In the past few years, PR budgets have shrunk while agency clients and prospects have demanded more for less. Clients want value for their PR dollars, and they want the best people on their account. To better understand these challenges, PR agencies need to reflect on what historically attracted clients to them in the first place.
It shouldn't take much to figure out that the demand for their agency founder's services was the primary draw for new business, which is why public relations industry stalwarts like Dan Klores, Howard Rubenstein, and Richard Edelman put their names on their agency doors.
I can speak from first-hand experience working at Dan Klores Communications. Klores, who I greatly admire and consider a mentor, was the name people read about in the press. He had a blue-chip reputation among industry decision-makers that created a demand for his services and as a result developed major business opportunities for his agency.
Today, the larger agencies, especially those run by the big holding companies, are led by professionals who don't directly service the client's businesses. This is simply how the majority of traditional PR agencies work.
These agency heads attend new business meetings and serve as the face of the agency, yet the value they claim to add is “high-level” strategy. How can you provide high-level strategy when you have no relationship with the client's influencers, familiarity with the client's industry, or don't know the journalists covering your client in the news?
Put yourself in a client's shoes. A client investing in your agency's services should expect that the head of your agency has unmatched personal and professional relationships with top-tier media and industry influencers, and they can uncover valuable, tangible opportunities, or mitigate crisis situations on your behalf.
The current PR agency model creates an unfortunate dynamic where junior staffers are forced to handle a majority of the day-to-day account work in order to meet agency profits. After 14 years with traditional agencies, I found that the hierarchal structure – with senior executives and founders pitching the business, and junior staffers servicing accounts – does a disservice to clients.
Ultimately, you hire people, not agencies. The person you deal with day-to-day is the one who will best understand your business and target audience. With telecommuting and ubiquitous Internet connections, it is possible to assemble senior account teams without the bureaucracy or overhead of “brick and mortar” agencies. As the media has become more nimble and adaptive to digital technology, the PR business should do the same.
Outside the walls of traditional agencies, senior PR pros can be more creative, adaptive, and effective. We develop teams that are not dependent on a founder or figurehead, and not constrained by a corporate parent. Clients get greater value because they have direct access to the senior executive who actively works on the business, without filters or impediments.
I strongly believe it's incumbent upon PR industry heads to lead by example by taking a chapter out of the book that's already been written by our predecessors. If they don't, their careers and the agency model face extinction as clients actively seek more efficient ways of conducting business. It's important that we learn from history staying true to what has and will continue to make agencies an attractive, viable resource.
David Bray is the founder of dbray Media. He was previously an EVP and principal at Middleberg Communications. He is also a member of the Partner Network of Influence Consulting Group.