What does a specialist agency bring to a client? Where an agency specialises in certain skills, you would hope that they are more knowledgeable about those activities than a broad-based agency. But what about sector specialists? Is it just about knowing the right journalists, or can specialists bring more?
With campaigns becoming more integrated and clients looking to eliminate the overheads associated with managing multiple agencies, it is becoming hard for agencies that specialise in a specific discipline to succeed.
The level of expertise that clients demand from all agencies is being raised continuously, eating away at any lead that might exist between the agencies that specialise in one marketing tactic.
In fact, at the recent PRCA conference, there was almost unanimous agreement that many of these specialists – particularly those focused on social media – would either die out or have to become broad integrated agencies in the next five years
So if the functional specialists are under threat, what is the future like for sector specialists? I strongly believe that it will be sector specialists that will be successful in the long term, as the benefits they can offer clients are unique and sustainable.
While it is true that sector specialists can bring journalist relationships, they are just one element. In reality, relationships can be built in time by almost any competent agency that has the right clients and is prepared to put in the work.
The real value that sector specialists add is insight. Deep insight. Sector specialists understand the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the markets that their clients address. They live and breathe these markets, and are often staffed by people who were once part of that audience. They understand the potential customers – and influencers – and the best specialists are part of those tribes.
Want to target an audience of German electronics engineers? A broad-based agency will probably tell you to use Twitter – those early adopters of technology are bound to be on social media platforms.
A specialist, however, will be quick to point out that it is likely to be a futile effort: with only 0.5 per cent of this audience using Twitter for work purposes, no matter how good the campaign, your reach will be negligible.
Insight is not just about understanding high-level demographic information. Real insight – deep insight – is achieved only when an agency knows more about a group of stakeholders than the client. While this might sound ludicrously ambitious, a specialist agency has the opportunity to build this knowledge, but it requires investment.
Like many agencies, Napier has a research practice. We conduct research for clients to help them understand their markets, customers and competition. But unlike most agencies, we are our own biggest customer. We continually fund research to learn about the b2b technology markets we address and use the research to build insight into these sectors.
While other agencies might conduct research to win a pitch, typically that is where the learning ends. Our research practice is incredibly helpful when pitching, but it is even more valuable when we are building and maintaining relationships with clients.
Napier's research practice has invested in building relationships with local universities; the rigour they bring to research improves the quality of our work. We are able to call on the expertise of academics and the enthusiasm of students and graduates to help us develop even deeper insight.
Investing heavily in research has led to unexpected side benefits: we are running a series of studies in partnership with a leading publication in the electronics engineering sector. Our insight into perceptions and attitudes underpins a regular editorial feature, as well as helping the title provide added value to its advertisers.
I am optimistic about the future for sector specialist agencies. While functional specialists will find it hard to stay ahead of generalists, sector specialists have the opportunity to create significant and tangible benefits for clients.
In a market as competitive as PR, however, specialists cannot rely on superficial knowledge. They must be prepared to invest to create deep insight that adds real value. The decision we have taken at Napier to invest in building deep market insight is something I am proud of, as it provides immense value to our clients.
Mike Maynard, managing director, Napier
See more from the Ideas Lab