The future of agencies

This week, the PRCA organised a panel debate on the future of agencies, held at Hill & Knowlton in Soho Square. (The first obvious observation by many was that if the future of the PR looks anything like the panel, it’s white, middle class and male. Plus ça change.) It was an interesting discussion. The need for integration of marketing disciplines, particularly the need to use all available channels to communicate (including social channels), was the overriding theme of the evening.

The point was made, more than once, that agencies will always reflect what their clients want us to be. If a big brand silos its marketing, PR, social media, search, DM and sales, then the chances are its agencies will deliver those skills separately, often reporting to completely different people within the organisation. Smart (often smaller or new, more agile) organisations will have a single person with an overview of all the different channels at a campaign level, and will measure the achievements of the whole (possibly at the expense of evaluating the achievements of each discipline individually. If marketing is properly integrated, it’s virtually impossible to be entirely sure whether an increase in search was driven by an ad, a Facebook campaign or an article).But while a PR agency is reporting in to a PR manager who has a series of KPIs to meet that are output, not outcome related, the silos are likely to remain.

One of the reasons I love working with fast-growth organisations is that the objectives are clear, and marketing success is linked directly to the business success. Companies with a growth agenda take marketing very seriously at the highest level of the organisation, and are extremely focused on results. Integrating campaigns is a no-brainer. Unpicking the structures of large organisations can be much harder.

Should we be specialists, or generalists? Another question that was raised during the evening. For my part, I think we need both. A generalist who is client facing, someone with an overview over the whole campaign and who can think across disciplines: how the PR campaign should work with search; how social communications can drive community sign ups, which can inform product development, and so on. But I think we need specialists, too. Content producers, copywriters, socialisers (to develop relationships with journalists and bloggers), creative ideas developers – these are all skills that we need in agencies. Very rarely will you get one person who does them all. And yet often that’s exactly what traditional agencies expect of their employees. Account execs become account managers, become account directors.  We should start nurturing specialists in agencies, and growing and rewarding them in the same way as we do our generalist account handlers. We need both if we’re to stick around for the future.

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