Great Company Culture is a Differentiator


At Bateman Group, they know their company culture is a business strategy that helps them win clients. When Founder and CEO Fred Bateman founded the company in 2003, he set out to start a different kind of PR company, one where employees want to stick around and build a career, not just use the job as a rung on the ladder to something better.  You know that they’re doing it differently because the first thing you see when you go to their website is the following statement:


On this episode, Fred shares his many years of experience in hiring and retaining great teams, building an outstanding company culture, and how all of this helps Bateman Group win against its competitors.

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Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.


Today on the program, Fred Bateman the CEO and founder of Bateman Group, at bootstrap strategic communications and content marketing agency based in San Francisco and New York City. Fred founded Bateman Group in 2003 and the firm currently has 60 employees. Fred Bateman, we are excited to learn today from you, welcome to the show.


Fred Bateman: Thanks for having me. My pleasure.


Adam Robinson: In the last 12 months, Bateman Group has broken through record annual revenues and you’ve won all kinds of awards. 2017 North American Saber Award for tech agency of the year from Holmes Report. You’ve been on the Ink best cultures list now. You’ve made the entrepreneur awards list, you’ve been profiled all over the place. Your employment brand is awesome. You guys ooze great place to work all over and it’s so great to have you on the program.


Fred Bateman: Thank you. I always joke that it took 10 years to become an overnight success. Like in any industry, the last few years have been tremendous in terms of industry recognition and business momentum. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, it took a long time to get there.


Adam Robinson: That’s great. Clearly, humility is a factor in that, I can tell already. We’re here today to focus on the people side of your business but before we dive in, let’s set the stage. Give us 30 seconds on Bateman Group and what you’re all about.


Fred Bateman: Sure, my pleasure. Bateman Group is as you mentioned, we’re a PR firm but we like to go a little broader than that because we do more than public relations. We do also in addition to what people traditionally think of public relations being media relations, we also have a content marketing arm, the landscape in PR has broadened a lot over the last few years and we’ve tried to be responsive to that by formalizing practice areas around content creation and research campaigns and data campaigns. We like to say we take what we call a content led, data driven approach to strategic communications for our clients. Which helps set us apart and distinguishes us from the competition because many of them just really do media relations for their clients and have a hard time integrating in the other practice areas as well as we do.


I think that’s what our clients look to is look to us for, is leadership in terms of taking an integrative approach to the way that they do strategic communications and looking for a partner to help guide them in terms of how to integrate in these newer elements that are at play.


Adam Robinson: And if our listeners want to learn more about what you do, what’s the best way for them to do that?


Fred Bateman: There’s always our website at or just Googling us. It’ll come up. We’ve offices in San Francisco and in Brooklyn ,New York. I always like to joke that we were Brooklyn before it was cool. There about seven years. We’re a national firm and our clients are, they range from globally known companies like Google, LinkedIn, Betterment, Atlassian to some of today’s hottest startups. VC funded startups that are tomorrow’s technology leaders.


Adam Robinson: Quite the client roster and had to chuckle when you named that list and say some of today’s hottest startups. Those were the hardest startups of the last 10 years and you guys have a who’s who client roster, pretty impressive. Pretty impressive.


Fred Bateman: We try to be, curate a client roster. We’re pretty selective in terms of who we decide to take on and that’s, while we could be probably twice the size, I feel like we don’t ever want to have quantity over quality when it comes to the clients that we work with. We’ve really been focused on selectivity from the very beginning and not just growth for growth’s sake.


Adam Robinson: Sitting above the fold on the homepage of your website is the phrase, hire great people and exceptional work will follow. You have put hiring the best team front and center in how you market yourself to your prospects and sell yourself to your customers. And digging into the website, and I would encourage listeners to do that, it’s everything somebody would want to know about working for you, down to the benefits you offer, what’s in it for them, all about your vision. It’s just an exceptional employment brand and I have to ask you, how in the world did you learn to do that? Did somebody tell you do it this way? Was this intuitive? How did you figure out how to do all of this? ‘Cause it’s really exceptional particularly for the size firm you are. You just don’t see it.


Fred Bateman: In our business, people are buying, our customers are buying the people at the firm. I’ve been in this industry since I was in college, actually starting as an intern when I was at Boston College and working in the Boston market before moving to San Francisco and there’s always, it’s always been apparent to me that turnover has been something that plagued our industry for decades and it’s still a major issue in terms of something that inhibits business growth for public relations agencies. For years there was a unspoken rule or understanding among people who worked at PR firms that you were marking time until that corporate job came around that you would grab and then that’s where you would finally begin to make the real money and see your career really start to take off and that the agency world was providing you with the training to that.


