Pitch Witch: PR agencies must re-engineer their offer now or face extinction

The survival of PR consultancies will be decided by their ability to re-engineer themselves to provide flexible services that clients want.

Times have changed and agencies must adapt with them, writes Alison Clarke
Times have changed and agencies must adapt with them, writes Alison Clarke

The theme of this year’s Global ICCO PR Summit was ‘Talent, Inspiration & Innovation – Creating the Consultancy of the Future’, and the PRCA launched the second edition of #FuturePRoof in September. Everywhere we turn, the talk is about the future of consultancy. But I think we need to replace ‘future’ with ‘survival’; consultancy leaders need to invest in and re-engineer their offer now or face extinction.

Structure

Our business model was built on creative talent using contacts, ideas and expertise to help solve client problems. This was in return for an ongoing fee, calculated on time. It’s a simple model, yet its elements present a contradiction that we need to resolve – fast. We operate a fixed-cost base of talent working in offices with technology and infrastructure. Clients have moved on. They now need fluid PR relationships that are available 24/7 but often purchased on an ad-hoc basis. They want to see value for their investment and payment by results, rather than retainers and vague outcomes. It’s time to review the structure of consultancy, how we mobilise skills and consider alternatives that can create a more agile solution for clients.

Talent

We have nothing to offer if we don’t attract and retain the best talent, but this is an industry led by Baby Boomers and Generation X. It has much to learn about how to inspire millennials. Smart leaders are recruiting from a variety of backgrounds to broaden their talent bases, so stop and think about your talent mix. Ask yourself how often you listen to your millennials or let their ideas shape your offer. Do you have reverse mentoring schemes? If not, start some. Be braver about who you hire and remember people leave bosses more than they leave agencies.

Insights and metrics

Investment in, and access to, analytics tools is business-critical. The key is to make the data relevant and shareable. A focus on measurable outcomes is also essential. Challenge your teams to be constantly proving the value and success of campaigns with meaningful information.

Commercial reality

If you overlay the talent challenge and flexible client needs with a fixed-cost structure, you begin to see tension. Add to this the trend toward project-based engagement and the commercial desire to reward only those campaigns that are truly effective, and it’s clear that change is essential and inevitable. This challenges growth, margins and staff and client retention. We need to re-examine our offer as a matter of urgency.

It’s time to start the process of redefining how we work, how we’re structured and how we engage the finest talent in order to make us relevant and not just able to survive – but to thrive.

Alison Clarke is a business consultant and mentor @pitchwitch

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