Is the traditional PR agency structure broken in the age of digital comms?

The traditional agency model is not dead, but it certainly is not uniform, either. Clients will be able to choose from not only a range of agency partners, but also different agency types as they select a partner in the future.


Alice Chan, Principal, Bird PR
Communications strategist for consumer and tech startups, ex-agency GM with over 20 years of experience in the PR industry

Make no mistake. I am the product of traditional agencies. I started my career in London, England, working with big brands in the early 1990s, before crossing the pond to Silicon Valley just in time for the dot-com boom.

I worked my way up from a timid account coordinator to partner at a multinational firm, before becoming the GM of a boutique firm in San Francisco. And I learned lots from amazing mentors on the way.

Until the explosion of new and social media, brick-and-mortar agencies with their overheads, senior consultants who only show up for new business pitches, staff hierarchies, and set processes offered the best way to structure a firm.

But, in today's environment, everything changes on a daily basis and clients need to know their PR dollars are spent on results, not structure.

This means senior consultants must support their clients differently, not just by setting strategies, but also by helping their teams execute them on the fly. I know it's impossible not to get bogged down in the operations of running a traditional agency, from recruiting and retaining talent to pursuing revenue, but young professionals know more about social media than us old hands, so why keep them at the bottom of the pyramid?

Today, I run a virtual PR consultancy. We don't have an office, staff on payroll, or an IT team. We have a network of motivated, ex-real life colleagues, who have chosen to work from their home offices so they can balance the entirety of their lives. And thanks to innovation, it feels like we are under one roof, sharing files and chatting across video. From Skype to Freshbooks, Dropbox to Asana, our productivity has never been higher, and my en-tire office lives on my iPhone.

Clients are thrilled because they get our undivided attention. The team who pitches the business works on the business. We are happy because we're not worried about keeping the lights on, and instead, can pick companies to work with that we feel truly passionate about. Sometimes it's good to break with tradition.


Bob Geller, President, Fusion PR
Nearly two decades of sales, marketing, and PR experience. Blogs at Flack's Revenge, and writes a monthly column

It's something we like to do, obsess over the state of PR. And why not? There is no question that seismic shifts are taking place in the media and PR worlds. Many in our industry have debated new models. Much of the change is tech-driven, and reinvention and disruption are recurring themes in tech and now PR.

Clayton Christensen famously described the "innovator's dilemma" in his book of the same name, which says it is hard to innovate without leaving old ideas behind.

Fast Company said agencies should act like tech startups, arguing that the traditional agency model, in which we bill for time, encourages bureaucracy and inefficiency and inhibits innovation.

Can agencies adapt to changing times without dooming the profession to the fate of the innovator's dilemma? Will we be replaced by robots or algorithms - or worse?

The traditional PR agency model is not outdated. We continue to play the important role we always have - although the nature of the role is evolving.

Despite all of the tech, PR is still a contact sport. Relationships count and can open doors and shape coverage, whether you are trying to get stories or playing defense. An agency brings the benefit of its extended network of contacts.

We provide objective advice about what works when it comes to communications and honing the message, and prepare clients to put their best face forward.

It is an efficient way to organize work, and helps companies to be more effective and agile in communications. You can outsource by hiring best of breed for a regional focus, special projects, and more.

The creativity and powerful storytelling that an agency brings often can't be found in-house, and certainly can't be reduced to an algorithm.

The numbers seem to indicate the continuing viability of the agency model, as corporate America has apparently not been reducing its PR spending. PRWeek projected that spending would grow to $4.4 billion by 2014, a rate that is faster than GDP growth.

PRWeek's View
The traditional agency model is not dead, but it certainly is not uniform, either. Clients will be able to choose from not only a range of agency partners, but also different agency types as they select a partner in the future.

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