I really wanted to break the mold on that one when starting Bateman Group and create a place where people could spend their entire careers and feel like they could reinvent themselves, be constantly challenged and have opportunities constantly coming up with a transom that were exciting to them in that they could evolve and that this workplace could be someplace where they could spend their entire careers if they chose to. Because I love the agency side, I think it’s much more exciting, I love the variety, the corporate side, if you find the right company, is great, but a lot of times companies get acquired, there’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of unpredictability, agencies stay around forever but the corporate side’s constantly changing as the marketplace moves so rapidly particularly in technology.


I wanted to create a culture that was sticky. In that people felt like they could spend their careers at and be able to constantly expand their skillset. I realized in order to do that we needed to redesign how the agency culture is structured. And do so in a way that would be also appealing to customers at the same time. That wasn’t completely internally focused but something we could market externally as a benefit to our customers too.


Adam Robinson: So culture is a differentiator. That’s a business strategy for you.


Fred Bateman: Absolutely. One of the areas where we often find ourselves winning against our most formidable competitors is a lot of times clients come to us because they’ve had so much turnover on their teams at some of our competing agencies that we come up against. They grew tired of having to retrain new people time and time again because our competitors can’t hold onto their staff as long as we can. Generally we have relations with our clients that last four, five, six, seven years and they have almost the same team in place the entire time which is really unusual. It becomes a differentiator for us against the competition because we can almost guarantee that the team’s going to look very similar from the onset of a relationship all the way through the lifecycle three or four or five years later. That’s very unusual in our industry.


Adam Robinson: Powerful stuff. Describe the way everyone else does culture and how you do it and why you’re winning with your culture.


Fred Bateman: I don’t think any of competitors set out to have bad cultures. Nobody does that, they all have the best of intentions. Then for whatever reason it becomes deprioritized over time. You have to have it woven into your DNA from very early on that you prioritize your people first and your clients second. And that’s not easy because we’re in a client service business, where we have very demanding clients, it’s not an easy business to be in, clients are demanding, sometimes unreasonably so and it can be very hard to remember that your people have to come first I’ve wanted to create an agency where I prioritize my personal relationships ahead of business success.


I never really wanted to ever have anybody work here who felt like I, if a client went away, that their job would be at risk or that their reputation at the firm would be jeopardized because we didn’t have their backs. One of the things that’s different about us is that, and this starts with me, but I’ve built a team that really truly believes in this, is that our personal relationships or the people that work here are much more important and have to be prioritized over our client relationships. And as a result, our clients get the attention and the commitment of people that feel truly trusted and supported and they end up, it becomes indirect to us from a business perspective. We invest in our people first and the clients follow, rather than focusing only on our clients’ service offering or attracting leads and then making people prioritization second.


Adam Robinson: What’s so ironic about this, I read a profile posted on your company’s site that you did on interviews and you make this statement that you actually don’t think you’re very good at interviewing people at all. You said that it’s something you’ve always struggled with and so I find it fascinating that for someone who’s self admittedly struggles with this to have built such a world class culture. How did you go from the struggle to being so good at this?


Fred Bateman: I’m just not good at interviewing candidates in a way that rigorously shakes them down for their strengths and weaknesses. I just try to sell them on the firm and get them to like me. I consider it a weakness because I don’t, I never really good at walking out of these conversations with a sense of whether the person is any good at what we do. I just know whether there’s chemistry and I definitely come at it from a more of a place of humility. I’m always surprised and honored and flattered that anybody wants to work here. With every client win, I’m always so surprised and still honored and flattered that people want to work with Bateman Group or with our brand. It’s important to remain humble and people feel that. Even if we don’t decide to hire a certain candidate, the experience that they had coming through here and the interviewing process is one of total respect and total humility.


It’s an important attribute both for me personally and for the company because some of our best advocates are people that we haven’t hired or clients that haven’t hired us. Or employees that have come through here and maybe it didn’t work out. I feel like people can either, your former employees can either help or hinder, particularly in the age of social media with Glassdoor and websites like that anybody that comes through our ranks can hurt or help you. If you treat them with respect and humility, more than likely when they move on they’re going to continue to talk positively about your company and your brand.


