Consensus holds that the PR consultancy ’industry’ needs to change; what’s less clear is what it needs to become. But the prevailing agency or consultancy model, changed little in two decades, is no longer compatible with brands that build and maintain relationships with the public without the exclusive mediation of traditional mass media.
Paul Holmes, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Holmes Report, recently published a thought-provoking piece entitled “10 ways to design the PR agency of the future”. Paul adds stagnation in the global economic crisis and the growth in emerging economies as key drivers for the need for agencies to change.
I don’t disagree with any of Paul’s proposals. However, I think he’s missed a key point. Nowhere on the list of 10 is any suggestion that agencies sit down and consult their clients on the type of PR agency or agency model clients might need for the future. And if agencies need to change, surely their clients do too? It’s a shared challenge, after all.
Thinking about it this week, I couldn’t recall any consultancy that actively sought a view from its clients on the type of agency they think they need for the future. As a curious sample of one, I consulted (an admittedly limited and unscientific) sample of in-house colleagues from various sectors and geographies. The survey said: “PR agencies aren’t great at seeking advice from clients.”
Sure, some of us have been asked for career advice, such as “As a consultant, what skills would I need to acquire to make the successful transition to an in-house role?” but none recalled being consulted by their consultancy (or someone else’s consultancy) on the type of future agencies we might need.
Why is this? Do agencies think their clients have no vested interest in the topic? Perhaps they think we have nothing to add to the debate? Maybe they just think it unwise as professional advisors to seek client advice?
Here’s the rub. The changes that Paul suggests, such as the adoption of big data and insight to drive relevance and creativity, the need to embrace new and different skills and the need to become what he calls ‘real brand journalists’ apply equally to members of the comms dept as they do to those in the agency world. It’s a two-sided business conundrum. If we don’t address the issue in a way that suits both parties, we’re only creating a different problem.
Clients can’t expect the consultants to disappear into a dark room, put a wet towel over their heads and emerge some time later with the right answer. Maybe more of us should raise the discussion at our next comms dept team meeting, or the next monthly agency review. We need to talk together about the future of what we do as a profession Whatever the future needs, it has to work for both sides of the client and consultancy partnership.
If you’re a consultant, have a chat with your clients (or even someone else’s clients) and ask what they think. If you’re a client, ask your agency what they believe you need to do to be relevant in the future. It may take a little time to reach the right answer but two heads are better than one and it’s the least that’s required for the health, wealth and happiness of our future partnerships.