A more coordinated and integrated slate of services helps agencies march to the same with client needs in today's real-time market.
From global holding companies to scrappy independents whose practitioners are learning to wear multiple hats, PR services are increasingly being delivered in closer concert with services from digital, social, and advertising agencies. The real-time global marketplace demands that brands are able to make smarter decisions faster, and rewards those willing to make the additional effort to collaborate across disciplines.
“Clients are struggling with complexity and PR has always been about managing multiple audiences and being grounded in the real world,” says John McNeel, global MD, strategic integration at Fleishman-Hillard.
In the past, brands were slow to recognize the benefits of integration, identifying the agency with the largest share of wallet as the leader at the table. Now, agencies are being rewarded for aggressively restructuring themselves over the past decade to provide a more coordinated slate of services, whether by joining holding companies, diversifying in-house services, or approaching engagements with a more open mind.
Dyle Mobile TV, a brand backed by NBCUniversal, selected Horn for a wide range of digital, social, and marketing services in addition to PR. With aggressive targets, the brand had little time to waste explaining its value and priorities to a collection of narrowly focused agencies. “The benefit of working with one group is not having to present the same information to multiple parties, because they are already all working within the agency to communicate what the client's needs are,” says Daniel Bethlahmy, Dyle Mobile TV marketing head.
Being able to trust an integrated agency, not only to quickly internalize a message but also to make agile changes, helped Dyle transition from b-to-b outreach to consumer engagement when the mobile TV service was ready for prime time. The company was able to introduce the shift to consumer priorities in weekly meetings, rather than being forced to take new agencies through a complete onboarding process to reach a new audience. “People don't want to have to repeat things and spend money needlessly. We want to get everyone onboard and marching in the same rhythm,” Bethlahmy says.
Although approaches to integrated service delivery vary across the industry, there are some common themes.
Brands want to know all hands can be on deck when required and agencies need to push past the fear that sitting at a bigger table will only diminish PR's voice.
PR though has strong allies in the client community who look beyond share of wallet. “The place at the table should not be directly tied to the amount of money the client has spent,” says Simon Sproule, corporate VP of global marketing communications at Nissan Motor Company. “We place just as much value on PR agency leaders we use as the leaders of the advertising and media agencies.”
Be prepared for changes in the proposal and procurement process as clients recognize the opportunities integration provides. Not only are clients getting more aggressive about pricing, but they are also expecting
more up-front collaboration. A recent prospect of UK PR firm Nelson Bostock hand picked four combinations of PR, media, and advertising agencies, asking each trio to become fast friends and collaborate to pitch business.
“The process now is more collaborative. In interagency projects before, we might have seen six proposals, all from different agencies,” says Rebecca Jolly, US business lead at Splendid Communications. “Now, we all work together and have more input into the client's proposal. Everybody works toward the same goal.”
The shift in client uptake is connected to the explosion in social media, which has shattered a number of marcomms conventions. The natural conversation-starting element of social outreach means more brands are seeing little distinction between social and PR campaigns – so agencies looking to take an integrated approach must start thinking in terms of social opportunities as well. “When something plays in PR, there's an angle for it to be used in social media,” Bethlahmy says. “In our case we happen to have [PR and social] in the same agency, but even if we did not we would have an integrated approach between the two.”
Bottom-line effects: procurement's eye on PR
Although PR pros are quick to protest that buying on price is a mistake, corporate procurement departments have developed a heightened awareness that PR services can be priced as commodities.
Diversifying services and linking up with other agencies can help differentiate, but agencies need to be prepared for more bottom-dollar offers from educated clients. “Agencies haven't done themselves any favors,” says John McNeel, global MD, strategic integration at Fleishman-Hillard. “There has been a pretty steady deterioration in the ability to differentiate themselves in a meaningful way.”
Agencies that can offer integrated services have an advantage when dealing with organizations with complex procurement processes, because in some cases new disciplines can be added as a statement of work rather than a new master services agreement.
Integrated relationships bring their own challenges in the form of stagger-ed payment schedules. Sabrina Horn, CEO of Horn, says serving clients with integrated agency needs can complicate billing when the divide between retainer work and project-based payment comes up: “You need a good accounting department, and a producer.”
“Procurement in my experience is still trying to buy the disciplines separately from each other and that does cause challenges,” says Lee Nugent, CEO of Nelson Bostock.
Agencies should also understand the commitments make by taking part in the procurement process. Dyle Mobile TV does not place a collaboration requirement in its agency service agreements, but the brand has specific expectations. “We make it clear there will be communication between agencies, and if you have a problem with that, let us know as it may not be a good fit for us,” says Dyle's marketing head Daniel Bethlahmy.
Above all else, start early. Flexibility and a willingness to bring in new partners is valuable, but even more vital is the ability to demonstrate a cooperative spirit from the first proposal. “It really works best when the teams come together from the beginning,” says Ketchum chairman Ray Kotcher.
Not all clients are ready to take full advantage of integrated services. Many companies still subdivide themselves into marketing and communications silos that make collaboration between agencies difficult. Just as agencies can be narrowly focused on the tactics dictated by their own budget instead of the client's overall strategy, internal departments can also hinder their vision with uncoordinated leadership.
Large enterprises need time to reorganize. Nissan's efforts have been two years in the making, and still counting, and some international brands are only now flirting with the idea of a closer-knit marcomms team. “The communications and marketing departments need to be lined up and understand what each other's objective is,” says Lee Nugent, CEO of Nelson Bostock. “When they have different goals and different leadership, it can be a handicap.”
Rob Gelphman, VP, marketing and member relations at the Multimedia over Coax Alliance, points out that the single most compelling argument for integrated service delivery is the client opportunity – the chance to establish oneself as a true leader in a rapidly changing market for skilled PR services. “Agencies are leaving money on the table if they are not inserting themselves into, or actually driving, an integrated marketing communications model.”