Adam Robinson: Do you have, I know you feel like you’re winging it and you just want people, you want to sell on the firm and get them to like you as you say, do you have a favorite interview question that you like to ask? Is there a standby that gives you what you need? Surely there’s veto situations where you go, you know, this person as sharp as they are, is just not going to work out here.


Fred Bateman: There’s a couple things I try to uncover which PR agencies are very team oriented environments, I have found that, and this is a sweeping generalization, I’ll probably get in trouble for even saying, I find that people who are only children or maybe never participated in a team activity like sports or theater or whatever, they sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the team orientation that you have to have at a PR agency. Which is putting your own personal ego aside and your own professional goals for the good of the team and recognizing that you’ll be rewarded later. And generously so. But there’s often, there’s a patience that’s inherent in that that not everybody has. So I try to uncover whether people were involved in team activities in their prior lives and if that’s an indication of whether they’ll do well here in the team environment.


I also look for people that I think come from a more working class background like myself sometimes. Not that we don’t have people that come from families of significant means, they’re extremely hard working and devoted to the company and committed to their clients and their careers but I find there’s a hunger among people who come from families of maybe lesser means who either maybe helped put themselves through college or get scholarships that can’t be matched. I always find that that’s something that really drove me was growing in a family, a single parent household in wrong side of the tracks Boston. I wanted to get out and it was, there was a desire for me to succeed that was driven by something just not wanting to be working class anymore. I think there’s something to be said for that.


Adam Robinson: Sure. It’s a formula that’s clearly yielded results for you. Is your leadership team a reflection of that focus in the hiring process?


Fred Bateman: One of things I’ve tried to do is build a leadership team that’s very diverse. And so I have to say that we all have the same values and we’re very much aligned on those in terms of putting people first, in terms of working with clients that are of the highest quality and not necessarily looking for rapid business growth for the sake of rapid business growth. The focus that we have here on mentoring is really, really strong so the people that are in leadership positions here spend a lot of time mentoring junior and middle level staff on developing their skills. But we come in very different packages. I wouldn’t want a leadership team of clones of me at all. That would be a really bad thing because I’m very much aware of my shortcomings and my weaknesses and so I’ve tried to fill in those gaps with people who are good at those things.


We tend to, we have a very diverse leadership team of men and mostly women and of all different sizes and shapes and races and sexual orientations and I’m really proud of that and because of the diversity that we have that’s built in, it’s a really powerful thing because people on the staff always can find someone that they self-identify with and that’s so important when you’re building a company is that the people at the middle and junior levels see somebody on the leadership team that they can identify with. Whether it’s somebody that has built, gotten married and had kids and built their family on this platform and that’s what path they want to go. Or seeing really powerful woman who is built an incredible career in is still single and thriving. Or had a child on their own because they had the means to do so and didn’t necessarily feel they had to wait to be married to have that life experience. I feel like we have an incredible leadership team but we’re all so different looking. That it’s been a powerful selling tool in terms of recruitment.


Adam Robinson: You mentioned something in the comments there about mentoring junior folks. Do you have a formal mentorship program in place at the firm?


Fred Bateman: We do. I have two co-owners, Bill Bourdon here in San Francisco and Tyler Perry, a woman, who runs my New York office and Tyler was my first employee and she formalized our mentorship program very early on in our history. And yes, it’s very formalized. Everything that we do has a process when it comes to either recruiting or our culture or our vibe, there’s always a backbone to it. It’s important that you don’t just, it’s not just words on paper but there’s actually a process for doing everything. Our mentorship program is a strong one and the process is once somebody’s onboard about three months, they hand select their own mentor they’re not assigned one. ‘Cause they might be assigned their manager so they often pick a mentor that’s not somebody’s they report to directly but somebody that they self-identify with. As I mentioned, that sense of self-identification is really important.


They can choose their own mentor and they meet monthly and we subsidize mentor lunches or mentor dinners. Somebody that’s not their direct manager to turn to for guidance in terms of how to navigate our culture, how to navigate the industry and talk to about how to further their careers.


Adam Robinson: As somebody on your leadership team, what would you tell me are the most, let’s say I’m a new member of management or leadership organization, what are you going to tell me are the most important characteristics that I can have? Or behaviors I can exhibit that will make me successful at your company?


