into the survey for four years in a row – is similarly powered up the rankings by its commitment to staff 's personal development.
"People are the number one investment we make in terms of our overhead," says Neil Jones at Carat, where perks include subsidised staff skiing trips and, last year, a summer break in Marbella.
One thing the survey appears to demonstrate is that, on its own, money is not the key contributor to staff morale levels. Indeed, only 34 out of 298 employees at the second-placed company in the main list, St. Ann's Hospice in Manchester, earn more than £25,000 and only eight earn more than £35,000.
Starting salaries in the media sector likewise tend to be fairly low, but making a team feel appreciated is not generally a cheap trick to pull off, especially among the larger companies.
With 300 staff, Carat's staff annual training budget comes in at more than £1,000 per head, while MediaCom spent £422,000 last year on about 400 people. That is before you get to the staff holidays, the generous pension contributions and the other beyond-the-call of- duty items that characterise many of the companies in the list.
Another notable characteristic of most of the companies in the rankings is their commercial good health, prompting the question: does a well-rewarded staff drive success or are successful companies simply better-placed to reward their staff?
Walmsley believes the former suggestion is overwhelmingly the case. "Our success in the sector is very much a consequence of the policies that we follow in the way we manage our business and create the environment in which we work," he says. "In 2001, when market conditions were fairly inclement, we were still the same company, with the same policies and the same philosophy, so it is absolutely not that we are just making hay while the sun shines. We have been like this come rain and come shine."
Without question, however, the job of running a happy ship only becomes more difficult as businesses grow in size.
Jones professes nothing but the deepest respect for huge companies such as Asda that routinely hover among the top few in The Sunday Times survey, having drawn consistently positive reviews from thousands and thousands of staff.
"The bigger the company, the harder it is to keep everyone happy, and there is no hiding place. Every single employee fills in that questionnaire," he says.
The fact that so many firms, including Carat, Chrysalis, MediaCom, MindShare and I-Level, take the trouble to submit themselves to the process year in, year out, suggests there is a clear reward for those that do. And some of them believe it would be a positive step if more media companies were prepared to benchmark themselves.
"There are too many agencies out there that are running it like a sweatshop and I think that is damaging our industry a bit," says MediaCom's Ratcliffe. "We don't lose many staff to other agencies. We mainly lose staff to go travelling. They all get burned out very young, and that is a very big issue for us."
What makes a great media firm?
"Agencies seem to offer amore consistently positive environment for candidates than media owners and are much more forward-thinking with their packages. Media owners still give reasonable packages, but they are not always quite as innovative and many of them could do with a refresh."
"Agencies are also more likely to offer duvet days, which seem to work well abroad, or to put aside a pot of money for training which can be offered as a bonus to staff who do well and can be spent on anything, even if it is language classes or learning to drive. Even something as simple as offering massages – any company who is doing that is thinking about the conditions its staff are working in."
"Particularly for sales people, money is the first priority, but a good environment is a close second. More often than not, the main reasons people are leaving and looking for work are the environment, where they are and the lack of opportunities."
Ross Nicholson is a senior manager at Media ContactsBest small firms
Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (7)
Feather Brooksbank (20)
St Luke’s (32)
Fox Murphy (43)
Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel (74)
William Reed Publishing (93)