The PR industry is wrestling with a dilemma. On the one hand the comms landscape is changing rapidly. PR firms need to change in order to provide clients with the best advice. At the same time, the economic backdrop creates a mindset of retrenchment and risk avoidance.
So, invest or retrench? While some agencies have lost staff in order to protect margins, Portland has deliberately gone in the opposite direction. In fact, this has been our biggest year of investment: in staff, training, capabilities and reach. In this business, everything begins and ends with client satisfaction, and clients do not want an agency that stands still. They rightly expect something new every day.
First and foremost, people are what we offer. Unless we continue to find the brightest and best, we cannot offer the sharpest skills and most up-to-date insight. So we have continued to hire in the downturn and our staff numbers have grown by 20 per cent. Recently we hired George Pascoe-Watson from The Sun, who brings huge experience of journalism and politics.
Successful consultancies should also know the value of good outside counsel.
We decided to create our own senior advisory council. In Tony Ball, Michael Portillo and Chris Powell we have access to some of Britain's best brains when it comes to comms, business and politics.
Our clients increasingly demand international execution capabilities, so we have now opened offices in the media hubs of New York and Nairobi. They are proving their worth. Coupled with an established network of partners around the world, we can now deliver the reach of a global company with the quality of a local independent.
In the public affairs field there has been much focus on the challenge of the likely change of government. Effective firms should be able to provide insights from across the political spectrum.
At Portland, we have always had a very even spread of political allegiances in the firm; hiring George Eustice from the Conservative Party is the latest embodiment of that approach.
But the industry faces a more fundamental challenge: the nature of the service it offers by it needs to change.
Influencing decision-makers needs a campaign-focused approach, not old-school lobbying. This could mean mobilising consumer voices or running an effective digital campaign. Very few clients struggle to get meetings with government, so any agency reliant on simply offering access will struggle. What clients value is help in defining arguments and putting their case in a way that resonates with those taking decisions affecting their business.
PR is facing even more fundamental challenges. The disintermediation technology creates is a huge threat - and a massive opportunity. Think of the old industry value chain as: client>PR company>journalist>target audience. The client wanted to communicate something to the target audience and used the PR company, which knew the journalists, to help it do that. Often what the PR firm sold was simply its contacts and ability to convince journalists. With disintermediation, clients have a greater ability to communicate directly to a target audience. PR firms trading only on a knowledge of journalists are suffering.
But a PR firm that can offer higher-end services to clients - helping to craft the message for them, advising them on the best form of distribution, and guiding them through the opportunities of digital communication - can take advantage of huge opportunities and play a much more significant strategic role.
It is this fundamental and exhilarating reordering of the value chain, rather than the recession or a change of government, that will have the greatest impact on the shape of the industry in the years ahead.
Views in brief
Which three words best describe the account manager of future?
Applying to Portland.
How comfortable do you feel pitching against agencies from different disciplines?
As long as I have not turned up at the catering pitch by mistake, very.
What were/are the essential elements of your most productive client relationship?
Chief executive support, early agreement on messaging, good internal working relationships, trust and rapid sign-off.