Fred Bateman: Well I’d say that humility is one for sure. A sense of humor is another. We don’t take ourselves that seriously and everybody at the firm realizes that it’s a PR not ER is an old cliché expression that we like to use. Those are attributes that go a long way. There’s a intellectual curiosity as well that’s inherent among all of us. Even when we’re very, very small we viewed ourselves as superior to our competitors in terms of our approach and our abilities and with that comes a high standard in terms of intellect and in terms of knowledge. Not just of trends in communications or technology but in economics, macroeconomic trends overall. There comes, people that do well here are people who are intellectually curious and always reading and learning and inquiring about what’s going on in the broader industry and not just in PR specifically. With that, ups the caliber of our ability to provide strategic council because we have really, really smart people that are encouraging learning and growing across the board.


Adam Robinson: That’s fantastic. Not everybody that you think is going to work out always works out or performs to expectations. What’s your philosophy around feedback or if necessary, coaching people onto better fits for them?


Fred Bateman: That’s a good question. Our performance review, if you look at our Glassdoor reviews, our performance review process is pretty rigorous. Everybody is reviewed at usually three months, six months and annually and then generally every six months after that in their second year. It’s important to recognize that not everybody is the best fit for agency life or for this industry. Making sure that they’re treated with a real lot of respect and that’s there some counseling in terms of, sometimes people reach of point where the amount of multitasking you have to do on the agency side is just too much for them and they would benefit by having a singular focus of a corporate site position where there’s just one technology to learn, one industry, one product line or what have you. The agency side you’ve got to get really smart and be able to speak knowledgeably to a variety of technology sub markets that really keeps you on your toes and some people thrive on that and love that, other people are overwhelmed by that.


We often find that some people get to a stage it doesn’t make sense to coach them to the corporate side and then they end up hiring us as their agency, which is great because the respect that we treat people with throughout the process is really appreciated by the person on the receiving end. And it helps your brand because when they go on into the industry overall, they still look fondly on their time at Bateman Group and tend to recommend us, refer us or even hire us.


Adam Robinson: The ultimate compliment is for a terminated employee to hire you as their agency of record. That’s pretty impressive.


Fred Bateman: I’ve always made it a priority to try and stay in touch with people who have come through our ranks. I certainly have my network and former clients are a part of that. But I’d say more so are our former employees and we’ve had some really exceptional people, it’s been tough to let them to go sometimes because they’ve added so much to this whole journey of mine and the other people that have been here for a long time. We really do make an effort to stay in close contact with them, it’s a small industry, even though it’s grown tremendously since I’ve been in it. And our paths cross all the time so it’s really important to never burn a bridge and to remember, as I said earlier, former employees can either really be an advocate or particularly with things like Glassdoor, other forms of social media, really hurt your brand is you don’t treat them with the right modicum of respect and decency.


Adam Robinson: We talked about respect and counseling folks out of the firm, how do you reward great performance?


Fred Bateman: The first is moving, people who are talented should be promoted at a cycle. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a waiting game or waiting in line for a certain time. If they’re ready to move up the ranks quickly and we tend to hire people usually a level lower than they usually want to be hired in at or think they should be hired in at, if they come from another agency. So they can really exceed expectations. In doing that we have to make sure that we do move them along quickly or they’ll get bored and they’ll want to leave. Recognizing talent and moving them quickly along our promotion path is important.


I also think public recognition is something that we’re really good at. We monthly all-hands or even just over email on a daily basis. Calling out successes publicly to the whole company. I had employees both former and current tell me that they never felt more appreciated or more recognized for their good work than they have at Bateman Group and that just brings a tear to my eye.


Adam Robinson: That’s great. You’ve been in business now approaching 15 years. What has changed from a recruiting and retention standpoint as the owner? What have you seen the major shift be? What’s different now then what was different at the, in the early 2000s?


Fred Bateman: A couple of factors have come into play. Our reputation has grown and we have become one of two or three or four leaders in our segment of communications and technology PR and we do have a, and our culture, the reputation that our culture’s gotten has made it a little easier to attract talent than we started out. It’s much easier to get higher quality resumes than it was in the 2000s when our reputation wasn’t as well known. At the same time the economy has continued it’s uptick and we’re in a sustained period of an upmarket, the longest we’ve ever experienced without a recession, knock wood and holding onto talent is harder and harder because there’s more, especially in San Francisco and New York where we have offices, more competition for that talent. And we know that are people are constantly getting hit up on LinkedIn by recruiters and for other positions and so we have to work twice as hard as say we did in 08 or 09 when there was a recession to keep people stimulated and compensated in a way that they don’t go other places.


