The balancing act of integration and expertise

Integration is the name of the game these days, but it means nothing without the expertise to deliver results.

Ali Gee: Fishburn CEO
Ali Gee: Fishburn CEO

We used to say: "We’re a one-stop shop. A full-service agency." ­Clients and prospects would nod. We believed what we said. We believed it mattered, affected the pitch outcome. We believed people cared.

This was nearly 20 years ago, and at another shop. Back then the name above the shop door was one Mr T Morris. The very same T Morris who now graces the back page of this ­est­eemed magazine. And back then we were an ­excitable and talented bunch of generalists.

So I ask myself, "what’s changed?" Has the notion of being a full-service agency moved on? Of course it’s now called ‘integration’. And the past few years have seen many an agency scramble to attain that status.

But for me many of the old questions remain: how will we know when we get there; do clients really want this; is it a goal worth fighting for and is it really any different from what we’ve seen before?

To answer the first question first. Changing the seating plan is easy. Breaking down the barriers of ignorance and mistrust, less so. Pitching ‘as one’ is happening everywhere. But little nasties such as costing it up, man­aging its implementation and really grasping the trans-channel opportunities require new skills.

Nothing matters more to a client than having a team that is passionately focused on delivering the results they’re looking for

It would be easy to assume clients want nothing more than a seamless, fully integrated team. And yet, if you stop to ask them, what they really want is something else. They say they want "someone who understands and is passionate about my business…. creative and solutions focused... people with real connections… people who think ahead." It would be easy to conclude that we’re kidding ourselves on this journey, but for one thing.

And that one thing – that bright ray of light clients shine in our eyes – is this. Results. Nothing matters more to a client than having a team that is passionately focused on delivering the results they’re looking for.

And these days, you just don’t get real, game-changing results with a single-discipline or disjointed approach. But disappointingly, being integrated doesn’t magically deliver them either. And heaven knows there are pitfalls in its pursuit. The truth then is this: a team of integrated comms practitioners don’t make real change happen without world-class expertise.

And herein lies the challenge for the leaders of today’s profession. How do you balance the oft-conflicting pressures of creating a team with genuine, market-leading expertise, and the breadth of experience and capabilities to deliver in the modern media environment?  And how do you encourage project management skills rarely seen in a PR environment before, with the need to package your offer into something that’s easy – and compelling – for clients to buy?

How do you stand out from the crowd when your competitive set suddenly includes your above-the-line brothers and digital sisters, when everyone insists content is at their very core?

I’d argue that the pursuit of integration is futile if the work doesn’t work. And unless you’re properly measuring it, only half the job’s done. One by one PR agencies are tooling up with planning teams.

There’s lots of talk of insights, trends and data. But if, after it’s done there’s nothing but a pile of coverage to point to, it’s all been for nought.

So to those who ask whether the industry has changed since the days when tykes like me worked for our industry’s back-page agony uncle, I’d say this. In so many respects no. ­Except now you need to be expert and generalist at the same time. Oh, and you actually need to make measurable change happen.

Ali Gee is CEO of Fishburn

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