The agency revolution continues

I'm out in Silicon Valley this week visiting some of the corporations and agencies that are blazing a trail in modern communications and PR.

I'm out in Silicon Valley this week visiting some of the corporations and agencies that are blazing a trail in modern communications and what we currently call PR. On Wednesday evening, I also chaired a sellout panel event put on by the Valley's busy branch of the PRSA, featuring senior in-house and agency folk.

As you would expect in such a high-tech and forward-looking part of the country, the definition of good PR practice is being redefined. On Wednesday, there was even talk of a need to redefine what we do, with suggestions that PR is no longer an adequate descriptor. There are certainly agencies over here, as there are in places like DUMBO in New York City and elsewhere, who are operating in very different ways and tapping into new budgets to do some exciting and innovative work.

Lonn Johnston at Lewis Pulse told the PRSA audience how his agency had just been commissioned by one client to take $250,000 that had initially been allocated to digital advertising budgets and instead come up with social media activity and "see what they could do with it." That's a challenge any PR firm would relish and demonstrates the way marketers, and especially CMOs, are deploying their resources.

Take Next Fifteen Communications Group agency Beyond. Established just 18 months ago, it has quickly grown to 70 people by tapping in to this new demand from marketers, offering a mixture of social media, analytics, digital creative, and programming/technology services.

It's an opportunity and a threat for PR firms, because marketers don't always associate these services with them. Many CMOs still associate PR with pure media relations, putting press packs together, and running events. Breaking those stereotypes and tapping in to the much bigger pots of money available from marketing and advertising budgets is one of the biggest challenges PR firms face today.

The new environment also highlights the skills that are required of a modern PR pro, and the unsatisfactory nature of the charging model their agencies operate by. The PR industry is moving so quickly that a lot of people are going to come out the other side with no digital or transferable skills if they're not careful. And charging out time by the hour also looks slightly old-fashioned in this context.

Think of the time and resources involved in writing a press release, as an account executive writes a draft that is then scrutinized by their boss and their boss's boss before its sent to the client, then batted back several times for revisions. All this to produce something that probably isn't being read by anyone.

That doesn't look like a charging model that is going to meet the needs of the new generation of PR services. This social media revolution is continuing and agencies have to continually redefine and refine what they do if they are to take advantage of the fantastic opportunities ahead.

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