Agency leadership requires skills not always learned in newsrooms

Senior agency leaders require different skills that are sparingly found in many newsrooms

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

After Nikhil Deogun of CNBC was named U.S. leader for Brunswick recently, PRWeek ran a provocative poll asking readers if former journalists still make good PR executives and a subsequent guest post made the case for why PR needs journalists now more than ever.

I fear the poll and the guest piece may be missing the mark.

But first, Deogun has a stellar reputation and is surely eminently qualified for his new job and should be wished only good luck going forward. These thoughts are not about him, or anyone specifically.

And, of course, journalists make good PR people. Narrative and storytellers are vital to today’s communications with markets and constituencies.  

But the question, especially in the context of Deogun’s appointment, is less about whether ex-journalists generally make good PR pros, and more aptly whether or not they transition successfully to senior agency leaders.

The familiar trope about "hacks" becoming "flacks" may be a suitable metaphor for in-house pros defending corporate positions under pressure from media, and that may be where ex-journalists can be most effective. Beyond their storytelling talent, their deep knowledge of newsroom mechanics and potentially strong media relationships are valuable assets.

But senior agency leaders require different skills that are sparingly found in many newsrooms. Agency leaders need talent and experience that typically go beyond managing a story. They go to client-management and counseling abilities that require keen insight into industry and market conditions, frequently deep knowledge of particular products or technologies, and a firm grasp of internal client-company dynamics.  

A well-experienced beat reporter may have some of those skills, but agency leadership also means leading an agency: attracting, managing, and growing talent and operating the agency and managing everything from cash flow to budgets to staff utilization. Some senior editors can have a version of those experiences, but they may not be entirely transferable.

Maybe the biggest skills gap is new business. Attracting and winning clients is an acquired expertise. Presumably, the reputation of well-known industry reporters can be very helpful. However, the nuances of attracting a prospect and converting it to a client are elusive. Maybe that’s not a prerequisite for every agency leader, but it surely is for most.

At the top 50 PR firms on PRWeek’s annual rankings, there probably are very appropriate leadership positions for former journalists where they can lean on their storytelling skills and media contacts to provide value to clients and the agency. For the other 300 agencies, leadership roles necessitate much wider experience that journalists can acquire but probably lack right out of the newsroom.

The reality is that most agencies need to be led by agency leaders. It is a specific skillset that is neither intuitive or simple, and anyone who presumes that is doing themselves, their agency, and their clients a disservice.

Patrick Ward is the CEO of 104 West and has spent over 25 years in the agency business, 15 of which running his own firm.

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