While we think the leap flow in terms of candidates is easier now than in our early days, it’s harder to, we have to pay very, very competitively because this is the most expensive city in the country, San Francisco, New York is a close second now, it’s interesting how that has flip flopped. We have our offices in the two most expensive markets in the world, or at least in the US, I guess the world is inaccurate if you look at Geneva or places like that. Certainly in the United States we have to constantly be making our packages more and more appealing when it comes to compensation and benefits. We’re always evaluating what we offer from a health benefits and professional development packages for our employees in trying to up the ante. I can say confidently that our benefits package and our perks for employees are the best in the industry and I always want to make sure that we’re offering that. It certainly it affect our margins but that’s something that we live because we feel like the upside to our business is worth the sacrifice in the profit margins.


Adam Robinson: Is it safe to say that your profit margin would be worse impacted if the turnover was higher?


Fred Bateman: I think so. I’ve never, I don’t know because I haven’t run a business that was like that before. Or has a lot of turnover afflicting it. Be interesting to compare the two or contrast. But we’ve always been, we’ve always had this model and always enjoyed or have had our success driven by our employer retention so I don’t know. That’s a good question but I think so. I think it would be riskier to have 50% turnover like some of our competitors and constantly be trying to replace those candidates. We would see a lot less top line revenue growth because our clients would leave more frequently. And in the impact on the culture and learning and our ability to provide a high-quality service offering would be so impacted by the turnover I can’t even, I can’t imagine how we would compete. I don’t know how some of our competitors keep the doors open when they suffer from that kind of turnover. It’s amazing to me that they don’t take, do more to try and hold onto their people.


Adam Robinson: You’re doing so many things right. What is one thing, as it relates to the people side of Bateman Group that you think that you could be doing a better job at?


Fred Bateman: As we scale it gets harder. Now that we’re up to 60 plus people and with an open headcount for five more, probably before the end of the year, it gets harder to make sure everybody gets that kind of individualized attention. We’re always trying to improve on, making sure that this model scales and that as we get bigger we don’t lose the attributes that made us such an incredible place to work and a valuable partner to our clients. That’s really tough because there’s only so many of us and I often worry that at 70 or 80 or 90 people, we won’t be able to continue giving people the kind of experience that they have now.


Adam Robinson: Fantastic. Little lighter side question here. What book is on the nightstand and would you recommend it to our audience?


Fred Bateman: Funny but it’s, I just got it from Amazon too and I want to say the right title, but it’s, something about living with anxiety.


Adam Robinson: Okay, all right, tell me more.


Fred Bateman: I’ve always suffered from, I’ve always been high strung but I’ve definitely, that’s kind of morphed into I have an issue managing my own anxiety and I’m always looking for tips for keeping it something under control and also taking my anxiety and turning that adrenaline to positive as opposed to negative energy. And so this book has a lot of tips in terms of recognizing what things in life can cause anxiety. I always tell people I would rather have anxiety rather than depression ’cause at least it gets you out of bed in the morning.


Adam Robinson: Well said.


Fred Bateman: It’s not like, there are times when it becomes overwhelming and I can’t control it, that’s a very personal note. Certainly I don’t mind talking about it as someone who suffers from anxiety disorder, I think it’s important to be public about it and let others know that you can still have a fruitful life and be successful and keep it managed without it taking over.


Adam Robinson: Well thank you for sharing that with us. Final question here as we wrap up, if you were to come back on the program a year from now and tell us whether or not you successfully executed against the one most important thing as it relates to your team, what would that be?


Fred Bateman: Maintaining our eight to 10% employee retention. I’m sorry, let me invert that, I might have to restate that. Our 90 to 92% employee retention. Our attrition is generally only eight to 10%. That’s a barometer that we look at very closely. But we also have a happiness barometer that we just, we’re doing right now, we’re in the process of doing. And we try to maintain a score of around eight or higher out of 10 in terms of employee happiness. We look at that very closely. I think last year we were at 7.9, so we want to get it up over eight and the questionnaire is very in depth. So I’d love next year to be able to report back that we’ve maintained, kept our attrition to eight or 7% or even lowered that amount, while gotten our happiness barometer up over eight or 8.1.


Adam Robinson: That’s great. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the final word. You’ve been learning from Fred Bateman, CEO and founder of Bateman Group. Fred just chalked full of great experience based information on how you’ve been so successful the people side of your business. Thank you so much for being here today.


Fred Bateman: Thanks Adam, that was great talking to you.


Adam Robinson: That’s a wrap for this episode of The Best Team Wins podcast where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at Thanks for listening and we will see you next week.