Agency doctor: outdated agency structures

The structure of in-house teams and agencies has barely changed in more than 50 years. Unless they learn to adapt to new ways of working they risk being left behind.

Richard Houghton: Associate partner, Agency People
Richard Houghton: Associate partner, Agency People

Pretty much everything has changed in the world of PR - except agencies.

My grandfather set up a PR agency, InfoMedia, in 1963. While his quarterly Jarvis Journal, which detailed the activities and triumphs of the specialist building contractor called (yes, you guessed it) Jarvis, would be considered wordy and rather uninspired in design terms by today's standards, his agency set-up would be bang up to date.

If he visited an agency or in-house department today, he would see much that would be familiar to him. We still use the same job titles; we structure account teams in a very similar way to how he did; we manage our programmes and accounts in the same way and the hours-based fee structure is still alive and well.

We certainly have not managed to create the much-vaunted paperless office.

What my grandfather would not recognise is the fundamental change in the choice of channels, the personalisation and speed of the comms (although not always with the associated increase in quality) and the internationalisation of PR. From my perspective, these things create a problem for our industry.

Let us start with the traditional view that PR practitioners need all of the skills required to run every aspect of a campaign.

Is it really likely that we will find account executives who have an in-depth knowledge of the issues a firm is facing and the associated PR challenges, as well as weekly reporting and Facebook campaigns? Or a press officer who can switch happily between drafting copy for print media and the creation of audio and video material for a social media campaign, while at the same time keeping an eye on the budget and working through credible evaluation?

Specialists not generalists

GolinHarris, ranked 14 in PRWeek's Top 150 PR Consultancies 2013 league table, certainly does not believe so. Its restructuring around specific job roles means that its consultants specialise in one area - for example, ideas generation, content creation or strategy development.

The change was driven by feedback from clients that claimed current structures were difficult to understand and did not seem relevant to the comms challenges they were facing.

Threepipe, an independent agency, took a different approach and merged lock, stock and barrel with digital agency Blowfish last year. It did so to ensure it had the right skills to meet the demands of integrated campaigns that include digital and social strands.

Interestingly, as a result of the merger, Threepipe has changed how it charges clients. It has shifted from a fees and expenses model to a hybrid approach that allows it to be rewarded for results, as well as for the time it spends on client work. With agencies on average currently giving away 20 per cent of their time (yes, giving it away), any innovation on how they are rewarded can only be a good thing.

No more 9-5

Social campaigns also make demands on the traditional PR working day, as British Airways discovered in September. A frustrated customer vented his displeasure at BA's failure to find his lost luggage via a sponsored tweet. As this was the first time a sponsored tweet had been used to attract the attention of a corporate customer relations team, it soon spread internationally. This forced BA to apologise via Twitter that it had been slow to respond because it only operates its Twitter feed during office hours.

So not only do we have to find sustainable ways of managing social media campaigns outside of traditional office hours - who fancies the Christmas Day shift? - those handling the feeds need to have the expertise to make rapid decisions on responses that fit the brand positioning and take into account business issues and previous comms. No small task.

I believe that senior agency and in-house team members will be spending much more time managing hands-on communication in the future. We could all learn from the financial PR sector, where senior practitioners are valued by client and agency alike, commanding salaries and fees that reflect their seniority.

With costs rising and fees stagnant, agencies have a specific problem - what to do with the biggest cost after staff: the office. When we ran campaigns that fitted nicely into a nine-tofive day, it made sense to have all staff travelling to a single location five days a week. But it is more likely that remote working will become the norm.

Digital and social media may have brought many opportunities to the PR industry, but if we do not change how we operate we simply won't be able exploit them commercially.

Richard Houghton is associate partner, Agency People

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in