Talent stampedes to Calgary

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Is there anything small to midsize U.S. agencies can learn from their counterpart in Calgary, a leading city in the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta? Yes, if a visit to the offices of Rare Method is any indication.

Situated in downtown Calgary, Rare Method is an independent interactive marketing firm offering services such as brand-based print advertising to interactive events, Web design, search engine marketing and e-mail marketing. The firm has 87 employees, many of them the result of nearly 10 acquisitions made in its five-year history. Stone Monkey Media and Ground Level Design were purchases announced this month by the publicly traded company.

"It's relationships," Rare Method president Roger Jewett said of the deals. "It's one of the areas where Rare Method is unique. Really what we're acquiring is the relationships these proprietors have. As a marketing company, really what we're selling is trust. These small businesses, we've taken the monkey off their back. We can provide financing, back-end stuff."

Rare Method competes for regional and North American accounts with agencies like Critical Mass, Suitcase Interactive, Media Dog Productions, MacLaren McCann and Young & Rubicam. Some of those rivals have agency holding company parents in New York and London, so Rare Method's fight is not just for business, but also talent.

"One of the bigger challenges we face in Calgary is people - finding and keeping employees," Mr. Jewett said on a tour of his vibrant offices. "Companies need to have an acquisition and retention strategy for employees, not just clients. In the past two years, I've focused equally on human resources management as I've focused on customer management.

"One of our PR strategies has actually been acquiring companies," he said, "and what that's done is it's created buzz about Rare Method in the industry. And the benefit of the buzz is attracting new clients, but it's also about attracting new employees."

That PR helped land clients like Travel Alberta, Tourism Calgary and Bayer Crop Science. The firm also does work for FedEx Corp., the Champ Car series, Shell Canada and Napa Auto Parts. Revenue last year was $6.5 million.

Mr. Jewett takes his staff on excursions, like a recent trip to Banff, a ski resort outside Calgary. That adventure cost $30,000 or so, but lifted staff spirits. Then there was the encounter with trained eagles at Glenbow Museum in the city. A trip to McMahon Stadium left memories for a lifetime: Each employee got to kick a field goal. And don't forget the annual Stampede party where staffers are invited to bring family and friends to expose them to the Rare Method culture.

Perhaps most interesting is Rare Method's riff on air miles. Mr. Jewett calls them Rare Miles - points awarded by peers, supervisors and administrators for exemplary work. He uses his air miles along with gift certificates to support this effort. A draw is held every two months for three prizes awarded to lucky winners from the top 10 Rare Method staff earning Rare Miles. The top prize is a roundtrip flight for two plus $500 cash. Second- and third-prize winners get gift certificates. Comments on Rare Method's intranet are proof that the program is a hit. The goal is to license this system soon to other companies in North America.

"The most important thing to an employee outside of a paycheck is recognition and acknowledgment that they're doing a good job," Mr. Jewett said. "What we're doing in Calgary is creating a great place to work."

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