An enormous opportunity now exists for PR agencies to move up the marketing services food chain and start leading much of the overall dialogue and strategy that corporate marketers have always turned to our advertising brethren for.
Yet, one fundamental flaw will ensure complacency and condemn any possible ascension to a higher level: the way we service our clients.
Since the beginning of time in our industry (that's about 60 years), agencies have followed a staffing model called the pyramid structure. This allows the most senior people (at the top of the pyramid) to spend very little time across many accounts trying to provide some semblance of management, consultation, and accountability. At the bottom of the pyramid is the majority of the staff, the most junior account people. These are the implementers, who have very little experience, yet are often thrust into the logistics, media relations, and day-to-day management role of a client's programs.
Yet, unlike other service industries, PR has always faced an enormous quandary because the only true differentiator among firms is the sound and strategic counsel that can achieve bottom-line results for the clients.
Without this high-level guidance, firms are seen as commoditized "media relations shops," with cost and supposed media connections being the only points of contrast. In essence, our industry is structured to execute programs, not create strategic solutions.
Furthermore, the digital landscape has blurred the traditional lines of PR, direct marketing, and interactive Web services, and we now find ourselves in unknown territory, competing with firms that aren't even in our industry.
Corporate marketers are screaming for strategic guidance to navigate and offer strategies and programs that can produce real ROI. But our pyramid staffing model doesn't allow for senior-level counselors to provide day-to-day (or even week-to-week) guidance to solve client challenges.
The pyramid model is profitable in the short term because it doesn't require agencies to hire a senior executive with every new account win. However, it doesn't allow for the most strategic thinkers to drive these campaigns that necessitate mid- and senior-level counsel week in and week out. As a result, we have high account turnover.
We need to flip the pyramid on its head. Instead of providing a little bit of strategy up front and a lot of implementation along the way, we would offer the most hands-on guidance to challenge the status quo and ensure that new opportunities are maximized and show clients that our industry can lead such areas as brand strategy, overall marketing program measurement, and campaign integration.
No doubt, this is a serious investment that will force agencies to devote a lot of time and energy toward shifting resources at the account management levels and adding more appropriate senior account staff. But, it will also lead to better, longer-lasting relationships with clients and to higher, more sustainable revenues and profits for agencies in the long run. It will also build greater respect for PR agencies up the food chain in client organizations.
The change can't happen overnight; rather, it should be a well-thought-out foundation for the agency business. Until this happens, the PR industry won't be able to earn the respect of the CMO or a place at the C-suite table.
Ed Moed is the managing partner of Peppercom and the author of a blog on accountability and measurement in the PR industry, www.measuringupblog.com.