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Taking ten steps forward

It's time to get off the fence, grow up, and deliver fresh ideas for the next decade.

Four years ago, Lehman Brothers had just collapsed, the US had elected its first black President and London was adjusting to 'Bojo'. No-one thought Britain could deliver the Olympics. And I wrote a feature for PRWeek's original Future of the PR Agency supplement.

Re-reading the article depressed me. We have made less progress than I would have hoped. I wrote about putting the client's needs first. About smashing down internal silos in agencies to get the best people around a client's problem regardless of profit pools, egos and habit. It still sounds like a good idea. But it still happens all too rarely.

The past four years have been dominated by economic fragility and social media. The former has suppressed risk-taking and innovation. There have been few start-ups, which are the lifeblood of change and development.

The online world has evolved rapidly, but tethered by risk aversion, our agencies haven't kept pace.

How many times have you heard that this is a golden time for PR? Really? We still use AVEs too often. We're still complaining that ad agencies win Cannes awards. We still waste colossal amounts of time and money dragging our staff to offices in one of the world's most expensive cities. And, perhaps most depressingly, we still don't always put our clients first. What's wrong with us?

At a PRCA board meeting a year ago, we agreed to put the depressing cycle of complaining behind us and to commit to change once and for all. To get off the fence, grow up and to agree ways to work that would advance our industry and release the new energy we need to deliver real innovation and fresh new ideas to take us through the next decade.

We have led a campaign through this year to identify the ten big changes we can make to ensure our industry is secure for the future.

We already know what most of these are.

We either don't agree on how to implement them or we are in denial about the need to address them.

At the PRCA conference two weeks ago, we had a frank and open dialogue about commitment to change. Then we asked the industry to vote for the ten ideas they want us to deliver; the new PRCA chairwoman Alison Clarke will make these the centre of her programme for the next two years. Here is a brief summary of some of the key themes:

Grow up We need clear, shared standards of excellence and a collaborative approach to draw in the best quality talent of all ages from all walks of life.

Focus on outcomes It's about delivering hard results. Sales. New customers. New supporters. Real things you can measure, not piles of press clippings.

Make profits If we don't value what we do, neither will anyone else. We must set clear success measures with clients at the start of a project and have the confidence to ask for a share of the results.

Experiment Many of the most talented people don't want a post-war style desk job with 20 days' holiday and a Christmas party. Help them to build their own career and they will take responsibility for their pension. Find them and connect them to your team and your problem, even if it's just for one launch or one brainstorm. Mix it up.

Invest Not millions. Just get back in the habit. Ask your team to share its ideas. Fund one new business idea every three months. Learn from failures as well as successes.

Get digital Or get a new career.


Views in brief

Digital comms - specialist resource or embedded throughout the agency?

Embedded as standard with specialists used for building apps and so forth.

With integrated agency working becoming commonplace, what have you learned about how these teams can operate most effectively?

They work best when clients celebrate ideas from all disciplines as equally useful and will try new concepts. Shared success metrics drive better outcomes.

For what qualities will a job ad for PR agency staff in 2020 ask?

Engagement skills with many different stakeholders, not just media; visual storytelling; curiosity; tenacity; and empathy.


Sally Costerton is MD at Sally Costerton Advisory and vice-chairman of the PRCA

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