From things to thinking

Working at an agency used to be all about the "things." Now it's about the "thinking."

My first agency job, circa 1977, was at the venerable Carl Byoir & Associates, a decade or so later absorbed into Hill & Knowlton.

At our Madison Avenue headquarters, a good chunk of the real estate and staff were dedicated to what we called “the mailroom,” or the heart of the 1970s PR agency operation. We had several printing presses, duplicating machines (no, photocopiers hadn't yet arrived), and rows and rows of drawers filled with metal plates containing journalist names and addresses that were fed into “Addressograph” machines generating thousands of envelopes mailed each night throughout the country. It was considered so impressive that it was a key stop on any tour of the agency for prospective clients. These days, a single individual using a mobile phone can pretty much accomplish everything done in the huge mailroom space by a staff of a dozen or more.

All of this came to mind with some of the recent stories about large companies taking more and more of their media relations in-house and depending less on agencies. Even when I founded JeffreyGroup in 1993, a good deal of our early success depended on our mastery of the tactics of getting news out in Latin America in an efficient and timely way.

The Addressograph had moved on and fax was the premier technology: now we would proudly show off our row of six fax machines humming away along one wall of our Miami headquarters. Back then in the early 90s, there were no lists of media for the Latin American markets, so I used to bring home a suitcase full of newspapers and magazines from each country I visited and we'd get to work to making our own.

Now thanks to the Internet, suitcases are no longer required to compile lists of foreign media. These days, it's easy to pull together names of journalists and even easier to contact them. That's why it's no surprise to me that less than 30% of our work these days is traditional media relations, down from 100% 20 years ago. Our fees are increasing — last year was our best year ever at JeffreyGroup — but increasingly that money is going to the research and development of marketing and communications strategies, and the creation of innovative ways to tell our client's stories, build their brands, and engage the influencers, target audiences and stakeholders that don't even involve the media. 

It used to be all about the “things.” Now it's about the “thinking.” And I'd say that's a good thing!

Jeffrey Sharlach is CEO of JeffreyGroup.

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