Diana Bradley
May 30, 2022

Uptick in boomerang employees puts spotlight on agency culture

The grass isn’t always greener. Five people share why they left — and then returned — to their previous PR agencies.

Uptick in boomerang employees puts spotlight on agency culture

The Great Resignation is stretching well beyond the length of a two weeks’ notice, with people continuing to leave their jobs for bigger titles, more money or just to take a leap of faith. 

But some are finding a new opportunity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Two people who left roles at PR firms since the COVID-19 pandemic started for something totally different are Clayton Durant, who departed MikeWorldWide to start his own record label, and Mary Newsome, who exited Genuine Article to work with an influencer.

Both ended up returning to their respective agencies.

PR firms are seeing an uptick in staffers like Durant and Newsome boomeranging after switching jobs during the pandemic. The main reason? For many, it’s a workplace’s culture. 

Since March 2020, 40 staffers have boomeranged back to Zeno Group globally.

“We’ve always had a good number of boomerangs, but there has been an uptick in the last couple of years,” says Carol Gronlund, chief talent officer at Zeno Group.

She says Zeno’s values and culture — the firm cites kindness, humanity and collaboration — are luring staffers back. 

“As the pandemic shifted values for people around the world, we saw an increased importance placed on things like security, safety and caring for family,” says Gronlund. “People who have boomeranged back to Zeno since the start of COVID-19 often remark that it feels like a homecoming; that they are rejoining a firm that feels very familiar, an environment that prioritizes the well-being of our employees and that our people-centric culture resonates in a world where we have shifted to focus on the things that really matter.”

Two people who came back to Zeno during the pandemic are consumer EVP Kelly Cagney and consumer VP Jamie Dammrich. Cagney left the agency in 2018 to join Turtle Wax as director of global marketing and rejoined the DJE Holdings shop in December 2021.

“I really missed my Zeno family,” says Cagney. “The values that Zeno holds, the fearless spirit, the work, the people — it’s home.”

Dammrich took a longer hiatus from Zeno, leaving in 2015 to join Hill+Knowlton Strategies as a senior account supervisor and later MSL in the same role. She returned to Zeno in March 2021.

“After experiencing other agencies, I can say the grass is not greener,” says Dammrich.

The first year of the pandemic left Dammrich mentally and emotionally drained and in desperate need of a change, she says. 

“I wasn’t willing to gamble on an uncertain culture or a façade of caring leaders who weren’t going to take action for the people,” she says. “Zeno’s smart and supportive people, people-driven culture and engaged leadership was the crux of my decision to come back.”

At MikeWorldWide, four boomerangs of varying levels returned to the agency over the last year. MWW president Bret Werner attributes the returnees to the firm’s people-first approach, “superb” client base and benefits designed by its employees. That has all driven retention and a positive culture, he says. 

“We are attracting talent that is entrepreneurial and creative in a competitive marketplace,” says Werner.

Some employees who started a new job during the pandemic may have found it hard to integrate into a culture remotely. So many staffers who left for a fully remote job may return to an in-person role because they miss the sense of camaraderie they had. 

“You need to have lunch or a drink with your co-workers, and it’s hard to do that over Zoom,” says Werner.

On the other side, PR agencies are happy to hire boomerangs because they know what to expect. In a hyper-competitive job market with rising salaries, agencies are gravitating toward bringing on talent they know and trust, Werner says of the boomerang trend.

“Former employees can also onboard more quickly, so as business booms, you need people that can integrate quickly,” he says.

Greg Miller, cofounder and principal of Dallas-based firm Genuine Article, says he is seeing more boomerangs apply for or be accepted for job positions.

“It’s two-fold because there is a level of built-in trust by an employer in hiring a boomerang,” he says. “There is a level of familiarity with the work environment if there is a candidate that went out to try something different and maybe it wasn’t the best fit and they wanted a bit of their old work style back.”

There is a major difference between an employee when they leave an organization and when they return to it: they often have a different skill set than when they left, and many are coming back to roles more suited to their passions. The pandemic has helped many to evaluate what is most important to them on a personal level, what type of work they want to do and how they want to grow, Cagney says.

“So many people picked up new skills and learned new things over the last couple of years,” she says.

Durant left his role as a corporate comms account executive at MWW in 2020 to get a masters in music business at New York University. Within two years, he started his own record label and music management company, CAD Management, and signed a joint venture with SoundCloud.

“If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have [left MWW],” says Durant. “But COVID woke you up and said, ‘This is the time to take a risk because everything is being disrupted.’”

The pandemic gave people a “two-year hiatus to figure stuff out,” he adds.

While in his last semester at graduate school, MWW reached out to Durant on LinkedIn to let him know there was an opening for a position as senior manager of emerging media. He rejoined the agency this month because he says it was an opportunity more in-line with his interests that he couldn’t pass up.

Durant’s record label still exists, but he is not building it out while working at MWW.

The boomerang trend mirrors what’s happening in the U.S. workforce at large. Data from LinkedIn shows that boomerangs accounted for 4.5% of all hires at companies connected to its network in 2021, up 3.9% from the two years earlier. 

R.J. Bruce is another boomerang who came back to a totally different role. Bruce was a senior associate at Reputation Partners from 2016 until March 2020, when he left for an account supervisor role at FleishmanHillard. He returned to Reputation Partners in February 2021 as account director of crisis and issues.

Reputation Partners had been Bruce’s only experience at a PR agency, so the role at Fleishman attracted him because it is a larger agency with a global presence. While at the Omnicom Group firm, Bruce says he learned a lot but wasn’t getting as much experience as he had hoped in the area that he is most passionate about: crisis and issues communications.

“Fortunately, I still had a strong relationship with Reputation Partners, and as I was talking with some of my former colleagues about wanting to transition again and focus specifically on crisis and issues, the idea of coming back to Reputation Partners with that specialty was brought up,” says Bruce. “After thinking on it for some time and digging into what the role could look like, I decided becoming a boomerang was the right choice.”

Bruce returned to Reputation Partners because of its team of crisis comms experts, but equally important to him was the “unparalleled” talent and kindness of the agency’s employees.  

PR agencies can benefit from the new skills that boomerang employees bring on-board. Bruce says that even though he was gone for only one year, he has been able to take what he learned while he was away and apply it to the work he is doing for Reputation Partners’ clients.

“Leaving and coming back made me a stronger practitioner and helped me develop in ways I may not have otherwise been able to,” says Bruce.

For others like Newsome, leaving a PR firm for a totally new role is a way to learn they never should have left agency life in the first place.

After three years at Genuine Article, Newsome left her job as a manager in October 2020 to work for lifestyle influencer Dani Austin.

“With everything going on with COVID-19, it felt like if I was going to make a move, it made sense at that time,” says Newsome.

But she was only away for nine months, as she quickly found that her new role didn’t take full advantage of her skills. 

“When you work for a person, you turn into a personal assistant,” says Newsome. “So I was doing more Target returns rather than strategy and partnership deals.”

Fortunately for Newsome, Genuine Article welcomed her back with open arms and even promoted her to senior manager.

“PR is super unique in that, depending on the agency, there is not really a structure around it,” says Newsome of why she returned to Genuine Article. “I missed having different things to do every day. I like walking in and never knowing what to expect. I missed that rush.”


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