The Best Employee Incentive Is Purpose

Using monetary incentives to motivate employee productivity or increase performance is a tried and true practice. The question is, how effective are monetary rewards?

Incentives in Ad Agencies

Agency principals sometimes ask us about incentives to promote greater employee engagement. Because we deal with smaller to mid-sized agencies, we usually counsel against giving bonuses for bonuses’ sake. If bonuses are automatic, simply based on a set profit percentage or seniority, where’s the motivation? Your “reward” becomes a mere transaction, and no one gets engaged and motivated over a transaction.

Any rewards you offer should be tied to meeting employee, team and agency goals and objectives. But before you even think about rewards of any kind, take a careful look at wages. Are you paying a fair salary and competitive benefits? If you are, it is even more likely that money will not be a very effective motivator. Also, where employee responsibilities involve more than mere mechanical skills, money has been shown not to motivate at all. Workers in jobs requiring higher-level cognitive skills (that certainly applies to most advertising and marketing jobs) not only don’t meet performance goals, but have been seen to fail noticeably in study after study. 

That doesn’t mean bonuses aren’t a nice gesture of recognition, but other tactics may be better at motivating and promoting actual change in behavior and engagement. When bonuses become expected—indeed, routine—you lose all motivating impact. Employees start seeing bonuses as a right rather than a reward they have to earn.

Also, just handing out bonuses doesn’t guarantee people will be inspired to work harder, longer or smarter. You can’t order people to be motivated. You can only prepare the environment and culture to allow and encourage pursuit of their passions and the agency mission. Positive reinforcement and your own positive actions and support help employees find their own roads to inspiration.

The missing ingredient is purpose.

Give Your People Purpose

Your employees need to know your expectations. They should understand why they are doing the things they do—i.e., their mission. These give employees a strong sense of purpose and a drive to achieve their goals. With these in place, employees become motivated to do more and to achieve goals without expecting rewards beyond the satisfaction of having accomplished something of value.

This sense of purpose extends to helping other agency team members, doing more without being asked, and wanting to lift the agency by their individual and collective efforts. That sounds an awful lot like what is needed to have a strong and positive agency culture. Purpose definitely needs to be at the heart of your core values. Agency leadership should demonstrate those values daily so employees see leaders’ commitment and more willingly “follow the general into battle.”

Non-financial Incentives

Here are some of the motivators shown to increase positive behavioral and performance changes.

  • Opportunities to advance
  • Advanced learning/training
  • Time off to pursue special projects
  • Autonomy and control over responsibilities
  • Recognition for contributions
  • Better work-life balance

These incentives are not particularly expensive to offer, meaning that smaller agencies can use these motivators as well as larger firms. Even better, they make employees feel good about where they work; feel greater ownership in the agency’s success; and simply love their jobs more. That translates into benefits beyond productivity. You should also see fewer internal conflicts, better customer service and greater efficiency. Using smart incentives also has a valuable impact on employee retention. When your people are happy in their work and with their employer, they are less likely to leave for more enlightened employment.

Build some or all of these strategies into agency management, and you should begin to see greater employee performance and productivity. Bonuses are still nice—just don’t make them your only employee incentive.