OP-ED: Talent strategy is key to a firm's business prospects

It's a truism that a PR agency's most important assets leave the building each night and return the next morning. If so, then every smart agency should have a strategic plan to continually improve and build the best possible team and, in turn, the best possible agency. Do firms that rely solely on their wits to survive and thrive have a plan for building a winning staff? Probably not.

It's a truism that a PR agency's most important assets leave the building each night and return the next morning. If so, then every smart agency should have a strategic plan to continually improve and build the best possible team and, in turn, the best possible agency. Do firms that rely solely on their wits to survive and thrive have a plan for building a winning staff? Probably not.

Managing a PR firm's employees is arguably among the hardest jobs for senior managers, who must strike a balance between carrying enough staff to service client business while maintaining fragile profit margins. The typical strategy? "We win business, we hire people. We lose business, we fire people." But that's a reaction, not a strategy. It's also a recipe for ruining staff morale, client relationships, and ultimately the PR firm. A talent strategy is a specific plan that helps firms evaluate, optimize, acquire, and release talent to get the best mix of brainpower at the best price. This collective "brain" grows and contracts based on the agency's needs at any given time. Brainpower can be optimized through the growing talent pool of agency and corporate PR folks who have become freelancers or "free agents" over the past few years. This diverse and deep talent pool of communications pros includes everyone from former media relations directors, to senior strategists, to IR specialists. Today it's possible to hire a former White House speechwriter to punch up the client CEO's speech; a creative guru to help you hatch the winning brainstorm idea; or a Latino marketing specialist to step in and help win that new piece of business. But many agencies wouldn't know how. Tapping into this growing free-agent talent pool and understanding how to find the right person at the right time will help agencies - and corporations - develop that sponge-like ability to grow and contract quickly based on their current needs. And with more project-oriented jobs and less ongoing retainer work being doled out, firms must build flexibility into their staffing models. In addition to flexibility, a staffing model must be built around solid and seasoned staff. These pillars of the firm are usually the senior VP, VP- or director-level executives who lead a practice area or industry specialty for the agency. The staffing strategy must assess these pillars and determine whether they're strong enough to lead these areas or if new talent must be brought in. Aggressive firms are taking advantage of the excellent market for talent and replacing weaker "pillars" with stronger ones, and are also making "prospective" hires. That is, they're hiring top talent even if they may not have the business. This talent is then devoted to aggressively building an undeveloped practice area or, in some cases, serving as agency "bench strength," so the firm can move quickly to grab new business when the economy heats up. Once the pillars are in place, the overall talent strategy must provide the vision and autonomy for these pillars to move forward and build the best possible team - one with a flexible mix of full-time and freelance (or "contracted") talent. Individual pillars or practice leaders may want to develop their own staffing strategies that fit under the overall plan - including determining how to strengthen their existing team and use flexible staffing to drive new business efforts within their practice areas. Whose job is it to write the talent strategy? Clearly the person in the best position to formalize an overall talent strategy is the office GM - not HR, accounting, or agency headquarters. The latter will provide valuable input, but the GM is the person with the best vantage point to make the right strategic calls. Of course, if an agency business plan exists, the talent strategy must identify and align with it strategically and chronologically. Is it a fast growth plan? A culture-based plan? A plan that focuses on multiple practice areas? Is the business plan broken out into one-year, three-year, and five-year increments? If there is no formal business plan (which would not be at all shocking), the talent strategy can be used to help build the framework of an overall business plan. The silver lining in today's PR market is the vast amount of top talent available at reasonable prices. The best firms will leverage this windfall to build strong and flexible teams that will consistently beat the competition, both now and when business picks up.
  • Jim Delulio is president of PR Talent.

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