PR agency of the future: stop projecting and evolve

So, on Wednesday this week I spent the evening at the #PRCADebate, which was the first industry event I’ve been to since leaving PRWeek behind last December.

It was good to catch up with friendly faces and meet some new ones but I have to say that I left the event feeling that not much had actually changed in the past three months.

In my eyes, the future of agency structures, as a subject, is about looking at the future of comms, but as H&K’s Director of Planning/Interactive Strategy Director EMEA, Candace Kuss, so correctly pointed out in her tweet: ‘#PRCADebate is about agency of today more than agency of the future. Topics and issues being discussed are real right now.’

Some useful insights were given by a few of the panel members, namely Edelman’s Marshall Manson, Adam & Eve’s James Murphy and Shine’s Mark Pinsent, which can all be seen on the Twitter feed for #PRCADebate, but I don’t feel that the debate’s rubric was actually dealt with.

Social media, as it was three months ago, was the buzz term of the night, with very little being added that hadn’t been said before. SEO was barely given a mention and content production was raised by Murphy but then went ignored.

All of these disciplines will shape the agency of the future but not as they are currently being used: as unconnected, individual tools.

My concern is that the industry has become idealistic, trying to imagine how the ‘new’ landscape will look, and missing what is happening now.

This was exactly what happened at the debate, a seemingly unresolved present made it impossible to consider the future.

With this in mind, I now turn to the master of evolutionary theory Charles Darwin for, what I feel, gives us a clue to how this discussion might move forward.

Darwin is often misquoted as saying: ‘The strongest survive’, when what he actually said was: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change.’

And adapt the industry must.

But, in concurrence with Darwin, I have to say that agencies need to be realists and fully understand what is currently happening around them. Adapting for some will be considerably easier than it will be for others and this is where we must look for the answer to what will be.

Restrictions will apply; finance, size, current internal structures, policy, people, knowledge, experience etc. These are, of course, the factors that will shape who progresses and who doesn’t and, indeed, issues discussed at the debate by the panel.

But Darwin also wrote: ‘In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.’

‘Collaborate’ and ‘improvise’. I believe Wednesday’s debate opened up a pan-industry dialogue, which is on the right track towards having a collaborative effect.

However, it is improvisation I fear is the problem. This is about taking chances and it will be those brave enough to work with their peers in other marketing disciplines who will learn, develop and conquer.

The future is no longer about the sort of integration we have all sent ourselves to sleep talking about for the past year, and continue to talk about, that of integrating digital media into the current agency model. It is about becoming an integrated marketing unit.

That will become the Darwinian survivor and whilst Galapagos-esque niches will hold their own, as the incredible species on those islands have, it will be the diverse and rich culture of the integrated marketing unit that will become the dominant species.

So, my suggestion: hold off on deciding what the end point will be, this utopian agency of the future, rather, focus on how you’re going to evolve.

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11 Responses to PR agency of the future: stop projecting and evolve

  1. “I left the event feeling that not much had actually changed in the past three months.”

    Mate, not much has changed in 30 years 😉

    Integration was the buzzword du jour when I started in PR – and that’s 24 years ago.

    It was already turning into a cliche then.

    If we’ve known that integration is so crucial (and has been for probably 40+ years), why are we still having the same conversations?

    Fact is, in spite of all the well meaning talk about collaboration and partnership, the brutal demands of commercial life tend to shred principles. Yes, says a PR agency head, I may logically realise that long term, it would be better to work in partnership with other disciplines. But I have quarterly targets to meet and staff that need paying at the end of the month. So I’ll do whatever it takes to secure as big a part of the client’s marketing budget as possible. And that’s exactly what his counterpart at the ad agency is thinking. And the DM agency. And search agency, etc.

    Of course, I exaggerate for effect. There are always shining examples of different disciplines working together – but they tend to be exceptions rather than norms.

    But I accept your point about the industry needing to look at what’s happening now rather than trying to second guess the future. To take William Gibson’s now sadly well worn comment (but still true nonetheless): “The future is already here, just unevenly distributed.”

    Have a look at Chris Lewis’s blog post about the why most PR agencies are doomed:

    I think he is right.

  2. Jed Hallam says:

    Great post Pete.

    I love the Darwin quote too – I think the ‘change’ in this case is how clients view social media and where it fits within the business. This industry has spent ten years developing now and I reckon we’re just about at the maturity end of the industry life cycle, which (maybe) means that we’re due a Hugo Hopenhayn ‘shakeout’.

    The industry has been pretty lucrative for a lot of agencies for the past five years but we’re getting to a point where most clients understand where ‘social’ fits in their business (or in some cases at least think they do) and that’ll inevitably mean a positive bottleneck moment for agencies that adapt (which fits with your Darwin point) and a bit of a crash for those that don’t.

    If Hopenhayn’s theory is anything to go by, we’ll see the same volume market, but done by 70% of the agencies. And a 30% fallout is going to have a pretty big effect.

  3. Mark says:

    Good to see you on Wednesday Peter.

    I don’t do many of these ‘speaky’ things. In fact I think it’s fair to say that Wednesday evening was my first! I was invited along by the PRCA because I commented on Danny Whatmough’s post which, I believe, prompted the event. Reading my comment back I think it’s more succinct than I managed to be on Wednesday, so maybe worth repeating to clarify my thoughts:

    “…we’ve been involved in a couple of projects recently here at Shine which have been as ‘integrated’ as anything I’ve ever been involved in before – a clear and consistent narrative through all disciplines: advertising, experiential, PR, social media, etc.

    “The teams involved here seemed to have evolved into more specialist roles. We’ve got the traditional media hounds, people focused on content production (words, pictures and video), organising events, managing communities and social media properties, creating collateral. For me it’s pointing to the future.

    “It has also, however, pointed to the continuing blurring of lines between disciplines. There’s an ad agency which has produced a traditional (and excellent) 30 second spot, but we’ve also produced a number of short videos with high production values that could just as easily be used on broadcast.

    “It’s all good content and it’s all good communications. My agency of the future (of the now) would have strategists and creatives, planners, producers, writers, media hounds, online community managers, tech design and build, search and analytics specialists…but what type of agency it’d be I just don’t know. Probably just a “communications agency”. “

  4. Jane Crofts says:

    Really great points well made, the Darwin reflection makes absolute sense. Thorughout my career I found I needed to ‘shape shift’ to deliver what was needed in the way it was needed at the time it was needed – and when I could no longer do that it was time to move on to the next opportunity.
    The battle lines between the communications disciplines do not help (some of my advertising and marketing colleagues at Uni will swoon if they read this!) we need to work in an integrated way and communicate effectively for and with our employers, clients and publics. Never before has it been easier to have genuine two way conversations and develop the narrative so let’s embrace the opportunities in an integrated way.

  5. sifrancis says:

    Completely agree that integration is not just a PR issue, but one for the whole industry.

    It’s also a bit of a side show. Each agency will pick its own route – the key is selling this route effectively. As well as the idea of content being brushed aside in the PRCA debate, so was that of measurement.

    If we’re being honest, is it just because no-one has the stomach (or budgets) to actually really tackle this? If we are the only discipline in town then it’s easy to measure the impact of PR using tracking etc.

    But when we’re in a marketing mix, things become more cloudy and the other disciplines have such a march on PR in claiming effectiveness, that we should really work together as an industry to prove our success.

    And not in terms of how we should measure (or arguments over AVEs), but in real pan-industry formulas / numbers / facts.

    Of course, I doubt that will ever happen.

    You can read my take on the debate here (although I do also gloss over the measurement issue!):

  6. I think you’ve nailed something really important in this great post, Peter.

    While there’s a lot to be said for the view that nothing really changes, and integration has been a buzzword for decades, I think there is something really, structurally different facing the communications industry now, compared with 10 years ago when I started (and no doubt, 30 years ago).

    Change may be a constant, but the rate of change has increased.

    I read a great quote today: “Social media has completely upended our former communications models – in just the last 24 to 36 months. It wasn’t on our radar at all, to being the central organising principle of all our communications”.

    That’s Matthew Broder, VP external communications at Pitney Bowes (in this good report from Bite). I think Matthew sums up the challenge we’re all facing. It’s not that I need to learn a new way of communicating with audiences thanks to the internet: it’s that I need to keep learning new ways every couple of months or years, if I’m to remain valuable.

    That’s what you’ve encapsulated more effectively than I’m able. That we don’t just need a new structure or way of working: we need to become – as Darwin says – adaptable.

  7. As is the norm in our industry it is the small agencies that innovate.

    The big international firms will then use their spending power to acquire the innovators.

    Same old, same old.

  8. I ❤ Peter Hay.

    That is all.

  9. Mat Morrison says:

    (Disclosure: I chaired the event. Some of the evening’s failures as catalogued here must lie at my feet.)

    For me, most of the really interesting stuff were the pieces that happened before and after the debate itself. Which is simultaneously a terrible thing to say, and what one should expect to hear. For one thing I’ve been scraping a living at the edges of large agencies and their fears about the future for my whole career; and was bound to have heard most of the arguments covered that evening rehearsed ad nauseam.

    I had come to the understanding prior to the evening that the “agency of the future” was really a stalking horse that would allow the panellists to discuss the anxieties and issues of the present — and so it proved. This was always going to be about what you call the “unresolved present.”

    Your post ends up in the same trap, (as do several of the posts that have followed in the wake of the panel). Indeed, Andrew’s comment is even more wonderfully English; he rehearses the history of the problem, and implies that we are prisoners of that history.

    I’m sorry that we weren’t able to clarify and tease out some of the themes (trends?) that really should have driven the debate. I’d suggest that these include:

    * Competition: Agency convergence and defensible spaces (Search, Social, Content, Paid, Performance)
    * Human Resources: an increasing need for specialists (internal fragmentation)
    * Human Resources: working with outsourced talent and ad hoc teams
    * Changing Client requirements, expectations, demands
    * Global vs local
    * The advantages and disadvantages of size
    * Changing performance metrics and the ability to create a real value proposition

    But I’d had those conversations with several members of the audience before the event, and I had them afterwards. I had them with my boss (we both think there’s a lot of clear blue water for media agencies in this emerging space, and are wondering how much we should compete for the convergence battlegrounds.)

    The panellists (all excellent) demonstrated professionalism and passion for the space in varying proportions; but I fear that it was too easy for us to slip into the well-worn ruts into which these staged conversations do usually fall.

    Instead, what has been most exciting is the wider debate that took place on Twitter and the blogs before, during and after the event. Which is kind of fitting, in my eyes.

  10. But agencies fear change. In fact people fear change. But change they must. Living in the now means that they have to be empowered to be able to respond instantly. Change and control – how to evolve so that you can be reactive but you don’t lose control?! What would Darwin say about that?

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